(Author of Thirteen Ways of
Looking at the Novel)
My favorite escape is in three linked novels by Nancy Mitford: The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate and Don't Tell Alfred. The first two take place before World War II, the third during the Cold War. All are worldly, humane and just a tad scandalous. Wit sometimes doesn't last, but Mitford's does. The reader gets to laugh at and revel in the contrasts between the English and the French; Mitford was fond and skeptical of both. These books are a lesson in how to be truly funny and irreverent, no matter how dark geopolitical events may look.
(Author of The Master)
Francisco Goldman's The Divine Husband is a novel you can lose yourself in. This intricate, fluent and engaging story, set in 19th-century Central America and New York, tells the story of Maria de las Nieves, who, in an astonishing opening section, is portrayed as a young novice in a convent. Goldman writes well about the strangeness of convent life, the rules, the rituals. And then, once Maria is freed, he opens the story out into political and sexual intrigue, with many minor characters drawn with the same skill as the subplots and accounts of trade and domestic life. In the later sections of the book, he takes his characters to New York, by which time we have come to love them and care deeply about their fates.
(Author of Making It Up )
Barry Lopez has been called "America's foremost poet-naturalist," and, for me, his Arctic Dreams is the ultimate vicarious travel experience. I shall never get to the Arctic, but, thanks to Lopez's emotive prose, I can imagine the icebergs the size of cathedrals, the campsites of Eskimos who died 15,000 years ago, the endless plains where snow geese rise like twists of smoke, a polar bear's ivory-white head gliding in glassy black water, herds of beluga whales under sheets of young ice. Lopez is erudite, brimming with enthusiasm, occasionally anthropomorphic. He is given to bowing in respect to birds and seals, as he carries the reader with him into this strange and wonderful environment. Arctic Dreams won the National Book Award in 1986 and has had many readers, but for those who have missed it, get hold of it at once.
(Author of I Am Charlotte Simmons)
Almost anything by Carl Hiaasen, but if I had to pick one: Strip Tease. Come to think of it, in terms of a recent major care of the world, Stormy Weather is right up there, too. It offers the best picture in our literature of what a Category 4 hurricane is like to those who have, in the current phrase, "refused to evacuate." Hiaasen's genius -- and he is a genius -- is not to avoid the cares of the world but to reduce them to their truly ridiculous inner cores. His work is always current and topical. Our escapee will be so thoroughly dissolved in laughter that he will think of the real world as a pool in which he can float on his back drinking sidecars and Tom Collinses and peering at an ever-blue sky through Oliver Peoples sunglasses and layers of 30-level sun block.
(Author of The Penelopiad)
A book for a friend craving escape from the cares of the world? In a shameless act of cronyism, I will recommend The Bedside Book of Birds, by Graeme Gibson -- despite the fact that he's been my dear companion for 32 years -- because it fills the bill perfectly. Your friend will be freed from those cares of the world in an instant, on wings of song and with the aid of 180 stunning images of bird-related artworks that Graeme collected from many times and places. The world your friend will escape into is the world of birds, but not just that -- it's the world of humankind's imagining of birds. This miscellany -- poems, bits of novels, myths, recipes and more -- covers the whole range. By the time your friend gets to the last chapter, the one about Hope, that friend will be out of this world.
(Author of The Pursuit of Alice Thrift)
"Carol Shields" is my answer to almost any question containing the word "favorite" or "best." "The Stone Diaries?" I prompt if the response lacks affect. "Pulitzer Prize? National Book Critics Circle Award? Short-listed for the Booker?" When I'm rewarded with a properly appreciative response, I add, "My favorite is The Republic of Love, the novel that preceded the one that put her on the map." Set in Winnipeg, it tells the story of the thrice-divorced Tom Avery, a radio deejay who meets a 35-year-old high-achieving folklorist who studies mermaid legends. A touching, elegantly funny, delicious novel.
(Author of Cloud Atlas)
For all I know, Joseph Mitchell (no relation, alas) is a household name in America, but none of the British friends to whom I've given his prose collection Up in the Old Hotel had heard of him. Ten pages in, mind, and they are as hooked as I was. His reportage on the lives and locales of New York and farther afield, from the 1930s through the 1970s, fills and obscures the room in which the reader sifts through this box of glorious loot. What's inside? Eccentrics, the bars they haunt, the Hudson and its watermen, the city's all-night workers, its rats and rat-catchers, the history of its oysters, criminals, regular guys, hookers and pimps, blackguards and bores. Mitchell's ability to reproduce the language of his subjects is supernatural, and his sense of humor is unscratchably, Twainishly ticklish.
(Author of The Interruption of Everything)
I'm not interested in escaping anything, but I'm grateful when I can read something that offers insight into how to handle difficulties that can blow one into emotional orbit. For me, that book would be The Real Meaning of Life, edited by David Seaman, which is full of gems by real people -- not philosophers or self-help gurus or therapists -- who think there are indeed solutions to our problems. I purchased this book because I thought it was satire, but it helped me understand that my problems are smaller than I thought and re-reminded me of all that I have to be grateful for. Who wants to escape that?
(Author of the forthcoming Queen of the Underworld)
To a friend craving escape and at the same time longing for a shapelier perspective on our contemporary muddles, I would give Isak Dinesen's Winter's Tales. It was the author's own favorite collection, written while she was literally under siege in German-occupied Denmark. She wrote in English, choosing to set her stories in 19th-century Europe "to give herself distance and freedom." Fate, honor, love matches, grace under pressure and imminent death, the eternally repetitive human foibles, the pleasures of masks and disguises, the importance of dreaming and storytelling: These wise tales of somber beauty respond luminously to the concerns of any era.
(Author of Gilead)
Every time I receive a request for this sort of recommendation, I am startled by the eccentricity of my tastes. At present, I am reading (slowly) Calvin's Treatise on Relics, in his 16th-century French. That's fairly typical -- I seem never to read for escape in the way other people do. I do read for pleasure, but it is the arcane that pleases me best. People who know me well stopped asking for my recommendations years ago.
(Author of The Franklin Affair)
The Winter Queen, by Boris Akunin, is a Russian novel that falls into the category of serious fiction, but it's also a fun mystery story. The hero is an unusual detective named Erast Fandorin, who is young, brilliant and most unlikely. The setting is Moscow and St. Petersburg, with a little London thrown in. The time is the 1870s. The story begins with what appears to be a simple suicide, but of course appearances are always just appearances. Akunin is the pen name of the Moscow writer Grigory Chkhartishvili. He has written 11 Fandorin mysteries, but only three have been translated into English. I can hardly wait for the next eight to come our way.
(Author of the forthcoming You're Wearing That?)
Alice Mattison's In Case We're Separated is my idea of self-indulgent escape: fiction that provides the fascination of details and complexities of everyday lives, the excitement of seeing evanescent encounters held still in words, the musical beauty of the words themselves. Here's an example: "When Lou is upset his sentences get longer and longer around a repeated unpleasant word. 'Idiot? Who's calling you an idiot? What do you mean, treat you like an idiot?' " Recognizing the verbal tic and the repetitions that can give talk the lilt of poetry, I laughed out loud. Before your very eyes unfold the sudden shifts in mood by which we negotiate relationships. For me, fiction that makes a thrilling display of mundane experience is the best escape.
JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER
(Author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close)
I don't think I've ever read a book that helped me escape the cares of the world, but here's a suggestion for someone looking for something that has nothing, explicitly, to do with life as most of us know it (unless you're a Soviet cosmonaut): Victor Pelevin's Omon Ra. I recently reread it and liked it even more the second time. It's about a young man who enters the Soviet space program with dreams, handed down to him by his father, of landing on the moon. And in a perverted sense, he does just that. But along the way, there's incredible and incredibly dark comedy. It's rare to find a book that is at once infuriatingly political, deeply existential, laugh-out-loud funny and page-turningly suspenseful. Especially one written in the last 50 years.
(The author of Little Children)
Whenever I go on vacation, I try to bring along one "serious" book and one of the Jeeves and Wooster books by P.G. Wodehouse. The chronicles of a fatuous, good-hearted, dissolute and comically verbose British aristocrat who is rescued from a myriad outrageous, profoundly inconsequential jams by his long-suffering butler -- "a gentleman's gentleman" in every way superior to the gentleman he serves -- Wodehouse's novels and stories aren't just great literary fun. For the contemporary American reader -- for whom the old-school British upper class, with its unforgiving social hierarchies, goofy hyphenated names (Gussie Fink-Nottle) and puzzling codes of conduct, is already deeply alien and shrouded in the mists of history -- Wodehouse's playful subversion of this lost world amounts to the purest escapism, a frothy utopian fantasy.