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Armchair Traveler: 8 Great Summer Reads for the Escapist in All of Us

Armchair Traveler: 8 Great Summer Reads for the Escapist in All of Us

It’s summer, which means there’s time to lie on the beach, swing on the porch, dangle your feet in the river, or kick back on the roof of your building, and do the single most delicious thing: READ. Summer is made for reading — especially if you're able to take a vacation — and every year publishers put out plenty of goodies to tempt. But even if you're stuck at home, a good book can have us dreaming about travel. Here are some of our favorites, both new releases and classics, that transport us, even when we can't get physically away.

One Summer America 1927 by Bill Bryson

(Photo: Anchor Books)

"One Summer: America, 1927," by Bill Bryson

My favorite new book this summer, Bill Bryson’s account of 1927 from May to October reveals an America obsessed with sensation at a time when tabloids were the hot new media, hungry for blood. The times were populated with the famous and craven, the brave, the corrupt, and the fabulously rich. Prohibition gave us gangsters and illegal drinking dens, jazz the beat to go with it. It was a summer when apocalyptic rains fell, the Mississippi overran the levees, and thousands died; the stock market soared; and people danced themselves half to death — all of it heading, by 1929, for a terrifying crash.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub book cover

(Photo: Riverhead Books)

"The Vacationers," by Emma Straub

This light summer read takes an old premise — a group of people, friends and family, holidaying together, in this case in a house on Majorca. What ties them together thematically is that they all have secrets. And each character behaves with some quite mild duplicity that seems enormous at the moment. The point of view switches from the parents to the children, from the friends to the occasional Spaniard. There are pretty descriptions of the island and a strong sense of the way time moves too fast and too slowly on these island vacations, where you’re disconnected from reality and trapped together by it.

Related: Armchair Traveler: 5 Books that Define Brazil

What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman book cover

(Photo: Three Rivers Press)

"What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding: A Memoir," by Kristin Newman

A memoir of travel and romance — and sex — by a witty TV writer, this is a funny breezy read for the beach or the plane. Newman relates how, while her pals were all marrying and breeding, she could not bear to part with her singlehood. And who can blame her? She traveled from Alaska to Russia; she met some exotic characters, not to mention a lot of tasty guys. There’s a surprise ending — I won’t ruin it for you — and Newman has a peppy, sure-footed style, with a sense of self and a passionate curiosity, the most important thing any traveler can have.   

California by Edan Lepucki book cover

(Photo: Little, Brown and Company)

"California," by Edan Lepucki

This is a terrific and terrifying dystopian novel about a young couple stranded in the wilderness after Los Angeles has been destroyed. The postapocalyptic world makes the world of “The Hunger Games” seem like child’s play. There is no going back.

Factory Man by Beth Macy book cover

(Photo: Little, Brown and Company)

"Factory Man," by Beth Macy

The story of a Virginia furniture company, the family who owned it, the way it owned the town and the workers, and what happened when cheap imports threatened it all, with only one incredible character to fight back. It’s an important tale of American industry and a way of life, but it reads like a great novel.

Firefly Summer by Maeve Binchy book cover

(Photo: Bantam Dell)

And a few of my all-time favorites:

"Firefly Summer," by Maeve Binchy

One of Ireland’s most entertaining and moving writers, Binchy tells the tale of a small town where children play all the long hot summers in the gilded Irish countryside, until an Irish American shows up with certain dreams for the place and the money to make them happen.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel book cover

(Photo: Picador)

"Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel

If you can’t get away this summer, do what I did last year: escape into Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall.” If the first pages are a bit hard going, once you’re in, you’ll be hooked on this tale of Thomas Cromwell, a poor boy made good who is the advisor to Henry VIII in the early 1500s, the time he was courting Anne Boleyn. Mantel literally tips you over into another world. It has everything: characters; sense of place; detail down to the cut of a courtier’s sleeve. I finished 650 pages, desperate for more. Luckily, the sequel "Bring Up in the Bodies" is in print, and a third volume is due out next year. (Two plays are on in London, as well, and a series is due out soon from the BBC.)

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway book cover

(Photo: Scribner)

"A Farewell to Arms," by Ernest Hemingway

Possibly Hemingway’s greatest love story is set in Italy, much of it in summer, in a glorious landscape interrupted by war and death. It’s a reminder of what great writing is, no extraneous adjectives or metaphors, no flabby prose or clichés: “In the late summer of that year, we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees.”

Reggie Nadelson writes about travel, fashion, and culture for Travel + Leisure and Conde Nast Traveller UK. She also contributes radio pieces to the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent and is the author of the Artie Cohen crime novels.

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