Books for the Journey

The books in this evolving collection aim at presenting a variety of approaches to what has been named ‘life writing’. Their authors use tools of fiction to write a memoir, or work with ‘nonfictional’ approach to write a novel – either based on a (presumably) true story or on extensive research into social and political issues. Other authors may insert the ‘self’ into their research interest to create a hybrid memoir, while some memoirs are presented as graphic novels or poetry. As in all relevant writing, emotional truth is the force that drives each story.

The Dust of Uruzgan / Fred Smith

Fred Smith is no ordinary Australian diplomat. In postings served in the Uruzgan Province of Afghanistan, he built relationships with tribal leaders while continuing his side-career as a folk musician.

Smith, who has written about his experiences in a book, The Dust of Uruzgan, tells Michelle Grattan for the first three or four months he stashed his guitar under the bed.

“You know, I wanted to be taken seriously as a political officer and not seen as a folk singer. But eventually as I became more comfortable on the base, I got the guitar out and started writing songs and put together bands … and of course there wasn’t much going on on a Saturday night in Tarin Kowt so a lot of people would come,” he says.

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Clownery / Paul hunter

“In his book “Memoir: An Introduction,” from 2011, the scholar G. Thomas Couser argues that we go to the genre not so much for detail or style as for “wisdom and self-knowledge,” for what the main character, who is always the author, has learned. Sometimes, though, the style is the lesson. Earlier this year, the Seattle poet Paul Hunter published “Clownery,” which follows Hunter from his birth in the rural Midwest, through college, marriage, fatherhood, divorce, high-school and college teaching, grease- and gear-filled shirtsleeve jobs, caregiving for an ill sister and playing with grandchildren. The chapters conclude with Hunter’s late-life meditations, “trying to keep from a lip-smacking bitterness” as he imagines “the end of the planet as a hospitable home.” Hunter published his first chapbook in 1970, and has been giving us verse about rural and wild America, and practical prose about sustainable farming, every few years since 2000. In “Clownery,” rather than using “I” or “me,” or naming any characters, Hunter tells his own story as that of a nameless “clown.”…

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No Friend but the Mountains / Behrouz Boochani

“In his astonishing book At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a survivor on Auschwitz and its realities (1980), Jean Améry devotes a chapter to intellectuals in the Nazi camp. An essayist and novelist himself, he focuses on how writers made sense of their incarceration. ‘Did intellectual background and an intellectual basic disposition help a camp prisoner in the decisive moments?’ he asks. ‘Did they make survival easier for him?’ …”

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Go, Went, Gone / Jenny Erpenbeck

“Jenny Erpenbeck’s magnificent novel “Go, Went, Gone” (New Directions, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky) is about “the central moral question of our time,” and among its many virtues is that it is not only alive to the suffering of people who are very different from us but alive to the false consolations of telling “moving” stories about people who are very different from us. Erpenbeck writes about Richard, a retired German academic, whose privileged, orderly life is transformed by his growing involvement in the lives of a number of African refugees—utterly powerless, unaccommodated men, who have ended up, via the most arduous routes, in wealthy Germany. The risks inherent in making fiction out of the encounter between privileged Europeans and powerless dark-skinned non-Europeans are immense: earnestness without rigor, the mere confirmation of the right kind of political “concern,” sentimental didacticism. A journey of transformation, in which the white European is spiritually renewed, almost at the expense of his darkly exotic subjects, is familiar enough from German Romanticism; you can imagine a contemporary version, in which the novelist traffics in the most supple kind of self-protective self-criticism. “Go, Went, Gone” is not that kind of book.”

The End of Eddy / Édouard Louis

“This arresting autobiographical novel pulls no punches; rather, it lands them on the reader as frequently as fists descend on its subject. The Eddy of the title is a child born to below-the-poverty-line parents in an isolated village in rural northern France in 1992. According to the cover, 24-year-old author Édouard Louis was himself born in Picardy, in 1992, but the information is unnecessary; although Édouard’s editing of his own childhood into Eddy’s creates a deeply disconcerting sense that the horror we witness is merely the tip of the iceberg, we are never in any doubt that only real life could be this bleak. Starting in closeup, with 10-year-old Eddy being assaulted in a primary school corridor, the narrative presents us with a compelling series of snapshots of a family and community where daily life is structured by working-class rage, male violence and alcohol. For an effeminate boy like Eddy, this world creates a perfect storm; his survival is not just in doubt, but simply impossible.”

The Erratics / Vicki Laveau-Harvie

“When her elderly mother is hospitalised unexpectedly, Vicki travels to her parents’ isolated ranch home in Alberta, Canada, to help her father. She has been estranged from her parents for many years and is horrified by what she discovers on her arrival.

Her mother has always been mentally unstable, but for years camouflaged her delusions and unpredictability. Over the decades she has managed to shut herself and her husband away from the outside world.

Vicki’s father, who has been systematically starved and kept a prisoner in his own home, begins to realise what has happened to him and embarks upon plans of his own to combat his wife.

Vicki quickly realises how dangerous, and potentially life-threatening, her mother’s behaviour is. She fears for her father’s life and her own safety if her mother returns home. The power play between her parents takes a dramatic turn and leaves Vicki embroiled in situations that are ludicrous, heart-breaking, and frightening.”

The Erratics is shortlisted for the Stella Prize 2019

Imperfect / Lee Kofman

“In a captivating mix of memoir and cultural critique, Kofman casts a questioning eye on the myths surrounding our conception of physical perfection and what it’s like to live in a body that deviates from the norm. She reveals the subtle ways we are all influenced by the bodies we inhabit, whether our differences are pronounced or noticeable only to ourselves. She talks to people of all shapes, sizes and configurations and takes a hard look at the way media and culture tell us how bodies should and shouldn’t be.

Illuminating, confronting and deeply personal, Imperfect challenges us all to consider how we exist in the world and how our bodies shape the people we become.”

Find out more about Imperfect here: