Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Top Ten Settings in Books

Jana at The Broke and the Bookish is asking for top ten settings in books:

I went to school in Dorchester and I often claim that I must have read pretty much every book that Thomas Hardy ever wrote (though I doubt I have - it just feels like it). Thomas Hardy assigned fictitious names to the real locations in his books and, in one of those life-imitating-art (or rather local councils and pub landlords copying names from literature) nonsenses, roundabouts, streets and pubs in and around Dorchester now use locations from Hardy's books to identify themselves.

1) 2) & 3) Casterbridge, Weatherbury and Egdon Heath are all fictional places in 'Wessex', Hardy's name for Dorset. My favourites of Hardy's books are Far From the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Return of the Native. If I eat too much rich food at dinner I think of how Gabriel Oak saved Bathsheba's sheep when they broke into a clover field and got bloat. If misunderstood social signals lead to unfortunate consequences I think of Bathsheba sending the valentine's card to Farmer Boldwood. And when I have to make an effortful journey I think of poor Fanny urging herself rung by rung along the fenced path towards the workhouse after she had been wronged by Sgt Troy. All those characters are in Far From the Madding Crowd. Claire Tomalin's biography of Thomas Hardy, The Time-Torn Man, is also interesting, if you like biographies and want to read about him.

4) 5) London. Lovely London. I was born here, moved away when I was a child and then moved back to claim it when I was 18 - in part, I'm sure, because I wanted to inhabit the fictional London I had read about in literature: the London of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories and Dickens' novels. My favourite Dickens novel is Our Mutual Friend. Driving past the 'Limehouse link' it seems absurd to think of Eugene Wrayburn walking in darkness along a towpath towards the lime kilns of Limehouse. But there are plenty of olde worlde buildings and locations to visit in London - you can even visit 221b Baker Street and read some of the letters Sherlock Holmes still receives. Every other doorway has a blue plaque confirming that a famous writer once lived at that address. Favourite London books... ach, don't make me choose. If it's got London in it, I'll probably like it.

6) San Francisco. I visited with my daughter soon after reading Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City books which were also serialised on TV by Channel 4 with Olympia Dukakis as Mrs Madrigal. It's a charming city that fulfils all my 'I could live here' criteria: you don't have to drive, and there are plenty of sushi restaurants and gay men.

7) Savannah. I have yet to visit but I have wanted to see the place ever since reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, another of my favourite books.

8) Brixton. OK, it's London again. But this is a specific part of it, where I live. Martin Millar set many of his books here. My favourite is Lux the Poet. It's about a Brixton-based poet on a quest and it's brilliant. Martin Millar is one of those people I'd quite like to meet and wouldn't be able to say anything to if I did because I'd be much too shy to say anything more apposite than 'I love your books' which, coincidentally, is what I said to Margaret Atwood when I met her. It's non-controversially true but unlikely to get me a footnote in anyone's memoirs if I stick to that line every time I meet a favourite author.

9) France. If I'm honest, I started reading French literature because I was in love with the language and the place, rather than falling in love with it after reading about it. Candide is one of my favourite books but much of that doesn't take place in France. So, instead, I'll choose the stories of Guy de Maupassant, my favourite being Boule de Suif which is set during the Franco-Prussian war and concerns a prostitute who shares her picnic with ill-prepared snobbish fellow-travellers as they flee the town of Rouen, and is spurned by them after being pressed into doing something repugnant to her to save their lives. It's a really good story.

10) Japan. Another of my favourite books is The Pillow Boy of the Lady Onogoro by Alison Fell. I met the author once and told her how much I liked it and she said, 'It's a dirty book,' which made me blush. I suppose it is quite rude in parts, but it's beautifully written, and clever, too. Yukio Mishima's life is perhaps more interesting than his books. He committed suicide by seppuku after setting up a private army. My favourite Haruki Murakami novel is Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which is the first of his that I ever read. If you like his work and you haven't read Underground, I recommend it - it's a non-fiction account of the sarin gas attacks in Tokyo, told by people who were involved, written by Murakami and translated by Alfred Birnbaum who is my preferred translator of his work.

17 comments:

Reading Rachel said...

Great locations. I've always wanted to see London. Actually, I've always wanted to see most of those places. Maybe someday (like when I win the lottery).

Rachel-Endless Reading

Helen Smith said...

Rachel, I just read your post. I like your locations, too - interesting to see that you chose some fantasy ones.

Reading in a book about a place you will never visit is the next best thing to winning the lottery...

Charity Girl said...

I lived in London for five years and never failed to have my heart leap when the bus crossed Waterloo Bridge and you looked down the Thames and just saw... History. Layers and layers of it. Now when I go back I practically salivate walking round the streets because it's so damn interesting. Was, still is, one of the most fascinating cities on the planet.

But, I must also make a plea for Manchester - from suffragettes to Romans, the Peterloo massacre and the birth of the trade unions. Every time I read North and South or a Manchester Man I can see it's dirty red brick warehouses and gleaming canals. A great city and a great setting.

Helen Smith said...

Oh yes! Good point. I'm going to go and read your post and find out where you're living now and which locations you have chosen.

Helen Smith said...

Just checked your blog and you're not doing locations but you are a fan of Connie Brockway - whose books I have only just discovered. Thanks for commenting!

Girl Parker said...

I haven't been to England - a great tragedy in my life. But I love your list of reading. I just started "Tess" and I'm unsure about it. I loved "The Mayor of Casterbridge," back in high school. Hmm, we shall see. I love Seattle, but oddly, when books are set here, I find it annoying. Maybe it's too familiar.

Helen Smith said...

Thanks! I don't think I have ever read a book set in Seattle. We were/are mad about the TV show Frasier here in England - that's what I think of when I think of Seattle (and Amazon and coffee).

England's history and loveliness will still be here when you get here.

khashway said...

I've always wanted to go to England. I know people who live there and I'm so jealous. Maybe I'll get there one day.

Helen Smith said...

You will! It's the perfect place to explore when you retire. The weather is clement and the language is intelligible. Start saving now. And when you do come, bring flat shoes and visit lots of castles.

cjapple88 said...

Inspiring post! I guess I could use this blog post to make my summer reading list. I've read a few of books you mentioned but I want to read all of them. "Our Mutual Friend" is also my favorite Dickens. Geographically, Savannah is the closest place you mentioned to me and I've even been there once - too briefly.

LBC said...

Good list. I feel like London and Japan keep recurring. I think that Underground will probably be my next Murakami book.

Check out my list here

Anne Bennett said...

I like this list. It travels the world.

Helen Smith said...

Thank you, CJ, Anne and LBC.

I'll go and check out your list, LBC.

Diana Hallare said...

I agree - these are wonderful places. I've been to London and San Francisco and would like to see Japan and France. Nice blog post.

Susan Bearman said...

Ah, a great list, but you must come visit Chicago, if you haven't. The City of the Big Shoulders has plenty to offer by way of setting.

shebiteshertendermind said...

Helen, I love your post about the merits of a place and the stories that find their feet there. I think about this kind of relationship a good deal. I visited London and Oxford for the first time last year and was enchanted. Thanks for bringing me back! Looking forward to getting to know you and your work through SW, jev

Helen Smith said...

Thanks, Diana, Susan and Shebites. I have never been to Chicago, I'd love to visit.