October reads

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

Notes From a Small Island

Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson

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

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

 

Heart of a Dog

Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov

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

Bulgakov is a unique author. Heart of a Dog tells the story of Sharik, a stray dog taken in by a famous surgeon during the Soviet regime in Moscow. Little does Sharik know, he’s the chosen victim of an experiment to turn him into a man. A satire and wit only paralleled by The Master and Margarita, this is a crazy story full of cynicism, dark humor and a heart-breaking insight of humanity and animality. Heart of a Dog is a theatrical, wild ride with the only downside of being too short. One of the most interesting readings of the year.

 

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Wind, Sand and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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

This year I thought I would read more non-fiction. I ended up reading mostly travel books —Krakauer, Strayed, Bryson— and, by a fortunate twist of fate, revisiting a beloved author. It could seem like this book has nothing to do with The Little Prince, yet the same sense of wander and the conflicts between humans and a hostile world run through the pages of both books. Wind, Sand and Stars is a series of writings about de Saint-Exupéry’s experience as a pilot for the airmail carrier Aéropostale. He writes of the planes, the trips, of friendship and love, of death, heroism and of how it feels to be in a plane thousands of feet above the ground, all by yourself. A wonderful book.

 

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The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

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

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

 

mango street

The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros

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

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

 

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The Accursed, Joyce Carol Oates

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

This was the creepiest thing I’ve read in a while and, also, my first Joyce Carol Oates novel and I can’t wait to read more of her books. It is a very complex story, but basically what you read is this historian’s account of what happened in Princeton at the beginning of the 20th century, when many women disappeared, were found dead, and other strange occurrences took place within the elite of the town. Woodrow Wilson, Upton Sinclair, Jack London and even Sherlock Holmes appear in this crazy book, as well as the devil himself and other creatures (vampires!). When his sister is “abducted” shortly after her wedding, it is up to Josiah Slade, whom we follow through the historian’s doubtful account, to solve the curse that ravages the town. This is a really entertaining, disturbing, scary, funny novel that touches on many social issues like racism and sexism. Also, it is an admirable work of fiction; I am amazed at Oates’ narrative talent and critical insight.

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Me while reading The Accursed

 

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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke

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

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

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

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

“Wild”: the Uncharted Regions Within

“Everything but me seemed utterly certain of itself.
The sky didn’t wonder where it was.”

—Cheryl Strayed, Wild

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail was first published in 2012. Not that long ago if we consider the history of the world; an eternity, however, when I think of my personal history. Six years ago I was oblivious to all kinds of nature-related feats, let alone interested in people writing about mountains and trails and snow. I even skipped long landscape descriptions in novels. I now believe that I always took it for granted, to have mountains around, wide extensions of grassland and oaks never too far off. It was not until I experienced both solo traveling and an unexpected encounter with the merciless of the natural world that I began wanting to read about it, to listen to what others more experienced in leading a nomadic existence had to say about a lifestyle that so began to fascinate me.

And so, I came across books that spoke of travels into the unknown, of personal tests of strength and newfound purpose in being alone in nature. I went to Thoreau and Emerson and Tolstoi and I couldn’t help but wonder how possible it is to get lost today, how many regions remain uncharted, are there any lands that haven’t been trekked in on camped on? I looked then, for contemporaries that had something to say about it, and I found among them, Cheryl Strayed’s account of her 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. The answer I found was that, well, perhaps there are not any places on earth that we can’t find on Google maps; perhaps, no matter where we are, we are never too far away from civilization, but that doesn’t really matter.

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The PCT according, ironically, to Google Maps

What first interested me in Strayed’s book was the honesty with which she stated her motives in hiking the PCT. I could not help but sympathize with an unprepared, delusional, female solo traveler. I found the book sincere when describing the things that usually lead to a trip, or an expedition as wild as this: “my life is falling apart”. Such sincerity would have seemed cliché were it not for the honesty with which the author addresses this search for meaning in nature and how she shatters this expectations dropping some truths like: nature is indifferent, there’s nothing glamorous in hiking and having your toenails fall off (yes, that still haunts me), and you’ll probably be too busy worrying about surviving that you won’t have time to ponder over your life. But your life and your choices and who you are will always come out when you’re stripped from your comfort zone  and left alone with your courage. Every choice out there, whether to quit or to keep going, will be a step towards self-discovery, and the way in which this books portrays that, with humour and angst and anger, rang true to me.

Strayed tells the story of how, at 26, after her mother’s death and her divorce, she made the rash decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, underestimating both the preparation time most hikers take and the physical demands of hiking. She, however, kept to her word and hiked all the way from California to Oregon. Packing mistakes, snow, terrible heat, water scarcity, getting lost and finding creepy men along the way are only part of the obstacles Strayed came across during her journey. The other obstacles came from within and could be summed up in the word “fear”:

“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked.”

–Cheryl Strayed, Wild

An encounter with nature will always bring two kinds of battles: one against nature and one against oneself. They are both connected and it would suffice to take a look at some nature lovers like Emerson, Thoreau and Muir to understand that humanity’s struggles with nature are more than often struggles with its own self. Whoever has set out on a journey into the wild has always found some of the wilderness within. And Strayed’s account of her own experience states this encounter with her own uncharted regions of grief and joy with honesty and simplicity:

“Perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of what I’d lost or what had been taken from me, regardless of the regrettable things I’d done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.” 

—Cheryl Strayed, Wild

While reading Wild I was traveling around the Caribbean, exploring beaches and cenotes in México and national parks and islands in Colombia. It was actually a very different landscape from the one I was reading about, and yet so many things sounded relatable to me: about both the discomfort and the freedom of traveling light, about feeling lonely and wanting to be alone, about having no time to think things over yet finding nonverbal, intangible answers to half-formulated questions. Perhaps that is why this book is so dear to me.

There are several moments of clarity in Strayed’s narrative, between thrilling anecdotes, sad memories and fun chapters. And all these moments of clarity lead to the final comprehension of belonging to the world. Not in a new age, life-coaching way, but in a simple, matter-of-fact realization that our lives, however peculiar in their past or uncertain in their futures, belong in the major course of things, as do the mountains and the rivers. This book was a reminder that wild things, both within and without, are not always meant to be tamed or even understood; it is enough to let them be and be with them. 

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My own WILD experience: two-hour hike in Tayrona National Park.
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It was actually really tough.
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Ready for the PCT

Books That Inspired Me to Travel

Throughout my life, and perhaps the more so because I’m a literature undergrad, I have read many kinds of books. And many of those books have changed me and shaped the ways in which I interact with the world.

Of all those ways in which books have changed me, this post is dedicated to those books that inspired me to travel, those which gave me itchy feet and to which I owe this never-ending desire to go to “faraway lands”, to get lost in big cities and found in quiet mountain tops or forgotten little towns. Some of these books just describe places in such a vivid way that I was compelled to visit them, but most are not about destinations about but journeys themselves.


Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

Whitman’s poetry is hope, energy, youth. When I first read Leaves of Grass I started to understand things I had only guessed before about my place in the world. “Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you. /You must travel it by yourself. /It is not far. It is within reach. /Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know. / Perhaps it is everywhere – on water and land.”

To actually feel part of the world wherever I am, however distant it may seem, has been a big breakthrough for me: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” I used to set too much store on destinations and possessions, to think that when I had this or when I were somewhere else I would be happy, but that was not only untrue, but also an unsustainable way of living. Now I’d rather be here and think of traveling in a broader sense, I want to be here as much as possible and when I’m somewhere else I want to be there with all my heart.


Villette, Charlotte Brontë

Though not Charlotte’s most famous novel, Villette is perhaps my favourite. A young woman with no money or family who embarks to Europe in search of a better life. She arrives in a little town in Belgium only to realise that the journey is not yet over. When she’s in she ship, uncertain of where she’s going but fully embracing her own adventure, she says: “So peril, loneliness, an uncertain future, are not oppressive evils, so long as the frame is healthy and the faculties are employed; so long especially, as Liberty lends us her wings, and Hope guides us by her star. And this quote has accompanied me since. Somehow that’s what traveling is about for me, the excitement of adventure, the fear and uncertainty that freedom can arouse, and ultimately the hopes for better things to come, and to each travel to show us things of ourselves we didn’t know before.


Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

This is a recent read for me (no, I haven’t watched the movie yet), and I must say I was completely appalled and excited by the adventures of Chris McCandless (aka Alexander Supertramp) that Krakauer narrates. When talking about this book I found that many people think the author glorifies the stupidity of this young man who went to live by himself in the Alaskan wilderness. I really don’t think he does. I actually think Krakauer does an amazing job in setting apart his opinions from the facts, while also rendering a complex portrait of the 22-year-old. I don’t believe Chris McCandles was a hero, but I do believe he understood what he was up to and understood too the perils of modern society. If I learned something from this book, it was about self-reliance. This book made me so much more conscious of my dependance on material things as well of the implications of everything I do (from the food I eat to the clothes I wear), and I think we could all learn a bit from both Jon Krakauer, an amazing writer and adventurer, and Chris McCandless. I also can’t wait to travel to Alaska.

If you’re interested in self-reliance, I highly recommend you read Emerson’s text of the same name. It might change your life. Also, if you’re on Goodreads, I made a list of all the books that appear in Into the Wild, most of which McCandless read. So add me here, and the list is called “Into-the-wild”. 


A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

I’m a big fan of Hemingway (my favourite novel is definitely A Farewell to Arms) and so I had to read this memoir. Apart from it being the best memoir I’ve read, it is also one of the best books about Paris ever. I love this book because it combines my two passions: literature and travel writing. Hemingway’s descriptions of Paris are astounding, he describes the parties and the itineraries he followed when living there, all the alcohol and tobacco and all the artists he met there. He also tells some funny and heartbreaking anecdotes and talks of Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and James Joyce. When I read it I had already been to Paris, but the way in which he describes the cafés in the Latin Quartier, all the gardens and the boulangeries, just made me want to go again. From this book you’ll get a ton of places to see in Paris, including Shakespeare & Co., as well as some of the most interesting reflections on what it means to be a writer and what it takes to write.


On the Road, Jack Kerouac

Of course, I had to include this one, and you’ve probably read it already. Although Kerouac might not be my favourite beatnik, this book is special. I must confess I found it poorly written and boring at some points (and I don’t think I hate any fictional character more than I hate Dean Moriarty), but there’s some raw stuff in here that is so important for me, the love of experience for the sake of experience. The book is about a road trip, perhaps The Road Trip, across North America, and Kerouac was clearly not gonna let grammar interfere in his rendering of this experience. The book has many great moments of clarity that made me jump of excitement and recognition, and I think any fellow traveler, or any young person really, will feel the same.

I’ll just leave some cool quotes here:

  • “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
  • “… the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
  • “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”


The Call of the Wild, Jack London

This is one of the books mentioned in Into the Wild. It is about a house dog from California that is sold to be a sleigh dog in Alaska and how this drastic change forces him to go back to his nature. What I like about this book is that it does not idealize nature as something good, but it represents it with all its violence, as a merciless force, and yet a majestic one. This book made me think so much about our relationship to nature and it made me change the ways in which I interact with it, so if you’re a nature lover, I recommend this book.

Have you read any of these?

If so, what did you think of them? I’d love to hear from you on the comments.

Happy reading!