I take great care when choosing what book to bring on a trip. Oftentimes, the memory of the book becomes inseparable from the experience of the journey, for better or for worse. Reading the book becomes a secondary journey that must compliment the one I'm on.
This year, I tended towards books that were travel- and place-oriented, ranging from the American South, New Mexico, pre- and post-WWII Europe, or deep within the Congo. These stories, whether true, imagined, or somewhere in between, channel a deep sense of the places close to the writer's heart.
The New Granta Book of Travel - Edited by Liz Jobey
This collection of travel stories introduced me to a huge range of writers, from Bruce Chatwin to W.G. Sebald. The stories within span the globe, crossing all of Africa, Europe, and Asia, and ending far north in the Arctic Circle. Traveling to seldom-visited and not always pleasant locations across the globe, the writers featured in this collection are masters of their craft who depict their journeys with heart-wrenching, personal detail. These stories read like epic tales or whispered confessions, including raw excerpts from Chatwin's famed moleskine journals from his wearying journey through Niger.
This curated collection of short stories and excerpts will take the reader on real journeys one could have never imagined, from searching for a dinosaur in the Congo to evading real or imagined pursuers in Venice. Each story is as unique as the storyteller, with backgrounds ranging from immigrants and journalists to nomads with an insatiable curiosity.
I brought this book with me to Morocco, where I read and reread Sebald's story Going Abroad, continually fascinated and tickled by the seemingly arbitrary photocopies of receipts from pizza parlors in Venice, and a copy of Sebald's own passport. Inspired by Sebald, I collected such relics from Morocco. I know my hosts must have laughed at me when I picked up a dusty bus ticket to Agadir from the ground, but it seemed important to make a record of these findings.
Austerlitz - W.G. Sebald
Czechozslovakia - France - Wales - Belgium
This book was the most influential work I read all year. After discovering German writer W.G. Sebald in The New Granta Book of Travel, I picked up the only book of his I could find in my local library. Austerlitz's stark cover features a poignant photograph of a blonde boy dressed in ornate finery, holding his feathered hat while standing in a barren field.
Sebald's work cannot easily be categorized. One of the first things you will notice about his work is the inclusion of stray black and white photographs, like images from a forgotten shoebox in the family attic. Written in the first person by a narrator one assumes to be Sebald himself, one is taken through a bleak psychological journey through settings that harken back to unspoken traumas which are slowly uncovered during the course of the book.
Though Sebald's works are taken for fact, they are categorized as fiction. Here is a true employer of creative documentary nonfiction, in which the events and characters, both real and imagined, point to a greater truth. Sebald himself was often asked to comment on the "truthfulness" of his works and the photographs within:
I think that fiction writing, which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself, is a form of imposture and which I find very, very difficult to take. Any form of authorial writing, where the narrator sets himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable. I cannot bear to read books of this kind.
Outer Dark - Cormac McCarthy
Deep South - Appalachia
I brought this book with me to Morocco in order to ground me in this unfamiliar place by reminding me of the place where I had come from- the South. Outer Dark is a grim, biblical, yet true to life depiction of the strange and sublime characters that fill the American South. The language used is authentic to certain Southern dialects, in an almost documentary exploration of conversation and tone. These places and people exist and are readily recognized to anyone who knows the South.
Cormac McCarthy's writings on the South are a document to be studied when the ways of life here eventually fade away. They are an important record of the deeds of good and evil committed in the hidden folds of the mountains and foothills. Written by someone who was likely a witness to such events, works such as Outer Dark and The Orchard Keeper may be viewed as a record of what once was (and still is, in some places.) I imagine McCarthy stationed in the dilapidated mountain shacks, the country stores where old men gathered, listening to the countless tales told by fires and in dark saloons, and weaving them into the archetypal story of the South.
Socorro - Tony Reevy
Socorro is a book of poetry by Tony Reevy, who grew up in the titular town in New Mexico. These austere tales conjure childhood memories unique to a life in the desert, including the smell of piñon, crowds of tourists in Old Town, ancient ghost tales and UFO sightings. For anyone who has traveled in New Mexico, these poems conjure a vivid memory of the experience. For those who have not, they are invited by the familiarity of Reevy's words to enter a land both utterly real and dream-like.
The unique traditions, foods, folk tales, and places of New Mexico are all touched upon with vivid simplicity in Reevy's poems. There is the feeling of coyotes upon the plains, frigid desert nights, holiday gatherings and daily errands touched with nostalgia. Socorro is a special place on the edge of the wild desert, and as its meaning implies, gives one succor and relief in the harshness of life on the desert.
Dance for the Coyote Woman - Elizabeth Martina Bishop
Southwest USA - Ireland
Another book of poetry, Dance for the Coyote Woman was my souvenir from Arizona, where the author currently resides. Elizabeth's writing is influenced by shamanic traditions found among the peoples native to Arizona and the Southwest. Elizabeth's ancestral roots in Ireland also inform the mythical content of her poems, inhabited by foxes, wolves, and shapeshifters. Elizabeth's voice, however, is unique of these influences, drawing from her daily life and voyages through thrift stores, artist colonies, and the natural surroundings of the Southwest.
Filled with dreams, visions, monologues, and encounters with otherworldly spirits, Elizabeth's poems are drawn from deep wells in the different lands where she finds her home and her roots.
On the list for 2019:
Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger
The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman
The Solace of Open Places by Gretel Ehrlich
Of Walking in Ice by Werner Herzog
Desert Memories by Ariel Dorfman