Books about places?
November 29, 2007 4:15 PM   Subscribe

Can you recommend some good books about places?

My husband likes to read detailed "place" histories - books like "India - A History" by John Keay. Can you recommend other books of this type? He has a broad range of interests, so recommend any region/country/city/so forth. I'm interested in this as a Christmas gift, so something readily available online or in the greater DC/Baltimore region would be good.
posted by ersatzkat to Grab Bag (23 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
It's not a long history -- it only takes place over a ten-month period -- but A Nervous Splendor: Vienna, 1888-1889 is one of the most enjoyable, delicious nonfiction books I've ever read. I got it as a Christmas present years ago and I lovelovelove it. (The same author also wrote Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913-1914 as well -- they'd make a great gift as a pair.)
posted by scody at 4:24 PM on November 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

The County of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett
posted by Sara Anne at 4:29 PM on November 29, 2007

He tends to get more categorized as "travel writing," but pretty much anything by Pico Iyer is well worth a read. The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani is a less-traditional history--and somewhat polarizing--but still a compelling read.

If you can get into DC, Candida's World of Books is a great resource.
posted by kittyprecious at 4:32 PM on November 29, 2007

I really enjoyed Joseph Campbell's Sake and Satori - a journal of his time in Japan. He also wrote Baksheesh and Brahman; same thing, but with India as the focus.
posted by ikahime at 5:05 PM on November 29, 2007

I'm a huge fan of City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear, two books about Los Angeles by urban theorist Mike Davis.
posted by box at 5:10 PM on November 29, 2007

Mark Mazower's Salonica is one of the best books about a city I've ever read, and I've read a lot of books about cities.
posted by languagehat at 5:10 PM on November 29, 2007

Constantinople by Isaac Asimov is a constant delight.
posted by micayetoca at 5:14 PM on November 29, 2007

I like Bill Bryson for the most part, but he goes for "jokey" rather that "dry and factual," which may or may not work for your husband. The books are still packed with facts, but his tone doesn't suit everyone.
posted by cabingirl at 5:16 PM on November 29, 2007

I really liked The Island at the Center of the World which is a nice history of the Dutch rule of New York.
posted by hobgadling at 5:27 PM on November 29, 2007

In Search of Captain Zero by Allan Weisbecker.

It's his personal surf/drug trade/life memoir about his journey through the backroads and dangerous parts of Mexico and Central America, in search of a long lost friend.

Amazon link to In Search of Captain Zero.
posted by iamkimiam at 5:29 PM on November 29, 2007

The Mojave
posted by jon1270 at 5:32 PM on November 29, 2007

Many of these books are "oriented in place" with a look to and an appreciation of the historic past:
John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (Savannah) and The City of Falling Angels (Venice).

John McPhee's La Place de la Concorde Suisse (Switzerland), Coming into the Country (Alaska) and The Crofter and the Laird (Scottish Hebrides).

Adam Nicolson's Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides.

Colin Woodards' The Lobster Coast (Maine).

Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (Provincetown, Plymouth).

Paul Schneider's The Enduring Shore: A History of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket.

Nicholas Clapp's - The Road to Ubar - Finding the Atlantis of the Sands (Ubar | Arabia).
posted by ericb at 5:39 PM on November 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

I though Alex Kerr's Lost Japan was fabulous.
posted by mdonley at 5:42 PM on November 29, 2007

If I were still working in a bookstore, I'd be handselling the hell out of this: Hard Road West: History and Geology along the Gold Rush Trail. It's a fantastic and fascinating book about the folks who walked/rode from Missouri/Iowa to California in the 1840s and '50s, and the geology they saw and experienced along the way. The author is a geologist and writes some of the clearest geology writing I've ever read. He uses excerpts from emigrants' diaries and journals as jumping-off points to talk about the landscape they traveled through, and what geologic forces created it. I just can't say enough good stuff about this book.
posted by rtha at 5:46 PM on November 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

To me, this question is incredibly expansive -- I have a whole bookshelf of books that are about a subset of your question (the environmental history of specific places). But the very best book I can think of in this category is Nature's Metropolis by William Cronon. It is theoretically about Chicago, but it's really about the settlement of the entire midwest / west, and about how natural factors influenced the emergence of economic institutions; it's really considered a classic within the world of environmental and urban histories. But there are a million other books on this topic. If you think he's interested in history of places with a focus on the interaction with "nature" -- weather, natural landforms, resources, related economies, etc. -- let me know, and I could help narrow in on a few other good ones.
posted by salvia at 5:49 PM on November 29, 2007 [2 favorites]

There's a lot more to Hawaii than pineapples, hula, and loud shirts (which aren't really Hawaiian, but of course you knew that). Gavan Daws' "Shoal of Time" should be required reading for anyone visiting... and is interested reading for just about anyone.

It effectively starts with first contact, which of course skips a lot of history, but it's from that point forward that I think most folks would do well to learn about.
posted by pzarquon at 7:01 PM on November 29, 2007

This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich

and anything by Redmond O'Hanlon
Trawler - aboard a ship in the far north Atlantic
No Mercy - The Congo
Into the Heart of Borneo
In Trouble Again: A Journey Between Orinoco and the Amazon
posted by readery at 7:09 PM on November 29, 2007

722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York is an enjoyable history of that amazing, cantankerous piece of urban infrastructure, and how it shaped New York (i.e., not just for engineering geeks).
posted by Quietgal at 7:54 PM on November 29, 2007

Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center, Daniel Okrent
Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon
posted by Brian James at 10:14 PM on November 29, 2007

How's his attention span?

Faust's Metropolis is a pretty comprehensive, very seriously historical (but still readable) 1000+ page history of Berlin.

Contantiople: City of the World's Desire is shorter, ~700 pages, not quite as good (but still fascinating history), covering the city from 1453 to 1924 (essentially the entire Ottoman empire).

Both are apparently out of print, but readily available online.
posted by fidelity at 1:15 PM on November 30, 2007

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