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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We all think of certain things when we think about fall. Golden, crispy leaves falling from trees, chilly nights, Halloween preparations, allspice and cinnamon, the end of the school year (finally). Most of what I associate with fall, however, comes from literature and movies. Where I am from, fall is stealthy and subtle: the rainy season comes to an end and the temperatures slowly get a bit lower each night. I first experienced an actual autumn five years ago in England. One day I looked out of my window into Asbury Close in Cambridge and saw that the pavement and the grass were almost fully covered in a coat of leaves, orange and brown, held tightly together by the morning mist. Fall is perhaps my favourite season since. In Mexico City I love it too, but in a different way. The heavy rains stop and there are clear skies by day; the nights are cold and windy, and there’s pan de muerto in every supermarket.
Most Western cultures’ celebrations during the fall are related to the equinnox, the Celtic Samhain and the christian All Hallow’s Eve —Día de Todos los Santos and Día de Muertos here, traditions coming from Spain and native Americans—. Most of these celebrations are somehow related with death and rebirth, with the links between the living and the dead, and with the harvest.
It actually makes sense that we have come to associate this particular season with nostalgia: the autumn marks the end of the summer, of fruits and green leaves, and the transition to winter, what was before a season of rationing and scarcity —and really, if it wasn’t for Christmas, winters would suck—: it is the year getting old, but also getting ready to start again.
It would suffice to take a look at most literature about fall, specially poetry, to get the blues. When I think of fall I usually see myself in an English cottage, having a cup of coffee and reading a book with a blanket on my lap. There’s usually a fireplace nearby and a big alaskan malamute dozing off at my feet. Oh, and in most of these reveries I have a very thick Yorkshire accent, who knows. And really, apart from taking a stroll outside (if you’re lucky enough to live where the trees actually shed their leaves and thequality of the air is okay—no offense here, Mexico City), and having pumpkin lattes/cakes/pies/lipbalms/hand creams, getting nostalgic over a book under a cosy blanket is the best next thing. If you agree with these statements, you might like the books I’m about to suggest.
Villette, Charlotte Brontë
By now it is a tradition for me to read some Charlotte Brontë during the fall. Villette is one of those books that don’t get the attention they deserve. I would go as far as to say it’s one of the best novels of the 19th century, along with Jane Eyre. Villette is the name of a small town in an unnamed country in Europe —possibly in Belgium— to which the young Lucy Snowe arrives one cold evening. Lucy, just like Jane Eyre, has nothing but an indomitable self reliance, intelligence and hope.
All her life, Lucy has been taking care of an old lady for a living and now she finds herself in a strange land, a teacher in a girl’s boarding school. Like any good 19th century novel, there’s love, mean old people, class-based obstacles and even ghosts. A blending of sadness, hope and rebellion from the perspective of one of the greatest characters in literature. This is also a somewhat nostalgic book. Similarly to Jane Eyre, Villette is the narrative of Lucy Snowe’s memories, tinted sometimes with regret and sadness. If I had to name a theme for this book, it would be courage. Think of reading about ancient châteaus where eerie occurrences take place, of lonely musings by moonlight and of turbulent nights spent on a boat during a storm. Tempting, isn’t it?
The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
This one is really a must. Get yourself a pot of coffee, some blankets and read this when you’re all by yourself. All you need to know about the plot is that there’s something wrong with the kids this governess has to take care of, but she doesn’t know what exactly it is. Might have something to do with the fact that she has never met their parents, or that they live in a secluded property in the middle of nowhere, or that the only people there apart form themselves seem to know something and act weird all the time, or that these kids are just creepy. Enough to drive anyone crazy; now add some ghost stories about the house. Is there something wrong with the kids? What was that noise? Did you just hear something rapping at your actual window while reading this book? Really, a must.
The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury
Mars. A red planet with red soil and red skies— what is more suitable for fall? This book can be read as a novel or as a series of short stories. In both cases, it is about the colonization of Mars from different perspectives: that of the martians, of the spacemen, of the people who remain in Earth. Bradbury manages to introduce one of his favourites themes into space: nostalgia.
Why humans leave the Earth is not nearly as important as showing how they try to make Mars resemble it once they’re there. What would you take to a different planet, where everything from houses to feelings are different? Not always good things. As always, Bradbury manages to sneak some deep reflections on human nature into masterly crafted sci-fi.
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
This is one of my favourite reads of the year. It is also one of the most sadly beautiful novels I have ever read. Narrated from the perspective of Kathy, a girl created for the purpose of becoming a “donor”, along with many other children, for sick people. The setting of the book is an England where kids like Kathy are raised in boarding schools away from society, where they learn about their “mission” and how they’re different from other people. Kathy’s best friends there are Rachel and Tommy. Apart from the romantic triangle between them, Ishiguro manages to build through Kathy’s perspective a cast of very complex characters who, despite of being told repeatedly that they are not human, love and cling to life bravely and painfully.
Kathy herself is a very interesting character, her narrative mixing an honest recollection of the past as well as some reflections on memory and the arbitrariness of it, a topic which appears throughout the whole novel and accounts for the generally nostalgic tone of the book. If you were looking for a nostalgic read, this is it.
Atonement, Ian McEwan
Another one for nostalgia. And another one made into a movie starring Keira Knightley, yay. Atonement is a story of love, guilt and childhood. It is narrated from the perspective of Briony, a 13-year-old girl whose mistaken interpretetaion of a scene changes forever the lives of her sister and her lover. The book is divided into three parts that deal with the childhood, young age and adulthood of Briony, and explore how she comes to realise her mistakes and deal with guilt. Beautifully written, McEwan’s settings, descriptions and narrative accuracy make this a book hard to forget.
The Ballad of the Sad Café, Carson McCullers
This was an unexpected jewel. McCullers is known to be one of the most important exponents of what is known as “southern gothic”. Whether that is an accurate description of this book or not, I really loved it. Seven short stories are included in this book, of which the most striking might be the homonimous “The Ballad of the Sad Café” and “Wunderkid”.
All the stories share this simple yet daring narrator, capable of evoking characters and places that are somewhere between the strange and the endearing. McCullers’ narrative offers a peculiar balance between the internal life of her characters and their exteriors, a balance that comes together in what I identified as the theme of the book: how bizarre human emotions are. Expect some southern settings, grotesque characters and sad love stories.
Rayuela, Julio Cortázar
Perhaps Cortázar’s book that most resembles a traditional novel. Rayuela —or Hopscotch in English— was first published in 1963 and what is perhaps the most striking thing about it is the way in which is it structured. The novel has 155 chapters, but there’s more than one way to read it. You can read it like a traditional book, from beginning to end (and you’d end in chapter 56), or in the order suggested by the author at the beginning of the book.
The book is mainly set in Paris, where Cortázar lived most of his life, and follows the adventures and shortcomings of a group of expatriated—you’ll be reminded of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast—, especially those of Oliveira and his relationship with the whimsical and peculiar Maga. There’s a bit of everything in the book, and most of what Oliveira reflects about along its pages, wandering through the rues of Paris, is the nature of narrative, the possibilities and limits of tellings stories and the links between experience and writing. You could say Rayuela is a love story if you think all literature is really about love, a statement I certainly agree with. It is a sad love story, though.
The Snows of Kilimanjaroand Other Stories, Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway is famous for his stripped, simple way of writing. I believe this book is where he takes this to the limit. Stories like “The Killers” and “Fifty Grand” set the way for modern writing and are majestic to read to this day. Reading this book I often thought that Hemingway’s mantra, “write hard and clear about what hurts”, made a lot of sense.
Love, loss and suffering are themes you’ll find among these stories, but overall courage, courage and an honest depiction of the eternal struggle between man and nature, a central theme to Hemingway’s writing. This is a profoundly sad book because not only does it ponder over the mean and the bad in human nature, but because it also depicts the brave and flawed search for love and greatness at the heart of every human endeavour.
Throughout my life, and perhaps the more so because I’m a literature undergrad, I have read many kinds of books. And many of those books have changed me and shaped the ways in which I interact with the world.
Of all those ways in which books have changed me, this post is dedicated to those books that inspired me to travel, those which gave me itchy feet and to which I owe this never-ending desire to go to “faraway lands”, to get lost in big cities and found in quiet mountain tops or forgotten little towns. Some of these books just describe places in such a vivid way that I was compelled to visit them, but most are not about destinations about but journeys themselves.
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
Whitman’s poetry is hope, energy, youth. When I first read Leaves of Grass I started to understand things I had only guessed before about my place in the world. “Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you. /You must travel it by yourself. /It is not far. It is within reach. /Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know. / Perhaps it is everywhere – on water and land.”
To actually feel part of the world wherever I am, however distant it may seem, has been a big breakthrough for me: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” I used to set too much store on destinations and possessions, to think that when I had this or when I were somewhere else I would be happy, but that was not only untrue, but also an unsustainable way of living. Now I’d rather be here and think of traveling in a broader sense, I want to be here as much as possible and when I’m somewhere else I want to be there with all my heart.
Villette, Charlotte Brontë
Though not Charlotte’s most famous novel, Villette is perhaps my favourite. A young woman with no money or family who embarks to Europe in search of a better life. She arrives in a little town in Belgium only to realise that the journey is not yet over. When she’s in she ship, uncertain of where she’s going but fully embracing her own adventure, she says: “So peril, loneliness, an uncertain future, are not oppressive evils, so long as the frame is healthy and the faculties are employed; so long especially, as Liberty lends us her wings, and Hope guides us by her star.“ And this quote has accompanied me since. Somehow that’s what traveling is about for me, the excitement of adventure, the fear and uncertainty that freedom can arouse, and ultimately the hopes for better things to come, and to each travel to show us things of ourselves we didn’t know before.
Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer
This is a recent read for me (no, I haven’t watched the movie yet), and I must say I was completely appalled and excited by the adventures of Chris McCandless (aka Alexander Supertramp) that Krakauer narrates. When talking about this book I found that many people think the author glorifies the stupidity of this young man who went to live by himself in the Alaskan wilderness. I really don’t think he does. I actually think Krakauer does an amazing job in setting apart his opinions from the facts, while also rendering a complex portrait of the 22-year-old. I don’t believe Chris McCandles was a hero, but I do believe he understood what he was up to and understood too the perils of modern society. If I learned something from this book, it was about self-reliance. This book made me so much more conscious of my dependance on material things as well of the implications of everything I do (from the food I eat to the clothes I wear), and I think we could all learn a bit from both Jon Krakauer, an amazing writer and adventurer, and Chris McCandless. I also can’t wait to travel to Alaska.
If you’re interested in self-reliance, I highly recommend you read Emerson’s text of the same name. It might change your life. Also, if you’re on Goodreads, I made a list of all the books that appear in Into the Wild, most of which McCandless read. So add me here, and the list is called “Into-the-wild”.
A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway
I’m a big fan of Hemingway (my favourite novel is definitely A Farewell to Arms) and so I had to read this memoir. Apart from it being the best memoir I’ve read, it is also one of the best books about Paris ever. I love this book because it combines my two passions: literature and travel writing. Hemingway’s descriptions of Paris are astounding, he describes the parties and the itineraries he followed when living there, all the alcohol and tobacco and all the artists he met there. He also tells some funny and heartbreaking anecdotes and talks of Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and James Joyce. When I read it I had already been to Paris, but the way in which he describes the cafés in the Latin Quartier, all the gardens and the boulangeries, just made me want to go again. From this book you’ll get a ton of places to see in Paris, including Shakespeare & Co., as well as some of the most interesting reflections on what it means to be a writer and what it takes to write.
On the Road, Jack Kerouac
Of course, I had to include this one, and you’ve probably read it already. Although Kerouac might not be my favourite beatnik, this book is special. I must confess I found it poorly written and boring at some points (and I don’t think I hate any fictional character more than I hate Dean Moriarty), but there’s some raw stuff in here that is so important for me, the love of experience for the sake of experience. The book is about a road trip, perhaps The Road Trip, across North America, and Kerouac was clearly not gonna let grammar interfere in his rendering of this experience. The book has many great moments of clarity that made me jump of excitement and recognition, and I think any fellow traveler, or any young person really, will feel the same.
I’ll just leave some cool quotes here:
“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
“… the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”
The Call of the Wild, Jack London
This is one of the books mentioned in Into the Wild. It is about a house dog from California that is sold to be a sleigh dog in Alaska and how this drastic change forces him to go back to his nature. What I like about this book is that it does not idealize nature as something good, but it represents it with all its violence, as a merciless force, and yet a majestic one. This book made me think so much about our relationship to nature and it made me change the ways in which I interact with it, so if you’re a nature lover, I recommend this book.
Have you read any of these?
If so, what did you think of them? I’d love to hear from you on the comments.