A flatlay of the recommended books

Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin

Books are hand-held rabbit holes. The imagination propels us into them and we fall down into marvellous other worlds. Literature allows us to experience what other people experience, in other times and other places. I love this mode of armchair transport  and I also love being where books are actually set, encountering real-world locations that are already strangely familiar. Visiting a literary landscape is an extraordinary experience: the physical topography is overlaid with imagined characters and events, heightening the lived experience of the place and enhancing the memory of reading the book.

With On the Road with Penguin Classics, our new podcast that brings these literary landscapes to life, I travel to a different location with a different guest to discuss a great work of literature. We explore the ways in which authors have drawn on  and transformed  the real world. I visit the coast of Cumbria with the actress Olivia Vinall to discuss The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, I make a Canterbury Tales pilgrimage with the poet Patience Agbabi, I digress around Tristram Shandy with the screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce and I explore George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss with the novelist Louis de Bernières. It has been a delight to put these episodes together.

For now, the episodes in Series One have all been recorded within the UK, but here is a selection of some of my favourite novels that transport readers to far-flung locations around the globe. All of these are on my post-lockdown bucket list...

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe

Abe was born in Tokyo, but grew up on the edge of a Chinese swamp, collecting insects and reading Kafka. He sold homemade pickles to fund a medical degree, but then decided to become a writer instead. His 1962 masterpiece, The Woman in the Dunes, is set amid the sinister, shifting Tottori sands, northwest of Kyoto in Japan, an otherworldly landscape, halfway between sea and solid ground. When an amateur entomologist misses the last bus home after a beetle-hunting trip he seeks shelter for the night in a strange village. The houses are half-buried by sand and only accessible by rope ladder; in the morning he discovers that his ladder has disappeared. Abe’s wife, the artist Machi Yamada, illustrated this unsettling thriller and the Japanese New Wave film adaptation by Hiroshi Teshigahara was nominated for two Oscars.

Babette’s Feast by Karen Blixen

Karen Dinesen grew up in the countryside north of Copenhagen on her aristocratic family’s estate. She began writing stories under the pseudonym ‘Osceola’, the name of her father’s dog, and later as ‘Isak Dinesen’. She is best remembered for Out of Africa, an account of her life in Kenya where she managed a coffee plantation with her husband (and cousin) Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke. After their marriage failed and the coffee market collapsed, Baroness Blixen returned to Denmark. Her exquisite short story ‘Babette’s Feast’ (1958) is set on the bleak, windswept Baltic coast of Jutland during the 19th century. A French refugee, Babette is sheltered by a pair of devout spinster sisters and works as their cook with life-changing results. The 1987 adaptation by Gabriel Axel won the Oscar for Best Film in a Foreign Language.

Liveforever by Andrés Caicedo

Luis Andrés Caicedo Estela lived his whole life in Cali, Colombia, the ‘World Capital of Salsa’. As a precocious teenager he acted with the Teatro Experimental de Cali, founded the Cineclub de Cali and launched a film magazine, Ojo al cine. He began writing short stories at the age of 13 and by 15 he had penned several award-winning plays. His only novel, Liveforever (1977), is a musical, hallucinogenic odyssey through the streets of Cali. María del Carmen Huerta, a respectable teenage girl, drops out of high school to pursue a passion for dancing. She encounters car park rumbas, the King of Salsa’s last performance and a hedonistic whirl of seventies counter-culture in her urban quest for meaning. Tragically, on the same afternoon Caicedo received the first printed copy of Liveforever, he took an overdose of secobarbital and died at the age of 25.

Potiki by Patricia Grace

Grace is a Māori writer, descended from the Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Raukawa and Te Āti Awa peoples. She lives in Plimmerton on North Island in New Zealand, on her ancestral lands, close to the marae, or sacred meeting house, at Hongoeka Bay. She is best known for her lyrical novel Potiki (1986), which describes the life of a coastal Māori community, a life of tradition and family ties and an intimate connection with the sea and the land. When ‘the dollarman’ and his band of developers arrive, however, the community must work together to protect their ancient way of life. Grace interweaves myths, memories and Māori vocabulary in this gentle but devastating portrait of worlds colliding. In 2008 she won the Neustadt International Prize.

Search Sweet Country by Kojo Laing

Laing was born in Ghana and studied in Glasgow. He returned to Accra and worked as a teacher before starting to write poetry. He published his first novel Search Sweet Country in 1986, a sprawling recreation of Accra in the Seventies: its streets, marketplaces and crowded houses, its idealistic professors, corrupt politicians, horse smugglers, witches, students and healers, all of whom speak in Ghanaian Pidgin English. Laing includes a glossary of words such as akpeteshie (locally distilled gin), fikifiki (sex), koko (porridge) and zagazogo (wild man). The plot is non-existent and the atmosphere is chaotic, comic and dream-like. The Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina called it "the finest novel written in English ever to come out of the African continent".

The Golden Apples by Eudora Welty

Welty was born in Jackson, Mississippi, and lived there her entire life. During the Great Depression she found a government job travelling around the state taking photographs, conducting interviews and documenting daily life in Mississippi. This led to her writing short stories and in 1973 she won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Optimist’s Daughter. Her masterpiece is The Golden Apples (1949), a cycle of seven interrelated stories set in the fictional town of Morgana, Mississippi, where myths and mirages walk among piano teachers, cuckolded husbands and bedbound invalids. "I doubt that a better book about 'the South' – one that more completely gets the feel of the particular texture of Southern life and its special tone and pattern – has ever been written,’ ran the review in the New Yorker.

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