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!

An Inbred Wanderlust: Finding North by George Michelsen Foy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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What I Read: April

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

Shirley by Charlotte Brontë

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

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

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

One Day in December by Josie Silver

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

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

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

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

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

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In defense of chick-lit

I recently finished reading One Day in December by Josie Silver. I can honestly say it was a very funny and heartwarming read — I even stayed up until 3.00 am one night cuz I just had to finish it. It is, however, not the kind of book people feel “proud” to have read, it’s the kind of book I wouldn’t have admitted to like back when I wanted to sound cultured and pedantic in college because, well, it’s chick lit.

I find that most people who use the tag “chick lit” do so dismissively, especially so in academic circles—one thing I definitely do not miss about college—. While most “chick lit” is actually terrible, the truth is that with around 1 million books being published every year, there’s bound to be terrible ones in every genre. All this to say, I really enjoy chick-lit! I love it when it’s well written and has round characters and makes you smile while reading it. Let’s not forget Jane Austen was the chick lit queen of her day (not that anyone past or present can compare to her tho). Anyway, One Day in December was a nice change amidst nonfiction and tragic reads. So, here are four chick lit titles you might need in your life:

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

What if Elizabeth Benett lived in modern London and swore like a sailor? I love the movie and can quote the dialogues entirely, and the book is just as funny. The book is written as a diary, and it’s the kind of writing that has you laughing out loud in public. Humor is the most important part of the book, and it has so many different kinds of it: obscene, circumstancial, ironic.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

This one is composed of narrative parts, letters, emails, phone receipts, etc. A family in crisis goes in a cruise to Antarctica and Bernadette, the mom, disappears. I guess you could call this book a funny thriller. Although it’s a very light read, Semple manages to convey the pressure that communities have on women by depicting the life of a well-to-do family in suburban Seattle.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Boy did I enjoy this. I think I read it in two days. Highlight of the book: Lou! Now that’s an awesome character. It saddens me to say, however, that I couldn’t even finish After You, I didn’t like it at all. (I bought Paris for One also by Jojo Moyes but haven’t got to read it, is it any good?)

One Day in December by Josie Silver

This book is actually very problematic: Laurie, 23, falls in love with a stranger at a bustop and spends a year looking for him. She finds him when her best friend, Sarah, introduces him as her boyfriend, Jack. There’s no possible good outcome for this story, but you still read it through because the characters (especially Laurie and Sarah) are well built and keep the story interesting. It’s a very funny book about friendships and missing chances.

Now I am reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, because who can resist western sagas of 800+ pages, am I right? Very exciting so far! But the complete opposite of the books in this list. Do you have any chick lit favourites? (Recommendations, please!)

The Wilderness Within: Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone

Life has been so busy lately! Work has been a bit in the way of my reading, which means I’ve been only reading a bit before bed. Anyway, I managed to finish The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah last week. I had never read anything by her before —or anything written after 1970 in a long while, for that matter—, but I really want to check The Nightingale out now.

How to best describe The Great Alone? This book is as tragic as it is hopeful. I read it because it’s about Alaska, a place that I’ve been dying to visit for two years or so. And the novel doesn’t disappoint in describing the hardships and wilderness of the Alaskan territoire. Nevertheless, the main focus of the novel is the seemingly impossible strengh and courage that people are capable of when confronted by wilderness and danger, and when motivated by love.

The plot of this novel could definitely be a thriller if it was narrated by Stephen King: an unstable father who takes his family to a remote location to “start over” and begins to slowly lose his mind. The focus of the novel is not, however, the unstable dad, but the mother and daughter who travel with him and who are extremely well-developed characters. Leni, the 13-year-old daughter, is one of the few teenagers in contemporary literature that didn’t sound fake or exasperating to me, but relatable and realistic.

Leni is dragged by her parents to a small settlement near Homer, Alaska. The many problems that her family has been going through since her dad came back from Vietnam—his alcoholism, bad temper and unemployement— seem to be maximised by the isolation, the lack of light and the hardships of the winter, a season that seems to last forever and to engulf everything in darkness in Alaska. Leni’s mother is also an unstable figure in the beginning, emotionally dependent of her husband. How the wilderness of the Alaskan landscape can break the spirits of some and make others find their own inner wilderness was, for me, the main theme of the novel. Both Leni and her mother learn to fend for themselves and each other, they come to realise their own strenght… in the most melodramatic way possible.

“Alaska isn’t about who you were when you headed this way. It’s about who you become.” 

Kristin Hannah, The Great Alone

Although Hannah’s novel dwells on many tragic themes: domestic violence, substance abuse, political extremism, death and loss, the strong and diverse portray of the female characters in the novel make a good counterpoint to the many catastrophes that occur along the plot. I would say this portray of women, strong women who struggle, adventure, live and love fiercely, is the most accomplished aspect of the novel. Another thing I enjoyed a lot—though it gave me the chills many times— was the beautiful yet never romanticised depiction of the Alaskan landscape and seasons.

However, I did not like the last part of the novel as much. The last hundred pages were just too melodramatic for me, many things happened and the style of the narrative was inconsistent at times. I think the last bits of the novel are too focused on making things happen to the characters, so a lot of “minor” tragedies allign around the main event of the ending, and it is just too much. Whatever greatness was accomplished in character developement throughout the first three quarters of the books just collapses in the last quarter. In fact, there were some bits of descriptive dialogue that seemed taken out of a soap opera.

Despite that, The Great Alone is a very enjoyable book, with its descriptions of the seventies fashion and haircuts, its wonderful rendering of Alaska and a sharp critic of right-wing extremism in the forgotten areas of the United States. It was a pleasure to come home to it every night (why is it so nice to read of cold nights and family tragedies from one’s own cosy bed?). I’m very much looking forward to read The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, and to visit Alaska… in the summer.

Have you read The Great Alone? If so, I would love to hear what you thought of it! I’m currently reading One Day in December by Josie Silver and finding it delightfully funny.

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Adventures on the Page

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

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

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

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

A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

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

Travels With Charley in Search of America, John Steinbeck

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

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

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

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

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

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

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Lives Without Principle: Thoreau and Our Complex Times

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

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

Henry David Thoreau

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

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

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

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

Henry David Thoreau, “Life Without Principle”

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Thou Mayest’: John Steinbeck on Free Will

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

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

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Also, I have a crush on him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Also, here are two relevant songs:

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Late for Valentine’s Day: Some Awesome Love Stories

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

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

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

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

 

Persuasion, Jane Austen

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

 

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Rayuela, Julio Cortázar

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

 

The Beautiful and Damned, F. Scott Fitzgerald

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

 

A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway

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

 

Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë

No comment.

“The Lake”, Ray Bradbury

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steinbeck by Sonya Noskowiak, 1935

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

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

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

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

On the nature of traveling

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

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

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

On disposable culture

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

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

On writing about places

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

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

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

On the experience of nature

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

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

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

 

On the impossibility of really knowing the place we come from

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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