Living in Winnipeg, particularly during the month of January, you may have experienced that intensely sobering moment when you look up and realize that you’re a really long way from everywhere. One good shake of the head and you can begin to rationalize our cold climate by living with a thought like, “well, I guess there’s no risk of tsunami”. Or maybe you’ve straightened yourself out with an “at least we don’t get terrifying earthquakes”. Perhaps even a very sensible “there are 520 crazy spiders in Australia and most of them can and will kill you”. These are all definite perks to our geographical location and, don’t get me wrong, I’ve (rather courteously) laughed at my share of “at least there’s no mosquitos in winter” jokes.
Being a short jaunt from the longitudinal center of the 2nd largest country in the world is a very fine thing but it also means we’re a rather punishing road trip away from just about anywhere else. Granted, we do live in a city that embraces it’s never-ending winters with similarly never-ending skating trails, snow sculptures, ice palaces, twinkly lights galore, and frozen maple syrup on a stick. But there’s a limit to how much ice-cold sugar a person can stomach – literally. As well, one can only stand so many family, friends, and coworkers regaling us with heady accounts of warm places with sandy beaches, turquoise waters, non-stop mojitos, and green plants. Green, they say. When you take all those varied, idyllic, and far flung locations coupled with our very snowy and very cold winters (so long, Polar Vortex, please never come back), you’ve got a recipe for daydreaming and wanderlust. So what’s a library worker to do when marooned in the inhospitable middle of wind-chill warnings, ever-growing snowbanks, and a weather forecast that simply reads “ice crystals”? Escape into a book, that’s what. Here are a handful of excellent trips to take somewhere else without spending a single hot cent!
Literary Fiction – when conventional fiction genres just don’t cut the mustard.
Looking to immerse yourself into a world kind of like yours but actually not yours at all? Try a trip into Literary Fiction, where it could be real but it’s really not. If you want something that allows you to sit back and fully immerse yourself in a book look no further. As an introductory trip into literary fiction try a stopover in Naples (circa 1950) with Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first title in The Neapolitan Novels series. The novel follows Elena and Lila, two young girls with a complicated friendship and the transformation of their postwar city, which shapes them both in turn.
I’m not going too far in theme or geographic location when I next recommend a title that is not at all new to our shelves but entirely underappreciated. We’ll travel slightly north-east from Italy to gallivant around the rural countryside of Ukraine (NB not “the Ukraine”, just “Ukraine”). Everything is Illuminated is the first novel by Jonathan Safran Foer in which two stories unfold. One story focuses on Jonathan’s travels to Eastern Europe to track down the woman who saved his Jewish father from the Nazis during Word War II, while the other follows the history of a family living in Trachimbrod, a small Ukrainian shtetl. While devastatingly sad, it also has a distinct element of magical realism and a healthy dose of humour from Jonathan’s Ukrainian translator, guide, and enthusiastic consumer of American culture, Alexi Perchov (who also serves as narrator for much of the book in exquisite, hilarious, perfectly broken English).
This is all without even mentioning Alexi’s depressive grandfather or their family dog, along for the ride, named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior. For those who enjoy the book and, really, for everyone else, too, the 2005 film adaptation of the same title is perfectly cast with Elijah Wood as Jonathan, and Eugene Hutz, famed gypsy-punk front man of band Gogol Bordello, as Alexi.
Science Fiction – When reality is just too bleak, jazz it up with some science!
If you’re a fan of Douglas Adams (anyone else heartbroken that BBC America unceremoniously canceled Dirk Gently after a mere two seasons?) and want something similarly witty and dry and sci-fi-ish then Matt Haig’s Humans is a good place to start. An alien sent to earth using the body of a human scientist (who has recently discovered a little too much) gets a crash course in being human and all that entails. The tone is hilarious and watching the alien learn more about humans, a seemingly crude and grotesque species with curiously undeveloped technology, is a completely engaging read. For those of you who are already fans of Haig, get on the list for his newest novel, How to Stop Time, about a centuries-old, time-travelling history teacher.
Most of my favourite books have an element of absurdity to them and the next science fiction pick doesn’t stray too far from the theme. Borne by Jeff Vandermeer starts you out right in the thick of it with a giant flying despotic bear named Mord who has been driven insane by the biotech organization that created him. Why create a flying bear? Why make it a giant? These are all questions that, sure, one would like answered but the real focus of the story is on Rachel, a scavenger who finds a creature (stuck to Mord’s fur) with a fantastic ability to grow and learn. Might not make your Dystopia-to-Visit list in the real world but it’s certainly a fascinating escapist read.
Non-Fiction – Longing for an adventure to brighten up those evenings that begin around 4pm?
Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras, and Ella Morton is a fantastically heavy tome that compiles a wealth of information about places you never knew existed, things you didn’t know happened, and weird parks that you’d sell your first born child to visit. Okay, so maybe it’s not quite all that radically persuasive but it’s a definite winner if you’re looking to waste some time on a long, snowy, bitter-cold afternoon. Caveat lector – it’s one of those books that’ll have you interrupting everyone around you mid-sentence with a “Yes, right, your retirement/baby/world domination plan/engagement announcement is very important- but did you know this…”
For a book that will convince you that your home is probably the safest place around, try any book ever written that recounts a trek through the tropical rainforests of the Amazon. Nothing has made me want to stay put exactly where I am more than reading The Lost City of Z by David Grann. Following in the (highly questionable) footsteps of literally hundreds of people who died in a plethora of differing ways while attempting the exact same journey, David Grann traces the journey of the famed explorer/adventurer Percy Harrison Fawcett (aka PHF – essentially the Lebron James of Victorian exploration). Fawcett famously disappeared in the Amazonian rainforests, along with his son and son’s unfortunate best friend, in the early half of the 20th century after an intense amount of media fanfare leading up to and during the expedition. There are creepy crawlies, and horrible history, and all sorts of sleuthing going on in this one.
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan takes us to another place that you wouldn’t really want to be – in the grips of a perplexingly terrifying and unnamed illness. Okay, so maybe a trip to the epilepsy ward of a New York hospital isn’t quite what you had in mind when escaping from winter into a good book but this read is a real rollercoaster. It follows the true account of Susannah, from New York Post reporter, breaking stories, conducting interviews, enjoying life in her 20s in New York, through the onslaught of a completely unpredictable illness that plagues her with seizures, psychosis, and renders her essentially catatonic. While you can grab a copy of this book at your local library, I would also recommend looking into the eBook version – as I did – and listen to it via Overdrive.
So if you’re pinching your pennies nickels (doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?), deathly afraid of air travel, or just wistfully staring off as far into the distance as the current blizzard-like condition will allow, there’s a book at the library waiting for you. Even if you’re not looking for greener pastures, there are countless adventures you can wade into. What have you been reading to escape winter? Share your favourites with me in the comments.