On my bucket list for many years has been the desire to do a long walking holiday, and most recently, I’ve been curious about walking a 1,000+-year-old pilgrimage route around the Japanese island of Shikoku to 88 temples. This pilgrimage traces the same route of one of Japan’s greatest Buddhist teachers, priests, and folk heroes, Kobo Daishi, who lived in the 800s and founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism. The pilgrimage (or henro in Japanese) takes about 45-50 days to walk straight through for a distance of about 1000km (670 miles) or more if you also go to satellite temples. Pilgrimages, and this one in particular, are still incredibly normal (if not popular) in Japan although most Japanese now drive or take tour buses to complete it (all perfectly legit in Japanese terms). Continue reading
The library system I work for has a cache of noncirculating popular titles called Lucky Day books. You can’t reserve them or find them in the catalog, but if you walk into a library and see a title you want on the shelf, it’s your “lucky day” and you can check it out. I was lucky enough to snag a copy of Exit West by Moshin Hamid after my shift, so it’s jumped into my 20 books of summer reading list.
Exit West starts in an unnamed middle eastern city, where Saeed and Nadia meet and start a love affair. As the violence deepens, their relationship deepens as much by necessity as by desire. Rumors swirl in the city about magical doors that are escape routes to western cities. Nadia and Saeed pass through such a door and find themselves in Berlin, and then take another door to London. They join hundreds of others, all unnamed, from a variety of countries, forming haphazard alliances and stateless communities in these Western cities. Of course, they are refugees, immigrants, the diaspora in general, and the novel reads like a parable on current political and social upheaval. The only characters with names in the entire novel are Nadia and Saeed — the rest are the huddled masses they are swept along with.
I did not love this novel even though I usually enjoy novels about immigrants and crossing cultures. There are some beautifully written passages, and Hamid can construct paragraph-long sentences with the best of them (a la Virginia Wolf or Faulkner). But the novel left me feeling kind of empty because as Hamid writes, “for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” I guess I just found it depressing.
But I bounced from this sobering book into the high-energy fantasy land of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Set in a dystopian future where everyone is wired into a giant virtual reality net called Oasis, this is the story of one lonely, orphan teenage boy who becomes a cultural superhero when he is the first to unravel a clue in an 80s-themed virtual Easter egg hunt/game constructed by Oasis’s creator before he died. And he gets the girl.
It’s fun and smart, and I especially enjoyed all the 80s references because, even though I wasn’t into video games, such as they were back then, or fantasy role-playing games, the 80s were my teen/young adult decade — my youth. My son read this book before I did and adored it, too, but perhaps for different reasons. In his case, I know it’s because he would love to be strapped into a virtual reality world 24/7 and living out every wild fantasy. Gah!
These were books 5 & 6 in my 20 books of summer.
I am already being very flaky about how strictly I follow the rules of the 20 books of summer. I’ve added in two books not on my list (Train Dreams and Exit West). And I said I was going to read In the Wet by Nevil Shute, but I opted for his Pastoral instead.
Pastoral is romance set during WWII. At first I found the writing, especially the dialogue, stilted in that old movie way and it turned me off. But slowly I warmed to the story itself.
Both the main characters, Gervase and Peter, serve in the British military. She is a WAAF section officer and he is the highly capable captain of a bomber running raids with his devoted crew over targets on the continent. Some of the best parts of the book are the fighting episodes when Robert and his flight crew get into trouble and barely make it home. I’m not a huge war novel fan or plane buff, but I was completely engaged. Continue reading
The first train I took in my summer reading was the M Train by Patti Smith. I just listened to a podcast interview with her and learned that the M stands for “mind,” like follow your train of thought.
Unlike her earlier book, Just Kids, which traces her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, M Train is a meditation on writing and life. More than anything, I got a sense of who Patti is as a person, her day-to-day habits and routines, and how she works, crossing over genres of music, writing, photography. She is an artist in what I think of as the truest sense: she takes her thoughts and interests seriously and follows them obsessively in all her various mediums. Some of the things I learned about Patti:
- She drinks a lot of coffee. The book could have easily been called the M train with a large black to go.
- She is a creature of comfort habits. Eats and drinks the same coffee and plain toast with olive oil every day at the same place and same table, wears the same uniform of white shirts, black ‘”dungarees,” a watch cap, “bee” socks, and a black coat day in and out.
- She travels far and wide to take photographs of objects or places that people who inspire her have touched or lived in. Frida Kahlo’s bed, Virginia Woolf’s cane, Sylvia Plath’s grave (a lot of graves, actually) and so on. Sometimes she gets to touch these objects and places, too, as if there is a transmitted energy of the previous owner’s energy and genius vibrating within. Somehow, I get this. It’s why I like historic places and artifacts, imagining the feet, hands, heart, and lives lived with the object.
- She writes obsessively. And often on napkins, receipts and other scraps of paper which she stuffs into pockets.
- She wings it. A lot. Particularly speeches and performances.
- She is obsessed with detective TV shows, particularly British ones. She seems to find in them the same level of quality and inspiration that she does famous novels or poetry. She likes them enough expressly to fly to London, check herself into a hotel and watch TV for days.
- She binge reads. She describes becoming obsessed with Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, reading it over and over and over. She obsessively researched Tokyo trying to figure out where the novel was set because she wanted to go there. Then she lost her copy and forgot to go to the site when she visited Tokyo. Her behavior reminds me of how, say, churches or temples fall into ruin or sacred ceremonies are lost.
- She doesn’t open her mail for months, but replies quick-as-a-wink once she finds a letter of interest.
- She keeps cats. Possibly too many cats.
Patti’s lifestyle and her thoughts takes me back to my early twenties, when I was living the post-college ragtag artist life, traveling, writing, painting, drinking coffee by the gallon, reading French existentialist writers, hanging out in cafes–and listening to Patti Smith. I love that she’s still doing it. I’ll read anything that Patti publishes. She’s fascinating.
The other train I took was the novella Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. This book was not originally on my 20 Books of Summer list, but it is now. The book flap describes it as an “epic in miniature,” which is pretty perfect.
It’s the story of Robert Grainer in the early years of the twentieth century, which are also the final years of the changes wrought to West in the nineteenth. Robert’s small story of love and loss is intertwined with his experiences with the iconic and often stereotyped aspects of the old West: the railroad and its “Chinamen” builders, logging, raising a cabin, wildfires, wise old Indians, and so on. It feels like much more than its 119 pages.
I’d say that 1965 was a very good year for the Pulitzer prize in literature. It was awarded to Shirley Ann Grau for The Keepers of the House, a morally complex novel about racism, family, and gender set in the deep south.
Abigail Howland is the seventh generation heir to the Howland family estate in rural Alabama. Her great-great-great-great grandfather established the farm in 1815, and by the time Abigail inherits from her grandfather, William, the Howlands are deeply respected members of the state and county, not in the least because they own most of it.
William’s story is fascinating — his wife dies and he lives alone until he meets a young black woman, Margaret, who becomes his housekeeper and also bears him five children. Everybody in the town/county seem to know about his children, but as has been done for generations, they turn a blind eye to his “woods colts.” The children, who are so light-skinned they can pass for white, are sent off to boarding schools at puberty, never to return. The eldest, Robert, is the same age as William’s white granddaughter, Abigail. Continue reading
Considering all that I’ve got going on (a new job, a stream of house guests, and an ambitious overseas trip), I think I may crazy participating in Cathy at 746 Books summer read-along, the 20 Books of Summer. But I’m going to try anyway and see how I do. I may toss out some as stinkers or get distracted, but here goes:
- Heat Lightning, Helen Hull (in progress)
- A Kind of Anger, Eric Ambler
- Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
- Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
- Attachments, Rainbow Rowell
- Imperium, Robert Harris
- The Marquise of O and Other Stories, Heinrich von Kleist
- Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Kate Atkinson
- Cleopatra’s Sister, Penelope Lively
- Ready Player One, Ernest Cline
- In the Wet, Nevil Shute
- The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen
- Embers, Sandor Marai
- M Train, Patti Smith
- Citizen Vince, Jess Walters
- Real People, Alison Lurie
- Little Big Man, Thomas Burger
- Z, Theresa Ann Fowler
- Japanese Pilgrimage, Oliver Statler
- the rest of Middlemarch, George Eliot
Wish me luck!
I feel like the world is divided into those who love comic books and those who don’t much care. Other than reading a few Archie and Josie and the Pussycats comics in my girl days, I was one of those who never much cared. It kind of surprises me, because I loved (and love) drawing and art. And while I can now appreciate some of the cheesy appeal of the genre, I have always preferred immersing myself in a novel and letting the author’s word spin my own unique images of the characters and action in my mind’s eye.
Perhaps my disinterest in comic books is why it took me over ten years and three tries to finally read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. Despite a complete lack of illustrations anywhere in its 636 pages, I can picture the Escapist, Luna Moth, and other creations of the two main characters, Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay, two Jewish cousins breaking into and developing the comic book genre in the early twentieth century. Continue reading