Literary Discovery: Walking by Henry David Thoreau

In honor of city-dwellers and readers everywhere, pining for a day of freedom and fresh air:

walden pond
Walden Pond, where Thoreau lived for two years

Walking by Henry David Thoreau

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil,—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and the school-committee, and every one of you will take care of that.

[…]

In literature it is only the wild that attracts us. Dullness is but another name for tameness. It is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in Hamlet and the Iliad, in all the scriptures and mythologies, not learned in the schools, that delights us. As the wild duck is more swift and beautiful than the tame, so is the wild—the mallard—thought, which ’mid falling dews wings its way above the fens. A truly good book is something as natural, and as unexpectedly and unaccountably fair and perfect, as a wild flower discovered on the prairies of the West or in the jungles of the East. Genius is a light which makes the darkness visible, like the lightning’s flash, which perchance shatters the temple of knowledge itself,—and not a taper lighted at the hearthstone of the race, which pales before the light of common day.

6 Books I Read this Summer

Summertime

Every spring, I eagerly anticipate the coming summer, lazy days swinging in a hammock reading book after book. Maybe there’s cute little cat roaming around the backyard while I turn the pages and sip a cool, fizzy beverage. The problem is that I don’t have a hammock, backyard or a cat.

Even without the hammock, I’ve managed to spend some extra time reading this summer, indulging in other lives, characters and experiences. Here are the highlights:

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Wow. Seriously, wow. In her latest novel, Adichie rips open a subject that few writers manage to address with such straightforward honesty and tender humanity: race in America. The novel’s backbone is a blog written by the main character, Ifemelu, about her experience as a Nigerian immigrant in America. “Dear Non-American Black,” she writes, “when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.” Given the subject matter, the book could easily have been heavy and depressing, yet it is ultimately vibrant and lively. Adichie is a master of nuance, of voice, of gathering the small details that turn a story into a powerful experience. Her writing is so crisp and clean that you tumble into the story and forget that you’re even reading a book. Ifemelu is such a wholly realized character, and her extraordinary self-awareness brings the reader along through her pains and triumphs. Writing for the New York Times about the book, Mike Peed observes the one thing that makes this book so incredible: “It never feels false.”

The Redbreast by Jo Nesbø (translated by Don Bartlett)
I’ve been meaning to read something by Jo Nesbø for a while, though in retrospect, I should have started with the first book in the series. The Redbreast is Nesbø’s third book starring Norwegian detective Harry Hole. Just as you’d expect from a good crime thriller, there is an excellent race to prevent a terrible crime at the end of the book, and the criminals are smart enough to give Hole a run for his money. What sets this book apart from other thrillers and (in my opinion) makes it better, is the story’s ties to history. The narrative shifts constantly between the present and the Eastern Front during WWII, giving this book another level of intrigue. I’ll definitely read more Henry Hole books.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Around the time this book was published, a number of news articles and television shows documented new economic prosperity and increasing waves of crime taking place on Native American reservations, mostly in North Dakota and Montana, because of oil drilling and fracking. Though The Round House has nothing to do with oil drilling, the recent news inspired me to pick up this book (winner of the National Book Award), which is set on a reservation. It’s part coming-of-age story, part crime novel, part family saga. Sara Nelson, writing for Amazon, describes this book as “the Native American To Kill a Mockingbird.” Through Erdrich’s uncluttered writing, this book gives you a glimpse into how American history continues to play out on Native American reservations. I loved this book!

April Morning by Howard Fast
In a recent conversation with my step-father, he told me he read this book over and over again as a kid, that it captured his adolescent imagination. Somehow, I made it through middle school without being assigned to read this book, so I decided to give it a try. This is a coming-of-age story set during the Battle of Lexington at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. I can certainly see why this short book would be perfect for boys (though not so much for girls — they all have to stay at home during the action). I’m glad I read it, but I’m now in search of a book that goes deeper into the time period and the characters. Perhaps 1776 by David McCullough?

The Rising Tide by Jeff Shaara
Speaking of books that really dive into history, anything by Jeff Shaara is a winner if you are at all interested in American military history. Shaara’s books read like novels, but the main characters are real people and the events actually took place. The Rising Tide is the first of a four-book series about America’s involvement in WWII. Here, untested American forces face Erwin Rommel in North Africa and build an Allied force with British troops already fighting there. It’s the way that Shaara fills in the story with dialogue and accurate period details that bring these historical events to life. His books will give you an understanding of history that is hard to glean from textbooks.

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
John Irving is one of my favorite authors, and it was high time that I read Owen Meany. Everything that little Owen Meany says in the book is written out in all capital letters, a constant reminder of just how important his high-pitched voice is to the story. You also have a sense of foreboding in these all-cap sentences. But of course, Irving is a master of foreshadowing. Even though he almost always begins his books by telling you how the story ends, you never really know what’s going to happen, only that something big will happen to take the story from where it starts to where you already know it ends.

The book ebbs and flows around religion — Biblical stories and quotes, Christian denominations, nuances in dogma — and some of that must have been lost on me, given my limited religious background. However, there is no denying Irving’s mastery of plot, character, and the written word.

And one book I tried to read:
Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel
I really tried to get through this book. Everyone — including the Man Booker Prize jury — declared Wolf Hall a masterpiece, and as a huge fan of historical fiction, I was disappointed not to like it more. A fantastic story lurks somewhere in the pages, but Mantel’s writing style (or maybe the massive number of typos in my ebook edition) is a real slog. I felt like I was reading through a fog of pronouns. Who, exactly is “he” and who is the “he” that “he” is talking to? Maybe I’ll try again when the heat isn’t making me so lazy.

Writer Ann Morgan’s Bookish Exploration of the Globe

As a way to understand more about the rest of the world, writer Ann Morgan read books from 196 countries and documented her journey.

It’s impressive enough to know people who read 50 or 100 books a year (especially considering the dismal reading statistics from the United States), but how about a year-long quest to read one book from every country in the world?

Ann Morgan has just completed this one-year exploration of the world by reading a book from each of the 195 UN-recognized nations, plus Taiwan. What began, she writes for the BBC, as an “intellectual exercise” turned into sometime much more:

“One by one, the country names on the list that had begun as an intellectual exercise at the start of the year transformed into vital, vibrant places filled with laughter, love, anger, hope and fear. Lands that had once seemed exotic and remote became close and familiar to me — places I could identify with. At its best, I learned, fiction makes the world real.”

So how did she come up with her list of 196 books? She asked people! Morgan created a blog about her project, which began in early 2012, and then started asking people for book suggestions:

“The response was amazing. Before I knew it, people all over the planet were getting in touch with ideas and offers of help. Some posted me books from their home countries. Others did hours of research on my behalf.”

Morgan calculated that she would need to read one book every 1.87 days to finish in a single year. But, as her article explains, what took as much time as the actual reading was tracking down English translations of many books on her list. If it hadn’t been for the generosity of strangers — some  sent unpublished manuscripts, others translated short stories into English or even wrote something just for Morgan to read — Morgan’s project would not have been possible.

She is now working on a book about her adventure called Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf, which she describes as “part memoir, part literary criticism.” It will be published by Harvill Secker in 2015.

How uplifting to know that there are so many passionate readers and writers out there, people who are so eager to share their culture that they will write and translate with no expectation of anything in return except a warm, fuzzy feeling.

On the other hand, it’s unfortunate that so little of the world’s literature is available in English. There are a number of dedicated publishers working to change that, and I hope that as more  translations are available, more readers will find new worlds opening up to them.

So congratulations to Ann Morgan for spending an entire year reading and discovering what the world’s writers have to offer.