One doesn't necessarily associate spring travel with heavy reading. For one, books are bulky luggage, the weighty enemies of economical packers; even an e-reader takes up precious space in one's overflowing duffel. And two, escapist migration to mountaintops or flowery fields or seaside locales for sun worship and meditative communion with nature connotes a markedly book-free environment, an escape from the office or the solemn halls of academe.
But surely even the most active traveler will have some downtime during the trip. What to read when it's raining outside your Puerto Rican bungalow, or with your cappuccino in a Parisian cafe, or on African safari when your cellphone's out of service and there's no Wi-Fi for miles? Or what about those of us stuck at home, tethered to work and family, eagerly awaiting winter's end?
Roberto Bolano's novel begins in diary form from the perspective of Juan Garcia Madero, a 17-year-old Mexican poet, green around the gills and eager for experience. It's Mexico City in 1975, and while Latin America storms with revolution, Garcia Madero is falling deeply in love with a clan of young poets. The visceral realists, as they call themselves, are on a sort of permanent siesta complete with passion, ideas, warm weather and beautiful women. It's a charged and romantic time for them, and if the book ended after the first 125 pages — with the visceral realists driving off into the sunset in search of further adventure — one couldn't help but accuse Bolano of nostalgic sentimentality. But the next couple of hundred pages that follow navigate the harsh fallout from that freewheeling period, offering a poignant reminder that time touches us all, and youth, like all holidays, can't last forever.
Joy Williams' Breaking and Entering invites readers into the lives of Willie and Liberty, a young couple living a vagabond existence on the Gulf Coast of Florida. The two travel all over the state, squatting in all variety of unoccupied houses, literally dressing their blank lives in the clothing of strangers until the homeowners return and the couple are forced, once again, to hit the road. It's a funny book, and breezy, but there's serious human drama at work here. Williams has a gift for dialogue, and the couple's interactions with the outwardly sunny natives offer perfect exemplars of the ways in which deep pain and sadness can lurk beneath even our most seemingly insubstantial conversations, and that no amount of sun and surf can wash away a haunted past.
"Everything in this book really happened," Geoff Dyer explains in the introduction to his 2003 collection, Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It, "but some of the things that happened only happened in my head ..." And thus, we're off on both a whirlwind world tour, and an equally boundless tour of Dyer's imagination. From the cramped cafes of Amsterdam to Indonesia's most competitive ping-pong tables, from Burning Man to the Roman ruins, Dyer ponders life's deepest questions, always comically, occasionally beautifully, sometimes scholarly, and usually under the influence of any variety of controlled substances. In the end it doesn't matter whether we call it fiction or nonfiction, what's important is how true it feels. Like your best friend's retelling of his favorite adventure story — but far funnier, and far smarter — this anti-travel book will leave you feeling like you, too, were there on the journey.