Ryszard Kapuscinski's "The Shadow of the Sun," which is on my book list for school, is quickly becoming one of my favorites, ever. I'm hunting for good books that create a strong sense of place -- this is one of the best. Kapuscinski was a Polish journalist who spent several decades in Africa. For my annotation (fancy academic paper that I have to write on the books I read) I wrote about Kapuscinski's descriptive powers, including that he doesn't forget to include smells, which can recreate a place more vividly than even sights and sounds.
The book is an incredible portrait of Africa and Africans, politics and history, landscapes and atmosphere. Here's a passage that I found interesting -- Kapuscinski visits Timbuktu and writes about another visitor to Africa:
"I did not encounter a living soul in the narrow streets and back alleys. But I found a house with a plaque informing that here, from September 1853 until May 1854, lived Heinrich Barth. Barth was one of the greatest travelers in the world. For five years he journeyed alone through the Sahara, keeping a diary in which he described the desert. Several times, sick and pursued by bandits, he bade his life farewell. Dying of thirst, he would cut his veins and drink his own blood to survive. Eventually he returned to Europe where no one appreciated the unique feat he had accomplished. Bitter, worn out by the hardships of his voyage, he died in 1865 at the age of forty-four, not understanding that the human imagination is incapable of traveling to the frontier he had crossed in the Sahara."
I like this passage for several reasons. First, because Kapuscinski stumbles across an intriguing bit of history in this remote, deserted place. Second, because Barth's story is the stuff films are made of. And last, because of this:
"...the human imagination is incapable of traveling to the frontier he had crossed in the Sahara."
It's the burden of writers to make the unbelievable believable.