in which you live
and I will tell you who you are.
~ José Ortega y Gasset
One of the first and finest lessons I learned from blogging (thank you, Janie) was to read with a plan. It’s not that I needed a Reading Challenge to read more, but it kept my reading focused, gave it form.
For years my reading choices have been oriented to time, cataloged by chronology. As I homeschooled, I read about the Greeks, the Romans, Medieval times, the Renaissance, colonization, etc. Literature was linked with history.
But, now I’m ready for a different focus. Wendell Berry has made me think more about place. I would like to orient my reading for 2010 (& ’11?) to geography, land, cultures. I explored my bookshelves and, ladies and gentlemen, we have a plan: to read around the world from my home. All the titles on this list reside in our house. A few I have begun, but not completed; none are re-reads. And because I like to read across time as well as across continents, I’ve included the year of publication. The short descriptions are the publisher’s blurbs found on back covers and dust jackets or notes from the author’s introductions.
I don’t promise to read every book on this list in 2010. Undoubtedly I will discover some not worth reading. I don’t promise to read only books on this list. But this will be my core curriculum this year (and next?).
These aren’t the *best* books to read on each country. They are just the ones that happen to be on my shelf. I want to read them, release the one-time-through-is-enough books and keep and love the others. If you have recommendations on other titles, I’d love to hear them. Just know that it’s close to giving a drunkard a bottle of wine.
This post is ridiculously long. I have librarian DNA in me; formatting this was fun! Connections (like a quote from Thubron on Fisher’s book…immediately after posting Thubron’s book) abound. I’m really revved up.
If you scroll to the bottom, there are two books to be given away.
Arrow of God Chinua Achebe (1969) It is a measure of Achebe’s creative gift that he has no need whatever for prose fireworks to light the flame of his intense drama. Worthy of particular attention are the characters. Achebe doesn’t create his people with fastidiously detailed line drawings: instead, he relies on a few short strokes that highlight whatever prominent features will bring the total personality into three-dimensional life.
The Reader’s Companion to South Africa edited Alan Ryan Gathering nineteen eyewitness accounts of travelers to the world’s diamond capital, this book illuminates the complex culture and racial politics of a country well on its way to becoming one of history’s great success stories. As visitors, the authors bring a stranger’s questions and curiosity, not a native’s assumptions, to their observations. No standard guidebook can offer this intensely personal perspective.
Skeletons on the Zahara Dean King (2004) Everywhere hailed as a masterpiece of historical adventure, this enthralling narrative recounts the experiences of twelve American sailors who were shipwrecked off the coast of Africa in 1815, captured by desert nomads, sold into slavery, and subjected to a hellish two-month journey through the bone-dry heart of the Sahara. The ordeal of these men–who found themselves tested by barbarism, murder, starvation, death, dehydration, and hostile tribes that roamed the desert on camelback–is made indelibly vivid in this gripping account of courage, brotherhood, and survival.
Too Late The Phalarope Alan Paton (1953) After violating his country’s ironclad law governing relationships between the races, a young white South African police lieutenant must struggle alone against the censure of an inflexible society, his family, and himself. / A great and enduring novel, written in exquisitely balanced prose.
West with the Night Beryl Markham (1942) She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I [Ernest Hemingway] was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But [she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers.
Penhally Caroline Gordon (1931) A dynamic narrative of how a powerful Southern family came to lose its way, it is a tale of dynastic complications and self-dispossession, stewardship and the failure of the proprietary spirit. Penhally treats the Southerner’s relationship to the land, his rooted-ness to place, and the consequences of its loss.
Stomping The Blues Albert Murray (1976) Stomping the Blues is one of the three best books ever written on music. / Murray is possessed of the poet’s language, the novelist’s sensibility, the essayist’s clarity, the jazzman’s imagination, the gospel singer’s depth of feeling.
Mountain Man Vardis Fisher (1965) Strange, that people can find so strong and fascinating a charm in this rude, nomadic, and hazardous mode of life, as to be estranged themselves from home, country, friends, and all the comforts, elegances, and privileges of civilization; but so it is, the toil, the danger, the loneliness, the deprivation of this condition of being, fraught with all its disadvantages, and replete with peril, is, they think, more than compensated by the lawless freedom, and the stirring excitement, incident to their situation and pursuits.
The Mountains of California John Muir (1894) This book reflects three aspects of John Muir’s remarkable life: first, as one of the leading figures in the fight for land and forest conservation; second, as a practicing geologist who saw in pre-historic glaciation one of the vital forces in land formation; and third, as an eloquent essayist who celebrated the beauties of the mountains of California for millions of readers. Muir describes here the glacier meadows, the incomparable Sierra terrain, the exhilaration of mountain climbing.
My Oregon Bob Welch (2005) My Oregon is Bob Welch at his finest. It is a literary journal to the soul of a state, reminding us that the virtues of a place are found not only in trees and mountains and beaches, but in people. Full of heart and humor, this collection of essays belongs on the shelf of everyone who calls Oregon home.
In Search of England H.V. Morton (1927) Currently in its 40th printing with its original publisher in the UK, this is the book that one British newspaper has called “travel writing at its best. Bill Bryson must weep when he reads it.” Whether describing ruined gothic arches at Glastonbury or hilarious encounters with the inhabitants of Norfolk, Morton recalls a way of life far from gone even at the beginning of a new century.
A Year in the World: Journeys of A Passionate Traveller Frances Mayes (2006) Spain, Portugal, France, British Isles, Turkey, Greece, North Africa…Weaving together personal perceptions and informed commentary on art, architecture, history, landscape, and social and culinary traditions of each area, Mayes brings the immediacy of life in her temporary homes to the reader. Will be savored by all who loved Under the Tuscan Sun.
Locations Jan Morris (1992) For the most part, the pieces in Locations are not meant to tell readers how somewhere looks, or feels, or sounds, as most travel writings used to be, but simply present an individual response to a place–a wanderer’s response, offering no advice, expecting no emulations, and (whatever the intentions of some of my patrons) certainly not hoping to contribute to the leisure industry. I gave the book its title partly because I liked the filmic sound of it, but partly because it did not sound like the title of a travel book, but just of a book about places here and there, seen by somebody who happened to be around.
My World of Islands Leslie Thomas (1983) This is Leslie Thomas’s vivid and personal account of his odyssey around some of the most fascinating islands of the globe. Descriptive, evocative and liberally sprinkled with anecdotes, Leslie Thomas’s narrative, accompanied by his own color photographs, enables the reader to feel the unique mystery and character of each island as he himself has experienced it.
Places Hilaire Belloc (1942) The old security is gone. It does not follow that we ought to attempt an understanding of foreign people today. Probably if we tried to do that things would get even worse; because they would become more perilous. And yet one can’t help wishing, at least I can’t help wishing, that people in this country knew more about other people. The great bond woudl be religion; but of that bond people today know nothing. A secondary and much feebler bond is travel.
The Story of San Michele Axel Munthe (1929) This is the story of a remarkable life filled with fabulous experiences and ambitions. Axel Munthe was a fashionable physician in Paris who built one of the best-loved houses in the world–San Michele–on the Isle of Capri, on the site of the villa of Tiberius.
Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India Madhur Jaffrey (2005) This memoir is both an enormously appealing account of an unusual childhood and a testament to the power of food to prompt memory, vividly bringing to life a lost time and place. Included here are recipes for more than thirty delicious dishes recovered from Jaffrey’s childhood.
If the reader laughs at the schoolmistress and the matrons, and is moved by the dream of a butterfly inside the horse’s skull–then he is assured of amusement and emotion to come. He is ready to go to Ventry Races, and to make the great journey from Dingle East…This book is unique…for here is the egg of the sea-bird–lovely, perfect, and laid this very morning.
Lavinia Ursula K. LeGuin (2008) In The Aeneid, Vergil’s hero fights to claim the king’s daughter, Lavinia, with whom he is destined to found an empire. Lavinia herself never speaks a word. Now, Ursula K. LeGuin gives Lavinia a voice in a novel that takes us to the half-wild world of ancient Italy, when Rome was a muddy village near seven hills. / An elegant echo chamber for a canonical work, a reading of an epic poem, and a rewriting of that poem.
The Path to Rome Hilaire Belloc (1902) ‘The only book I wrote for love.’ So Hilaire Belloc described this fusion of anecdote, humour and reflection, all grouped around the story of his pilgrimage to Rome. Meet the Commercial Traveler, the Hungry Student, the Man in the Fur Coat and many more; taste the local wines and ales from the Moselle to central Italy, and view the scenery, laboriously traversed but exquisitely described. Included also are dialogues with a pompous reader, the author’s sketches and a preface to end all prefaces!
Playing for Pizza John Grisham (2007) Yes, Italians do play American football, to one degree or another, and the Parma Panthers desperately want a former NFL player–any former NFL player–at their helm. So Rick reluctantly agrees to play for the Panthers–at least until a better offer comes along–and heads off to Italy. He knows nothing about Parma (not even where it is), has never been to Europe, and doesn’t speak or understand a word of Italian. To say that Italy–the land of opera, fine wines, extremely small cars, romance, and football americano--holds a few surprises for Rick Dockery would be something of an understatement.
New York City
Racing Through Paradise: A Pacific Passage William F. Buckley, Jr. (1987) Each Buckley voyage is distinctive, yet each is an enhancement of earlier journeys. And a journey with Buckley is inevitably an expedition into oddly assorted experiences and comedy, into observation and illumination–into wit and reflection, and into friendships that overcome friction. Here the irrepressible, eloquent, enjoyable Buckley guides us through his beloved Azores, and the the Galapagos (“the Bronx Zoo at the Equator”), about which he inclines more to Melville’s view than to Darwin’s…
Tevye the Dairyman and The Railroad Stories Sholem Aleichem (1883) Of all the characters in modern Jewish fiction, the most beloved is Tevye, the buoyant, compassionate, philosophical, Bible-quoting dairy-man whose life story formed the basis for the musical Fiddler on the Roof. And no Yiddish writer was more beloved than Tevye’s creator, Sholem Rbinovich [1859-1916] who wrote under the pen name of Sholem Aleichem [Yiddish for “hello there”].
Where Nights Are Longest: Travels by Car Through Western Russia Colin Thubron (1983) Everywhere he went he struck up fascinating acquaintances, and clearly possesses a deep talent for inspiring confidence and eliciting those views and experiences which can illuminate a whole life in a few paragraphs..A book to warmly recommend to anyone with the slightest interest in Russia and her people. / Colin Thubron is an ideal guide. Well informed about icons, architecture, and history, he is also wonderfully articulate…especially in descriptive passages, the language becomes a grave and stately music.
Men of the Covenant Alexander Smellie (1903) This book is not a dull history but a series of brilliant sketches. It has the breathless excitement of a historical novel, but it is all true. / Alexander Smellie was indeed the very man to write this book. One of the best expository preachers of his day, an exceptionally well-read man, and endowed with a rare, happy saintliness, he penetrated deeply into the inner significance of Covenanting times…
I have a copy of 1,000 Places To See Before You Die
and an ex-library (but charming if you like old textbooks)
1929 edition of How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis.
Riis was a photojournalist; his photos are compelling.
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I will draw names on January 12th.