The kitchen island was the perfect place for me and Jamie to eat Lisa’s fancy mac and cheese the day after Thanksgiving since football was on in the living room and I know nothing about the sport. Jamie had been back from Denmark for a couple of weeks and I couldn’t wait to catch up with him to hear about the trip and the parts of the country I haven’t made it to yet to eat, dance, or complain about the freezing cold. I’ve been to Copenhagen twice. There’s an energy there that calls me back. Jamie didn’t make it to Christiania while in Copenhagen, but he’ll go back. Perhaps we all will. I told them both about Cecil Brown and his book and how Cecil’s words were the reason I went that first time.
Books are the original influencers in my life. Here are some that sent me into the world in search of breadcrumbs left behind by some of the greatest literary characters of all time.
Book: “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” by Victor Hugo
Imagine wandering through the cobblestone streets of old school Paris as Victor Hugo introduces you to Notre-Dame. The novel tells a tale of love and tragedy against the backdrop of this magnificent architectural masterpiece.
Book: “Les Misérables” by Victor Hugo
Take a stroll along the Seine and think the struggles of Jean Valjean in post-revolutionary Paris. From the busy streets of the Latin Quarter to the barricades of Saint-Michel, Hugo’s masterpiece captures the soul of the city.
Book: “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens
This book was forced on me in high school by a teacher I barely liked, but I loved it – surprisingly. Dickens takes you on a journey through the crowded streets of London and Paris during the tumultuous times of the French Revolution. Thread through the intricate plots and witness the contrasting worlds of wealth and poverty.
Book: “Sherlock Holmes” series by Arthur Conan Doyle
Whenever I’m in London on a gloomy day, I walk the foggy streets of Victorian London with the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes. From Baker Street to the dimly lit alleys, each corner holds the suspense of Doyle’s captivating mysteries.
Book: “Death in Venice” by Thomas Mann
This book is your guide through the romantic canals and crumbling palazzos of Venice. As the main character, Gustav von Aschenbach gives in to forbidden desires, the city becomes a metaphor for beauty and decay.
Book: “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden
Close your eyes and imagine the historic Gion district, the Pontocho Alley, and Shamisen-dori Street and the ethereal beauty of Kyoto as Golden introduces you to the world of geishas. Part of my September was spent in Kyoto and the book provided a glimpse into the intricate traditions of this captivating city before my arrival.
Book: “The Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu
Hop into your time machine and head back to Heian-era Kyoto through Murasaki Shikibu’s classic, exploring the courtly rituals and poetic landscapes that inspired generations of readers and lovers of Japanese culture.
New Orleans, USA
Book: “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams
When my friends talk about why they love New Orleans, none of them mention this play. But this is me, telling you to step onto the vibrant streets of the French Quarter, where the play unfolds. From the steamy ambiance of Elysian Fields to the haunting melodies of jazz echoing through the city, Williams captures the essence of New Orleans – at least to me.
Book: “Interview with the Vampire” by Anne Rice
Explore the Gothic side of New Orleans through Anne Rice’s introduction of the dark and mysterious world of vampires in the city. From the St. Louis Cathedral to Jackson Square, the novel takes a trip through the historic neighborhoods, cemeteries, and opulent mansions of this delicious city.
Book: “The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles
From the markets of Marrakech and the vast, unforgiving landscapes of the Sahara, Bowles takes you on an unforgettable journey through what’s become one of my favorite countries. In this book, as in real life, this bustling city becomes a crossroads of cultures and existential exploration.
Book: “The Caliph’s House” by Tahir Shah
Wander through the narrow alleyways of the Medina and experience the enchanting, mysterious chaos of Marrakech. Shah’s memoir invites you into the heart of Moroccan hospitality and the mystique of this ancient city.
Book: “Ulysses” by James Joyce
Last April, I followed Leopold Bloom and we journeyed through Dublin with wide eyes and the occasional umbrella. From the Martello Tower to the iconic pubs, Joyce’s masterpiece captures the spirit of the city in a single day.
Book: “Dubliners” by James Joyce
This is a look at the lives of ordinary Dubliners as Joyce paints a vivid portrait of the city’s neighborhoods. From the River Liffey to the suburbs, each story unfolds against the backdrop of Dublin’s richness.
Book: “My Name is Red” by Orhan Pamuk
Pass by the Süleymaniye Mosque, the Covered Bazaar, and the Golden Horn of Istanbul as Pamuk combines art, mystery, and history in this novel. The city’s mosques, bazaars, and winding alleys become a canvas for a captivating tale.
Book: “From the Holy Mountain” by William Dalrymple
Embark on a historical journey through the landscapes of Turkey and the Middle East. Dalrymple’s travelogue retraces the footsteps of Byzantine monks, offering insights into Istanbul’s cultural richness.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Book: “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho
Wander along the vibrant beaches of Copacabana and through the mystical landscapes of the Amazon as Coelho’s Santiago pursues his personal legend. The novel captures the spirit of adventure and self-discovery in Brazil – something I hope we all get to experience!
Book: “City of God” by Paulo Lins
Explore the favelas of Rio de Janeiro through the eyes of Lins, who vividly portrays the challenges and complexities of life in this dynamic city. The novel provides a raw and authentic glimpse into Brazilian culture! The movie is amazing, too, but read the book first.
Book: “The Cairo Trilogy” by Naguib Mahfouz
Immerse yourself in the alleyways of Cairo’s historic Islamic quarter whatch as the saga of the Abd al-Jawad family unfold. The decades spanned in this work offer a panoramic view of Egyptian society.
Book: “The Alchemist of Looming Destiny” by David Gershator
Dive into the mystical and magical side of Cairo through Gershator’s tale. The novel brings together Egyptian folklore and modern-day adventure, creating a captivating narrative set against the backdrop of the city’s ancient wonders.
Book: “Trainspotting” by Irvine Welsh
Plunge into the gritty and rebellious atmosphere of Edinburgh’s streets through Welsh’s words. These unforgettable characters navigate the city’s pubs, clubs, and estates, providing a raw portrayal of urban life in Scotland’s capital. Through the Leith district, down Princes Street, up Carlton Road, these characters become some of the shadiest tour guides ever.
Lagos, Nigeria & Beyond
Book: “Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Come to Nigeria! Your invitation is in Adichie’s powerful narrative set against the backdrop of the Biafran War. The streets of Nsukka, Kano, and Nkpor come alive as characters grapple with love, identity, and the profound impact of events. From the colorful, lively markets to the university campuses that provide hope for many, this book will give you plenty to take in when you arrive.
Prague, Czech Republic
Book: “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera
Explore the historic streets of Prague as Kundera weaves together philosophy and romance. Head to Prague Castle, Charles Bridge, and Wenceslas Square if you dare. The city becomes a metaphor for the characters’ existential dilemmas against the backdrop of political unrest. Something so many of us can relate to.
Book: “Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka
Experience the surreal and absurd through Kafka’s Prague – perhaps. The novel’s protagonist wakes up to a transformed world, mirroring the city’s own metamorphosis during Kafka’s time. What’s already an incredible city, becomes even more fantastic.
Book: “The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger” by Cecil Brown
Pull up a seat in a dimly lit bar in the Copenhagen streets and listen to the stories of the expats, the locals, and those simply trying to invent a life for themselves. Walk the streets and see what George saw!
Book: “The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
The shadowy alleys of post-war Barcelona are steeped in beauty and stories. Stroll through as Zafón’s characters unravel a mysterious literary conspiracy. The city’s Gothic Quarter and forgotten cemeteries set the stage for intrigue. Go and discover them all.
Book: “Goodbye to Berlin” by Christopher Isherwood
Step into the vibrant and chaotic world of pre-World War II Berlin. Isherwood’s novel captures the diverse characters and tumultuous events that shaped the city during a critical period. Nollendorfplatz and the gay scene of Berlin, the Wedding District, and the English Garden are all waiting for you!
Book: “Stasiland” by Anna Funder
Here, the remnants of the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie become haunting symbols of a divided city. You will absolutely be visiting these places and things when you arrive in Berlin, so why not learn about them from another?
Book: “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt
Frolic through the Red Light District and Museumplein of Amsterdam as Tartt’s protagonist navigates a world of art, crime, and self-discovery. The cityscape becomes a backdrop for the unfolding drama. Stroll by and maybe into the Anne Frank House if you get your tickets in time.
Books are often the most incredible tour guides. Pull out some of your favorite and go where they send you.