What I Read: May

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

The Thorn Birds* by Colleen McCullough

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

Finding North* by George Michelsen Foy

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

Ojos de Papel Volando* by María Luisa Mendoza

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

Of Mice and Men* by John Steinbeck

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

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn* by Betty Smith

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

In a Sunburned Country* by Bill Bryson

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

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

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

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?

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?