It’s getting hotter… and so is our burning desire to run off to some beach and leave our real lives behind! Okay—realistically, most of us have some financial and scheduling limitations when it comes to our plans. But that’s no excuse for missing out on a great book. (Spoiler alert: there actually is no good excuse.) So whether your escape is already on the calendar or purely hypothetical, it’s time to pick a vacation destination. More importantly, it’s time to pick the perfect book for your travels.
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No matter how fantastic, we love when some elements of the books we read are grounded in reality (though, of course, they still need to be fantastically good). It’s why people actually go to Harry Potter World, even though there’s nothing there for them but B.O. and overpriced Cornish Pasties—trust me on that last one. I still recall going to Blackfriars Bridge after finishing Cassandra Clare‘s The Infernal Devices trilogy and feeling myself overwhelmed with a specific, nerdy glee. It’s all real! I thought to myself. Well, except for the whole Shadowhunters and evil clockwork creatures part. But that last one probably wouldn’t make for a very good vacation.
So, without further ado, here are some incredible reads set in popular travel destinations around the world! Whether you’re going away or you wish you were, these books are sure to take you on the perfect journey.
1. The Lost Continent – Road Trip
Bill Bryson‘s hilarious Americana travelogue opens: “I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.” After the death of his road-trip-loving father and decades spent living abroad in England, Bryson returns to his former home in search of the perfect American small town that may have just been childhood idealism all along. Readers will be transfixed by the hypnotic pull of the highway AND the frequently baffling people Bryson comes across as he hits every single continental state. Deliriously witty and frequently profound, Bryson leaps from calling out people in Mark Twain’s hometown for never actually reading Mark Twain to dropping truths like this one:
I mused for a few moments on the question of which was worse, to lead a life so boring that you are easily enchanted or a life so full of stimulus that you are easily bored. But then it occurred to me that musing is a pointless waste of anyone’s time, and instead I went off to see if I could find a Baby Ruth candy bar, a far more profitable exercise.
2. The Beautiful and the Damned – NYC
We know, we know! Why didn’t we recommend The Great Gatsby, right? Well, because it’s likely you’ve already read it or seen the movie. F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s less frequently read The Beautiful and the Damned captures a marriage falling prey to alcohol and greed, a darkly atmospheric depiction of a city that never sleeps… but might sleep around. Since nightlife and ruinous ambition appear to be the core motifs of NYC, this is the perfect book to throw in your suitcase. Besides, ‘the beautiful and the damned’ is an excellent caption for you stumbling out of some club with someone who is doomed not to live up to your expectations. Listen, the 1920s are almost upon us, so if you were looking for the right time to drink too much and be confused about your love life… your time is coming.
3. Nightwood – Paris, Berlin, Vienna
Let’s get one thing straight—this book isn’t. If you want to go be gay and edgy in Europe (which I generally do), read this book before settling down for a relaxing disco nap to wake up at midnight to head to the club. One of the earliest books to feature lesbian characters, this intense gothic novel is hopefully just as melodramatic as your going out eye-shadow. The groundbreaking novel features characters outside the gender binary well before the time when this was commonplace—since it’s still not commonplace, emphasis on the well before. If you’re interested in the dark and seedy (as I generally also am) read this one before your Parisian fling, your intoxicated misadventures in a repurposed Berlin warehouse, your late-night wandering through Vienna’s former red-light district. Looking for grungy debauchery in interwar Europe? Right here.
4. My Brilliant Friend – Northern Italy, Coastal Islands
Listen, you COULD watch the HBO adaptation… but that’s not gonna fit in your suitcase, and you’ve got a long plane ride ahead of you. This modern masterpiece is a rich story of two friends, Elena and Lila, growing up in a poor yet colorful neighborhood. The bildungsroman depicts the ways in which their fates diverge and how their lives parallel the turmoil of their country. A deeply immersive series, The Neapolitan Quartet addresses the transformation of both the girls and the country they live in with nuance and style. This heady dose cultural context will only improve your Italy trip, and it’s guaranteed to offset the displeasure of airplane food.
5. Like Water for Chocolate – Mexico
It would be kind of an understatement to call this novel sensual… so we’ll go out on a limb and call it full-on sexual. Full-on actually IS a more accurate description, given that there’s sex on horseback and, uh, a meal prepared with a ‘special’ ingredient. But this isn’t some pornographic romp across Mexico (even if that may be what your Spring Break is destined to become). Believe it or not, this international bestseller (and inspiration for a feature film) is an expansive tale of family life and forbidden love that chronicles the unlikely history of an all-female family in turn-of-the-century Mexico. Each chapter opens with a unique recipe to give the story a sense of place within one family’s legacy… a legacy defined frequently by bad luck and surprising turns of fate.
6. Down and Out in Paris and London – Paris, London
A book about a twenty-something living under questionable conditions, doing odd jobs, and not so much going broke as charging headlong into it? Relatable. If you’re on the younger side, chances are that even if you are traveling, you aren’t on your way to five-star accommodations. You might’ve worked some double shifts and second jobs to get on that plane, or maybe you’re hustling under the table to afford an extension on that trip. George Orwell feels you: he describes an eighteen-hour workday at a Parisian restaurant and sleeping on a bench to avoid paying rent (something that we do hope will not feature in your vacation). But it’s always a relief to recall that many among the literary greats got their start down in the gutter—especially if that’s where you are right now.
7. Native Stranger: A Black American’s Journey Into the Heart of Africa – Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, South Africa
Eddy L. Harris, a black American travel writer, goes on a stunning search for his identity as he backpacks across the continent his ancestors called home. Or, not exactly his identity. He explains:
Because my skin is black you will say I traveled Africa to find the roots of my race. I did not—unless that race is the human race, for except in the color of my skin, I am not African. If I didn’t know it then, I know it now. I am a product of the culture that raised me. And yet Africa was suddenly like a magnet drawing me close, important in ways that I cannot explain, rising in my subconscious and inviting me.
This is not another voyeuristic analysis of a white author whose intent is to lambast the reader with relentless depictions of poverty. There are depictions of poverty, but as stricken as Harris is by the corruption and violence he encounters, he remains always enthralled by the beauty of the continent.
8. Catfish and Mandala: A Two-WheEled Voyage Through the Landscape of Vietnam – Mexico, Japan, Vietnam
After his sister’s suicide, Andrew X. Pham bikes across Vietnam in search of the family he’s lost and the homeland he left behind. The memoir juxtaposes his travels with the war-torn memories of his childhood, his illegal journey in an open boat and the insincere conversion to Christianity in his new American home. This is more than a journey, although it’s certainly that as well—it’s an attempt to process a difficult past. The conflict between his new land and his native land, embodied in memories of the war, strikingly mirrors the conflict of his dual identity. Catfish and Mandala offers a unique look into Vietnam’s language, culture, geography, and history that’s both enormously meaningful and small enough to cram in that suitcase!
9. Sag Harbor – Long Island, The beach
What’s the best thing to do at the beach? Swim? Tan? Wrong—it’s obviously to get into unsupervised teen shenanigans. Wealthy brothers Benji and Reggie Cooper are out of prep school for the summer and at their parents’ beach house… which is pretty much the only role their parents will play in their summer of love, hate, and bad new Coca Cola flavors. At school, Benji made the mistake of revealing his passion for horror movies and Dungeons & Dragons. But, if he can master all the right handshakes, he could spend summer as the coolest kid in the Hamptons. Colson Whitehead‘s Sag Harbor is a bildungsroman for the African-American elite, for the “black boys with beach houses.” Plus, it’s loaded with 80s nostalgia.
10. Less – Berlin, Morocco, India, Paris, Kyoto
Being an accomplished novelist traveling the world sounds like anyone’s dream—but Arthur Less didn’t dream it would happen like this. On the eve of his ex-boyfriend’s wedding, Less has a mid-life (okay, probably three-quarter-life) crisis. The response to his writing has been tepid. He is, he believes, “the first homosexual ever to grow old… that is, at least, how he feels at times like these.” And he is. Growing old, that is. Approaching his fiftieth birthday and the precipice of literary obscurity, Less accepts an invitation to an insignificant literary award ceremony that will take him around the world and deeper into the lyrical reflection of his own self-improvement. Let it be known that I read this novel on an airplane to another continent, and I can promise a rewarding experience. Warm-hearted and deeply human, this story is bursting with life and an obvious love of language. To quote the author, “just for the record: happiness is not bullshit.”
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