When I first fell in love with books as a kid, I came to them for companionship. There was something inexpressibly comforting about finding an immortalized voice that had articulated the things I thought and felt. Seven months ago, my husband left to start training for the Army, so I’ve felt a little untethered this year, and have come to books again for that reassurance. Every page of Wild—from Strayed’s loss of her mother to the moment she reaches her final destination—was a companion, her voice so honest and direct that reading the memoir was like catching up with an old friend. Siobhan Fallon’s collection of short stories You Know When the Men Are Gone grounded me on days I felt suspended between the realities of civilian and Army life, rooting me firmly in each world when I’d been feeling like an alien in both. I know I’ll return to this book again and again, and think everyone—not just people connected to the Army—should read it too. After savoring Krakauer’s later books, I’m finally getting around to Into Thin Air, which reveals a humbler and more vulnerable Krakauer than I’d expected to find. I’d picked up Born to Run in the spring and abandoned it for the stacks of manuscripts I’m always wading through at work. But I’m elated I returned to it. Who knew a book about running could be this entertaining? I’m grateful to Christopher McDougall for taking me out of my city life and throwing me into the far reaches of Mexico’s copper canyons. He has turned out to be one hell of a traveling companion.
In Oaxaca, I kicked off the summer with two books by Los Angeles Times journalist Sam Quinones: True Tales from Another Mexico and Antonio’s Gun and Delphino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration. These were both crammed full of context and insights gleaned from Quinones’ days as a reporter in Mexico City, and read like primers on Mexican politics, culture, and migration. For anyone who has lived in Mexico the themes will be familiar, but having them elucidated with precise historical detail and episodic examples was nonetheless illuminating, like pinpointing just the right word for a nebulous concept. Quinones is a master of using one individual narrative to illustrate a whole complex set of political, cultural and social issues; he gets away with it because he’s done his research and put in his time. I found these books enormously helpful in structuring my own work. They tend to be formulaic, very much following the programmatic journalistic arc, but for me being able to diagram out that formula into narrative, research, personal insight, context, etcetera was a boon.
After those two, though, I was hungering for some prose-for-prose’s-sake. I turned to Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, which was a strange admixture of tedious and engrossing. If that does not sound possible, try reading some 50 pages describing, without any pomp, flair, or contemporary obsession with narrative arc, the styles of various mid-century bullfighters. You will be setting goals for yourself – “I can make it to page 70, I can!” – and yet when you achieve said goals you’ll want to keep going. It helps if you decide to make an afternoon of it in a Oaxacan bar with a mezcalito, Hemingway-style, which is perhaps how his work is meant to be read: in hot places, with a stiff drink and a strong sense of the absurd. For me, any resentment I felt at perhaps too much Hemingway license in endless descriptions of techniques with the muleta was redeemed by the ending, which was a rush of nostalgia after so much dry masculinity.
And then, in Glacier National Park on a Jorge-mandated day of relaxation (he defiantly carted a box of Bandit Wine down to the river and declared himself on strike from hiking), I finally read Out of Africa. And it became one of my favorite books of all time, for so many reasons I’d have to draw out in a longer post. The ethereal yet grounded quality of the writing. The sense of place. The nostalgia, the loss. When I finished it, I couldn’t bring myself to pick up another book and break the spell.
I found Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine in an antiques shop in Babb, Montana, just outside of the Many Glacier campground. After 100-some pages of reluctance and ambivalence the book hit me. I really thought I’d get through the whole thing feeling that sheen of distance that prevents a supposed gut-puncher of a book from making contact; some resistance to giving in or belief unsuspended, perhaps. But then at some point on the cabin porch at my parents’ farm I got into it, and was devastated by the end. I am a huge sucker for full, luscious prose and this book was candy in that sense.
I started my summer with Charles Mann’s 1491 as it felt like quintessential preparation reading for my trip to Peru. Mann covers vast territory in this book, both geographically and topically. From the cultivation of maize in Oaxaca to the possibility of ancient Amazonian cities, he concludes that pre-Columbian Americas contained societies much more complex and integrated than previously assumed, and I kept these historic revelations in mind as I learned about the more contemporary routes of trade as a result of Peru’s newly paved Interoceanic Highway. While traveling I carried with me the second edition of The Peru Reader, a collection that provides a diverse range of Peruvian voices and covers a broad sweep of the country’s most important historical moments. From infuriating to heart-breaking, the pieces in this reader echoed the complex picture of Peru that emerged as I traveled. Now back home, I’ve switched gears completely, and I have just a few pages left in Alaskan writer Sherry Simpson’s essay collection, The Way Winter Comes. From immersion reporting on wolf trapping culture to a meditation on moose, Simpson’s digressive essays render the northern landscape in gorgeous lyric detail. I have a lot to learn from Simpson on how to make vast connections within the limited pages of one essay and how to write a beautiful sentence.
I’ve been on a serious American West kick lately. I devoured Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, in two sittings. I read Pam Houston’s short fiction collection, Cowboys Are My Weakness, over the course of a week-long rafting trip. (Stories about tough Western women and the river guides, hunters and cowboys they love turned out to be the perfect nightcap after each day on the water.) I’ve also been working my way through Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces, a lovely meditation on life on the land in 1970s Wyoming. Way back at the beginning of the summer, I spent a little vicarious time on the east coast, too, thanks to Newjack, Ted Conover’s memoir of his year as a rookie prison guard at Sing Sing.
I read shamefully little this summer. Turns out moving to a new country when you’re nearly flat broke is time-consuming. That and I’m relegated to what I can buy at the one second-hand English bookstore or download on Kindle.
Started the summer with Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta. I was pretty excited cause it’d gotten great reviews and seemed right up my alley: rock n’ roll and aging degenerates and a deep brother-sister relationship (been missing my brother a lot). But the book didn’t really deliver for me. There were sublime moments, like when the narrator is reading news about a drunken new mother at a bar, but as a whole the book didn’t gel for me. Maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind; seems like it might be the kind of thing you need to sit down and ruminate over more.
The next book I downloaded was Junot Diaz’s Drown, which had been on the list of awhile since The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao was one of my favorite books I read before leaving the States. I’m mildly in love with the honest and complex way Diaz portrays deeply conflicted characters, as well the stunning clarity of children’s voices. Oddly, the landscapes and cultures he writes about make me homesick for the States and for the Americas, the kind of stories you only find in the Americas.
I tried to read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, cause it’s been mega praised and is another one that’s been high on my list. I actually had to stop reading this. Again, I don’t think Hanoi in the summer, on the heels of six sanity-rattling months in Cambodia, is the right frame of mind to be in when approaching this book. I have a hard time with rambling reflective writing as it is, and the fact that I could get through any of Pilgrim is testament to how truly beautiful and insightful a book it is. But I had a fundamental disagreement with the basic premise that one ought to notice more/be more aware of one’s surroundings. Static is static for a reason, the same way we repress certain memories for a reason and the same way denial has a very important survival function. To me at least, noticing is a dangerous act; you don’t have control of what comes in. So you can’t go all willy-nilly; you’ve at least got to be very careful and very mindful of what you’re doing. Maybe noticing is safe when you’re out at Tinker Creek, but in a lot of places, the shit you tune out is the shit that will drive you mad. Maybe that’s a shitty thing say. I still think it’s a lovely read and I definitely plan on giving it another go when I’m in a different place, but my guess is that Dilliard isn’t someone that’s struggled with mental illness or addiction or trauma. Which might be another shitty assumption. According to Google, Dilliard became something of a recluse during the writing of the book, locking herself in her house and subsisting off coffee and coke (didn’t clarify what kind of coke) and losing 30 pounds and letting all her houseplants die. I guess some people can go through a phase like that and let their art consume them without taking permanent departure from reality, but I’m not one of them.
The surprise jam of the summer was Call of the Wild, which I’d never read despite growing up in Oakland and working for six years at an old-timey seafood restaurant in the city’s Jack London Square. I picked it up at said local second-hand English bookstore (really a great place) for a private student I had; he had to do some summer reading and I was looking for something accessible and young adulty, and couldn’t stand the idea of having to read Siddhartha, the bookstore’s other option. So. It was really kind of refreshing to read a classic, character/plot-driven story without any funky post-post-modern narrative structure or statements on contemporary living. And it was really cool to read it with a 14-year-old Korean kid, who saw a lot of things I wouldn’t have in the text.
My summer reading experience boils down to one word: awestruck. Like Eva and everyone else I know, I read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild this summer, and even though it’s supposed to be in the mail already, I had to revise my manuscript before I did anything else, like feed my children or turn off the water running in the tub. I know I’ll cut that pap smear chapter in a day or two, but it’s my first crack at writing something Strayedian. I also read Jo Ann Beard’s collection The Boys of My Youth, which is a masterpiece in precision prose, executed with such finesse that it made me feel closer to this highly relatable (though guarded) narrator, not the low down and grovel-y feeling I usually get in the presence of a writer who wields a sentence well. Eula Biss had me asking “can she really do that?” all the way through her meditation on race, Notes from No Man’s Land, only to finish it with “¡brava, brava!” on my lips. And Deb Olin Unferth’s darkly giddy memoir Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War had me thinking I should just throw in my hand where it comes to writing about Central America. Looking ahead to fall, I’m longing to get my hands on Gregory Martin’s imminent memoir Stories for Boys. I used to be a better critic, but the longer I spend writing a book, the more breathless I am in the face of the sheer feat of everything I read.