Reading across Europe
Books were a constant companion on my travels. I really love to read, and especially while travelling alone, books can make good friends. They help pass the time on long train/plane/ferry rides, and they can make dining out alone not so uncomfortable. I have always loved to read and I tend to read anything and everything. For the first part of my trip, the thing I missed the most was English language newspapers, magazines, and books. I would visit any and every English language bookstore I could find. Most major cities had at least one English bookstore, and I would load up on books. I mainly read books related to Europe. Reading can give you such a great insight into historical events, cultural differences and different eras. Here is a summary of some of the great books I read.
Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
This is an absolutely great work of fiction that was found after being lost for several decades. Nemrovsky was a Russian Jew who considered herself to be a French Atheist. Unfortunately, the Germans didn't care so much. Both she and her husband were sent to concentration camps and died at Auschwitz. She was a well known author during her time, and was in the process of writing Suite Francais during her death. Originally it was supposed to be 5 separate books that were connected by similar stories. Only the first two stories were written. Suite Francais is an insightful look into the lives of ordinary people during the German invasion of Paris and the occupation. It is a universal story about love, life and survival in extraordinary times. One of the best points that this book made is that people are people, no matter which side of the war they were on. French mothers and German mothers were both worrying about their children; husbands and wives were separated on both sides; children lost parents. That love, pain, and loss are the same, no matter who you are fighting for.
Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik
This non-fiction work is about a writer, his wife and their new baby choosing to live in Paris for 5 years. It was very funny and full of insights into Parisian life. This is a great book for anyone who has ever lived or wanted to live abroad. It shows the beauty and the frustration of making a life in a country and a culture that is not your own, while also encountering the travails of being a new parent. Thanks Jenny W for the great book!
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
I can't believe that I have never read this book before! I loved and was instantly drawn into the story. It helped that I was visiting numerous museums and other sites associated with the French Revolution. I even visited Victor Hugo's apartment in Paris. This is a fantastic book, and I was so excited to see the stage production in London. And it didn't disappoint! A great adaptation. I was really glad that I had just read the book prior to seeing the show though; it helped me understand what was going on and I had a greater insight into some of the characters.
The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt
This is a non-fiction book about Venice and the fire that destroyed the La Fenice opera house in 1996, written by the author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It is an entertaining book about the author and his investigation into the fire. It is also a great introduction to Venice. Venice is unlike any city on earth, and Berendt really brings to life its unique, quirky character. It was great to read this before visiting Venice, because I felt like I knew the city and its residents. I kept waiting to run into someone I "knew" from the book. It really helped bring Venice to life for me.
Miracle at St. Anna by James McBride
This book is about a group of African American buffalo soldiers fighting in Italy during WWII and the events that shape their lives. They find themselves stuck between the advancing German army and Italian resistance fighters. They also find themselves becoming part of a small village and the caretakers for a small orphan boy. This book was great at documenting the realities of war for Italy and especially Italians in rural areas, a part of the war that is often overlooked in current literature.
The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons by Dan Brown
I had read the DaVinci Code before, but it was great to read it in Europe while visiting many of the places mentioned in the books. This was the first time I had read Angels and Demons, and reading it in Italy was perfect. These books are great enteratinment, as long as the history is taken with a grain of salt.
The Broker by John Grisham
A fun, quick read from John Grisham. When I picked up this book in a hostel, I didn't know that it was mainly set in Italy -- that was just a bonus.
Berlin Game by Len Deighton
An old-school spy novel from 1983, set in a divided Berlin. An interesting look into the world of British espionage, and how the world used to be during the Cold War. Considering the world today, this book seems like ancient history, describing an era and a place that no longer exists.
Homecoming by Bernhard Schlink
This is the second novel by the author of The Reader. It is the story of Peter, a middle aged German man who is somewhat lost in life. He becomes obsessed with finding out the ending of a story of homecoming of a German soldier after WWII that he read as a boy. When he originally read the story, the final pages were missing. He goes on a quest (somewhat remniscent of The Odyssey) to find the ending to the story, and hopefully his own. An interesting example of how WWII and Nazi Germany continues to have an effect on modern generations of Germans.
Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips
A novel about the pantheon of Greek gods, who are still alive and living in modern day London. They are on their way out, with the power only coming from those who believe in them. So the whole divine crew lives in a dilapidated house in a London suburb and attempts to go on living in the 21st century. A great premise for a story; unfortunately, not very well written and a little stupid.
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
A great novel about the construction of a cathedral in the English countryside in the 12th century. Despite the massive size of this book, it really was a quick read. It was fun to think about life in medieval times, especially as I was starting my travels through the UK. I never looked at a cathedral quite the same way again, without wondering about the construction, who built it and just how many artisans it took to make such a massive, beautiful structure.
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
A great novel about a 17th century English village that sequesters itself from the outside world after the plague is discovered in the village. Told through the eyes of Anna, a peasant, this book chronicles the struggles of everyday life in a farming village. It also shows just how much the plague devastated everyone who came in contact with it. With time, the villagers become immune to the dead and dying, and yet somehow have to keep on living.
Persuasion by Jane Austen
I read this book while in Bath, which is where Jane Austen wrote it. It really helped to be able to picture the countryside and the city of Bath as she was telling a tale set there. As with all of Jane Austen's books, this was a fun read about the constraints of 18th century British society, and especially the role of women in love and life.
British Chick Lit
I am a huge fan of British chick lit, and have read all of Sophie Kinsella, Marian Keyes, Jane Green, etc. They are just the perfect entertaining books that allow you to shut your mind off for a few hours. While travelling, I read Undomestic Goddess and Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella, Me and Mr. Darcy by Alexandra Potter, and several others that I can't remember. Fun reads and I now have a better understanding of some of the things they talk about (like eating at Marks & Spencers, going for a curry, shopping at Top Shop, and taking the tube around London).
The Other Hand by Chris Cleave (released as Little Bee in the US)
A really amazing book about the lives of two women and how they are entertwined. I can't say more than this or it will give too much away. Just read it! Talks a lot about immigration policies and the detention centers in the UK.
The United States of Europe by T.R. Reid
This is a great book describing the rise and importance of the European Union, and why Americans should care about it. Very insightful into how the EU was first formed and how its power and scope have made it the new world superpower. This book is about 5 years old, so some of the information is dated, but overall it was a good, easy read. A good introduction to the EU for most Americans.
Europe 101: History and Art for the Traveler by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw
I highly recommend this book for anyone who is going to be travelling in Europe and wants a better understanding of the history behind many of the tourist sites and art movements. This is part of the Rick Steves guidebook series and is well written and easy to read. It is a basic overview of European history, with just enough detail to help bring understanding to the sometimes confusing and chaotic history of the continent. This book was especially good at describing the various periods of art history and how art has been transformed throughout the centuries. For anyone without a history degree, this is a perfect companion to European travel. I really enjoyed reading it, and it gave me a much better understanding of what I was seeing and experiencing.
For travel guides, I mainly relied on Rick Steves Best of Europe 2009 and Rick Steves Europe through the Back Door. I really liked the practical information that Rick Steves provides in his guides. It was especially good for getting oriented in a new city and finding my way around. I liked the self-guided walks that were included in many of the cities. I also really liked how the guidebooks rated sights by priority (what shouldn't be missed versus sights that might only appeal to some people). One drawback of the Rick Steves books: not a lot of history and background information about the places I visited. Overall, I thought they were good books and I would use them again. When I was spending more time in specific cities (or they weren't covered by Rick Steves books) I used TimeOut and Top10 travel guides. These are great city guides that offer a lot of detail, often breaking down cities into distinct neighborhoods. Top10 guides were really good at rating the best sights in a city. It was especially helpful for big museums (like the British Museum), where they rated the top 10 exhibits within the museum.