Part 1: “Travel” Books

I’m just about finished with Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland, a historical novel set in turn of the century NY about Tiffany studios. It is in the perspective of Clara Driscoll, a Tiffany glass designer and head of the Tiffany Studio’s Women’s Glass Cutting Department. She may be the one responsible for designing the brilliant nature inspired lamps. It’s a pretty good book but it’s not my favorite historical novel. However, it’s an interesting story of a Victorian woman negotiating life as an artist and a trailblazer. It makes me want to pick up an actually history about Clara Driscoll and the “Tiffany Girls.”

Anyway, I bring this up because as a reward for finishing the book, I’m finally going to the Richard H. Driehaus Museum, which has an enormous collection of Tiffany Glass with a special exhibition of more Tiffany Glass. Clara Driscoll talks a lot about the process to produce the windows and other glass objects. There is an obsession with light and color. Everything had to be just so. There is the precision in cutting the glass, whether to cut it in sheets or in gem shape. There is the layering, which helps give depth to pieces. And much more. The book will really enhance the experience at the museum.

This got me thinking about the effect that books have on our visit to places. In other words, how reading a novel or a history can really enhance the experience of travel. Now, I don’t mean a travel guide or an article, I mean a book. So I’m going to put together a series of posts about books that enhance a visit to a particular place. Some will be sublime, some won’t. You can read them before or after your visit. But these are books that really contributed to my enjoyment of a particular place.

I’m going to start with Venice, one of my favorite places in the entire world. It’s a gem of a city. Every corner yields a new surprise: a shrine to Mary. a door knocker in the shape of a lion, a picturesque canal.

There are three things that you have to look past. It’s going to be really hot in the summer since it’s all stone reflecting the sun or it’s going to be cold and damp (with possible flooding) in the winter. It’s probably going to smell since the lagoon is still gross. And you walk pretty much everywhere (some find that problematic).

But it’s well worth it. There is the Peggy Guggenheim museum of modern art, which is extraordinary both for its collection and its view on the Grand Canal. St Mark’s place is extraordinary at any time of the day. There is shining mosaics on St. Mark’s basilica with the stolen horses of Constantinople. You can visit the Doge’s palace and prison. Or you can take the elevator up the tower and see all of Venice stretched out with its pale red roofs and gray canals.

There is a biannual contemporary art festival that installs wondrous things around the city like red penguins in balconies or giant balls of yarn. And the city changes so much from day to night. The expensive cafes in St. Marks’ have bands that battle at night.

I have two recommendations for Venice. The first is the Commissionario Brunetti series by Donna Leon. The first book is Death at La Fence. They give a thorough look at contemporary Venetian society through the eyes of Commissionario Brunetti, who is a real treat. He strives to find justice despite the corruption and lethargy of the Italian state. He is a rounded out character, you see his family life with his wife, an English professor, and his two children who have personalities and whims of their own.

The mysteries themselves are wonderful. You don’t know if the bad guy is going to be caught or brought to justice, which is a change in the genre. Each book concentrates on different parts of society, whether it is the glass factories, the gondoliers, the African immigrants selling fake bags at night.

The second recommendation is The Venetian Stories by Jane Turner Rylands. It’s a series of loosely connected stories of different people living in Venice. They are beautiful stories of people trying to find their ways in an ancient city. There are stories in the point of view of non-Venetians who live in the city too.

So check these out if you are going to Venice. Or check them out because they are good books to read anyway.

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