First Book Tag Ever

I’m very excited to be posting my first book tag ever! I think it’s a perfect excuse to share some books I love even if they’re not very recent reads (basically I just want to rant about books). My friend DianaHerself tagged me and I’m happy to oblige. The theme: Avatar, The Last Airbender. So here we go:

Katara and Sokka: Best Sibling Relationship

I’ll have to go with Aaron and Caleb Trask from East of Eden* by John Steinbeck. I have such a crush on this book, I think I have talked about it to every person I’ve seen this year.

Yue: Favourite Star-crossed Lovers

This is really hard. I really have a thing for 19th-century romances, so I’ll go with Caroline Helstone and Robert Moore from Shirley* by Charlotte Brontë. Shirley is such a wonderful novel and, even when it focuses more than her other works on social and political issues—especially the position of women—, it has such a passionate and lively set of characters. Their circumstances are very unfortunate and they’re kind of stubborn too, hence the star-crossed tag.

Bloodbending: A Book With an Unsettling Concept

The most unsettling thing I have read in a while has to be Mysteries of Winterthurn* by Joyce Carol Oates. Before that, I read The Accursed*, which was also very creepy, but her writing is just mesmerising. Winterthurn is composed of three short stories, three different cases that Xavier, our hero, comes across in the village of Winterthurn. They all have a hint of the supernatural and are not really solved in the end. Instead, very disturbing possibilities are suggested. I can’t really say more without spoiling it, but if you’re into mystery, modern gothic and creepy stuff, look no further.

Toph: A Character Whose Strength Is Surprising

Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind* came to mind immediately! I know she’s kind of unpopular, but she is undeniably strong and brave, even when her motivations might not be entirely selfless. I mean, she survived widowhood and poverty, the loss of her parents, unrequited love, took care of an entire plantation, started a business, shot a man, married three times, etc. Remarkable achievements, all because “burdens are for shoulders strong enough to carry them”.

The Tales of Ba Sing Se: Best Short Story/Poetry Collection

Tough. For short story, I’ll go with Bestiario* by Julio Cortázar. For poetry, I’ll choose The Wasteland and Other Poems* by T.S. Eliot. Both are all-time favourites.

Koshi Warrior: Best Warrior Character

There are so many options! I’ll choose Lyra Belacqua from the His Dark Materials saga. She’s just awesome and I can’t wait for the second part of The Book of Dust* to come out.

Zuko: Best Redemption Arc/Redemption Arc That Should Have Happened

This might sound cliché but I have to say Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment*! I still cry when I think of the Bible scene between Sonya and Raskolnikov. Ivan Ilych also came to mind, what is it with Russians and redemption?

Iroh: Wisest Character

I was tempted to say Dumbledore, but I think I’ll choose a more recent read: Katie Nolan from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn* by Betty Smith. I finished this one recently and am still heartbroken. Will post about it soon.

Azula: Best Downfall

Emma Bovary (Madame Bovary*) obviously.

Appa: Favourite Fictional Animal

Hedwig!! Still not over this.

Aang: Purest Cinnamon Roll

Dawsey Adams from The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society*. The whole book is a sweet, warm cinnamon roll but Dawsey, oh God.

Avatar State: A Stubborn Character/A Character That Struggles With Letting Go

Laurie from One Day in December*. You gotta be stubborn to spend a year looking for a stranger you saw briefly at a bus stop. It all goes to show stubbornness might work magic.

I tag whoever wants to do it! Don’t forget to tag me so I can read your answers.

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*Disclaimer: If you do buy any of the books via these links, I will receive a commission. This does not affect the price of the books whatsoever.

What I Read: May

May is finally over! Does anyone else feel like it dragged on forever? It was a very productive month for me, but I have big plans for June: reading challenges, trips and other projects. I’m really not sad May it’s over, but here’s to the books I read in it.

The Thorn Birds* by Colleen McCullough

Started the month strong with these thick, beautiful novel about a family who moves to the Australian Outback at the beginnings of the 20th century. More hype about it can be found here, but long story short, it’s a family saga full of forbidden passions, natural dangers, great characters and a sexy priest. I must say I’m not a fan of McCullough’s style, but boy can she come up with a good plot.

Finding North* by George Michelsen Foy

Another one towards my goal to read more nonfiction. This book was really interesting! It tells of a man’s efforts to recreate a fatal trip one of his ancestors did in the 19th century. Meanwhile, he also explains a lot of things about the importance of navigation, from how our brains manage to perceive and recognise spaces to a historical account of how we’ve managed to survive in the wilderness/the sea. I did not love this one, but I found it really interesting. More about it here.

Ojos de Papel Volando* by María Luisa Mendoza

This was a recommendation by a friend and I really liked it! I’m only surprised I hadn’t heard about María Luisa Mendoza (not once!) in any of my university courses (I studied Latin American Literature). This is a collection of short stories focused on remembering, on reliving experiences through memory, it has a Proustian vibe that I really liked. It is a lovely book with major references to Guanajuato, the state in which both the author and I were born. A must-read for anyone interested in Mexican contemporary literature.

Of Mice and Men* by John Steinbeck

Awesomeness! Can’t believe I hadn’t read this also, just wow. More about it here.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn* by Betty Smith

Another book I couldn’t put down! This book made me cry so many times. It is the story of Francie Nolan, a girl born in Brooklyn at the beginning of the 20th century. Francie’s family is really poor, her father is an alcoholic and her mother works as a cleaning lady to support the whole family. They just go through a lot, and yet the book is always gracious and elegant, even sassy at times. I’m writing a review about it and I’ll post it soon. I honestly think it became one of my favourite novels.

In a Sunburned Country* by Bill Bryson

More nonfiction! I just love Bill Bryson, he’s so witty and funny and I think it would be awesome to have a conversation with him in real life. I fell in love with him his writing after reading A Walk in the Woods and later read Notes from a Small Island, which I also enjoyed but not that much. Well, In a Sunburned Country is really cool. It’s a travel book about Australia (yes, I’m currently obsessed with Australia but I have a reason 🤞🏼) and I just think no one could approach the many dangers—spiders, snakes, poisonous jellyfish and arm-devouring sharks— of the country in such a funny way. Recommended for any travel lit reader.

That was it! I did not read that many books (Goodreads kindly reminds me that I’m 7 books behind my reading goal, thanks) but I enjoyed everything I read! Now I’m back to some fantasy with A Discovery of Witches and have ordered The Secret History* by Donna Tartt as my first book for the Penguin Reading Challenge. You can subscribe for the challenge here! What are you guys reading? Any thoughts about the books in this list?

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*Disclaimer: If you buy any of the books mentioned through the link provided, I will receive a commission. This does not affect the price of the items whatsoever!

“Trouble with mice is you always kill’em”: Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men

In 1937, John Steinbeck published what would be considered by many his finest novel, Of Mice and Men*. It is a book, I hear, that appears in many basic courses of American Literature. It is also an introduction to Steinbeck’s California and its many injustices, its changing landscapes, burning suns and many struggles at the beginnings of the 20th century. Also, it is only a hundred pages long and composed mainly of dialogue.

It was only this year that I was introduced to Mr Steinbeck’s work. I read Travels with Charley in Search of America* in January, then East of Eden* in February and The Grapes of Wrath* in March. Needless to say, I am fascinated with Steinbeck and very surprised about the fact that I didn’t read him for any of my university modules, not even for North American Literature. But I am trying to repair the damage here, so Of Mice and Men seemed like the obvious choice. What can I even say about this book? It is heartbreaking in a way only Steinbeck could achieve, masterful in its narrative and its characters, engrossing and gripping, somewhat of a punch in the gut. It seems to be a more mature work than both East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath even though it was published before both (and even though East of Eden will always be my favourite).

“As happens sometimes, a moment settled and hovered and remained for much more than a moment. And sound stopped and movement stopped for much, much more than a moment.” 

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men

I know this is a very common high school read, so I probably won’t spoil anything here. Basically, it is the story of two friends: George, who is small and cunning, and Lennie, who is big, strong and has an undescribed mental disability. George takes care of Lennie, but Lennie’s strenght often gets them both in trouble because he’s not aware of it. Lennie also has a characteristic trait: he loves to pet soft animals, such as mice, but he often kills them involuntarily.

When we meet them, George has found a new job for the two of them at a ranch close to Salinas. The ranch is okay and Lennie is even promised a puppy, but things get complicated when the son of the ranch owner, Curley, picks at Lennie. In addition to this, his wife is always flirting with the ranch labourers. Anyway, George has a plan for him and Lennie, whose only relative died and left him in charge of George: if they can handle a season of work, then they’ll have enough money to buy their own piece of land. The topic of lower classes looking for a piece of land in the still unexploited California and the relations drawn between the state and the Promised Land is common throughout Steinbeck’s work, the impossible achievement of the American Dream:

“Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’. I read plenty of books out here. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It’s just in their head. They’re all the time talkin’ about it, but it’s jus’ in their head.” 

This small book is really perfect, every word seems to be in place, every dialogue has a cadence and rhythm that brings the world of ranch labourers to life in just a couple of pages. Every character exhilarates life and a rich personality of which we learn through other characters and a few, scant lines of description.

What is probably more interesting about the book is its structure, that of Matryoshka dolls: events repeat themselves in different layers, over and over. For example, when Lennie kills a mouse at the beginning for petting it too hard, you kind of expect this will happen with the ranch puppies, and later when Curley’s wife mentions she has really soft hair, well, you see what is coming. Another story that repeats itself is that of the dog, although here the circle is broken by choice (a very important topic in Steinbeck, too: free will). Candy, the oldest labourer, can’t bring himself to shoot his own dog, his companion for so long, and other labourer does it for him. Candy can’t get over this and regrets not having done it himself, “I oughtta of shot that dog myself, George. I shouldn’t oughtta of let no stranger shoot my dog.” Shooting a friend or let strangers do it is a choice George faces later, in the tragic ending of the novel. Also, the plot of the novel is advanced by hints continually, which is why there is so much tension in it. Of Mice and Men is read compulsively like a thriller, you really get a sense of what is going to happen, yet you have to keep reading.

The theme of the novel reminded me of East of Eden for its appraisal of free will and choice. There is always a search for the motivations of people in Steinbeck’s works, a try to understand the meanness and evil that we’re capable of, but there is often a flicker of light—friendship, love, sacrifice— found at the heart of the smallest acts.

Finally, who is the protagonist of the novel? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one since I’m still thinking about it. Even though I think the main theme is friendship—the relationship between George and Lennie—, I believe the main character is George. They are both unlucky, tragic characters: Lennie seems doomed to kill everything he loves, and George seems doomed to have all his plans ruined by his friendship to Lennie, he promised his dying aunt he would take care of him. But George does have a choice, and he chooses to stay with Lennie over and over again, even if it costs him his jobs. It’s a heartbreaking piece of literature, definitely one that I’ll be thinking about for a while.

Have you read it? What did you think of it? If not, I couldn’t recommend the book more! I just finished another American classic I loved, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn* by Betty Smith.

Right now I’m stepping away from heartbreak for a while and enjoying In a Sunburned Country* by Bill Bryson.

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*Disclaimer: If you do buy any of these titles from the links, I receive a commission from Amazon. This does not affect the price of the books anyhow.

An Inbred Wanderlust: Finding North by George Michelsen Foy

I can’t remember when was the last time I “ran out” of reading material.  I have always had a pile of books I haven’t read somewhere at hand, it just gives me peace to know there’s something to look forward to. I usually have at least three books I really want to read, and there’s a lot of research, conversations, Goodreads browsing and recommendations that influence my tbr pile, so when I buy a book it’s usually a title I’ve had in mind for a while. But a few times a year I’ll go crazy and buy a few titles I have never heard about, I just let them find me. This was the case of George Michelsen Foy’s Finding North: How Navigation Makes Us Human. 

I saw this book at Chapters, Ottawa and I just had to buy it. Partly because lately I am obsessesed with travel writing, and partly because the cover is so beautiful. So I bought it with no other reference, and for four months it just accumulated dust on my nightstand. But now I finally got to reading it, and it was a pleasant surprise.

The book is part memoir, part a rollicking reflection on the very intimate link between navigation and humanity. The book begins thus: “‘Where’ is the primal question, rather than ‘when’, ‘how’, or ‘who’ because for any animal, figuring out where to move in defense or attack relative to the forces around has always been the first step to survival. From the start, staying alive has depended on navigation, the art of figurin g out our position and in what direction to travel”. And Michelsen goes beyond that affirmation, he even visits a neuroscientist that explains to him the fragile yet indispensable links between memory and the ability of locating oneself in a certain space, and how that happens in the human brain.

The book is not, however, just a collection of fun facts about navigation, there’s a story guiding the plot. Michelsen teaches creative writing at NYU, and the hero’s journey is easily discernible along the book. His concern with navigation goes beyond simple curiosity, he’s obessesed with maritime navigation and sailing because his Nordic ancestors were in the trade before emigrating to America. One of his ancestors was the captain of a vessel called the Stavanger Paquet, which sank in a journey from Stavanger, Norway, to Hamburg, Germany. After the incident, every other member of the Michelsen family who ventured into the sea met a similar fate, so the family abandoned their trade.

And it’s this family curse, a legend that has passed from generation to generation of Michelsens, that obsesses our hero. Michelsen feels particularly attracted to navigation and ships since he was a boy growing up in Cape Code. What dazzles him is that “navigation of the kind my ancestor practised was not just a skill but the roughest of magics: a spell cast in the face of mystery and fear against the near certainty of loss”. In explaining his obsession, Michelsen strikes a feeling every traveller has felt before, the need to go places, an innate wanderlust that prevents people from staying where they are in search for who knows what: even if the seas are believed to be plagued by krakens and monsters, they have to sail. This innate wanderlust, a nomadic instinct is what Steinbeck called “the urge to be someplace else“, a charming urge which has motivated thousands of pages in literature.

Sadly, part of the charm and danger of traveling, of navigating, has been lost recently because of technology. We know now that Google Maps actually makes us worst at navigating, and Michelsen not only criticises and explains this, but takes direct action against it. That’s where things get interesting, for we would not have a hero without a task.

The plot of the book is basically Michelsen trying to recreate the trip which took his ancestor’s life, that is, in as much as possible the same conditions: a similar ship, no modern technology, in a trip from Cape Cod to Maine. In preparing for the trip and actually setting out to it, Michelsen reflects on various topics related to navigation: the biology behind it, old methods of celestial navigation, history and family history. He’s constantly trying to understand what lies behind the human need for travelling and how it may have transformed now that we are so dependable on GPS technology.

Finding North is a curious book. It is uneven, gripping at times, exasperating and even boring at times. Michelsen introduces himself as a very likeable character—that is perhaps what I found annoying in the book— and tries to use a personal plot—his quest to recreate his ancestor’s trip— to unite a series of topics and interviews that seem not to be related. While everything is about navigation, there are parts that work more like independent essays but are forced into the general plot, so that might prove anticlimactic at times.

Apart from that, I really enjoyed the book. When I bought it I thought I could learn some things about navigation, and I was not disappointed, there are plenty of facts and interesting data in the book, along with a Selected Bibliography at the end. It is obviously a very well-researched book, one that raises important questions about our current relationship with technology, and that moreover seeks to answer from personal experience the old question of why we travel. If you’re into travel writing, I’m sure Finding North will prove a delightful experience. You can get it from Amazon here*.

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“The Best is Only Bought at the Cost of Great Pain”: Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds

Where to even start with this novel. The first time I heard of The Thorn Birds was because my aunt tried to make me watch the 80’s TV series some years ago. I remember nothing, I think I slept through it. However, I recently found a wonderful list on Goodreads about awesome novels that are 800+ pages, and The Thorn Birds was there among Gone With the Wind, which I adore, and Lonesome Dove, which I recently had the pleasure of reading. So I decided to give The Thorn Birds a chance (did I mention it was like $6 dollars on Amazon*?). I honestly love long books, I love the feeling of having a story to go to every night.

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The Thorn Birds is a family saga set in the Australian Outback. It focuses mainly on Meggie Cleary, the only daughter of Fiona and Paddy Cleary, who is a poor farm labourer in New Zealand. Fiona, Fee, belonged to an aristocratic family and Paddy ran away from Ireland after killing a man, and their lives in New Zealand are far from easy. Every member of the Cleary family has to work from dusk until dawn just to make ends meet.

So After Paddy receives an invitation from his older and estranged sister, Mary Carson, to live (and work for her) in her immense state, Drogheda, in Australia, they are much relieved. But the Australian Outback turns out to be an inhospitable land that brings even more challenges to the Clearys. There they try to start over and are helped by the Catholic priest of the area, Father Ralph, another Irish immigrant. But tension arises when Father Ralph and Meggie get too close and Aunt Mary gets jealous. Also, there are dust storms, droughts, unbearable heat waves and freezing winters, as well as problems among the other Cleary children, so things are quite tough. Of course, Meggie starts developing feelings for Father Ralph, who is ridiculously handsome, and he, in turn, starts to fall for her.

The book dwells on many themes across almost 700 pages, among them the feelings of nationality and patriotism between Irish expats in New Zealand and Australia, the situation of women at the beginnings of the 20th century (the novel is set between 1915 and 1969), the senseless rules and monetary motivations of the Catholic Church and, of course, forbidden love by different prejudices: economic status, race, nationality, religion (or religious vows). It is actually a very sad, very tragic story in which everything seems to be against the Clearys. The title, in fact, comes from the myth of a type of bird which spends its life looking for a thorn tree and, finding it, impales itself upon it to sing for the first and last time a song that is beautiful beyond description, “for the best is only bought at the cost of great pain… or so says the legend”. Whether the fate of the characters is indeed great and worth all the toil and pain they go through is for the reader to decide.

What else to say? I enjoyed this book immensely. The introduction of characters, the narrative voice changing from their perspective to an outer, warning voice that foretells tragedy—and which you do not want to listen to—, enthralling descriptions of landscapes and storms, short passages that bring to life the day-to-day of the life in the New Zealand farm or the paddocks in Drogheda… it all adds up to a majestic story, a book that no doubt has marked thousands of readers. This is the kind of book where you become thoroughly invested in the fate of the characters, I found myself laughing, crying, gasping, unable to put the book down. Now that I have finished it I have sucha a clear image of the setting, the plains, the paddocks, the kangaroos and sheep. I just love when a book gives you that.

The story is divided into seven parts, each one focusing on a different character and period of time. There are many, many characters, and each one of them is brought to life with detail and genuineness. There are no cartoons even amongst the less important characters, each of them is given motivation and, love them or hate them, a personal story. I think that is the major achievement of the novel.

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After doing some research I found that this book was quite the hit in its time (it was published in 1977), but it is not very popular now. Comparing it to similar books, say family sagas set in a historical period, such as Gone With the Wind or A Hundred Years of Solitude, I can see why The Thorn Birds has not aged as well. There are certain parts of the book that had me thinking, this really was written for an 80s audience. Especially the whole sexy-yet-tormented-priest thing. There are a few passages that feel like Colleen McCullough went out of her way to make the Meggie-Ralph affair spicier than it would be fitting considering the general tone of the novel. But hey, it did get made into an 80s tv series.

Apart from that I have no complaints, this book is a story told with mastery and diligence, it has a set of the kind of characters that seem more real than actual people. It has been a pleasure to go home to it every night and I am actually sorry it’s over. But life moves on and I have bought myself another thick book to fill the void, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I fear will not mend the damage left by The Thorn Birds.

What are you guys reading? Have you read The Thorn Birds?

 

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What I Read: April

April is gone! We are almost halfway through 2019 already. Even though I am way behind in my reading challenge, I had the chance to read some memorable stories.

Shirley by Charlotte Brontë

I just love Charlotte Brontë. I have read Jane Eyre many times and Villette twice, they’re just wonderful novels. So the next step was Shirley… and it’s awesome! It is a very different novel to Jane Eyre or Villette, it’s way more chill for one thing, there’s less drama going on and yet there is something quietly strong in it that I am not really able to point out. Shirley tells the story of two very different girls who come to be friends in Yorkshire: Caroline and Shirely. While Caroline is shy and contemplative, she is passionate and courageous; whereas Shirley is a charming extrovert liked by everyone. The situation of women is, as with other novels by Charlotte, the main theme of the novel, and I believe this book is a much more meditated and reflected work of sociology, where religion, politics, nationality and gender play an important part. I can’t praise Charlotte Brontë enough, while the first chapter or so might seem a bit too much, once our two protagonists are introduced the novel just sets off. You can get the book here.*

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

While I enjoyed this book, I also found the last part disappointing. I am, however, looking forward to reading more things by Kristin Hannah. On this one, a family in crisis moves to Alaska in hopes of beginning again, but boy do things go wrong. If you’re looking for drama this is it, you can get it here.*

One Day in December by Josie Silver

This book is the perfect companion for a cosy night in. It’s not really christamassy although the story starts and finishes in December… it’s just cosy. And awkaward and very fun. I just love how Josie Silver writes dialogues. Basically, Laurie falls in love with a guy at the bus stop and does everything to find him. She does not, but a year after she finds out he’s her best friends new boyfriend. I’m honestly just waiting for the movie about it to come out, it’s the perfect rom-com. Get it here!

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

I bough this one after seeing a review by a friend on Goodreads, and honestly I had never heard of this guy before, so thanks Goodreads. This is a very, very long book. And yet it doesn’t feel like it. It’s Western done right: lots of cowboys and bandits and prostitutes, but they’re not diluted, stereotypical characters, they’re the type of characters that feel more real than people. There’s love, loss, hate, friendship and literally everything else in this book, all in the small texan town of Lonesome Dove. Find this beautiful edition here.*

I am starting May with The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough and I am absolutely loving it! There’s something so comforting in long books, and this one is so carefully narrated, taking its time with each character. It’s just lovely, I’m enjoying it so much.

Have you read any of these? What are you currently reading?

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“Wild”: the Uncharted Regions Within

“Everything but me seemed utterly certain of itself.
The sky didn’t wonder where it was.”

—Cheryl Strayed, Wild

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail was first published in 2012. Not that long ago if we consider the history of the world; an eternity, however, when I think of my personal history. Six years ago I was oblivious to all kinds of nature-related feats, let alone interested in people writing about mountains and trails and snow. I even skipped long landscape descriptions in novels. I now believe that I always took it for granted, to have mountains around, wide extensions of grassland and oaks never too far off. It was not until I experienced both solo traveling and an unexpected encounter with the merciless of the natural world that I began wanting to read about it, to listen to what others more experienced in leading a nomadic existence had to say about a lifestyle that so began to fascinate me.

And so, I came across books that spoke of travels into the unknown, of personal tests of strength and newfound purpose in being alone in nature. I went to Thoreau and Emerson and Tolstoi and I couldn’t help but wonder how possible it is to get lost today, how many regions remain uncharted, are there any lands that haven’t been trekked in on camped on? I looked then, for contemporaries that had something to say about it, and I found among them, Cheryl Strayed’s account of her 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. The answer I found was that, well, perhaps there are not any places on earth that we can’t find on Google maps; perhaps, no matter where we are, we are never too far away from civilization, but that doesn’t really matter.

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The PCT according, ironically, to Google Maps

What first interested me in Strayed’s book was the honesty with which she stated her motives in hiking the PCT. I could not help but sympathize with an unprepared, delusional, female solo traveler. I found the book sincere when describing the things that usually lead to a trip, or an expedition as wild as this: “my life is falling apart”. Such sincerity would have seemed cliché were it not for the honesty with which the author addresses this search for meaning in nature and how she shatters this expectations dropping some truths like: nature is indifferent, there’s nothing glamorous in hiking and having your toenails fall off (yes, that still haunts me), and you’ll probably be too busy worrying about surviving that you won’t have time to ponder over your life. But your life and your choices and who you are will always come out when you’re stripped from your comfort zone  and left alone with your courage. Every choice out there, whether to quit or to keep going, will be a step towards self-discovery, and the way in which this books portrays that, with humour and angst and anger, rang true to me.

Strayed tells the story of how, at 26, after her mother’s death and her divorce, she made the rash decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, underestimating both the preparation time most hikers take and the physical demands of hiking. She, however, kept to her word and hiked all the way from California to Oregon. Packing mistakes, snow, terrible heat, water scarcity, getting lost and finding creepy men along the way are only part of the obstacles Strayed came across during her journey. The other obstacles came from within and could be summed up in the word “fear”:

“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked.”

–Cheryl Strayed, Wild

An encounter with nature will always bring two kinds of battles: one against nature and one against oneself. They are both connected and it would suffice to take a look at some nature lovers like Emerson, Thoreau and Muir to understand that humanity’s struggles with nature are more than often struggles with its own self. Whoever has set out on a journey into the wild has always found some of the wilderness within. And Strayed’s account of her own experience states this encounter with her own uncharted regions of grief and joy with honesty and simplicity:

“Perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of what I’d lost or what had been taken from me, regardless of the regrettable things I’d done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.” 

—Cheryl Strayed, Wild

While reading Wild I was traveling around the Caribbean, exploring beaches and cenotes in México and national parks and islands in Colombia. It was actually a very different landscape from the one I was reading about, and yet so many things sounded relatable to me: about both the discomfort and the freedom of traveling light, about feeling lonely and wanting to be alone, about having no time to think things over yet finding nonverbal, intangible answers to half-formulated questions. Perhaps that is why this book is so dear to me.

There are several moments of clarity in Strayed’s narrative, between thrilling anecdotes, sad memories and fun chapters. And all these moments of clarity lead to the final comprehension of belonging to the world. Not in a new age, life-coaching way, but in a simple, matter-of-fact realization that our lives, however peculiar in their past or uncertain in their futures, belong in the major course of things, as do the mountains and the rivers. This book was a reminder that wild things, both within and without, are not always meant to be tamed or even understood; it is enough to let them be and be with them. 

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My own WILD experience: two-hour hike in Tayrona National Park.

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It was actually really tough.

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Ready for the PCT

My Favourite Russian Reads

Now that the World Cup is about to reach its finale, I thought it’d be a good idea to share some of my favourite Russian reads. From old classics to modern classics, prose and poetry, here are the books that come to mind whenever anything Russian is on the news.

Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky

Of course, I had to include Dostoevsky. My first approach to his work was through his short stories, but a couple of years ago I finally decided it was time to open Crime and Punishment. I honestly thought I’d have a hard time finishing it, but I was amazed at how unputdownable this novel is. As you probably know, the story is about a young man in St Petersburg, who decides to kill an old woman “for the common good”. Most of the book revolves around the time after the crime and Dostoevsky dwells into the disturbed mind of Raskolnikov and his guilty wanderings around the city. Raskolnikov is however suspected by inspector Porfiry, and the plot thickens as their encounters become more and more frequent. At the same time, the protagonist meets Sonya, a poor girl who is forced to prostitution to sustain her brothers and mother, and her story will play a crucial part in Raskolnikov’s future.
Dostoevsky’s novel is rich in characters and descriptions, and it constantly dwelves on moral matters and christian values, and it is, in my opinion, a novel about salvation through faith. It is, too, a thrilling read, at times grim and heartbreaking, and, sometimes, even cheesy.

The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov

This book is completely mind-bending and amazing. Set in Moscow during the 1930s, it tells the story of a visit of the devil, the literally Satan, to the city, disguised as a magician. As he and two of his followers cause chaos in the city, the story intertwines with two other narratives, that of Margarita and the Master, a tormented professor, and that of Jesus Christ and Pilates. Bulgakov’s satire of the Soviet Union is funny, crazy, witty and beautiful.
The novel was written between 1928 and 1940, and finished by Bulgakov’s wife after his death in 1941, but it was not published uncensored until 1973 in Russia, so plenty of studies about it have been coming out recently.

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoi

I am a big fan of the “second” Tolstoi (The Death of Ivan Ilych is amazing), but Anna Karenina, despite having been written before Tolstoi religious conversion, is a beautiful and amazingly complex novel.
The novel is divided in two, it tells of aristocrat Anna Karenina and her affair with an army man,Wronsky, as well of its consequences for her social circle, outlining both the social hypocrisy towards women and the corruption of the decaying aristocracy to which Anna belonged (this is why I don’t think Anna is portrayed as a heroine). And then there’s also the story of Levin, an aristocratic landowner who is in love with Anna’s cousin, Kitty. As his story advaces, it is remarkable that he learns the failings of the oppressive political system as well as the virtues of hard work and of living a simple life, which he learns from his workers. While Levin grows as a character, Anna falls into corruptionz Although Tolstoi is somewhat harsh to his most famous character, the way he brings Anna to life as one of the most complex and conflicted female characters of literature is worth all the time this novel takes to read.

Collected Stories, Anton Chekhov

Both Chekhov’s stories and plays are delightful. Usually they expose the hypocrisy behind Russian society’s way of life by focusing on very short periods of time and on what would seem like unimportant detail. My favorite short stories are About Love, Dreams and The Witch.

The Bedbug and Selected Poetry, Vladimir Mayakovsky

Mayakovsky’s poetry is heartbreaking and strangely beautiful. As a representative of the Russian vanguardist movement, he focused on unpleasant and irrelevant details of the poverty-stricken streets of Russia for his poems, which is why, in my opinion, those simple rays of beauty and hope that leak through his words are so moving. I specially love his poem called Listen!
Have you read any of these? Which other Russian writers would you recommend?

Best reads of 2018 (so far)

June is over. Although I’m way behind on my reading, I have had the chance to read a few amazing books this year. I chose six I would love to discuss further with anyone interested, here they are:


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Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

To be honest, before he won the Nobel Prize, I had never read anything by Kazuo Ishiguro. I had watched the movie for this book some years before and I liked it, so I decided to read Never Let Me Go to get acquainted with Ishiguro. And I loved it. This is one of the most sadly beautiful novels I have ever read. Narrated from the perspective of Kathy, a girl created for the purpose of becoming a “donor”, along with many other children, for sick people. The whole purpose of these artificially conceived children is to one day give all their functioning organs to deadly ill humans. However, Kathy becomes first a carer for other donors and so delays her own donations.

The setting of the book is an England where kids like Kathy are raised in boarding schools away from society, where they learn about their “mission” and how they’re different from “normal” people. Kathy’s best friends there are Rachel and Tommy. Apart from the romantic triangle between them, Ishiguro builds through Kathy three of the most complex characters in literature who, despite of being told repeatedly that they are not human, love and cling to life bravely and painfully. Kathy herself is a very interesting character, her narrative mixing an honest recollection of the past as well as some reflections on memory and the arbitrariness of it, a topic with which dominates the whole novel and accounts for the generally nostalgic tone of the book. A must read, really, an overwhelming reflection of what it means to be human.


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MAUS, Art Spiegelman

This graphic novel was recommended to me many times before I finally got to it in January. It is one of the most inventive and heartbreaking pieces of graphic literature I’ve read. Spiegelman represents every race with different animals, Jewish people being mice (hence the name), and narrates, through text and mostly blank and white, simple drawings, his own creative process as a first generation American in New York, as well as his father’s recollections of WWII, Poland and the concentration camps. The simplicity and raw honesty of the stories told is at times painful and heartbreaking, but hopeful and even fun too.


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Into the Wild
, Jon Krakauer

I’ve written about this one in other posts and that’s because I’m OBSESSED with it. I think this book changed my life. Jon Krakauer, with honesty, tact and journalistic mastery narrates what he found about the life and death of young Chris McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, an American who hitchhiked his way to Alaska to live in and from nature only. I love this book because I think the critical job Krakauer does to distance himself from McCandless, without idealising or ridiculing him, is amazing. He talked to people who met him on the road, to his family and friends and collected other anecdotes from people who did similar things, and in the end this book is about more than McCandless, it’s about the urge that moved him and people like him to get away from “civilisation” and find a deeper meaning in life through a restored connection with nature and the hard work of survival. The book does not idealise nature either, it shows it at its best and worse, at its majesty and it’s moodiness and lethality. I recommend reading this to anyone interested in hiking, nature, ecology or American transcendentalism (Thoreau’s writings are a great companion for this).


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The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman

Last year I discovered Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and fell in love with it. I only wish I had read it younger, although probably I wouldn’t have understood its critique of Catholicism and institutional religion. So this year I got my hands on a beautiful edition (the UK edition) of the first volume of The Book of Dust. This story is set in an earlier time than  The Golden Compass, and tells of Lyra’s Oxford while she was a baby. The protagonist is a young boy called Malcolm, whose parents own an inn and has a canoe called La Belle Sauvage. The lives of Malcom and Lyra will become intertwined when a creepy (very creepy, really) villain and Mrs Coulter try to steal her from the convent where Lord Asriel placed her. If you haven’t read , it doesn’t really matter, although they give a lot of information about how this universe works. I recommend this for any fantasy readers, Pullman is a master of the genre.  


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Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

This is actually a reread for me, but still one of the best reads of the year. I absolutely love this book. Around a thousand pages, and still a complete page turner and a complex reflection on what it means to be brave and the different kinds of courage people can possess. Scarlett O’Hara is both one of the most hateful and greatest characters ever written, and equally complex and wonderful are Rhett Butler and Melanie Hamilton. Set in Georgia during the American Civil War, the book tells the story of a slave-owner’s daughter, her loves and struggles when her way of living suddenly disappears. Perhaps this book wouldn’t be that interesting if Scarlettn was not so selfish, mean, stubborn, wilful… and brave. What makes the book for me are the characters, and although I really like Mitchell’s descriptions of the old south, they’re obviously idealised and very politically incorrect nowadays. However, this is a novel that must be read once in everyone’s life. 


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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë

This one I just finished. My main reason to read this unpopular piece of nineteenth century literature was that I love both Emily and Charlotte Brontë’s writing, so I had to read Anne too. And she’s great as well, this family was something else. The book starts with the arrival of a mysterious young widow in a small country town in England. She’s a bit rude and very reserved, so obviously the most handsome dude in town falls for her. Oh, and she has a child. However, people soon start talking about her, as no one knows where she came from or if she’s really a widow, and handsome dude needs to know the truth, so she gives him her diary to read. And her diary composed most of the book. Anne Brontë reflects on many things in this novel: first, the social position of women; second, the implications of marriage both as a political institution and as a love affair; third, human nature’s propensity to vice; and fourth, religion’s role in both the submission and the liberation of women.

I must say this book is not quite as good as Wuthering Heights in feeling or Jane Eyre in style, it is very different from them in the way it uses literary devices like the letter and diary format, prayers and such. Nevertheless I found it a good companion, never too dull in its reflections and never too dramatic in its depictions of the sorrows of marriage. A very recommended for classic literature lovers as well as feminists (this might be Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House antecesor).

Have you read any? I’d love to hear what you think of these on the comments! 

Which have been your best reads so far? 

Five Mystery Books for Long Flights

Sparkling-CyanideSparkling Cyanide, Agatha Christie

I’m a huge Agatha Christie fan and this was the first book I read by her. Seven people sit down for dinner, the lights go off and when they’re back on, someone is dead. Who did it? This books is a classic whodunnit and there lies it’s strength. Following some basic detective fiction structures and creating new ones, Christie’s novel dwells on both the motives behind crimes as much as on the thrill of following clues and discovering patterns where there seem to be none.

This is a stand/alone novel, so you won’t hear about Poirot or Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s most famous characters, but if you want to read a Hercule Poirot Mystery I recommend The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Murder at the Vicarage for a Miss Marple story. 

  • 300 pages

3687The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler

This novel presents a wholly different kind of detective, the kind that is neither a goodie goodie or a lover of truth, but just a very shrewd person trying to survive in a world of corruption. In Chandler’s noir California, Marlow solves crimes for money, and usually things get violent and dirty. Mafia men, underground detective networks, millionaires and evil women are some of the things you’ll find in Chandler’s novels, and The Big Sleep is a very good start. 

  • 200 pages

51RKUXU01fL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Where’d You Go Bernadette, Maria Semple

This is not a conventional mystery. The book is composed by letters, telegrams and other documents that give account of the disappearanceof Bernadette Fox, a notorious woman from Seattle who is a famous architect, the wife of an IT guru and also the mother of a 15-year-old who will do anything to find her. This book is both thrilling and funny, not exactly a YA novel or a mystery, but something in between… and a very enjoyable read.

  • 300 pages

Rebecca, Daphne DuMaurier 

I would describe this novel as a psychological thriller more than as a mystery. A young woman marries a rich widower, Edward de Winter, and moves with him to his beautiful state, Manderley. Being of no noble birth, the new Mrs de Winter will face some social difficulties and the disrespect from the servants of the place, but her greatest challenge will be to compete against the memory of the first Mrs de Winter, Rebecca.

Everybody talks of how wonderful Rebecca was and her mysterious death still haunts the place, driving the new occupant Manderley to obsession. Does Rebecca’s ghost haunt the place? And what happened to her really? The plot of the novel takes some unexpected turns and the first person narrative introduces the reader to an obsession verging on madness. This book is a page turner and, if you enjoy period literature, you’ll enjoy this one too.

  • 400 pages

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón

A young man, Daniel Sempere, takes care of his fathers bookshop in Barcelona during Franco’s dictatorship. The business is not going well, but Daniel’s father takes him to a secret place, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where he finds a rare book called The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. Daniel becomes obsessed with the book and starts looking for clues about its author, noticing later that he is been followed too, by a man named after a character of the book, Laín Coubert.

Daniel’s life takes a strange turn as he begins uncovering the truth about the mysterious book, a truth that concerns him, his father’s bookshop and some of his dearest friends. This book is a metafictional adventure that book lovers will enjoy for its grand depictions of forgotten libraries and old bookshops, as well as for its many classic literature references. It is also a very exciting thriller, as the characters find themselves in dangers that go from the political to the fantastic every few pages.

  • 500 pages

Have you read any of these?

Which book has gotten you through a long flight?

Books That Inspired Me to Travel

Throughout my life, and perhaps the more so because I’m a literature undergrad, I have read many kinds of books. And many of those books have changed me and shaped the ways in which I interact with the world.

Of all those ways in which books have changed me, this post is dedicated to those books that inspired me to travel, those which gave me itchy feet and to which I owe this never-ending desire to go to “faraway lands”, to get lost in big cities and found in quiet mountain tops or forgotten little towns. Some of these books just describe places in such a vivid way that I was compelled to visit them, but most are not about destinations about but journeys themselves.


Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

Whitman’s poetry is hope, energy, youth. When I first read Leaves of Grass I started to understand things I had only guessed before about my place in the world. “Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you. /You must travel it by yourself. /It is not far. It is within reach. /Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know. / Perhaps it is everywhere – on water and land.”

To actually feel part of the world wherever I am, however distant it may seem, has been a big breakthrough for me: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” I used to set too much store on destinations and possessions, to think that when I had this or when I were somewhere else I would be happy, but that was not only untrue, but also an unsustainable way of living. Now I’d rather be here and think of traveling in a broader sense, I want to be here as much as possible and when I’m somewhere else I want to be there with all my heart.


Villette, Charlotte Brontë

Though not Charlotte’s most famous novel, Villette is perhaps my favourite. A young woman with no money or family who embarks to Europe in search of a better life. She arrives in a little town in Belgium only to realise that the journey is not yet over. When she’s in she ship, uncertain of where she’s going but fully embracing her own adventure, she says: “So peril, loneliness, an uncertain future, are not oppressive evils, so long as the frame is healthy and the faculties are employed; so long especially, as Liberty lends us her wings, and Hope guides us by her star. And this quote has accompanied me since. Somehow that’s what traveling is about for me, the excitement of adventure, the fear and uncertainty that freedom can arouse, and ultimately the hopes for better things to come, and to each travel to show us things of ourselves we didn’t know before.


Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

This is a recent read for me (no, I haven’t watched the movie yet), and I must say I was completely appalled and excited by the adventures of Chris McCandless (aka Alexander Supertramp) that Krakauer narrates. When talking about this book I found that many people think the author glorifies the stupidity of this young man who went to live by himself in the Alaskan wilderness. I really don’t think he does. I actually think Krakauer does an amazing job in setting apart his opinions from the facts, while also rendering a complex portrait of the 22-year-old. I don’t believe Chris McCandles was a hero, but I do believe he understood what he was up to and understood too the perils of modern society. If I learned something from this book, it was about self-reliance. This book made me so much more conscious of my dependance on material things as well of the implications of everything I do (from the food I eat to the clothes I wear), and I think we could all learn a bit from both Jon Krakauer, an amazing writer and adventurer, and Chris McCandless. I also can’t wait to travel to Alaska.

If you’re interested in self-reliance, I highly recommend you read Emerson’s text of the same name. It might change your life. Also, if you’re on Goodreads, I made a list of all the books that appear in Into the Wild, most of which McCandless read. So add me here, and the list is called “Into-the-wild”. 


A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

I’m a big fan of Hemingway (my favourite novel is definitely A Farewell to Arms) and so I had to read this memoir. Apart from it being the best memoir I’ve read, it is also one of the best books about Paris ever. I love this book because it combines my two passions: literature and travel writing. Hemingway’s descriptions of Paris are astounding, he describes the parties and the itineraries he followed when living there, all the alcohol and tobacco and all the artists he met there. He also tells some funny and heartbreaking anecdotes and talks of Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and James Joyce. When I read it I had already been to Paris, but the way in which he describes the cafés in the Latin Quartier, all the gardens and the boulangeries, just made me want to go again. From this book you’ll get a ton of places to see in Paris, including Shakespeare & Co., as well as some of the most interesting reflections on what it means to be a writer and what it takes to write.


On the Road, Jack Kerouac

Of course, I had to include this one, and you’ve probably read it already. Although Kerouac might not be my favourite beatnik, this book is special. I must confess I found it poorly written and boring at some points (and I don’t think I hate any fictional character more than I hate Dean Moriarty), but there’s some raw stuff in here that is so important for me, the love of experience for the sake of experience. The book is about a road trip, perhaps The Road Trip, across North America, and Kerouac was clearly not gonna let grammar interfere in his rendering of this experience. The book has many great moments of clarity that made me jump of excitement and recognition, and I think any fellow traveler, or any young person really, will feel the same.

I’ll just leave some cool quotes here:

  • “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
  • “… the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
  • “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”


The Call of the Wild, Jack London

This is one of the books mentioned in Into the Wild. It is about a house dog from California that is sold to be a sleigh dog in Alaska and how this drastic change forces him to go back to his nature. What I like about this book is that it does not idealize nature as something good, but it represents it with all its violence, as a merciless force, and yet a majestic one. This book made me think so much about our relationship to nature and it made me change the ways in which I interact with it, so if you’re a nature lover, I recommend this book.

Have you read any of these?

If so, what did you think of them? I’d love to hear from you on the comments.

Happy reading!