Friday, July 24, 2015

Nonfiction | Tales from the Road

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My first encounter with travel writer William Least Heat-Moon was through his well-known Blue Highways, a travelogue covering the backroads of America in the late 1970s. I never knew until recently just how well-known that book actually is. I thought he was some obscure writer I had uncovered by happenstance.

What I've learned since is that Heat-Moon has been doing this kind of exploring his whole life. He's made a career out of it, actually (essentially my dream job, should this whole librarian thing not work out). The more-recently published (2013) Here, There, Elsewhere: Stories from the Road is a collection of essays he's compiled from his life on the road over the past 30+ years. They range in topic from persons to places to events to abstract ramblings, but this is Heat-Moon's life, told 2,500 words at a time.

For an author like Heat-Moon, this has got to be an ideal, dream project. It's an opportunity to share all your work in your own forum, freeing the writing of any unwanted constraints placed by editors, with the space available to reflect or share context previously unknown. Heat-Moon is not a writer for the masses; his experiences are not dumbed down for a general audience. He writes with an intricate use of language, preferring big words over small to the point that sometimes a dictionary is a necessary accompaniment to his writing. But I don't get the sense that he's thumbing through a thesaurus for words with more syllables; rather, if he doesn't just naturally use such sophisticated language, I imagine he's actually doing semi-extensive research to find the very best word to capture exactly what he means. And when language is used in such a way, it's quite powerful and quite beautiful.

Few, if any, of these essays felt arduous to finish. I did, though, find several worthy enough to highlight and share:

"A Glass of Handmade" chronicles a search for quality beer in a time when large corporations had nearly completely absorbed small American breweries. The piece is originally from the mid-1980s when Lite beer was being forced upon consumers, changing the face of the beer industry. Heat-Moon and his companion, "the Venerable Tashmoo," embarked on a quest to find microbreweries that still reflected local traditions and culture in beer brewing. This is a fascinating piece, especially considering the massive trend back towards craft beer since its original publication. [Available online here.]

"A Little Tour in Yoknapatawpha County" shares an early experience with exploration when Heat-Moon journeyed through northern Mississippi—Oxford, to be precise—to find William Faulkner. This was back in 1961, when Faulkner was still alive and living at his famed Rowan Oak. Heat-Moon's hunt for the story behind the story man inspired my own visit to Rowan Oak during a recent roadtrip through Mississippi's Delta region.

"Wandering Yosemite" highlights the conflicting nature of our most majestic public spaces—at the same time, presenting an uninhibited, untouched depiction of the great scope of our local nature while providing the familiar modern comforts to the park's visitors. Can you truly experience the unbelievable without leaving your car? A great thought-provoking piece.

"Into the Antipodes" takes Heat-Moon on an all-expenses-paid trip to New Zealand where he discovers the local culture and wildlife. He captures the vastness of diversity—in landscape, wildlife, and custom—that is remarkably housed in such a small spread of land. Having recently been to New Zealand myself, this was particularly relatable and enjoyable.

And finally, "Not Far Out of Tullahoma" is an ode to the open road, sharing the American passion for the road and how it's ingrained in our blood and our national identity. Sharing the beginning of his own love affair with exploration, Heat-Moon highlights the growing trend in American vacations—where destinations draw tourists, veering away from the journeys that inspire travelers. This is an amazing piece that demonstrates the connection between us and transportation, and how this connection has evolved to change our habits and culture.

To me, Heat-Moon represents arm-chair travel at its very best, where it's not just about taking the snapshot to capture what you've seen but to capture the entire experience—to see and do and learn and think and reflect—and determine what it means.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Nonfiction | Agonizing Over Adulthood

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In case you haven't noticed, my year has been filled with a lot of middle grade reading—fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, anything. When the next on my reading challenge list was a graphic novel, any graphic novel, it would've been easy to just pick up one of the gazillion young titles on my library shelves, but I thought this would be a good opportunity to enjoy a graphic story from a more adult voice.

The book I chose is Drinking at the Movies by Julia Wertz. She's the creator of The Fart Party, which the back of the book tells me is a cult-hit comic. Drinking at the Movies is her first full-length memoir, which chronicles the year she left her home in San Francisco and moved to New York.

There are a lot of such stories out there. Twenty-somethings move to the big city for an experience, or some kind of personal test, and it's so unlike any other experience that they, of course, document it. So there's that kind of story—first adventures/disasters/disillusions with New York City. Then there's the stories of just 20-somethings themselves—lost in life, often trying to find themselves by losing a familiar geographic sense of comfort. I guess you could consider Drinking at the Movies both of these things, but Wertz doesn't strike me as a narrator that a) takes herself too seriously, b) takes what she says too seriously, and c) ponders these experiences as big, serious life-defining moments.

In a sense, her attitude was very refreshing. In another sense, her attitude reeked of a lackadaisical "I can screw up because I'm 24, so I won't worry about my choices." Like most folks of her age and situation, Wertz drinks too much; she doesn't feel like an adult and scoffs at the idea with humor, rather than trying to evolve into it; she doesn't think of her future in a serious sort of way—it's more an immediate future worrying, not long-term thinking. It's unclear whether New York was her long-term plan or just a whim, but it was her first important step towards a more grown-up future. There are so many similar stories of people around this age doing just this, because this step outside of one's comfort zone is so developmentally significant, and can be equally as life-affirming.

Regardless of whether it's a new story or one told a thousand times before, I thought Wertz was hilarious. The structure of this book is very much short, anecdotal comics thrown together to tell a complete story. In that sense, it's a great one to read in brief spurts, though I read it basically in one sitting. She's self-critical while avoiding the self-critique that requires loads of self-reflection. Whether she's telling stories of encounters with the homeless, the days she's lost jobs, the excessive amount of junk she eats, or her drug-addicted brother's bouts in and out of rehab, Wertz writes about her life with a "HERE IT IS" attitude—and she does it with such wit that you figure she must be that great kind of sardonic storyteller in real life. Or at least that friend you can count on for a great one-liner, said under her breath, at the best moment of any situation.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Fiction | Finding Identity in a War-Torn Spain

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I recognized it too: it was Virginia's dog. "Haven't you got old, Oki!" I exclaimed. When I looked at the hills, time seemed not to have passed; when I looked at my mother or my face in the mirror, it seemed to be passing only slowly; but the message written on the dog left no room for illusions. Time was inflicting terrible damage, it was destroying life.

The Accordionist's Son by Bernardo Atxaga is my translated pick for the Read Harder Challenge. The author was born in the Basque country and continues to write in his native language. Though I am familiar with its designation as a language, I don't know much about what "Basque" actually entails, geographically, culturally, or linguistically. From what I can gather, it is a rural language unrelated to neighboring Spanish or French. It is technically defined as an ethnic group, existing as regions in a handful of countries. Politically, they seem to enjoy some level of autonomy in their home countries, though, without going into extensive research, I get the sense it's a history peppered with frequent conflict surrounding political rights and cultural identities.

Anyway, back to the book.

It's 1999, and a fifty-something-year-old Joseba is recalling the first day of school back in 1957 when his friend David, the accordionist's son, is corralled by the new teacher into playing a tune during introductions. David, though, is now dead, and his wife Mary Ann presents Joseba with a small book written by David in his native Basque language—his memoirs, published with a 3-copy print run. Once Joseba reads it, these stories and memories of their native land, he is inspired to write his own book based on David's words, rewritten and expanded. It's a project born of love and shared experience, and especially the need to bring these stories to light, freed from the constraints of a dying language.

David's memoirs begin with his adolescence in Obaba, a rural village in Spain that, in the 1960s and 1970s, felt other-wordly; it had not yet caught up with the modernization of the rest of the country and rest of the world. David had a penchant for the rural life—a life of land and animals. It conflicted with the life being forced upon him—school in the city with other local boys, accordion lessons to preserve traditions. He much prefers life with rural friends and the horses at the country house often inhabited by his uncle Juan.

This escape to the country mirrors David's escape from the conflicts of real life, of the knowledge and realism that comes with growing up. It gets harder to ignore as he gets older, and in his later adolescence, David finds himself drawn into the residual conflict from the Spanish Civil War. Their town is very near Guernica, and the death and destruction that happened there is a memory still fresh on the minds of the locals. When a friend shares some found letters that involve David's father and his dubious role in the war, David struggles with the idea that his father was, and remains, one of the bad guys, causing the loss of innocence that he so desperately longs for. Once his eyes are open to the presence of these political sides—the us vs. them, or good vs. bad—still present in his community, it's all David can see, all he can think about. This intoxication leads him to declare allies and enemies and guides his actions and decisions that ultimately define his entire young adult life.

It is an interesting concept and structure—an individual's memoir written with another person's words. We have no way of knowing the "true" David, or how much of himself Joseba inserted in David's original stories. We can only rely on the words we can see and must trust that Joseba remained true to David's original work and voice. The book's actual author, Atxaga, depends greatly on environment to define his characters—landscape, history, individual experience. Much of the growth we see in David is dependent on his interaction with others, but not just those isolated interactions—how they connect to the larger world, informing or enlightening. The plot itself goes in unexpected places, though I'm not sure I could define any expectations I had in the first place. Though it certainly has a specific historical presence, grounded in the conflict and aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, I think it's ultimately the story of what shaped this one man, the things that defined him and constructed his identity.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Speed Dating with Middle Grade: Part 7

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Title: The Night Gardener
Author: Jonathan Auxier
Genre: Fantasy, Horror
Read If You Like...: A creepy Victorian-era setting, Edgar Allen Poe, and old episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark?
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Molly and Kip are two Irish orphans that have taken up employment and residence at the creepy Windsor house in unfamiliar England. It becomes very clear that something isn't right when the strange family that lives there appears more sickly by the day, strange noises are heard from upstairs, and an unwelcome guest seems to be lurking throughout the house at night. Peppered with magic and mystery, this creepy gothic tale is both a nail-biting mystery and a harrowing lesson on the power of greed.

Title: A Snicker of Magic
Author: Natalie Lloyd
Genre: Magical Realism
Read If You Like...: Quirky small-town settings, stories sprinkled with a bit of the unbelievable (ie: Mary Poppins), and eccentric words
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Felicity Juniper Pickle (yes, that is her name) has moved nearly every year of her life, thanks to a mother with a "wandering heart," but landing in Midnight Gulch finally feels like home for the first time in quite a while. Felicity soon discovers that the once-magical Midnight Gulch has a colorful history, and, with the town's cast of eccentric characters, she sets about unlocking the mystery and bringing the magic back. This book just ooooozes saccharine sweetness that will be cloying to some and endearing to others.

Title: Saving Lucas Biggs
Author: Marisa de los Santos
Genre: Adventure
Read If You Like...: Time travel adventures, stories told through multiple perspectives, and quests for justice
Three-Sentence Thoughts: In 2014, Margaret's father is unjustly sentenced to death by one crotchety old Mr. Biggs. Blessed (or cursed?) with an inherited ability to time travel, Margaret elicits the help of her friend Charlie to embark on an adventure back to the pivotal days of Judge Biggs' youth in 1938 to prevent the chain of events that led to his eventual corruption. A strong example of storytelling, adventure, and moral dilemma, this story reminds readers that every one has a story and actions have the power to change history.

Title: Boys of Blur
Author: N.D. Wilson
Genre: Fantasy (??)
Read If You Like...: Family drama, small-town football culture, and zombie attacks (??)
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Charlie moves with his mom, step-dad, and sister to Taper, Florida, the kind of small town where the football team gets practice by chasing rabbits through the swamp as the sugarcane fields burn. It seems like a weird place, but then Charlie and his cousin Mack start to discover some dangerous secrets about the muck and the town that are nearly as old as time itself. I'm really trying to do this book some justice, but to be honest, it was really confusing and apparently based on Beowulf, which would explain my feelings because I also hated that when I read it in high school, but you can always just try it for yourself because it has a lot of serious fans on Goodreads.