Message in a Bottle
B is for Book, Among Other Things

It’s probably the imminent end of summer that’s got me thinking about travel and all the places I didn’t go this year. To put a positive spin on it, I’m getting a head start on planning for a fantastic vacation next year, if only in fantasy. As I was nodding off last night, imagining the thousand places to see before I die and wondering how to restrict myself to a reasonable number, I had the goofy idea of visiting only those cities that started with a particular letter of the alphabet. But which? Maybe I wasn’t exhaustive enough, but I pretty quickly decided on the letter that gave me the best options and began assembling my reading list. All aboard for …

Barcelona: Castles, cathedrals, and culture abound in this Catalan capital, but the food and weather alone would make it worth a visit. Richard Hughes’s Barcelona is a fantastic history and guidebook to the riches it offers, and any number of novelists and storytellers have beautifully painted the city’s portrait. Mercè Rodoreda is one of its most noted native authors, but for sheer fun, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, a tale of intrigue and romance along shadowy streets and dusty libraries, can’t be beat. It’s the kind of intellectual conspiracy mystery that Dan Brown can only aspire to.

Bucharest: Romania’s years behind the Iron Curtain kept its unique charms hidden for many years, but its capital is now easily accessible. Filip Florian’s The Days of the King provides an amusing, imaginative look at how the country carved itself a place between larger empires such as the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian. Speaking of the latter …

Budapest: Widely considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, the city is divided by the Danube River, and served for centuries as the crossroad between Western and Eastern cultures. Peter Esterhazy’s Celestial Harmonies attempts to sum up much of Hungary’s history through the story of one aristocratic family, while Gyula Krudy and Ferenc Karinthy evoke different kinds of dreamy strangeness in their shorter works.

Bruges and Brussels: Two delightful stops in one delightful country. The gorgeous canals of the former gave it the title “Venice of the North,” and Georges Rodenbach captured its melancholy quality in Bruges-la-Morte, a book that inspired innumerable pilgrimages by gloomy young people—the Goths of their day—in the early part of the 20th century. Brussels is the capital of the European Union, but it’s also the capital of the art of comics. The leading name here is Tintin, whose adventures are fun for all ages. Steven Spielberg’s epic movie should prove that all over again when it’s released in late December. And we can’t forget that B also stands for beer—Belgium is certainly the greatest brewing nation on earth. Don’t believe me? Here’s proof: All Belgian Beers.

Bath: This English resort town deserves a visit for many reasons, but the main one is to pay homage to the memory of the inestimable Jane Austen, one of the most tough-minded and technically perfect novelists who ever lived. How she put those skills in the service of such superficially humorous and entertaining romances is one of the wonders of the world. Her Persuasion is my favorite of her works and conveniently, the most Bath-centric as well.

Bordeaux: This gives us a jumping-off point for the entire wine region of France, and I don’t suppose I have to convince anyone to spend some valuable vacation time there. Robert Parker’s guide is known as “The Bible” by oenophiles everywhere.

Bombay: OK, so I suppose we really should be calling it Mumbai, but I’m leaving it on the itinerary anyway. You could spend a lifetime here and not see it all, but Salman Rushdie came as close as anyone to describing it in Midnight’s Children, a novel that won the Booker Prize in 1981. Not only that, it won the so-called Booker of Bookers as the best of all such winners in 1993, and capped things off by doing it again for the 40th anniversary of the prize in 2008. It’s like the Meryl Streep of fiction.

Bangkok: John Burdett’s sexy, razor-edged, often darkly hilarious series of mysteries set in one of the most exotic cities in the world kicks off with Bangkok 8, a perfect book to pull out of your pocket when you’re stuck in an elephant traffic jam.

Buenos Aires: At least two monumentally important authors have called this city home, Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. I’m sure both of them enjoyed a glass of wine, a hearty steak, and a tango when they weren’t writing their signature works, Ficciones and Hopscotch.

Boston: Back on home shores, we can explore one of our oldest cities with all its Revolutionary history, while savoring its recent sports success (or rooting against it, as I would). Dennis Lehane has become something of a local laureate, mostly by writing contemporary mysteries and thrillers set in the seedier parts of town, but his The Given Day takes on the sprawling, brawling Boston of the period just after the first world war, depicting two families, one black, one white, swept up in a maelstrom of revolutionaries and anarchists, immigrants and ward bosses, Brahmins and ordinary citizens, all engaged in a battle for survival and power.

Brooklyn: Now it’s just one borough among five, but it was once one of the largest cities in America in its own right. Too many writers have made Brooklyn their home to choose one emblematic figure, but we don’t have to—Evan Hughes recently covered them all in Literary Brooklyn, a survey of a place that’s becoming to this decade what Paris was to the ’20s.

Whew. I haven’t even mentioned Berlin, Beirut, Bogota, Beijing, Bergen, Brisbane, Bern, Bologna, Berkeley, Belfast, Belmopan, or Blubber Bay, British Columbia yet, but the jet lag might kill us if I do. I’m pretty sure my chosen letter is unbeatable, but I’m throwing down the gauntlet in case anyone thinks it can be topped.

James