Thursday, April 7, 2011

Where Ya At? A Look At Favorite Literary Settings

Earlier this week, a friend told me she'd just finished, and really loved, Sarah Dunant's The Birth of Venus. I have that book (only because I forgot to return the damn selection-of-the-month form from The Quality Paperback Book Club several years ago) but I've never been that tempted to try it. In fact, it currently resides on my "D-list" shelf in the basement. I didn't even know what it was about until my friend described it. And then she said it takes place in 15th century Florence. Now, I am interested.

Why? Because to me 15th century Florence with the Medicis and Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo and the wars and crazy Savonarola's "bonfire of the vanities" is fascinating! Florence in the 1400s was pretty much ground zero for the Italian Renaissance, and as such, is very fertile literary ground. In fact, I'd go so far to say it's one of my favorite literary settings. I've read several books set there — including a biography of Leonardo, and Irving Stone's "biographical novel" of Michaelangelo titled The Agony and the Ecstasy.

And that got me thinking about other literary settings. And what I realized is that the setting of a novel is an enormous deal for me in terms of deciding whether I might be interested in it. Remember your high school English class when you learned that the Mississippi River is actually a character in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Since learning that, the idea that good writers make the setting as much a character as the characters has really taken root with me. To wit, I just bought a debut novel by a writer named Ida Hattemer-Higgins titled The History of History solely because it takes place in Berlin, Germany — an amazing city I was lucky enough to spend 10 days in last year. (Thank you, Icelandic volcano, for "sticking" me there for an extra week.)

Perhaps my favorite literary setting of all is New York City. The self-proclaimed greatest city in the world is also the greatest literary setting in the world, in my humble view. I actually wrote about this last year, including a Top 11 list of my favorite NYC books. It's certainly no coincidence that the center of the publishing universe is a common setting for novels. I'm glad things worked out that way.

Another favorite setting is Israel. I've actively searched out really obscure books, like A Palestine Affair by Jonathan Wilson, and By The Rivers of Babylon by Nelson DeMille because they take place in Israel. No matter your politics, you have to agree that Israel's just an absurdly fascinating place. I've read a ton about its history and a ton of novels set there — and the more I read, the more interested I am. David Grossman's To The End of The Land is up soon.

So what do you think — is this fascination with setting quirky or normal? Do you place high importance on the setting of a novel when book prospecting? Do you read novels solely because they're set somewhere you find interesting? Examples?


  1. You know, I've never really thought of the literary setting affecting if I'd read a book. I suppose it factors in, but never consciously. Off the top of my head I'd say NYC but that just happens to be, in general, my favorite location.

    That cover for The Birth of Venus does nothing to draw me in but I look forward to seeing your thoughts when/if you do eventually get around to reading it.

  2. Great post!

    Like you, I bought into the idea of the river as a character in HF and have been keen on books that make the most of their locations ever since.

    Louisiana in James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux series is a good example.

    Because I can't resist a list, I'll be going next to your NYC list. I've also compiled a couple of my own. I have a list of books set in Venice and a list of books set in France. I'm toying with a San Francisco list, but haven't made it yet.

  3. It wasn't until I read The Shadow of the Wind that I realized how important setting is. It almost seems like Barcelona is a character in itself in the novel because the setting is that prominent - and I really enjoyed that.

    I've got to agree with you that NYC is a fantastic setting and after living there for two years I am familiar enough with the city and can place myself in the areas that the author describes. I also love a dystopia setting, when done right. Atwood has mastered this setting and this is a reason I keep revisiting her works. I'm also partial to the small town Midwest - mostly because I can relate.

    Fun post Greg. As I told you on twitter, you always seem to come up with the most interesting bookish discussions :)

  4. Some of my favorite books have the location as a character. I'm always amazed at authors who manage to complete such a feat.

    I don't necessarily have a favorite setting, it depends on the author and how the story is told. John Grisham's "Playing for Pizza" (my thoughts: is certainly not a literary masterpiece but the Italian tourism board should send it out on request because it shines such a great spotlight on Parma.

  5. I'm a big anglophile,so setting a novel in England is a good way to get me interested.

    Also a sucker for the Tudor period,which lead me to read most of Philippa Gregory's historical fiction titles that deal with that and the Victorian era is pure catnip to me. If you haven't read The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber,do so before the miniseries hits the US.

  6. Great topic! (BTW before I forget, The History of History is high on my list...great reviews for that one. Please report in!) NYC turn of the century for sure. Anywhere Southern US. Victorian England. I could stick with those three and venture no further.

  7. I hadn't really thought about setting as a reason for reading a book before, but I realize now that it certainly is a factor. Often setting and historical period are tied (as with The Birth of Venus), and if I know something about the historical period/setting I will be more willing to pick it up. I like reading books set in South America due to a fascination with the continent that led to multiple research projects in high school.
    By the same hand, I shy away from books who's setting I'm not familiar with- the South, as sorry as that sounds, since I've spent my whole life in the Northeast.
    Now this makes me want to branch out to other settings! As great as NYC is I think I've read far too many books set there as of late.

  8. Greg, you hit the nail on the head for me! Literary setting is critically important in how I choose the books I read. For instance, anything set in Tudor England tops my list. But I guess that could also be construed as historical time period being a top ranking factory. Others on my list is WWII Europe and American Civil War. Setting is important, but the history surrounding that time and place are necessary too.

  9. I'm drawn to anything set in Paris.

    I've also read books that have made me completely enchanted with the city in which they are set. Venice was not a city that particularly interested me until I read The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt (twice).

    I'm attending a reading retreat this weekend and I'm going to a session called "Place and its voice in fiction". It will be interesting to hear how others view place in literature.

  10. While I read far and wide, setting does play a big role in many of my choices. Particularly if a book is set in China. It's such a frustrating and fascinating place that I want to get as many perspectives on it as I can. There are many books which, if set in any other locale, I would have not even considered reading. Most recently, Nicole Mone's "Lost in Translation" fits this bill. A corny romance, but one set in China. Great post, Greg!

  11. I read The Last Brother because I couldn't think of any other books that were set in Mauritius. I love to experience new places through books, especially when there's a good chance I'll never be visiting that place.

    And The History of History is TRIPPY. Can't wait to see what you think about it.

  12. I actually tend not to read book set in Italy or France. I am sometimes REALLY interested in the books, but when I'm reading them I get caught up in the names of cities or places and I can't always tell them from one another. I get so confused, which makes me feel like an idiot, plus it pops me out of the book a bit. I like to read books set in England, Ireland, and I really tend to enjoy books with no particular setting. Great post by the way! I really enjoyed reading it :D

  13. Setting isn't necessarily a deciding factor for me, but I'm always thrilled when I discover that a writer has taken it to the next level and made a character out of it. Red Queen by Honey Brown (Aussie writer) has the bush setting a living, breathing, menacing character - I'll never feel the same about camping again :-) I've recently read and reviewed The Birth of Venus, which I did really like, and for me was really more a story about Florence and the Renaissance than about anything else. I've read In the Company of the Courtesan which is similar - more of a love story to Venice than about anything else.

  14. Absolutely! I went through a phase of reading books set in Italy including The Agony & Ecstasy when I was at university and then went on holiday after my finals to...Italy! It was magical and made my time there extra special.

  15. @Red - Yeah, that cover's pretty horrible. Prolly why I never gave the novel a second thought until I learned it takes place in Florence.

    @Kathy - Yep, I do. Thanks for pointing it out - it's officially on the wishlist!

    @RoseCityReader - Love your lists - well done! For me, the best Louisiana books are NOLA books - Zeitoun, and of course, A Confederacy of Dunces. San Francisco: Hmmm....Other than A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and parts of On The Road, I'm drawing a blank after that, though.

    @Brenna - Shadow of the Wind is a great example - definitely made me want to visit Barcelona. The whole novel read like a tribute to the city, kind of like Let The Great World Spin was to NYC. Still need to get to some Atwood.

    @Man - Ha-I'm glad you clarified that Playing For Pizza is not a "literary masterpiece."

  16. @lady t - England seems to be a popular choice - I loved Ian McEwan's Saturday because it made contemporary London seem so damn cool. I haven't read The Crimson Petal and the White - always meant too. But will definitely check it out before watching the series.

    @Sandy - Good choices! What are some of your favorite southern novels? I just keep thinking of Faulkner. ;)

    @thezebracactus - I take it you're a Bolano fan, then? The Ministry of Special Cases, by Nathan Englander was an, um, interesting novels. What other South American novels would your recommend?

    @BrandyLee - Hey, welcome back! ;) Agreed that the time period is a critical part of the setting. I like the contemporary New York, Israel in the 20th century and Florence in the 15th. Eclectic? Yes. I also love Civil War and WWII novels.

    @Suzanne - Paris is a good one too - what are some of your favorite novels set there? Can't wait to hear your report from the seminar!

  17. @pete - China - nice! That's a good one, too - what are some of your other favorite books set there? The only one that comes to mind for me is War Trash by Ha Jin, and I can't even remember if that was actually China.

    @softdrink - Woohoo - now we're getting exotic. Yeah, I don't see myself traveling to Mauritius either. What was the special interest there - know people there? From there? The History of History is trippy, huh? That's an intriguing description. I'm excited!

    @Sharyla - I know what you mean, but here's a little trick I use with difficult names places: Just simplify it in your mind - for instance, if someone's name is really French sounding, just call him a similar American name that starts with the same letter. Eventually, as you get used to it, you'll just read it that way in your mind, and it won't stop you or pop you out of the narrative.

    @mummazappa - I'm glad you chimed in - was hoping you'd point out some good Australian authors! Australia's another setting I love reading about - gonna check out Red Queen. And I'm glad to hear another positive vote for The Birth of Venus.

    @chasingbawa - I'm jealous! Ever since reading all those books set in Florence (and Italy in general) it's been #1 on my travel priority list. Haven't made it yet - but definitely will someday.

  18. Yes, definitely a Bolano fan :) As for South American literature, I know I should read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but haven't yet. I really enjoyed Mario Vargas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, and Jorges Luis Borges' work. I can't understand more than a couple words in Spanish but I really like the settings and descriptions the writers include.

  19. The only time I really think about it and seek out books from a particular setting is NYC around the turn of the 20th century (cause time is just as much a part of setting). I also really enjoy New England college town settings - but that's because it reminds me of my college and I get all warm and fuzzy :)

    Great topic!

  20. Haha, i LOVE the title of this post. Setting is hugely important to me when I'm determining what I want to read. Recently I've had a fascination with Alaska and have been trying to find books that take place there. Love it.

  21. I do love to read just about anything from any time in history; however, there is a limit to what I read. I just won't pick up a book that's based in the middle of Nazi Germany... it's something that I find it really hard to get my head around; all that horror brought on by one man.
    Also, I find some stories written about Australian history hard to read too; right back in the beginning when the convicts were brought out here and treated dreadfully; as were the Aboriginals. I guess it's just how much I don't like violence; and yet I write sci-fi.

  22. Hey...I just picked up The History of History for the very same reason. I've never been to Berlin, but I sort of feel like it's my long lost twin. I'll be curious to hear what you think of the novel; I'm starting in on it next week.

  23. I often will be interested in a book if its set in Italy or Russia, they make great settings.

  24. In making my list this week, I had a devil of a time separating the idea of "setting" and "character." The characters make the setting (Lake Wobegon would be pretty dull without all the great people who live there), and the setting can indeed be a character all its own (in Under the Tuscan Sun, for example).

    My fascination with setting is actually a fascination with landscapes and cultures. Books that take me far away from where I am, and deal with cultures different than my own, almost always interest me more than a book whose setting I already know well.

    It may also have to do with how young America actually is; 235 years is peanuts next to Europe and Asia, where great civilizations have been building on the same land for centuries or millenia.

    I don't think I often consciously pay attention to the setting of a book I decide to pick up. Although I must admit that I have been rather obsessed with New Orleans lately. There's just so much mystery and beauty to it.

    Thank you for sharing your list, as well as your more cerebral thoughts on how we are affected by setting. Happy reading!