Books for Being in Unfamiliar Territory

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Hannah Engler

Staff Writer

Hannah lives in New York and works in publishing. In addition to Book Riot, her articles have appeared on, the American Writer's Museum blog, Feminist Campus, and more. When not writing or reading (which is hardly ever), she tweets, eats, and watches Nora Ephron movies. Twitter: @caffeinehannah

I have (temporarily) undergone a relocation. I have many feelings about this, the vast majority of them extremely positive, but certain things simply require an adjustment period. I don’t have a favorite bookstore here yet, and since going to the bookstore is sort of like therapy, I’ll need to start auditioning some contenders pretty soon. I don’t have a coffee place yet, since I am extremely finicky and need a place that isn’t too hip, too expensive, too small, or too…Starbucks. And then there are the smaller things: trying to find certain appliances in a strange kitchen. Walking around town and wondering if people can tell by a glance that I’m lost.

All of this is merely a wad of gum on my shoes as I begin a thrilling little summer adventure. However, the feelings of misplacement and displacement that I’m experiencing in minute amounts are ones that fill some of my all-time favorite books. Whether you’re missing home, escaping home, or call the whole world your home, here are some books I’m turning to to help me chart my course:

9k=The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner

I’ve read this book so many times, but it never fails to make me smile or to make me think. Weiner travels all around the world to countries that are statistically the happiest in search of what, exactly, the people are so happy about. What he discovers, of course, is that happiness can be defined in all sorts of different ways. Ultimately, it’s something you find within yourself (although his description of Iceland does sound like a lot of fun.)

Junot_wao_coverThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Inarguably one of the best books of our generation, Diaz explores the heartbreak of displacement and diaspora and the complications of homecoming in this sprawling, legendary novel. It is a story that contains worlds upon worlds: the dystopian horrors of the Dominican Republic under Trujillo; the New Jersey neighborhoods that inspire Oscar to escape into science fiction universes; and the colorful inner cartographies of people. Life is full of mystery, magic, and some really bad luck, but Diaz finds incredible beauty in the unknowable.

white-teethWhite Teeth by Zadie Smith

Another story of immigration. With incredible wit and dexterity, Smith grapples with the struggle of transplanting culture and identity. This book follows Archie and Samad, veterans of WWII, as they and their families navigate the changing cultural and racial landscape of London. This book is hilarious, but often thorny and challenging as well. With lines like “homeland is one of the magical fantasy words like unicorn and soul and infinity that have now passed into language,” Smith shows the ways that ‘home’ can be a mottled concept, and can become something completely different right underneath your nose.

51gmWCYwF1L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

This book got me through the ultimate in homesickness: my freshman year of college. The title comes from Georgia O’Keeffe, who used to sign her letters “from the faraway nearby.” To me, the faraway nearby is a place populated by my loved ones, who exist as a constant, chattering group at a cosmic dinner table within me, no matter how far the physical distance happens to be. These essays are dreamy and gorgeous and will make you appreciate the beauty of being somewhere new, even if that “somewhere” is only a fresh state of mind.

I51ByStZJ1pL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_‘m A Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away by Bill Bryson

I go back and forth on Bill Bryson, just because his grumpy traveler routine can kind of get on my nerves (you’re a travel writer! Be more excited!). But this book made me laugh. The Amazon description calls it “a bemused love letter to a homeland” and I agree. I also think there’s something to “travel writing” about one’s home: the truth is, it’s hard to really see all the detail unless you go away for a while. Even though I’m excited to be away from my home for a bit, I’m also excited to see how it’s “changed” when I return.

urlNever Can Say GoodbyeWriters on Their Unshakable Love for New York edited by Sari Botton

Last summer, I lived at home and worked in D.C. while, it seemed, all of my friends were off in other states or other countries having grand, noteworthy adventures. So, every night before bed, I’d read one of these essays and daydream about places like New York City. These essays are fun and full of passion. Often, it’s the “territory” you claim for yourself that ends up feeling the most like home, especially when you’re young. Cities can exalt you one day and chew you up and spit you out the next. Sometimes that’s exactly what you need.

url-1Emma by Jane Austen

Okay, maybe this one’s just for me – it happens to be my favorite novel of all time. But there are a lot of things about Emma that make it a good book to read in a new place: the claustrophobic, gossipy town will make you itch to walk a street where you’re totally unknown; Harriet Smith’s naiveté might make you feel better about maybe not being as cosmopolitan as you’d like. Above all, though, I brought a copy of Emma with me because I’ve always related to Emma herself, and everyone knows that the hardest thing about a relocation is finding a kindred spirit.