I think I may be a closet travel agent, because planning our family vacations is one of the few activities that puts me “in the flow.” I can while away hours researching destinations, hunting down hotels in just the right location, finding places to visit that will keep all family members happy, and salivating over local restaurant reviews. I become so absorbed that time passes unnoticed.
Right now, I’m getting ready for a child-free weekend in Rome, Italy. With everything already planned out, I wanted some atmospheric reading to transport me back to ancient Rome and bring the historic sites to life. I chose Mistress of Rome, the first volume of a four-part series by Kate Quinn. Despite its rather prosaic title, the book is more than a love story. Quinn weaves her plot around the last Flavian Emperor, Domitian; a Jewish slave; an ambitious noblewoman; and a ferocious gladiator. Through them, and the mix of historical fact with fiction, we experience the paradox of this sophisticated yet depraved empire—with the requisite brutal slaying concluding the story. What I appreciated most about the book were the vivid descriptions of the gladiatorial games and the life of Roman nobles, which will add color and context to my visit of the Colosseum and Roman Forum. Additionally, the author’s brief incursions into Jewish-Roman history, the Vestal Virgins, and attitudes to early Christians aroused my curiosity and will lead to further investigation. All in all, this was exactly what I was looking for—an easy read with enough historic ambience to enrich my Roman adventure.
Literary Reflections Editor, Andrea Lani, reviews a classic hiking adventure and gives us a glimpse into her writing process: “I’m writing a book about a long-distance hike and so, for inspiration, I picked up a copy of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, which tells the tale of the middle-aged, inexperienced hiker’s partial trek of that famous trail. I found a few copies on the shelf at the thrift store last summer—it’s popularity inspired, no doubt, by the 2015 movie version which stars Robert Redford and does not, in my opinion, do the book justice. I had first read A Walk in the Woods, when it came out in 1998—later lending my copy to someone who never returned it—and while I remembered that it was funny, I didn’t remember how funny. My own book, which I originally conceived of as a humorous tale, is downright morose by comparison. Many years of domestic and professional drudgery had eroded my sense of humor to a washed-out gully. I had reasoned that because I am writing about difficult subjects, like dying trees and acid mine drainage, my book didn’t lend itself to hilarity, but Bryson manages to write about clear-cutting, coal mining, and bear maulings in a way that both made me laugh out loud and caused me to think seriously about the world. I still don’t know how he did it, but I spun myself an imaginary bracelet with the letters WWBBW—What Would Bill Bryson Write—woven into the threads, and now when I sit down to the page, I try to conjure some of that Bryson magic. When that fails, I flip to a random page in A Walk in the Woods and laugh along with the hapless hiker.”
Creative Nonfiction and Fiction Editorial Assistant, Kim Ruff, writes about a road trip with a social conscience: “When folks think about taking a road trip, they likely think about a vacation destination. Maybe they plan to rent an RV with the whole family and drive cross-country, or pack up the car to visit old friends and family they haven’t seen in a while, but in Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich puts a twist on the typical idea of a road trip. At a meeting with Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper’s, where they discuss poverty and welfare reform, Ehrenreich wonders out loud how women forced into the labor market are going to make a living on $7 an hour (this was 1998). She mentions to Lapham that ‘someone’ should conduct firsthand research and he immediately suggests that she take the job. In planning her road trip to uncover how low-wage workers make ends meet from week to week, or even day to day, Ehrenreich carefully selects her destination, and the type of jobs where she might have a chance at getting hired. Growing up in a low-wage family, but now holding a Phd. in biology and having made a profitable living from her writing, Ehrenreich knows she could never pretend to gain a complete understanding of what it means to live in poverty under the 1998 welfare reform. In order to give herself the best chance for an authentic experience however, she sets out with the goal of moving to a variety of unfamiliar locations, applying for low-wage positions, renting a low-income dwelling, and attempting to feed herself and keep a roof over her head from week to week by living off those wages. Ehrenreich’s road trips expose the heartbreaking reality for millions of Americans in the aftermath of a political agenda.”
Hope Donovan Rider, Managing Editor and Reviews Editorial Assistant, shares her road trip favorite with us: “My selection is Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. First published in 1968, Desert Solitaire has become a classic of nature writing and a touchstone for conservationists. By turns lyrical, elegiac, poetic, and prickly, it is an exploration of Arches National Park and the surrounding area, as well as Abbey’s own views on nature, morality and civilization, and how we must learn to live in balance with nature, or risk it being lost completely. Filled with descriptions of the rocks, animals, and weather, it takes the reader into the desert, so that they can feel the heat of the summer sun, and hear the silence of a place without human interference. Reading Desert Solitaire is a vicarious road trip that may just make you want to plan a real one.”
Where are you planning to go on your next vacation and which books will you be reading to help you plan? Let us know in the comments below.