Thursday, March 17, 2011

Reason 5,198

Reason 5,198 I enjoy living in Boston:

Nowhere else I have lived (with the exception of a term studying abroad in Oxford) ever pops up in books I'm reading. I love that little shock of recognition when I realize that I know where that character is walking or what shop they're talking about, especially when I didn't realize before that moment where the events were set. I like thinking that authors enjoyed their time here sufficiently to set their works here even when they've since moved on.

I just finished a book (guess what it is) that referenced the YMCA on Mass Ave, the Christian Science Mapparium further down Mass Ave, what I assume is Redbones in Davis Square (where else in Davis would you eat pulled pork?), what I assume is Dali near Inman Square (I don't know, are there more Spanish restaurants with a boar's head grinning down at you from over the bar?), Filene's Basement and the no-dividers dressing room thereof, walking over the Charles via various bridges, someone meeting her husband at Alewife Station after work, Cardullo's in Harvard Square (though I kind of doubt there was no other place to buy bay leaves and cloves, even if those were more exotic in the seventies or whenever this was set), going to Central Square for Indian food, walking around from Downtown Crossing to Park Street, some lawyer guy working down near State Street, etc. Of course, Filene's is now a giant crater, but I did experience that dressing room before it went.

It's just so weird, because if you read the story without being familiar with the setting, you wouldn't feel like you were missing anything, and you wouldn't be. Being familiar with the location isn't at all necessary for reading the story, but somehow it's nice to have that anchor and to envision the characters intersecting with your daily life.


Actually I'm kind of split on this. The last book I read that was set here (36 Arguments for the Existence of God) kind of annoyed me because it seemed very in-grouppy, chummy, like if you got the references you were in the right crowd (and most of them seemed very specifically pointed at Harvard and the professorial circle, so I did not). Plus it was so unnecessarily detailed, describing the exact path characters drove, that it almost interfered with the story because I couldn't help but visualize it and try to figure out exactly where the person's house was that they were going to. That one very definitely referenced Dali, though, which made me feel all in-grouppy for a bit.

Then there was The Handmaid's Tale, which I had read long before I moved here and never really noticed the setting, but then when I reread it shortly after moving here I realized (with a much more unpleasant shock) that the building where one of their ceremonies took place, by the river, where a "banner covers the building's former name, some dead president they shot" was probably the JFK School of Government, so then I paid more attention to where they were were walking and going. Everything else was similarly obscured, but it's still very clearly the Harvard Square area. It ended up kind of freaking me out since it brought the creepiness of the story home to my lovely liberal and decidedly not theocratic Cambridge. I went to a reading of hers last year and she said she enjoys setting her terrible stories in Cambridge (apparently Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood are as well, though I didn't notice as much when reading them).

OK, my first sentence wasn't entirely true. Murder in Coweta County does in fact take place in the county I spent half of my childhood (though, if I remember correctly, only barely mentions my town), and The Whisper of the River by Ferrol Sams does indeed take place not only in the town but at the very college where I went. But that was the whole point in reading both of them, not something to stumble over and be delighted about. Plus, The Whisper of the River is based on his life, I think, and reading about him having sex on top of the administration building was just kind of gross.

(The book I just finished was Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri.)

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