Just yesterday, at precisely 5:08 – wouldn’t want to give away my clock-watching habit – I logged off of my computer, snuck out of the stereotypically drab office where I work and into the warmth of the dying late-summer day, headed for the nearest bookstore.
I reached it, strode through the adjoining coffee shop, past the magazines racks and their screeching headlines – Celeb Cellulite! Lose 10 Lbs in 10 Days! Best Fall Fashion Under $50! – and browsed the themed tables at the front of the store. I didn’t know what I was looking for – I usually don’t. I must have picked up half a dozen books, read a few opening lines, some back covers, put them back on the shelf, intrigued, but not enough.
I scanned the cover, front flap, back cover, the glowing reviews, and, finally, the price, tucked away in the top right corner of the back flap.
I really didn’t need another book. Really. I had stacks of yet-unread books, all equally alluring in their own way, in corners, under tables and towering precariously on top of cabinets. Hadn’t I reviewed my budget just last week – I’m an accountant, we are sadomasochists by nature – and was appalled by my expensive monthly book habit? Hadn’t I resolved: no more impulse book buying! (In fact, one of my impulse buys was a discounted book about, you guessed it, budgeting and personal finance).
I walked around the store, scanning a few more aisles with the book tucked under my arm, taking it for a trial jaunt, as if feeling its weight in my hands could make the purchasing decision tip one way or the other. If I still wanted to buy it by the time I reached Photography, then clearly, it was meant to be. Of course, my mind had been made up, and the stroll took a turn toward the cash register before I was anywhere near Photography.
What had decided me? Not the fact that it had won the Orange prize – prize-winning literature has a history of letting me down. Not that it was by a well-known author – that helped, but I’d never been moved to buy her books before. Not the glowing reviews, though these also anointed my choice with an aura of confidence. It wasn’t the cover, though the saturated yellowness of it was certainly eye-catching.
It was, quite simply, place.
The book is The Lacuna by Barbara Kingslover, and it is set mostly in Mexico City, covering the early nineteenth Century to WWII, delving into the lives and art of Diego Rivera and Frida Khalo as experienced by their one-time cook and, eventually, Great American Writer.
I am a pretty eclectic reader – I’ll read anything from the back of the cereal box to a treatise on what’s truly ailing the economy – but it’s books that take me away to another place that remain engraved in my memory.
I might as well have been soaking up the Jamaican sun right alongside Stella in Terry Macmillan’s How Stella Got her Groove Back. I could almost feel my skin glistening with sweat in the Yucatan jungle as I read Margot Berwin’s Hot House Flower, Nine Plant of Desire. This summer I let Isabel Allende take me to Haiti and Louisiana in Island Beneath the Sea, and walked the cobbled streets of Montevideo, Uruguay in Carolina de Robertis’ The Invisible Mountain.
It was place that motivated me to take writing seriously. I wrote my first novel, Fashionably Late, many years after a trip to Cuba which had opened my eyes to travel and altered the course of my life. In my second novel, Cutting Loose, I had hoped to capture the essence of a city that captivated me so much that I keep going back – Miami. Before I can begin writing a single word of a new piece I have to think about place – where can the foibles, antics and neurosis of my characters really shine? Which city reflects them, challenges them, makes the perfect backdrop for their problems?
|Hatuay, Taino Chief, Baracoa|
I have been to the very place Kingsolver writes about in The Lacuna – Diego Rivera and Frida Khlao’s Mexico City – and I was just as enchanted was the colors, the bloody, passionate murals, the confluence of great civilizations in this one extraordinary spot. It has been catalogued in my brain, a place to be mined for future settings for conflicts and characters yet to be born.
Has a place ever moved you to write? What are some of the unforgettable places books have taken you to?
GIVEAWAY – I’ve got a signed copy of CUTTING LOOSE up for grabs. Just leave a comment and I’ll announce the winner next week, right after I’m back from – you guessed it – Miami!
Nadine Dajani is a hedge fund accountant by day and the author of two novels – FASHIONABLY LATE and CUTTING LOOSE – and several travel articles. She’s lived in Saudi Arabia, Montreal, and the Cayman Islands and has visited Cuba more times than she can count. In fact, framed on her wall there’s a press pass issued by the Cuban government but they’ve butchered her name so much no one is likely to believe it’s hers. She’s currently at work on THE UPSIDE OF DOWN, a novel set in Connecticut and Baracoa, Cuba. She blogs over at www.nadindajani.com and can be found on Scribd (as Cubanista) and Facebook. These days she calls Toronto home. We’ll see how long that lasts.