Even though we’re travel writers, we don’t get to be constantly traveling. So when we’re stuck at home, we turn to books to transport us around the world. Matador editors Matt Hershberger and Ana Bulnes give us their 7 books that took them somewhere in 2017.
1. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks — Scotland
It would be hard for an author to have a more unsettling debut novel than Iain Banks’ 1984 The Wasp Factory. It features a teenaged psychopath named Frank Cauldhame, who lives on a lonely island off the Scottish highlands with his father. Frank spends his days conducting elaborate, deeply creepy rituals while preparing for the return of his insane brother, who just escaped from a mental institution. The book goes to some really dark places, but what was most striking about it to me was how effectively it used the Scottish landscape to set the scene. Rural Scotland is a wild and windy place, and Banks uses this landscape in just the creepiest possible ways. I can’t say I’d want to spend time with Frank if I was in Scotland, but it was nice to take the trip there nonetheless. —Matt Hershberger
2. The Yellow Rain by Julio Llamazares — Pyrenees
This sad but beautiful book is so well-written I still have the feeling of having walked the empty streets of Ainielle, the Pyrenean village where the story takes place. There’s a reason why those streets are empty — the book is about the village’s last inhabitant. During the 50s and 60s, Ainielle’s youngest neighbors gradually left their home in the mountains for the city, which offered more opportunities. Andrés, the main — and almost only — character recounts during what he feels will be his last night, all the memories of his life in Ainielle, watching everyone leave or die. His kids, his wife, his mother, his dog. Full of symbolism and deeply poetic, the book is a story about loneliness, death, and rural migration. While Andrés is a fictional character, Ainielle is a real village in the Aragonian Pyrenées, uninhabited since 1971. A popular hike now called the Yellow Path will take you to its ruins. —Ana Bulnes
3. Jerusalem by Alan Moore — Northampton
I am terrified of recommending Jerusalem to people. Alan Moore’s 1280-page masterpiece is like nothing else I’ve ever read — one chapter is written in verse, another is in an almost-unreadable James Joyce-style stream-of-consciousness, and a full third of the book takes place in the 10 minutes that a 2-year-old is choking on a cough drop. But it may be the best thing I’ve ever read. The main character is Moore’s hometown of Northampton, which he positions as the center of the universe. It is trippy, it is weird, it is beautiful, it is frustrating, and it is rewarding. Please — read it. It is a once-in-a-lifetime book. —Matt Hershberger
4. Some Experiences of an Irish R.M. by Edith Somerville and Violet Martin — Ireland
If you’re tired of everything and everyone being so serious all the time, read this. You’ll be transported to a small Irish village. We’re in the late 19th century (the book was published in 1899), and the narrator, Mayor Yates, a British judge, is in shock. Rural Ireland, where he has just moved to, is not what he’s used to. But that’s a good thing for us — while he tries to navigate his new life, where he plans to build up a career and become someone important and respected (he’s a judge!), his new neighbors make fun of him and his inability to understand how things really work in the countryside. The writing is witty and clever and will have you chuckling or straight out laughing all the time. And if you’re thinking this sounds like something the BBC could have made a comedy series of in the 80s, the answer is yes. You can watch some sketches on YouTube. —Ana Bulnes
5. Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed — Russia
2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and it is frankly impossible to imagine a more important moment in the 20th century. Vietnam, the nuclear arms race, the Cold War, Castro, the War on Terror, even the rise of fascism — there’s an argument to be made that none of this would have happened, or would have been quite so disastrous, without the specter of the Soviets looming over it. But we in the West really don’t know what happened in Russia between February and October of 1917. John Reed, an American socialist, reported on the events as they were happening, and wrote this short, intense book from the notes he took while he was in St. Petersburg. It is a heady, optimistic book, which is made all the more tragic by the century that followed. —Matt Hershberger
6. Notes on a Foreign Country by Suzy Hansen — Turkey
As an American who often travels abroad, I’ve never really connected with the idea that travel is the key to happiness. Seeing what our country and our empire has done to other countries is often depressing and demoralizing. The patriotic righteousness that it’s so easy to feel when surrounded by fellow Americans dissolves away in the face of Salvadorans whose families were gunned down by US-backed death squads, or Iranians who saw their democracy slip away in a US-backed coup. Suzy Hansen’s incredible Notes on a Foreign Country is an exploration of what it’s like to go abroad as an American during the decline of the US as a world superpower. Hansen herself spent years living in Turkey, and from there, traveled out to much of the rest of the Muslim world. It’s gloomy, it’s harrowing, it’s elegiac, and it’s often an uncomfortable read, but it’s the first thing I’ve picked up that’s given name and shape to the sadness that I often feel while traveling abroad. This is a must-read for American travelers. —Matt Hershberger
7. Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas — Paris
This is the Paris all writers and artists dream of at some point when they’re starting out. Moving to a small, worn-out attic in the French capital with a typewriter as your only possession and, basically, becoming Hemingway. This is exactly what Enrique Vila-Matas did when he was in his early 20s (except for the Hemingway part, but not for lack of trying). More than 20 years later, while giving a conference on irony (the book is conceived as that conference), he uses his memories to talk about being young, loving literature, and how the Bohemian lifestyle doesn’t feel so amazing when you spend a cold Parisian winter without central heating.
He actually got to writing in the end, but he spent most of the time in Paris trying to convince himself and everyone around him that he was a writer. While deeply ironic, the book is actually really tender — he looks back on his younger self and sees he was a stupid snob, but can’t help but smile at all his naive stupidity. Maybe bohemian life is not so cool after all, but his landlady was Marguerite Duras and I can’t think of anything cooler than that to tell your friends back home. –Ana Bulnes