Saturday, May 23, 2015

A New Feature: Ask Mrs. Book Doctor

One of my favorite challenges comes in the form of "What can I read?" questions. They come from people I've known forever and from people I just met, who can tell that I love to talk books.  Since I've always obsessively chosen books aligned with destination when I travel, this first question from one of my favorite readers (a former student who turned into a friend) was right up my alley:

Amber Asks:
Any great reading suggestions for before and during my trip to Italy this summer? We will be topping in Venice, Florence and Rome, with a side trip to Pompeii. I plan to read some appropriate bible passages and biblical history, but you know I need some good fiction set in some of these places as well.

My answer:

Until you asked, I had not realized how few books I remember reading that were set in Italy. France, yes.  Great Britain, absolutely.  But not so many come to mind from Italy.  Does Pinocchio  count?

The first I thought of was Susan Vreeland’s The Passion of Artemisia.   I like her books because they always have a connection to art history.  I read her book The Girl in Hyacinth Blue first. I loved the way she traced a fictional Vermeer painting backward from its current owner back to Vermeer as he painted it.  This one is loosely based on Italian Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi, so you get some history with a strong female protagonist.

I may also have mentioned earlier the novel Us by David Nicholls, about a couple ready to take their son on a “Grand Tour” of Europe upon his graduation.  Not only is he reluctant to go (preferring a beach trip with his friends), but the protagonist’s wife catches him off guard, telling him shortly before their departure that she doesn’t know that their marriage is working. The story, which  bounces through Europe--all the important stops in Italy, is in turns hilarious and heart-breaking.

Though it isn’t necessarily set in the part of Italy where you are traveling, Amber, Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir Blood, Bones, and Butter is a great read.  It’s really the story of how Hamilton, whose mother left her and her siblings with their rather inattentive father, ended up in the restaurant business. Although she has a long-running lesbian relationship, she ends up marrying an Italian man, who takes her each summer to his family’s summer home in Southern Italy.  Though Hamilton doesn't speak Italian, she and her mother-in-law communicate best in the kitchen.  She eventually opened the restaurant Prune in NYC. When we read this one in book club, we all said we didn't want it to end.  We decided if we couldn't make it to the Italian coast, we might make it to NYC to visit Prune.

I confess that I haven’t read Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes, though I found the movie just beautiful. After reading her latest memoir Under Magnolia, thought, I may have to go back and read the book. I loved her writing.  I wanted to underline things in pencil or to read passage aloud to someone.

I realize too that James Michener’s The Source is one of his I missed. (I went through a stage when I read everything of his, starting with Centennial  and Chesapeake.  The historical research he put into his novels made learning about history and geography absolutely fun.  He also had a knack for developing characters about whom I cared deeply. I know The Source goes back to the Holy Lands, but he may also move through these areas related to biblical history too.

At the site below, I found several suggestions of books set in Italy, but none I had read. The John Berendt book, though, was intriguing. Evidently, he uses the novel approach to nonfiction he used in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

I guess you know Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons could give you a little taste of Rome, particularly Vatican City. (No, I don’t think Nicholas Sparks has set any of his books there. Thank goodness.)

 Did your read Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra?  With that book, you get Egypt too, of course! And did you know Tennessee Williams’ second novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is set in Rome after WWII?

I'm hoping someone else out there has some other good suggestions to pass along  Bon voyage!


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