The Literary Salon – Travel Books

If you’re not fortunate enough to get away for a vacation this year, what better activity than to curl up with a travel book and listen to the March winds howl, (like a lion the same way they came in).    Last year I wandered into the travel section at and never left.   There are so many wonderful travel books available, it’s difficult to narrow it down to just a few, but here are some of my personal favorites.    (Warning: travel memoirs can be equal parts enjoyable and annoying.   There can be a fine line between reading about someone’s wonderful experiences in a sunnier place, especially when you are still in the dull dreary dregs of winter, and resenting the hell out them.    But remember there can be comfort in staying home too…see The Golden Age of Travel post).      

The Pioneer

Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim, was published in 1923, and could be called the first travel memoir of it’s kind.   Set in Italy, I profiled it in a blog last year – see link   How could a book with a captivating opening sentence like this, not be good.    

“To those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine.  Small medieval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain.  Z, Box 1000, The Times.”

The King and Queen  

A Year in Provence (1989) by Peter Mayle was the first travel memoir I read, and I found it LOL funny.   He went on to write a whole series of memoirs  (read) and a few novels (not read), about Provence.   He made Provence so famous that at one time he moved to Long Island to get away from all the publicity.   He died last year, shortly after his last Provence book was published, My Twenty-Five Years in Provence – Reflections on Then and Now, (read) which is a summary of his life there.   

If Peter Mayle is the King, then Frances Mayes, of Under the Tuscan Sun fame, is the Queen, and she made Tuscany a very popular place to visit.   It’s been 25 years since her bestselling book, and she has written wrote four or five more travel books, (read) and has a new one coming out this year See You in the Piazza – New Places to Discover in Italy.  (on order)  She also wrote a novel, Women in Sunlight, last year, which I found so unreadable that I can not recommend it.   I’m still not sure how a novel about four women who travel to Italy can miss, but it did.   Travel memoirs are definitely her forte.   

My Personal Favorite

Susan Branch is my personal favorite of all the travel writers.    For those who think of her as just The Heart of the Home cookbook author, did you know that after she lost her publishing contract with Little and Brown in 2009, she started self-publishing and now has a trilogy of marvelous illustrated journals, with a fourth on the way next year about England, Ireland and Wales.   Her first, Martha’s Vineyard, Isle of Dreams, is about her move from CA to Martha’s Vineyard in the 80’s after a divorce, which I enjoyed as that is a part of the world I would love to visit.  (Her second is about growing up in the 60’s and 70’s and is not really a travel book, but more a memoir of her youth).  

A Fine Romance:  Falling in Love with the English CountrysideA Fine Romance: Falling in Love with the English Countryside by Susan Branch

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Her third, A Fine Romance, is about her trip to England and is full of photos and watercolor illustrations, of such sites as Beatrix Potter’s farm in the Lake District and the Jane Austen House in Chawton. 

Susan Branch book

Susan Branch book

I find her monthly newsletters inspiring, and you can check out her books and order them from her website.    I wish she would venture into France and Italy.   

A Paris Year - Janice MacLeod

A Paris Year – Janice MacLeod

All About Paris

One of my favorite books about Paris, is Janice McLeod’s, A Paris Year, which I profiled last year in a blog titled, April in Paris – Part Two  A watercolor artist, her journal is illustrated with her own artwork, and is a quirky and whimsical look at her day to day life in Paris.  

A Paris Year - Janice MacLeod

A Paris Year – Janice MacLeod

Italy Revisited

Marlena de Blasi has written three memoirs about Italy – A Thousand Days in Venice, A Thousand Days in Tuscany and The Lady in the Palazzo – At Home in Umbria, which was my favorite of the three.    Her books are well-written and  often poetic, but sometimes irritating with respect to her ex-pat mentality and whining about their failure to fit into a foreign culture.   So if you want to read about someone who makes an impulsive decision to buy a run down palazzo and then complains about how long it takes to renovate it, then this book is for you.    So much of appreciating a travel memoir is based on finding the essayist appealing, still it’s an interesting if illogical journey.  

My Current Read

Elizabeth Bard wrote Lunch in Paris – A Love Story with Recipes, about her  move to Paris and subsequent marriage to a Parisian, which was good, even if I wasn’t much interested in the cooking part, (there are recipes at the end of each chapter).    But I am really liking her second book, Picnic in Provence – a Memoir with Recipes, about their move to a small village in Provence, with their young son.   The writing is honest and real and so well done, that it’s easy to overlook the fact that she has a wee bit of a privileged princess attitude.  

Le Road Trip book

My Latest Discovery

My latest discovery is Vivian Swift, another watercolor artist, found while browsing the bookoutlet website.  (I feel like I’m regressing to my childhood with all these picture books!)    Le Road Trip – A Traveler’s Journal of Love and France is a self-illustrated memoir of her fun and whimsical jaunt through France on her honeymoon.

Le Road Trip Book

 Her latest book (2015) entitled, When Wanderers Cease to Roam – A Traveler’s Journal of Staying Put  details the pleasures of finding a place to call home (Long Island Sound) after 23 years of wandering – because sometimes there’s nothing nicer than staying home and reading about travel!    

As you can see, my tastes run to England, France and Italy.   But there’s a whole wide world out there.  What is your favorite travel book?


April in Paris – Part Two

Paris – the City of Love.  How many romantic movies begin and end there, complete with visions of strolling along the Seine beneath the chestnut trees with your amour.  Continuing our Parisian theme (see April in Paris – Part One) with some bibliotherapy for the Francophile may I present a book that is simply enchante.     A Paris Year – by Janice MacLeod      (My Good-reads review below)

A Paris Year: My Day-to-Day Adventures in the Most Romantic City in the WorldA Paris Year: My Day-to-Day Adventures in the Most Romantic City in the World by Janice Macleod

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Janice MacLeod’s first book, Paris Letters, chronicled her Paris adventures after she quit her job, sold everything she owned and moved to the City of Light.   This sequel, A Paris Year, is more like a personal journal of her year there, full of photos and illustrations, (she is a watercolor artist).   The cover alone is gorgeous, and the pages are a visual treat.  While there, she acquired a French husband who just nodded when she told him she was making a pretty book about Paris, and that’s exactly what it is. Should be required reading for anyone contemplating a trip to Paris, so they know what to expect, and for the rest of us who only dream.  A charming, thoroughly enjoyable book.

I noticed this book in the bookstore because of it’s beautiful cover, (one of the author’s watercolor paintings),

A Paris Year - Janice MacLeod
A Paris Year – Janice MacLeod

but at $35 Cdn plus tax, decided to order it through the library instead, but I enjoyed it so much I bought it.  Although I had read her earlier book Paris Letters it didn’t grab my attention the way this one did.  Perhaps because I thought the ending was too pat, in a we-must-have-a-happy-ending for the book way (there is a wedding picture of her and her French husband on the last page), but then I felt the same way about Eat Pray Love, and look how that turned out, despite a subsequent book on staying Committed.   It is wise to be skeptical of a relationship where two people don’t speak the same language and don’t seem to have anything in common (ah yes, but love is not always wise, and as the song says, is for the very young), but frankly as an older more cynical person I was worried about her.   An exception would be Colin Firth in Love Actually, who learned Portuguese so he could communicate with his new love, but I think we might all learn The King’s Speech if Colin Firth was involved.   There is an admirable degree of bravery in wanting a different life and doing something about it, but when you are older you realize there doesn’t always have to be a guy at the end for it to be  a happy ending.   Just once I would like one of these memoir travel type books to end with the author just sitting Under the Tuscan sun, gazing contentedly at the gorgeous view…..and if the gorgeous view happened to include your own Colin Firth that would be okay too!   (I think I shall write it myself – “Our middle-aged (but well preserved due to French beauty secret), heroine-in-waiting is sitting on the terrace of her French villa on a soft summer evening, a glass of chilled Chablis in hand, contemplating the calming rows of lavender waving in the evening breeze and thinking how lucky she is to be here in the lovely light of Provence…. 

Provence Lavender Farm - AMC - 2017
Provence Lavender Farm – 2017

…when suddenly she observes a man walking up the lane.”   The End.  

Is it a) a lost tourist  b) the vin delivery garcon  c) a uniformed police detective or d) Mr. Darcy.    The answer is e) all of the above.   Stay tuned for the sequel, Murder in Provence, wherein our lovely heroine meets Inspector Darcie LeDuc, who is investigating a series of murders involving art thieves, wine merchants and lost tourists, with plenty of dead bodies sprinkled in the lavender fields and vineyards.  Will she be next?)      

But I digress (badly), enough about fairy tale endings, forever after and just for the moment.   I am glad it all worked out for them because they are now living in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.  (link to her website Paris Letters Press)  She has a very nice website and also paints and writes a monthly personal letter on Paris which she sends out via snail mail, a business which enabled her to finance her stay there.   In the About section she says her first book was about her move to Paris, but her second is about being an artist in Paris, which is one of the reasons I liked it so much.   It was just like being there – there were lots of photographs and quirky journal entries about her cafe observations and day to day life in the city.   Plus her paintings were charming, but then I am partial to watercolors.    

A Paris Year - Janice MacLeod

A page from A Paris Year – Janice MacLeod

 It is a lovely book visually speaking, an illustrated journal on good quality paper with a beautiful cover, in the same vein as the Susan Branch books on Martha’s Vineyard and England.  (if you are not familiar with Susan Branch check her out, her blogs are so inspirational and she is currently blogging on her trip to Cornwall and England).   I suspect that type of book, which is basically a hard cover blog, is expensive for a publishing company to produce which could be why Susan Branch now publishes her own.    Anyway, both are good reads for armchair travelers.

I split this blog into two, because someone told me my blogs are too long, and the April Love section seemed like it deserved it’s own topic.   Does anyone remember the fragrance, Evening in Paris?   One of the most popular fragrances in the fifties,  it was a light floral fragrance in a blue cobalt bottle (you can still find some of the bottles on e-bay), evoking images of l’heure bleue in the city of love.   I have a visual image of my mother wearing her Jackie Kennedy-like sapphire blue dress and beads, dabbing perfume behind her ears, and then bending down to give us red lipstick kisses on our arms, on the rare occasion she went out in the evening.   Somehow spraying perfume doesn’t have the same degree of glamour.   Last year while cleaning out my mother’s house I came across a bottle of French perfume stashed below the bathroom sink.

Vintage French Perfume

Vintage French Perfume – Chat Noir

My mother says it was a gift from my father in the early years of their marriage, which would make it over 60 years old.   When I opened it, it still had the sweet smell she remembered, as it had been kept in a cloth bag, in a dark spot, the way you should store expensive perfume.  A perfume can evoke an era, a love story, a moment in time.   It reminded me of Bogie’s promise to Bacall, we’ll always have Paris.   Here’s to romance – may you always have a small piece of Paris in your heart to reminisce about on starry nights.  

Van Gogh Sketchbook

Postscript:   In my university days I wore Je Reviens, and later in my 20’s and 30’s Ombre Rose, then I mostly abandoned perfume because so many places, work and social, have no-scent laws now.   My bottle of Ombre Rose from three years ago is still half full.   Do you wear perfume, and do you have a favorite scent, or a scent that reminds you of a certain time in your life? 

April in Paris – Part One

Move to Paris…..learn French….write a book.   Who hasn’t had that dream someday. Even if we can’t go there ourselves, we can still read about other people’s trips in the delightful little book, A Paris All Your Own.    My Good-reads review below.

A Paris All Your Own: Bestselling Women Writers on the City of LightA Paris All Your Own: Bestselling Women Writers on the City of Light by Eleanor Brown

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an engaging little book of essays about Paris by women writers who have been there, mostly to research their Paris-based books, and like the title says, each one has their own story, some good, some bad, but all are different. I appreciated the honesty of those who said they didn’t enjoy Paris all that much, as it has always been a dream destination of mine and now I don’t feel quite so bad about what I am missing. Expectations are best kept realistic to avoid disappointment…but can anything ever live up to the romantic promise of Paris? I particularly enjoyed the biographies at the end of each section, as I picked up some new authors and books to explore, and their advice on what to see and what to skip will be valuable if I ever do get there some day.

While I was familiar with some of the authors in this book, for example Paula McLean of The Paris Wife, (a novel about Hadley Hemingway), there are some new ones I can add to my to-read list.   I appreciated their candor – while most enjoyed their trips, one went home two weeks early,  one had children who were bored, one’s mother-daughter trip didn’t quite turn out as planned, another just wanted to be left alone to write and declined all invitations to socialize in her writer’s residence.   I could sympathize with that, when you are in the flow you hate interruptions even if the distraction is Paris!  (If Hemingway had done more writing and less socializing he might have kept his first wife).  One writer mentioned that April is not the best month to visit Paris.  It rains a lot, she said, May is better, but the chestnut trees are out in April and then there is that song.

I cannot travel at the moment, and my French is abysmal.   Although Canada is a bilingual country, (we have two official languages so everything is written in both), the reality is most people outside of the province of Quebec do not speak it, and Quebecois french is different than Paris french.   My french is limited to the back of the cereal box.   My education consisted of twenty minutes of french twice a week in grades 7 & 8, mostly concerning the Leduc family – Madame and Monsieur LeDuc and their enfant terrible, Henri.  I recall they were always scolding their chien, so I would know to be careful when walking in the streets, (non chien scooping laws).   They seemed to eat plenty of gateau, so I could probably navigate my way around a confectionaire/pâtisserie too.   My accent was horrible so I abandoned la LeDuc famille in high school as soon as I could.  Today if you want your child to learn french you send them to a french immersion ecole, a much more sensible method. 

While I have no dreams of being Hemingway, I would like to visit Shakespeare & Company as bookstores are my thing, and that stationary store (Melodies Graphiques) mentioned in the book sounds divine too, a whole store devoted to paper and pens and different colored inks.   Some day I hope to visit Paris, and see all the famous paintings, eat bread, take a boat trip along the Seine and visit Monet’s garden.    One of the things about my mother’s late-in-life art career is she is too old to travel and see all the art museums.   You should do your traveling when you are young and poor like Hemingway.   (Quote: “There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”)   Then later you can write your memoirs and become rich and famous, if you are very lucky.    Hemingway

We can’t all be as famous as Hemingway but we can all write a little something, a blog or a journal or a book, (and we don’t have to move to Paris to do it).   I am sure there were times when Hemingway wondered if what he was writing would ever be of interest to anyone, but it is helpful to remember that there is always someone out there reading.   And even if that person is only yourself, you are documenting your life, in the same manner as Janice MacLeod did while in Paris (see Part Two next week).     

One of the nice things about blogging is you can find a blog about anything that interests you anywhere in the world.  In my Word-press travels I have discovered two wonderful blogs on Paris and France.                                                                                                                 an English ex-pat’s blog on her adventures in Paris                                                                            (for armchair travelers to the City of Lights)                                                                                 unemployed with a cabbage/tot – tales of family life in France                                                 (Jane Austen is reincarnated and living in rural France)                                                            

Au revoir mon cheris….until next week….Part Deux

Song of the Day:  Andrea Bocelli – La Vie en Rose

Quote of the Day:  “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”    (Ernest Hemingway – A Moveable Feast)

Eiffel Tower - AMc - Feb 2018

Eiffel Tower – Feb 2018