Thursday 23 March 2017

A page-turning getaway

Want to immerse yourself in local culture and history while soaking up the good life? Follow our guide on what to read in the world's top holiday destinations

The best guide to Louisiana doesn't work for a travel company or a tourist board, but you can have the benefit of his experience for the price of a paperback. He's James Lee Burke, author of the stories featuring Detective Dave Robicheaux. In his pages, you can smell the bayou and all but taste the po'boy sandwiches. He's the perfect companion on a trip to New Orleans and Cajun country.

So if you're heading elsewhere, which books should you be packing? Here are our suggestions for the countries most popular with Irish holidaymakers.

SPAIN

Catching up

'Speak the Culture: Spain' (Thorogood) is a tapas menu of a primer, with bite-size chunks on everything from the prehistoric cave paintings of Altamira to the films of Pedro Almodóvar.

Brushing up

In 'Ghosts of Spain' (Faber), Giles Tremlett sees a country break the "pact of forgetting" and try to come to terms with the legacy of the Civil War. If you know nothing of the Basques beyond the news-page shorthand 'ETA' and 'separatist', start with Mark Kurlansky's 'The Basque History of the World' (Vintage).

Winding down

In Barcelona, move from Gothic Quarter to Gothic ghost story with 'The Shadow of the Wind' by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (Phoenix). In Andalusia, try 'The Wind from the East' by Almudena Grandes (Phoenix), a subtle tale of starting over, set near Cadiz, in an area swept by a wind that is said to drive people mad.

In 'The Seville Communion' by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (Vintage), a troubleshooter from the Vatican investigates mysterious deaths in a church scheduled for demolition and gets lost in the city of the title -- as often as most first-time tourists do.

FRANCE

Catching up

A thriller for your trip? Make it Émile Zola's 'La Bête Humaine' (Oxford World's Classics), a 19th-century story of murder, corruption and the railways.

'Aspects of Provence' by James Pope-Hennessy (Penguin), first published in 1952, remains the best English-language introduction to many of the flavours of this region.

In 'Long Ago in France' (Simon and Schuster), the American food writer MFK Fisher looks back at her time in Dijon in the 1930s. It's Burgundy as a terrain of discovery for a recently married woman, with fabulously sharp observations on France and the French.

Brushing up

'The Discovery of France' by Graham Robb (Picador), brilliantly researched and written, lets the reader come to grips with the country as the French did -- slowly, awkwardly, eccentrically.

In 'Paris to the Moon', a 1990s memoir, Adam Gopnik of 'The New Yorker' -- perhaps the best journalist ever to have reported regularly from Paris -- moves from the particular (wife, children, domestic arrangements) to the general (French culture, politics, economics) with ease, wit and penetrative insight.

Given the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, could there be any subject more topical than that of the new book by Elaine Sciolino, former Paris bureau chief of 'The New York Times'? Its title: 'La Séduction: How the French Play the Game of Life' (Times Books).

Winding down

'One Helluva Mess' by Jean-Claude Izzo (Arcadia), a taut thriller, makes a splendid introduction to Marseille's seamy side. In 'Narrow Dog to Carcassonne', Terry Darlington (Bantam) has written the best, funniest book ever about French inland navigation.

Cara Black's Paris-based crime novels have fans by the legion. The latest is Murder In Passy' (Soho Press).

ITALY

Catching up

Start with 'Speak the Culture: Italy' (Thorogood) and then 'The Italians' by Luigi Barzini (Penguin), both brilliant insider guides.

'Tuscany: A History', by Alistair Moffat (Birlin), tells the story of a sublime but far from saintly place before (and after) its colonisation by the inglesi.

Obvious classics are EM Forster's 'A Room with a View' (Penguin), Thomas Mann's 'Death in Venice' (Vintage) and Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa's 'The Leopard' (Vintage).

Brushing up

For 17 years -- more than a 10th of Italy's life as a nation -- politics has been dominated by one man. To understand why, read Paul Ginsborg's 'Silvio Berlusconi: Television, Power and Patrimony' (Verso Books). 'Gomorrah' by Roberto Saviano (Pan), a passionate denunciation of the Neapolitan mafia, created such a stir that its author, five years on, still has armed guards at public expense.

Winding down

Robert Harris, political columnist turned thriller writer, has cornered the market in recreations of the Roman Empire with 'Pompeii', 'Imperium' and 'Lustrum' (Arrow). James Hamilton-Paterson has done likewise with the expat life gone wrong, chronicling its melancholy realities in the hilarious 'Cooking with Fernet Branca' (Faber) and its sequels.

UNITED STATES

Catching up

Ernest Hemingway reckoned that "all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn'" (Penguin). To see where it has ended up, try Philip Roth's 'American Pastoral' (Vintage), John Updike's 'Rabbit' series (Penguin) and Marilynne Robinson's 'Housekeeping' (Faber).

Wondering how the land of the free became the home of big government? 'America: Empire of Liberty' by David Reynolds (Penguin) offers some answers, sweeping from Palaeo-Indian founders to President Obama in a single volume.

Brushing up

'Surveillance' by Jonathan Raban (Picador), an Englishman long resident in Seattle, is a black comedy about how the US has been gripped by paranoia since 9/11.

'The Post-American World' by Fareed Zakaria (Penguin), an Indian-born American, considers the place of the US in an era when "the rest rise and the West wanes".

Winding down

In New York, read 'Sex and the City' by Candace Bushnell (Abacus) -- in print, if not on screen, a dark and acerbic slice of the Big Apple -- or its polar opposite, Joseph Mitchell's profile of the definitive Greenwich Village bohemian 'Joe Gould's Secret' (Vintage) and Colum McCann's award-winning 'Let the Great World Spin' (Bloomsbury).

In San Francisco, read Armistead Maupin's 'Tales of the City' series (Black Swan), which began as a newspaper serialisation; in Florida, the satire of Carl Hiaasen (try 'Sick Puppy', Pan), sharp as a 'gator's teeth; and on a ranch holiday, Annie Proulx's 'Close Range: Wyoming Stories' (Fourth Estate), including the novella 'Brokeback Mountain'.

GREECE

Catching up

The Greek classics a little taxing for a holiday? Then try Christopher Logue's 'War Music' (Faber and Faber), one of a series of slim volumes in which, over more than 40 years, he has been producing a stirring, if hardly literal, verse rendition of Homer's Iliad.

Brushing up

Time for only one book? Make it Richard Clogg's 'A Concise History of Greece' (Cambridge University Press). Modern Greece, that is; it ranges from the Ottoman era to the millennium.

Despite momentous changes recently, Sofka Zinovieff's 'Eurydice Street: A Place in Athens' (Granta), published in 2004, remains the best account of today's Greece, with sharp insights into nationalism, terrorism and the Orthodox church.

Winding down

Louis de Bernières's 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin', first published in 1994, is already in the Vintage Classics list. The Summer of My Greek Taverna: A Memoir by Tom Stone (Simon & Schuster), set in Patmos during the early 1980s, is a cautionary tale about innocents abroad doing business in a closed community, whether in property or at the taverna of the title.

PORTUGAL

Catching up

Start with 'The Portuguese: The Land and Its People' by Marion Kaplan (Penguin), a one-volume introduction ranging from geography and history to wine and poetry, and 'Portugal: A Companion History' by José H Saraiva (Carcanet Press), a bestselling writer and popular broadcaster in his own country.

Did the wrong Portuguese novelist win when José Saramago beat António Lobo Antunes to the Nobel Prize? Maybe. The latter, being obsessively local in his concerns, suits the tourist better. 'The Fat Man and Infinity' (WW Norton), a collection of his short stories, is his most accessible work in English.

Brushing up

'Ballad of Dog's Beach' by José Cardoso Pires (Everyman) is a gripping thriller based on an assassination that took place under the Salazar dictatorship.

Winding down

Heading for the grasslands and cork oak forests of the Alentejo? Then pack 'Alentejo Blue' (Black Swan), in which Monica Ali, in a series of vignettes, depicts village life in the region. Wartime Portugal, a supposedly neutral country stuffed with spies and informers, provides the setting for two thrillers by Robert Wilson: 'A Small Death in Lisbon' and 'The Company of Strangers' (both HarperCollins).

TURKEY

Catching up

"I live in a country that views the non-reader as the norm and the reader as somehow defective," the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk has written.

Even so, he has spent nearly all his life in Istanbul and remains preoccupied with his home turf in his writing. Don't step on to it without reading his 'Istanbul: Memories and the City' (Faber and Faber).

Brushing up

'Turkey: A Short History' by Norman Stone (Thames & Hudson) races from the 11th century to the present with irreverent economy (in the 18th century, "the sultans succeeded each other, none of them very interesting").

Winding down

Detectives are kept busy in Istanbul. On the streets of the 1840s, there is Jason Goodwin's hero Yashim -- sleuth, chef and eunuch -- whose latest adventure is 'An Evil Eye' (Faber).

CYPRUS

Catching up

The best travelogue is still Colin Thubron's 'Journey into Cyprus' (Penguin), an account of a three-month trek around the island during 1972, with excursions into history and encounters with locals on the eve of the big bust-up.

Brushing up

'The Cyprus Conspiracy: America, Espionage and the Turkish Invasion' by Brendan O'Malley and Ian Craig is a remarkably coherent presentation of the long-standing theory that Cyprus' integrity was sacrificed to maintain the strategic worth of the island to Nato and the US.

Winding down

Sheila Hawkins' trilogy, 'Back of Beyond', 'Beyond our Dreams' and 'Beyond Compare' (Kyriakou Books), chronicling the life of an naïve expat putting down roots in a remote village of the Akamas peninsula, is light beach reading.

'Ledra Street' by Nora Nadjarian (Armida Publications) -- a Limassol Armenian best known for her poetry -- is a collection of short stories exploring love, adultery, the diaspora experience, racism and family crises.

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