The most powerful books don’t just offer us a chance to travel the world without leaving the couch, but go beyond literary tourism, with authentic narratives that introduce us to the rhythms of daily life in new-to-us places. If you’ve ever come away from a book curious to learn more about another country’s history, culture, or language, you’re not alone. We’ve rounded up some reads with such an evocative sense of place that we didn’t want to leave them, and we’ve paired each one with a Pimsleur language course that can help you stay immersed in each country’s world a bit longer.
Mexico, Cuba, and Spain
Why choose between delving into 19th-century Mexico, Cuba, or Spain when you can visit all three in one book? In Maria Dueñas’s historical novel THE VINEYARD, Mauro Larrea experiences a spate of back luck until he gambles and wins ownership of a house and vineyard in Spain. Both properties are in need of fixing up, but Larrea is determined to move from Mexico to Andalusia to rebuild his fortune. What he doesn’t know is that he’s bound to fall in love with a married woman named Soledad and that their relationship will change the course of his life forever. As Larrea navigates the twists and turns of his fate, traveling from Mexico City to Havana to Jerez de la Frontera, he takes readers on a spectacular romantic cultural journey.
When fourteen-year-old Sarah Rexford, who is half-Japanese and half-American, visits Kyoto, after growing up mostly in the US, she feels like an outsider, and views the place with the slight grudge that most teens face when forced on a vacation. But as Sarah interacts with her extended family and the Japanese community, she grows to love the sights and smells and sees the beauty in Japan’s customs, food, and nature. We also see how three generations of women differ in the way they handle conflict, once family secrets are exposed. Capturing every last nuance, this book portrays a young girl slowly falling in love with Japan—and you’ll fall in love with the country along with her.
From an award-winning author whose debut story collection received unprecedented praise, comes an elegant novel about mothers and daughters, secrets and silences, and familial bonds in a culture where custom dictates behavior.
In her exquisite first novel, Mary Yukari Waters explores the complex relationships among three generations of women bound by a painful family history.
Fourteen-year-old Sarah Rexford, half-Japanese and half-American, feels like an outsider when she visits her family in Japan. She quickly learns that in traditional Kyoto, personal boundaries are firmly drawn and actions are not always what they appear.
In the midst of her acculturation, Sarah learns of a family secret. During World War II, her grandmother was forced to give up one of her daughters for adoption. The child was adopted by the grandmother’s sister-in-law, and the siblings were brought up as cousins, growing up on the same lane where both the biological and adoptive mother lived. Even into the present, the arrangement is never discussed. But as Sarah learns, its presence looms over the two houses. In this carefully articulated world, where every gesture and look has meaning, Sarah must learn the rules by which her mother, aunts, and grandmother live.
Delicately balancing drama and restraint as only few writers can, Waters captures these women—their deep passions and tumultuous histories—in this tender and moving novel about the power, beauty, and importance of mother-daughter relationships.
Just as Elena Ferrante captured a decades-long female friendship intertwined with Italian history in her Neapolitan series, so too does Paolo Cognetti—but with a male friendship. Pietro is a city boy in Milan whose fascination with the mountains leads him to befriend Bruno, an adventurous rural boy living in Aosta Valley. Pietro’s family visits the region every summer, and the two grow closer each year, catching up on the pains and glories from when they were apart. For a story that’ll make you long for the great outdoors, richly immerse you in the Italian landscape, and highlight intricate social dynamics, pick up a copy of THE EIGHT MOUNTAINS by Paolo Cognetti.
*The book that inspired the film Le Otto Montagne*
For fans of Elena Ferrante and Paulo Coelho comes a moving and elegant novel about the friendship between two young Italian boys from different backgrounds and how their connection evolves and challenges them throughout their lives.
“Few books have so accurately described the way stony heights can define one's sense of joy and rightness...an exquisite unfolding of the deep way humans may love one another” (Annie Proulx).
Pietro is a lonely boy living in Milan. With his parents becoming more distant each day, the only thing the family shares is their love for the mountains that surround Italy.
While on vacation at the foot of the Aosta Valley, Pietro meets Bruno, an adventurous, spirited local boy. Together they spend many summers exploring the mountains’ meadows and peaks and discover the similarities and differences in their lives, their backgrounds, and their futures. The two boys come to find the true meaning of friendship and camaraderie, even as their divergent paths in life—Bruno’s in the mountains, Pietro’s across the world—test the strength and meaning of their connection.
“A slim novel of startling expansion that subtly echoes its setting” (Vogue), The Eight Mountains is a lyrical coming-of-age story about the power of male friendships and the enduring bond between fathers and sons. “There are no more universal themes than those of the landscape, friendship, and becoming adults, and Cognetti’s writing becomes classical (and elegant) to best tell this story…a true novel by a great writer” (Rolling Stone Italia).
With streaming platforms like Netflix steadily adding more Turkish-language movies and TV shows to their libraries, it’s inevitable that our appetite for these dramatic and compelling tales set in Turkey will increase too. One mystery novel that can help satisfy that hunger is HOTEL BOSPHORUS. It offers an opportunity to view Istanbul through the eyes of heroine Kati Hirschel, who owns the bustling city’s only mystery bookshop and must put her rookie detective skills to the test when her friend Petra is accused of murder.
The modern South Korea depicted in glossy K-dramas like Crash Landing on You has inspired many to visit, if only to try to catch a glimpse of homegrown superstars like the BTS band members. To truly understand where the country is now, though, you have to look into the past, and historical novels are a great way to gain more insight. Samuel Park’s THIS BURNS MY HEART is set only a few years after the traumatic Korean War unofficially ended with the creation of a demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. The story follows Soo-Ja Choi, a woman with career aspirations who sticks with her practical choice of husband instead of following her heart. She comes to regret that decision, and it haunts her for years, especially because she keeps crossing paths with the man whose proposal she once rejected. But could there still be hope for them? THIS BURNS MY HEART is both a captivating love story and a tantalizing peek at life in 1960s Seoul.
While visiting a new country, arguably one of the best ways to get to know its culture is to stop every denizen and ask them for their story. But that’s not always the most feasible—or polite—option. So why not pick up a book that does the work for you. HERE IN BERLIN compiles one-page vignettes that offer snippets about a character’s life. The unnamed visitor in HERE IN BERLIN walks around the streets of the city, taking a literary snapshot of people from various avenues of life. Getting the perspective and memories of everyone from outsiders to locals truly allows you to see all vantage points of the city in this rich and resonant story.
Anyone who’s watched the film Under the Tuscan Sun has probably daydreamed about starting over in a new country—after all, it seemed easy enough for Diane Lane! What New York photographer Jamie Beck discovered by moving to France, however, is that you must fully commit to learning the ways of your new home and neighbors, and it takes time and diligence. Her forthcoming book, AN AMERICAN IN PROVENCE (releasing in November) is a love letter to the South of France—to its people and their customs, language, and cuisine. You may come for the stunning photos you’ve seen on Beck’s Instagram, but you’ll stay for the whole experience, which also features the author’s personal essays about life in Provence and recipes for local dishes.
Let Jamie Beck transport you to the South of France with An American in Provence: part art book, part travelogue, part memoir, and part cookbook, and perfect for art lovers, Francophiles, and armchair travelers alike.
An American in Provence is a beautiful collection of exquisite portrait, scenic, and still-life photography from wildly popular and award-winning photographer Jamie Beck. Looking to slow down from her fast-paced life in New York City, Beck moved to the French countryside documenting her life as “An American in Provence.” What started as a one-year getaway became five as she continues to chronicle her life there through her photography on Instagram @JamieBeck.co, including the birth of her daughter, Eloise, all in the most breathtaking way.
In An American in Provence, Beck shares her tips and techniques for creating incredible photos and details her transformational journey as an artist and woman. Beck also includes farm-to-table recipes she's learned along the way, including Braised Beef Stew, Spring Chicken with Herbs de Provence, Fresh Tagliatelle Pasta with Spring Asparagus, and Lemon Meringue Tart. This stunning visual journey is sure to delight anyone who wishes to escape reality and immerse themselves in life in Provence.
Photo credit: iStock / fcscafeine