What do I do when I'm not in Italy? Well, besides planning my next trip, I do a lot of reading. It's not only food and travel or cookbooks I read. In fact, I love all books, especially fictional ones. A story that's set in Italy and involves the food of Italy is even better. When I travel abroad, I check out the local book stores and their English section. The English books featured at bookstores in other countries are, many times, not the same ones featured in the U.S. I've found some of my all-time favorite Italy-based books in those stores.
For me, a good story is a way to travel to another place, time, life, and culture without having to pack or buy a plane ticket. Whenever I'm looking for a new book to read, I ask myself, "Where do you want to go today?" Many times that place ends up being somewhere in Italy.
For this reason, I am thrilled to join Book after Book's Italy in Books Reading Challenge in 2011. The challenge will run the entire year. The goal is to read one book a month, review it, and possibly win a prize each month. It's open to both bloggers and non-bloggers. The Book after Book site will have a place for non-bloggers to enter their reviews. Although the challenge is focussed on fiction and non-ficiton books, you can also review up to two cookbooks and/or travel books, "learning" books as they're termed in the challenge details. I think this is a great way for all of us Italophiles anywhere in the world to share what we've read and to give each of us a broader exposure to books set in Italy.
If you're interested in joining, hop on over to Book after Book's site for information and challenge details. She also gives resources for finding books based in Italy.
Below I've listed my 10 favorites in fiction that I've already read and a few I have planned for this reading challenge. If you're still searching for a last minute Christmas gift for a special Italophile, any of these would be a great choice.
Ten Favorites in Fiction Set in Italy:
The Food of Love - Based mainly in Rome, it's a food lover's version of Cyrano de Bergerac. Laura, an American student in Rome decides she will only date a chef. She finds one, she thinks. Tomasso is actually a waiter, but he persuades his shy roommate Bruno, who is a chef, to cook while he takes the credit, and gets the girl. In the meantime, Bruno falls for Laura and creates meals for her that has her falling in love, too. It's just with the wrong guy. Love, food, comedy, Rome and Roman cooking make this a great read.
The Birth of Venus - Historical fiction set in Florence during the 15th century. The story of a woman's life, Alessandra Cecchi, during the time just after Lorenzo de Medici's death and when Savonarola's influence was on the rise. The plague, political unrest and a serial killer in Florence add to the tension. Alessandra, a strong willed woman and artist, navigates her way in a world not so kind to women. The story weaves in historical information about Florence and artists of the time.
The Wedding Officer - Another story of food and love in Italy. This time the story is set in Naples during the end of World War II. Livia, a widow and cook from the Campania countryside, comes to Naples to find work. English Captian Gould has come to Naples as the wedding officer, to discourage and deny the marriages of his fellow soldiers to any Neapolitan women with shady reputations. After Capt. Gould has denied many marriages, a local decides that food is the way to soften his heart. Livia becomes his cook. Food and love prevail in this novel. You will also read about life during wartime in Naples, an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the beginnings of the Camorra, the craziness and hilarity of the Napolitani and, possibly best of all, Neapolitan food.
Leonardo's Swans - Historical fiction set mainly in Milan during the 15th century about two sisters in arranged marriages, Isabella d'Este and Beatrice. Beatrice landed the more powerful husband, Ludovico Sforza. Isabella, the more beautiful, cunning and ambitious sister, is jealous. Isabella catches Ludovico's wandering eye, and she plans to use this to her advantage to get a sitting with Ludovico's court painter, Leonardo da Vinci. This story of the lives and rivalry of two sisters takes you to the Duke of Milan's court during the 15th century, where you'll find political intrigue, family feuds, and the fight for being immortalized by Leonardo da Vinci's brush.
Beach Music - I absolutely loved the storytelling in this book. It's based in Rome and South Carolina. After his wife killed herself, Jack McCall (a travel writer) took his daughter and moved to Rome. Evenutally he returns to South Carolina, faces the death of his wife, and other tragedies that have happened in his past. These include problems with his dysfunctional parents, and childhood friends. I literally laughed and cried, mostly at the same time, while reading this. The author weaves together stories of Jack, his family and his boyhood friends. Their families all seem to be battling for the title of most dysfunctional family. The Holocaust, Vietnam and a terroist attack at Rome's airport also play pivotal roles in this story. (I had a crush on Jordon Elliot, one of Jack's childhood friends, for the entire book. He's the priest living in Rome. Yes, I realize he's also not a real person, but the story was written so well, I sometimes always forgot.)
In the Company of a Courtesan - The courtesan's dwarf servant, Bucino, tells their story. They barely escape the sack of Rome in 1527 and flee to Venice. Scarred and ill, Fiammetta - the courtesan - is nursed to health by a blind healer, La Draga. Fiammetta returns to her profession in Venice. You're transported to 16th century Venice in all its splendor and sordidness as the drama and the lives of Fiammetta, Bucino and La Draga unfold.
The Sixteen Pleasures - Set in Florence after the flood of 1966, Margot a 29 year-old librarian, decides to come to Florence to help save and restore books damaged in the flood and to find adventure. While helping to restore books in a convent, she finds the book "The Sixteen Pleasures" believed to be the last copy of Aretino's erotic sonnets and accompanying drawings. (The Pope had ordered all other copies to be burned.) The book could be worth a lot of money and save the struggling convent. With this book, she cetainly finds adventure in Florence.
Angels and Demons - Most people know about this book and the movie. Still, it's one of my favorites in fiction. It is an entertaining work of fiction, but the art and the buildings in the drama do exist. It's "24" but the race is in Rome, and we learn little factoids about art, history and the Vatican along the way. Hopefully all those that have seen the movie also read the book. As with most movies, it did not do the book justice.
The Passion of Artemisia - Historical fiction or fact-based fiction on the Italian artist, Artemisia Gentileschi, the first woman elected to the Accademia dell' Arte in Florence. The story starts in Rome where Artemisia is the defendant in a rape trial against her painting teacher. She agrees to an arranged marriage with another painter in Florence. While in Florence, her painting career does better than her husband's, and problems ensue. The story portrays a life of an woman and an artist in Italy during the 16th century.
The Thief Lord - After their parents die, two orphaned boys run away from their dislikeable aunt and uncle to Venice. They join up with a secret community of other orphans who steal to survive. The leader of the "gang," who goes by the name Thief Lord, does most of the stealing, jewels from rich Venetians. The aunt has hired a Venetian detective, Victor Getz, to find the boys. While Victor is searching for the boys, someone hires the Thief Lord to steal a wooden wing, which is actually a key to a magical merry-go-round. The hide-and-seek mayhem is amusingly played out in the alleys of Venice. While most of my favorite books are better suited for adults, this book is a good read for both adults and children.
My list for the 2011 reading challenge includes the 4 books below. I just started Sacred Hearts and will be reviewing it in January. I need to find 8 more, so if you have suggestions for me, please add them in the comments section below.
What are your favorite books set in Italy and what would you add to the list above?