Backpack Books


Dickens’s writing retreat in Rochester, England (photo: vweisfeld)

Books written in exotic locales have a zing of extra appeal. What would Elizabeth Catton’s The Luminaries be without Hokitika, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American without steamy Saigon, or Dickens’s Oliver Twist without London? If we’ve read these books, we’ve been to these places, at least in our imaginations. And, sometimes, only in our imaginations. The late Gabriel Garcia Márquez created such a detailed portrait of the fictional town of Macondo, every one of us who read One Hundred Years of Solitude feels down in our bones that we’ve been there. And, none of us want to visit the bleak Mexican borderland of Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing or, God save us, Blood Meridian.

When sense of place is absent in a novel, we miss it. When place details are wrong, we notice. A few years ago, I read the thriller Gorky Park and enjoyed the first half a lot. It’s set in Moscow and created a vivid mental picture of the city. Then the action moved to New York, and the details were just . . . off, in ways I don’t remember now. Finally, the picture of New York became so discordant it threatened the credibility of the Moscow scenes.

Brooklyn-based publisher Akashik Books celebrates the importance of setting with its anthologies of place-based noir stories (Brooklyn Noir, Boston Noir, Trinidad Noir, Delhi Noir, Copenhangen Noir, and so on), new original writing set in distinct locales. A requirement for Akashik’s Mondays are Murder flash fiction series—“to get your week off to a dark start”—is that stories “be set in a distinct location of any neighborhood in any city, anywhere in the world, but it should be a story that could only be set in [that] neighborhood.” Such focus is essential for writers and brings their stories to life. Paradoxically, by being specific about places and people, writing becomes more universal, a point made by Donald Maass in his helpful Writing 21st Century Fiction. Generic places and stock, stereotypical characters don’t engage readers.

When I travel I take along books set in the place, hoping to intensify and enrich the travel experience. A time or two, that has backfired. The biography of Vlad the Impaler I carried with me to Romania last fall was I must say too intense and specific in its gruesome details, so that I abandoned it, half-read. Traveling in New Mexico and binge-reading a suitcase full of Tony Hillermans revealed such a repetitive story arc that I never picked up another. This was not something I’d ever noticed reading one or two a year.

An entertaining guidebook for place-based reading, or for armchair travelers wanting to steep themselves in a locale or rekindle memories of past visit is Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust to Go: Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers (2010). Pearl recommends both fiction and nonfiction books for territories as wide as Oceana and as focused as her home town, Detroit. Alphabetically, she roams the world from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. It will help me pick books for two trips to Canada this summer!

And, if you’re really into it—check out the Geoff Sawers’s literary maps of the U.S. and U.K., showing who writes where.