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Take a Little Trip

A Good Book Can Transport Us to New Places. Here are Three Books Where Place is Integral to Each Story.

Considering a trip this summer, but is COVID-19 making you a little uneasy about traveling? How about taking a little trip in your mind instead?

Imagine spending a weekend with a tall drink, a bit of shade, safe at home and not a care in the world except “visiting” somewhere faraway you’ve never been to, or revisiting a favorite place—as depicted in the pages of a great novel.

Who hasn’t been party to an argument over a movie when somebody praises the script writer, director, actors and cinematographers... only for somebody else to say, “Yeah, but the book was so much better.” That's often the case. Ever wonder why?

Watching a film is a passive endeavor. The team making the movie does much of the work to transport us away visually: presenting astounding images, adding in a soundtrack to provide aural cues and spark our emotions. All we need do is sit back and let the film wash over us for (typically) less than two hours.

Reading the book requires a much fuller commitment. Not only is it usually more time-consuming; we also have to be much more engaged to follow the plot, understand the characters, go back-and-forth in time and imagine the rest.

The imagination part is what brings the magic... and can make reading the book such an enriching experience.

Here are three snapshot-reviews of books by 20th century American authors—all giants in their own way—where each story's setting is almost a character unto itself. If you've ever wanted to visit the rough lands along the Texas-Mexico border, the Manhattan night life of New York City or post-war Denmark, these three choices are your tickets to take you there.

All the Pretty Horses

In sparse but riveting language, Cormac McCarthy writes about a 16-year-old boy, born in Mexico and raised in Texas, who escapes a rough upbringing at the hands of an abusive father by riding his horse with a friend to Mexico to find work as ranch hands. Sleeping under desert skies, scrounging for food and dogged by an unwelcome traveler, their world eventually descends into a Mexican prison from which they escape only to be chased north across the vast unbroken spaces of northern Mexico and southern Texas.

The Catcher in the Rye

No matter how many times I read J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye", it’s confounding every time. Is it simply a story of teen angst or more a period piece on wealth and privilege? No matter, it is always thought-provoking and a reminder that despite appearances we never really know the struggle that someone else experiences. The underbelly of night-time in NYC is exposed as the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, stumbles from an upstate New York boarding school to the bars, diners, backseats of cabs and fleabag hotels in Manhattan.

The Spectator Bird

“The Spectator Bird” by Wallace Stegner was a tough read for me since the protagonist (someone about my age) basically questions everything he’s done in life. Much of the story—told through the protagonist reading aloud from a journal as his wife lay in bed each night—is set in post-war Denmark. After a stormy passage across the Atlantic, the couple found themselves as boarders in an apartment owned by a mysterious Danish countess. Copenhagen comes alive, as does a village in the countryside that hides their landlady’s troubled past.