It had been hot from the beginning, from mid-April, that is, when I had gone south in Howard to see the place he thought of as home; and had been surprised by the colors of the Carolina spring, the new green of trees, the purple flowers of the roadside grass, the yellow-white dogwood blossoms; and had been further surprised by the beauty -- in rust, wood-gray, faded green, and Indian red -- of abandoned tobacco barns and derelict farmhouses and barns with peaked and spreading corrugated-iron roofs.
I picked up V.S. Naipaul's travelogue of the American South in a used bookstore in Charlottesville for a few bucks. It looked interesting, especially in the context of my recent binge of listening to the Bitter Southerner podcast and the associated thinking about the past and changing identity of the South.
I loved it.
The writing is beautifully descriptive of the people, landscapes, and buildings that grace the South, yet manages to keep the prose clean and economical as well. Naipaul is clear-eyed about a history steeped in slavery, segregation, and multi-laterial racial resentment; yet while the racial past permeates the lived present, he never lets it detract from or overshadow the beautiful things either. He also doesn't run from examining ideas and identities for which great care is required to preserve the essential truth, in whole range from nuance to outright contradiction.
A fine piece of writing. It had made me want to not only read the Naipaul's other works (I had never heard of him before this book), but also to start planning my own road trip around the region, to which I'm a recent transplant and have relatively little exposure.
Reading Li's memoir was a unique experience, or perhaps one so rare I can't remember the last time I had it. It challenged me to think not only about her as a writer and reader, but about myself as a writer and reader. I highlighted tons of passages, brief and long. I read the book slowly because I frequently needed to pause and evaluate Li's notions of self, writing, and reading, often all essentially the same thing, against what I believe or thought I believed.
Early on, Li notes that she does not like using first person. It is unavoidable in this type of work, but she uses "one" elsewhere, as in, "One hides something for two reasons: either one feels protective of it or one feels ashamed of it. And it is not always the case that the two possibilities can be separated." I found that it functioned much like second person ("you") where it assumes the reader's agreement. Having read the book, I can't think that was Li's intention, but it created an at times adversarial stance from which I judged her obviously personal claims. This isn't a critique, only an observation of the sort I don't make often. In a way, then, it's a compliment.
Because Li in part is writing about writing, I put it on a mental list of texts I'd love to assign in a creative writing workshop. Though my genre is poetry (and fiction after that), its insights apply to any genre. "To write," she says, "betrays one’s instinct to curl up and hide." Upon that I can easily agree.
Going to the ends of the earth (in this case, the Falklands) to write a novel in isolation, with no distractions, sounded like the kind of thing I might do (except for the novel part), which is why I was interested in reading Bleaker Island. Despite a charming start and some genuinely laugh out loud moments, I wasn't consistently invested in Stevens's account of her writing (and romantic) life. I don't read many contemporary memoirs because they can feel self-indulgent, and there's been such a boom in them that it makes me wonder whose lives warrant a whole book. Though Stevens is, in the end, self-aware about her self-indulgence, it doesn't make the book more appealing to me.
In addition, I didn't understand why she included a few of her short stories. The novel excerpts made more sense, though I felt they might have been integrated better, perhaps in smaller chunks?
I did not like Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail very much. I just couldn’t get past Cheryl Strayed’s unpreparedness for long-distance hiking and found her a distasteful person who I didn’t particularly want to spend time with. I also found the narrative disorganized and the insights she gained from her journey pedestrian. If Wild hadn’t been the selection for my office book club, I probably would not have finished the book. As it was, partway through I stopped reading and started skimming.
Several of my co-workers also didn’t like Wild very much either, including one person who said that she expected much more from the author of Tiny Beautiful Things (which I have not read). A number of others hadn’t finished, but had seen the movie, so we spent as much time comparing the book to the movie and discussing other wilderness journey movies as discussing the book itself.
In other news, the office book club appears to be turning into a book-to-movie club, which isn’t actually such a bad thing. Our first selection was Room, our second was Wild, and our next choice is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a re-read for me (I listened to the audiobook a few years ago). I’m looking forward to re-reading it and I’m interested to hear what the others think. And we’ll see how the scheduling goes, but we’re also starting to kick around the idea of a movie night where we watch the movies and talk some more.