The world is a large and amazing place filled with fascinating people — and one lifetime is too short to visit and get to know them all. That’s why our favorite books have a strong sense of place. They help us travel — at least in our imaginations — to destinations all over the globe, to meet people we might never get to know in real life.
Not only is the trip a whole lot of fun, we fervently believe that reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for you and good for the world around us. We want more of that.
So we created Strong Sense of Place — a podcast and website dedicated to travel and the books we love.
We love all kinds of books! Literature, mysteries and thrillers, magical realism, fantasy, memoirs, biographies, graphic novels, history, historical fiction, picture books, photography, adventure, short story collections, and poetry — so long as they take us somewhere new with a strong sense of place. We want to see the sights, hear the sounds, smell the smells, and taste the food of other places and times, alongside compelling characters and gripping stories.
We also crave literary travel that lets us explore musty old bookshops and libraries with tall ceilings… museums dedicated to long-dead authors and book festivals that celebrate up-and-comers… cafés where you might write your own masterpiece or just settle back with a favorite read and a piece of cake.
Our site features articles, book recommendations, essays, and photos that celebrate books and destinations around the world.
In each episode of our podcast, we get curious about one destination and discuss five great books that took us there on the page. Our podcasts are released every other Monday, and each season, we’ll take you to 12 different destinations around the world.
Instagram is where we share travel photography and illustrations, as well book recommendations from both Melissa and David.
We’re David and Melissa, the creative team behind Strong Sense of Place.
We’ve been a couple since 1992, and one of our favorite things to do together is explore new places — and then to sit quietly and read. We’re two introverts who crave adventures, as long as we get to choose the time and place. We’ve visited 25 countries and 33 U.S. states… so far. It’s our mission to share the things we see, learn, and read with you.
In 2017, we sold almost all of our stuff and moved from the U.S. to Prague, in the Czech Republic, with our laptops and our cat Smudge. It’s a fantastic, magical, liveable city — and it’s an excellent home base for other travel.
This is where we’re probably supposed to tell you about our work experience and college degrees — but we think you’ll get a better idea of who we are if we tell you about our favorite books. (Obligatory business-y bios also below.)
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I read this as a teen, and then again as an adult. It was so much more vibrant to me when I was older that it made me want to re-read all the books I avoided in high school. I ended up revisiting about two dozen books, many of which I appreciate more now. (I’m looking at you, Moby Dick.) It’s easy to pass off ‘Gatsby’ as “rich people problems” – and I’m honestly concerned about the people who consider his relationship with Daisy as romantic. I think it’s more about the vacuum of longing and consumerism and the American Dream, but, hey, wasn’t that a great party?
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud
I love the way Scott McCloud breaks down the form of comics in this book. He tells how and why visual communication works in this form, and introduces an entire world of creators. Ultimately, this book changed my life. See ‘Center for Cartoon Studies,’ below. While I was there, I got to meet him and thank him for his work, for which I will always be grateful.
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
This is, perhaps, just a bit dated now, but it introduced me to Neal Stephenson, and that relationship has only gotten better over time. ‘Snow Crash’ is a light dystopian fantasy with pizza delivery and language viruses. ‘All information looks like noise until you break the code.’
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
This novel is the story of a person who ‘was born twice: first, as a baby girl…and then again as a teenage boy.’ I have a deep affection for this book about change and families and love and grace. I’ll forever be grateful to Eugenides for writing the passage here that describes stacking complex emotions into a single sensational chord. I’d heard the idea, but never so clearly.
The Works: Anatomy of a City by Kate Ascher
The author unpacks how each layer of the urban infrastructure of New York City combines to make a living, breathing city. The story of how electricity works was unbelievable to me; did you know there’s an auction every day for the lowest cost provider? Don’t even get me started on the crazy tugboat situation. The mysteries of the city unwrap in a breezy, graphics-heavy format.
David’s Obligatory Business Bio:
David was introduced to the joy of books by his mom, a librarian, and his dad, ‘the best-educated cab driver in Cincinnati.’ David holds a master’s degree in cartooning from the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont, and a B.F.A in Film from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. His photographs and illustrations have appeared in the best-selling Well Fed cookbook series, as well as the New York Times best-seller It Starts with Food. He has also worked as an independent book-seller, a sales clerk at a comics shop, and as a Director of Engineering at an agency for large-scale web projects.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
I re-read this remarkable classic every year and always find something new in its pages. Jane is the intrepid heroine we need. Her steadfast belief in her inherent value and her unwavering loyalty to her friends — without excusing bad behavior — is the standard to which we can all aspire. And, not for nothing, her romance with Rochester is one for the ages. Dream date: tea with Charlotte and Jane.
Less: A Novel by Andrew Sean Greer
I love that Arthur Less, the hero of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, decided to travel the world to find his way home. It’s a sweet story with plenty going on below the surface, and I’m not too proud to say that both times I read it, I ugly cried my way through the last 10 pages.
The Edge by Dick Francis
Every Francis mystery features a reliable, clever hero who’s willing to take a beating — emotionally and physically — to do the right thing. Francis has a keen eye for detail and places his stories in rich settings, usually in the world of horse racing. This one takes place on a train ride through the Canadian Rockies, and when I visit Banff myself one day, it will be because of this taut thriller.
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
Gothic tropes, vampires, and libraries are always 100-percent yes for me. This epic story has everything I look for in novels for Strong Sense of Place: romantic settings in foreign lands, characters I’d be happy to know, diabolical villains, high-stakes decisions, sweeping adventure, and big, big feelings. I am completely spellbound every time I read it.
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
This is the book that opened my heart to sci-fi and 1000-page novels. A mashup of techno-thriller and historical fiction, it plants Big Ideas inside an action-adventure plot. And it’s populated with characters you’d want at your back: idealistic, flawed, funny, and 100% human. With a sweet romance and a cameo by Alan Turing, it introduced me to the art of cryptography and elegance of hard science, while I rode along on the story.
Melissa’s Obligatory Business Bio:
Formerly known as ‘that weird girl that rollerskates to the library,’ Melissa earned an advertising degree from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. She has worked as a PR professional and Creative Director for agencies large and small, online and off. She was a founding member of the Texas Rollergirls and literally wrote the book on the flat-track roller derby phenomenon — Rollergirl: True Tales From the Track. She is the author of the best-selling Well Fed cookbook series and Living Paleo For Dummies.
Maps Special Edition by Aleksandra Mizielinska & Daniel Mizielinski
This large-format hardcover book is ideal for napping; there is plenty of room to stretch out my paws without touching the tabletop (which, as everyone knows, is made of lava). When I sleep on this book, I feel like I’m walking across the maps in my dreams, enjoying the forests and sunny deserts.
This is the World by Miroslav Sasek
This is another large-format hardcover, but it’s thicker, and so offers more protection from the table lava. When I sleep on this book, my dreams are filled with cute illustrations of cities like Paris, Rome, Edinburgh, and Hong Kong — which is a good thing because I prefer being under the bed to traveling.
Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips Vol. 1 by Roy Crane
This is my favorite large-format hardcover because it’s even longer than the other two, for maximum stretching-out possibilities. Napping on this book fills my dreams with the adventure and romance of Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy, who humans seem to think is dashing and handsome.
Smudge’s Obligatory Business Bio:
Smudge joined Smudge Publishing, LLC in 2009 and within two years had risen to the position of CEO. Experts credit her hands-off management style, her attention to small details, and her dedication to afternoon naps as the hallmarks of her success.
Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.
Strong Sense of Place is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the work we do, you can help make it happen by joining our Patreon! That'll unlock bonus content for you, too — including Mel's secret book reviews and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.
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