October reads

This past month was, surprisingly, very productive. I finished most of my final assignments for uni, ordered my room and read a lot. I enjoyed everything I read this month; there were big books, new authors, nonfiction, adventures, magic and curses.

Notes From a Small Island

Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson

“Nothing gives the English more pleasure,
in a quiet but determined sort of way,
than to do things oddly.”

This is my second Bryson. After reading  Walk in the Woods I was left wanting more of Bill Bryson’s humor and chose Notes From a Small Island because it was about England. What is interesting about this one is the contrast between the cultural expectatives Bryson had as a young American writer and the British reality. The book is filled with puns and funny jokes about britishness, but also many heartwarming observations of the British way of living and the unique quirks and habits that ended up defining author’s life. I must say I did not enjoy this book as much as A Walk in the Woods. It is certainly not as funny, but I’m amazed at Bryson’s talent to make any situation into an interesting anecdote. A funny, light read for lovers of England and teatime.

 

Heart of a Dog

Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov

“The whole horror of the situation is that
he now has a human heart, not a dog’s heart.
And about the rottenest heart in all creation!”

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. One of the most interesting readings of the year.

 

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Wind, Sand and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

“Behind all seen things lies something vaster;
everything is but a path, a portal or a window
opening on something other than iteself.”

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.

 

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The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

“The circus arrives without warning.
No announcements precede it.
It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.”

I read this book because a trusted friend recommended it to me. I am glad I did. At first I was not very convinced because I’m not very into YA, but I don’t even think it is a YA book. Basically, there’s a lot of magic, tarot cards and a circus. I think the best thing about this book are the descriptions of places: Morgenstern’s circus is like nothing I had read before and while I did not like the story or the dialogues that much, it was a very enjoyable read. I specially loved the parts written in the second person.

 

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The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros

“In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means
too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting.
It is like the number nine. A muddy color. It is the Mexican
records my father plays on Sunday mornings when he
is shaving, songs like sobbing.”

I read this book for a class, kind of. I had heard many good things about it and the author’s parents are Mexican and why the hell not. It’s been one of the cutest books I’ve read this year. This is not really a novel, it’s more a series of vignettes of what life is like in Mango street, in a mostly Chicano neighborhood in Chicago. The narrator, young Esperanza Cordero, is charming, telling of events that go from the funny to the tragic and sad in minutes. I think writing a book from the perspective of a child, as this one is at the beginning, is really hard and can have disastrous results. Cisneros, however, pulls it off and manages to deliver a strong, honest coming-of-age story that touches on complicated topics like feminism, abuse, racism and classism, but that is also heartwarming and endearing. Esperanza is one of my favorite protagonists of the year and I think this is a very relevant book right now.

 

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The Accursed, Joyce Carol Oates

“Our lives can only be interpreted in retrospect,
yet must be lived from day to day, blindly.
What folly, the human condition!”

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.

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Me while reading The Accursed

 

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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke

“There is nothing else in magic but the wild
thought of the bird as it casts itself into the void.
There is no creature upon the earth with such
potential for magic.”

I actually read this in November but I wanted to read it for Halloween, so. This book is many things: it has the wit, style and satire of a 19th century novel, it creates a kind of magic that is original and different from other fantasy novels, it has very complex characters, it is funny and challenging, it is really long but somehow doesn’t feel like it. It is as if Charles Dickens and JK Rowling had written something together, with some advice from Sir Walter Scott. This book is a delightful read.

I am currently rereading Jane Eyre because, well, no reason needed. Afterwards I’ll be reading Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (excited) and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Club (excited).

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

Spooky Reads

“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”
—Alfred Hitchcock

The days get gloomier and my load of work for uni gets heavier and heavier: time for some spooky reads. I have always enjoyed reading about ghosts, vampires, superstition, magic and curses. I think the supernatural and otherworldly has always been a strong subject in literature, coincidences and oddities have always fascinated writers, and the unexplicable is always a great presence in our lives. Perhaps that is why we read about ghosts and haunted mansions, or perhaps we just need a scare every now and then. Either way, there is no greater season for unsettling reads than fall.

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Illustration: Edward Gorey.

If we get technical, there is a difference between horror and terror. Terror is anticipating something dreadful, fearfully expecting that those slight knocks on your windowpane are not the skinny fingers of a ghost. Horror is going out to actually find a dead corpse knocking on your door; it is the shock of actually seeing something dreadful. I honestly side with Ann Radcliffe, a pioneer of the gothic novel and sickly heroines, when she said terror dwells on indetermination and therefore requires more from the reader. Gothic novels, for example, could be categorised at terror, and also the reads I am about to suggest… although I can’t guarantee that the monsters and creatures that creep in their pages won’t actually come out of under the bed. As always, read at your own risk.

The Monkey’s Paw“, W.W. Jacobs

First things first. I think this short story is one of the greatest examples of terror. Could write about what it is about, but it’s so short you should just read it right now. Let’s just say, be careful what you wish for.

 

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson

As it title lets out, this is about a haunted house. This house is supposed to have driven out its inhabitants for years and now, a scientific is determined to prove that it is not haunted by bringing a group of peculiar people who are likely to perceive anything that is amiss in the house— among them an artist, a clairvoyant, a reclusive young woman—. So is the house haunted? Strange things definitely happen, but the thing with Shirley Jackson’s writings is that you should always fear people more than you fear ghosts. Did I mention Jackson was also a witch?

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Illustration: Edward Gorey.

 

Night Shift, Stephen King

What do quitting smoking, cornfields, trucks and a laundry press have in common? Basically that, when passed through King’s imagination, they can turn out to be pretty damn scary. In the stories that compose this volume you’ll find a wide variety of subjects; from creepy children to killing machines. It is really scary at times, but also entertaining and unsettling in more than one way. From King I have also read The Shining, which scared me a lot, and Pet Sematary, which I coulnd’t even finish.

Collected Short Stories, M. R. James

When it comes to ghosts, there is no one better than M. R. James. These the old fashioned ghosts than have been shaping nightmares forever, and another perfect example of “anticipating the bang”. The settings for Jame’s stories are also phenomenal: old abbeys, boarding schools, deserted inns, foggy paths in the night. Definitely read this, start right here with Number 13.

The October Country, Ray Bradbury

This small book of short stories might be Bradbury at its best. Ghosts, circus entertainers and mummies lurk in the pages of these stories, that I would describe as creepy. What is wonderful of this book is the way that the strange and the grotesque mix with human emotions such as nostalgia and love.

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Illustration: Edward Gorey

Of course, one should never skip the classics: Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde deserve a space on any spooky shelf. If short stories are more your thing, then most of Edgar Allan Poe‘s tales will definitely creep you out, an the same goes for the weird stories of H.P. Lovecraft. Charles Dickens and E. T. A. Hoffman also wrote a considerable number of short stories that involve ghosts. There’s Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper and Daphne DuMaurier’s “Don’t Look Now”. Ans also the American Classics, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving and “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. There are also many very good anthologies, like Late Victorian Gothic Tales from Oxford University Press.

 

Happy reading…

and be careful 🎃

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Illustration: Edward Gorey.

 

P.S. Currently I am reading Joyce Carol Oates’ The Accursed, so I might be adding it to the list. Next for me is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. What are you reading? Anything you would include in this list?

Favourite Fall Reads

We all think of certain things when we think about fall. Golden, crispy leaves falling from trees, chilly nights, Halloween preparations, allspice and cinnamon, the end of the school year (finally). Most of what I associate with fall, however, comes from literature and movies. Where I am from, fall is stealthy and subtle: the rainy season comes to an end and the temperatures slowly get a bit lower each night. I first experienced an actual autumn five years ago in England. One day I looked out of my window into Asbury Close in Cambridge and saw that the pavement and the grass were almost fully covered in a coat of leaves, orange and brown, held tightly together by the morning mist. Fall is perhaps my favourite season since. In Mexico City I love it too, but in a different way. The heavy rains stop and there are clear skies by day; the nights are cold and windy, and there’s pan de muerto in every supermarket.

Most Western cultures’ celebrations during the fall are related to the equinnox, the Celtic Samhain and the christian All Hallow’s Eve —Día de Todos los Santos and Día de Muertos here, traditions coming from Spain and native Americans—. Most of these celebrations are somehow related with death and rebirth, with the links between the living and the dead, and with the harvest.

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The view from what I wish was my window. It is actually York Minster and, so they told me, you can’t live there.

It actually makes sense that we have come to associate this particular season with nostalgia: the autumn marks the end of the summer, of fruits and green leaves, and the transition to winter, what was before a season of rationing and scarcity —and really, if it wasn’t for Christmas, winters would suck—: it is the year getting old, but also getting ready to start again.

It would suffice to take a look at most literature about fall, specially poetry, to get the blues. When I think of fall I usually see myself in an English cottage, having a cup of coffee and reading a book with a blanket on my lap. There’s usually a fireplace nearby and a big alaskan malamute dozing off at my feet. Oh, and in most of these reveries I have a very thick Yorkshire accent, who knows. And really, apart from taking a stroll outside (if you’re lucky enough to live where the trees actually shed their leaves and the quality of the air is okay—no offense here, Mexico City), and having pumpkin lattes/cakes/pies/lipbalms/hand creams, getting nostalgic over a book under a cosy blanket is the best next thing. If you agree with these statements, you might like the books I’m about to suggest.

 

9780141199887Villette, Charlotte Brontë

By now it is a tradition for me to read some Charlotte Brontë during the fall. Villette is one of those books that don’t get the attention they deserve. I would go as far as to say it’s one of the best novels of the 19th century, along with Jane Eyre. Villette is the name of a small town in an unnamed country in Europe —possibly in Belgium— to which the young Lucy Snowe arrives one cold evening. Lucy, just like Jane Eyre, has nothing but an indomitable self reliance, intelligence and hope.

All her life, Lucy has been taking care of an old lady for a living and now she finds herself in a strange land, a teacher in a girl’s boarding school. Like any good 19th century novel, there’s love, mean old people, class-based obstacles and even ghosts. A blending of sadness, hope and rebellion from the perspective of one of the greatest characters in literature. This is also a somewhat nostalgic book. Similarly to Jane Eyre, Villette is the narrative of Lucy Snowe’s memories, tinted sometimes with regret and sadness. If I had to name a theme for this book, it would be courage. Think of reading about ancient châteaus where eerie occurrences take place, of lonely musings by moonlight and of turbulent nights spent on a boat during a storm. Tempting, isn’t it?

 

12948The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

This one is really a must. Get yourself a pot of coffee, some blankets and read this when you’re all by yourself. All you need to know about the plot is that there’s something wrong with the kids this governess has to take care of, but she doesn’t know what exactly it is. Might have something to do with the fact that she has never met their parents, or that they live in a secluded property in the middle of nowhere, or that the only people there apart form themselves seem to know something and act weird all the time, or that these kids are just creepy. Enough to drive anyone crazy; now add some ghost stories about the house. Is there something wrong with the kids? What was that noise? Did you just hear something rapping at your actual window while reading this book? Really, a must.

 

9780006479239The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury

Mars. A red planet with red soil and red skies— what is more suitable for fall? This book can be read as a novel or as a series of short stories. In both cases, it is about the colonization of Mars from different perspectives: that of the martians, of the spacemen, of the people who remain in Earth. Bradbury manages to introduce one of his favourites themes into space: nostalgia.

Why humans leave the Earth is not nearly as important as showing how they try to make Mars resemble it once they’re there. What would you take to a different planet, where everything from houses to feelings are different? Not always good things. As always, Bradbury manages to sneak some deep reflections on human nature into masterly crafted sci-fi.

 

never-let-me-goNever Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

This is one of my favourite reads of the year. It is also 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 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 other people. Kathy’s best friends there are Rachel and Tommy. Apart from the romantic triangle between them, Ishiguro manages to build through Kathy’s perspective a cast of very complex characters 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 which appears throughout the whole novel and accounts for the generally nostalgic tone of the book. If you were looking for a nostalgic read, this is it.

 

UnknownAtonement, Ian McEwan

Another one for nostalgia. And another one made into a movie starring Keira Knightley, yay. Atonement is a story of love, guilt and childhood. It is narrated from the perspective of Briony, a 13-year-old girl whose mistaken interpretetaion of a scene changes forever the lives of her sister and her lover. The book is divided into three parts that deal with the childhood, young age and adulthood of Briony, and explore how she comes to realise her mistakes and deal with guilt. Beautifully written, McEwan’s settings, descriptions and narrative accuracy make this a book hard to forget.

 

45791The Ballad of the Sad Café, Carson McCullers

This was an unexpected jewel. McCullers is known to be one of the most important exponents of what is known as “southern gothic”. Whether that is an accurate description of this book or not, I really loved it. Seven short stories are included in this book, of which the most striking might be the homonimous “The Ballad of the Sad Café” and “Wunderkid”.

All the stories share this simple yet daring narrator, capable of evoking characters and places that are somewhere between the strange and the endearing. McCullers’ narrative offers a peculiar balance between the internal life of her characters and their exteriors, a balance that comes together in what I identified as the theme of the book: how bizarre human emotions are. Expect some southern settings, grotesque characters and sad love stories.

 

9789877382099Rayuela, Julio Cortázar

Perhaps Cortázar’s book that most resembles a traditional novel. Rayuela —or Hopscotch in English was first published in 1963 and what is perhaps the most striking thing about it is the way in which is it structured. The novel has 155 chapters, but there’s more than one way to read it. You can read it like a traditional book, from beginning to end (and you’d end in chapter 56), or in the order suggested by the author at the beginning of the book.

The book is mainly set in Paris, where Cortázar lived most of his life, and follows the adventures and shortcomings of a group of expatriated—you’ll be reminded of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast—, especially those of Oliveira and his relationship with the whimsical and peculiar Maga. There’s a bit of everything in the book, and most of what Oliveira reflects about along its pages, wandering through the rues of Paris, is the nature of narrative, the possibilities and limits of tellings stories and the links between experience and writing. You could say Rayuela is a love story if you think all literature is really about love, a statement I certainly agree with. It is a sad love story, though.

 

snows-of-kilimanjaro-and-other-stories-9781476770208_hrThe Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories, Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway is famous for his stripped, simple way of writing. I believe this book is where he takes this to the limit. Stories like “The Killers” and “Fifty Grand” set the way for modern writing and are majestic to read to this day. Reading this book I often thought that Hemingway’s mantra, “write hard and clear about what hurts”, made a lot of sense.

Love, loss and suffering are themes you’ll find among these stories, but overall courage, courage and an honest depiction of the eternal struggle between man and nature, a central theme to Hemingway’s writing. This is a profoundly sad book because not only does it ponder over the mean and the bad in human nature, but because it also depicts the brave and flawed search for love and greatness at the heart of every human endeavour.

Bill Bryson’s Walk in the Woods

“You are aware, of course, that somewhere over the horizon there are mighty cities, busy factories, crowded freeways, but here in this part of the country, where woods drape the landscape for as far as the eye can see, the forest rules.”

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail was first published in 1997. Two things haven’t changed since then: we love nature and we’re scared out of our wits of it. Bill Bryson has written many books on a series of topics and this was my first time reading him, but definitely not my last. This book is a memoire of his hike along the Appalachian Trail, the oldest hiking trail in America, going from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.

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The Appalachian Trail

The premise: two old friends who haven’t seen each other in years decide to hike the Appalachian Trail together. However, this is just the anecdote that allows Bryson to speak on a number of topics related to the wilderness: the pioneers of hiking, global warming, the history of the Appalachian trail, bear attacks and, over all, the relationship between American culture and the wilderness. This is perhaps the topic that I spent the most time thinking about after reading A Walk in the Woods, perhaps because my own culture shares a lot of things with America’s, we have a lot in common when approaching nature.

But first things first. 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. You could think there are two kinds of people, those who can’t even stand a picnic on their perfectly mowed lawn, and those who would sleep under the stars every night if they could.

The truth, however, is that most people undulate in between. While I spend a lot of time planning trips and fantasizing with camping, bonfires at the beach and remote places, I also fantasize a lot of my bed and of a nice rug in front of a chimney in a cabin. The indoors make sense for us. We are not made to remain outdoors forever, perhaps never have. And perhaps that is why the great outdoors are so compelling and have always been for human imagination: we admire and dread the thunder andthe storm, we set out fairytales in the woods because we don’t fully understand them, just as we don’t fully understand wild animals, even when we envy their freedom and strength.

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Kindred Spirits by Asher Brown Durand

In fact, I think Bryson addresses these matters very clearly when talking about a painting by the 19th century American painter Asher Brown Durand, Kindred Spirits, which is an example of the both the awe that nature inspires in us and the romantization is has suffered:

“I can’t tell you how much I would like to step into that view. The scene is so manifestly untamed, so full of an impenetrable beyond, as to present a clearly foolhardy temptation. You would die out there for sure—shredded by a cougar or thudded with a tomahawk or just left to wander to a stumbling, confounded death. You can see that at a glance. But never mind. Already you are studying the foreground for a way down to the stream over the steep rocks and wondering if that notch ahead will get you through to the neighboring valley. Farewell, my friends. Destiny calls. Don’t wait supper.”

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My very damaged copy of A Walk in the Woods

And that is what Bryson understands. He does not romanticise nature, or forces himself to understand its ways, instead he experiences, suffers it and enjoyes it as well as he can. Along the 2,200 (he did not hike it all but he kind of did, too) we get a narrator that is hilarious when describing the nuisances of the trail, and one that is excitingly heartwarming when describing the serenity and thrill of the different landscapes. A narrator, too, who is descriptive to the right extent: 

“And so we walked. We walked up mountains and through high, forgotten hollows, along lonesome ridges with long views of more ridges, over grassy balls and down rocky, twisting, jarring descents, and through mile after endless mile of dark, deep, silent woods, on a wandering trail eighteen inches wide and marked with rectangular white blazes (two indestructible wide, six long) slapped at intervals on the gray-barked trees. Walking is what we did.”

Many things happen during this hike: there are annoying characters that are painfully funny, people getting lost, supposed bear sightings, a lot of bear attacks anticipation, hunger and cold and some hypochondriac talk about everything that could go wrong, but also some real talk about the wonders of hiking and what I think is the reason some of us like it:

“Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception. The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of few hikers know. Planetary scale is your little secret […] Life takes on a neat simplicity, too. Time ceases to have any meaning. When it is dark, you go to bed, and when it is light again you get up, and everything in between is just in between. It’s quite wonderful, really.

You have no engagements, commitments, obligations, or duties; no special ambitions and only the smallest, least complicated of wants; you exist in a tranquil tedium, serenely beyond the reach of exasperation, ‘far removed from the seats of strife’, as the early explorer and botanist William Bartra  put it. All that is required of you is a willingness to trudge.”

And trudge they do, for most of the AT. And 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. Something I found particularly interesting was the story of the little Pennsylvania town, Centralia, where an underground fire of the coal mines has been burning for decades. Bill Bryson is number one in the list of the people I would love to have dinner with.

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Centralia

 

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. When comparing the AT to some other hikes, Bryson writes:

“The footpaths we followed [in Luxembourg] spent a lot of time in the woods but also emerged at obliging intervals to take us along sunny roads and over stiles and through farm fields and hamlets […] It was wonderful, and it was wonderful because the whole charmingly diminutive package was seamlessly and effortlessly integrated.

In America, alas, beauty has become something you derive to, and nature an either/or proposition—either you ruthlessly subjugate it, as at Tocks Dam and a million other places, or you deify it, treat it as something holy and remote, a thing apart, as along the Appalachian Trail.”

Deification or destruction. While planning my weekend hike with a friend, I realized the situation in Mexico is quite the same. Either they blow up a mountain to build very fancy buildings, or you have to drive for about to hours to get there. Either they sell protected natural areas to big hotel chains, or they turn in into a National Park where you can’t really get without a guide. I don’t think there’s an outdoor area in Mexico City that has not been tamed, made into an organized park with concrete paths and artificially blue lakes. Last year when I visited a friend in Austria I was amazed to see her house was very close to a forest, an actual forest where you could get lost, imagine that. If I want to go to a forest here, I’d have to drive, find a parking lot and possibly come into an area with picnic tables and only one species of trees. Is it possible for culture to coexist with the wilderness? I believe it is. I believe we don’t have to understand it to respect it.

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The Helpless Doorknob by Edward Gorey

A Walk in the Woods is not just an account of a hike along the AT. It is a deep reflection on the human treatment of nature and a critique of western culture before the mobile phone, a critique that I believe would be more severe these days.

Anyhow, I can’t wait to read more by Bill Bryson. This book is a perfect counterpart for Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which is abou the Pacific Crest Trail. Already bought Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson.

Have you read anything by Bill Bryson?

“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!

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Bath

Great admiration for Jane Austen took me to Bath in the first place. After London, it was the first city I visited in England and my favourite until I went to Cambridge. The city keeps much of its original Roman architecture that  half shows like a partly unveiled coliseum surrounded by modern buildings, all enclosed in a Georgian aura, as if the city was the last vestige of a preindustrial England, before the coal mines, the vapour ships,  before the cinder-covered North and the foggy South that appeared in Dickens novels. Bath was founded there by the romans because of the thermal waters, and these gave origin to its actual name. Later on, during the Elizabethan epoch, Bath became once again a holiday centre and by the times in which Jane Austen lived, the last part of the 18th century and the beginnings of the 19th, people from all across the country fled to Bath because of the supposedly beneficial properties of the thermal baths.

The city was also a famous social centre and, even when it wasn’t London, it had numerous ballrooms and tea rooms, all kinds of shops and a warmer weather than the capital. For me, Bath is mercilessly humid, hot during the summer, windy and rainy the rest of the year, but undoubtedly charming. Despite what one might think and in spite of the many events in Bath related to Jane Austen (see the bottom), the portrait of the Southern city portrayed by the author in her novels seems to point out that she didn’t fancy it very much.

Austen lived in Bath from 1801 to 1806 and the city is the main setting for two of her novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, although it is also mentioned constantly throughout all her work. Being from Hertfordshire, the Austen family moved to Bath for health issues, giving the young writer the chance to depict the chic sceneries and the eclectic way of life of the city in her work.

In the Austenian imaginary, Bath was a beacon to well-off young ladies that wanted to socialize (and to young men in possession of fortunes of course, who were in want of a wife), some kind of small-scale London in which life went by between thermal baths, tea rooms, dinners and balls. It is in Bath were Anne, form Persuasion, and Catherine, from Northanger Abbey, meet their future husbands, but it is also living in Bath that leads the young heroines to make poor choices: Anne, persuaded to try and find a better match, rejects Captain Wentworth’s affection even when she loves him, and Catherine gets carried away by her new socialité friend, Isabella, which almost costs her her happiness.

Bath is portrayed in both novels, with the subtlest irony, as the embodiment of the superficiality that surrounded the well-off families of regency England, the superficiality that Austen criticizes in all her novels. The ballrooms with their music, canapes and drinks; huge chandeliers and candle-lit, hazy atmospheres; crowded streets filled with people rushing to buy ribbons and dresses; the frequent arrival of single soldiers— all of this seemed to plunge Austen’s heroines into a moral stupor from which they recovered just in time. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine arrives in Bath to stay with some better-off friends of her family and immediately becomes friends with Isabella Thorpe, a young lady who shows her the ways of the city and who also happens to incarnate all social vices.

Northanger Abbey is a critique of many things —including mansplaining— and  a fervent defense of the novel as a worthy literary genre, and as such it couldn’t have a better setting than Bath. The superficiality and mannerism considered fashionable by urban societies are a complete mystery to Catherine, who is more of a tomboy and a country girl, and her inicial enchantment transforms into disappointment. Catherine is also a somewhat quixotic figure, suffering from latent bovarism, who is obsessed with gothic novels— deemed as low literature and read mainly by women— and who begins believing she lives in a novel by Anne Radcliffe.

Austen’s intertextual game is clever, being her work a parody of the popular gothic novel in which, as in all of her novels, it is easier to detect irony by the psychology of the character than by looking for the author’s own voice. There are no negative words about Bath (that is, in the novels, but we could find some in Austen’s personal correspondence), but all the praise for the city is spoken by the most naive and superficial characters. What made Bath such an unattractive place for a woman who dedicated her work to the criticism of imperialism and the political position of women? Perhaps Bath was the equivalent of the actual touristic complexes that pollute natural reserves and whose luxuries are really paid off via exploitation. And nevertheless, it seems like Bath never experienced the decadence of such places. It would seem that the industrial age never set foot in the city and, if it were not for the expensive cars parked on every driveway, Bath could seem stuck in the regency, an almost aristocratic town still filled with tea rooms, galleries and expensive restaurants; a brick fortress traversed by the Avon river, where one feels it would be perfectly likely to see Austen herself round the corner, coming out of a ribbon shop, or peering out of a window, behind a pile of paper and ink. Bath is, I think, the perfect city to write a novel.

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What I mean when I say the time seems not to have passed here.
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Roman buildings.
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Living my best life: drinking matcha and writing in Bath.
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The city centre. Bath Abbey.
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February. Freezing and rainy yet pretty.

Jane Austen’s family live in 4 Sydney Place, although the Jane Austen Centre is now in Gay Street. There is also the Regency Tea Room, where you can have lunch or a cuppa in true Austenian style. You can check opening times and the address here.

In Bath you can also visit the Assembly Rooms, the beautiful ballrooms where Austen probably danced (Catherine and Isabella certainly did) See that here, and feel like a true Georgian heroine. Also, the Pump Rooms, where the Northanger Abbey ladies reunited for tea during the day and which belong to the Roman Baths, are a fancy place for lunch, check that out here.

Bath is also where the Jane Austen Festivaltakes place every September, when there’s also a Regency Ball and Supper in the Assembly Rooms.

Have you been to Bath?

Did you like it? Which places do you recommend? Let me know in the comments!

Were It Not For Coffee…

“Were it not for coffee one could not write, which is to say one could not live.”
—Honoré de Balzac
“Coffee gives you time to think. It’s a lot more than just a drink; it’s something happening. Not as in hip, but like an event, a place to be, but not like a location, but like somewhere within yourself.”
—Gertrude Stein

For me, it is impossible to imagine a world without coffee. It is better to believe that humanity has always counted with its help to get through everyday life, through mornings, through sleepless nights. Nevertheless, the history of the dark, hot beverage we worship today is relatively recent. The use of the coffee tree can be traced far back, to texts like the Odyssey, the Bible or the Quran. In ancient Ethiopia, coffee beans were mixed with other fruits to create a fermented beverage. In other regions of Africa, coffee was used because of its medicinal properties and later it came to the Middle East, where it was known for its stimulant effects. Time after, around the 14th century, it became popular in Rome, not without some discussion against its “demoniac” effects. As to America, coffee arrived during the Conquest and its use dispersed quickly.

The coffee plant, a slender tree with cherry-looking red fruits, does not bear much resemblance to the toasted, aromatic beans we buy in coffee shops these days. We owe this presentation of coffee to 18th century Europe, where coffee was reserved for royalty and aristocracy. The beverage we now know counts Louis XV of France and Rousseau among its first adepts, also Voltaire, who it is said used to drink around 40 cups of coffee mixed with chocolate a day.

It makes sense that a beverage capable of dispelling sleep and improving attention became more and more popular as the world entered the Industrial Age. It also became available not only for the rich, but also for the middle classes and the intellectual circles. Coffee’s popularity caused the emergence of places specialized in its preparation and distribution, cafés. Today we can find many kinds of cafés, but despite their inoffensive image, their history is related to political meetings, literary debates and revolutionary gatherings.

 

Cafés oscillate between the private and the public, between the intimate and the social. The place cafés occupy in history has been crucial for the development of philosophy, politics and literature; hundreds of artists and thinkers have met there to discuss and share ideas. Even when it is a public space, it is also intimate to the extent that many private conversations happen at the same time and voices fade in the general murmur.

Also, cafés are surrounded with an intellectual aura, they used to represent the vie bohème and, even now, poetry readings and exhibitions take place in chic cafés. The characters from Cortázar’s Rayuela, listening to jazz and wandering around Paris’ cafés, the characters from Bolaño’s Los detectives salvajes drinking cup after cup and gathering in ramshakled coffee shops in Mexico City, Franz Kafka reading his writings to his friends in a small café in Prague, are just some examples of the close relationship between artists and intellectuals, specifically writers, and cafés.

Even when cafés offer many commodities for groups, but they also have their charms for the lone visitor. Some of the most important literary works have been written in cafés. Hemingway speaks of his writing experiences in cafés in Montmartre and the Latin Quarter in Paris. Scott Fitzgerald and T. S. Eliot also wrote in cafés, J. K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter in a small café in the heart of Edinburgh, The Elephant House, McCuller’s The Ballad of the Sad Café takes place in, well, a sad café.

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Apart from encouraging writing, cafés offer a discreet window to the outside world, an opportunity of solitary observation fuelled by caffeine consumption. Cafés open up a space and time where one can just be, where one can just look around or think with the excuse of drinking a cup of coffee. The action of drinking coffee is really just that, an excuse for being late, an alibi, a justification for taking time for one’s self. To drink coffee is to postpone: postpone sleep but also defer physical activity, put off the everyday routine and privilege, instead, intellectual activity, reading, conversation, thought.

Coffee is a place and an activity. The beverage in itself, the extract from coffee beans, is also linked to intellectual life and literary work. Technically, coffee is stimulant because it contains caffeine, a chemical compound that affects the central nervous system directly. Its effect is not that different from that of cocaine, but in a minor degree: it affects behaviour, mood and the answer to external stimuli.

Even when it would be necessary to consume more than 100 cups of coffee to die from it, just a couple of them can dispel sleep and improve our attention capacity. Balzac used to drink more than 50 cups a day when he was working on La Comédie humaine, and he thanked the magic elixir for his writing abilities; he wrote day and night, just taking some naps.

The work of the sleepless writer involves the voluntary deferring of sleep to satisfy a much more urgent need: writing. No matter how relieving sleep might be, night-time seems to be the favourite moment of the day for writers. It is at least the only moment they really own, that moment in which they don’t have to work, perhaps the only time they can dedicate to their personal projects, those which the course of everyday life makes them postpone indefinitely. Night-time also offers silence and a new chance for astonishment, because thins are different in darkness, when it is certain that everybody else sleeps. But night-time could be the theme of another essay; the truth is, coffee allows one to rebel against one’s own body clock, a chance to appropriate the time that shouldn’t belong to consciousness; coffee is a tool in the exploration of night-time.

If Balzac represents sleepless, coffee-addict writers, it is important to speak of the other type of sleepless, coffee addicts, the ones that defer sleep in the pursue of another necessity: reading. Maybe they have to read, maybe they want to read, but in any case, caffeine-fueled reading is a different kind of reading. The effects of coffee, agility and even nervousness, make of it an altered reading that may have some incidence in dreams, that might result in misinterpretation or overinterpretation (the best kinds of reading).

And for the sleepless writer/reader, coffee is an ally in the mornings too. This time is also about postponing, about delaying the start of the day. The morning cup represents a brief time in which we can collect strength to take us through the day. Morning coffee is an intimate moment, a chance to really wake up, with every sense, a personal time in which we may read a book or the newspaper to find out the kind of world we woke up in that day, or simply look at the coffee cup until sleepiness is finally gone.

In the end, to drink coffee is an act of faith, a possibility to be more, to write more and to read more (activities that might be the same), a door into the world. Just like ink and paper, coffee is necessary to literary life. I’m not saying other professions don’t count on coffee, but maybe those who haven’t felt the frenzy of drinking coffee after midnight just to be able to keep reading or writing, don’t feel shivers down their spines when they think that, were it not for coffee, many masterpieces would have never been written.

Where the Wild Books Are

“Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

—Virginia Woolf

Aging and decay are characteristics that generally have a negative connotation. The first is a consequence of the passing of time; the second one, a consequence of use. People grow old, health declines, buildings deteriorate, old clothes rip, electronic appliances become obsolete. But not books. What we think of as a despicable mark in most objects, functions differently with books—more like the growth rings of a tree, maybe because there’s a genealogic relationship between them. While everything we consume tends to adjust to the principles of the new and novel, while we make efforts to obliterate the signals of time in the things we possess, books carry those marks with pride, like windows to past lives.

Unlike new books that come wrapped in plastic and are exhibited among the most varied stationary, notebooks and pencils, on shiny shelves with their brilliant barcodes—old books prefer gloom, dark and silent places among ripped pages and dust. They show their stripped backs and their washed covers discretely, expectant yet reserved, as if they knew that no encounter is fortuitous.

Old books, “second-hand” books, usually have yellowish pages. This colour comes in different shades and it is due to the decomposition of the organic and chemical substances present in paper. Their pages are also thicker— as if they fed on dust or as if they breathed and held their breath each time they’re read through. They look like thicker and bigger than those other, thinner volumes, with their white and perfectly pressed pages,  the ones we can find in regular bookshops.

Second-hand bookshops, nhave a characteristic smell, something between decay and humidity. Even when there are common smells to all books, each one has its own essence, a particular fragrance. An investigator from London University College, Cecilia Bembibre, gathered information about these smells and found more than thirty aromas, among which were wood, citrus, chocolate, body fluids and musk. Each book’s smell reveals something not just about its paper composition, but also about the use it has been given, the kind of storage it has gone through and maybe even about its most private history.

Some other marks also reveal part of this history. The most interesting are, for me, stamps, names and dates scribed on a book’s first pages, as well as underlined paragraphs and notes on the margins. It is common to find that many books on second-hand bookshops and thrift stores used to belong to a library. To mark this, it was usual to stamp ex libris on the books, a Latin phrase meaning “from among the books of”. This phrase is most commonly found on the first blank page and it is probably the mark that offers most information about a book’s precedence.

Other books have simpler marks— inscriptions on pencil or pen, in the calligraphy of the first owner, maybe her or his name, maybe a date. It is also possible to find books dedicated to someone, as a gift, or editions signed by its author. Even when much data can be inferred from these marks (if the writing is big or small, inclined, thick or thin), notes and underlining are much more revealing. From light underlining with pencil to highlighting in fluorescent ink, asterisks, brackets, notes on the margins—they are all vestiges of first reading, of an specific personal experience in other time and place.

Maybe to go through the pages of an old book and trace with our finger those parts where a pencil or a pen signalled an idea long ago, a revelation, a connexion, is a form of time travelling. With a bit of luck, books that guard other type of testimonies can be found: old papers, bookmarks, postcards, stamps, supermarket receipts. The most enigmatic experience I have had with a second-hand book happened three years ago, in Cambridge. There are several old-books stands in Old Market Square to which I used to go often. Once I found an old edition of Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. The edition was dated 1986 and had a small stamp on blue ink that read A. N. E. Harris—that is all I realised when I bought it and it took me more than one year to read it, during which the book stayed on a pile with many other books I had bought impulsively.

When I finally opened it again, I discovered a little photograph between pages 250 and 251 in which appeared two people, a young man and a young woman, both with blond hair and similar traits, maybe siblings, wearing thick jumpers, smiling and looking at a point above the camera. The photograph is a bit smaller that a Polaroid and the colour is faded. There are not other marks in the book, except for an underlined quote: “He waited day after day, saying that it was perfectly absurd to expect, yet expecting”.

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If one of those people owned the book, if one of them was A. N. E. Harris, if the picture was there by mistake and was looked for after, if it was there for a specific reason and if it had something to do with the quote underlined, are questions I still ask myself. All those questions lead me to think of the place where I found the book and of the process of selection it must have gone through, to end up between all those other books, piled on tables and inside boxes on the floor. What usually happens with that kind of bazaars is that they also place some empty boxes nearby so people who want to get rid of books can leave them there.

Second-hand bookshops work in a similar way, as refuges for books that have started to overflow their owner’s bookshelves or that have been replaced for newer editions. Sometimes bookshops look actively for them, especially those that specialize on rare editions. Whatever the reasons are for someone to get rid of a book, many of them end up in these temporary homes, organized and classified by booksellers that know every corner of their shops and their inventories, by titles and authors and themes and genres, wonderful people that end up acquiring a mysterious air and a slight smell of humidity.

Many of the biggest bookshops sell almost the same kinds of books; it is easy to go there and find something that we already knew we wanted. But in second-hand bookshops there is no way to know what we will find— it is like the labyrinth like corridors, the dust and smell confound us and take us to books we didn’t know we were looking for. These encounters, unexpected but never casual, allow is to think of reading as an experience and not just as an acquisition. Old books show us the intimacy of the act of reading. They show themselves as permeable bodies, subject to time and atmospherically conditions, bodies in which almost all marks are indelible. Of course it is possible to read on many devices, but it would be naïve to think that where we read from does not affect our experience of the text. Because if we think of a book as a container, we should think of it as a container from which we not only take, but as one in which we also leave things, sometimes accidentally.