Our Ghosts: A History Drawn by Roger Clarke

As you might have guessed by now, I am a huge fan of anything ghost-related. I love ghost stories and scary movies, I have a deep curiosity for old buildings and family histories. But I often find myself disappointed by both books and cinema on the subject. Other than the classics —M.R. James, Shirley Jackson, Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft— I no longer read ghost stories. I have instead turned to accounts of “real” hauntings and sightings of ghosts, and that is how I came to buy myself Ghosts: A Natural History by Roger Clarke.

I adored this book not only because it’s honest and well paced, but also because it succeeded in sending chills down my spine. It had been a while since I had felt that need to look behind me or that strange gut feeling while reading a book.

Clarke begins explaining his obsession with ghosts and tells us a story with which many of us are familiar, the family ghost, an eerie spot in an old house where you get the chills. He later recounts his reading on the subject and his initiation as a “ghost hunter” and the Society for Physical Research.

“In a basic sense, ghosts exist because people constantly report that they see them. This is not a book about whether ghosts exist or not. This is a book about what we see when we see a ghost, and the stories that we tell each other about them.”

As the title says, this book is better described as a natural history of ghosts though. Clarke tries to approach not ghosts but ghosts sightings across Britain as a scientist would approach any phenomenon. And doing so reveals many interesting facts about ghosts and societies: how ghosts have changed, how specters and poltergeists have appeared in ages of moral and political turmoil, even how ghosts have changed their “clothing” depending on the epoch.

To illustrate this natural history, Clarke divides the book into various famous ghost stories from different times, such as the ghost of Hinton Ampner, the Enfield Poltergeist, the spectres of the Tower of London, some renowned spiritist, and so on. Thus, the book is full of the charming mystery that surrounds old fashioned ghost stories.

Illustration by Edward Gorey

All in all, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in ghosts, believers and non-believers, or anyone interested in history, for this book is as much about ghosts as about the people that has claimed to see them and the societies that shaped these people.

I am currently reading another ghostly and ghastly tale, The Hunt for the Skinwalker, about which I’ll be writing soon. What are you guys reading?

Best Reads of 2019

February has not only arrived but almost left and yet this is my first post of 2020. 2019 was a difficult yet beautiful year. I got my degree and opened a coffee shop in my hometown, a project that began with my family’s support and has been getting bigger and bigger… so much that we now moved to a bigger space and, thanks to my boyfriend’s help, are organizing book clubs, live music nights and movie projections.

This is the reason I haven’t been reading and writing as much, but I wouldn’t dare to complain. I read just a few books last year but they were important and marked me in many different ways —this year seems to be following the same pattern, for I have read only two books and they’ve made a big impression on me—. All of this is just an excuse to post about the books I liked best in 2019. It is also some sort of reopening of my blog, for I’ll be back posting reviews and whatever I find myself musing about. Thank you for reading and for making me part of such a beautiful community as this.

Travels with Charley in Search of America, John Steinbeck

“I was born lost and I take no pleasure in being found”

Mysteries of Winterthurn, Joyce Carol Oates

East of Eden, John Steinbeck

“All great and precious things are lonely”

Shirley, Charlotte Brontë

The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith

The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton

The Secret History, Donna Tartt

Romantic Outlaws, Charlotte Gordon

A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit

H is for Hawk, Helen McDonald

A Constellation of Words: The Luminaries

About three years ago I entered a bookshop in Quebec City with the sole intention to buy a book in French. I must say I failed miserably and bought a beautiful copy of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries* instead. I did buy some books in French later, but I am ashamed to admit that my French hasn’t improved much. I remember reading the first few pages of The Luminaries and liking it, but thinking that it required more attention that I could give it at the time of the trip, and so I decided to read it back home.

As it often happens, once I got back home the book ended on my nightstand for a long time before being relocated in my room and bookshelves several times. I did not attempt to read it again until this week when I didn’t feel like reading any of the books I have recently bought ran out of reading material. I’m glad I did.

The Luminaries won the Man Booker Prize in 2013 and made Eleanor Catton the youngest author to have ever received it (she was 28). And what a novel it is! I can’t but wonder at Catton’s organisational skills, putting together such an intricately structured novel must be really hard. The book is about a series of crimes taking place in 1866 in Hokitika, New Zealand. Although seemingly disconnected, we begin to discover that these crimes and other strange events are in fact closely related. The novel is a wonderful mystery set in New Zealand’s Gold Rush, in which millionaires, bank clerks, whores and sea captains are involved.

The book begins with an assembly. Twelve men whose reputations have been compromised by the recent events—among them a disappearance, the attempted murder of a whore and the death of a hermit— gather at the local pub to share their knowledge and try to make sense of the events. There, they’re interrupted by a newcomer, Walter Moody, who seems to be himself afflicted by something. As the men start talking, the story begins to unravel.

What is striking about these stories is the manner in which they’re introduced. The book’s narrative comprises only a few dates from the 27th of January 1866 onwards. However, as the characters start telling their stories, we are taken back and forth in time, hearing different angles of every situation. Catton’s style is exquisite, combining some elements from 19th-century novels—I was reminded a bit of Anne Brontë and George Elliot— with whimsical and mysterious commentaries that resonate with the book’s astronomical theme.

The book’s grounding in astrology and astronomy makes it such a complex and interesting read. First off, every one of the 12 characters reunited at the inn is related to a different Zodiac sign. Also, each chapter is called after some astronomical phenomenon: as the novel advances, we get to link the celestial bodies’ positions with the decisions, dispositions and paths of each of the characters.

The plot of the novel is very intricate, crafted with such care that it resembles the internal mechanism of a clock: every turn of events influences a range of other events that in turn influence others. In the end, the fates of twelve strangers looking for fortunes in New Zealand’s gold turn out to be very much connected, in ways they can’t even begin to understand.

Needless to say, I was fascinated by this novel. I am still in awe at the way it is organised, but more so at how it manages to be a such a page-turner despite its complexity: it has a lot of characters, around 800 pages, various settings and the reader has to keep in mind many dates (and planets and signs, really) just to keep up. And yet there’s so much precision and beauty in its descriptions and so much intrigue in its plot that one can’t help but keep reading.

I am very happy to have read it and a bit sad that it is over. I can’t wait to read Catton’s other works. Have you read The Luminaries? What did you think of it? I am currently starting with The Secret History* by Donna Tartt, another book I have been meaning to read for a while. I am reading it for the Penguin Reading Challenge! You can join here to receive a list of books to choose from every month.

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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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‘Thou Mayest’: John Steinbeck on Free Will

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

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

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Also, I have a crush on him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Also, here are two relevant songs:

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Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Drawing by Dante Ferretti

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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Drawing by Dante Ferretti

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

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

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

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


 
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Late for Valentine’s Day: Some Awesome Love Stories

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

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

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

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

 

Persuasion, Jane Austen

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

 

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Rayuela, Julio Cortázar

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

 

The Beautiful and Damned, F. Scott Fitzgerald

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

 

A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway

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

 

Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë

No comment.

“The Lake”, Ray Bradbury

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steinbeck by Sonya Noskowiak, 1935

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

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

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

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

On the nature of traveling

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

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

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

On disposable culture

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

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

On writing about places

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

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

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

On the experience of nature

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

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

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

 

On the impossibility of really knowing the place we come from

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

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

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