By Benz Stephen
About the BookA wild ride on the madcap streets of Guatemala City. A twilight walk through old Havana with a Cuban mailman. A canoe trip in search of a lost grave in the Everglades. A late-night visit to a border-town casino. These are some of the experiences Stephen Benz describes in Topographies, a witty, insightful, and evocative collection of personal essays and literary journalism.
Topographies is a collection of research-based personal essays that visit, describe, and reflect on landscapes of historical and cultural significance. Combining researched exposition, lyrical reflection, and storytelling, Topographies engages multiple genres, including narrative history, travel writing, literary journalism, and nature writing; in doing so, these essays follow in the narrative tradition of writers such as William Least Heat Moon, Wallace Stegner, Joan Didion, and John McPhee. Locations visited include the American West, Eastern Europe, Florida, Cuba, and Central America.
The essays that comprise Topographies take an interest in the stories—particularly forgotten, overlooked, or misunderstood stories—that landscapes have to tell. According to William Cronon, a renowned landscape scholar, “Each landscape has endless stories to tell if only we understand the codes that render the details, their surfaces and depths, their peculiarities and contradictions, legible.” These essays attempt to recognize and interpret such codes. By looking more keenly at places of historical and cultural significance—by “reading” the landscapes—Topographies attempts to understand the social and cultural forces that have shaped a particular place and that continue to define, structure, and constrain it. Evoking a strong sense of place and alert to the myriad forces that have shaped the land, the essays in Topographies explore landscapes rich in natural and cultural history, places steeped in story.
Benz, the author of Guatemalan Journey and Green Dreams, takes readers to locales both familiar and remote, introducing unusual characters and recounting little-known historical anecdotes. Along the way, he contemplates the meaning of road signs, describes the hardships of daily life in the former Soviet Union, reflects on the lives and deaths of forgotten people, and listens to a bolero during a Havana blackout.
Originally published in newspapers, magazines, and journals such as The Miami Herald, River Teeth, and Permafrost, these essays eloquently inform and entertain both the armchair traveler and the general-interest reader who appreciates stories lyrically recounted in a strong personal voice.