Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 4, 2019

Literary Places, by Sarah Baxter

If you love to travel, and your itinerary always includes Bookish Moments then you too will probably feel as if this book has been written just for you.

The concept is simple: travel writer Sarah Baxter who is obviously also a Bookish Person, has selected 25 well-known books and then written 2-3 seductively bookish pages about the destinations that form the settings.  So there are portraits of places that I’ve visited, where I’ve sought out Bookish Moments from my reading: the Dublin of James Joyce’s Ulysses; the St Petersburg of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment; Jane Austen’s Bath as in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion; the Saigon of The Quiet American by Graham Greene.  (We dined at the Continental Hotel, where Greene used to stay).

Since the author has spent time here in the Antipodes, there’s even Hanging Rock in the Macedon Ranges from Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. (One of my teaching colleagues nearly gave me a heart attack when we climbed to the summit with a bunch of schoolkids and he joked very convincingly that we’d lost one of them!) Kiwis may feel a bit slighted that Baxter hasn’t included anywhere elvish in New Zealand which can IMO lay claim to Tolkien.

Don Quixote souvenirs are everywhere in Toledo. This one is suitably bookish, and though you can’t see it in this photo, he’s on the same shelf as For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Baxter’s portraits include places I’ve tramped all over: Dickens’ London (of course); Paris (of course) from Les Misérables; and Florence from A Room with a View; but Literary Places also covers places that I’ve viewed in the distance.  It will come as no surprise to my readers that I much prefer to view from the train rather than hike the Sierra de Guadarrama that features in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, and likewise Don Quixote’s La Mancha which we saw en route to Toledo.

The Sierra de Guadarrama rises from the parched meseta, just north of Madrid.  Scorching in summer, snow-bitter in winter, these hefty mountains now provide a fresh-aired playground for Madrideños, but once rang with gunfire and ran with blood. During the Spanish Civil war (1936-1939), when pro-democracy Republicans fought — and were ultimately defeated by — General Franco’s right-wing Nationalists, the sierra saw some of the fiercest fighting. (p.48)

La Mancha doesn’t sound quite so hostile, but that endless plateau looked hot and inhospitable when we saw it, and that was in autumn:

The sun slips earthwards, its last rays caressing the endless plateau of nodding wheat, saffron blooms and ancient olive trees.  The light glows too, on a phalanx of hulking white giants, lording the hillside and waving their long arms as if urging a fight. Yet these mighty monsters, so pugnacious from a distance, prove harmless up close. Not ogres but windmills, transformed by the day’s late haze and the flights of a fanciful mind … (p.54)

Then there are places familiar to me, though I’ve only imagined them from the power of the author’s pen: Cairo in Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz;  the Yorkshire Moors in Wuthering Heights; Davos in The Magic Mountain; and Naples from Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (though I have had glimpses of it from the Circumvesuvia en route to Positano).  There’s Kerala in The God of Small Things and Kabul in The Kite Runner and as you’d expect there are places in the Americas: in the US there’s New York in The Catcher in the Rye; the Mississippi River in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Monroeville in To Kill a Mockingbird and Monterey in Cannery Row; and in Latin America there’s Cartagena in Love in the Time of Cholera.

There are only a few books I haven’t read: Burger’s Daughter (set in Soweto) by Nadine Gordimer; Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin; Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun; and Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. But this raises the question of the book’s audience.  Will you love it as I did if you haven’t read the books?  Will you love it if you’ve been to the places but not read the books? I think that’s best answered by the pages about Soweto, a place most of us are unlikely to visit:

Sprawling across the veld, this confusing, suppurating place sits apart from the bright, big city, separated, not just by geography but by dilapidation and the sharp end of history.  Here in the township, rotten roads crawl through ordered ugliness, row upon row of unlovely houses.  Tin shacks lean on each other like drunks; drunks sway between old cars and half-crazed chickens; junk piles up down dirty alleys where tramps forage and stray dogs cock a leg.  The air smells of urine, offal, liquor, despair.  This is the land across the divide; the black backyard.  A dumping ground.  A crucible for social change.

[…]

Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter  was published in 1979, when apartheid — ‘the dirtiest social swindle the world has ever known’ — still wracked the country.  Initially banned for being dangerous and indecent, it’s a striking work of historical fiction in which the suffering is all too real. (p.88)

I don’t know about anyone else, but while that description doesn’t tempt me to pack my suitcase (even if there are tours that Baxter says are safest) it has certainly prompted me to order the book for my TBR.  (It was already on my wishlist because it’s listed in 1001 Books and anyway Gordimer is one of my literary heroes.)

Literary Places would make a lovely gift for a booklover.  Drop hints for your next birthday!

Author: Sarah Baxter
Title: Literary Places
Series: Inspired Traveller’s Guides
Illustrated by Amy Grimes
Publisher: White Lion Publishing,  an imprint of the Quarto Group, 2019, 144 pages
ISBN: 9781781318102
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.99AUD

 


Responses

  1. I can remember very early on Whispering Gums encouraging me to write a WA version. I love linking my reading with places I know, and where I am with what I’ve read. I visited Maigret’s Paris and Orwell’s Spain (and, briefly, Ferrante’s Naples – to see my daughter off on the ferry to Ischia). I wonder if we saw those places through different eyes because of the books we’ve read.

    Like

    • I’m sure we do. Especially in Spain… the Civil War was with me every step of the way.

      Like

  2. Thanks for presenting this book. I looked at the beginning, sounds really good, plus the illustrations are awesome! Is she married to John Baxter? Also great travel books author, on Paris. And there’s a goodreads giveaway!

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    • Sorry, I don’t know anything about Baxter’s personal life, except that she’s widely travelled:)

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  3. I’ve noticed a few of these literary guides about, and always find them tempting

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    • My favourite of all time is Literary Walks in London. We’ve used it twice for two different Bloomsbury Walks, and had a perfect day each time.

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  4. Well, I really REALLY want to read this, but I’m a bit scared about what kind of bucket list it will give me! :D

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    • Oh yes, Oh yes indeed. I have itchy feet anyway, and this book made me even more restless…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I picked up my copy of this book on Friday. I can’t believe I let the w/e go by without dipping into it! It does look delicious though.

    Like

    • It’s a great book for dipping into…
      You know, I’m sure I wrote a reply to this comment yesterday, asking you what you think about the illustrations? I wonder what happened to it?
      Anyway, see what you think: I felt the illustrations were somewhat in the style of Batson’s book covers (See this https://anzlitlovers.com/2018/08/27/hidden-villages-of-britain-by-clare-gogerty/ for an example of his work and a description of its features). But I don’t feel that the bright colours suit either the themes or the settings of Crime and Punishment or Burger’s Daughter.

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  6. This sounds great! And it’s good to find that my plans to read Berlin Alexanderplatz on location this summer come so highly supported :-)

    Like

    • Lucky you!
      I don’t know about other readers, but I love walking in the area where the author walked, observing the setting as material for his book. It’s like the thrill you get when you see in real life a scene that an artist painted, like the vista from Château du Clos Lucé in Amboise, and it’s the same (still!) as it was in Da Vinci’s painting:)

      Liked by 1 person


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