Travel guides are fine for plotting out the nitty-gritty of a vacation, but sometimes a good book can provide readers with a much clearer sense of a place and its people.
And now with zero trips on the calendar to look forward to, at least for the time being, all we can really do is read about the world beyond our own. You may find these books help to satisfy your traveler's curiosity and even prep you for future trips.
The Best Books About California
Anyone searching for what it means to be a Californian can start with just about any of Joan Didion's earlier works. A native of Sacramento, Didion's writing moves between Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the Central Valley, capturing with pinpoint precision the mood of 1960s California. The bulk of her observations still apply today, where freeway culture remains highly romanticized and the Santa Ana winds still pose a threat.
Amazon Review: "Re-visiting these essays all these years after, I am impressed at how relevant most of what Ms.Didion had to say still feels. I am really enjoying re-reading this, and encourage anyone who lived through the 60's to do the same."
Amazon Review: "In Joan Didion's classic, Play It as It Lays, Maria Wyeth resides in a psychiatric hospital. As the story unfolds we get a glimpse of what her life was like before she got there. Set in Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the Mojave Desert, there isn't any glitz. It's bleak, harrowing, and fascinating."
Amazon Review: "Joan Didion writes with an immediacy that places you exactly where she is, geographically, temporally, and emotionally. Her use of language is precise and beautiful. It had been too many years since I had read her work. I won’t make that mistake again."
The Best Books About Morocco
A New Yorker by birth, Paul Bowles lived most of his life in Tangier, Morocco. He published several collections of short stories and novels beautifully detailing life in a post-war Morocco. Even if Northern Africa isn't on your immediate to-do list, these novels may inspire readers to reevaluate the way we approach cultures outside of our own.
Amazon Review: "One of my favorites - after traveling Morocco last summer, this book truly captures the essence of the desert towns and landscapes. Bowles writes with vivid descriptions that bring back the sights, scents and feeling of being right there inside the story."
Amazon Review: "Captures glimpses of the famous city in the post-war international zone. Truly a rich depiction of a man slowly corrupted, with a host of colorful and flawed characters around him."
The Best Books About New York City
As frenzied and tiresome as New York feels most days, this quintessential '80s novel chronicles the hard-living escapades of its protagonist as he copes both with a recent divorce and the death of his mother.
Amazon Review: "Pre-smartphone pre-Giuliani downtown NYC goodness. Interesting to read after Bright Precious Days (his most recent book) and compare landscape."
Part of the Pocket Poet Series, Lunch Poems by Frank O'Hara offers some of the most relatable slice-of-life depictions of New York City.
Amazon Review: "I'm researching the New York School - artists, photographers, poets, and came across O'Hara - what a gift this little book is, I keep it next to my bed and keep dipping into it. Eclectic, clever, worth reading."
The Best Book About Berlin
The inspiration for the film Cabaret, Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories makes for a good read before or during a visit to Berlin, especially through the murky lens of 2020.
Amazon Review: "If "Cabaret" is your only interest in this book, you just might be disappointed: only one story, 50 pages, focuses on Sally Bowles. But you just might be disappointed in "Cabaret" after reading this insightful book with dozens of culled-from-real-life characters Isherwood knew in his time in Berlin -- the end of Weimar, the emergence of Nazi Germany. The power of this book is the subtly-told first-hand experience of tension, arising fear and near certainty of calamity that would be World War II and the Holocaust."
The Best Book About New Orleans
A must-read before any trip to the Big Easy. Originally published in 1945, this collection of Louisiana folk tales provides a thorough history on a range of local topics, from Creole dating protocols to the infamous New Orleans axe murders.
Amazon Review: "I first read this book when I was in middle school or high school back in the 1970s. It quickly became my favorite book and remains one of my all time favorites. This book is chock full of Louisiana folklore. As an African American of Cajun descent, I enjoyed reading about the Cajuns along the bayous. I myself grew up along Bayou Barataria. My favorite stories include the loup garou, Cajuns and city dwelling Creoles. While I still have my hardback copy, I would love to have a copy for my Kindle. I recommend other books by Tallant and Saxon."
The Best Books About London
From the Longman Caribbean Writer Series, Sam Selvon tells the story of London's West Indian immigrants and their arrival in a city that is far from welcoming.
Amazon Review: "In an era of teaching multiculturalism, this book by Sam Selvon is a pioneer and a work of genius and heartbreaking accomplishment. It's about the West Indian community in London after the massive immigrations but before the riots of the 1960s. Told in a kind of pigeon patois, this book is part picaresque, part travelogue, all the way funny and dark and lyrical and beautiful."
Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now -- As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It by Craig Taylor
An incredibly thorough snapshot of modern London as strung together by the stories of its inhabitants from all walks of life.
Amazon Review: "As an American, I have what is probably the typical American view of London-the Tower, Big Ben, the London Eye, Trafalgar Square...what most people fail to realize is that London is a city unlike any other in the world, and its population comes from all walks of life. "Londoners" offers an insight into the lives of the diverse inhabitants of England's capital city without dramatization or falsehood but reads like a great novel. I strongly urge anyone interested who's ever visited, lived in, or wants to do either to pick up this great book and get a taste of the "real" London."
The Best Book About Australia
Australian author Patrick White won the 1973 Nobel Prize in Literature for Voss, the story of a German explorer who treks across the harsh landscape of colonial Australia. This is White's best-known novel, though his other works are equally suited for looking in on Australian culture.
Amazon Review: "This was my first PW novel - and my first Australian novel. PW plays marvelously with a handful of characters who each represent an authentic aspect of the Australian spirit. From the aborigine to the aristocracy, you have all the elements of the tug-of-war of cultural identity at work: the outback, the outsider, the pagan/saint adventurer, the romantic, the refined, the restrained, the wild man. The exposition was engaging from the beginning and haunting at the end. A wonderful introduction to Australian literature."
If the Journey is the Destination
Reading up on where you're going is fine, but sometimes the more interesting story is how we get there. These books provide a little insight into the nuts and bolts what it takes to fly from A to B.
Alain de Botton walks London Heathrow's Terminal 5 for a full week, examining the inner workings of this busy airport where hundreds of thousands of passengers come and go each day.
Amazon Review: "This is certainly an idiosyncratic book and not for everyone, but even just a few of the paragraphs are enough to justify it as a great read for me. You can learn more about humans, customer service, air travel...from a philosopher like de Bouton than from a dozen average business books--and the book's just the perfect size to put in your carry-on for while you're below 10,000 feet and can't use your iKindleDroidNookReader®. I've quoted several passages of this for my upcoming book and whenever I return to those passages I'm always newly impressed by the fluidity and insight in de Bouton's writing."
Think flying is stressful? Try being a flight attendant. For those who have ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes, veteran flight attendant Heather Poole tells all, from unruly passengers to crew squabbles.
Amazon Review: "I always knew that being a flight attendant was hard work, but had no idea HOW hard. I also had no idea about so many other things discussed in this book: working standby, lack of crew meals, low pay, seniority rules, etc. This book was enlightening as well as entertaining, and I will forever hold more respect for the work these dedicated women and men do. I look forward to a sequel!"
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