January 2008

Colleen Mondor

nonfiction

Trading in Memories: Travels Through a Scavenger's Favorite Places by Barbara Hodgson

Novelist and book designer Barbara Hodgson has created some literary treasures including some of my favorite novels: The Tattooed Map, The Sensualist and The Lives of Shadows. All of her books include a variety of antique photographs, maps, lists, drawings and various other ephemera that fill the sidebars and pages. None of these illustrations are superfluous -- each and every one is chosen to advance or illuminate the story in some unusual way. Most readers, while enjoying the additions to the narrative, will have no idea just how Hodgson has found them. Her new book, an offbeat travelogue entitled Trading in Memories: Travels Through a Scavenger’s Favorite Places is a trip through bazaars and markets around the world which shows where many of those bits and pieces were found. Whether as creative sparks for a new project or critical components to a work-in-progress, everything Hodgson uncovers becomes a source for some literary project. As lushly illustrated as all of her other works, Trading in Memories is a beautiful book that enlightens as to the working of a writer’s mind while also serving as something lovely to page through.

Trading in Memories is arranged around locations, with chapters on such destinations as Brussels, Paris, Istanbul, Shanghai, Portland, Oregon, and the author’s hometown of Vancouver, B.C. She writes in a memoir-like fashion, recalling journeys from years before. Sometimes the point of a trip is pointedly research, as in the first time she visited Budapest while working on The Sensualist and purchased some antiquarian books even though, “…I had to face up to the fact that I could not read a single book.” But other times the narrative strays in the most unusual directions such as the chapter on a 1994 trip to Morocco which involved an unsuccessful hunt for a particular typewriter: “I left with the sensation that no amount of sightseeing in Fez could ever have replaced the pleasure of looking for a portable Arabic typewriter.” Anecdotes are shared in the most delightful manner throughout the book but it is Hodgson’s observations about the architecture and history of the places she visits that really intrigued me. A chapter on Rochefort is entirely about French author and world traveler Pierre Loti whose house is there and open to the public. As Hodgson explains, “Loti’s world was too large to be contained in a house in a small town in France, so he expanded that house through bewitching artifice to encompass the globe.”

Through all the recollections of timely discoveries (a torn house deed from the period of French Occupation found on the street in Aleppo) and surprising side trips (the Forbes Museum in Tangiers), it is the way Hodgson weaves her travels into her writing that makes Trading in Memories a truly unique book. The illustrations (present on every single page, and often fill a double-fold) bring her stories to life and show why these objects mattered so much to the author. If you have read Hodgson’s work, such as The Lives of Shadows which involves a conflict over ownership of a house in Damascus, then her chapter on Aleppo will hold greater significance as it enhances your appreciation of the novel. But really that level of intimacy with the author’s work is unnecessary to be captivated by this book. If you have ever gone looking for unlikely “treasure” then you will appreciate what Hodgson does, and the many places she has discovered valuable bits of history around the world.

I have read many different writer memoirs and while some are quite well done, but Hodgson does not tell you where she gets her ideas from or why she has written specific books. Readers can clearly see a creative mind at work here; you can grasp just what inspiration is necessary for this specific author to craft her books. From vintage postcards in Istanbul to Shanghai matchbox covers, Hodgson looks for pieces of the world that will bring her words to life. “There are many ways of seeing and appreciating where you are at any given moment,” she writes in her introduction. “For me, it is collecting fragments of people’s material lives; advertisements of rooms for rent, please for the return of lost dogs, and announcements of saints’ days, bundles of family letters, photograph negatives, and bills; old books with inscribed flyleaves or curious notes left between the pages.”

This is not a book about collecting or clutter; it is an appreciation of “…the streets, the bookstores and the markets where a city tantalizingly and coyly reveals its most intimate self…” All that and Pierre Loti too -- consider Trading in Memories proof of just how rare an author Barbara Hodgson truly is.

Trading in Memories: Travels Through a Scavenger’s Favorite Places by Barbara Hodgson
Greystone
ISBN 1553651995
154 pages