5 books for the armchair traveler

You don't have to know Mandarin to be captivated by Deborah Fallow's Memoir "Dreaming in Chinese."

Story highlights

  • "Cleopatra: A Life," makes the case that she was less "wanton temptress" than savvy politician
  • Read about Elizabeth Gilbert's journey of self-discovery in "Eat, Pray, Love"
  • The narrator of "The True Memoirs of Little K," was a dancer in the Imperial Ballet of Russia
Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language
By Deborah Fallows
You don't have to know Mandarin to be captivated by "Dreaming in Chinese," Fallows' memoir of living in Shanghai and Beijing and learning the language. A journalist with a PhD in linguistics, Fallows wears her erudition lightly as she meets locals and tries to unravel the mysteries of their mother tongue. Why is it, for example, that a tableful of Chinese diners might seem to be barking orders at each other? Because they believe using "polite" terms (please; thank you; would you mind...) creates distance, and that direct language is more appropriate for intimates. Forget Berlitz -- that just teaches words. Deborah Fallows shows us that the cultural implications of those words teach us about each other.
Cleopatra: A Life
By Stacy Schiff
Mention Cleopatra and you probably think of Elizabeth Taylor batting her violet eyes at Richard Burton. Or maybe Shakespeare's temptress fooling around with Julius Caesar and dying for love of Mark Antony. But it turns out we have seriously underestimated the last Egyptian queen. In her provocative new biography, "Cleopatra: A Life", Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff makes the case that the richest and most powerful woman of all time was less "wanton temptress" than savvy politician. -- Liza Nelson
Life of Pi
By Yann Martel
"God was going to love him, no matter what he had to do to survive. He was on the trip with him," says actress Andie MacDowell of Martel's popular fable about a 16-year-old boy's harrowing journey on a lifeboat with a 450-pound tiger. "This book makes you wonder: Has Pi actually been on a fantastic adventure, or is the truth far more realistic?... My older sister wanted to believe the fantasy. I was kind of surprised by that, because she's so doggone bright. For me, there was no way the story could be real. It had to be a way to deal with something that was impossible to deal with. That's what this book does: It tells a painful story as a fantasy because the reality is too brutal."
Eat, Pray, Love
by Elizabeth Gilbert
After the end of her seven-year marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert embarked on a journey of self-discovery that changed her entire life. Luckily for us, she captured this whirlwind adventure through Italy, India and Bali in her best-selling hit, "Eat, Pray, Love." You may be inspired to do an internet search for Bali or your nearest ashram, but we dare you to read about the food she discovers during her time in Rome and not book your own trip to Italy on the spot.
The True Memoirs of Little K
By Adrienne Sharp
Mathilde Kschessinska, the narrator of Adrienne Sharp's brilliant "The True Memoirs of Little K," was a real person: a famous dancer in the Imperial Ballet of Russia at the end of the 19th century. Beyond that, we can trust very little of what we learn from and about the 99-year-old heroine of this diary-within-a-novel, which even she admits is a "concoction of fiction and lies." Once the mistress of the last czar, Nicholas Romanov, she may well have also been the lover of several members of his family and court. But was her son really the czar's heir, or did she just use the boy to manipulate the heartsick sovereign, whose only male child, a hemophiliac, was unlikely to live to succeed him? We'll never know, but then, neither did the Romanovs, who were slaughtered in 1918 following the Russian Revolution.
Conniving, social climbing, and largely insufferable -- "I have always admired an opportunist, being one myself" -- Little K (as Nicholas supposedly called her) is the most unreliable of narrators about affairs of her own heart. But when reporting on a time, place, and disappearing way of life, especially with her sumptuous, often loving descriptions of Russian dance and culture, she emerges as the ultimate truth-teller. If only we'd had history teachers this knowledgeable -- and this much fun. -- Sara Nelson