Adventures on the Page

Lately I have been so busy! During all those all-nighters at uni I thought I would never be so busy again. And here I am, finding that graduate life is twice as demanding (but also twice as rewarding). The biggest lesson I have learned from having a lot of things to do is that there is always some time for what we really care about. It’s all about priorities, and no matter how busy I think I am, I always make time for reading. I could not function otherwise.

The kind of reading that keeps me grounded at such hectic times is about adventures: people venturing into the great unknown, people doing amazing feats of courage, daring to walk their own path and march to the beat of their own drummer. It is amazing when books inspire us to be a better version of ourselves. And this post is about the kind of books that keep you up at night, give you the chills and almost make you leave the house in you pijamas in search for adventure, “that flighty temptress”.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

I’ve hyped this book too much but I don’t care. It’s awesome, raw, unputdownable, honest and thrilling. I have yet to watch the movie. Strayed tells of her own experience hiking the Pacific Crest Trail as a young, unexperienced woman whose life is falling apart. This book is funny, angering, heartbreaking and liberating. If you like hiking, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. Specially if you, like me, have struggled with hiking boots in the past.

A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

This book is so funny! All it had me thinking was, if Bryson set out to hike the Appalachian trail at sixty, what the hell am I waiting for? Bill Bryson is the kind of person I would love to have as an uncle. This book is full of politically incorrect jokes and unglamorous truths about hiking. It is also full of wonder and amazement, I learned many things whil reading it and took a huge tbr list from it. Seriously recommended.

Travels With Charley in Search of America, John Steinbeck

Is there anything Steinbeck couldn’t write about? Probably not. This is the story of how he set out on a road trip with his French poodle, Charley. As road stories go, this is one of my favourites.

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This book is beautiful in many different ways. Exupéry’s prose is delightful and his stories about his time as a pilot are incredible. He tells of a time when transatlantic flights were dangerous feats, of landings in the middle of snowstorms in Chili, of being all alone in a plane with nothing but desert plains below and blue skies above. This book is a descriptive wonder, and a beautiful reflection on why we humans crave adventures.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

A classic. I can honestly say this book changed my life, I still reread parts of it every now and then. I admire Jon Krakauer greatly for his journalistic abilities, but most of all for his understanding and sympathy with the subject of his book, the life of Christopher McCandless.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

This one I am currently reading and loving! Unlike the other books on this list, this is a novel. It’s the story of a family that moves to Alaska in search for peace, but the wilderness pretty quickly turns their lives into a feat for survival. I can’t wait to finish it to write more about it.

Have you read any of these? Which adventures on the page would you recommend for me to read next?

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An Age for Civil Disobedience

This a continued rant about our society and Henry David Thoreau.

In 1846, Henry David Thoreau was incarcerated for not paying his taxes. He owed the government six years of taxes, but he refused to pay because he knew the money would go to two causes the was against: the Mexican war and slavery. Today we mostly hear of millionaires that avoid paying taxes to get richer, but it’s rare to hear someone making a statement out of not paying taxes. Thoreau did, however, and the night he spent in prison was the motif of one of his best pieces of writing. “Civil disobedience”, as most of Thoreau’s essays, resonates too much with the issues we face today.

In this essay, Thoreau defends his actions arguing that he could not possibly support through his taxes something that he knows in his heart is wrong. But the essay goes further than that, he proposes nobody should abide a law that is wrong, he dismantles the myth of the law-abiding citizen and exposes the moral failing that subordinating one’s conscience to law or social codes represents. Generally speaking, that is what civil disobedience is about: acting according to our own moral code—which, according to Thoreau is not arbitrary, but transcendetal and and valid for all—, whether it contradicts or not the laws.

“Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.” 

Democracy

This might sound problematic if we think of democratically elected governments. But I do not believe that democracy is incompatible with the “higher laws” Thoreau suggests; we must remember that democracy in his time—and still in our time, in many places— excluded women and people of colour from political participation. It is not incompatible with democracy, but it is only possible to act thus in a democratic system in which people are free to choose, and this implies they’re educated. Anyhow, Thoreau is probaby right in deeming democracy as a transitory system, a step towards a form of government in which the state is not above the individuals, but instead recognizes them as the real source of power.

Moreover, the essay poses some uncomfortable questions: Is it right to support a democratically elected government even when we believe its actions go against the dignity of some people?

“Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?” 

Consumerism

Another issue Thoreau addresses in his essay is the unwillingness that rich people show towards disobeying laws that are unfair. He argues that money is a way in which the government secures the allegiance of the rich, for they’re bound to be loyal to whoever allows their riches to grow. In our times, however, the monster is bigger, more dangerous and complex; it is no longer the government but the corporations, the stocks, thousands of people we can’t see and are more comfortable to call “the system”, which give and take value from properties and goods. The tiny percentage of people who are super rich are mostly supportive of these systems of exclusion and dehumanisation, not to their fellow human beings and certainly not to themselves.

In our times, the disobedience Thoreau poses is not only about taxes, it’s about disobeying the industries that tell us that buy more is to be better, at the expense of the half of the world that suffers for it, at the expense of global warming and pollution. To be disobedient would be to say no to the fashion industry and the plastic industry and the TV and Netflix industries, even at the cost of being uncomfortable or an outcast.

Utopy or possibility?

So why is civil disobedience necessary? Its importance lies in the need for coherence between our actions and and our thoughts, between our lifestyle and what we know to be right. For Thoreau, every one is capable of listening is himself to a higher truth, and acting according to it might sometimes go against laws, regulations or social codes.

Ideally, every individual would be capable of determining what is good or evil without being subordinated to a government or religion. The ideal role of the state would be to regulate affairs between individuals, but it would not hold any authority in itself: every individual would be capable of acting, thinking and expressing in the way he chooses, but he would also have every tool to form an autonomus conscience, aka education and time for introspection.

“It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law,

so much as for the right.” 

It could sound impossible and anarchic, but Thoreau is not talking about the kind of individualism we are familiar with today. He is nor for “every man for himself”, but rather for “every man for the greatest good, for he knows in his heart what this greater good is”. Thoreau’s approach is very similar to that of Ralph Waldo Emerson—his mentor: they both propose an individual search—for truth, justice and meaning— that goes beyond the limitations of culture and governments. In his essay “Experience”, Emerson also speaks of individualism as the source of good, and argues that the best access to knowledge and innovation is through personal experience. Both texts are about individuals that dare to go beyond old conventions in search of a higher knowledge, a better way of living for them and the other living creatures.

Lives Without Principle: Thoreau and Our Complex Times

As you may know, recently I finally got down to reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Thoureau had fascinated me since I studied some of his essays in university, mostly because I believe he’s one of the few thinkers who really put his money where his mouth was: his lifestyle was always coherent with his words.

What Thoreau had in mind when he decided to live in the woods in Massachussets could not be more relevant in our times. Reading Walden made me want to revisit the first essay I read by him: “Life Without Principle”. What he writes there is very relevant in our turbulent times.

Henry David Thoreau

In “Life Without Principle”, Thoreau speaks of how America evolved after the Independence, making industry and commerce its main focus and pushing art and philosophy to the side. What Thoreau defends agains this way of living is the idea of working for something we can actually find true to our selves. Only a job that doesn’t ask of us to look away from our dignity and that of those around us can lead us to the truth, a truth we find looking into ourselves.

Every day I see it more and more that my friends and acquaintances start working at things they don’t believe in and don’t even enjoy, just to get a check every month. And it pays off, I guess, if you can live your life numbly five days a week to get a nice holiday every year. Every Monday on social media I realize most people I know do not enjoy what they do, some of them even work for companies or organisations they know are not good for our society or our environment, but their goal is to make it to Friday and save some money and have some fun and hopefully find a job they enjoy more, or retire young.

What Thoreu would find problematic about this lifestyle is that it turns people into slaves. Thinking, for example, about the fast-fashion industry and how many jobs it generates—from CEOs and accountants, to people in retail, to people in actual sweatshops—: thousands and thousands of people working towards a goal that is doing more harm than good. But they all are capable to look away from the issue and from themselves: for a check that will pay a condo, a rent, food for their families. Such labour, a job that requires you to numb your conscience, induces a kind of slavery—slavery to consumerism— that makes it harder for people to seek true meaning in their lives.

“What is it to be born free and not to live free? What is the value of any political freedom, but as a means to moral freedom? Is it a freedom to be slaves, or a freedom to be free, of which we boast?”

Henry David Thoreau, “Life Without Principle”

It is a vicious circle, and it doesn’t only apply harmful industries, the same can be said of banks or political organisations or what have you. For in order to survive, one must give up their individuality; in order to achieve economic freedom, one compromises his or her youth and strenght and, worst of all, conscience, in the hope that one day one will be free to do as one pleases. Thoreau points out examples such as the Gold Rush and the trade of slaves, but we can find plenty of contemporary examples.

But how can we end this? You’re probably wondering that now and I wondered that when I read the essay. And Thoreau says: “I do not make an exorbitant demand, surely.” Is it doable then? Could we all, each one of us, work at something we not only enjoy, but respect because it makes us better and the world around us better? I believe we can, that at any rate we can begin now to change and to think twice if that which bring us immediate joy or comfort—a paycheck or some jeans— is really good for ourselves and those around us. I don’t think it is easy, but I think it is possible. Hard as hell because it’s easier to switch your conscience off from 9 to 5 than struggling 24/7 to make ends meet. But it’s possible.

Thoreau would say we should treat our minds as something sacred, that is also a great start. It is hard to think of these changes in the big picture, specially because there are many people who do not have a choice, but what about us who have the time to write and read blogs and books and use social media? It is not an exorbitant demand, indeed, if we start with small changes. What Thoreau would ask of us, I dare say, is that we follow the beat of our own drum, that we dare disagree and struggle if we find that our circumstances do not agree with who we are, that we break the rules if we find that the rules offend our dignity, or the dignity of our brothers and sisters, as human beings.

“At any rate, I might pursue some path, however solitary and narrow and crooked, in which I could walk with love and reverence. Wherever a man separates from the multitude, and goes his own way in this mood, there indeed is a fork in the road, though ordinary travellers may see only a gap in the paling. His solitary path across lots will turn out the higher way of the two.”

Henry David Thoreau, “Life Without Principle”
Into the Wild

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IWD: Awesome Female Writers

First of all, Happy International Women’s Day! Today is a great excuse to both look down at every step we have taken, and to look up and to look up and remember there’s still a long way to go to achieve justice, for women all over the world.

At high school and even at uni I was always amazed at how quickly some teachers dismissed the questions about why there weren’t enough women in the syllabus: “It’s not my choosing, there are actually not many women writers worth studying in this period”. While I am not at all for including any women writers just to make it half and half, I do believe we have not completely gotten over the myth of the literary canon.

Nowadays we think twice before assuming that books become “classics” just because of their literary value. Perhaps we know now that being a “classic” is a matter of politics and money and many other things we would never directly associate with literature… and yet we are so quick to assume that the writers we know and revere, Nobel prize winners and celebrities, go down in history thanks only to their talent as writers.

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Even when we have various famous examples of how the literary industry is hostile to women—J.K. Rowling didn’t publish under her actual name; Jane Austen and the Brontë Sisters published anonymously or under a male name; George Eliot, anybody?; Taylor Swift is still a hate target just because she writes lyrics about her own experiences; etc.—, I think we have not yet understood completely what Virginia Woolf meant when she said, “for most of history, Anonymous has been a woman”.

The further we look back in time, the more adventurous and courageous women had to be in order to get their writing published. Now it pains me to think of how many wonderful writers we will never have the pleasure to read just because they lived in a world that did not care for what they had to say.

Some voices, however, we do get to enjoy while we hope that, in the future, a woman doesn’t have to fight or be fierce or a prodigy to get the treatment she deserves as a human, and to be judged by her talent and not her gender. Without further ado then, I present you with 7 female writers that I love and that I think should be read by more people.  

Clarice Lispector

Some books remind us of things we feel but thought we couldn’t possibly put into words. Lispector’s prose is like diving into a kind of existence that precedes thought: it’s all emotion and mysticism. Both her novels and short stories take digs at the foundations of language and uncover the unsettling ferocity of existence, specifically of female existence. I recommend The Stream of Life for a start, and then The Passion According to G.H.

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Mariana Enriquez

Enriquez is one of the freshest voices in Latin American literature, and she’s sure to make you uncomfortable and even give you a few nightmares. She combines fantastic literature with contemporary concerns (mainly taken from the Argentinian political context) and creates deeply unsettling short stories. I specially recommend the collection Things We Lost in the Fire.

Anne Carson

Anne Carson is perhaps my favourite living poet. Instead of trying to explain why, I’ll just quote a fragment from Glass, Irony, and God:

“You remember too much,
my mother said to me recently.
Why hold onto all that? And I said,
Where can I put it down?”

Do yourself a favor and read The Glass Essay. Please.

 

Shirley Jackson

Jackson is again in the spotlight thanks to the Netflix adaptation of her novel The Haunting of Hill House (they’re completely different). However, most of the talk about her is still centered around her person (was she really a witch?). Her short story “The Lottery” is already a classic, and it pretty much shows what she’s about: people are way scarier than ghosts. My favorite Jackson is We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

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Robin Hobb

Many years ago I read Assassin’s Apprentice and I remember thinking, woah, there might be good fantasy writing after Harry Potter. A couple of days ago a friend told me it is actually the first book in a trilogy and I can’t wait to read the other two. If I had to describe Assassin’s Apprentice I would say it’s a bit a like GoT but well written.

Janice Galloway

I read Galloway for a class and I had never heard of her before. Her book The Trick is to Keep Breathing is just amazing. It is both a social critique and the story of a young woman trying to survive​ pain and loss. It also extremely quotable, so even if its a pretty bleak novel, it is still a pleasure to read it.

Carmen Boullosa

Boullosa has written almost 20 novels and they are all about completely different things. There’s one about the US-Mexico war, one about Anna Karenina, one about a saint, one about her own childhood. She’s one of the most versatile Mexican writers today and definitely worth checking out.Antes (Before) is my favourite.

So here’s to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them. May we read them.

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‘Thou Mayest’: John Steinbeck on Free Will

“‘I am mine, I am my own’,
Said the ancients years ago”
–”I am mine”, Beta Radio
 

A couple of months ago I found a copy of Travels with Charlie in Search of America by John Steinbeck at O’Hare Airport. I had never read anything by him before, but this memoir was on my travel books list. Being traveling at the time, I thought it was only fitting to read it. This book marked me deeply, and it was the beginning of my current love affair with John Steinbeck’s work. I learned many things from and because of the book, amongst them a refreshened sense of accountability and what it means to be free.

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Also, I have a crush on him.

Almost at the beginning of Travels with Charley, Steinbeck justifies his desire of going on a road trip at his age (he was sixty) with the following quote:

“For I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as consequence, not as punishment.”

It is the last part, about acknowledging the consequences of our actions as such, where the possibility of freedom lies. Far from romanticizing free will, Steinbeck does not seek it in the possibility of doing whatever one chooses, but rather in recognizing the outcomes of our actions as completely our own. Free will resides in being individually accountable for our actions, however good or bad, fortunate or ill-timed, as completely our doing. Free will requires therefore a rejection of all superstition and religious fatality.

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Later on in his memoir, Steinbeck attends mass at a small church in Vermont. After describing the harsh manner of the priest and his straightforward attitude about hell and sinning, he writes:

“The service did my heart and I hope my soul some good. It had been long since I had heard such an approach. It is our practice now, at least in the large cities, to find from our psychiatric priesthood that our sins aren’t really sins at all but accidents that are set in motion by forces beyond our control.”

The problem with the “sinning nature” of humanity shared by many a religion lies exactly there: it is not possible to be accountable of something we are not guilty of, something we cannot help. But without accountability there cannot be choice, not self-reliance, no freedom. The priest Steinbeck writes about did not see it that way, and assured everyone in the service that they would indeed burn in hell if they did not change their ways. Instead of being frightening, this thought is uplifting for Steinbeck; there is choice then, and if one is to burn in hell, it is because of his or her own doing:

“I hadn’t been thinking very well of myself for some years, but if my sins had this dimension there was some pride left. I wasn’t a naughty child but a first rate sinner, and I was going to catch it.”

Funny as this passage might be, it had me thinking for a long time after finishing the book how damaging it is to find excuses for our wrong doings (in our religious belief, in our upbringing, in our family history, in our social or economic circumstances). Not only because it takes from us the pride there is in any achievement (if our wrongdoings are not our own, surely our successes can’t be completely ours either) but because it completely alters the light under which we see ourselves. There is no greater danger than believing we are not accountable for our actions, good or bad.

A few weeks after reading Travels with Charley, I bough a copy of East of Eden. I couldn’t wait to see if his novels were as compelling as what I had read so far. I was not disappointed. Out of the many things that are praise-worthy in the book, I was surprised to see the whole novel revolves about the same dilemma on free-will and accountability.

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East of Eden, as its name suggests, is in some ways a reenacting of the Book of Genesis, specially the story about Cain and Abel. The novel follows various generations of two families that settle in the Salinas Valley at the end of the 19th century: the Hamiltons and the Trasks. There is a wonderful chapter in the middle of the novel in which the characters discuss the story of Cain and Abel. As Lee, a Chinese employee in the Trask ranch, says, the different translations of the story alter its meaning completely.

When God, in the Book of Genesis, finds out Cain killed his brother Abel, he banishes Cain to the East of Eden and He says to him, “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?, and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door”. This is the choice given to Cain, however the next part of the dialogue varies depending on the translation. The King James versions says, “And unto thee shalt be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him”. This is, as Lee acknowledges, a  promise: Cain will conquer sin, therefore his free will is taken from him.

Another version of the Bible, the American Standard, says “do thou rule over him” instead. This is not a promise, but an order, also taking free will out of the question. Lee is also not satisfied with this translation, so he consults some scholars on the Hebrew word used in the passage. The word is timshel and it does not mean either “thou shalt” or “do thou”. It means “thou mayest”, thou mayest rule over sin:

“… the Hebrew word, the word timshel‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on man. For if ‘Thou mayest’, then it’s also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see? […] Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and in his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win […]

I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed—because ‘Thou mayest’.”

Timshel is the motif of the whole novel, a retelling of the book of Genesis with an emphasis in the possibility of choosing. The novel follows the hardships of a varied set of characters, and each one of the is confronted with difficult choices, some great and some small, but not all of them are accountable for the paths they choose.

The same respect towards accountably that an older Steinbeck would put down in his travel memoir can be seen in East of Eden, and also his belief that literature is nothing but an attempt to explain this struggle, this search for and fear of free will:

“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us […] Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their arrive and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil […] There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, ill have left only the hard, clean questions Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”

East of Eden was published ten years before Travels with Charley, and both follow the same line of thought on free will. They both speak of a complex kind of freedom, a kind of freedom that rejects the two main myths about humanity, that people are inherently good or evil; a kind of freedom that places a huge responsibility on being human: “You see, there is responsibility in being a person. It’s more than just taking up space where air would be”. And it is in the responsibility and in the hardship where beauty lies, for if we are capable of the worst evil, we are also capable of the greatest good; “I am my own”, Caleb says in the novel, “If I’m mean, it’s my own mean”.


I am currently reading The Grapes of Wrath (I am obsessed with Steinbeck, I know). Have you read anything by him? Any recommendations on what to read next?

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Also, here are two relevant songs:

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Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence

Graduate life is proving to be both scary and exhilarating. Just when I finally thought I’d have more time to write and blog, I find myself the busiest ever. It is one of those times when there are so many things I want to do, that I do not know where to even start. But I’m getting better at managing my time, which means I’ll blog more regularly. It also means I have found enough time to go over my past readings, revisit old novels and watch some of my favourite movies, which is why I’m writing about Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. I believe this is one of those cases in which the movie is just as delightful as the book. But I being no film critic, I’ll content myself with writing about the book.

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The 1920s were for American literature a time of renovation in many ways. It is hard for me to imagine the first decades of the twentieth century without thinking of Gatsby, Art Deco and WWI. Yet amidst the chaos, the glitter and chic haircuts, the rapid changes, there is also the curious, nostalgic figure of Edith Wharton.

Wharton was born in New York in 1862, to a wealthy family. She wrote more than 20 novels and many more short stories between 1899 and 1937, when she passed away. Thanks to her family’s immense library, Wharton was always an avid reader. She was also interested in architecture and interior design—an obsession her writing does reflect—and was an intimate friend of Henry James. Although Wharton entered the spotlight as a writer thanks to her novels Ethan Frome (1911) and The House of Mirth (1905), it was her 13th novel, The Age of Innocence, which won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1920.

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The novel follows the life of Newland Archer, a young man whose life in New York’s elite of the 1870s is seemingly perfect. He’s engaged to May Welland, who is not only one of the most popular and respected heiresses of his social circle, but the very image of innocence and purity. However Newland admires her, he can’t help but feel that there are so many things he can’t discuss with her, such as the new and strange artistic movements making their way from Europe to America, to which Newland feels drawn to and which he would like to explore.

Unlike his friends, Newland finds it amazing that there can be a life so different to his: la vie bohéme, the life of the cafés and the studios, of small apartments and sordid parties. Such acquaintance makes him question his social duties and his relationship with May. His doubts are aggravated by the arrival of May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska. Ellen has spent the last decades in Europe among artists and is now separated from her husband, a situation the New Yorkers find shocking. The way Ellen behaves, disregarding every social rule, represents everything Newland has always wanted, but has been too afraid to try.

In a way, Newland’s dilemma is the dilemma of his times. He is torn between the familiar, a neoclassical word full of beautiful shapes and light, and the unstoppable future, the innovations in art and architecture that can only precede a new conception of the world. While the world he knows is beautiful, he knows the price to pay for it is ignorance, a blissful ignorance every one of his acquaintances seems to get on with by calling it innocence.

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Drawing by Dante Ferretti

New York in the last decades of the XIX century, the city in which Wharton grew up, is recreated with detail, both in its buildings and streets, as in the hypocrisy of its society. The irony of such conventions is subtly exposed by Wharton through the descriptions of her character’s, specially the lack of communication between them:

 

“What could he and she really know of each other, since it was his duty, as a ‘decent’ fellow, to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal?”

The most wonderful thing about Wharton’s novel is how she exposes the crash  between the old and the new, the classical and the extravagant, mostly through the descriptions of spaces and clothes. Wharton displays a narrative skill that manages to incorporate every detail, every piece of furniture, every door, window or garden of the houses belonging to the upper classes of New York, in her critique of their outdated moral standards. Her descriptions are so precise and exact that they border on the baroque. The spaces in which the novel takes place are a crucial element of the novel, and their configuration through a prolific use of nouns and adverbs manages to establish a sense of saturation and oppression, which helps us understand Newland’s suffocation:

 

“The small bright lawn stretched away smoothly to the big bright sea. The turf was hemmed with an edge of carlet geranium and coleus, and cast-iron vases painted in chocolate color, standing at intervals along the winding path that led to the sea, looped their garlands of petunia and ivy geranium above the neatly raked gravel.” (Wharton, 129)

Newland’s doubts come from his belonging to a rigid social structure from which he can see no way out, which implies certain, strictly defined roles for women, for art, culture and civilization itself.

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Drawing by Dante Ferretti

Wharton also explores the cultural differences between America and Europe. In a time which proved crucial for all arts in the Old Continent, Wharton’s New York seems outdated and decadent. It is a New York isolated by social conventions in which the protagonist’s sufferings come from realising this, a realization which implies a loss of innocence, “that kind of innocence, the kind of innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!”

Much of the charm of The Age of Innocence comes from the use Wharton makes of language: a precise, abundant, a bit snobby yet delightful choice of words awaits in every page—Henry James used to say of Wharton’s personality that it was like a “brilliant hyperbole”—. The book is also a personal testimony, a nostalgic remembrance of a time that was long gone by the time Wharton wrote about it. By the 1920s a rapid wave of change and industrialization had erased the remains of the society in which Wharton grew up. The new century would prove to be, as Newland Archer suspected, thoroughly different.

Have you read any of Wharton’s works? If so, how did you like them?

I am currently reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck and I can honestly say I hadn’t enjoyed a novel this much in a while.


 
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Late for Valentine’s Day: Some Awesome Love Stories

Hello there! I’m sorry I’ve been M.I.A. for the last couple of weeks, and I’m sorry I’m late for Valentine’s Day. But hey, I’m a V-Day grinch, so I’m just glad I have an excuse to share some “romantic” books that still haunt me.

However, February is the ideal month for candle-lit, chocolate-fueled, cosy dates with a book, so it’s the perfect excuse to start blogging about books again. Here are some faves for the month of love:

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The Guernesey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Burrows

A lovely epistolar novel whose centre is the ways in which literature shapes and alters our lives. I’m still talking of this book (and the Netflix adaptation) to anyone who listens. It’s a dream come true: getting to meet a guy who loves all your favourite books. However, this book is also a love letter to literature and the ways in which it helps us cope with life and stand up to injustice. More about this beaut here.

 

Persuasion, Jane Austen

Of couse Austen is on this list. I often write about P&P or Northanger Abbey, but this one is also one of Austen’s best. Here, the heroine is persuaded to give up the love of her life because he’s not that rich. Persuasion is one of those novels that got you screaming to the characters. Even if the plot is not as riveting (as, say, P&P) Persuasion has some of the most romantic lines Austen ever wrote, such as, “I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope.”

 

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Rayuela, Julio Cortázar

RayuelaHopscotch in English— is not only an experimental novel that can be read in several different ways, but also a bohemian love story set in the sixties in Paris: jazz, bookclubs, homeless artists, cafés and theaters.

 

The Beautiful and Damned, F. Scott Fitzgerald

My favourite Fitzgerald! This heart-breaking book explores some of the less alluring sides of relationships, the inevitable hurt and the necessary abilty to forgive that come with loving someone. It is also a delight in its setting and descriptions of the fashion and lifestyle of the twenties.

 

A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway

A love story set in WWI between an American soldier and a British Nurse that follows their oddysey across Europe in search of refuge. This book has all the raw writing associated with Hemingway, but is is also his finest plot in my opinion.

 

Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë

No comment.

“The Lake”, Ray Bradbury

This is one of my favourite short stories by Bradbury. A dark and lovely account of first love. It is included in The October Country, a marvellous book. If there’s something better than romance, it’s gotta be creepy romance. See Wuthering Heights for further info.

 

 

Have you read any of these? I am actually reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck and loving it! Any recommendations of what I should read next are more than welcome! Happy belated V-Day!

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“We do not take a trip; a trip takes us”

John Steinbeck did not only write some of the most acclaimed pieces of American fiction. He also possessed the rare talent of making any account of events compelling, a knack for turning even the slightest observation into a riveting reflection of something vaster and much more complex.

In 1962, Steinbeck published his travel memoir, Travels with Charley in Search of America, an account of a road trip he took alongside his blue poodle, Charley, across several states of the US, from Maine to Texas, in search of “americanness”, were such thing to exist.

Steinbeck left Sag Harbor, New York, on an all-equipped truck called Rocinante, with Charley as his only company, on a project that would last three months. He was to go out, talk to as many people as he could, see as much as he could, and come back to write about what he had learned of his country.

However, the real inspiration for it was the itch to get going, to leave, the need to travel and move and see other places, a feeling Steinbeck is familiar with: “When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked.”

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Steinbeck by Sonya Noskowiak, 1935

As it often happens when one gets in a car with a full tank and nothing else but the urge to being someplace else, an adventure began. Rocinante took our protagonists on a quest that would prove both impossible and revealing, a journey through the forests of Maine, the redwoods in Oregon, the trailer parks in North Dakota, bear encounters in Yosemite and unlikely friendships in the Mojave Desert.

This is a wonderful book, a memoir, yes, but also an exercise in writing as a means of discovering something else, something more, in what has been seen, felt, done, traveled. For many writers, the act of writing is an aftermath of experience, a way of understanding experience. And it is so for Steinbeck, who does not try to recreate the experience of his journey, but rather describes everything around it, hinting too at the impossibility of describing the “americanness” he set out to find.

The simple writing of the book was for me a reminder that a story is by no means an experience, but a way to approach experience. That is perhaps why we travel, because during the trip itself, nothing is a story and everything is an experience. Afterwards, we cannot access that experience —”I can’t even imagine the forest colors when I am not seeing them”, writes Steinbeck—but we can narrate it and give it new tints and colors of understanding and comprehension. perhaps only then we can realize its importance.

This book is one of the best non-fictions I have ever read, and I thought I would just point out some topics I loved.

On the nature of traveling

“Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

The book begins with Steinbeck’s urge to move, to be somewhere else, to travel. As the plot advances, Steinbeck points out that he found the same need in people he met along the road, people who looked with a bit of jealousy his truck and the freedom that represented being “on the move”. Why do we travel? Could it be there’s a biological need, a nomadic gene buried deep in us still? We move for various reasons, but the kind of traveling this book is about is not the one motivated by “sensible” reasons —a job,  better opportunities, an annual holiday—, but the one that is unexplainable, an urge for adventure that begins not with a destination in mind but with a desire to move. The way Steinbeck poses the questions that come with traveling reveal many aspects about our culture that are directly related to this quest for adventure.

a journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. and all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. we find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip;

On disposable culture

One of the things that I found specially interesting was the mentions of consumerism and the overuse of plastic. The book was published in 1962 and Steinbeck had already detected the first consequences of the packaging culture, the first outlets of one of the most pressing problems we are facing today, fifty years later: “Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much. The mountains of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use.”

It is not only the dumpsters but the rapid growth of cities that Steinbeck marvels at, small towns turned into great urban areas, factories replacing suburbs. The cultural causes and implications of our environmental problems are sometimes overlooked; the links between “the American dream”, fast-food chains, fast fashion and cultural homogenization and our environmental challenges are something worth examining not only to understand but to better demand and think of solutions that, to be effective, have to involve a bigger change and even a complete rethinking of our economic systems. On this note, Steinbeck writes, “I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction”.

On writing about places

“What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style.”

This is a quote I’ll have in mind every time I write about a place. Have you ever taken a trip with someone just to come back with completely different experiences and opinions about it? Or have you perhaps revisited a place to find it a disappointment from what you remembered, or surprisingly better than you remembered it? Perhaps the most interesting part of traveling is that you take you wherever you go, your eyes and your ears, your feet to tread the earth, your own mouth to taste the food.

A written account of a place can just account for a place in a certain time, under certain conditions, and that’s why both traveling and writing are endless expeditions. One can never know a place completely, much less write about it completely, and that’s the thrill of it: “So much there is to see, but our morning eyes describe a different world than do our afternoon eyes and surely our wearied evening eyes can report only a weary evening world.”

On the experience of nature

“Can it be that we do not love to be reminded that we are very young and callow in a world that was old when we came into it? And could there be a strong resistance to the certainty that a living world will continue its stately way when we no longer inhabit it?”

These questions were motivated by the redwoods in Oregon. It is easy to be fond of nature when it is already tamed by culture—a garden, a park—, but there’s an element of uneasiness in being out in the wilderness. We have come to think of nature as a “pretty thing” to be taken care of, but isn’t nature a dangerous thing? We have our cities and our homes against it and we still fear it, but so many of us are still drawn to it, much in the way the early romantics were, not to groomed trees and rose gardens, but to cliffs and rivers, to thunder and lightning, dark forests, to things that live and behave in a way that is for us both strange and familiar, that frightens us but of which we can still sense a part in ourselves.

a journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. and all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. we find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip;

 

On the impossibility of really knowing the place we come from

The purpose of Steinbeck’s trip was to find what his homeland was, who his people were. When introducing myself to people from different parts of the world, there’s always talk of “traditional” Mexican things—the food, the dress, somehow people expect you to drink tequila and know how to dance—. At such times I feel like I’ve perhaps failed as a Mexican, for I cannot see what these things have to do with me. The things that connect me to my homeland are much simpler and much more complicated, and have nothing to do with flags or national anthems. They’re more about the mountains and the climate, a passionate defensiveness, an easy laughter.

Whenever I go too far north or too far south I find that the people there are very different from me, but on a closer look, I see they also share things with me, small things like gestures, stubbornness, a playful dispositions. There must be something, something about the land and its history, something I will never be able to rightfully put down because it’s too close to me. Reading Travels with Charley I felt like I was not alone in this defeat: “From start to finish I found no strangers. If I had, I might be able to report them more objectively. But they are my people and this my country. If I found matters to criticize and to deplore, they were tendencies equally present in myself.”

I found in this book hundreds of things to think about and such a pleasure to read. It is a genuinely fine piece of writing, an essay much in the Montaigne style, mixing personal anecdotes with other reflections, everything connected together by a story, a story about two friends on a road trip. Honestly, stories don’t get much better than that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Year’s Book Haul

New year, new reads. 2018 was for me a very interesting year reading wise, in which I discovered many new authors and in which I read a lot of nonfiction, something new for me. This year, however, I intend to make that a tradition. December is usually the month in which I go like, treat yo’self, and buy myself lots of books, despite having a literal pile of things I haven’t read yet. Do you even find there are books you just can’t get around to read, no matter for how long they sit on your nightstand? I have plenty of those and I intend to give them a chance this year. The actual TBR pile is pictured here:

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However, I do not have the self-control not to buy new books that caught my fancy, and  so I ended up with this gorgeous pile of books that I really can’t wait to read:

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What surprised me about these books once I piled them up was that there’s just one work of fiction, most of these books are history books or essays. I’m very much into essays right now. You can also notice many of these are about outdoors and travelling, that has been a major subject for me in the last few months.

This being my very first book haul ever, I think I’ll just proceed to talk about each of these books.

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich

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“Journalist Svetlana Alexievich interviewed hundreds of people affected by the meltdown—from innocent citizens to firefighters to those called in to clean up the disaster—and their stories reveal the fear, anger, and uncertainty with which they still live.”

A couple of years ago I read Alexievich’s War’s Unwomanly Face and I must say I had never found any history book as compelling and haunting. Alexievich’s writings dwells somewhere between history and literature, and does so with utmost honesty. On the book I read she mentions how she prefers to think of what she does as a “history of the heart”, bringing up those voices that History has long ignored—women, children— and discussing the seemingly unimportant details that are in the very core of “big” historic episodes, like wars. European history and the Soviet Union are themes that interest me and I expect I’ll have a lot of feelings about this book, which is written in the same interviews/monologue style.

 

The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport

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“Rappaport aims to present a new and challenging take on the story, drawing extensively on previously unseen or unpublished letters, diaries and archival sources, as well as private collections. It is a book that will surprise people, even aficionados.”

More about Russia. This was a birthday gift from a friend who knows me really well, but I haven’t had the chance to read it. This book is a part of a historical trilogy which includes The Last Days of the Romanovs and The Race to Save the Romanovs. As any Downton Abbey fan, I admit I have a soft spot for royal families and agonizing empires in changing times. I really can’t wait to read this.

 

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon

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“Romantic Outlaws brings together a pair of visionary women who should have shared a life, but who instead shared a powerful literary and feminist legacy. This is inventive, illuminating, involving biography at its best.”

I saw this book on my Goodreads suggestions some weeks ago and I was absolutely thrilled when I found it ON SALE in a bookshop in Ottawa (ten dollars!). I really love Mary Shelley and I am excited to read more about her life, and honestly what best than some good old 19th century feminism.

 

Finding North by George Michelsen Foy

“In 1844, Foy’s great-great grandfather, captain of a Norwegian cargo ship, perished at sea after getting lost in a snowstorm. Foy decides to unravel the mystery surrounding Halvor Michelsen’s death—and the roots of his own obsession with navigation—by re-creating his ancestor’s trip using only period instruments.”

Honestly I bought this book because it was $4* and the cover was pretty, but I am genuinely looking forward to reading it now! It’s about a guy who tries to find his way in the sea using only old navigation instruments, so yes, I’m on board. And it has pretty awesome old maps inside, what’s not to like?

*I found it in Chapters, Ottawa, just like Romantic Outlaws. This shop has the best deals ever, no kidding.

Mysteries of Winterthurn by Joyce Carol Oates

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Finally some fiction. Last year I read another of Joyce Carol Oates’ gothic novels, The Accursed, and I just couldn’t put it down. It was creepy and engaging and satirical in the best way. I had been trying to find the rest of her gothic novels but somehow they don’t have them anywhere in Mexico. So I ran into this one in Quebec City and of course bought it. I am a big fan of gothic literature, and this gothic revival of which Oates’ is capable of is just impressive, it has what I like best about gothic novels—style and themes— and the very necessary critiques of current events. I’m both excited and a bit scared to read this one.

 

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

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“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

This is a book I have read before, haphazardly and in different moments of my life, but I never had an actual copy of it, mainly because every time I see it in a bookshop, it’s an ugly edition. So I finally bought one that is not too shabby and not very expensive, and I can’t wait to give it my whole, undivided attention. Both Thoreau and Emerson have shaped my life in very important ways— they’re the kind of authors I go to when at a crossroads or undecisive, so I just know it will be a rewarding read.

 

Wilderness Essays by John Muir

 

Muir is an author I have been wanting to read for a long, long time now. I have come across fragments of his essays now and then and he reminds me of Thoreau and Emerson in his approach to nature and wilderness. The outdoors is a subject that interests me greatly and I love to hear different perspectives about it, about experiencing nature, about civilisation and about traveling. This comes at the right time, I think, as I have been paving the path reading other books on similar subjects by Cheryl Strayed, Bill Bryson and Edward Abbey. Human interaction with the untamed is a topic I’m ready to explore deeply in 2019, both in my reading and my life. Also, just look at this gorgeous edition.

In fact, I started the year reading a book along those lines. I am now reading and very much enjoying John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley in Search of America. I haven’t yet read any of Steinbeck’s famous novels, but WOW. This book is just amazing. I can’t help but think of Holden Caulfield saying how he wishes he could just call an author and talk to him, that’s exactly how I feel. And to be honest I really have a crush on Steinbeck. This book is a memoir as well as an in-depht analysis of the American way of life, of the American wilderness, of the search for meaning and the need of moving, of loneliness and companionship. It is a wonderful book of which I’ll be writing about soon.

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Have you read any of these?

I’d love to hear about your TBR for 2019!

 

Best Reads of 2018

Another year gone by! 2018 was a great year, both personally and professionally. Many things ended this year, and many exciting adventures started to take form. My reading lived up to expectation too, and I found myself reading “the right book at the right time” several times. I did not read as much as other years, but I read things that interested me, inspired me and challenged me, and I even revisited old favorites. So I would say it was a fantastic year for reading. Here are some highlights:

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

This was the first book I read by 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 people. However, Kathy becomes first a carer for other donors and so delays her own donations.

The setting of the book is an England in which 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.

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman

Last December I discovered Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and fell in love with it. 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 who has a canoe called La Belle Sauvage. The lives of Malcolm 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 His Dark Materials, 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.

 

Wild, Cheryl Strayed

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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.

What most interested me about 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.

Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

I really 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).

 

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë

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. The book starts with the arrival of a mysterious young widow in a small 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 is 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 I didn’t enjoy this book as much as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. 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).

Signs Preceding the End of the World, Yuri Herrera

The book narrates the odyssey of a young Mexican girl who crosses the border to the USA in search of her brother. It is an old story, but Herrera’s mythical and poetic prose make it one of the best books by a Mexican author I have read.

A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods was one of the most interesting books I have read in a while, and definitely the funniest. Bryson’s talent to turn simple and even dramatic situations into hilarious episodes is outstanding. His honesty while reflecting on nature is also admirable. Whatever Bryson passes, whether it’s a mountain, a town, a refuge, an animal, he investigates about and presents his knowledge to you in a very subtle matter. He rants about the government, hunters, the pioneers. He talks of the beginnings of the earth, the separation of Pangea, the birth of the mountains. He describes the changes in American culture, migration patterns, natural catastrophes. He tells of serial killers, obscure anecdotes of the trail, TV commercials.

And all of this, in some way or other, is part of a more profound reflection on the theme that appears again and again in the whole book: the relationship between civilization and wilderness. 

Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov

Bulgakov is a unique author. Heart of a Dog tells the story of Sharik, a stray dog taken in by a famous surgeon during the Soviet regime in Moscow. Little does Sharik know, he’s the chosen victim of an experiment to turn him into a man. A satire and wit only paralleled by The Master and Margarita, this is a crazy story full of cynicism, dark humor and a heart-breaking insight of humanity and animality. Heart of a Dog is a theatrical, wild ride with the only downside of being too short.

 

Wind, Sand and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This year I thought I would read more non-fiction. I ended up reading mostly travel books —Krakauer, Strayed, Bryson— and, by a fortunate twist of fate, revisiting a beloved author. It could seem like this book has nothing to do with The Little Prince, yet the same sense of wander and the conflicts between humans and a hostile world run through the pages of both books. Wind, Sand and Stars is a series of writings about de Saint-Exupéry’s experience as a pilot for the airmail carrier Aéropostale. He writes of the planes, the trips, of friendship and love, of death, heroism and of how it feels to be in a plane thousands of feet above the ground, all by yourself. A wonderful book.

 

The Accursed, Joyce Carol Oates

This was the creepiest thing I’ve read in a while and, also, my first Joyce Carol Oates novel and I can’t wait to read more of her books. It is a very complex story, but basically what you read is this historian’s account of what happened in Princeton at the beginning of the 20th century, when many women disappeared, were found dead, and other strange occurrences took place within the elite of the town. Woodrow Wilson, Upton Sinclair, Jack London and even Sherlock Holmes appear in this crazy book, as well as the devil himself and other creatures (vampires!). When his sister is “abducted” shortly after her wedding, it is up to Josiah Slade, whom we follow through the historian’s doubtful account, to solve the curse that ravages the town. This is a really entertaining, disturbing, scary, funny novel that touches on many social issues like racism and sexism. Also, it is an admirable work of fiction; I am amazed at Oates’ narrative talent and critical insight.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Burrows

Written as a series of letters and diary entries, the book follows the journey of the writer Juliet Ashton to Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands, to write a book about the occupation. The book is, to put it simply, an ode to literature and the many ways in which it is intertwined with life, an ode to literature as a means of survival, as a means of resilience and, most importantly, as a means of resistance.

 

Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey

This book is life changing. Edward Abbey got a job as a park ranger at Arches National Park in Utah and this book is formed by a series of essays on different topics that he wrote there, living on a van during the winter. Abbey’s reflexions on wilderness and our relation with it are as actual as his his critique of capitalism. This book is at times bitter as desperate, exasperating and sad, hopeful and exiting. Abbey is such a gifted writer, mixing narrative with his essays, conveying closeness, warning, teasing, teaching. This book is so important for the challenges we face today in regards to global warming and consumerism, and it is also a wonderful piece of prose.

I am currently reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry and finding it delightful. It’s been, overall, a very good year for reading. What were your highlight? How should I start 2019?

Bridges out of Words: Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Over the last few months I have been thinking (more than usually) about the importance of literature (perhaps because I just got my Literature degree). Many decisions I have taken over the years have been deeply influenced by books; many important friendships have been born over the talk of books and literary heroes; I have acquired my deepest convictions because I have had the chance to challenge them with a written page.

To say books have influenced my life would be an understatement; to say they have shaped me as a person would probably be more accurate. For every reader the words on the page, the characters and speeches become an important part of the self, lands never visited acquire colour and depth, the power of words to be both soothing or despairing appears appaling: books are handled with care.

There are different levels to literature. Often when one is studying literature and books become the matter of such study, come other levels. We read to learn not only the ideas written, but how they’re put together, we unravel the mysteries that glue letters and words together, we delve deeper into its matter, language. But before that there is a primal level, in which we read to live other lives than ours, to live ours deeply, to find comfort or to search for answers; to tie ourselves tighter to the world, for literature is never an escape. I would say my approach to literature has always been more primal than intellectual, that’s something I can’t help and with which I struggle every time I have to “analyse” a text.

There is also another level to literature that has to do with all the circumstances that surround a work of literature, specifically the material circumstances that surround a book. Have you even lent a book annotated by you? Have you ever read a book with someone else’s annotations? It feels almost like prying, an advance on someone’s privacy. That’s because our experience of reading is usually a personal, intimate one. It has not always been so and we could argue about its pros and cons, but for the last couple of centuries at least, literature has become a private, personal experience.

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How much of our intimacy we pour into books, both the ones we write and the ones we read, becomes easier to see under specific circumstances, like finding someone who loves your favourite novel, or seeing someone underlined the same passages of a book as you did, or gifting someone a favourite book of yours. I always think that every time I say or write something, some has said the exact samething, put down that exact same feeling and, in most cases, with more beautiful and exact words than I. A book becomes a highly personal object; and because other people can read it, it works kind of like a bridge, a bridge made out of words. A book can be the missing link on a chain, the foundation of a community, the stepstone of a relationship, simply because the language of literature, stories, are a universal matter.

To add to these reflections, last week I read Mary Anne Shaffer and Annie Burrows’ The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I bought the book for purely sentimental reasons after watching Netflix’s adaptation of it and I half expected it to be disappointing. Turns out this book is a little gem. Written as a series of letters and diary entries, the book follows the journey of the writer Juliet Ashton to Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands, to write a book about the occupation.

The incident that takes Juliet to Guernesey is one of those dear coincidences involving books: an old book of hers, Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb, finds its way to Guernesey, where Dawsey Adams, a local, buys it. On the first page Juliet had written her name and address in London, so Dawsey soon writes to her asking if she could send him another book. The past history of books is something I usually wonder about when buying second-hand books: who owned it first?, did they like it?, what do the annotations and folds mean? Shaffer and Burrows dwelve deliciously in the personal bonds we develop towards books, the physicality of reading and the wonders of book collecting:

“Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing
instinct in books that brings them to their
perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.”

There are many other themes the novel explores. Perhaps the most evident is its historic setting. The book approaches the German occupation of the Channel Islands in a way that much reminded me of Svetlana Alexievich’s Wars Unwomanly Face: it is the daily habits and routines disrupted by war, the small things that the the occupation implied, that shaped the lives of people forever. The very anecdote of Guernsey’s Literaty Club has to do with the things people did in order to feel human amidst bombing and cruelty: sharing a meal, getting together, reading.

It is the primal, intimate nature of reading protagonises the novel. The novel’s literary focus is intensified by the epistolar form: everything we know about the characters and their past is a story they have put together already, in words, inexact or imcomplete, but as a means of survival.

“That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you to another book, and another bit there  will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive – all with  no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.”

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Amongst the authors mentioned we have Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens and Charles Lamb, Rainer Maria Rilke. Many times reading The Guernsey Literary… I felk like I was talking to a friend whom I had made read one of my favourite books. The book is, to put it simply, an ode to literature and the many ways in which it is intertwined with life, an ode to literature as a means of survival, as a means of resilience and, most importantly, as a means of resistance.

“We clung to books and to our friends; they
reminded us that we had another part to us.”

8 Books to Get Into the Christmas Spirit

December is already here, which means it’s time to get cosy by the Christmas tree and grab a book. Christmas is definitely my favourite time of the year and it’s usually when I read the most; everything during this season seems to me inviting to stay inside and read: warm beverages, comfort food, blankets, cold weather, twinkle lights. So this year I chose for you some of the books that never fail to make me feel christmassy.

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8. The Trick is to Keep Breathing, Janice Galloway

“No matter how often I think I can’t stand it anymore, I always do. There is no alternative. I don’t fall, I don’t foam at the mouth, faint, collapse or die. It’s the same for all of us. You can’t get out of the inside of your own head. Something keeps you going. Something always does.”

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This is Galloway’s first novel, published in 1989. It tells the struggles of 27-year-old Joy Stone, a drama teacher who lives in Irvine, Scotland. This is a very bleak yet surprisingly hopeful book. After the death of her lover Michael, a married man, Joy struggles with her mental health and basically has a really rough time. Told with mastery in a stream-of-consciousness style, this book is both a social critique and the story of a young woman trying to find the trick for surviving pain and loss. Spoiler alert, the trick is to keep breathing.

7. The Silver Linings Playbook, Matthew Quick

“Life is not a PG feel-good movie. Real life often ends badly. Literature tries to document this reality, while showing us it is still possible for us to endure nobly.”

9781447291480_lYou’ve probably seen the movie (and if you haven’t, you should). Pat Peoples has moved back with his parents after some years at a psychiatric institution following the separation from his wife. The only thing in his mind is getting back together with her, but along the way he meets Tiffany, whose husband recently died. Now, Tiffany and Pat couldn’t be more opposite, but together they devise a plan to get Pat and his wife back together… through a dancing competition that is to take place at Christmas. This book is funny, heartbreaking and heartwarming, filled with unique, quirky and complex characters throughout.

 

6. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë

“If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger.”

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This one doesn’t even need an introduction. Ghosts, desolated moors, jinxed lovers, revenge and forgiveness—that’s the stuff of Christmas right there.

 

 

 

 

5. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Agatha Christie

“There is at Christmas time a great deal of hypocrisy, honourable hypocrisy, hypocrisy undertaken pour le bon motif, c’est entendu, but nevertheless hypocrisy!”

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Agatha Christie has a book for every season, situation and setting you can imagine. In this one, a millionaire named Simeon Lee invites his four stranged sons and their wives back home for Christmas. His intentions are, however, not christmassy at all— he just wants to tell them he’s cutting off their allowances. But before he can act, he’s murdered, and his four sons are the main suspects. Enter Hercule Poirot.

 

 

4. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

“Watch and pray, dear, never get tired of trying,
and never think it is impossible to conquer your fault.”

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Another classic that needs no introduction. Get ready to cry though.

 

 

 

 

 

3. The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman

“One moment several things are possible, the next moment only one happens, and the rest don’t exist. Except that other worlds have sprung into being, on which they did happen.”

A1gACmqyxSLThis book is just amazing. Everything Pullman has written is definitely good, but the first one of His Dark Materials trilogy is simply extraordinary. This book is set in Oxford, not our Oxford, but a similar one. Lyra Belacqua has grown up at Jordan College, being told her parents died when she was just a baby. But Lyra has seen someone trying to poison his only relative, her uncle Lord Asriel, and starts suspecting it has something to do with her. At the same time, children in Oxford have begun disappearing, including her best friend. Lyra’s curiosity and stubbornness take her on an adventure wilder than anything she could have imagined. From a boat ride with gypsies to the inhospitable regions of Svalvard, this book is simply otherworldly, both complex and engaging. One of my favourite books of all time, with lots of snow and polar bears.

 

2. The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden

“All my life,” she said, “I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.”

61quFkzBe5L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_This is a recent discovery. Set in Northern Russia, where it is winter for most of the year, it tells the story of another stubborn girl (honestly, stubborn girls make the best characters), Vasya, who is soon to be married. But these are hard times for everybody in Russia: the political situation is unstable, the winter is specially cold and famine is on its way. And Vasya is the only one who seems to know what is happening. Something is changing, ancient spirits whisper things in the depths of the woods. The wonders and terrors of fairy tales come together during the religious revolution that began to swept the Russian wilderness in the 17th century. This is a delightful read.

 

1. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.”

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Dickens at his best. Young Pip lives with his sister and her husband, a blacksmith, before being adopted by a rich spinster, Miss Havisham, who has “great expectations” for him. This turn of fate will not only alter Pip’s future, but also reveal many things about his past. As it happens with most of Dickens’ novels, every detail in the narrative comes to play a major role at the end of Great Expectations. A wonderful novel about love, rejection, good fortune, loyalty and temptation.