Book review: “Footsteps,” from The New York Times
November 18, 2017
Lovers of travel are often lovers of literature, as well, for escaping into the imagination of an exemplary writer is akin to exploring distant lands from the comfort of one's armchair. Writers, in turn, can't help but incorporate their favorite surroundings into their prose, whether it be literal place references or simply the essence of a beloved locale.
"Footsteps" is a collection of essays, recently released from The New York Times as a compilation of feature stories from the newspaper over the decades. Each selection examines a particular author and his or her love affair with a place in the world of great personal influence. The collection is dynamic and highly engaging, as each offering is presented by a different writer from the newspaper.
There is a little something for every fan of poetry and prose. There are authors of great fame represented, as well as some selections describing lesser known wordsmiths. The literary reflections span the globe, with the reporters examining the cities, mountain tops and hidden hollows that sparked the creative juices for writers of all genres. Ultimately, "each story should leave the reader with a new perspective on the artist and the place that has somehow been a muse."
Mark Twain, for example, is the perfect literary guide for a taste of Hawaii beyond Waikiki, proving that there is more to the famed humorist's palette than small-town Americana and rebellious young boys. The Desolation Peak shack where Jack Kerouac spent a season as a fire lookout provides the perfect opportunity to explore the beat generation author's experiences there.
The famous streets and neighborhoods of San Francisco are examined through the vision of Dashiell Hammett, who brought "noir" fiction to the fore, inspiring future authors and a generation of film-making in Hollywood. From the reporter's attempts to follow Hammett's life through the city he called home in the era of Prohibition and speak-easies, it is clear that even to this day, areas like Union Square, Nob Hill and the Tenderloin are still evocative of the time period that Hammett brought to life in his books, most famous being "The Maltese Falcon." Hammett was one writer who deftly mirrored his own surroundings to great effect. "Locations pile up like elements in a chemical equation."
Another reporter's selection follows the infamous road trip through America from Nabokov's "Lolita," saying "it took a Russian-born writer to awaken to what Mark Twain knew: America is not a place; it is a road."
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For Flannery O'Connor, that America was embodied in the South, and her stories reflected the world she grew up in, in the landscapes where she spent most of her short life, lending credence to the advice that authors often receive—to "write what you know." Some places profiled clearly embrace their literary patrons of yore, marking their existence with honorifics, name plates, and even museums or homes held in homage to their former inhabitants. Other locales are sadly ignorant of the literary footprints that have passed and slowly faded into obscurity.
Cafés, meandering streets, rocky coastlines and beloved gardens all around the globe served as inspiration for some of the literary world's most prolific and treasured writers and poets. Some of their footsteps are faint and nearly forgotten, while others shimmer within the evocative language of a writer's master works.
Regardless of whether or not a city is aware of a former literary resident does not diminish the relationship between the two, which means for readers of "Footsteps" it is a bit like scraping away the shine of modernity to reveal the faded and beautiful layer of the past beneath. This collection is for readers who relish the notion of escaping to foreign lands and unfamiliar corners of this inspirational world, just as much as it is a collection of authors who will invigorate the imagination.
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