One of the pleasures of traveling is seeking out and reading books set in your destination. This also applies to reading books set in a city you're well acquainted with. One of the pleasures of reading Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshowsky mysteries is her descriptions of familiar Chicago neighborhoods. (A little known fact: her father, David Paretsky, taught one of my introductory microbiology courses at KU--a wonderful man who died not too long ago from Alzheimer's-related complications--and her brother, Jonathon Paretsky, taught one of my German classes at KU. Plus, she's married to a U.C physicist; I met them both briefly at a cocktail party one time, long ago.)
So on my European travels, I've tried to seek out some books that said something about the place I was visiting. I wasn't always able to read the book as I was actually visiting the place, but it seems I'm always playing catchup in my reading anyway.
What I'm reading now: Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. Mary Shelley conceived of the idea and began writing the book while spending a rainy and rather dreary summer near Geneva with Percy Shelly and Lord Byron. I ran by Lord Byron's house in Cologny, so it was fun to imagine them sitting around, talking about ghost stories. For some reason I never read Frankenstein, so this is the perfect time to do it.
In that spirit, I bought The Bastard of Istanbul (by Elif Shafak, who was tried for the crime of "insulting Turkishness") before we left for Istanbul and T. snapped it up before I could get to it. I read it after we got back, and we both enjoyed it, but we differed in our assessments. Tony felt that it was too heavy-handed, but I argued that it was in the storytelling tradition that she was using, so it was OK. It's basically an allegory about the relationship between the Turks, the Armenians, and the Western world. I highly recommend it, although it's not one of those books that will make you walk around Istanbul saying, "Oh, yes, I remember this street!" But it is one of those books that will help you understand a deeper level of Istanbul than you can ever get through a short visit.
When we were in Venice I read Ian McEwan's dark and haunting Comfort of Strangers, at Tony's recommendation. Colin and Mary are disaffected lovers on vacation in Venice. Although McEwan never once mentions the name of the city, it is clear from his descriptions (both dreamlike and vivid, if that's possible) of the canals and maze-like streets that it's Venice. It's short, too, so it was easy to put in my bag and read if I had a few spare minutes here and there. It made me think twice about getting lost in Venice!
Does anybody else have favorite "travel" books? Naples is my next destination. I've already listened to the audio version of Robert Harris' Pompeii (a great listen!) so that's out. Leonardo Sciascia is supposed to have written some good literary mysteries set in Sicily. Close enough, maybe.