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Literary Destinations: Five Books To Help You Escape

by Heidi W. Durrow
Aug 12, 2010 (All Things Considered)

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The Hundred-Foot Journey The Spice Necklace The Lovers Picturing Hemingway's Michigan

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You're counting down the last days of summer and longing for the vacation you didn't take. Or maybe you're already planning for the next. Why not audition a few hot spots with these varied new releases? In these stories — three novels and two works of nonfiction — a history teacher, a wry angst-filled teen, a budding celebrity chef, an intrepid spice hunter, and Ernest Hemingway himself whisk you to vacation spots around the world. Under sunny skies in small-town America, Europe, the Caribbean and the Middle East, these characters discover the pleasures of new foods and idyllic landscapes — and sometimes, they also find themselves. Maybe, in their stories, you will find yourself too.


Sag Harbor

By Colson Whitehead, paperback, 352 pages, Anchor, list price: $15.95

First stop: the Hamptons, affectionately dubbed "Out" in Colson Whitehead's coming-of-age tale, Sag Harbor.

"Out" of New York City, teenager Benji and his brother spend a mostly parent-free summer getting into low-key mischief with BB guns, fake IDs and beer. The guys while away long afternoons swimming in the bay, lounging on the sand and prowling for the fabled stretch of nude beach. When Benji gets a part-time job in the tourist town's popular ice cream shop, his attention turns to girls — or rather his inability to attract the attention of girls. His adolescent fumblings make for funny and cringe-inducing moments. Who knew your elbow could be an erogenous zone?

But the heart of this laugh-out-loud story takes you not just to a suburban summer idyll but to back in the day of mix tapes, Members Only jackets and the New Coke debacle — the decidedly 1980s world of Benji and his crew. Whitehead has crafted a witty and nostalgic tale about a summer beach vacation that plays out like one that each of us may remember: You know, the one when you landed your first kiss, or maybe experienced your first summer love. And you learned that even though your grand plan of summer reinvention didn't pan out, still your summer vacation changed you for the better somehow. (Read an excerpt from the book's first chapter, in which Benji describes his family and his love for the hottest season: "There was summer, and then there was the rest of the time.")


The Hundred-Foot Journey

By Richard C. Morais, hardcover, 256 pages, Scribner, list price: $23

In this delicious fairy-tale-like read, our young hero, Hassan Haji, journeys to the picturesque French countryside where he begins his quest to become an international celebrity chef. But first, author Robert Morais introduces us to the scents and sounds of Mumbai, where the Muslim Hassan — born in an apartment above the family's popular roadside restaurant — gets his first cooking lessons. Dishes like spicy fish curry and chicken tandoori with hints of cinnamon and cardamom seem destined to become the staples of his bourgeoning culinary skills. But then on one unforgettable day, Hassan's mother introduces him to fine French cuisine. Hassan knows then that his tastes have been forever altered.

Tragedy soon befalls the Hajis when extremists burn the family restaurant to the ground. Hassan's family flees first to London, and not long thereafter, the family becomes the newest transplants in a small, enchanting town in the French Alps.

It is there that Hassan — like the rat turned chef in the film Ratatouille — begins his journey to star chefdom. As the young chef's talents develop under the tutelage of his one-time competitor chef Madame Mallory, Morais treats the reader to wonderful literary food porn with mouthwatering descriptions of pork roasts basted in lemon juice and cognac and cucumber-and-sour-cream salad dashed with lingonberries. Ultimately, Hassan's ambition is city-bound and he travels to Paris, where he seeks to realize his dream of heading a three-star Michelin restaurant. The Hundred-Foot Journey is an enjoyable read, well worth every step of the journey from the kitchens of India to the kitchens of France. (Hassan describes how his culinary life "starts way back with my grand-father's great hunger" in this excerpt.)


The Spice Necklace

By Ann Vanderhoof, hardcover, 480 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, list price: $25

Ann Vanderhoof's The Spice Necklace documents a woman's delightful months-long journey to the heart of a new culture through food.

Vanderhoof, along with her husband, sets sail to the Caribbean in search of spices and, as a result, finds a real spice for life among new friends and acquaintances who teach the couple how to live at a sweet, slower island pace.

The couple travels by a boat — tellingly named Receta (which means "recipe") — visiting more than a dozen islands including Grenada, Trinidad, St. Martin and St. Lucia. The two spend their days market shopping, fishing, cooking, eating and most of all celebrating each island's specialties.

Vanderhoof gives her narrative's center stage to the colorful cooks and animated guides who are the book's most vivid characters. They generously introduce the pair to the heart of island life with adventures of crayfish hunting and diving for conch in deep waters.

A warning: Don't read this book when you're hungry. Your stomach will surely start to rumble.

Luckily, Vanderhoof ends each chapter with recipes to satisfy your cravings. You'll find some 12 dozen recipes for everything from a moonshine punch to creamed callaloo.

The Spice Necklace is a delightful food adventure memoir that just may persuade you to cruise the islands or to the nearest place you can find an authentic Caribbean meal. (In the book's preface, Vanderhoof explains why she and her husband, Steve, took a "two-year midlife break" to sail around the Caribbean — and why they decided they had to return.)


The Lovers

By Vendela Vida, hardcover, 240 pages, Ecco, list price: $23.99

On her wedding anniversary, the recently widowed Yvonne travels solo to a beautiful coastal town in Turkey, where she honeymooned with her husband 28 years ago. Still numb from her husband's unexpected death, Yvonne hopes to bask in the memory of their newlywed days.

When she befriends a young Turkish boy who sells shells on the beach, Yvonne begins to see and feel beyond her own hurt and the pain of her immediate past. Without a common language, Yvonne and the boy speak through gestures and shared smiles. It's through this blossoming friendship that Yvonne slowly realizes that it's not just her husband's ghost that haunts her.

Like Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, Vida tackles questions about grief and identity. The stunning Turkish beach, the almost mystical ancient ruins, and the country's labyrinthine village streets set the perfect stage for her character's catharsis. You can't help but be transported by Vida's melancholy story, a complex psychological portrait of grief and healing. (Read the scene in which Yvonne arrives in Dalaman, the small town, and learns that "thank you" in Turkish sounds like "tea and sugar.")


Picturing Hemingway's Michigan

By Michael R. Federspiel, hardcover, 200 pages, Wayne State University Press, list price: $39.95

In Picturing Hemingway's Michigan, Michael Federspiel takes us on a tour of the lush region "Up North" where the young Ernest Hemingway's imagination bloomed.

In this hybrid coffee table/literary history book, Federspiel provides a rich history of the Lake area that first developed as a vacation destination in the late 1800s and served as the Hemingway family's summer getaway for many years starting when Hemingway was just 6 weeks old. With gorgeous illustrations, photographs, documents and brief narrative accounts from Hemingway's childhood scrapbooks, Federspiel offers a wonderful portrait of the area through Hemingway's eyes.

The most compelling part of the book is Federspiel's juxtapositions of the "Michigan passages" from Hemingway's writing and the snapshots of an incredibly handsome Hemingway from his youthful summer days.

Federspiel expertly pairs Hemingway's vacation snapshots with vivid passages from The Nick Adams Stories and A Moveable Feast that seem to spell out in words what you see in the photographs. It's startlingly clear how ingrained those vacations were on the writer who found the long days of fishing, swimming and hunting restorative in the summer and again when he returned from the war.

Picturing Hemingway's Michigan is a satisfying read and a fascinating insight into a great writer's process from memory to imagination to the written page.

Now if only we could all vacation the way Hemingway did — where each vacation not only revitalizes us, but also inspires us to create something great. (Read about Hemingway's connection to Michigan, which began "when his parents first brought their six-week-old son there for three days in September 1899.")

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