by Brett F. Braley-Palko
Pittsburgh – This Summer, I have had to make adjustments. Usually around this time, I am found dozing in a reclining chair. My hair has the faint tinge of chlorine and aloe vera. My room key is being used as a bookmark. My drink is flirting with the risk of being too watered down, the ice cubes lazily melting in the sun as much as I am.
I’ve had to make adjustments this year, as I mentioned. I’m not going anywhere for the foreseeable future. Instead, I’m going inward to my library for a respite. I’m spending my evenings tucked under a duvet, the aircon blasting, and my glasses askew. It’s not the same sort of vacation; but I’m not complaining, either.
You see, I always thought of the idea of books being transportative as a little bit silly. I have a degree in English and I still never wanted to give the practice of reading too much hero-worship. I think my opinion on this is changing, though.
It just took a global pandemic, an economic crisis, and me losing my job to be able to see that I’ve always travelled within the confines of an author’s imagination, and by extension my own. That I have held the door open for Ms. Bowen on her trips to Rome. That I have felt the claustrophobia of California before I ever even lived there for school. I have done it all through reading about it. I escaped – even for a short time.
So, my dear Reader, if you need to escape. If you need to get away. If you need a vacation from this perilous and boring life we find ourselves in, might I make a few recommendations?
Lucky for you, no face mask or passport is needed for where we’re heading.
The Last of the Wine – Mary Renault
Let’s start with the Ancient World and work our way forward, shall we? The Last of the Wine will transport you both to a time and place that remains more of an idea than a reality. The story spans nearly a decade, describing the relationship between lovers Alexias and Lysis during the Peloponnesian War (roughly 415 B.C.E.). Renault’s strength is in the delicacy in which she relates tenderness between erastes and eromenos against the push-and-pull of a Pan-Hellenic military theatre. We travel with the lovers through port cities and wilderness, where Renault describes the world not through the lens of a mid-20th Century author, but through a maturing Alexias whose personal and national lives crumble around him.
A Time in Rome – Elizabeth Bowen
Even though this book is non-fiction, Bowen’s talent in prose isn’t diminished. Here, Bowen walks us through the Eternal City. At one part a guide book, another a journal, Bowen’s expertise is not toeing the line between being instructive without risking pedantism. She has knowledge in this city and so you will join her to the Forum, the churches, the temples. What is most surprising of all is you don’t even need an illustration of the subjects of her prose – her description is illustrative enough for you to construct the sites with your mind’s eye. If you ever need a walk in the Villa Borghese, call upon Ms. Bowen. She will gladly chaperone you.
The Talented Mr. Ripley – Patricia Highsmith
Can’t bear to leave Il Bel Paese just yet? Don’t worry, you don’t have to. I’m sure you’ve seen the 1999 film starring Matt Damon and Jude Law, but have you read the novel itself? Highsmith doesn’t just give us the carefree sprawl of Dickie Greenleaf’s life, but we get the psychology of the expat’s joie de vivre (or should I say gioia di vivere) in his small, sleepy Mongibello. Yes, there is murder. Yes, there is fraud. Yes, there is theft. But at least the first half of the book will have you craving an espresso or aperitivo – and the rest of the novel is where the fun happens.
Post Office Girl – Stefan Zweig
Moving away from columns, temples, and the Mediterranean, we find ourselves next in Austria, 1920’s. Zweig is a favorite of mine, not for his plots but for his eye for the normalcy of life. Here, we have one Christl Hoflehner, postal agent for a small Austrian town outside of Vienna. Day in and day out, the accounts are tallied and the mail is sorted. A boring life, safe but dull. When she goes on a vacation to visit her aunt and uncle in Switzerland, the contrast of her dull life becomes nearly unbearable. Follow Christl through Mitteleuropa as her journey collides with that of Ferdinand, a man who shares as much grief at life as she does.
Where I Was From – Joan Didion
I had to add one suggestion that’s entirely American – for better or for worse. Joan Didion’s collection of essays, Where I Was From, is more a genealogy of Didion herself than a study of California. Or, so blended are the myth of California and Didion’s own experience there, I suppose you could say it’s one and the same. Didion follows the hypocrisies of the California dream against the realities of its very existence and how she can reconcile the two thoughts in her own mind. This is not a book of poetry. It is surgical and questioning. It is a reminder to enter a place and not become complacent there. I felt I knew more about the state after reading this collection than after living there for four years.