Confession: I am a voracious reader. High literature, the occasional chick lit, lots of magazines, sometimes genre fiction. One of the best indicators of whether I'll like a book is whether it has a definite sense of time and place.
Whenever I get ready to travel, I read lots of books set in the place I'm going. For this past trip to Italy, I bought novels set all over Italy--so many that I'm still reading them. I just finished two books set in Italy, one a big snooze and the other a slight but lovely read.
There's a quote: "Talking about love is like dancing about architecture," a variant of which is apparently "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." No one knows who said this originally--maybe Elvis Costello?--but the gist is that capturing the essence of something wonderful is near-impossible.
The first book I read, Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by the terrific writer Kazuo Ishiguro, has two stories set in Italy. They happen to be the two best stories, both about musicians and their unorthodox mentors, that capture the canals, the piazzas, the langorous mood. It isn't his best work--that's either Never Let Me Go or The Remains of the Day--but it's well worth reading.
By contrast, Love of My Youth by Mary Gordon, made me want to hit my head against the wall. Two former lovers meet again forty years later in Rome, walk and talk and worry over what went wrong all those years ago. Every chapter set in the present takes place in a different, evocative location in Rome, but the book doesn't give any sense of what those places are like. Never have I wanted to yell "Shut up, already!" to two characters more. I'm not sure I've ever seen this plotline done really well in a book, but Before Sunset did much the same for Paris, and it's a pretty perfect movie.
David keeps saying that he is ready to go on vacation again. We just returned from Italy two months ago, and until we can actually go back I'll keep dreaming...and cooking...and reading.