Let’s face it. It’s been a rough year. Money’s tight all around, which means the usual “let’s just take some time off and get away” gig isn’t happening. My passport sits firmly in its drawer, thankfully with a 2013 expiration date.
The “escape” needs redefinition. Sure, there are always movies, but even though this year’s Oscar contenders are amazing, they’re by no means uplifting. If you’re a Lost fan like me, you know they’ve added to the depression by making us wait so long to see what happens next. There is, God bless it, 30 Rock, but even a few recorded episodes stacked up only occupy so much time. Sometimes we need a reality escape that lasts longer than thirty minutes or a couple of hours.
Although they’re a little less sexy than a business class seat, books are a good, time-consuming diversion that we can pick up in times of need or use as tools to distract us from online shopping with maxed out credit cards. The best books are those that actually transport us, make us forget where we’re sitting, or transform our current view.
These books did just that for me. They’re some of my favorites and are about some of my favorite places—none of which I can afford to fly to right now. Sigh.
Book: Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris, by Sarah Turnbull
Escape to: Paris
Barstool summary: Ex-pat from Australia moves to Paris and recounts her experience, which isn’t as pretty as a mint-green macaroon.
You’ll pick up this book thinking it’s going to be a sickeningly sweet tale of a love affair with Paris; you’ll close it thanking the author for telling you the truth. The story follows a woman who moves to Paris from Australia and examines her entire transformation. The author writes in a way that allows you to feel first-hand the difficulty of discovering what Paris and its people mean and how to navigate through the highly accented messages they deliver. The chapters are filled with full-fat yogurt and pain au chocolat, tales of how dog ownership catapults one’s status in the neighborhood, visions of polished outfits (even on Saturday mornings), and stories with morals of “nice is not always better.” You travel on this Paris journey realizing this city is the world’s toughest sorority to join, but all the while secretly wanting in.When you turn the book’s last page, you feel as though you’ve lived in Paris, with all the warts and diamonds that come with it.
Book: Cooking for Mr. Latte: A Food Lover’s Courtship, with Recipes, by Amanda Hesser
Escape to: New York
Barstool summary: A delicious tale of food and love that accurately questions the recipes.
Amanda Hesser’s Cooking for Mr. Latte is a tribute to New York, restaurants, cooking, and love. What could be a better escape? Her story begins with a young woman, a local and fairly high-profile restaurant reviewer, who goes on a great first date, only to find the man she is falling for is far from her food equal. Their story continues through the dining rooms of the city, stopping throughout to provide recipes (yes, real, actual recipes) that make you both want to close the book and head to the kitchen and stay and keep reading at the same time. There’s not much that rivals a fine dinner in New York, and many readers would never experience the caliber of meals enjoyed by critics. At times it almost seems hard to relate, but then you find yourself envisioning the lighting, the people, the forkfuls of food that even on a full stomach make you long to be there. The magic of New York, and even its suburbs, is in every chapter, but the writing runs deep enough to tug at your heart and make you feel for the two people who are at the table.
Book: Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding
Escape to: London
Barstool summary: Single life in London and all the laughs and tears that result.
This ever-popular book-turned-movie got there for a reason. The story is about Bridget Jones, a young, single woman living in London. Bridget narrates out the simple daily tasks and somehow interjects humility, humor, and reality in a way that makes you feel, blush, and tear up. She spares no detail, from the number of cigarettes she woke up regretting to her actual weight at the start of each new chapter. With every page you feel her buzz and her hangover, her humble perspective and her pain, her friendships and laughter. Through her life you are in London, in its pubs, its stale and sordid offices, its tiny flats that barely fit everyone around a table, its countryside homes and quirky families. It’s a life you want to lead or leave depending on what chapter you’re reading.
Book: Tales of the City, by Armistead Maupin
Escape to: San Francisco
Barstool summary: A 70s soap opera of free love, open-ended experiences, and what happens when everyone involved lives in the same Victorian.
The spirit of San Francisco is like no other. If you live in San Francisco, Armistead Maupin’s characters make you wish the city lived up to this exaggerated version. If you don’t, you’ll experience the vibe and wonder if it really could exist. Tales of the City follows a series of colorful characters and their escapades of jobs and money and drugs and sex and lies and truths. It’s all told cleverly through the eyes of a midwestern transplant, who arrives at her new apartment and is welcomed by a joint taped to the door by her landlord, a woman at the center of the tale. Within a few chapters everyone is somehow connected through the flaky ad agency or the wealthy family who owns it, the sexually confused bathhouses (and the even more confused marriages that lead them there), the Union Street sports bar, the Castro dance-off, and the morning-after conversations that take place at the apartment. The stories make you realize this city’s inhabitants live on top of one another, but drug themselves to a point where no one is bothered. In a weird way, the lifestyle almost appeals . . .
Book: Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, by Elizabeth Gilbert
Escape from: Any bad relationship.
Escape to: Italy, India, and Bali
It’s a little bit of an understatement to say this book will take you on a journey. The adventure begins with raw heartbreak. Thankfully the story moves on to Italy, to self-indulgence, where you will taste and feel what it’s like to just give in to a taste of gelato, finish the entire plate of pasta, and wake up with pants that are too tight, only to smile and buy a temporary pair. There is no romance here except with Italy itself and friendship with a few of its colorful people (Luca Spaghetti) who walk the author through its slow and fulfilling pace. The story moves from indulgence in Italy to a period in India, a painstaking transition where the author’s time is more regimented. The days at the ashram start before the sun rises, and are filled with meditation, yoga, little conversion, and even littler mealtimes. You feel how hard it can be not to talk often, to meditate and eat less, and truly practice moderation. This is not the chaotic India you see in movies, but one that is a sacred sanctuary away from life’s temptations, filled with prayer and mental struggle to be quiet. Bali is the last destination, a magical place of emotion and new culture, new attitudes and last chapters more engaging than the first. The people make up the fabric of this place with their customs and spiritual practices. Strangely, through black magic, the Balinese are the ones who seem the most happy and balanced.
There’s a chance you’ll finish this book and pick it up again and again and again. You’ll read the author’s words and deeply feel the sensations of all the places and states she encounters in them.
Too often we skim papers, flip through Vogue or People, or browe YouTube for the day’s entertainment. While all these together will eat away time, none will truly steal you away like a good book can. Even if you can’t commit to a vacation right now—there’s one waiting for you in an unlikely place.