Photo: Odessa balloons carriage people

This cosmopolitan Ukrainian city takes center stage in Moonlight in Odessa.

Photograph by Joerg Glaescher, Laif/Redux

By Don George

September 2009

Book of the Month: 
Moonlight in Odessa,
by Janet Skeslien Charles

Three places occupy the heart of Janet Skeslien Charles’s effervescent debut novel, Moonlight in Odessa: Odessa, the cosmopolitan Ukrainian Black Sea port; the U.S.; and a place that has no geographical boundaries but is sought by virtually everyone—the metaphorical land of Love.

Our principal guide to these three is ambitious, attractive, articulate Daria, who has a degree in mechanical engineering but finds herself, at the beginning of the book, working as a secretary for a demanding Western executive at an international import company. This executive demands that Daria sleep with him, and her strategy to avoid this fate—introducing him to her wily neighbor, Olga—propels a succession of events that reveal some of the primary fantasies and realities of life in Odessa, the U.S., and Love.

Odessa is presented as a historically cultured place of high art (the opera house is the third most splendid in the world, we learn on numerous occasions), elegant architecture, impeccable manners, and intelligent, Akhmatova-quoting citizens who once cultivated devious ways to survive the privations of life in the Soviet Union and continue to use these to good effect in the new Ukraine of materialism and mafia protection.

The U.S. enters the novel as a place of escape, first for the determined Odessan email-order brides who are willing to forsake family and home for the prospect of married life with an American, and then for Daria herself, when she develops an online relationship with an email-order bride client from Northern California—and begins to dream of freedom, prosperity, and worldly fulfillment in that faraway land.

Which brings us to that other faraway land, Love. Charles movingly evokes the hills, valleys, oceans, and forests of this elusive territory. By the end of her tale, I felt deeply drawn to an Odessa I’ve never known and a San Francisco I’ve known for decades—and that third place, whose boundless byways exert still an irrepressible allure.

New-Book Roundups:
Short Time

Readers planning to attend or just watch the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament in South Africa should check out South Africa: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, a compilation of 17 short stories, edited by Isabel Balseiro and Tobias Hecht, that encompass the extremes of the country’s geography and culture. Authors range from Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer to journalist Lewis Nkosi. Madison Smartt Bell edited New Stories from the South 2009, 21 stories set in Huntsville, post-Katrina New OrleansNorth CarolinaOklahoma, and other distinct places that elucidate today’s American South.

Play It Again

A love of Indian classical music intertwines the lives and families of a highly regarded voice teacher and an enthusiastic student in 1980s Bombay in the novel The Immortals, by Amit Chaudhuri. Serenades in Venice, and Venice in serenade, are the recurrent motifs in Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, by Kazuo Ishiguro. In Border Town, by Shen Congwen, song infuses all aspects of life in the bucolic Chinese village of Chadong in Hunan province, before the Communist revolution.

All That Glitters

The luxe life in pre-1914 Hungary—with its shooting parties on the grounds of great country houses and glittering gaming tables in Budapest —begins to show cracks in They Were Counted, a sweeping romantic novel by Miklos Banffy. City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism, by Jim Krane, provides a fascinating history of this most ambitious of cities, which went from struggling pearling village to global powerhouse in just a couple of decades.

Reading Matchmaker:
If You Like...

...the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, check out Zimmern’s first book, The Bizarre Truth. Taking readers behind the scenes of his popular cable series, the intrepid host delivers a charming mix of food and travel writing, spiced with lots of anecdotes about how to travel authentically. Along the way, Zimmern snacks on freshly cured rotting shark meat at a remote Icelandic farm; meets a matador trying to save Madrid’s historic Taberna Antonio Sánchez, founded nearly 200 years ago; and ventures in search of the best laksa in Singapore. His boundless curiosity—as he writes, “the driving force in making my life complete”—shines through on every page.

One Last Thing:
Welcome to My World

I’ve been lucky enough to spend my professional life doing two things I deeply love: traveling and writing. Along the way, I’ve learned a few important lessons, such as how to plan a productive trip, shape a compelling travel story, and deal effectively with editors. I’ve also learned that traveling with a travel writer’s mindset can make any journey deeper and richer, even if you never publish anything. I’ve collected everything I’ve learned—plus great tales and tips from some two dozen other writers, editors and agents—in The Lonely Planet Guide to Travel Writing, whose thoroughly revised and updated second edition is appearing in bookstores this month. If you’re interested in becoming a travel writer—or just traveling like one—I hope you’ll take a look.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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