10 Books That Will Transport You

Yesterday, a “Top Ten Tuesday” topic over at The Broke and the Bookish got me thinking about the power of geography in literature. Every good book transports its readers somewhere—to another time, place, or experience. But certain books leave a geographical impression that is likely to remain beyond the last page. If you’re in the mood for a short trip, without the security checks and jet lag, let one of these titles take you. These books—both fiction and non—will transport you somewhere you’ve probably never been and that you usually can’t go on your own. Come along.Vintage Travel Paper With Map and Compass




Henry VIII’s court—Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

If you can navigate the sometimes treacherous language and confusing dialogue of Mantel’s prize-winning novel, you’ll get to go where most average citizens are never allowed: behind the scenes of the Tudor court during the reign of Henry VIII. Chief minister Thomas Cromwell will be your guide, as you follow the king around trying to persuade him of one bit of reform or another. Ultimately, Cromwell provides an up-close look at the inside of the Tower of London, otherwise known as the royal prison.




Appalachian Trail—A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson

So maybe you can hit the Appalachian Trail anytime you like, but you probably won’t pack the sharp wit or keen observation skills of humorist Bill Bryson. Join him on this journey, and I promise your own trek will be the richer for it—if you ever take it.




Turn of the 20th-century Dublin—Dubliners, by James Joyce

To really get acquainted with a place, you need to spend time with its people, right? That’s exactly what happens when you read the 15 stories of James Joyce’s classic collection. Ireland is a small country, and all of the Dubliners Joyce introduces us to are living small lives, doing everyday things. But each character is on the verge of something big, an epiphany that may change everything. This book gives you a tour not only of Dublin’s pubs, shops, and shores, but also the human heart.




Mid-century America—On the Road, by Jack Kerouac

You’ve never experienced a road trip until you’ve accompanied beatniks Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise on the original road trip. They will show you a wide swath of late-1940s America, from west to east and back west again. You might have to hitchhike part of the way, and you won’t always like your traveling companions, who often act moody, childish, and irresponsible. But you’ll see an awful lot of cool scenery on the way.




Pacific Theater of World War II—Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

I never said these destinations were going to be desirable. This nonfiction best-seller—soon to hit movie theaters—will give you the uncomfortable sensation of being circled by sharks while going without food and water for some 40 days. The next leg of the trip with hero Louis Zamperini heads to Japan, where he survives several POW camps and then explores the aftermath of the atomic bomb, before returning home to California.




New England and the High Seas—Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville

The Pequod welcomes you aboard in 19th-century Nantucket, back when the island was home to whalers and not high-society vacationers. The moment you set sail, you’ll realize that Captain Ahab is holding you captive on his quest for revenge. It’s a long, long, long journey, but you won’t soon forget your whale-hunting expedition with Ishmael in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans.




India upon the birth of its independence—Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie

The story of Rushdie’s main character, Saleem, is a story of India. The two are so intertwined (Saleem having been born on the night that India achieved its independence) that, as we learn the personal past of Saleem and his family, we are also getting to know the national history of India. This magical narrative will walk you through births, deaths, battles, and love affairs. And it all ends in a pungent place you might not expect: a pickle factory.


Post–Civil War Spain—The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Readers are so taken with the setting of Zafón’s perennial book club favorite that an actual tour has been added to the back of recent editions. Now, if you go to Barcelona, you can retrace Daniel’s search for mysterious author Julián Carax through the back alleys of Barcelona. It’s a pity that, in real life, we can’t also visit that wonderful labyrinth that lives only in the pages of Zafón’s novel: the fantastic Cemetery of Forgotten Books.










The Judean Desert—Quarantine, by Jim Crace

If you’ve read your Bible but found it hard to imagine Jesus’s 40-day experience in the desert, here is a different sort of account to take you there. You’ll spend time cave-dwelling not only with Jesus—who is very human in Crace’s reinterpretation—but also with some other sojourners who are likewise seeking redemption in the wilderness.



The African Congo—Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

This book is for adventurous souls who don’t mind taking a mysterious journey down the Congo River, deep into the African jungle, to find a man about whom a lot is said but little is known. You’ll come face to face with the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of British imperialism at the turn of the 20th century. And you will, indeed, eventually meet the man called Kurtz, as you try to ascertain the real “heart of darkness.”


10 Banned Books Talk Back

This post ran earlier this week on Book Riot. Thanks, Book Riot, for sharing some Snail love!  


Books that get banned usually find themselves in that predicament because they’ve gone against the grain, struck an openly defiant pose, spoken out about the status quo. So, it’s not too surprising that when we mine the pages of a few oft-banned or challenged titles, we can uncover some pretty choice words for would-be censors. These 10 classic novels, all on the American Library Association’s list of Banned and Challenged Classics, deliver some powerful—and even prophetic—remarks toward the types that seek to silence them.

970917To Kill a Mockingbird quote

Harper Lee’s sensitive study of race relations in the pre–Civil Rights South continues to come under fire for the very issue it probes: race relations. It’s been challenged everywhere from New York to California to Canada. And people have attempted to ban it from schools because they believe it “represents institutionalized racism under the guise of good literature” (Indiana, 1981), “promotes white supremacy” (Tennessee, 2006), and “conflict[s] with the values of the community” (Texas, 1996).


1617071 Grapes of Wrath quote

Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath has the distinction of actually being burned. It happened back in 1939, when  an Illinois public library found fault with its vulgar language. It has since been banned and challenged across the country, including in Missouri, Iowa, and in Kern County, California, near where the novel is set.


11334Song of Solomon quote

Song of Solomon has been removed from required reading lists in Georgia (1994) and from approved text lists in Maryland schools (1998) for passages that are “filthy and inappropriate” and for being considered, on the whole, “filth,” “trash,” and “repulsive.” It’s also been challenged over the past two decades by school systems in Ohio, Florida, and Michigan. Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Beloved has fared even worse.


609037 As I Lay Dying quote

William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying has ruffled feathers for everything from including a masturbation scene to questioning the existence of God. It was banned in Mayfield, Kentucky schools in 1986 for “offensive and obscene passages referring to abortion and us[ing] God’s name in vain.” It’s since been challenged in several other schools around Kentucky and also in Carroll County, Maryland.


5494888 Brave New World quote

Sex, drugs, and suicide are the sources of discontent for those who have tried to ban Huxley’s Brave New World. In 1980, schools in Miller, Missouri, banned the novel from classrooms because, in its pages, promiscuous sex “look[ed] like fun.” Even as recently as 2008, an Idaho school district challenged the book based on its numerous allusions to sex and drugs.


1167532 Lord of the Flies quote

Though William Golding’s Lord of the Flies has been challenged for decades around the country, and in Canada, perhaps the most interesting challenge came from a high school in Owen, North Carolina, which claimed in 1981 that the novel is “demoralizing inasmuch as it implies that man is little more than an animal.” Golding would be pleased with such a critique, because it means they got it.


5107 Catcher in the Rye

Looking at the long list of censor attempts on Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, you might wonder what school system, library, or classroom hasn’t tried to ban the story of Holden Caulfield. Repeatedly targeted for being “obscene” and even “blasphemous,” the novel mostly bothers parents who fear Holden’s language and view of the world might just hit a little too close to home.


1052616 Catch-22 quote

It’s the language, including the word “whores,” that most schools have objected to. Catch-22 was banned repeatedly throughout the 1970s, in Ohio, Texas, and Washington—all school districts that appeared to know much about literature, except how to appreciate it.


529960 Animal Farm quote

In New York circa 1968, Animal Farm was listed as one of a handful of “problem books” because Orwell was considered a communist. Its political perspective has made it subject to challenges in other states as well, from Wisconsin to Florida, and also in the United Arab Emirates and Russia.


819699Gone with the Wind quote

Margaret Mitchell’s bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner has provoked critics primarily for its depiction of slavery and its use of the words “nigger” and “darkie.” It was banned from high school English classrooms in Anaheim, California’s Union school district and also challenged in schools in Waukegan, Illinois.






The Truth about Tweens, as Told by Carson McCullers

The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers

Tweens seem to rule the world these days. They can turn musicians into overnight sensations and average teenagers into international icons. They have a 24/7 lineup of TV shows that celebrate young people’s talent, popularity, and worldliness while bumbling adults revolve around them. They wield smartphones and navigate the ’net with a technological savvy that puts us older folks to shame. Basically, American tweens hold a whole lot of power.

But that doesn’t make the tween experience any easier. Anyone will tell you—12 is quite possibly the hardest age of life, caught as one is between the pleasures of childhood and the responsibilities of being an adult. A tween is too big for the kids’ table yet too immature to dine with the adults. A tween is between.

Carson McCullers capitalizes on that tween angst in her 1946 novel, The Member of the Wedding. Though our world has undergone a sea change since the ’40s, the emotional landscape of being a tween has not. McCullers takes us inside the skull of 12-year-old Frankie Addams, where the feelings we find—isolation, boredom, awkwardness, pain, fear—are all too familiar.

Like so many her age, Frankie is prone to exaggeration when it comes to what she feels. She distorts her appearance: “This summer she was grown so tall that she was almost a big freak, and her shoulders were narrow, her legs too long.” Her boredom mushrooms into erratic behavior and violent thoughts: “She would do anything that suddenly occurred to her—but whatever she did was always wrong, and not at all what she had wanted. Then, having done these wrong and silly things, she would stand, sickened and empty, in the kitchen door and say: ‘I just wish I could tear down this whole town.'” And her confusion turns into self-loathing: “This was the summer when Frankie was sick and tired of being Frankie. She hated herself, and had become a loafer and a big no-good who hung around the summer kitchen: dirty and greedy and mean and sad.”

For all their dramatic overstatement, Frankie’s feelings are no less real. As she reminds us, navigating the treacherous territory of the preteen experience can be painful, bewildering, and downright frightening at times. And it can be, more than anything, lonely. Loneliness is at the heart of McCullers’s thoughtful novel and her sensitive tween heroine. Frankie feels left out of pretty much everything in life: “This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world.”

It doesn’t help that the world around her is in a between state of being. The late August season means summer has come to an end, before fall has really taken hold. Being out of school also leaves Frankie feeling unmoored. And the everpresent shadow of World War II hangs over them all, having divided nations and fractured families and communities whose men have gone overseas to fight.

But Frankie’s sense of exclusion comes primarily from her tween condition. Her age puts her between childhood and adulthood, too old to continue carefree play with her 6-year-old cousin, John Henry, but too young to be invited to join the neighborhood club of teenage girls. Her father has recently said she has to move out of his bed at night, yet she still longs to sleep by his side. Searching for somewhere to belong, she changes her name to F. Jasmine, then Frances, and she wanders her small southern town, exploring areas previously forbidden and unknown: the jail, The Blue Moon bar, the black community of Sugartown.

Amid all this uncertainty, Frankie’s brother, Jarvis, brings a glimmer of hope when he comes home to get married. Frankie immediately latches on to the alluring couple. “‘They were the two prettiest people I ever saw. . . . I bet they have a good time every minute of the day,'” she dreams. Jarvis and Janice’s wedding gives Frankie purpose and, with it, hope for a new future: “For when the old question came to her—the who she was and what she would be in the world, and why she was standing there that minute—when the old question came to her, she did not feel hurt and unanswered. At last she knew just who she was and understood where she was going. She loved her brother and the bride and she was a member of the wedding. The three of them would go into the world and they would always be together.”

It doesn’t require a lot of insight to guess that Frankie’s dream of living happily ever after with them gets dashed. In fact, it’s such a foregone conclusion that McCullers spends very little ink on it. The majority of the novel concentrates instead on the fantasies that Frankie spins in the day or two leading up to the wedding. This is too brief a period for Frankie to reach any true understanding or develop a sense of self, though somehow we know that will come. Most 12-year-olds do emerge from that painful transitional period, with some sort of identity intact.

In the end, the tiny window we get into this particular preteen’s world proves both reassuring and unsettling at the same time, because, while things in part resolve, they also remain the same. World War II will end, though new wars rage on around the globe. Civil rights will mend the black-white split of this southern town, while racism remains a strong undercurrent in our country. And McCullers’s Frankie Addams will grow out of her difficult tween stage of life, yet other kids like her still suffer through it every single day.

What Is a CLASSIC? Or, Opening a Canonical Can of Worms

Like the saying goes – there is no going back now

Here I go. I’m opening a colossal can of worms, and I know it. It’s time to take on the CLASSICS.

As a good literary grad student in my day, I am well aware of what I’m getting into. I was a willing participant in all the usual tradition-overturning theories: There is no God (thanks mainly to Nietszche), the author is dead (thanks to Barthes and Foucault), individual subjects do not exist (thanks to Marx), language has no inherent meaning (thanks to Derrida), and we should never, ever call a book a “CLASSIC” (thanks to the entire literary academy).

The idea of CLASSIC lit, as we learn in the halls of academia, is simply a construct. It’s a myth that’s been created and perpetuated by those in positions of power. Sorry, Western white men, but that would be you.

Talking about CLASSICS brings up the complicated debate about the literary canon. Even if that’s a term you don’t use every day, you’re all too familiar with the canon itself. Often called the Western Canon with a capital “C,” it’s the collection of works believed to be worth reading, studying, and talking about. It’s the body of literature, philosophy, music, and art that many of us study in school or are told we should study in order to become educated, enlightened citizens of the planet. The canon is the reason that, say, Charlotte Bronte’s works are still widely read, while those of Dollie Radford are not. Who is Dollie Radford? Exactly.

But who makes up the canon? And who decides what is a CLASSIC? The past fifty years have seen an all-out canon war in the academy, where scholars and teachers are working hard to expand the canon well beyond its original Western boundaries. Thanks to their efforts, today’s American lit syllabus might have students reading Charles Johnson’s slave narrative Middle Passage alongside Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn; Erica Jong’s feminist novel Fear of Flying beside Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself; Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir of her Chinese-American upbringing, The Woman Warrior, along with Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

That open-door policy has done the humanities—and humanity in general—a world of good. But it can create angst when you try to call something CLASSIC literature.

While I wouldn’t dare whisper “CLASSIC” near the English department on any college campus, I’m ready to wield it out here in the real world. Simply put, CLASSIC is a useful little word. No other literary label communicates so much in so few letters, functioning as both adjective and noun and conjuring up the whole history of the written word in a single stroke. Indeed, it’s impossible to agree on a definition of a CLASSIC. Maybe it’s a text that has stood the test of time. Or perhaps it’s a book or poem that conveys some universal truth. Some might say that a CLASSIC has to teach something. Or, even better, in the words of Italo Calvino, who wrote one of the best essays on the subject (“Why Read the Classics?” [1986]), a CLASSIC is a CLASSIC because it “does not necessarily teach us anything we did not know before.”

No matter what definition you prefer, it’s important to remember that the CLASSICS label is subject to personal opinion, academic debate, and political power struggles. It’s an ever-changing designation determined by readers, professors, publishers, and booksellers. It is, in short, a canonical can of worms.

Yet you’re going to see CLASSICS crop up more on The Snail in the future. This isn’t meant to be some kind of reading regimen or self-improvement strategy, like adding more fiber to your diet or incorporating weight training into your walking routine. Rather, the CLASSICS are simply an unlimited supply of great reading, there for the taking. Get ready—our CLASSICS can of worms is open for business.

I’d love to know a few of your favorite CLASSICS or some CLASSICS you’ve been wanting to read. Please mention a title or two in the comments below.

The Power of the Red Pen: A Novel That Gives Editors Their Due

The Snail has been quiet as of late. Summer has had something to do with it, as you might expect. On a hot July day, a novel by the pool proves much more tempting than a computer keyboard and a blank screen. Can you blame me? But, since I also work as a freelance editor, The Snail on the Wall sometimes has to take a backseat to editing projects, which come with deadlines and paying clients. So, by way of explaining my seeming neglect for The Snail, today’s post celebrates the eminence of the editor, the power of the proofreader.


The History of the Siege of Lisbon, by literary Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, does more than give editing a face and name; it gives editors authority over the world. If we so dare, with a bit of ink here and a smudge of an eraser there, we can rewrite history, change the course of events, blot out all the world’s problems.

“If proof-readers were given their freedom and did not have their hands and feet tied by a mass of prohibitions more binding than the penal code, they would soon transform the face of world, establish the kingdom of universal happiness, giving drink to the thirsty, food to the famished, peace to those who live in turmoil, joy to the sorrowful, companionship to the solitary, hope to those who have lost it, not to mention the rapid disappearance of poverty and crime, for they would be able to do all these things simply by changing the words . . . this is precisely how the world and man came to be made, with words, some rather than others, . . . Let it be done, said God, and it was done immediately.”

Can I get an “amen” from editors everywhere?

Saramago’s unlikely hero, proofreader Raimundo Silva, helps this novel’s plot unfold with a very simple act: he inserts the word “Not” in a soon-to-be-published manuscript. He’s working on a history text, an account of Portuguese King Alphonso taking back the city of Lisbon from the Moors who have occupied it. When the proofreader gets to the Crusaders’ statement that they “will help the Portuguese to capture Lisbon,” he makes a bold, subversive decision to insert the word “Not”: “the crusaders will Not help the Portuguese to conquer Lisbon.” And, with that one little word, the whole of European history is altered, as is the course of Silva’s own life. He becomes a major player in the political development of his home city, and also a romantic hero in a seductive love story involving his publishing-house boss.

Both playful and serious, The History of the Siege of Lisbon brings into focus all kinds of blurred lines: between past and present, Christians and Muslims, author and character, fact and fiction. And, most important, it fires the imagination of editors like me, who love the idea that the red pen might be mightier than the sword.