Read One of These 8 Captivating Books to Travel Without Leaving Home
Updated: Apr 24, 2020
Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.
My passport and I are in a long-distance relationship right now. I had to mail it to the Russian embassy in Washington D.C. to get my visa to visit Moscow. I should be in Russia right now, actually, enjoying a steaming bowl of borscht while wearing the fur-lined jacket I bought especially to protect me from their unpredictable springtime weather. Obviously that trip was canceled.
And when COVID-19 first started shutting down offices around the world faster than Blockbusters in the early 2000s, I got an email:
Due to COVID19 pandemic situation, the Russian Embassy closes down on Monday, March 23 (starting from March 18, they limit the submission to extreme emergency only).
As a result, my passport—a solo-traveler's only constant companion—is sitting in a cold, empty desk across the country, and will be for the foreseeable future.
I've got no passport, and we're not allowed to leave the house (much less the country). So, like you, I've been practicing international solo travel in new ways lately. These include:
😖 Salivating over Netflix travel docs like Street Food and crying over old Anthony Bourdain episodes
🍷 Drinking red wine out of my Spanish porrón (It's like a game! Gets harder the more wine you drink. Google it 🙃)
✏️ Obsessively re-reading my old travel journals to relive the glory days
🏝 Staring at this drone photo of myself blissfully relaxing in the Caribbean waters just weeks before the coronavirus really started spreading, willing myself to teleport there
📚 ...and of course, READING BOOKS! It's my favorite way to "travel without traveling." My favorite book genre is: anything that puts me in the shoes of someone from another culture/country, and possibly time period.
**Plus, reading (like drinking red wine) provides an escape. Get engrossed in a good book, and you get a nice little break from the insanity that seems to be engulfing the human race right now.
Pretty much all my life (so, well before the coronavirus), I've been a connoisseur of this genre. Practically every book on my shelf is from a completely different culture or context. So I decided to make a list of my favorites so you can take some mental mini-vacations too. Pour yourself a porrón of Rioja and settle in with one of these reads.
BUT FIRST—HERE'S HOW TO GET YOUR HANDS ON A COPY OF ANY OF THE BOOKS BELOW
If your local bookstore offers online sales and shipping, please support them instead of Amazon or some of the other big booksellers! They need us right now. (Or, you could always support Powell's—my favorite (and the world's largest) independent bookstore.) If not, see if you can find them on Bookshop.
Your local library probably has an ebook lending system (the NYC public library does, and most others do too!). No library card? You can usually sign up for one online.
Start a book-swap-by-mail with some friends. Have them take a pic of their bookshelf, choose a book of theirs you'd like to read (lucky you if it's one on this list!), and have them mail it to you. Then do the same for them.
Now. On to the Great Travel Booklist of the Coronavirus Age!
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
Country/context: 1980s-90s Mumbai 🇮🇳
Quick summary: An Australian bank robber escapes from prison, flees to India to lay low, and falls in love with the country in more ways than one (based on a true story. !)
Why you'll love it: Someone gave me a tattered old copy of this book when I was solo traveling in Asia years ago, and I've read it cover to cover several times since. It's special. I've scrawled notes in it, I've smudged the ink with my tears, its pages have been baked by foreign sun, and I've dragged it across probably six countries—maybe more. This guy seriously has a way with words, and he describes life in India so vividly that you feel like you're right there. I haven't been to India YET, but this book singlehandedly pushed it to the top of my travel list. Check out some of these descriptions:
Her thick, black plait of hair was the rope by which a man might climb to heaven. [...] Her eyes, when she turned in profile to look at us, were black fire.
And as I watched him scurry toward the chai shop, I saw that already his head was wagging and his hands were waving as he rehearsed the story that he brought her as the new day's gift.
Mould and mildew scarred every building, even the newest. I'd come to think of it as beautiful, that decline and decay, creeping across the face of the grandest designs: that stain of the end, spreading across every bright beginning in Bombay.
We only had to lift our heads from the filthy drains to find ourselves in a luxuriant garden of smiles.
Some feelings sink so deep into the heart that only loneliness can help you find them again. Some truths are so painful that only shame can help you live with them. Some things are so sad that only your soul can do the crying for them.
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
Country/context: 1970s-on, Alaska, USA 🌲
Quick summary: Leni's father comes home from war with a host of mental-health issues, so the family moves to Alaska for a fresh start. Leni and her mother have to learn how to survive the danger of the great alone, which includes the climate, the animals, the loneliness, and Leni's father.
Why you'll love it: You will be instantly transported to rural Alaska, but without the danger of dying in this beautiful and dangerous place where only the most prepared can survive! It's an easy read and a page-turner that you'll breeze right through. It's absolutely fascinating to learn what these characters had to do to survive up there without conveniences like electricity and running water, having to hunt or gather all their own food, and dealing with the depression and cold of the almost-constant darkness during the winter months. Warning: YOU WILL CRY AT THE END. I read this book on a train from Nevada to Denver and I probably frightened a few people by bawling my eyes out when I finished it.
You know what they say about finding a man in Alaska—the odds are good, but the goods are odd. (lol! Alaskans: Is this true?)
You're out of your comfort zone, kid, that's a fact. What's one more step? (heyyy solo travelers!)
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
Country/context: 1960s-early 2000s, Afghanistan 🕌
Quick summary: The intertwined stories of resilient Afghani women who survive abusive societal and political structures just as they survive abusive men. It sounds dark (and parts of it are, very much so), but it has a beautiful ending. And even if it didn't, it's an important perspective for all women (and men, tbh) to experience.
Why you'll love it: You'll be transported to the Afghanistan of the 1960s almost through present day. You'll learn a lot about the history of their political turmoil, though this book definitely reads like smooth, engrossing fiction. Anyone who identifies as a woman will be deeply moved by this story. I cried at the end of this one too (I'm a book-crier, I guess.)
“I know you're still young but I want you to understand and learn this now. Marriage can wait, education cannot. You're a very, very bright girl. Truly you are. You can be anything you want, Laila. I know this about you. And I also know that when this war is over, Afghanistan is going to need you as much as its men, maybe even more. Because a society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated, Laila. No chance.
The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
Country/context: early 20th century China, mostly 🐉
Quick summary: Violet never met her Chinese father. She grows up with her American mother in the high-end courtesan house the mom runs in Shanghai. Through many insane turns of events, she gets separated from her mother and is thrust into a very different life than what she expected.
Why you'll love it: As you can see by the state of this copy, I've read this book many times. I adore it. It's another story of the resilience of women in the face of societal and political structures that are stacked against them. What the main character goes through is shocking and will put any woman's empathy into overdrive. But it's also a fascinating way to learn about what life was like in Shanghai at the turn of the century, what customs were in place, and what it was like to be only half Chinese and a woman living in that world. So themes include: racial identity, gender inequality, differences between eastern and western philosophies, mother-daughter relationships, father-daughter relationships, sex, love, trust.
Why does love end so quickly and hatred last without end?
Circe by Madeline Miller
Country/context: fictional Ancient Greece ⚱️
Quick summary: Okay, so even when quarantine is over, you won't be able to travel to Ancient Greece, exactly. This one is a bit of a stretch for this list, but I just love it so much. It's about this partially divine woman who is ostracized to live on an island completely alone, during which time she discovers her inner powers.
Why you'll love it: It's amazing, empowering inspiration for strong, solo women. It's like Greek mythology for millennials. Super relatable and not at all boring like some of the mythology you had to study in high school.
Timidity creates nothing.
It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment's carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.
A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle
Country/context: modern-day French countryside from the perspective of expats 🥖
Quick summary: An English couple moves to a small village in southern France. This book details the day-to-day of life there, in all its lovely simple pleasures.
Why you'll love it: It's just calming. It's an easy read—easy as walking through a lavender field in Provence towards a picnic of brie, baguette, and fine wine. That's what this book feels like. Reminds you of how beautiful the simple things in life can be, and also gives a unique perspective on expat life. It's cool to get this English couple's take on rural French customs and language and join them on the journey to adapting to this new way of living.
It is at a time like this, when crisis threatens the stomach, that the French display the most sympathetic side of their nature. Tell them stories of physical injury or financial ruin and they will either laugh or commiserate politely. But tell them you are facing gastronomic hardship, and they will move heaven and earth and even restaurant tables to help you.
Euphoria by Lily King
Country/context: Three anthropologists studying and living with a remote tribe in New Guinea, 1930s (loosely based on the story of real anthropologist Margaret Mead) 🦋
Quick summary: An intriguing love triangle that forms in the middle of the jungle. This book comes complete with cannibalistic tribes and near-death experiences.
Why you'll love it: It highlights what it's like to be in a new place where you don't understand the customs—that quintessential travel feeling. It's a real page-turner, whether you're into romance or action. It's beautifully and masterfully written, and will transport you instantly to the depths of the jungle. It's one of my favorites.
Why are we, with all our "progress," so limited in understanding and sympathy and the ability to give each other real freedom? Why, with our emphasis on the individual, are we still so blinded by the urge to conform? [...] I think, above all else, it is freedom I search for in my work, in these far-flung places, to find a group of people who give each other the room to be in whatever way they need to be. And maybe I will never find it all in one culture, but maybe I find parts of it in several cultures. Maybe I can piece it together like a mosaic and unveil it to the world.
I asked her if she believed you could ever truly understand another culture. I told her the longer I stayed, the more asinine the attempt seemed, and that what I’d become more interested in is how we believed we could be objective in any way at all, we who each came in with our own personal definitions of kindness, strength, masculinity, femininity, God, civilisation, right and wrong.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Country/context: starts in 1922 Moscow 🇷🇺
Quick summary: The Bolsheviks sentence a Count to house arrest in a fancy hotel. This book is about his life there over the next couple decades (he literally can't leave)—this guy's day-to-day intertwined with the tumultuous political events that are happening right outside the hotel's doors.
Why you'll love it: I know I'm not really selling it with the quick summary here...this is a hard book to describe. But I loved it because it's beautifully written—practically poetry, even when he's describing the most mundane things. I also loved the main character, the Count. You'll miss him like you'd miss an old friend after you finish reading this book. And finally, it'll give you a good education about the political events in Russia from the 1920s on, which I personally didn't know enough about.
After all, what can a first impression tell us about someone we've just met for a minute in the lobby of a hotel? For that matter, what can a first impression tell us about anyone? Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven, or a brush stroke about Botticelli. By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration—and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.
To what end, he wondered, had the Divine created the stars in heaven to fill a man with feelings of inspiration one day and insignificance the next?
Note: PLEASE don't give up on this one too soon. (I almost did.) He's a Count, so the writing matches that. It's fancy. But once you adjust and get into it, you'll be enthralled! But if you're looking for a quick, easy read, this isn't it.
More book inspiration
It's also a great time to read books specifically about travel, if that doesn't make you too sad. In that genre, I recommend:
The Alchemist by Paulo Cohelo. It's a classic.
Any books by Bill Bryson. He's hilarious and super smart and well traveled. One I found especially fascinating was In a Sunburned Country, about Australia
What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding: A Memoir by Kristin Newman. Just awesome travel stories from a female explorer we can all relate to.
Happy reading!! ❤️📚