I may not ever visit India or own a vineyard, but I’ll still spend my life traveling all over the world and walking in winemaker’s shoes. It’s the beauty of books, of course. I can’t say it isn’t fascinating in its own way to read a book about middle class mothers living in the Northeast and wearing yoga pants far too often (who doesn’t love to hate-read another person’s take on her own life?), but being transported to another time and place—that’s what stirs a book lover’s soul.
Here’s a few that are embedded in my heart forever—or just make me really want a grumpy Provençal neighbor.
A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry
This is, no holds barred, one of the saddest books I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot of sad books). Set in an unnamed city by the sea in India, this sweeping tale that begins in 1975 follows the lives of two tailors, a widow, and her nephew. They are all running from violence or sadness or arbitrary borders and petty prejudices.
Balance manages, despite moments of searing anguish, to be a deeply moving, occasionally funny love story about the friendship between lost souls. That’s the heart of Balance. But it is also a damning recrimination of state policies that do nothing to elevate society, but rather render basic human dignity quite pointless. That’s the conscience of Balance, and you won’t soon forget it.
A Year in Provence, by Peter Mayle
A fun book! A Year in Provence is lively and hilarious and a traveler’s (and reader’s) dream. This memoir is the English-born Mayle’s first book about his life in France, and his adventures dealing with French laborers (quixotic); French meals (massive and delicious); French time (fluid); Provençal weather (very hot and very cold), and tourists—never mind that Mayle was one, until he wasn’t. It will make you want to meet strange French men with mean dogs just for the chance to write about the encounter as cleverly as Mayle does. It’s not a particularly modern take on much of anything, but it’s très agréable all the same.
Brick Lane, by Monica Ali
Set in London—not the London of Bridget Jones or Elizabeth Bennett, but the London of Nazneen, who has emigrated from Bangladesh to East London’s Brick Lane. She toils there with the mundane details of her life as a mother, wife of an older man, and part-time seamstress. When she begins an illicit relationship with a young radical, her worldview is thrown into a tailspin, and her new personal feelings mirror the changing world around her. Brick Lane is beautifully written, with a lovely melancholy and evocative details of a failing neighborhood and a struggling family. It’s always interesting to step into another woman’s life, and it’s nice to step out, too.