Journalist, travel writer and author Julia Cooke shares her favourite escapist books …
There’s a quote I included in my book, Come Fly the World: The Women of Pan Am at War and Peace, from author Olga Tokarczuk. “Fluidity, mobility, illusoriness—these are precisely the qualities that make us civilised. Barbarians don’t travel. They simply go to destinations or conduct raids,” she writes in Flights.
I agree with her on the transformative importance of mobility and its frequent consequences, curiosity and empathy. But the truth is that I only read half of Tokarczuk’s book. I was halfway through it, loving the rhythms of its travels, when the pandemic locked us in place last March. Her paragraphs, each an ode to a different mode or aspect or manner or consequence of movement, began to feel like barbs to me, stuck in place as I was. I set the book aside until I felt comfortable traveling again.
Which hasn’t happened yet. So recently, I’ve been travelling in both place and time. Reading about other places in different time periods, I find, separates me just enough from my urgent desire to go to wherever it is I’m reading about. I’ve loved reading Alexander Nemerov’s Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York, which is so deeply steeped in the social rhythms and aesthetics of an art scene that’s just familiar enough to be legible but different enough to feel like going someplace else. Or Somerset Maugham short stories set in Tahiti – one of the last places where I was a tourist before the pandemic hit. I’ll forgive his colonialist perspectives to get his vivid writing of place and astute observations of British and American expatriates around the world in the very early 20th century, how they collided with local cultures. And I love Emily Hahn’s essays in China To Me. This is a woman who chose not to leave occupied Hong Kong during World War II with the other expatriate women, who instead stayed with her newborn daughter in order to be nearer to her daughter’s father, the British intelligence officer Charles Boxer. Next to her descriptions of life in a very different, far more dangerous sort of lockdown, my complaints about staying home, cooped up though it may feel, seem positively quaint. It’s a voyage of a different sort, this kind of armchair travel, but no less transformative.
Come Fly The World, The Women of Pan Am at War and Peace by Julia Cooke is published by Icon Books on April 15. It’s a portrait of Pan Am stewardesses in the Mad Men era, between 1966 and 1975.
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