Talk about being bitten by the listmania bug. I immediately decided that I have to make my own list… only to conclude a hundred titles later that I have to rethink my approach. So ten books that – quite literally – transported me to another time, into somebody else’s life or to a place far away…
In no way is this an exhaustive list of books that transport you – to begin with the postman has just delivered a book for me that I am one hundred percent sure would belong on this list, and I’ve only flipped through the pages so far! – but I can always write another list later! 🙂
Unbroken: The Story of a Submarine by Alastair Mars
Anybody who has seen the film Das Boot can imagine how this one goes.
It’s the true story of HMS Unbroken, a British submarine in WWII in the Mediterranean, written by the man who commanded her in 1942. Although it’s not a novel, Mars can write sufficiently well to make it read like one in places; and from the blind run through a minefield en route to Malta through the torpedo that went haywire to the mistaken attack on the mercy ship during which mercifully every weapon on board failed, Mars makes you live through his moments of mind-numbing terror or acute embarrassment.
If you want more, carry on with HMS Ulysses by Alistair MacLean – the harrowing story of a ship on the Arctic convoy.
84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
Just letters exchanged over the course of twenty years between a second hand bookshop and a reader in New York… a book that raises the age-old ‘epistolatory novel’ to a whole new level. From dry and factual business transaction the letters evolve into discussing literature and offering an insight into the minds and lives of the two correspondents as a friendship develops between the reader and the clerk who fulfils her book orders. Welcome to post-war London still living on powdered eggs. I learned how to make Yorkshire pudding from this book…
At the end of the 19th century, three young men consider themselves overworked and conclude they need a holiday. They hire a Thames skiff and go rowing (and camping) up-river, together with the dog Montmorency… but did they remember to pack the tin-opener? A cross between a travel guide to the Thames and a hilarious look at life, this book made me want to hire a boat and row up the Thames myself. (In fact, I will!)
English readers are in luck with this book because the edition by Penguin Classics got its length just right. In the original Spanish you have the choice between the 800-page long full version with some desperately tedious bits or a 150-page super-cut that leaves out so much the book loses its flavour.
Written by one of Hernán Cortes’ foot soldiers this book is the eye-witness account of the conquest of Mexico: Díaz saw the blood-smeared walls of the temple on the Island of Sacrifices, assisted Cortes in burning the ships at Vera Cruz, walked through the streets of Tenochtitlán, met Montezuma face to face and survived the harrowing Noche Triste, the “Sad Night” when Cortes and his men fled from the Aztecs for their lives. Admittedly, Díaz wasn’t a particularly gifted writer. But with the story he had to tell, he didn’t have to be.
If you can speak Spanish and want a short story on the same lines, I also warmly recommend Ojos azules by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.
The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers
A cat-and-mouse game among the sandbanks of the Frisian Islands – a pre-first-world-war espionage story in which two Englishmen on a small sailing boat stumble upon the German preparations for the invasion of England. Wonderfully evocative of the place and the time, an absolute classic.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
I don’t think this one needs an explanation!… Surely?
The veteran soldier Alatriste is down on his luck and is surviving as a paid assassin in the Madrid of the “Golden Century” (17th century). Intrigue and cloak-and-dagger adventure (literally) under the sinister shadow of the Inquisition in a city teeming with larger-than-life characters, like Alatriste’s friend, the poet Francisco de Quevedo or the playwright Lope de Vega. The capital of the Spanish Empire at the height of its power – although the signs of decline are already visible for the discerning eye.
Pérez-Reverte wrote several more stories about Captain Alatriste, and the series have been turned into a beautifully shot, atmospheric film.
Tlaloc Weeps for Mexico by László Passuth
At the risk of being accused of an obsession with the conquest of Mexico, here’s another on the subject, and I swear it’s here purely due to its power to transport you into another world: it just so happens that that world is Mexico in the time of Montezuma and Cortes again.
One of the few Hungarian books translated into several languages (a very obscure language, Hungarian), this book won awards both in Spain and Mexico for its even-handed treatment of the violent and tragic collision of the two civilisations. Lyrically retold, with real understanding for the people on both sides, in a language rich and ornamental like a Baroque cathedral (at least in the original). If you can’t stomach 16th century non-fiction from Bernal Díaz, or if you want a more balanced view, read this one.
Christ Recrucified by Nikos Kazantzakis
The inhabitants of a Greek village under Turkish occupation prepare for re-enacting the Passion of Christ, with unforeseen consequences. There’s more to the plot than this, obviously, but there’s no point in giving it all away! Kazantzakis’ insight into the human character and his skill at description make both the villagers and the location quite simply unforgettable. Powerfully written.
Written by the best friend of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (the friend to whom he dedicated The Little Prince) and smuggled out of war-torn France by him, this is a first-hand account of the collapse of France in World War II as seen by one of the civilians flying Paris. Werth hasn’t got the talent of Saint-Exupéry (in fact the best writing in the book is easily Saint-Exupéry’s foreword) but, like Díaz, he has a story to tell. In me it evoke powerful memories of my grandmother talking about living through the German and the Russian invasion in World War II; if you haven’t had a grandmother who could tell you what it’s like to be under foreign occupation, this is very well worth the reading.