Travelling through Fiction (Part I)

After months and months of isolation, mind-numbing drudgery and a minor nervous breakdown, I recently took a much-needed vacation. It wasn’t easy convincing my husband but for the “greater good of all” aka for my sanity and his continued happiness, he agreed to come with me to Goa, albeit loaded with sanitizers and masks.

I am back now, and I had the most wonderful time. For 5 days, I stayed away from the phone, email and even my laptop and it was heaven. I am so glad I got to take this holiday because for the last 1 year I have been pining to go somewhere, however that hasn’t been possible because of COVID. That is why I have been relying on books (and Google) to help me go to places I couldn’t go to physically. It helped, though nothing beats going to a new place and exploring it, right?

Anyway, I read new books and re-read old ones just to discover and relive my memories of some of the best destinations around the world. In the first part of this post, I am sharing 5 books that I think any travel enthusiast should read at least once in their life. You may have never visited some of the places described in the normal course of your life, but once you read about them, you’ll be tempted to pack your bags and book your flights right now. So shall we begin our tour?


The Museum of Innocence

by Orhan Pamuk

(Istanbul, Turkey)

You would think when there is a book called Istanbul written by the same author, anyone would choose that book to include in a list such as this. But I haven’t for two simple reasons – one, I am a sucker for doomed romance; two, isn’t the idea of a Museum of Innocence intriguing? This is a book about a man’s lifelong obsession for a woman, his inability to be with her and the shrine he creates in her memory from the things he associates with her. First, let me tell you what I love about the book and of the idea of this Museum of Innocence. We have been told to believe that love is in the grand things – in poetry, in flowers, in the stars, in Taj Mahals. I, on the other hand, believe love can be very petty and is often memorialised in the smallest of things – your lover’s handkerchief, in a note slipped across class, in the dress you were wearing when he told you he loved you for the first time (yes, yes I know – I’m quite cheesy!). The idea of a museum of memories of the person you love/loved sounds very, very appealing to me. And Orhan Pamuk brings it to life in the most enthralling way possible. I can’t describe it – you’ll have to read it.

It gave me great pleasure to find out that in 2012, Pamuk opened the real Museum of Innocence in Istanbul. You can stroll through the different rooms and see the objects mentioned in the book (like Fusan’s 4213 cigarette butts). I went to Istanbul in 2007 or 2008 and all I can remember about the place is the Bosphorus river cruise and a visit to the Blue Mosque. I am waiting to go there again. This time I’ll pay more attention and I’ll visit this strange, lovely museum for sure.


A Gentleman in Moscow

by Amor Towles

(Moscow, USSR)

What a charming book! This book truly allows you to escape to a different time and place – a time of nobility, grace and elegance. All this amidst a bloody revolution! This is not a book set in contemporary times and gives you a good account of Russian history, albeit from the perspective of a man who was imprisoned inside one of the fanciest hotels of Moscow. The protagonist of the book is taken under house arrest at the beginning of the Russian Revolution and remains within the confines of the famous Hotel Metropol for over 30 years. The story is entirely fictional, but the hotel is real – I also didn’t find it very difficult to imagine something like this happening in actual life. Those were strange times, after all! While reading this book, I constantly googled both the Kremlin square (where the hotel is located) and the insides of the hotel as well. I was dying to visit Russia after finishing this book, and I’ll try to stay at the Hotel Metropol whenever I do (if I can afford it). I want to walk through the hotel corridors with the book in my hand; it’ll make me feel like Count Rostov is walking with me.


Wild

by Cheryl Strayed

(Pacific Crest Trail, USA)

I have recommended this book several times on my blog because I love this book. Not just I, Reese Witherspoon loves it so much, she produced and starred in a movie based on it. Well, have I got your attention now? This book is a memoir-travelogue-self-help book all rolled into one. After the success of this book, the author has become one of those voices of wisdom who dole out advice on how to lead a better life (she has a podcast by the name of Dear Sugar).

The book is about an arduous trek of almost 1100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail that the author undertook over a period of 3 months. She does all this with just a rucksack on her back. Over the course of 3 months, she loses her boots, her toenails and even her mind for a short time, but does complete the trail. Why does she do it? She wants to find herself. It is her version of Eat, Pray, Love though this author takes a much, much harder path than was necessary if you ask me. But different strokes for different folks! Anyway, I am recommending this book, not for the hiking part – I am not tempted to do it and I doubt I could do it, even if I were tempted. It is the beauty and serenity that Cheryl Strayed encounters in her trek across three American states that had me mesmerized. I have never been to the US but I hope that once I make it there, it would be possible to enjoy at least a bit of the beauty of the Pacific Crest Trail even if it’s only out of the window of a car. Read it, you’ll fall in love with it just like me and Reese.


Crazy Rich Asians

by Kevin Kwan

(Singapore)

This is another book I have recommended many times (or have I?) because I enjoyed reading it so much. Kevin Kwan sure knows how to show his readers a good time, as he gives us a peek at the flashy, extravagant lives of Chinese families originally from the mainland but who now live all over South East Asia. The major action of the book takes place in Singapore where a grand wedding is taking place between the offspring of two uber-wealthy Chinese families. There are allusions to private jets, private islands, designer labels, mind-bogglingly expensive jewellery and massive fortunes scattered all over the book (easy to believe – China currently has around 878 billionaires; I think they stopped counting millionaires a while back!).

While the book focuses on extravagant displays of wealth, the movie based on the book is largely about the love story between the main protagonists. My focus today is on neither of those things – I am focusing on the island city-state of Singapore. I went to Singapore in the year 2000 and frankly, can’t remember much. But even if I ask my parents, they can’t think of Singapore as anything more than shopping on Orchard Road and a visit to Sentosa and other theme parks. There is none of the Singapore that Kwan so beautifully evokes in this book. Of course, a lot of it has to do with the food (being vegetarian, that’s something I still may not get to enjoy), but there is also the historic architecture and the bustling markets which I seem to have missed on my first trip. Not to worry – I intend to make up for all that on my next trip.


The Ingredients of Love

by Nicolas Barreau

(Paris, France)

They say you should visit the most romantic place in the world with your lover or partner or someone special. Well, I didn’t. I went with one of my closest friends instead and let me tell you; it was as good, if not better. The beauty of Paris is Paris itself, the company can only make that much difference. People either love Paris or hate it – I fall in the former category. Everything about the place was just wonderful – the people were friendly, the museums were fascinating; the city was charming; the croissants were light and flaky, and the Eiffel Tower all lit up was like a dream come true. I think Paris or maybe even France as a whole is not a stop and go destination – you need to stay in Paris for a few days to enjoy it and to feel like a Parisienne.

That is what Nicolas Barreau’s book did for me; it led me along the small streets of Paris; I sat at smart outdoor cafes sipping coffee, I even ate at French restaurants (something I can’t do in real life because most of them don’t cater to vegetarians). While I read this book, I was transported to Paris, and I enjoyed myself so much. So much so that now this book has become my comfort-read. Whenever I want to feel special, alive, away from the hum-drum of everyday life, I pick up this book and I am back on the streets of Paris. Don’t miss it for the world!


Hope you enjoyed travelling the world with me. See you next week for the second part of my post on essential travel reading!

~P

Because of some personal reasons, I’m not in a position to publish the second part of the Travel Edition Book Shelf at this stage. Hopefully, at some other time later in the year!

~P

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