Tom Holland, classical historian and novelist
This has not been a good year for the Greeks, but it has been an excellent one for books on a Greek theme. Holidaymakers to the Aegean can always remind themselves of more heroic times by tucking into Peter Krentz’s The Battle of Marathon (Yale £20), a gripping account of the ancient Athenians’ finest hour. Poetry lovers should be sure to invest in The Known, a translation of selected poems by Nikos Fokas, one of Greece’s finest living poets: his elegiac and often unsettling meditations will make the perfect accompaniment to a late-evening glass of ouzo in a village square. Finally, for the perfect beach read, look no further than Zachary Mason’s witty, inventive and often deeply moving reworking of Homer, The Lost Books of the Odyssey(Vintage £7.99) – a worthy winner of last year’s Criticos prize. In 44 startlingly various versions of Odysseus’s adventures, we are given, among numerous other treats, a Penelope who turns out to be a werewolf, a Cyclops who turns out to be Homer and a Helen who turns out to have been abducted by Death.
Julius Purcell, Barcelona-based culture writer
Spanish fiction lists are dominated by Javier Marías, lugubrious to some and monumentally beautiful to others. A good start is Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (Vintage £9.99), about an adultery gone horribly wrong, and which I found to be lugubrious… and monumentally beautiful.
Many novels about Spain are now being written by South American immigrant writers. Of the few translated so far, the late Roberto Bolaño’sThe Skating Rink (Picador £7.99), a Catalan love story featuring embezzled public money, is a good example. Classics that can be found in English, and which deeply affected me, include Ramón J Sender’s 1960 Requiem for a Spanish Peasant (Aris & Phillips £14.95), about a village that becomes a microcosm of the Spanish civil war. Juan Marsé’sGolden Girl is a witty portrait of a mediocre pro-Franco writer, who, after the death of the dictator, tortuously rewrites his own life history with the help of his unstable niece.
Among the best of recent non-fiction is Javier Cercas’s The Anatomy of a Moment (Bloomsbury £18.99), a part-investigative, part-narrative analysis of the 1981 coup attempt against the Spanish parliament. John Hooper’s The New Spaniards (Penguin £10.99) surveys the country’s ultra-traditional/ultra-modern paradox, while Giles Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain (Faber £9.99) expertly exorcises Spain’s contemporary traumas.
Andrew Hussey, Paris‑based academic and cultural historian
France Observed in the 17th Century by British Travellers, edited by John Lough, is a collection of letters, documents and travellers’ tales in which Brits witness, with horror and fascination, the economic and social conditions in France, the courts, the church, the poor state of the armed forces and what goes on in Versailles.
In complete contrast is Voice Over (Faber £10.99), a novel by Céline Curiol, which is an example of what I’d call Eurostar literature. It’s about a woman who reads out the announcements at the Gare du Nord in Paris and is completely bored and ready for sexual adventure, which she finds by falling in love with a transvestite. It’s like an uber-sexy Tale of Two Cities.
My favourite French classic has to be Journey to the End of the Night(Oneworld £12.99) by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It’s an epic that takes you all around the world, but the centre of the world is Paris, or Céline’s delirious, slightly hallucinatory, incredibly poetic vision of it. There are two translations but neither conveys the scabrous energy of Parisian lowlife slang, so it’s best to read it in the original.
Alain de Botton, author and social entrepreneur
If you’re holidaying at home in the UK, you might want to bring along Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s The Cloudspotter’s Guide (Sceptre £8.99), because it encourages us to give up on the false dichotomy between good weather (cloudless) and bad weather (cloudy) and learn to appreciate the hidden beauty and complexity of an unclear sky. Because no good holiday is complete without fierce arguments, bring along a great British therapist such as Donald Winnicott, author of the beautiful, useful and lyrical book Home Is Where We Start From (Penguin £12.99).
One of the joys of holidaying at home is the capacity to dream about what it might be like if you were somewhere else, without encountering the disappointing reality. This is one of the themes of the wonderful Geoff Dyer’s book Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It(Abacus £8.99). Last but not least, pack in Simon Jenkins’s guide to the churches of Britain, England’s Thousand Best Churches (Penguin £22), as when you’ve done all the usual more exciting visitor attractions, gorged yourself on fish and chips, walked a windy pier or two and admired the view from Ben Nevis, there’s nothing quite as comforting and boringly interesting as a British country church.
Matteo Pericoli, architect, author and illustrator of Observer series Windows on the World
Seeing how the 150th anniversary of Italy’s unification is unexpectedly rushing through this country’s blood, it would very sensible to read Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (Vintage Classics £8.99). Published posthumously in 1958 and set during the Risorgimento, it appears to be a perfect metaphor of all things Italian, back then and, most importantly, now: the clash between the north and the south, the complex idea of Italy’s wholeness, the sense of cynical realism and resignation embedded in everyone’s way of thinking – just to name a few. Plus Tancredi’s ever-lasting quote: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
Ignazio Silone’s Fontamara is a novel set during the fascist era in a fictional village in central Italy’s Abruzzo region. Its passive and vulnerable peasants live in misery, the outside world barely exists and their only tangible relationship is with the soil they cultivate. Because of fascism’s censorship, Fontamara wasn’t published in Italy until 1947, and soon after it became a fundamental document to understand the complexity of Italy’s south. Another insightful tool for this is Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah (Pan £8.99), in which the Sistema (the name used in the Campania region instead of Camorra) has created a parallel criminal world, organised beyond anyone’s imagination and, apparently, beyond any possibility of being dismantled.
Maureen Freely, novelist and translator of Orhan Pamuk
Princess Musbah Haider had an English mother but grew up in the Ottoman court during the early years of the 20th century. Around her, the empire was crumbling, but she was one of the last to know. Her memoir, Arabesque, is one of the most charming books I have ever read.
Carla Grissman is an American woman who spent a year in a remote and impoverished Anatolian village in the late 1960s; in Dinner of Herbs, she describes her experiences with extraordinary insight.
Fifty years ago, Yashar Kemal was the Turkish novelist. His first book,Memed, My Hawk, is set among the aghas and brigands of south-east Anatolia and is one of the great modern epics. It is very unusual for a bookish person to head for Turkey these days without packing a few novels by Orhan Pamuk. But don’t forget his memoir, Istanbul: Memories of a City (Faber £9.99), still one of my favourite books.
The Istanbul in Moris Farhi’s Young Turk (Telegram £8.99) is joyously multicultural, if under threat. But not forever, as Selçuk Altun proves in his edgy, witty, dangerously literary novels, of which two – Songs My Mother Never Taught Me and Many and Many a Year Ago (both Telegram £7.99) – are available in English.
Ahdaf Soueif, Anglo‑Egyptian novelist
Start with The Dawn of Conscience by James Henry Breasted. It’s old, but then what it deals with is even older! It’s a brilliant introduction to ancient Egyptian life and thought – and its continued relevance today. The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (Saqi £14.95) by eminent Lebanese author Amin Maalouf is a great read. Take care though: it’s not the angle that western readers are used to. Everyone should read one Naguib Mahfouz novel. In English, Miramar is the one I’d go for.
Egypt: The Moment of Change (Zed £16.99) edited by Rabab El Mahdi and Philip Marfleet – this provides an excellent background and interpretation of today’s Egyptian revolution. Tweets from Tahrir edited by Alex Nunns and Nadia Idle will take you right up to the present and give you a sense of the Egyptian revolution as it unfolded.
John Freeman, Granta editor
Although primarily about the far north, Barry Lopez’sArctic Dreams (Vintage £9.99) is a must-read for anyone travelling to North America. Lopez reminds us that long before interstates and factory farms carved it up, America was a continent of astonishing beauty.
If you’re going to be driving – which I recommend – bring a copy of John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley (Penguin £9.99), a travelogue that covers almost 50 states. It also has a dog aboard – always a good thing in my book.
Chances are you will want to skip the Rust Belt. Don’t. The story of America’s decline can be seen in this necklace of creaking towns that stretches from Philadelphia up to Buffalo, over to Cleveland. Richard Russo has conjured them vividly in his novels, especially Nobody’s Fool(Vintage £9.99), which is raucous good company.
Finally, once you point your car left of Cleveland you’re bound to head toward the high plains and the far west. No one, not even Cormac McCarthy, has captured it like Annie Proulx in Close Range (Fourth Estate £7.99), her first of three collections she wrote about Wyoming. Skip Brokeback Mountain – you know how that ends.
Erica Zlomislic, Toronto writer who worked in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia during the 1990s wars
As an alternative to the usual reporter dispatches from Croatia in the 1990s, try Island of the World by Michael D O’Brien (Ignatius £15.54). The novel follows the Croatian protagonist Josip Lasta through the second world war and the wars of the 1990s to eventual redemption. Have tissues at hand.
For something equally dramatic try American writer and activist Julienne Eden Busic’s riveting novel Lovers and Madmen: A True Story of Passion, Politics and Air Piracy (iUniverse £15.99). The story starts with blonde, blue-eyed, model-like Eden falling in love with exiled Croatian dissident Zvonko Busic, who fights to gain Croatian independence from Tito’s Yugoslavia. The book is rife with secret police assassinations, poverty, imprisonment, passion and, finally, a plane hijacking.
For a touching collection of short stories from the 1990s Croatian war tryDo Angels Cry?: Tales of the War (Ooligan £7.38) by Matko Marusic. It’s especially poignant now, precisely 20 years since the war broke. For something less tearful while strolling along the cobblestones of old towns, try Dubrovnik: A History (Saqi £14.99) by Robin Harris. The book is a detailed history lesson explaining why the “pearl of the Adriatic” is more than just a pretty walled city in Croatia.
Rattawut Lapcharoensap, US novelist raised in Bangkok
For those unfamiliar with Thai literature, Kukrit Pramoj’s magnum opus Four Reigns (Firecracker £10.99) might be a good place to start. Though not untroubled by a certain conservative nostalgia, it’s a wonderfully expansive historical novel tracing the life of one woman across the reigns of Rama V to Rama VIII, from the 1890s to the second world war.
For those interested in Thai short fiction, In the Mirror: Literature and Politics in Siam in the American Era, edited and excellently translated by Benedict Anderson and Ruchira Mendiones, collects many of the major short works of the 60s and 70s, from Suchit Wongthes to Sulak Sivaraksa.
Somerset Maugham’s seldom-read The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey from Rangoon to Haiphong is a quick, interesting and, above all, sinuously written travelogue of the author’s time in the region. I also greatly enjoyed Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork(Atlantic £7.99), Lily Tuck’s Siam, or The Woman Who Shot the Man, and Joan Silber’s recent The Size of the World. Then there’s Paul M Handley’s The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej (Yale £25), which needs to be read before one enters the country. It’s banned.
guardian.co.uk, Friday 15 July 2011