6 books for armchair travelers

If a biography or an autobiography tells the story of a life, a memoir tells of the turning points in that life that help to answer the question: How did I become who I am? What I’ve come to realize is that — and this may be due to my youthful attachment to that inveterate gumshoe, Nancy Drew—I’m drawn to literature set in foreign locales. Growing up in a quiet neighborhood where nothing exciting ever happened, I counted on Nancy’s exploits to spark my imagination and brighten my days. Nancy loved to travel; so did I—even vicariously. So, if a trip abroad is not in your immediate future, here are a few transporting recommendations.

Early 20th Century Russia

High on my list of must-read memoirs would be Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak Memory, in which the author looks back on a privileged upbringing in an aristocratic family in Russia—a childhood brimming with tutors and governesses and summering on the Baltic. What’s special is the way in which Nabokov examines the origins of the thematic threads of his writings. An avid lepidopterist, he thought “literature and butterflies are the two sweetest passions known to man.”

19th Century America

Also high on the list is The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. If, as has been said, the first responsibility of a memoirist is to lead a life worth writing about, Ulysses S. Grant succeeded in full measure. The man who would become the 18th president of the United States, led the Union forces to victory over the Confederacy, backing President Abraham Lincoln with every fiber of his body: “If you see the President, tell him from me that whatever happens there will be no turning back.” Once Grant set his mind to do something, nothing could deter him.

The memoir puts the reader on the firing lines in the Civil War—you can feel the cold river water sloshing in your boots—reading dispatches from Washington and eavesdropping on the generals. Mark Twain, who published this memoir, said it was “the best [memoirs] of any general since Caesar.”


The action-packed life of Beryl Markham, as celebrated in West with the Night, is set in Kenya in the early 1900s. A British transplant, Markham stalked elephants, trained horses, and greatly admired the warthog, whose intelligent beady eyes were ‘full of suspicion.’

A renowned aviator who began her career delivering supplies to far-flung outposts in Africa, she would cap it by flying solo across the Atlantic. Who wrote the book remains a mystery. Hemingway, writing his editor Maxwell Perkins, asked: “Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West With the Night? I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could put pen to paper except to write in her flyer’s log book.” The beautifully-written West with the Night celebrates a life as romantic as it was heroic.


Next up is Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City. This intriguing memoir, laced with melancholy, actually gave the armchair travel more than one reason to visit Istanbul, its decaying mansions on the Bosporus whispering of the past glories of the Ottoman Empire. This moving memoir is permeated with the sadness that Pamuk says comes from living among all the old ruins, one shared by all Istanbulli.


And, just for fun, a new release sure to please any Francophiles: My Paris Dream by Kate Betts. As befits someone who blogs at Desperately Seeking Paris, reading about the City of Light is a constant in my life, a great source of pleasure. As a young woman, I, too, imagined myself living in Paris, but Kate followed her dream with greater determination to master the secrets of French style, slang and the art of seduction.

A Bronx Tale

As for my debut memoir, Veronica’s Grave, it’s a New York story, one that took this author out of her armchair and off to see the world. Thanks for stopping by...à la semaine prochaine.

Beth Beauchamp