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 in thinking about that question—and this may be due in no small measure to my youthful attachment to Nancy Drew—is that I’m drawn to literature set in foreign locales. Of course, in the early Drews, most of Nancy's adventures took place in the astonishing town of River Heights where there was always something of interest happening, whereas in the later adventures, she and her friends would often travel to exotic locales.
Growing up in a boring neighborhood where nothing exciting ever happened, not even a dog barking after midnight, I counted on Nancy’s exploits to spark my imagination and brighten my days. To get me out of Sherwood Park. And that she did! Nancy loved to travel, as did I—even vicariously. So, if a trip abroad is not in your immediate future, here are a few transporting recommendations that will take you to places that enlarge the mind and capture the heart.
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, a sadness 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.
And lastly, A Bronx Tale
Veronica's Grave: A Daughter's Memoir is a New York story that took this author out of the Bronx and off to see the world. What's it about?
When young Barbara Bracht’s mother suddenly vanishes from her life, no one tells her that her mother has died while giving birth to her younger brother, Eddie. Her father is intent upon erasing any memory of his dead wife, but Barbara continues to believe that her mother is missing until a cousin finally tells her the truth. As the years of deception unravel, the tough and sassy Barbara struggles to pursue her own dreams and make peace with a crushing family secret. Offering hope, Veronica's Grave (aka Missing Mother in Canada) is a captivating story that asks us to consider how far a child will go to keep the memory of her mother alive.
What are others saying?
‘A triumphant story of a woman coming to terms with the loss of her mother and an inspiring, though haunting, testament to the endurance of the human spirit.’ —KIRKUS
Barbara Bracht Donsky, a reading specialist with a former private practice for children in Oyster Bay, New York, served for many years as president and capital campaign coordinator of the Boys & Girls Club of Oyster Bay–East Norwich. A Phi Beta Kappa magna cum laude graduate of Hunter College. with an MS from Long Island University and an EdD from Hofstra University, she has written numerous articles and short stories for journals around the world. She lives with her husband in New York, where she writes a weekly blog, Desperately Seeking Paris. Visit her at BarbaraDonsky.com.
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