While thinking of a list of books that “transport you”, I could not help but think about Orientalism and its saccharine promises made to and made by people, much like myself but in different times, snugly sitting with fat cushions in a drawing room (or studio) with AC gently humming (a modern addition). Would the likes of Délacroix or Kipling be proud to know that I also could not help but come up with titles that have, indeed, made me think, albeit only momentarily, that I was somewhere I was not, that I knew things of the place that I could not possibly know. It’s not an unfamiliar feeling, to hold contradictory views with equal enthusiasm and doubt — while Orientalism, or a variant of it, is morally appalling and actually devastating, books can pull a fast one over anyone and I savor its power over me.
We could talk about the possible reconciliation of these views for hours on end, but the list, which was compiled after all, must be presented. But I think I am safe in saying that the books below, picked by our contributors Snigdha and Adina and yours truly, by no means claim to be authoritative documents of a place or time or people. They are the author’s views or perspectives; and in these books, they did an awfully good job at fooling us. (But I am writing this slightly prematurely as one of them has not yet given me their picks/reasons — if it turns out I’m wrong, poo-tee-weet.) So if you are feeling a bit tied down to the glum and monotony of Toronto and would like to see other parts of the world in the comfort of your AC, pick up one of these. — Hoon.
Hoon, Managing Editor
Slow Days, Fast Company: the World, the Flesh, and L.A. by Eve Babitz
Once, Eve Babitz played chess with Marcel Duchamp. Naked. It was photographed and Babitz’s wit, along with the photo, gained notoriety. In Slow Days, Fast Company, Babitz takes us through Los Angeles. The L.A. of the L.A. socialites. Some of the best parts of the book are descriptions of what she (or the narrator) ate and drank with who’s who at where’s where (copyright to where’s where pending). In this book, you can also learn to hate San Fransisco with L.A. smugness and imagine that you’re doing so on your way home from LAX.
Clear Light of Day by Anita Desai
The first of four sections of Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day is set in post-Partition Old Delhi. Desai’s descriptions of the world around the Das family’s old house are so vivid that you can almost feel the walls around the house, its tree lines and wilting rose path. As the book travels back in time to Partition and pre-Partition times, alongside the Das’s family drama, we get glimpses of a country and family in crisis.
South and West by Joan Didion
One of the things Joan Didion does best is hide herself behind her words and sentences — her descriptions are authoritative, as though they were the sole truth to the incidents and objects they depict. South and West. From a Notebook. is definitely not Didion’s best or the most representative (my vote for the former category goes to After Henry), but it gives us intimate glimpses of the way she traveled around the Southern states of America. Rattlesnakes, the rain and mud, and the dilapidating effects of the road all come to life.
Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje
Michael Ondaatje takes us to Sri Lanka through his personal and family history. Running in the Family is, at its best, like a family dinner — it’s utterly unremarkable and ordinary yet it shapes the way you eat. Or, in this case, the way Ondaatje thinks about the island. It’s almost a shame that I’ve not been to Sri Lanka prior to reading Ondaatje, since until I do, it will be tinted with his sentences and poems. Ondaatje is also full of stories, action, and shameful and tell-tale family histories that take place in — sometimes it feels as though the place predicated the histories and actions — the mountains and tumultuous weather of the island.
Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami
I adore Haruki Murakami; his dreamy surrealist style, his intriguing characters, the way he layers stories within each other. When Sputnik Sweetheart begins, our narrator, K, (like most of Murakami’s narrators) is an ordinary 20-something man living in a small town in Japan, helplessly in love with his best friend Sumire. However, the story takes a turn for the unique when Sumire is swept up in a love affair with an older Korean businesswoman named Miu, who whisks her away to an exotic island in Greece, where she disappears. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I will say that as K reckons with his own loneliness and unrequited love, he considers the beautiful, empty island around him, full of life but lacking many people.
Dawn by Octavia E. Butler
If you don’t have to worry about money or time away from work when you’re only reading about traveling, why bother even staying on Earth? Why not travel with our narrator, Lillith, to an enormous, planet-like spaceship populated by a mysteriously benevolent alien race called the Oankali, who have chosen to rescue several thousand humans from a destruction on Earth. Butler is one of the finest science fiction writers out there, and she puts us right in the middle of the ship, its forest-like biome areas, the slippery aliens, and the stark, chrome rooms where the humans are kept, mostly. Butler alternates between fantastic wonder and frightful claustrophobia, and it works marvelously.
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
Kiran Desai transports us to three different places in this novel, from the Indian hill-station town of Kalimpong in the northeastern Himalayas to the rainy university town of Cambridge to New York City’s grimy restaurant kitchens. Shifting from the past to the present (the present being 1986, with the rise of violence within the Gorkhaland movement in India), the novel follows Sai, her grandfather Jemubhai, their cook, and his son Biju. Desai’s language appeals to all five senses, from describing how people look to how food tastes and to how the air smells — the words lift right off the pages, pull us into the novel, and have us stand in the midst of the love, the chaos, the excitement, and (as the title suggests) the loss Desai writes about.
Sphinx by Anne Garréta
Anne Garréta, one of the few female members of Oulipo (a distinguished experimental literary group in France), writes a genderless love story set in Paris. Indeed, it is a novel celebrated for its feminist inquiries and investigations, its reflections on love and loss and identity. But in addition to that, Garréta’s novel does a remarkable job of writing about the sounds of after hours Paris: bars, clubs, people — their voices, their dance moves, their bodies — all threaded together with the music of the night. The language is poetic. It is palpable. And even as I closed the covers and placed the novel on my bookshelf, I could still feel the city’s rhythm.