Packing (Books) for a European Vacation

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For the purposes of this list, there are two important things to know about my mother. First, she has an unquenchable desire to vacation with her grandchildren. Second, she believes both her children must be treated equally. These two facts have come together to vastly improve my summer, because this year, my retired parents have decided to take a big international vacation with the grands. That means my sister, her husband, and both of her children will go along; and it means my wife Niki (whom you know as your Parnassus events and marketing director) and I get to go, too.

In order to get ready for a European vacation including stops in Paris, Venice, Montenegro, and Greece, Niki went shopping for new travel-friendly dresses, lined up dog- and house- sitters, and made sure everyone’s passports were in order. I read books.

First, I made a list of books set in the cities we’ll be traveling to. I skipped the obvious, Homer and Hemingway, but still found myself overwhelmed with choices. Talking about this project and gathering recommendations from folks was half the fun. Here are the books that made the cut.

 – Andrew Coffman (lawyer, avid reader, and Parnassus spouse)


Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 3.25.33 PMBetween Meals: An Appetite for Paris was first both alphabetically and in my heart. A.J. Liebling is one of the great chest-thumping characters from the old New Yorker. There are meals in this book that could easily kill a modern man. (To be sure it would be the happiest death.) Reading this will make sure your itinerary, like ours, includes about six restaurants a day. It might also crush your modern progressive sensibilities or make you feel guilty about loving it.

The Aspern Papers is one of the great literary treats set in Venice. Henry James shows a glimpse of the inner-life of a mysterious palazzo in this book that somehow manages to be light and clever while still giving notice that Venice is a city of deep mystery. A certain novelist who happens to own a bookstore in Nashville and loves Henry James ranks this novella as inferior to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, but I cannot agree with her. Death in Venice might be outshined by The Aspern Papers, but it does not disappoint. All my reading illustrates that Venice must be the greatest city of obsession in the world. Mann’s novella captures one man’s such obsession and his unforeseen willingness to die for it. This is a great book, not only for a trip to Venice, but also for anyone headed to Zika territory.

Having just read Death in Venice and The Aspern Papers, I thought Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi got off to a good start by playing lightly with allusion to both those stories. It also gave me a protagonist preparing for his trip to the Venice Biennale by reading books. Then Jeff had a little breakdown and the book got less fun, so I only read the first half and completely missed the trip to Varanasi. Maybe I’ll come back to it another summer.

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 3.26.31 PMThe Flaneur is a beautiful little hardback that makes up the first volume of a writers and cities series. It is not for tourists, but instead is for those who wish to blend into Paris. Edmund White explains that the essential French character can only be understood by walking the city. It is a charming thought and book. White boldly claims Roland Barthes to be the last great French thinker and asserts that modern culture has no place in the Paris sidewalks.

That assertion was quickly contradicted by The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik. His book Paris to the Moon details a series of trips to the Paris lecture halls. Written by an American both blending in and not quite blending in, it contains the sort of fascinating columns The New Yorker routinely ships out each week. True to the form, Gopnik takes a small action in his personal life in Paris, uses that to illustrate a larger point and then, because it’s The New Yorker, comes to a more sophisticated question than can be answered.

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On this trip we are going to Shakespeare and Company, Libreria Acqua Alta, and the bouquinistes along the Seine.

I wish I could tell you more about Rachel Cusk’s Outline, one of The New York Times’ five best books of the year in 2015, but I read it at the very beginning of my trip preparations. I do remember that it makes Greece seem very hot in the summer.

On the other hand, bookseller Lindsay Lynch recommended Alexander Chee’s Queen of the Night because she had read it while cold and stuck in the house last winter and found herself transported to Paris. The book is approximately as subtle as a Rococo gentlemen’s club, but it takes its inspiration and themes from 19th century opera, so what else could you expect? The book’s romance, tragedy, and plot relies on so much unbelievable luck, both bad and good, as to make any librettoist blush. But the book’s take on the real life interwoven histories of Verdi, Turgenev, and Pauline Viardot made me wish for a non-fiction book on their lives.

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy presents a different kind of lost girl escapade. Outrageous when it was originally published in 1958, apparently, it seems mild enough today. The New York Book Review republished the book about a decade ago. This is a perfect gift for the graduate heading to Europe before grad school or the horror of a real job. Plus, I learned from one of the book’s great fools that there are two kinds of tourists in Paris, neither of which is very attractive.

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 3.27.40 PM.pngI am embarrassed to admit I had never read a James Baldwin novel before a few weeks ago. Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room is a beautiful novel, which was certainly more scandalous than The Dud Avocado at the time it was published. There is very little about Paris in the book, but I was blown away by it. Baldwin’s short novel is nearly perfect and inspired me to add all his other books to my ever-growing reading list.

I happened to read a positive review of At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails in The New York Times Book Review on a Sunday morning following a night of apricot whiskey sours (1 ½ ounces of bourbon, ½ ounce of lemon juice, 1 ounce of apricot jam — shaken and strained). Sarah Bakewell combines biography with enough philosophy to make you feel smart. I still have some reading to do on this one, but already recommend it — just not for any insight into Paris.

Since our trip includes a trip to Joseph Brodsky’s grave, it seemed like a good idea to have read at least one of the Nobel Laureate’s books. Luckily, he wrote a short book of his impressions of Venice, Watermark. Brodsky is one of those writers who puts a net of imagination over reality, and his Venice is a living, breathing mystery.

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 3.28.38 PMWatermark will be one of my two go-to gifts for any friends setting out for Venice in the future. The other will be Venice Observed by Mary McCarthy. While Brodsky brings you into his head as he slips around the city, McCarthy is the slightly buzzed professor everyone wants to sit next to at dinner. She knows the current gossip, as well as the gossip from the 15th century. Her view of Venice is as large as possible and her anecdotes and cutting-but-sophisticated takes on art and history could not be more entertaining.

I first read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes in an Introduction to Classics seminar. It seemed really great then, but seems meant for a younger reader now. That said, since I finished it, I recognize so many more Greek allusions. This would be perfect for the high schooler in your life.

Parnassus general manager, Andy Brennan, recommended Thomas Cahill’s Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter, which follows in the same suit as Mythology, concentrating on men instead of gods, but ups the intellectual ante. Much of the book reads as if it were written as a master’s thesis drafted by a very talented writer. It expands on Hamilton’s thoughts and does a good job of providing source material citations without forcing you to read a lot of dry ancient texts.

Finally, I became more than a little obsessed with Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers. Having read Henry James and Thomas Mann, I understood that one might get lost in Venice. I also understood that it was entirely possible to disappear into a mystery, but The Comfort of Strangers is something else — a brilliant novel full of fear and discombobulation. There are no tricks or post-modern stylings, just a straightforward capture of the labyrinth nightmare. This is a fantastic book and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who might leave the United States at any point in the next five years.

No matter my McEwan-inspired fears, we are still going. So I’m making time to get to the remaining titles on my list: Henry James’s The Ambassadors; Scott Huler’s No-Man’s Lands; Starling Lawrence’s Montenegro; Jan Morris’s The World of Venice; Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion; and Dian Johnson’s Into a Paris Quartier.

The flights are long, so I’m packing: Michel Houellebecq’s Submission (supposedly France’s greatest contemporary novelist), Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (with its reliance on Greek classics), Don DeLillo’s The Names (the Greek-set book that made DeLillo famous-ish), Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (I really liked The Marriage Plot), and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (Marco Polo is mystified by his travels).

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 3.31.39 PMAll this reading isn’t necessary for a great trip, but it will help. I wouldn’t have known to add time to stare at The Tempest without Geoff Dyer and Mary McCarthy. While munching on airy treats from the patisseries, I will remember the visceral descriptions of Simone de Beauvoir and Lilliet Berne’s scrounged and rancid meals during the great occupation and siege of the 19th and 20th century. No one could read Giovanni’s Room and then wander through Les Halles without thinking about the fateful breakfast meeting between David and Giovanni. I imagine the Aegean will look a lot more wine-dark from our ship than it would have if not for these readings. In the words of Carl Sagan, “It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.”