Books About Place

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Article in Category:Adult Nonfiction and Category:Location

These are recommended adult nonfiction books about place and culture, which are not necessarily travel books, or not wholly about travel, as the best travel books often are not.

About the (comparatively) empty Dakotas, and the small towns where people hang on (sometimes their own worst enemies) while the modern world rushes by without them. Norris, a poet, and her husband returned to South Dakota, where she had spent part of her childhood, to take over her grandmother's home when no one else in the family wanted it. She explores the contradictory nature of the people there, and finds meaning and solace in the landscape, work in the schools as a traveling language arts instructor, her small church community and the nearby Benedictine monastery.
Annie Dillard's father bought a copy of this book each summer when he pursued his sales trips. When she looked through the bookshelves as an adult, she found tens of copies. Lucky girl. It's a wonderful mixture of essay, travel adventure, and even ghost stories.
Eric Weiner, NPR correspondent, and, by his own admission, never a very happy person, wonders in this book about the connection of place with happiness. Americans believe that happiness is a birthright; it is the object of our constant introspection, and we move frequently, since we apparently believe that happiness is "somewhere else". In order to shed some light on this topic, Weiner travels to the happiest (and the most unhappy) places on earth,to see what makes the people happy or not happy. He goes to some unexpected places like Bhutan, where happiness is a policy, and Iceland, where it's okay to fail. The most unhappy places on earth? Well, Iraq and Africa, for obvious reasons. But Moldova, the former Soviet Republic, where citizens don't help each other out and constant complaining is a way of life, wins the prize. Here are some conclusions: money matters, but not as much as you might think; connectedness to family and friends are very important; envy is toxic, and excessive thinking doesn't boost happiness. Trust in others, and helping others turn out to be important indicators of happiness. Belief in fairies, evil spirits, excessive drinking, legalized prostitution, "llama lickers", months of constant darkness and ice--it's all in here,so, journey with Weiner to some of the most interesting places in the world, in the quest for--HAPPINESS!
Theroux retraces a trip of thirty years earlier as he travels by train from London through Eastern Europe, Turkey, the "Stans", India, Southeast Asia, Malaysia, and finally to Japan and home by the long journey across Siberia. Theroux travels on the cheap and by train because "Luxury is the enemy of observation. Luxury spoils and infantilizes you and prevents you from knowing the world." There are few better travel writers than Theroux; as he turns his gimlet eye on the places and people he meets. Supremely well informed by history, his viewpoint is never pedestrian, but always original and funny in that serious way that only Theroux can do.
It is the 1950s in China and Shu Wen and her new husband, both doctors, have been married only 3 weeks when he is sent with the Chinese Army to Tibet, which China is already trying to annex. Resistance by Tibetans is ferocious and the situation is much more deadly for the Chinese invaders, who are not prepared to survive in the incredibly harsh climate of Tibet in winter, nor for the guerrilla tactics of Tibetan fighters. Shu Wen receives word that her new husband has been killed, but no details. She cannot believe it, and manages to get herself sent to Tibet with a Chinese regiment as doctors are desperately needed. Separated from the army, what follows is the story of the next 30 years that Shu Wen spends in an extremely remote region of Tibet, without the language, survival skills, or means to search for her husband, living with a single nomadic family. Details of the very religious Buddhist life of nomads in this vast, nearly empty place are fascinating and the conclusion where we learn the fate of Shu Wen's husband is quietly inspiring.