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Books that are more than backdrops to notable cities

Learning about a place through its literature gives the reader insight into its denizens’ psychic geography.

Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Sure, a Lonely Planet Guide or some bookmarked Yelp reviews can help any gung-ho traveller get to know a city: its history, its tourist-y landmarks, its bespoke taquerias and microbrew saloons. But getting to know a place through its literature grants a rarer access to the psychic geography of its citizenry. If there's a theme threading together these notable pieces of city fiction, it's coming-of-age stories. And it makes sense. In these formative, porous years when those identities are taking shape – magical, monstrous and caught between various poles – cities becomes more than backdrops. They're a blank page for our own stories and adventures, the canvas upon which we unfold ourselves.


Bottle Rocket Hearts by Zoe Whittall

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Montreal has no shortage of great authors: from Anglos supping on the city's cultural riches (Leonard Cohen, Mordecai Richler) to those tenuously carving out a meaningful Québécois identity among the metropolitan swell (Gabrielle Roy). Though Zoe Whittall has since defected to Toronto, the Quebec-born novelist's 2007 work remains a classic of Montreal lit. In Bottle Rocket Hearts, set during the tense weeks anticipating the 1995 referendum, Quebec's identity crisis informs the story of Eve, an angst-ridden young women pulled between notions of Anglo and Franco, young and old, straight and queer.


Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Motor City's much-publicized death – and slow rebirth as a carte blanche metropolis inviting everyone from urban explorers to investors looking to reinvent the city – has served as a handy stand in for the whole American experiment. Jeffrey Eugenides's Pulitzer-winning second novel traces the genetic heritage of its intersex protagonist, Cal (née Calliope) across three generations of Greek immigrants, illustrating the (sometimes broken) promise of the American Dream. Cal's struggle with gender identity captures the push-pull of racial tension, violence and conflicting ideology in Detroit, the story of a city – and a nation – that sparks to life in all its flinty contradictions.

Brooklyn, N.Y.

The Fortress Of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

There are times when 50-year-old white male Jonathan Lethem's love letters to Brooklyn ring as whiny protestations of "Hey man, I was here first!" But his 2003 novel exudes a genuine compassion for the beat-up brownstones of Gowanus that makes it feel like something other than a case of an early adopter bemoaning gentrification. Charting the friendship of comic nerds who find themselves in possession of a magic ring, Lethem's magical-realist flourish (as well as his title, a nod to Superman's impenetrable arctic hideout) functions as a stand-in for rosy nostalgia. Lethem's Brooklyn may be that of history, but his affections for it imbue it with a fantastical quality.

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Portland, Ore.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Contemporary ideas of Portland see it as a bastion of nouveau yuppie decadence, a hotbed of fixed-gear track bikes, carefully manicured facial hair and artisanal everything. In 1989's Geek Love, Portland author Katherine Dunn imagines a teeming hotbed of a more outlandish eccentricity. It's the story of the Binewskis, ma 'n' pa travelling circus promoters who breed their own geek show, using drugs and radioactivity to rejig their childrens' DNA. Beyond being a rather literal articulation of the city's unofficial mandate to "Keep Portland Weird," Geek Love is an oddly affecting story, in which Dunn nails the mysterious bonds that keep families together, despite everything – even parentally imposed genetic alteration.

San Francisco

Infinite City by Rebecca Solnit

Read Kerouac's On The Road if you're driving west (or Vollmann's phone-book-thick The Royal Family if you're walking). But when you hit the City by the Bay, delve into Infinite City, Rebecca Solnit's imaginative po-mo atlas of San Fran. A collection of maps and essays that serve as esoteric thematic guides, Infinite City is a catalogue of its author's obsessive interests. (One map juxtaposes butterfly migration to the city's robust queer history.) The crossovers may be erratic (Solnit confesses to a "deeply arbitrary" non-methodology), but they invite readers to imagine their own lively political/cultural/environmental network connecting disparate histories and geographies of one of the world's great cities.

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Black Hole by Charles Burns

Seattle's a hard city to pin down. Its history contains traces of the gold rush, grunge and the tech boom; it counts Bill Gates, Jimi Hendrix and Frasier Crane amongst its favourite sons. It's a city of changing cultural topography, always in the process of defining and redefining itself. And so no better primer than Charles Burns's Black Hole, a graphic novel that shades coming-of-age autobiography with Burroughsian body horror. Perhaps not the most upbeat guide to the city's psyche, but Burns's story of a group of friends who become physically altered by a sexually transmitted disease captures the city's defiant outsider spirit.

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