If you’re anything like me, it’s the time of year when you start pining for a vacation. Christmas is over, and the rest of the winter is spread out before you like a long, worn, gray army blanket. “Where will we go this year?” I ask myself. Will we return to France? Go back to the USA? Try somewhere different, like Italy, Bavaria, or Scotland?
Of course, it is unlikely that many of us will venture further than our own countries this year, in spite of vaccines. And we actually had a very lovely summer at home in Ireland last year, traveling to Clare and Galway for a few days’ respite while the Covid-19 numbers were low. Still, this has not stopped me from sneakily searching flights, Airbnbs, and package deals further afield. It’s window shopping from a smart phone, and like stopping to admire the latest fashions behind the glass in Brown Thomas, I know a chance would be a fine thing.
All that said, I did get to travel to some truly fabulous places in 2020 from the pages of books. Reading was my silver lining in an otherwise frustrating year, and I made it through 17 new books and 4 old favorites. I know 21 books may not sound like much to some, and yet a great deal to others! But for a full time working mama in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, it was just about right. I read some stunning pieces of work, but the biggest surprise was that several of my literary finds gave me new places I’ve absolutely GOT to see… as soon as we can all fly off the pages and into the real air again.
Here are my top three.
The book was called “Melmoth” by Sarah Perry, and it takes place mainly in Prague, but also Karlovy Vary, during the middle of the 20th century. I would highly recommend the book, which is mysterious, gripping, sad, and achingly beautiful (and not too huge to finish in a week or two). But if I’m honest, the thing that stuck with me most were the descriptions of Prague and Karlovy Vary.
Prague has long been on our list of places to visit, perhaps just as a couple, and we have heard from friends and family just how lovely and interesting it is. But I had never even heard of the mountain spa town of Karlovy Vary before this book and I’ve been looking up information about it online ever since. The architecture and setting both are completely jaw-dropping (especially for a girl like me, brought up in the relatively simple American West!) and the promise of natural hot springs, famous glass factories and good coffee sounds second to Heaven.
Karlovy Vary is more “off the beaten track” than Prague, of course, and smaller, which are both part of its appeal to me (though it’s still a major tourist destination). It’s due west from Prague, about 147 miles, and is not that far from the German border (roughly 105 miles south of Leipzig), so getting there would require a bit more thought, and probably a rental car or a train. None of this has put me off.
Years ago, when we were living in Indianapolis (for the second time), I was part of a book club among friends and someone suggested “The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I fell in love with the writing and the story from the very beginning (who would not be captivated by the very notion of a graveyard for forgotten books?), but unfortunately, I did not finish the novel at that time for one reason or another. I carried it around with me from house to house as we moved around the country over the next few years, always meaning to get back to it. Even my mother-in-law picked it up and read it straight through on a visit once. When we moved back to Ireland in 2018, I parted ways with the book and donated it to a a charity shop, with some regret.
Fast forward to early 2020, before we were banished to our homes, and another well-loved copy of “Shadow of the Wind” called out to me from the shelves of St. Vincent de Paul. I brought it home and, again, put it on the shelf to save for later. It wasn’t until November of last year that I cracked the spine (which was already well-cracked) and started it again, from page 1. By now, the author has sadly passed away, and I wanted very much to start and finish this book without stopping. I’m so glad I did, because, as I knew before, this book is a solid masterpiece. I do not use that word lightly. I cannot even do it justice in a review. Zafón’s writing is so mesmerizing and otherworldly, no human I’ve ever known could write as skillfully, with understated passion for Barcelona and swelling, bursting love stories between characters. One of the interesting things I read recently about the book is that the author would not sell the rights for it to be turned into a film or TV series, even though it feels extremely cinematic. He commented that so many people are straying away from reading that he wants it to continue to be read in its full glory, the vivid images playing in someone’s imagination rather than on a screen.
So, in addition to now seeking out the author’s other books, I am determined to see Barcelona before too much longer. I’ve never been to Spain at all, though lots of Irish people travel there for weeks in the summer, and even own second homes on sunny Southern islands like Ibiza. But, like any Spaniard (or Catalan) will tell you, Barcelona is different. Just as I won’t even try to explain the significance of Zafón’s work, I will not even attempt to untangle the complicated history of Catalonia and their struggles towards independence, but it is important to note that the struggles are there still.
The images I’ve taken from the pages of “The Shadow of the Wind” are a Barcelona that is heat and colour and art and noise and food. It’s cathedrals and cemeteries, cafes and bustling streets, hills with crowning mansions, beaches and the smell of the sea, and most of all, an enormous population of passionate people. I do not dream of arriving with a to-do list, but rather I dream of staying in an apartment and taking it in slowly, letting it soak into me like the sun after weeks of rain. And Dear God, wouldn’t the sun feel amazing right about now?
Out of the three places I’ve mentioned, this one perhaps sounds the most ordinary, a city on everyone’s bucket list, or one that most people have been to already. I’ve actually been in London once, for an afternoon, back in 2011 when Frank was meeting a couple of producers for a potential film project. The tiny snippet I saw then was great, but we’ve never been back.
But I want to see London again because of several books I read last year, in addition to all the common reasons people want to see the great capital of England. The main book that set my sights on London again was actually non-fiction and more recent than many of the others I’ve been reading – “Mudlarking” by Lara Maiklem. It first came to my attention through a friend who shared Maiklem’s posts on social media and I hinted not-so-subtly to Frank that I’d like the book for my birthday last May.
Now, thanks to my husband (who listened and bought me the book), and since discovering what a “mudlark” does, it’s become something of an obsession (and seems to be taking this Covid-stay-close-to-home-and-away-from-crowds world by storm). Poking about in the mud by the riverside or on a long walk through the fields not only gets me out of my otherwise troubled thoughts, but it also sparks my interest in any number of historical time periods. And, when I’m not out looking for my own discoveries, I’m very contentedly reading about Maiklem’s, referring back and forth to her maps and photos and googling myself down endless rabbit holes of information. Who knew, for instance, that our Medieval ancestors cleaned their ears with little metal spoons kept in a personal kit? Or that a man in the early 1900s would be so possessive of his particular printing type that he would deposit the entire lot of tiny metal pieces, over several years, into the Thames?
It took me several months to finish “Mudlarking,” but that was by choice as I did not want to devour it over a long weekend and forget it just as fast. Now I refer back to it regularly, and continue to follow Maiklem and other mudlarkers on social media.
So what do I plan to do when I get on a plane or a ferry again over London way? I intend to start by getting a permit to mudlark the Thames with other hopeful tourists. Maybe Trig Lane or Rotherhithe or even Greenwich. We’ll see. Other sights to explore include Covent Garden and the theatre district, Victorian parks, gardens and markets, and all the fabulous attractions like the Tower of London, plus a dozen or so restaurants I’ve heard about in my British cooking shows. But mostly, thanks to Lara Maiklem and Ben Aaronovitch (see below), I think I’ll be spending the majority of my time near the water. For while most London attractions require a healthy vacation allowance, wandering the foggy streets and staring at small patches of ancient foreshore cost next to nothing.
The other books that added destinations to my future London travels were:
- “Shadowplay” by Joseph O’Connor, the story of a young, unknown Bram Stoker as he works as stage manager for the Lyceum Theatre in the late 1800s.
- “Rivers of London” and “Moon Over SoHo” by Ben Aaronovitch, two in the series of a young London policeman-cum-wizard as he discovers the hidden supernatural underworld of the city.
- “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens, the ultimate classic
- “The House at Bishopsgate” by Katie Hickman, a 1600’s mystery about Celia Pindar and her husband, Paul, who have just relocated to a huge old house in London after spending several years in Syria. A cursed diamond and suspicious lady’s maid add to the drama.
- “Dear Mrs. Bird” by AJ Pearce, where a young woman works in the advice column department of a London women’s magazine during the Blitz.
The other books I read this year in no particular order were:
“Heft” by Liz Moore
“Oliver and the Seawigs” by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntire
“The Wych Elm” by Tana French
“The Other Side of Wonderful” by Caroline Grace Cassidy
“What Would Ma Say?” by Kathleen Doyle
“The Séance” by John Harwood
“The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey
“The Heretic’s Daughter” by Kathleen Kent
Second (and third, fourth, etc.) time reads (mostly with the kids):
“The Long Winter” by Laura Ingalls Wilder
“Kitchen Privileges” by Mary Higgins Clark
“Anne of Green Gables” by Lucy Maud Montgomery
“The Silver Chair” by C.S. Lewis
* * *
So… where did you travel last year in books?