A Stack of Books for Three Days Up North

img_0355This is the serendipitously color-coordinated stack of books I took to read up north between Christmas and the new year. I set my sights high.

I’m not ready to round up the best books I read in all of 2016, so I guess I never will be. I know in my last post I said that I’d been writing, that I’d be here soon, that I had a web of thoughts about the past ten years and my next few years, about ways of living and where it all comes from. If I didn’t quite say all that, it’s still what I meant.

I’m still tangled up in that web, and in a web of articles left open to read later, emails to myself of things to think about. I think the only way forward is to snip my way out of the web for a few moments and write about these few books, separate from all the rest. Plus, the books accidentally match so well. I had to share.

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fullsizerenderIn keeping with my recent overarching over-ambition for words and ideas and open browser tabs outlined above, I packed 987 pages of reading for our last trip to Manistee. We drove up on a Wednesday and home again to Ann Arbor that Saturday, New Year’s Eve. So that was two full days, plus one evening. Not much time at all. Here are all the books I tried to read:

Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Hidden Wars of the American West, by Rebecca Solnit

Savage Dreams has been near the top of my reading list since Cooper gave it to me for my birthday in June, an absolutely perfect and compelling birthday present, but somehow other books kept sneaking in ahead of it. I didn’t actually get past the introduction until we were back home in Ann Arbor, where I fell asleep with it open waiting for the new year to begin, but it was the first book I packed for Manistee. (In 2017 I became devoted to it: two days later I was two hundred pages in.)

I would like to be Rebecca Solnit. She’s an excellent writer, an explorer and researcher of many different topics, an impassioned and informed citizen. This book is about the Nevada Test Site, where the U.S. government detonated nuclear bombs in the desert until the 1990s, and about Yosemite National Park, America’s idealized Garden of Eden. She writes about the history of these places, about how the very different landscapes were appreciated, devalued, exploited—about the crimes of the U.S. government against the land and against people who have made their lives there (for generations and for centuries), about wins and losses of Native Americans, peace protesters, ranchers, and environmentalists. She also writes about her personal experiences as an activist at the Test Site and a researcher at Yosemite.

I’m sure I’ll write about it more; first place on the packing list was very much deserved. But like I said, I didn’t really read this one during those not-quite-three days up north.

Queen’s Play by Dorothy Dunnett

After packing Savage Dreams, I grabbed book two in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, because vacation is really meant for reading fiction, right? Plus I’d been reading it since the train home from Ottawa (a tiny peek at Ali’s and my tiny trip can be found at #MarisaInOttawa), and I didn’t want to lose my momentum—there are a lot of details to keep track of when protecting the child Mary, Queen of Scots in the 16th-century French court. I finished Part 1 (of 4) before I let myself start on Savage Dreams.

Nowhere: Travel Stories (First Edition Print 2017) edited by Porter Fox

Cooper gave me the Nowhere print magazine for Christmas, and so I brought it with me up north. I read a few of the opening pieces, and enjoyed a wonderful photo essay from Standing Rock.

Nowhere is an online travel journal, now supplemented with an annual print edition. Cooper found it after sharing one of Porter Fox’s articles with me, a piece from Fox’s forthcoming book on the US-Canada border (right up my alley!). That article is about the author’s freighter voyage from Montreal’s port on the Saint Lawrence River, through four Great Lakes and the locks that make them passable for such large ships, all the way to Thunder Bay, Ontario, north of Minnesota. Even better was Fox’s article published in October about canoeing the wild Boundary Waters between Minnesota and Ontario, Canada. As a teenager I would have never expected to romanticize Ontario to the extent I do today, but I do: while Ontario is just across the Detroit River from our metropolitan sprawl and also holds the largest population of all Canadian provinces, by area it’s mostly northern wildlands. And it’s right there, across the rivers and lakes from us!

Porter Fox (along with his talented photographer wife) also wrote about their dreamy honeymoon through Italy for the New York Times. I still haven’t really checked out Nowhere‘s website, but I expect good things.

Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto, by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine

Somehow the smallest book gets the longest explanation.

This is the manifesto of the Dark Mountain Project, another Christmas gift from Cooper. I was wary about it, since he introduced it as something of a hopeless reaction to the knowledge that humankind has irrevocably altered the climate: that we have doomed most of the planet, and must move forward into the dangerous future without pretending we can fix it.

Without reading it, I already knew I preferred the messages of George Monbiot’s Feral, E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth. (In an oversimplified nutshell: we are not yet totally screwed, so we must protect, ideally, half the planet, reintroduce native species where they are missing, and let nature, surprisingly and impressively, rebuild the complex and much more resilient and adaptable ecosystems that can protect the planet we have so destructively exploited.) These books cultivate hope, and hope empowers action.

But I was interested in whatever weirdness it had to say, and so I packed the little thirty-page book, too, and pulled it out to read on the sunny car ride north.

The manifesto does not simply say that we are fucked, that we should run to the hills and build an isolated, self-sufficient life for when human cities flood and collapse, when mass agriculture and production burn. In fact, this manifesto doesn’t tell you anything particular to do for the planet or the environment at all. Instead, it asks us to confront our fears and communicate honestly.

It reminds us that the stories we tell ourselves as a society are central to how we live and build our world. It says that the old myths we grasp so tightly—the myth of an ever-ascending ladder of progress and the myth of civilization, which claims that humankind is separate from and master of other life on earth—are detrimental to our future. And so, the manifesto calls for new stories, what they call “Uncivilised” writing and art, which is “rooted in place, time and nature.”

They say, “We see that the world is entering an age of ecological collapse, material contraction and social and political unravelling, and we want our cultural responses to reflect this reality rather than denying it.” The Dark Mountain project says we need to have space to grieve all we may lose, be they species or ecosystems, cities or our entire way of life. Starting from a place of honesty and acceptance, we can start to see a different path.

I haven’t read the many volumes of “Uncivilised” writing the Dark Mountain Project has published, nor have I had a chance to read their blog, so I don’t know the broader work. I’ve read the manifesto a few times, now, and I will say that it is thought-provoking, and eloquent, and I don’t entirely disagree. I realize now that many of the books I’ve sought over the past few years are similar to what they call for: writing rooted in place, authors honing in on the fabric of their surroundings (see above: Savage Dreams). So I’m super interested in what it is that they’ve published.

The manifesto is posted on their website, so if you’re interested, there’s nothing stopping you! Plus the New York Times Magazine interviewed one of the founders, which is pretty interesting.

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Inspiration

These are my favorite parts of an essay I loved by Jhumpa Lahiri called “Trading Stories,” in The New Yorker:

I wanted to be anonymous and ordinary, to look like other people, to behave as others did. To anticipate an alternate future, having sprung from a different past. This had been the lure of acting—the comfort of erasing my identity and adopting another. How could I want to be a writer, to articulate what was within me, when I did not wish to be myself?

It was not in my nature to be an assertive person. I was used to looking to others for guidance, for influence, sometimes for the most basic cues of life. And yet writing stories is one of the most assertive things a person can do. Fiction is an act of willfulness, a deliberate effort to reconceive, to rearrange, to reconstitute nothing short of reality itself. Even among the most reluctant and doubtful of writers, this willfulness must emerge. Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, “Listen to me.”

This was where I faltered. I preferred to listen rather than speak, to see instead of be seen. I was afraid of listening to myself, and of looking at my life.

[…]

I set out to do as he had done, and to pursue a career that would provide me with a similar stability and security. But at the last minute I stepped away, because I wanted to be a writer instead. Stepping away was what was essential, and what was also fraught. Even after I received the Pulitzer Prize, my father reminded me that writing stories was not something to count on, and that I must always be prepared to earn my living in some other way. I listen to him, and at the same time I have learned not to listen, to wander to the edge of the precipice and to leap. And so, though a writer’s job is to look and listen, in order to become a writer I had to be deaf and blind.

I, too, falter. I, too, dream of stepping away. I’d also like to be seen, if I could figure out what it was I wanted to show.

I’ve had a lot of thoughts flying around since the world I had prepared myself for disappeared in the early morning of November 9th. But I didn’t have it in me to continue with NaBloPoMo, a blog post for every day of November, so I didn’t.

Instead, I’ve read and learned a lot, written and collected many thoughts—on top of the stash I’d already accumulated in the busy weeks before the presidential election. I have a mountain of sentences about my personal story of the past decade, about how I want to live my life, about making a positive difference in this world.

A mountain, a sea, a vast terrain to dig through.

I’ll find my way to sharing soon, but until then, I wanted to say hello. It’s still hard to say, “Listen to me,” but I’m still here.

It’s Hard to Be Human: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet

ferrante books in a row
The books are My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child. They’re written by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, and everyone should read them. (I don’t have book one to photograph because I loaned it to my parents, who are not heeding my advice.)

I always feel sad when an engaging book shuts its world to me. No matter whether the ending is happy, sad, or bittersweet, when a book whose characters I deeply love ends, it feels at first like a gaping loss from my life.

I finished reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels in January, and I still feel the loss. But I haven’t known how to reply to the series. When I reached the end of the fourth book, The Story of the Lost Child, I felt so sad and empty. The inhabitants of its pages had transformed into ghosts.

I almost wanted to pick up My Brilliant Friend, the first book, and start over again—maybe then I could figure out what I was searching for. I could take notes, snap a photo of every passage that made me smile or caused a pang in my heart. Reread and really savor the words of the narrator, Elena Greco, known as Lenù to her friends and family. I think the language of the novels must be good, but I could barely remember it when I surfaced from the passionate story, besides the constant labeling of whether someone is speaking in pure Italian or in the dialect of the main characters’ scary and gray Naples neighborhood.

The image I constructed of the neighborhood is hard to shake: the roads and the buildings are dark and crumbling, and so are many of the people who live there. The sun must shine and the clouds must part sometimes to reveal a smiling blue sky (it’s southern Italy, after all!), but I don’t imagine it like that. Lenù meets Lila—Raffaela or Lina Cerullo to everyone else—when they are little girls, growing up in the same apartment building in post-World War II Naples. Post-war, post-apocalypse, it could be either. These two intelligent friends unite over their love of learning; Lenù hopes that attaching herself to the amazing Lila will propel her along with Lila out of this world they were born into, which is peopled by villains, punctuated with murders, hostile to female independence. It starts out something like a fairy tale, but by the end of the first book the villains are no longer so clear, and the path out seems closed to Lila.

The series’ ending is revealed at its beginning, in the first pages of the first book, so I’m not giving anything away when I say that the person who matters most to Lenù, her brilliant friend Lila, disappears. Lenù sits down to write out their story, every last detail, in hopes of bringing her back.

The plot of the story is compelling, of course. You want to know how these little girls end up as older women, in different cities, one faced with the other’s disappearance. I found myself strongly committed to Lenú’s ascendence from the neighborhood to institutions of higher learning, from southern to northern Italy, and to an apartment overlooking the sea where she can pursue her high-profile writing career, and I was deeply dismayed by what lay in store for her friend on the other side of the looking glass. Lila is at least equally as talented—Lenú is always worried and always hoping that her friend will leap back onto the writing path and show her up—but, dealt a different hand, Lila willfully refuses to fight for anything she’d originally wanted. Instead, she changes her goals, perspective, and her public persona whenever she needs to.

Beyond the two protagonists, I found it fascinating to see how the web of characters in the neighborhood persists, how it continues to tangle ever tighter. The story takes place over many decades, through corrupt and violent times, social and political unrest. You see Italy through many lenses: those of the downtrodden workers, the professors, the students in revolt, the fascists who still hold power on the streets, the ancient families of letters and their activist, even terrorist, children.

More than the twists and turns of the plot, which some readers complain resembles a soap opera, I am in awe of how Ferrante portrays her characters, and the unflinching insight she provides into how they process the world and react to others. Lenù can be a brutal narrator. She makes harsh judgments about her friends and family, but also shares her own weakest moments. I don’t trust that she’s always being honest with the reader or herself, even when she thinks she’s telling the truth, and I don’t always like Lenù. But I do understand the strategies she employs to try to stay on track, stay afloat. She really does want to help her friends, although many of life’s problems are beyond any individual’s control. The books are a testament to the power of women, and to the depth of friendship, and I love that.

I also love these books because they scare me. Ferrante writes about the things that matter: friendship and creativity and fulfillment, poverty and misogyny and the deep injustices so many people face. Reading the books, especially the last two, riled me up. These are two strong, intelligent women working extremely hard to achieve their personal goals, but so many factors stand in opposition. They have no idea how to build healthy, open relationships; they don’t have a model of a loving, nurturing family or marriage. Lila and Lenù love each other more than they love anyone else, but they’re not very good at that, even.

Ferrante is willing to expose the protagonists’ most harmful faults, the dark side of motherhood, places of despair. We understand how useless a father can be, and yet see how the men are repeatedly viewed more positively than their female counterparts. The series is a great depiction of how hard it is to be a human. We are always changing, always navigating new challenges, and don’t really reach a miracle moment where we’ve achieved all we wish for. The way we make decisions can be impassioned, illogical, spiteful; sometimes we don’t make any decisions at all and then wish we had. We do things in fits and starts, desperate for a clean break and yet stuttering along.

No one taught these women how to have balanced relationships that satisfy them. The fact that they dare to want more than a husband who can provide a comfortable home and healthy children is outrageous at the time they are growing up, and so bravo to them, every time that they fight for something more, for a romantic spark or intellectual outlet. Their generation of women is trying to figure it out, to forge new ways of womanhood and personhood. But I look at these lives, fictional in name if not in content, and I get angry.

I know it’s impossible, but I want someone to have told them that marriage isn’t something to be resigned to. That your partner needs to respect your work and you need to respect his so you can buoy each other up, instead of shut each other out and try to do what you need to on your own in stolen moments.  

Reading Ferrante’s engrossing, inspiring, and sometimes heartbreaking novels reminds me to be grateful for the life I lead. I’m privileged to live a life mostly of my own design, surrounded by supportive friends, family, and partner. But still, I know that many people in this country don’t feel safe and are not leading the lives that they would choose. I know that depression and isolation and injustice are visited upon people out of the blue, or all the time, with no regard for their promise, their innocence, the simple fact that they are also human. Reading these books makes me want to yell and cry and change the world.

P.S. There are lots of great reviews out there, which talk about relationships and motherhood and everything else about the books better than I do, but Judith Thurman’s snippet from The New Yorker‘s “The Books We Loved in 2015” is my favorite. Nothing shows book love better than addiction:

ferrante

A Privilege to Live in These Woods

I have met Pine Barrens people who have, at one time or another, moved to other parts of the country. Most of them tried other lives for a while, only to return unreluctantly to the pines. One of them explained to me, “It’s a privilege to live in these woods.”

I love that sentiment: “It’s a privilege to live in these woods.” The quotation comes from The Pine Barrens, a slim volume by John McPhee that explores the New Jersey locale of the same name. The Pine Barrens is a large expanse of forest growing in sandy soil, sparsely populated and fairly isolated, which persists, improbably, in the midst of the vast metropolis of the East Coast. People from outside the Pine Barrens, accustomed to modern conveniences and a more urban lifestyle, may find it hard to imagine that the people of the pines—those whom some derisively call “pineys”—feel content and even grateful to live in what seems like a backwards society in the middle of nowhere. But McPhee meets many residents of the pines who would rather live there than anywhere else, and it’s not that none of them have tried. They recognize the benefits of living in their small communities, surrounded by the bounty of the forest and happy with the liberty and harmony afforded by this unusual way of life. They consider it a worthwhile tradeoff Continue reading “A Privilege to Live in These Woods”

North with a Capital N

What I most enjoyed when I read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s twopart travelogue in the New York Times Magazine was that he traveled predominantly by land, crossing parts of North America less often emphasized, and, for him, hitherto unknown. It got me thinking about wilderness again and fed into my growing excitement for the trip Cooper and I were planning to the far reaches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula at the end of last summer. Knausgaard ends up traversing Michigan and Wisconsin to get to Minnesota and North Dakota, strongholds of Norwegian-American history, while the segment he most anticipates—New England to Pennsylvania—has to be cancelled due to an absurd delay at the start of the trip. I was surprised to learn that this Norwegian has such strong visions of Maine and Vermont, in contrast to his experience driving through Northern Michigan: “an America I hadn’t known existed, that I had never seen in pictures or heard anyone mention.”

His expedition begins on the coast of Newfoundland in early January, not the time of year you’d necessarily pick to visit upper North America. He visits the archaeological site of L’Anse aux Meadows, where the Vikings landed and settled in what they named Vinland, where they stayed several years and then left. Their marks on the land were buried, allowing Europeans to repeat their discovery of America hundreds of years later.

Knausgaard stands on the plain in the late afternoon and sees “the vast expanse of ice, the dark blue ocean beyond, beneath the pale blue sky, the islands in the distance, sheer cliffs rearing up from the water.” Everything still, silent. “A thousand years is no time at all […] I had no difficulty imagining a Viking ship approaching land.” He looks up at the skies in Newfoundland and all over the Midwest and sees glittering stars; he pulls over on the side of the highway to stare up at them. He rides through the north woods of the Great Lakes states for two days before the trees give way to endless prairies.

I want to do that, too. A great American road trip to experience the full breadth of the continent, except there are too many places to visit all in one go. There are the two coasts, mountains in the east and in the west, valleys and canyons and forests and farms. Continue reading “North with a Capital N”