What does a publisher at the world’s biggest publishing house read for pleasure? (And how does she find the time?) Jane von Mehren is the Senior Vice President and Publisher of Trade Paperbacks at the Random House Publishing Group. Every now and then, she’ll be featuring her favorite reads in her Reader’s Circle column, Jane’s Bookshelf—books that she thinks you’ll love, whether you read them solo or with your club! And if you’re on Twitter, you can follower her tweets at @janeatrandom.
A trend here in New York City is the “staycation”, meaning you are on vacation, but aren’t travelling anywhere—at least not physically. It’s a time to do fun things close to home, get a few projects done around the house, and travel in your imagination through the pages of books. Those imaginary journeys are often much more exciting, exotic, and memorable than the trips we can take ourselves.
I began thinking about this when I was reading Adam Johnson’s THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON. Set in North Korea, this brilliant novel takes you inside this country that so few outsiders have been able to penetrate. Johnson was able to visit Pyongyang while he worked on the book, but as he shares with his editor in the interview in the paperback, he was only able to visit select places in the company of his “minders.” As I read, I was struck by how deeply immersed I was in the culture and characters—especially Pak Jun Do, the orphan master’s son of the title, whose story is chilling, haunting, and very romantic. It reminded me of two other books that take you to foreign lands: LIFE AND DEATH IN SHANGHAI, Nien Cheng’s memoir about China’s Cultural Revolution, and THIS BLINDING ABSENCE OF LIGHT, Tahar Ben Jelloun’s novel about a prison in Morocco where King Hassan II sent his political enemies. These books invite you to experience life under a totalitarian regime, but even more important to me as a reader, they offer indelible portraits of the strength of the human spirit to survive and flourish with dignity and love.
Of course I realize that most of the time when we travel we want to go someplace that is beautiful, fun, and interesting—and we’re lucky there are lots of books that can take us to the most beloved vacation destinations. If you wish you could travel in Europe may I suggest: FRENCH LESSONS by Ellen Sussman (Paris), PRAGUE by Arthur Phillips (Prague), THAT SUMMER IN SICILY by Marlena de Blasi (Sicily), THE BIRTH OF VENUS by Sarah Dunant (Florence), RESTORATION by Rose Tremain (London), THE KITCHEN BOY by Robert Alexander (Russia), and GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE by Susan Vreeland (Germany and Holland). Of course you may want to stay closer to home: OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout (Maine), THE DESCENDANTS by Kaui Hart Hemmings (Hawaii), LONESOME DOVE by Larry McMurtry (Texas), DANCING AT THE RASCAL FAIR by Ivan Doig (Montana), NEW YORK by Edward Rutherfurd (New York), and SUMMERLAND by Michael Chabon (Seattle, Puget Sound).
I realize I’ve left out large sections of the world on my list of books and places to go. I’d love to hear from you about the books you’ve read and loved about foreign lands that have made you feel as if you’ve been far, far away even if you never left your couch or hammock! And enjoy all of your travels this summer.