Destination literature: good books for and about travel

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A good book can help pass the hours on a long flight. Photo: Stephen Swintek/Getty Images

On a recent trip to San Diego, I was horrified to find myself on the plane without reading anything. I had mistakenly placed my book in my suitcase, which was stored above my head, and I was afraid to retrieve it. It was heavy enough that I hired a burly young man to help me hoist it.

Although I don’t like to read on a Kindle, I had charged it the night before the flight, just in case, but naturally left it at home. I had read The New York Times and finished the crossword puzzle (which I always slip into my purse on the plane) before leaving for the airport, and I had cut things too close to have time to visit the excellent Compass Books at the airport.

Frankly, my travel skills — which always include having more than I could read easily at hand — were rusty after not going anywhere for a few years.

There wasn’t even an airplane magazine in the seat pocket. I was jonesing. I looked so wistfully at my neighbor’s Chronicle Sporting Green that he finally gave it away. I read it cover to cover, its contents like a foreign language. A guy across the aisle ignored the Wednesday food section of The New York Times, slipping it into the seat pocket without a glance. I leaned over and asked. I was shameless. And it was a one hour flight!

In the past, you would sometimes strike up a conversation with the passenger in the adjacent seat. Not anymore. Everyone is glued to their device.

A good detective novel, like anything else from the English detective novelist Agatha Christie, is an excellent flight companion. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

There are those who work on airplanes. Not me. When I’m in the air, it’s a vacation away from life. I dread the day when they will allow cell phones to be used on planes: a guy arguing with his wife, a woman conducting a business transaction – no thanks.

Somehow, being on an airplane allows me more suspension of disbelief than when I’m on solid ground. I can better appreciate the magical realism and twisted plots. When it comes to movies, I totally abandon my critical judgment and not only choose but weep over the tears of Hollywood.

This is a phenomenon that has been the subject of serious studies. Stephen Legg, Professor of Ergonomics at Massey University in New Zealand, has studied the impact of mild hypoxia (low oxygen levels in your tissues) due to cabin pressure. This may partly explain why we often find ourselves crying over in-flight movies.

But back to the books. If you’re wise enough to make sure you have books handy in your bag, here are some travel-themed recommendations.

Most of them are novels. Of course, there are always practical books to read before traveling. These days, I prefer a bit of history and a sense of the contemporary city I’m visiting. Instead of following an Arthur Frommer guide everywhere, I prefer to wander around and follow my nose.

Mysteries also seem more satisfying on a plane (hypoxia again?). Anything Agatha Christie, Louise Penny, Tana French or Jane Harper will do.

Then there are books related to your destination.

George Orwell wrote less than a dozen books, one of which was “Tribute to Catalonia”, his account of the fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Photo: sb / Chronicle Archive Photo

• Are you going to Spain? “Tribute to Catalonia” by George Orwell; “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway; “The Pilgrimage” by Paulo Coelho; “The Dinner Guest” by Gabriela Ybarra; “A heart so white” by Javier Marias; and “Leaving Atocha Station” by Ben Lerner. (Note: Many of my feminist friends refuse to read Hemingway. I say boo-hoo for you.)

• In Italy? Any of Donna Leon’s Inspector Brunetti series; “My Brilliant Friend” by Elena Ferrante; “Still Life” by Sara Winman; “The Leopard” by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa; and “The Land Where Lemons Grow” by Helena Atlee.

• In Paris? “Books, Wands and Bedbugs” (the story of the famous Shakespeare and Co. bookstore) by Jeremy Mercer; “Perestroika in Paris” by Jane Smiley; “All the Light We Can’t See” by Anthony Doerr; and “Henry and June” by Anais Nin. (I’m specifying Paris because it’s its own world, so unlike other parts of France, it could be in another country. lovely but frustrating local artisans – no thanks.)

Jane Smiley is the author of over two dozen books, including fiction, non-fiction, short stories, and young adult novels. Photo: Derek Shapton

• In Mexico? “Pedro Paramo” by Juan Rulfo; “The Death of Artemio Cruz” by Carlos Fuentes; “Faces in the Crowd” by Valeria Luiselli; “Memories of Things to Come” by Elena Garro; Leaving Tabasco by Carmen Boullosa.

• And finally, before a recent trip to Morocco, I ordered “The Spider’s House” by Paul Bowles, “The Secret Son” by Leila Lalami and “The Sacred Night” by Tahar Ben Jelloun.

What are some of your favorite travel books? Please drop me a line and tell me.



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