Monday, June 1, 2009
Nothing gets me excited for a trip like a little preparatory theme reading to inspire and prepare me for my destination.
Sometimes, I put together a pre-trip reading list and have really fantastic results:
Before I went to India, for example, I felt I learned a ton of valuable information about this vast and very complicated nation from both the bestselling Australian travelogue HOLY COW by Sarah McDonald and Financial Times reporter Edward Luce's IN SPITE OF THE GODS: The Strange Rise of Modern India. I added nuance to these sometimes rather dense and dry nonfiction books by also reading Madhur Jaffrey's memoir CLIMBING THE MANGO TREES, which got my mouth watering with descriptions of the delectable foods the author grew up eating in the pre- and post-Partition capitol of New Delhi. All of these books really got me thinking about how diverse India is--with regional differences in food, politics, religion, standard of living, and other areas as strong as those that we find in the United States. Trying to say that "India is this" or "India is that" is very difficult after reading any of these three books. India is a lot of things, which was why it was by far the most exhilarating trip I have ever been on. Learning to watch out for those sometimes subtle differences as I traveled from Delhi to Rajasthan to Uttah Pradesh to West Bengal really enhanced my understanding of this gorgeous, cacaphonous and often bewildering place.
Another fantastic thing, I think, to do while traveling is take along some fiction that is set where you are going to be.
I read Julia Alvarez's incredible historical novel IN THE TIME OF THE BUTTERFLIES and Junot Diaz's heartbreaking story collection DROWN while visiting the Dominican Republic. These two works of fiction made me feel like this heavily touristed island country was haunted in a way that you won't notice if you sequester yourself at an all-inclusive resort. I actually had the great fortune to meet Junot a few months before I went on the trip, and he encouraged me to stay off the beaten path when we went to the DR. It was great advice, not because we were broke, but because it was more fun: my boyfriend and I took crowded public buses, ate in local people's homes, and found ourselves having the most rewardingly simple vacation of our lives. Whenever our bus would wrap itself around a curvy hillside road, I'd think of the Mirabal sisters, and what they went through fighting Trujillo's regime--ultimately being chased off the side of a road much like those we drove along. When we met English-speaking Dominicans on the streets of Santa Domingo, they'd often want to know where we were from. When they heard it was New York, they'd tell us about their cousins, their friends, all the people they knew who lived near us. Getting to know Santa Domingo and North Jersey from Diaz's point of view, the eager people who'd encountered us on the street seemed less like bothersome touts, and more like people aching to talk about their faraway loved ones in that cold place they'd heard so much about.
All that said, however, I've just embarked on a six-week trip around Portugal, Spain, Morocco, and the Dordogne in France. Unlike usual, this time I've been so busy writing the third novel in the BEAUTIFUL AMERICANS series (titled EXPERIENCED and out next summer 2010) that I didn't put much thought into what I read before the trip and what I'll be reading while away. Instead, I've just been enjoying that haphazard pleasure of going, quite randomly, wherever an author takes you: a suburban Michigan high school in the captivating THE LOCAL NEWS by Miriam Gershow, eighteenth-century Sussex in mega-bestselling author Phillipa Gregory's steamy first novel WIDEACRE, to GLBT rehab and back with Augusten Burroughs in DRY and to BRICK LANE, London with Booker-shortlisted Monica Ali.
Along for the ride of this trip are some books I've been really looking forward to: AN OUTRAGEOUS AFFAIR by Penny Vincenzi, THE WHERABOUTS OF ENEAS MCNULTY by Sebastian Barry, THE MARCH by E.L. Doctorow (inspired by a Christmas trip to Abraham Lincoln's birthplace in Kentucky last year), the similarly titled and also Civil War-themed MARCH by Geraldine Brooks, and SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN by Lisa See.
Not a one book to teach me anything about this mysterious, history-steeped corner of the globe . . . but definitely, I'm positive, volumes from which I'll dream up plenty more travel plans.
in Porto, Portugal