Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Sense of Place

I don’t know about you, but I kind of feel about bookstores the way some people feel about places of worship. I’ve never been the type to seek solace in a church, a mosque or a temple, but when the small pressures of daily life are squeezing me under their accumulated weight, nothing beats the feeling of walking into a bookstore and trawling around for a sense of peace, quiet, and the promise of escape.

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.

And then I spotted it, on the “Prize Winners” table, somewhere in the middle on the big-box store.

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 also go about it the other way round – some places are so unforgettable to me that I can’t rest until I’ve found the right story, the right characters for them. I had one such place in mind when I started penning my latest (and yet unfinished!) novel – The Upside of Down. That place is Baracoa on the easternmost tip of Cuba, a tropical town where Columbus set foot and built the first church of the Western Hemisphere (that you can still see in its full, dilapidated glory) and where Cubans later erected the hefty, haughty bust of Hatuay, a Taino Native Chief who had fought back the conquistadors and was burned at the stake for his trouble.

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 and can be found on Scribd (as Cubanista) and Facebook. These days she calls Toronto home. We’ll see how long that lasts.


  1. I can definitely visualize you trawling the book aisles for a good book. :-) I do the same myself. Isn't it just wonderful to pick up a new book and FEEL it in your hands?

  2. Nadine, what an interesting life you lead! I was actually born in Havana and emigrated to the states as a toddler;)

    I adore book stores! Just going by one raises my pulse!

  3. As a school kid, geography was one of my weakest subjects. As an adult I realized I needed to either experience a place myself or read about it to fix it in my mind well enough to recall details like state capitols and position on the globe. It's a heckuva lot more affordable to read!

    Thanks for the reminder about The Lacuna. I love Kingsolver, and have been meaning to read her newest book, but it's somewhere in the middle of my TBR pile. To which I will now have to add your intriguing titles, as well!

  4. What a beautifully written post. I live in the South (Augusta, GA) and every one of my books is invariably infused with the smell of confederate jasmine, the taste of scuppernong jelly and the sound of cicadas in the magnolia trees.

  5. Oh, Nadine, this is so beautiful. Like you, bookstores are sacred places to me. And books have taken me all over the world--I love how books have allowed me to feel like I "know" place before I've been there, and then, when I finally do get to visit there, it feels familiar, almost like going home.

  6. Judy, you said what I was going to say (only more poetically!). I, too, love escaping into novels with locations both familiar and exotic. We moved around so much when I was a kid that it was always a comfort to slip away (in my head) to somewhere else. Thanks for a fun Friday morning post, Nadine!

  7. Hi Nadine, I'm a bookstore junkie too. And we are lucky to have a fabulous indie in my hometown--RJ Julia Booksellers. I start to feel antsy if my big pile of unread books drops too low...

    I love reading about places too. But I've realized that writing about a setting is not as easy as good writers make it look. It's not as simple as dumping a bunch of descriptions onto the page. Works much more naturally if the details are seen through the eyes of the characters and infused with meaning the characters give them.

    thanks for reminding us all of this!

  8. Nadine,

    Hey, you!! So nice to see this! I always love reading your posts ;).

    About special places...yeah, I know what you mean. I knew I'd love Venice before I ever saw it in person but, once I did, I felt I had to at least *attempt* to capture its magic somehow. I took a hundred photos of it. I tried painting it. (Really, no one should let me near oils again.) I finally wrote a novel this year where the characters visit the city and some exciting, turning-point things happen there. I'm hoping I've managed to make my love for it shine through, but I may just need to take pride in the attempt and hope its enough to get readers to want to see it for themselves...

    Hope you have a wonderful time in Miami!!

  9. Bookstores are a sanctuary for me too. Sometimes I don't even need to buy anything- just roam around and see what's out there.
    To be honest, I don't always gravitate towards books because of the setting, but I'm going to think about that a bit more while I browse :-)

  10. Lovely post. I find bookstores to be as wonderful and relaxing as a trip to a favorite weekend hideaway.

  11. Maria - "interesting" is one way to describe my life! I can only take credit for the move to Cayman - that was totally unexpected, adventurous, and my choice. And luckily, it did work out nicely.

  12. Judy - I felt that way about Mexico. So many people had been and had had very average, tourist-trap experiences but everything I'd read made me think they just weren't looking in the right places, or hard enough. And sure enough when I finally went, I loved it.

  13. Thanks so much Marilyn, and I've missed you too. Really looking forward to Friday Mornings at Nine. And I've missed blogging.... *sigh*. I have Karin to thank for the kick-in-the-pants : )

  14. Thanks for writing about place. It's something I tend to ignore in my writing and in my studies about writing. Have fun in Miami! I've never been and am starting to think I should go. :-)

  15. You described it perfectly - I feel the exact same way about bookstores! And now I must read The Lacuna. Hot House is also on my list to read - how did you like it overall?

  16. Hi Sarah - I really liked Hot House Flower. It's a little over the top and fantastical, but the writing is fast-paced and the voice is hilarious. The male love interest doesn't sound too bad either... ; )