Reading cookbooks is an adventure for me. The photos, the recipes, I can almost taste them as I read. I also like to travel and enjoy the Italian culture through books. You can be whisked through the Italian countryside on an adventure or carried back through time to experience life as it was in renaissance times. Here are just a few of my favorites that include classics, modern mysteries, history, art, and everything in-between. These are in no particular order.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. This comedic romance follows an Italian innkeeper’s search for lost love over 50 years. The story of an almost-love affair that begins on the Italian coast in 1962 . . . and is rekindled in Hollywood fifty years later. It starts out in Italy and goes back and forth between decades.
Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King. At first denounced as a madman, Brunelleschi literally reinvented the field of architecture amid plagues, wars, and political feuds to raise seventy million pounds of metal, wood, and marble hundreds of feet in the air. Ross King’s captivating narrative brings to life the personalities and intrigue surrounding the twenty-eight-year-long construction of the dome, opening a window onto Florentine life during one of history’s most fascinating eras.
Angels & Demons by Dan Brown. Angels & Demons careens from enlightening epiphanies to dark truths as the battle between science and religion turns to war. This is the book that started it all: we meet Robert Langdon for the first time, caught up in a race against time to find an apocalyptic time-bomb, planted by a secret society that has surfaced to carry out its ultimate threat: to destroy the Vatican.
Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel. Inspired by a long fascination with Galileo, and by the remarkable surviving letters of his daughter Maria Celeste, a cloistered nun, Dava Sobel has crafted a biography that dramatically recolors the personality and accomplishments of a mythic figure whose early-seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion.
The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant. In this arresting tale of art, love and betrayal in 15th-century Florence, the daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant seeks the freedom of marriage in order to paint, but finds that she may have bought her liberty at the cost of love and true fulfillment.
The Broker by John Grisham. In his final hours in office, the outgoing President grants a controversial last-minute pardon to Joel Backman, a notorious Washington power broker who has spent the last six years hidden away in a federal prison. What no one knows is that the President issues the pardon only after receiving enormous pressure from the CIA. It seems that Backman, in his heyday, may have obtained secrets that compromise the world’s most sophisticated satellite surveillance system. Backman is quietly smuggled out of the country in a military cargo plane, given a new name, a new identity, and a new home in Italy. Will Backman survive?
Lucia, Lucia by Adriana Trigiani. It is 1950 in glittering, vibrant New York City. Lucia Sartori is the beautiful twenty-five-year-old daughter of a prosperous Italian grocer in Greenwich Village. The postwar boom is ripe with opportunities for talented girls with ambition, and Lucia becomes an apprentice to an up-and-coming designer at chic B. Altman’s department store on Fifth Avenue. Engaged to her childhood sweetheart, the steadfast Dante DeMartino, Lucia is torn when she meets a handsome stranger who promises a life of uptown luxury that career girls like her only read about in the society pages. Forced to choose between duty to her family and her own dreams, Lucia finds herself in the midst of a sizzling scandal in which secrets are revealed, her beloved career is jeopardized, and the Sartoris’ honor is tested.
The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi by Jacqueline Park. This is a sweeping tale of intrigue and romance set in a time rife with court politics, papal chicanery, religious intolerance, and inviolable social rules. Grazia, private secretary to the world-renowned Isabella d’Este, is the daughter of an eminent Jewish banker, the wife of the pope’s Jewish physician, and the lover of a Christian prince. In a “secret book,” written as a legacy for her son, she records her struggles to choose between the seductions of the Christian world and a return to the family, traditions, and duties of her Jewish roots. As she re-creates Renaissance Italy in captivating detail, Jacqueline Park gives us a timeless portrait of a brave and brilliant woman trapped in an unforgiving, inflexible society.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. This is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila, a meticulous portrait of two women that is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship.The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. This book is part of a series and chronicles the lives of two friends over 50 years. (others in this series: The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.
The Towers of Tuscany by Carol M. Cram. Sofia is trained in secret as a painter in her father’s workshop during a time when women did not paint openly. She loves her work, but her restless spirit leads her to betray her extraordinary gifts to marry a man who comes to despise her for not producing a son. After Sofia’s father is crushed by his own fresco during an attack motivated by a vendetta, Sofia realizes she must escape her loveless marriage. She flees to Siena, where, disguised as a boy, she paints again. When her work attracts the notice of a nobleman who discovers the woman under the dirty smock, Sofia is faced with a choice that nearly destroys her.
The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani. A breathtaking multigenerational love story that spans two continents, two World Wars, and the quest of two star-crossed lovers to find each other again. This page-turning adventure has sumptuous detail, and heart-stopping romance.
Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King. In 1508, despite strong advice to the contrary, the powerful Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo Buonarroti to paint the ceiling of the newly restored Sistine Chapel in Rome. Despite having completed his masterful statue David four years earlier, he had little experience as a painter, even less working in the delicate medium of fresco, and none with challenging curved surfaces such as the Sistine ceiling’s vaults. This book recounts the fascinating story of the four extraordinary years he spent laboring over the twelve thousand square feet of the vast ceiling, while war and the power politics and personal rivalries that abounded in Rome swirled around him.
Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes. Mayes’ bestseller describes living la dolce vita in the Tuscan countryside. She introduces readers to a wondrous new world when she bought and restored an abandoned villa called Bramasole in the spectacular Tuscan countryside. Under the Tuscan inspired generations to embark on their own journeys–whether that be flying to a foreign country in search of themselves, savoring one of the book’s dozens of delicious seasonal recipes, or simply being transported by Mayes’s signature evocative, sensory language.
A Thousand Days in Tuscany by Marlena de Blasi. They had met and married on perilously short acquaintance, she an American chef and food writer, he a Venetian banker. Now they were taking another audacious leap, unstitching their ties with exquisite Venice to live in a roughly renovated stable in Tuscany. Love for the timeless countryside and the ancient village of San Casciano dei Bagni, for the local vintage and the magnificent cooking, for the Tuscan sky and the friendly church bells. Love especially for old Barlozzo, the village mago, who escorts the newcomers to Tuscany’s seasonal festivals; gives them roasted country bread drizzled with just-pressed olive oil; invites them to gather chestnuts, harvest grapes, hunt truffles; and teaches them to caress the simple pleasures of each precious day.
A Valley in Italy by Lisa St. Aubin de Teran. Of all the romantic obsessions in novelist Lisa St Aubin de Teran’s life, the search for a castle occupied her the longest–until she saw the magnificent Villa Orsola deep in the Umbrian hills. Only after eagerly signing the ownership papers did she and her husband, painter Robbie Duff-Scott, discover they were the owners of a vast ruin lacking windowpanes, parts of the roof, and other essentials. A Valley in Italy recounts its restoration in the grand style of impossible house and the charms of bohemian family life. It also offers a rare portrait of the life of an Italian village, where “all things are made to be as enjoyable as possible.”
Casa Rossa by Frances Marciano. A spellbinding story of how loves and losses, secrets and lies, resonate across the generations. A crumbling farmhouse in Puglia, Casa Rossa was bought by Alina Strada’s grandfather at a time when no one else wanted it. Now busy preparing it for sale, Alina endeavors to recover the memories it still harbors—in particular of three women whose passions indelibly shaped her family’s dark past. There’s grandmother Renee, whose love of novelty won over everything else. Alina’s mother, Alba, whose marriage to a screenwriter inspired both great art and unbearable sadness. Finally Isabella, Alina’s sister, whose fervent politics drove her to ever-escalating betrayals.
The Lady in the Palazzo: An Umbrian Love Story by Marlene de Blasi. Take a journey into the heart of Orvieto, an ancient city in the less-trodden region of Umbria. Rich with history and a vivid sense of place, her tale is by turns romantic and sensual, joyous and celebratory, as she and her husband search for a home in this city on a hill—finding one that turns out to be the former ballroom of a dilapidated sixteenth-century palazzo. Along the way, de Blasi befriends an array of colorful characters, including cooks and counts and shepherds and a lone violinist, cooking her way into the hearts of her Umbrian neighbors. Brimming with life and kissed by romance.
Cold Tuscan Stone by David P. Wagner. The main character, Rick Montoya has just moved from New Mexico to Rome, embracing the life of a translator. He’s beginning to settle in to la dolce vita when a school friend who is now senior in the Italian Art Squad recruits Rick for an unofficial undercover role. Armed with a list of galleries, suspects, and an expense account, Rick would arrive in Tuscany posing as a buyer for a Santa Fe gallery and flush out priceless burial urn traffickers. But before sunset on Rick’s first day, a gallery employee dies in a brutal fall from a high cliff. Has the trade in fraudulent artifacts upgraded to murder? Are the traffickers already on to Rick? You’ll have to read it to find out.
The Godfather by Mario Puzo. It details the story of a fictional Mafia family based in New York City and Long Beach, New York, headed by Don Vito Corleone, who became synonymous with the Italian Mafia. The novel covers the years 1945 to 1955, and also provides the back story of Vito Corleone from early childhood to adulthood.
I, Mona Lisa by Jeanne Kalogridis. This story is about the model for Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Mona Lisa. Lisa is portrayed as a young Italian woman who learns about the murder of Giuliano de’Medici in the Pazzi conspiracy. Guiliano’s murder casts a shadow, especially as one of the killers has not been found. It’s an intricately woven tale of betrayal, love, and loss, which unravels the mysteries surrounding Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous portrait, Mona Lisa, and its links with the main character Lisa Gherardini, with added plot twists.
Mirror, Mirror by Gregory Maguire. A dark and vivid retelling of Snow White transposed to the 17th century Tuscany of the Borgias. Lucrezia is the evil stepmother and five-year-old Bianca de Nevada grows into the role of Snow White. Fantasy but worth the read.
La Cucina: A Novel of Rapture by Lily Priot. Rosa is the only girl from a rural Sicilian family. The heart of the family’s lush estate, was a place where generations of Fiore women prepared sumptuous feasts and where the drama of extended family life was played out around the age-old table. After losing her true love at a young age, she moves to the big city and loses her love of food and of life. Years later, a mysterious man reawakens her to both.
A Bell for Adano by John Hersey. An Italian-American major in World War II wins the love and admiration of the local townspeople when he searches for a replacement for the 700 year-old town bell that had been melted down for bullets by the fascists. Hersey’s novel about an American major overseeing a town in WWII Sicily won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1945.
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. The unforgettable story of an American ambulance driver on the Italian front and his passion for a beautiful English nurse. Set against the looming horrors of the battlefield—weary, demoralized men marching in the rain during the German attack on Caporetto; the profound struggle between loyalty and desertion—this gripping, semi-autobiographical work captures the harsh realities of war and the pain of lovers caught in its inexorable sweep.
A Month Of Italy by Chris Brady. This book chronicles an ordinary family taking an extraordinary trip, and most importantly, paves the way for you to take one of your own! With hilarious wit and fast-paced narrative, Brady thrills with honest commentary on what a “trip of a lifetime” actually feels like, and most endearingly, he succeeds in convincing you that not only should you take a similar one, but that you will! Within a few pages you’ll be visualizing panoramic Tuscan vistas and breaking open the piggy bank, laughing as you turn the pages and dreaming of your own escape.
The Etruscan by Linda Lappin. In this post-modern literary gothic novel, Harriet Sackett, a feminist photographer, travels to Italy to photograph Etruscan tombs for the Theosophical Society in 1922. Here she falls in love with a charismatic count, Federigo del Re, extraordinary in the tradition of the Conte de St. Germaine, who materializes and disappears into the eerie Etruscan landscape. Her well-bred cousins from Russell Square manage to save her from her fatal obsession by wiping out all evidence of his improbable existence. Is the Conte Federigo Del Re faithful; is he a real count, or even a real man; a fantasy or an Etruscan ghost? This shape-shifting Rochester will not be tracked down, unmasked or domesticated. The Etruscan has been hailed by Italian critics as a new classic in American writing about Italy.
Signatures in Stone by Linda Lappin. Seeking inspiration in the timeless Italian landscape, four unlikely misfits find their destinies entangled in the meanders of the mysterious sculpture garden of Bomarzo, peopled with freaks and monsters. Daphne, a writer with a hashish habit, Clive, American gigolo and aspiring artist, Nigel, an English aristocrat down at the heels, and Finestone, a fly by night art historian come together in a decrepit villa looked after by two Italian servants who are not what they seem. To find their heart’s desire, all the characters must descend into the depths of hell, but not everyone will make it out alive. In the hideous sculptures of Bomarzo, Daphne must face up the hidden sides of herself while solving the mystery of murder for which she is unjustly accused. She will discover that her own journey to hell has already been written sculpted by an unknown genius centuries ago in these signatures in stone.
Italian Neighbors by Tim Parks. Park describes an Englishman’s humorous and sometimes difficult attempt to live as a local in a small Italian town. More than a travel book, Italian Neighbors is a sparkling, witty, beautifully observed tale of how the most curious people and places gradually assume the familiarity of home. Italian Neighbors is a rare work that manages to be both a portrait and an invitation for everyone who has ever dreamed about Italy.