5 books for London
One of her lesser known but most beautiful and accessible novels, Orlando: A Biography–written for Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West–is the fantastical biography of a young noble(wo)man named Orlando who is born during the reign of Elizabeth I, and decides never to grow old. As the history of England unfolds, Orlando falls in and out of love, wakes up one morning not terribly surprised to discover he’s become a woman, travels with gypsies, writes poetry, and hobnobs with Britain’s most interesting and powerful figures. Both amusing and profound, Orlando is a fascinating and innovative book by one of London’s most brilliant writers.
London: A Biography by Peter Ackroyd
A bit hefty if you’re backpacking but well worth the weight, Peter Ackroyd’s London: A Biography covers two millennia years of London history, from its beginnings as the Roman city Londinium through its evolution into the global metropolis it is today. Want to know more about the founding of the city, life there during the Black Plague, the reign of Henry the VIII or Elizabeth I? Interested in the history of the buildings or beheadings, battles or bridges, or simply in the development of the neighborhoods and districts that still exist today? You’ll find all kinds of answers here, skillfully woven by Ackroyd into a narrative as interesting and eloquent as the city itself.
One of Shakespeare’s funniest comedies, Much Ado About Nothing is the story of Beatrice and Benedict, two witty and irascible people determined to hate each other at all costs, and not shy about declaring their animosity for each other either. Obviously they end up falling madly and confusedly in love, much to the amusement of everyone around them, audience included. Hijinks ensue, hilarity reigns and there are happy endings for all. A production of Much Ado is playing at Shakespeare’s Globe this summer.
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
A beautifully written portrait of London during the Blitz, The Night Watch is one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read in years. Waters book moves backwards through the 1940s, detailing the lives of four Londoners and weaving a passionate and heartbreaking web of jealousy, friendship and love against the backdrop of World War II.
Saturday by Ian McEwan
For classics, try Dickens’ Bleak House, The Old Curiosity Shop, Oliver Twist, or The Christmas Carol, Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, Arthur Conan Doyles’ The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, or Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. If you’re looking for something more recent try Iris Murdoch, Zadie Smith, P.D. James, Nick Hornby or any number of other writers. And whatever you do, make sure not to miss Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street (or at one of its other London locations), one of the best travel book shops in the world.
I love the way this post weaves London travel tips into the brief, astute book reviews. Thanks for the recommendations; I’ll be heading to the public library here in Ubud, Bali, to see which of these I may find. The last book I borrowed was Audrey Niffenegger’s “Her Fearful Symmetry,” which was set in London. London inspires so many great stories…