Author Playlists

Josh Barkan’s Playlist for His Memoir “Wonder Travels”

“When you live a tremendous shock, and try to heal from it, over the course of a couple of years—as I did when I discovered my wife of fifteen years had been having an affair with a man she met on the beach in Morocco—music mirrors all the shifting moods experienced.”

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Josh Barkan’s Wonder Travels is an unforgettable and compelling melding of memoir and travelogue.

Tom Perrotta wrote of the book:

“In Wonder Travels, Josh Barkan writes about the dissolution of his marriage with an honesty that is illuminating and sometimes uncomfortable. This is an unflinching and highly readable memoir about one man’s slow recovery from heartbreak.”

In his own words, here is Josh Barkan’s Book Notes music playlist for his memoir Wonder Travels:

When you live a tremendous shock, and try to heal from it, over the course of a couple of years—as I did when I discovered my wife of fifteen years had been having an affair with a man she met on the beach in Morocco—music mirrors all the shifting moods experienced.

Wonder Travels is about journeys in many different forms. There are the literal journeys: my wife Luciana’s trip from New York City to Turkey, Syria, Israel, Jordan, India, Spain, and then on to Morocco, where after six months of traveling she met a man named Muhammad she had an affair with on the beach of Mirleft. She returned to New York City and didn’t tell me about the affair, but I could sense something was different, so off. Then she went back to Morocco, pretending she was with her sister in Spain for the birth of her sister’s child, while going back instead to Morocco to be with Muhammad again.

The shock of discovering this affair, and the end of our marriage, threw me into tremendous isolation in New York City. For the first time, I really understood the blues and all those songs about cheating and loss in country music. The songs weren’t about someone else’s heartbreak, they were about mine.

Fractured, I entered the underbelly of New York City, and I tried to end my isolation by setting up connections with people every day, in a frenzy. Some of the music that touched me during this period was the melancholy of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees,” which I heard for the first time, naked, all too drunk, on the couch with a photo editor of a major newspaper, who I was about to have a one-night stand with—but couldn’t. I was impotent. I wasn’t ready for any relationship. I lacked confidence in myself after being rejected, feared being vulnerable if I were in a new relationship, and feared repeating the same kind of power dynamics and patterns I’d had in my marriage. At the same time, I was desperate to connect with someone, anyone. Another failed proto-relationship with the art director of a famous jazz club in the city—an effort to connect with her, while not leading anywhere beyond friendship—began the less literal and personal journey of my process of healing. Over nine months in New York City after the affair, before I left the city for El Paso, seeking to escape my past, hearing the jazz in that club—McCoy Tyner and others playing sets—I began my effort to connect with beauty, to begin a process of healing and a search for happiness.

I needed to restart my life, close to the age of forty, to find a way to eventually heal myself.

In fleeing to El Paso, I was ready to experience anything that made me feel alive. My friend and roommate, who was gay, had brought me to the city. He took me to the four main LGBTQ nightclubs of the border town. Boys would come over from Ciudad Juárez, and the DJs played ranchera music along with the grinding sound of electronica. There was also in El Paso the heavy metal of men who had “peaked” as my friend told me, old guys with long gray hair who had flaccid muscles. I wondered as I listened to some of the music there, whether I had peaked in my life, as well. The alcoholism of my roommate pushed me on to Mexico City.

In Mexico City, I fell in love with a painter, and we lived in her painting studio. She played music all the time as she painted during the day, often with headphones while I worked writing my memoir upstairs in a room that had been a closet. She liked what she called “happy music,” meaning fast music with any kind of beat you could run to—Keane, The Whitest Boy Alive. Mexico was my introduction to Latin rock, and driving home late at night, after parties with some of the best painters of Mexico City, riding high on the elevated Interstates of the megalopolis, the music of Gustavo Cerati thrilled me with his exploratory, big-stadium rock sound. I hadn’t known Argentina produced so many great stars like Cerati. With this music, and the power of the megalopolis, I began to heal more and more, to feel it was possible to be happy again, to connect once more and feel love stronger than what I had lost.

But the sensation my wife had disappeared, without communicating why and with whom, and without being able to completely root the experiences of the past fully in the past—as our divorce continued in Spain, a second divorce after the one in New York—led me to travel to Morocco to put a period on what I had suffered. With no more than Muhammad’s cellphone number, I voyaged to Morocco to track him down and meet him. I took-in the music of traditional drummers in the big square of the Djemma el-Fnaa in Marrakech. I played the violin with the owner of a music store, trying to improvise as he played a traditional oboe, imitating the sounds of his Moroccan music.

Wonder Travels is a trajectory from the dark, early days of the end of my marriage, to the more upbeat sounds I discovered along the way, and the sounds of the many countries I traveled to: Mexico, Spain, Morocco, Italy, France, and then back to Mexico. It was a journey where most of the music I heard after leaving New York City was new to me, all part of choosing to travel into new adventures that revitalized me.


Robert Plant and Alison Krauss—Raising Sand—”Killing the Blues”

A few months after finding out about the affair, in the winter, I immersed myself in blues and country music.

Liz Phair—Girly Sounds for the Modern Man—“Divorce Song”

Phair had the perfect, mournful sound for me.

Midlake—The Trials of Van Occupanther—“Roscoe”

Everything I wanted to listen to was in minor key.

Radiohead—The Bends—“Fake Plastic Trees”

I heard this song right at the moment I was finding it impossible to connect, and it was a moment when I realized I was more damaged than I had thought from the affair and that it was going to take longer than I hoped to recover.

Beck—Sea Change—”Guess I’m Doing Fine”

The contrast of the sound with the more upbeat title of the song tells you Beck isn’t doing fine. I found solace in the shared feeling.

McCoy Tyner—The Real McCoy—“Four by Five”

I heard Tyner, and other great masters of jazz, play at the Blue Note club.

Anita O’Day—”Pick Yourself Up

One of my best friends sent me this song and insisted I pick myself up and begin the process of rebuilding.

Paquita la del Barrio—Coleccion de Oro #2—“Ella”

Some of the music played in the nightclubs of El Paso and that I came to love while living in Mexico City.

Soda Estereo—Obras Cumbres—“Corazón Delator”

In Mexico, I immersed myself in Gustavo Cerati’s music. Along with playing as a solo artist, he was lead singer of the Argentine group Soda Estereo.

Babasónicos—Anoche—”El Colmo”

Another big band from Argentina I connected with, while in Mexico.

Belle & Sebastian—”Wrapped Up in Books”

Monica, the painter I fell in love with, was a big fan of Belle & Sebastian, and I started to listen to a lot of what she called happy music—which produced the desired mood.

The Smiths—The Queen is Dead— “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”

Monica’s music

The Whitest Boy Alive—Dreams—“Don’t Give Up”

Monica’s music

Keane—Night Train—“Clear Skies”

Monica’s music


Monica and I drove across the state of Oaxaca listening to this music, heading to the beautiful Pacific coast where I began to learn to root myself more in the moment, rather than worry about the future—as I boogie boarded.

Baba Maal—Firin’ in Fouta—“Sidiki”

My former wife, Luciana, had loved the music of West Africa. We met on a train listening to Baaba Maal—sharing music on her Walkman. So it didn’t surprise me she felt such a strong connection in her first trip to Africa, when she had her affair.


Music was everywhere in Morocco, and it was part of what I tapped into as I found great happiness in the country. I had turned a place that initially represented the location of my wife’s affair into a place that I could enjoy.

*Footnote: The names of all people have been changed to protect their privacy.

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Josh Barkan won the Lightship International Short Story Prize and was runner-up for the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, the Paterson Fiction Prize, and the Juniper Prize for Fiction. He is the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and his writing has appeared in Esquire. He has taught creative writing at Harvard, NYU, the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, Hollins University and MIT. His books include the novel Blind Speed and short story collections Before Hiroshima and Mexico (Hogarth/Penguin Random House)—named one of the five best story collections of 2017 by Library Journal. His latest book is the memoir Wonder Travels. He lives in Boston.

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