October 13, 2020
During these pandemic times, I’ve been traveling by swapping stories of voyages past with good friends and, of course, through books. With a little imagination and a good story, it turns out we can still travel anywhere. Here are a few of my favorite transporting reads, that leave me daydreaming about my next adventure with every turn of the page.
“A man who’s been married four times has a lot of explaining to do,” writes Russell Banks by way of introduction in his memoir Voyager: Travel Writings (2016, HarperCollins) as he embarks on a tour of the Caribbean, wooing his soon-to-be fourth wife, while reflecting on his past. With tales that climb the heights of the Himalayas to a seemingly pedestrian pilgrimage to Chapel Hill for his college reunion, Banks, who is a part-year Miamian (and ventures to the primeval Everglades in this collection), draws from his considerable talents as a novelist to tell the story of his life and the exciting places he’s been.
Winner of the National Book Critic’s Circle Award, Everything Inside (2019, Knopf) is Miami literary luminary Edwidge Danticat’s short story collection, whose characters travel from Haiti to Miami and beyond in hauntingly beautiful stories of the Haitian diaspora. From the devastating, yet tentatively redemptive aftermath of a love triangle to a man’s precipitous, slow motion fall from a construction site as his life flashes before his eyes, Danticat’s tenderly wrought collection is ultimately about love—familial, romantic and platonic—in all its complexities.
For those of us longing for the pleasures of nightlife and dating before social distancing intervened, travel to 1970s LA with Eve Babitz in Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, And LA (1974, NYRB). The slim essay collection paints a portrait of Southern California through Babitz’s vivid, condensed prose and aphoristic wisdom. With “occasional romances that fall to the ground after a month or so, like the jacaranda flowers” to weekend jaunts to Palm Springs and Orange County, you’ll feel like you’re sidled up next to Babitz in a corner booth at her favorite buzzy spot in Hollywood on a rainy day as she tells you her tales.
If you’d rather leave this world behind altogether, Miami author Carolina Cardona’s debut novel Andújar: The Robot Gentleman of San Juan is a steamy sci-fi-steampunk romance involving a reclusive aristocratic automaton plagued by a mysterious illness and the surprise arrival of his hedonistic cousin. Set in San Juan, Puerto Rico, during the Spanish American War, this wild adventure veers into paranormal and futuristic territory.
For fans of the literary pilgrimage (I’ve personally followed Hemingway’s footsteps from Key West to Paris, Madrid and Bimini) take off with affable British humorist-intellectual Geoff Dyer from Taormina, Italy, to Taos, New Mexico, with stops in Greece, Oaxaca and Oxford along the way, in Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence (1997, Picador). The book blends Dyer’s blustering travel memoir with his meandering “study of Lawrence,” and in the end, it’s a credo on pursuit as the key to happiness.
And if I may gush briefly on the subject of Hemingway, for me, no other writer brings to life the sensorial pleasures of travel, and eating and drinking well. Read the second part of his posthumously published Islands in the Stream (1970, Scribner) for literature’s most vividly wrought daiquiri on a ravaging, reflective day binge-drinking in Havana. (Other favorites in this spirit: The Sun Also Rises, The Garden of Eden, To Have and Have Not and A Moveable Feast.)
Finally, for a classic that could sustain you in the same fashion as say, slowly burning through all seven seasons of Mad Men over months in quarantine, crack into Moby-Dick (1851, Harper) for an epic adventure. I’m with Ishmael when he says, “Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul… I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” While it’s uncertain when we can plan our next trans-Atlantic voyage, the Pequod awaits.