An incomplete record of the books I have read, looked at, discussed or even just thought about a lot on route. This bibliography is ordered by geographical location and with reference to the people with who I discussed the book:
- South of the Limpopo – Devla Murphy
Recommended by Angela:
- Wheels on Ice: Bicycling in Alaska 1898 – 1908 – edited by Terrence Cole
- Beneath the Crust of Culture: Psychoanalytic Anthropology and the Cultural Unconscious in American Life – Howard F. Stein
Recommended by Danusia:
- Lullabies for Little Criminals – Heather O’Neill
In Penny and Ian’s book collection:
- The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers and the Shaping of the World – Hugh Brody
Recommended by Sheila:
- A Naturalist’s Guide to the Arctic – E.C. Pielou
- Monkey Beach – Eden Robinson
- Between Pacific Tides – Edward Ricketts
- Cannery Row – John Steinbeck
Recommended by Jane:
- I, Rigoerta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala – edited by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray
BEVERLY BEACH CAMPGROUND
Recommended by Dave:
- All That the Rain Promises and More: a Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms – David Arora
- Catfish and Mandala: A Two Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam – Andrew X. Pham
An account of a bike tour of Vietnam by a Vietnamese American, returning to Vietnam to make sense of his past and, therefore, his present. This book was recommended by Tom, in Seattle, and so when I came across it in a second-hand bookshop I snapped it up.
Catfish and Mandala is an honest and brave book that examines what people do to survive and the price they pay for it. It is a book that wrestles with unanswerable questions about cultural and personal identity, and unflinchingly recounts the failures of love within a family.
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie
- Cadillac Desert: The American West and It’s Disappearing Water – Marc Reisner
IN THE DESERT
- Shallow Water Dictionary: A Grounding in Estuary English – John R. Stilgoe
I keep thinking about this book, which I read a long time ago. Shallow Water Dictionary is an extended essay – a leisurely reflection on the richness of vernacular language used to describe the subtle landscape of estuaries and marshlands and a lament of their passing.
I keep thinking of this book as I travel through the desert and realise that I don’t have the language to describe the infinitely varied beautiful and vulnerable landscape. As with marshland, people don’t see an immediate use value for desert and so it is often threatened by destructive development.
- Under the Volcano – Malcom Lowry
- Como Agua para Chocolate – Laura Esquivel
- Sunstone/Piedra de Sol – Octavio Paz
- Bandit Roads – Richard Grant
Richard Grant travels through the Sierra Madre looking for trouble and finds it. Bandit Roads takes a cursory look at the impact of the drug trade and endemic violence on life in the north of Mexico but the book is much more of a personal travelogue than an in depth examination of the complex issues it touches on.
I rode through the same area and many of the towns described in this book and experienced them quite differently.
- Happy Families – Carlos Fuentes
- All The Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy
- King Leopold’s Ghost – Adam Hochschild
- Ahab’s Wife: or The Star Gazer –Sena Naslund
- The Labyrinth of Solitude – Octavio Paz
- Lucky – Alice Sebold
- The Road – Cormac McCarthy
Oddly enough it was the second book in a row I read that heavily featured human cannibalism. (The first being Ahab’s Wife.)
- Lolita – Vladimir Nobokov
Another find on the Chicago household bookshelves. I love this book. I have lost count of how many times I have read Lolita. This time I was struck more by the novel’s black humour and wit than its pathos and tragedy.
- The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway
- The Voyage of the Beagle – Charles Darwin
READING IN MORALES
As I stayed in Morales with a fellow bibliophile, who not only reads voraciously and keeps a well stocked bookshelf, but writes – seriously – and makes handbound books, my time there was characterised by bibiolophilia. The books I consumed there are too numerous to list exhaustively but a couple of the gems are below.
(I also made myself a couple of handmade notebooks.)
- Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson
- Pedro Pedramo – Juan Rulfo
- Memoria del Fuego – Eduardo Galeano
Another bibliophilic experience, in a house filled with books and literary magazines. Additionally, while in an English speaking country, I took the opportunity to stock up on a couple of staples and make the most of prolific secondhand books.
- The Birds of Mexico and Central America– Ber Van Perlo
- Cities of the Plain– Cormac McCarthy
- Lonesome Traveller– Jack Kerouac
- No Country For Old Men– Cormac McCarthy
SAN JOSE, GUATEMALA
- I, Rigoerta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala – edited by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray
- Weaving Ourselves into the Land – by Thomas C Parkhill
- Myths of Pre-Columbian America – by Donald A MacKenzie
A peculiar pair of books that arrive with a box of spare parts for my bicycle all the way from Australia. They were bought, by all accounts, from Gould’s Book Arcade, a chaotic dusty warehouse on King Street in Newtown, Sydney. The place is run by an unrepentant Stalinist and jam packed with out of print and remaindered volumes.
Weaving Ourselves into the Land by Parkhill is an interesting meditation on how Native mythology, as it is known and presented by academics and outsiders, says way more about them and their own sets of beliefs than about Native culture.
The Myths of Pre-Columbian America by MacKenzie is a case in point. MacKenzie’s thesis is that Pre-Columbian mythology and cosmology is, in his learned opinion, far to complex and refined to have been developed by what he considers such a primitive people. Therefore, the images and legends must of been imported somehow from the more developed European cultures at some time in history. There is not much by way of evidence to support his theories but I didn’t make it to the end of this tome.
READING IN QUETZALTENTANGO
I stayed in Quetzaltenango, otherwise referred to as Xela, for three weeks. The motive for my extended stay was provided, in part, by stumbling across an excellent second-hand bookshop. I struck up a friendship with the manager and my arrangement with him resembled more that of a lending library than a bookshop.
- The Odyessy – Homer
- Siddharhta – Herman Hesse
- Blue Highways – William Least Heat Moon
BOCAS DEL TORO
I stayed in Bocas far longer than anyone should and it was only reading that kept me sane.
- Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters – Annie Dillard
- The Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe
- I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company – A Novel Of Lewis And Clark – Brian Hall
The expedition followed the Missouri River to its source and then made its way across the Continental Divide to the Pacific coast before finally returning to St Louis almost two and half years later in 1806. The success of the expedition, it would seem, owed a great deal more to good luck than knowledge, leadership or management and Hall plays with this.
This story is told from various points of view: Meriwether Lewis, the company leader, William Clark, the second in command, a French trapper who was the official interpreter and his wife, Sacagawea, a fifteen year old Shoshone Native girl who acted as a translator and guide, all narrate their part.
- The Voyage of the Turtle: In Pursuit of the Earth’s Last Dinosaur – Carl Sarfina
A natural history following the fortunes and misfortunes of the critically endangered leatherback turtle in the Atlantic and the Pacific. Sarfina tries to understand why the Atlantic population of leatherbacks has stabilised in the last decade while the Pacific population is still in ruinous decline.
- Beloved – Toni Morrison
Beloved is a ghost story based on the true story of an escaped African slave in the US in who murdered her own daughter rather allow her to return to captivity. In Toni Morrison’s account the mother is quite literally haunted by her action. I found the book genuinely creepy and heart-wrenching enough to weep on occasion while reading it.
- The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingslover
A mother and her four young daughters are transplanted from middle America to the Congo by the authoritarian and half crazed missionary father of the family at the perilous moment of the Congo’s liberation from Belgium rule.
The story is told from the five different points of view of the women of the family. The voice I find a little unconvincing is that of Rachel, the eldest daughter, whose selfishness is so flawless as to end up as caricature. The others all undergo profound transformations as a result of their encounter with Africa.
- Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
I though I’d revisit this when I came across it at the Red Frog Marina book exchange. I ended up confirmed in my opinion that Rushdie is super smart but always manages to be so self aggrandising and smug, even in a work of fiction, that it is hard to bear. His (anti) hero is insufferable and I couldn’t make it all the way to the end.
- The Man Who Loved Children – Cristina Stead
I’ve tried to read this book several times before and never managed to get very far into it. This time I made some headway and for a while I thought I might even enjoy it. But no. None of the members of the family portrayed in The Man Who Loved Children are even slightly likeable and they spend all their time tormenting each other in beastly ways. The ending is predictably ugly and I’m not sure what the point is. I did however finish the book on this occasion.
- The Beach – Alex Garland
Another nasty book about nasty people.
- In The Foot Steps Of Mr Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo – Michaela Wrong
I’ve just noticed a small Congo theme running through this reading list. This book details more recent episodes in the Congo’s sad history which follows in the footsteps of a long long sad sad history. Wrong writes the Mobutu period as a tragi-farce which makes for an enjoyable read despite the depressing subject matter.
- Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand
I’ve always been slightly curious about Ayn Rand’s novels but now I know that this one, at least, is utterly insufferable. Not a single one of the characters in Atlas Shrugged is a believable human being and their lengthy monologues exist solely to promote Rand’s pernicious self-styled philosophy of Objectivism. I struggled with distaste about a quarter of the way through this lengthy tome before I started skipping vast sections and then abandoned it with a profound sense of relief.
- The Comedians – Graham Greene
The Comedians is set in Papa Doc’s Haiti. A group of self-absorbed foreigners bumble about engaged in their own affairs against a backdrop of real and compelling horror.
Greene writes extremely elegantly about the messy intersection of idealism and human frailty. And let’s not forget to mention healthy doses of those twin evils; power and plain old stupidity.
- We Were the Mulvaneys – Joyce Carol Oates
I had just listened to an interview with Joyce Carol Oates on Writers and Company, my favourite literary podcast, when I came across this title in the Buena Vida book exchange. As a speaker Joyce Carol Oates is dark, sardonic and extremely witty so I was excited by the find but I thought the book which tells the tale of the demise of a ‘perfect’ happy family in the wake the rape of the idolised daughter ponderous and laboured. The various family members pursue their ruin so doggedly that it is hard to sympathise with them and the redemptive triumph of familial love in the final chapter is hard to believe in.
- The Great Railway Bazaar – Paul Theroux
I’ve been on the lookout for The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux since my trek across La Moskitia but this title, which I ‘borrowed’ from the hostel I stay on overnight supply trips to Santiago, is the closest I got, so far.
The Great Railway Bazaar is another ‘great’ travel book but I lost interest about half way through – maybe I just don’t like travel literature. Written in the 70s, Theroux documents his travels throughout Asia by train. It might have been a radical choice at the time but today it is pretty tame stuff. Theroux spend most of his time bribing his way into a private sleeper and his observations of his fellow travellers seem cutting rather than sharply observed.
(And I did dutifully return the book to the Hotel Hostal Veraguas bookshelves once I had finished it.)
- Don’t Stop the Carnival – Herman Wouk
Written in 1965, this book is so topical in contemporary Santa Catalina that it is hard to doubt the universality of the human condition.
A successful urbane New Yorker decides, on a whim, to buy a hotel on a fictional Caribbean island. His dreams of an idyllic life in tropical paradise quickly run aground on the treacherous reefs of everyday life in a small developing country. Amazing how many laughs there are to be had when you are dealing with poor infrastructure, political corruption, unrealistic expectations and culture incomprehension. The book does end, however, in genuine tragedy and takes a serious look at alcoholism, marriage, infidelity and racism along the way.
And it all could (does) happen in Santa Catalina.
- Fingersmith – Sarah Waters
A contemporary take on Victorian Gothic in the form of a convoluted lesbian love story complete with dastardly villains and confused identities resulting in unfair incarceration in a scary lunatic asylum. A stylish and witty look at class, gender and sexuality in the Victorian era. I get the feeling that Water’s historical research is pretty good.
- The Honoury Consel – Graham Greene
More bleakness from Greene. The wrong man gets kidnapped. The wrong man dies. Or maybe is it the right man, after all. Love. Infidelity. Alcoholism. Idealism. Friendship. Power. None of it really matters in the end.