Emma Killick goes from Florence to the East End of London via Rwanda – all without leaving her armchair…

Florence and Rome – The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone.

This is the best type of art book to read (rather than the A4 sized, 70s produced tat that you buy outside tourist sites around Europe). This biographical novel about Michelangelo provides wonderful detail about the artist’s life and works. Particularly revealing is Michelangelo’s belief that his sculptures were uncovering what was already in the marble, most obvious in his unfinished Captives that appear in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence. Reading this book before visiting so many famous works by Michelangelo will truly enhance your enjoyment of them.

General – Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski.

Kapuscinski’s last book is an ode to his hero and “companion” Herodotus. Born in 1932 Poland and living through the war and post war communism, Kapuscinski always wanted to travel. More accurately, he always wanted to cross the border. He didn’t know anything about other places and when given his chance he is awed, lost and inspired by what he sees. From his first travels, he takes along a book by Herodotus to inspire and comfort him. This loving book gives a palpable insight into not only what it is like to discover a new land (and this final book covers India, China, several countries in Africa, and a brief stop in Iran), but also what it must have been like to be raised during the restrictive times of the Iron Curtain and how it curtailed knowledge of just about everywhere else outside it. You can just imagine Ryszard curled up at night in a new country finding solace in reading Herodotus. Take this book with you if you are planning on going somewhere “really foreign” to you or just traveling alone.

Great Britain – A Brief History of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley.

From the Celts, the Romans and Boudica, William the Conqueror, and all the way up to the present Queen, this history is enjoyably readable – not the dry tome it could have been. It has great characterizations of the various kings and queens that really brings them to life and covers their relevant pressures, achievements and failings. You can read it like a novel from beginning to end or use it as a reference book.

Guernica (Northwest Spain) – Guernica by Dave Boling.

The nightmare that befell the citizens of Guernica in 1937 is known mainly because of Picasso’s raw painting of the tragic bombing of the town. This historical novel tells the true story through the lives of one fictional family, setting the scene in Basque Spain before the bombing and in its wake. This novel is extremely moving and well told.

London (East End) – Brick Lane by Monica Ali.

A classic culture-clash novel set in East London. This book not only brings to life this area of London, but is insightful about Bangladeshi’s of different generations and classes trying to acclimatize to British life.

Middle East – From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple.

Most of Dalrymple’s books are about India, but here the author attempts to retrace the journey of two monks’ across Byzantium in the 6th Century in order to study the demise of Christianity in its Middle Eastern homeland. This is travel history, rather than a religious book, but the detail of landmarks throughout the region make it a worthwhile read if you are traveling to the area – even if you decide to stay in hotels, rather than caves and deserted monasteries!

Nigeria – Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Following three diverse characters in the lead up to and aftermath of the Biafra war, this award-winning epic truly brings home the devastation of colonialism and war on all classes and races in Nigeria. Colourful, tragic, and heartfelt.

Rwanda – Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Gil Courtmanche.

Okay, I acknowledge that there aren’t many out there who’ll be traveling to Rwanda, but this vivid novel by a French Canadian journalist is moving, harrowing, and empathetically written about the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

South West France (Lot and Lot et Garonne) – A House in the Sunflowers by Ruth Silvestre, From Here You Can’t See Paris by Michael Sanders, and Families of the Vine by Michael Sanders

Arguably now a tired (but still popular) genre after Peter Malle started the revolution in the “fish out of water in a new country” works, but I still think these three have something genuine and worthwhile to offer. (Although I might be biased because I spend half the year in the Lot et Garonne.)

A House in the Sunflowers is charming and is partly about a family’s adventure and restoration of a house in rural France, but mainly about the food, customs and characters in the area (in the interests of full disclosure, I have to say that I partly love this book because my parents now live near Ms. Silvestre and Raymond and Claudette Bertrand – who feature so heavily in this book – are still as charming, helpful and sincere as they were when Ruth first met them thirty-five years ago).

Michael Sanders is an American who immersed himself in rural village life in the next department to Ms. Silvestre. His book From Here You Can’t See Paris centres on the activities and establishment of a restaurant in a village called Les Arques in the Lot. La Recreation was set up against the odds and is still a beautiful restaurant, run by a hard working couple who get the villagers to help grow the veg as well as driving to the coast every morning to pick up fresh seafood.

Another Sanders book which should have as much appeal for wine lovers as for those exploring south-west France is Families of the Vine. It contains details on wine-making, the history of it in the region as well as the stresses on three family-run vineyards in Cahors who have all gone in different directions with their wine-making.

Unpopulated islands – Visiting an empty island? Well here’s a random suggestion: Lord of the Flies by William Golding. This classic is all the more eerie if you read it in this kind of setting. I read it while on Praslin in the Seychelles, where I had the good fortune of sitting on deserted beaches and traipsing through the jungle and I think the setting enhanced my enjoyment of the book – I could feel the isolation of those boys marooned on an island . . . and the fear of that beast.

Photo: JustinTabariPhoto

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About Emma Killick

Emma Killick is an avid gardener, California lawyer and UK solicitor. She has travelled all her life, and is now based in London, escaping often to a farmhouse in France.