Though summer vacation season is drawing to a close, there’s always the opportunity for a stolen autumn weekend in some picturesque cottage on a lake, or in a bed and breakfast amidst the fall foliage. But if watching sunsets from a veranda while lapping up brioche French toast isn’t at all appealing (or at all in the cards for you), then consider visiting a dusty corner of the U.S. in literary form. Avoid the airport security germfest and take a trip to to Doctorow’s reimagined turn-of-the-century New York, or Steinbeck’s mid-century Monterey. My shelves are loaded with one-way tickets to American cities—a recession-blighted Detroit, a Savannah dripping in sweat, bourbon, and Spanish moss. Here are a few bookish retreats, just in time for Labor Day:
Homer and Langley, by E.L. Doctorow: Just as Bill and Ted glimpsed an epic journey through the ages through the smudged glass of a phone booth, reclusive brothers Homer and Langley Collyer (one a blind visionary, the other a prophetic hoarder) experience the 20th century primarily from the cluttered interior of their crumbling Fifth Avenue mansion. Through the pages of this picaresque novel, loosely based on the real lives of the Collyer brothers—who resided at 128th St. and Fifth for nearly a century—one can experience a vivid New York City, from the silent movie era to the Vietnam War.
Tortilla Flat, by John Steinbeck: Let me whisk you away to a shabby porch on a sunny day in Monterey, California. Listen to “the fish horns on the streets” and to comrades Pilon and Pablo “discuss in wandering, sleepy tones the doings of Tortilla Flat; for there are a thousand climaxes on Tortilla Flat for every day the world wheels through.” A colorful gang of loyal, childlike ne’er-do-wells inhabits the pages of this humorous, poignant novel, which conjures a Northern California Camelot. It’s just the right kind of vacation: there’s but a vague understanding of consequences and social conventions, and wine is never consumed in moderation.
Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides: With Calliope Stephanides as your guide, you’ll not only journey between genders and generations in this novel, but you’ll also travel from Asia Minor to inner-city Detroit, on to Grosse Pointe, and, finally, to Germany. Calliope tells a tale of a singular adolescence, positioning her narrative on the larger Stephanides family continuum. This epic, spanning 1922 to 1975, brings to life places like a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus, and the family-owned diner in Detroit, where, to Calliope’s recollection, “Everything was hodgepodge: grandmotherly lamps stood next to El Greco reproductions; bull’s horns hung from the neck of an Aphrodite statuette.”
The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson. This is a nightmarish, enthralling account of actual events surrounding the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. In his trademark journalistic style, Larson deftly intertwines multiple perspectives, focusing chiefly on Daniel H. Burnham, the mastermind of the Great Columbian Exhibition—dubbed “The White City” for its dazzling nighttime glow—and Dr. H.H. Holmes, whose thoughtfully constructed hotel lured a ghastly number of people (primarily single women) to their untimely deaths in the basement torture chambers. While visiting a “Murder Castle” may not be on your bucket list, this trip into two brilliant minds—one focused on reshaping America’s perception of Chicago, and reinforcing Fair attendees’ belief in magic, the other cunning and diabolical—is the nonfiction trip of a lifetime.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt: In a grand southern mansion, in a town where everyone knows everyone, shots ring out in the early morning mist of May 2, 1981. This book, based on actual events surrounding a complex murder case in Savannah, awoke in me a deeply suppressed desire to visit the Deep South, and an admittedly more natural urge to linger over a mint julep. Your journey within these pages is full of twists, turns, drawls, deceptions, and a bit of voodoo; similar to the Fiji trip I’ve only ever taken in my overactive imagination, this was a sojourn I never wanted to end.
What book is your favorite escape?