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Category: summer reading

Summer reading: Adam Langer on G.K. Chesterton

Adamlanger_2010 Adam Langer's "The Thieves of Manhattan," just out last week, is a sendup of fake memoirs that is both a satire and seriously, postmodernly smart. In our review, Ella Taylor calls the book "wonderfully mischievous," adding that it is "is as soulful and morally committed as it is funny and clever." Langer explains why a book by G.K. Chesterton is one of his most memorable summer reading experiences.

Jacket Copy: Do you remember reading a specific book during one summer?

Adam Langer: I remember having a Beverly Cleary summer, a Jack Kerouac summer, a Robertson Davies summer, and even a Joseph Conrad summer during which the waves of Lake Michigan provided a fitting soundtrack for “Outcast of the Islands,” but the one that springs to mind most clearly now is what I think of as my Chesterton summer, when I read G.K. Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday.”

JC: What year was it, and how old were you?

AL: It was 1983, the summer before my senior year of high school. I was about to turn 16.

JC: Where were you?

AL: I was still living with my parents in West Rogers Park on the northwest side of Chicago, but I read the book on Lighthouse Beach in Evanston, Ill., where I was going to to high school.

JC: Why was the book significant to you then?

AL: I was in the midst of a really stifling time during my teenage years when my parents’ house seemed so incredibly small. I kept waiting for my driver’s license to arrive in the mail, but it hadn’t come yet; my best friend had just left town and wasn’t coming back for another year; the girl I had a crush on was dating another guy and, every opportunity I had, I would ride my bike north along the lakefront with a paperback book jammed into a back pocket and I would read by the lake.

The novel, which I found on my parents’ bookshelf in their basement, was unlike anything I’d ever read before -- so fanciful, so mysterious, so unpredictable and funny and magical and, at times, horrifying too. Most of the books I had been reading spoke directly to my teen angst; they were about going someplace, getting out, but this was the first book that I can recall reading that gave me the feeling that I was being physically transported out of my world.

JC: Have you reread the book?

AL: Probably about a dozen times. I’ve even listened to the Orson Welles radio play version of it. It’s one of a handful of books that I come back to every year or so. A lot of people have been asking where I got the inspiration to write my latest book, "The Thieves of Manhattan," and how I got the idea for the twisting, turning plot. Now that I’ve started thinking about "The Man Who Was Thursday" and those late afternoons and evenings at Lighthouse Beach, I’m thinking that it must have all started back there and then.

JC: Have you returned to that place?

AL: Many times in reality. And, for the first time, I’m planning on returning there in my fiction as well.

JC: What are you reading this summer? Will you be taking a vacation (and bringing any books)?

AL: I’m almost done reading Beth Raymer’s memoir "Lay The Favorite" -- a really fun read, peopled with crazy, memorable characters. I’ve been reading Grace Lin’s "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon" aloud to my 5-year-old daughter -- a great book to read together. And, though it doesn’t come out until the end of the summer, I’m really looking forward to "The Elephant’s Journey," by the late José Saramago.

For more summer reading, tap into the L.A. Times list of new summer reads: 60 books for 92 days.

-- Carolyn Kellogg
twitter.com/paperhaus

Photo: Adam Langer. Credit: Andreas Von Lintel


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Summer reading: Larry Doyle on the classics

Larrydoyle_mutants

Larry Doyle, author of the runaway coming-of-age hit "I Love You, Beth Cooper" is coming back to shelves with another tale of high school agony and hilarity, "Go, Mutants!" It feels a bit like a fifties b-movie mashup, with aliens walking (and sliming along) the high school halls. Doyle, a longtime writer for "The Simpsons," reads and signs "Go, Mutants!" tonight at Book Soup at 7pm.

Jacket Copy: Do you remember reading any books during a specific summer?

Larry Doyle: As I entered my last summer of graduate school at the University of Illinois, it occurred to me that I was completely uneducated. Or at least, not well read. I decided that I would read all of the classic books I'd managed to avoid through 19 years of school, and to make myself do it, I began writing a weekly column in the Daily Illini charting my progress (and encouraging others to do the same.) That summer, under the threat of self-humiliation, I read "Huckleberry Finn," "The Great Gatsby," "The Old Man and the Sea," "Ulysses," "Gravity's Rainbow" and the first two paragraphs of "Being and Nothingness."

JC: What year was it, and how old were you?

LD: It was 1982 and I was younger than I am now.

JC: Where were you?

LD: Mostly in the stacks of the U of I Library, where it was cool.

JC: Why were the books significant to you then?

LD: They represented the failed education system that had allowed me to graduate without reading them. Most annoying, these books were wildly entertaining, much moreso than "Organic Chemistry" or "Perspectives in Perspective" or whatever other professor-written book I was forced to buy.

JC: Have you re-read the book/s?

LD: I remain woefully underread, and so don't reread many book when I have literally thousands in my house I have not read (and I am using "literally" correctly here.) I've dipped back into each of these from time to time, though.

JC: Have you returned to that place?

LD: I returned to my alma mater many times, until every single thing I recognized there was gone.

JC: What are you reading this summer? Have you brought any books with you on your book tour?

LD: I'm reading "The Imperfectionists" by Tom Rachman. It reminds me of Waugh's "Scoop," which I did not read until I was 30.

For more summer reading, check the LA Times list of new summer reads: 60 books for 92 days.

-- Carolyn Kellogg
twitter.com/paperhaus

Photo of Larry Doyle, courtesy of the author.


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Summer reading: T Cooper on 'The Odyssey'

Tcooper T Cooper's new novel, "The Beaufort Diaries," is a surrealistic satire in which Beaufort, a polar bear, flees his diminishing arctic home for Hollywood and stardom. Cooper, who was raised in Los Angeles, enlisted the help of a genuine movie star for his book trailer, an animated short narrated by David Duchovny. "The Beaufort Diaries" is Cooper's third novel; he reads from it Wednesday at Book Soup at 7 p.m.

Jacket Copy: Do you remember reading a book or books during a specific summer?

T Cooper: I remember feverishly trying to plow through "The Odyssey" many summers ago, right after I graduated from college, in 1994.

JC: Where were you?

TC: I'd just gotten my first full-time job out of school, teaching middle school English and writing at a prep school down in New Orleans. I remember receiving (by fax!) the syllabus of what the kids were generally expected to be introduced to during their eighth grade year, and since I hadn't read most of the stuff since I was in seventh or eighth grade myself (and likely nominally at that), I was panicked that I wouldn't know what I was going to say and do that first week of school. Mostly I just wanted to remember how to spell "Odyssey" correctly on the chalkboard. It's really hard. But there was a ubiquitous Toyota minivan of the same name on the road back then, so that helped.

JC: Why was the book significant to you then?

TC: I think it took the terror of teaching the material to others to really figure it out for myself in ways I hadn't when first encountering it as a young pubert in middle school. If I'm remembering correctly, I ended up structuring the school year so that we considered pretty much everything we read (or watched) through the lens of "loneliness" and "difference" -- wonder what that says about me.

JC: Have you re-read  it? 

TC: No, I'm good. But I do think about Odysseus from time to time -- in fact he crept in a lot when I was writing "The Beaufort Diaries," which I think ended up as a post-war epic hero's journey with equal amounts of sex and drugs -- only set in different oceans: the Arctic, New York and Hollywood.

JC: Have you returned to that place?

TC: I've been to New Orleans a handful of times since moving to New York in '96. I was there about a year after Katrina, to interview my favorite soul music legend Irma Thomas for The Believer. It was a few weeks after Irma and her husband Emile were able to get back into their house after it was heavily damaged by the flooding. And I was just there for a few days last month. It's hard not to let yourself be swallowed by the epic nature of the tragedy that took place there. Even though we all probably should be letting it swallow us whole. I suppose that city has always been about nostalgia, even on the first day I moved there before I had a personal history or relationship with it.

JC: What are you reading this summer?

TC: I'm currently on book tour, so once I've sufficiently assessed all of the celebrity summer beach bods ("fab or flab?") I can stomach in Us, Star, and Life & Style magazines, I usually like to have some literary fiction along with me. This time I'm so happy to have grabbed from my bookshelf my dear friend Maud Casey's novel "Genealogy." I'm ashamed to say I'd never before read it, but at the same time I'm humbled to report that reading this beautiful book has done something I'd been thinking was impossible of late: remind me that I want to write another novel.

-- Carolyn Kellogg
twitter.com/paperhaus

Photo: T Cooper. Credit: Alison Glock-Cooper


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Summer reading: Maria Semple on Tolstoy

Mariasemple_2010

For summer, we've created the L.A. Times list of 60 books for 92 days. All of these are new titles being released during the next three months -- it's a plethora of great summer reads.

At Jacket Copy, we're asking bookish types about their favorite summer reads of the past. Maria Semple's first novel, "This One Is Mine," is satiric look at a Hollywood wife and her heedless affair. Semple knows the town, at least -- although she now lives with her family on an island off the coast of Seattle, she was a television writer on "Arrested Development," "Mad About You" and "Ellen." She writes of her summer reading experiences:

I never understood the concept of a fluffy summer read.  For me, summer reading means beaches, long train rides and layovers in foreign airports.  All of which call for escaping into really long books.  When else, other than summer, do you get huge chunks of time to bore into a thick, great novel?

When I graduated high school, I was one of many English-majors-to-be traveling through Europe with a copy of "Let's Go Europe" in one hand, "Anna Karenina" in the other, a Eurail pass for a bookmark.  I survived many a youth hostel bunk room reading Tolstoy by flashlight.

I reread "Anna Karenina" 10 years later in Thailand. I lugged it to Bangkok, Sukhothai, Chiang Mai and then trekking in the hills near Myanmar. I vividly remember a night in a freezing, smoky mountain hut, reading the account of Vronksy racing the feisty mare Frou-Frou in the steeplechase.  I sipped green tea full of Cremora by the morning fire and lost myself in Kitty's quasi-religious conversion at the spa -- a hilarious section I can't help but flip to, still, anytime the book is at hand.  I turned the final page in a dirt-floored tea garden back in Chiang Mai, then found myself in conversation with an Australian backpacker.  He had learned of the spot in his Lonely Planet Guide.  We discussed cheap food -- always a safe go-to among backpackers -- and he recommended a noodle place not far away.  He stared hungrily at my big book written in English, precious currency indeed.

“Here,” I handed it to him.  “You can have it.  I'm done.”

The next day, I went to the noodle place. The Australian was there, slurping noodles and reading my copy of Anna Karenina.  But…  as he finished reading each page… he tore it out and crumpled it up.  On the table beside him were a dozen wadded-up pages of my Tolstoy.  He looked up, saw the alarm on my face.

“It's what I do,” he said proudly. “Tear out the pages as I read them so I don’t have to carry the whole thing around in my backpack!”

My summer reading suggestion: Pick a really famous, really long novel.  (Next up for me are "Magic Mountain" by Thomas Mann and Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables.")  Bring it and only it with you on vacation.  No cheating -- don't stock up on US magazines in the airport.  The important thing is that you have no backup.  After the first 50 pages, the story will take flight, and then your real escape begins.  Oh, and when you're finished, don't give it to a backpacker.  

Photo: courtesy Maria Semple


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Summer reading: Lizzie Skurnick on Katherine Anne Porter

Lizzieskurnick_cocktail

For summer 2010, we've created the L.A. Times list of 60 books for 92 days. All of these are new titles being released during the next three months -- they're a plethora of great summer reads.

At Jacket Copy, we're asking bookish types about their favorite summer reads of the past. Lizzie Skurnick is the author of "Shelf Discovery," a memoir of teen reading. She writes for Politics Daily, The Daily Beast, the L.A. Times, NPR and many other outlets.

Jacket Copy: Do you remember reading a book or books during a specific summer?

Lizzie Skurnick: It's three books, but since I read them all concurrently in the same few weeks, I'm going to combine: Used paperbacks of the collected stories of Katherine Anne Porter, Katherine Mansfield and Elizabeth Hardwick.

JC: What year was it, and how old were you?

LS: It was the year 2000, and if I'm 36 on the verge of 37 now, I must have been 26, about to turn 27. (The fact that it's a decade later and the same month makes the math on this really easy.)

JC: Where were you?

LS: I was on a poetry fellowship in Prague, not all that long after it had become the Czech Republic -- so it wasn't flooded yet with tourists but there was still an Yves St. Laurent flagship store near Staré Město and everything.

JC: Why were the books significant to you then?

LS: I didn't notice it particularly at the time, but when I look back, I see that almost every story in each of the collections was about some alienated young woman alone in Europe, or some other foreign-seeming outpost. Turmoil and deprivation: Weimar Germany, Vichy France, etc. (I still can't forget the one where a girl spends the summer on a farm with German immigrants, and the wives all stand behind their husbands and serve them from the back while they eat.) There's also, of course, Katherine Anne Porter's "Theft," in which a mother steals a purse from a single woman who's not quite able to connect with men for her daughter, who is younger and is. I can't remember exactly what she says as she walks past her in the hallway -- something like, "You don't need it," in this very intense way that indicates she knows what she's doing is technically wrong but also philosophically right. It's horrible.

JC: Have you re-read the books?

LS: I haven't reread them, but I keep them with me every time I move -- next to each other, in fact, even though I do alphabetize. I do read Porter's "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" sometimes.

JC: Have you returned to that place?

LS: I haven't. I sometimes wonder what's happened to it. I read all the books in this bar called Pod Lubim that had just opened next to the university, and this waiter was always bringing me Becherovka and asking me to tell him about what was in whatever book I was reading, which was difficult considering he spoke three words of English and I spoke no Czech. It was sort of a bizarre place -- very sleek and modern, with very "arty" pictures of naked women all over the walls etc., but 35 cent Pilsner and surprisingly good food. One of my friends was obsessed with the name and finally determined it meant "Under the Trees," by the end of the trip. If that's not right, Czech speakers, please correct me. I was just inordinately proud to remember the name a few months ago. At least I think that was the name.

JC: Do you have any summer travel plans, and have you picked out any books to bring with you?

LS: I am going to both upstate N.Y. and Cape Cod -- and think actually I might reread these! I am also reading Paulina Porizkova's chick lit novel, so maybe this can be a whole Eastern European theme.

-- Carolyn Kellogg
twitter.com/paperhaus

Photo: Lizzie Skurnick. Credit: Casey Greenfield

Summer reading: Electric Literature's Andy Hunter on Narnia and more

Andyhunter Andy Hunter is the editor-in-chief of Electric Literature, a new literary journal available simultaneously electronically and in print. Electric Literature -- which in its first three issues has published short fiction by prizewinning authors Michael Cunningham, Jim Shepard, Colson Whitehead and more -- was one of the first publications of its kind to launch an iPad app. It has also embraced the short form: Electric Literature's Twitter publication of a short story by Rick Moody, and the attendant publicity, earned it more than 150,000 Twitter followers. And it has invited artists to animate single sentences from its publication; the videos can be found on YouTube. When another electronic venue emerges, Electric Literature is sure to be found there too.

This summer, we suggest the L.A. Times list of 60 books for 92 days, all brand-new and upcoming titles; we asked Andy Hunter to share some of his most memorable summer reads.  

Jacket Copy: Do you remember reading a specific book or books during summer? What's the title/author?

Andy Hunter: I remember being obsessed by "The Chronicles of Narnia" when I was 9 years old. I tore through all seven books in two weeks while vacationing with my family in a cabin by the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee, N.H. I refused to look up from the page, even when dragged out on picnics, boat rides, and other attempts at family bonding. I vividly remember being chastised for reading while crossing a busy street. Also that summer, I read "Bridge to Terabithia," which I highly recommend as a companion volume.

Eight years later, again in a cabin in the woods by a lake, but this time in Maine, I read "Steppenwolf" by Herman Hesse. I remember my shock at discovering that in literature -- grownup books, for adults -- fantastic things could happen. Respected German authors could write, with seriousness, about magical incidents. I was thrilled.

When I was 23, I carried "The Brothers Karamozov" with me while commuting to my job as a file clerk in a legal office. That book agitated me. The experience of getting off the subway and repressing the emotions it had stirred up as I greeted my supervisor and began my monotonous, dreadful work was both surreal and horrifying. Horrifying because I was just out of college and suspected that the legal office was the "real life" that we were all damned to live.

A decade later, I read Lynne Tillman’s "American Genius" while vacationing in a converted barn in Cape Cod. It’s a dense, entirely convincing, looping exploration of obsessive consciousness. Not your typical beach book, but I did read it on the beach, and the book was powerful enough that my experience of reading it there is indelible, which is true of all of these summer reads.

JC: Have you reread any of the books? If so, have they changed at all for you? If not, why not?

AH:
I haven’t. I’m always afraid to reread books which meant a lot to me at different times of my life; I’m afraid I wouldn’t care for "Steppenwolf" anymore. Narnia has been tainted by the movies, and the Christian themes, which were lost on me at 9, might bother me now. I am going to reread "The Brothers Karamozov" this summer, though, thanks to this exercise. I have a feeling it will hold up.

JC: Have you picked out anything else to read this summer?

AH:
I’m excited to read John Hawkes’ "The Passion Artist," which Dalkey just re-released. Rick Moody wrote the new introduction, and I’ll definitely read his new book of science fiction, "The Four Fingers of Death." Publishers Weekly calls it a “distressingly impertinent exercise in bafflement,” which sounds good to me. "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake," by Aimee Bender, another author whom we’ve featured in Electric Literature, is by my bedside. And I will definitely be reading "Super Sad True Love Story" by Gary Shteyngart when it comes out in July.

-- Carolyn Kellogg
twitter.com/paperhaus

Photo courtesy Andy Hunter
 


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Summer reading: Aimee Bender on 'Geek Love'

Aimeebender_2010 Susan Salter Reynolds writes that Aimee Bender combines William Faulkner's loneliness, a profound empathy and Mark Twain's ability to give a light spin to heavy subjects, and blends them together in her new novel, "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake." The book, which enters our bestseller list this Sunday at No. 7, is the story of a girl who realizes that she can taste emotions in food, the emotions of the people -- like her mother -- who've prepared what she's eating. Bender, who has been away on a book tour, will return to Los Angeles for a reading and signing at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, June 29.

Jacket Copy: Do you remember reading a specific book during summer?

Aimee Bender: I remember reading "Geek Love" by Katherine Dunn one summer; it was one of those books that had been recommended to me countless times but the title had turned me off, and I finally got around to giving it a chance.

JC: What year was it, or how old were you?

AB: I was around 27 or 28.

JC: Where were you?

AB: I was living on Hayworth in West Hollywood, near One Stop Auto and Los Tacos.

JC: What about the book was significant to you then?

AB: I loved how Dunn built her world -- she introduced us to this family of deliberate carnival freaks and then took us in deeper step by step. I grew very attached to everyone.  

JC: Have you reread the book?

AB:
I haven't reread the book yet, but I imagine I might in a few years. 

JC: What are you reading this summer?

AB:
I was on a panel at the L.A. Times Festival of Books this year with Victor LaValle which made me want to read his new novel, "Big Machine," and I finished it recently. I was blown away -- what a strange, smart book, full of resonance and imagery that will stick with me for a long time.  Now, for a total change of pace, I'm reading "Home," by Marilynne Robinson, because I loved "Gilead." Just read a gorgeous paragraph about how the family dealt with the strong facial-bone structure passed down through generations.

-- Carolyn Kellogg
twitter.com/paperhaus

Photo: Aimee Bender. Credit: Max S. Gerber


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Summer reading: Sam Lipsyte on John Jakes

Samlipsyte_ceridwenmorris For summer 2010, we've created the L.A. Times list of 60 books for 92 days. All of these are new titles being released during the next three months -- they're a plethora of great summer reads.

At Jacket Copy, we're asking bookish types about their favorite summer reads of the past. Sam Lipsyte is the author of "The Ask," a novel about Milo Burke, a failed painter and under-enthusiastic fundraiser for an arts program at a New York university. "Targets of Lipsyte's satire," our reviewer wrote, "include Williamsburg loft dwellers, liberal-arts students, radical child-care providers and reality-TV aspirants." Lipsyte's "The Ask" is now out in paperback.

Jacket Copy: Do you remember reading a specific book or books during summer?

Sam Lipstye: When I was a kid I read "The Bastard," "The Rebels," "The Seekers," "The Furies," which are the first four books of the Kent Family Chronicles by John Jakes.

JC: What year was it, or how old were you?

SL: I was 12, maybe 13.

JC: Where were you?

SL: In a rented cottage near a lake with my mother, father and sister.

JC: What about the books was significant to you then?

SL: The books had sex (in haylofts), revolution, and musketry, things very much on my mind at the time.

JC: Have you reread the books?

SL: I don't want to reread them. They are with me forever as they were on those blazing days in the grass or beside a window during a summer storm.

JC: Have you picked out anything to read this summer?

SL: I'm eager to read the new Rick Moody novel. 

-- Carolyn Kellogg
twitter.com/paperhaus

Photo: Sam Lipsyte. Credit: Ceridwen Morris


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Summer reading: Joshua Cohen's trick answers

Joshuacohen

For summer gets 2010, we've created the L.A. Times list of 60 books for 92 days. All of these are new titles, being released during the next three months -- a plethora of great summer reads.

At Jacket Copy, we're asking writers and other bookish types about their favorite summer reads of the past. Joshua Cohen, author of the new massive, modernist novel "Witz" -- and one of the Jewish writers celebrating The Bloom in Bloomsday in New York this week -- took our standard questions and stood them up on end.

L.A. Times: Do you remember reading a specific book or books during summer? What's the title/author?

Joshua Cohen: I don't believe in seasonal reading. That was actually the name of the book. "I Don't Believe In Seasonal Reading." That's how you turn a sentence into a title -- you just capitalize every word. Who's the author? I guess I am.

LAT: What year was it, or how old were you?

JC: The year I came up with that title would be 2010. I am 29.

LAT: Where were you?

JC: A large, recently cleaned apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y.

LAT: What about the books was significant to you then?

JC: Books that have not yet been written are more significant than books that have been written. Books that have been written are "closed books" -- they can't get any better. Right now my proposed opus is all possible, all potential.

LAT: Have you reread the book/s? If so, has it changed at all for you? If not, why not?

JC: I have never reread a book. Rather the only books I've reread have been books I've written. They always change -- always a new meaning, always a new typo.

LAT: What are you reading this summer?

JC: Everything by Alexander Kluge (everything that's been translated into English). "The Eye," Nabokov. "Nausea," Sartre. "Passages from Arabia Deserta," C.M. Doughty (Garnet Selection). "Characters," Jean de la Bruyère. A friend's novel in manuscript. That's July.

-- Carolyn Kellogg
twitter.com/paperhaus

Photo: Joshua Cohen. Credit: Yelena Akhtiorskaya

Summer reading: Marisa Silver on Richard Flanagan

Marisasilver As summer gets underway, we've created the L.A. Times list of 60 books for 92 days. All of these are new titles, a plethora of great reads.

At Jacket Copy, we're asking writers and others about a book they read one summer that was important to them. Marisa Silver's  novel "God of War" was a finalist for the L.A. Times book prize; her most recent book is "Alone with You," a collection of short stories. "Longing swells each of the eight stories in 'Alone With You,' as Silver investigates 'aloneness' and the dear and inevitable distance between people in loving relationships," wrote Ron Carlson in our review. "The situations here don't settle on the neat broad themes of loss or connection, but there are always surprises, nuances, changes of heart."

Marisa Silver read our questions about summer reading and wrote this essay; inserting those questions is unnecessary. Silver writes:

We were in the Ecuadoran rain forest. This was a few years ago. We had flown from a town called Shell -- named poetically for the oil company -- deep into the heart of the forest on a tiny plane. My younger son held a crate of eggs in his lap. I sat on top of the vegetables. We were flying in with our food. We landed on a dirt airstrip and then canoed down a river to a lodge. Each day, we took long, sweaty hikes through the dense growth of trees and plants or we rowed down a river to look at parrot licks and spy on miraculously colored birds high up in the trees. At night, I lay in bed under the mosquito net, listening to the symphony of bird and monkey calls and reading a book called "Gould’s Book of Fish" by Richard Flanagan. I wasn’t sure why I had chosen to bring this book along. When I travel, I usually try to read a book about the country I’m in or at least by one of the country’s authors as a way of getting to know the place I’ve come to. But a friend had recommended the book to me with such vehemence that I was eager to read it right away. I knew nothing about it other than that Flanagan hails from Tasmania and that the book had an unusual physical dimension that made it interesting to hold. Both things gave me the sense of embarking on an exotic journey -- exactly the kind of feeling I love when starting to read something new. Reading is like travel in that way; it offers the possibility that you might lose your sense of yourself in a strange environment, that quotidian obligations will no longer hold, that you will be someplace where no one will know your name and where, without the encumbrances of identity, you might have the possibility of really seeing.

The book is set in the 1830s in a penal colony on an island off the coast of Tasmania. It tells the story of William Gould, a prisoner who manages to prolong his life and avoid any number of horrible tortures by painting illustrations of fish for the prison’s scientifically fanatical surgeon. Everyone on the island serves the will of a tyrannical and insane prison commandant -- a Kurtz-like character who is more representational than real. The book is a wildly imaginative, dense and searching portrait of colonialism and its perversions, and it calls into question our notions of what makes a place and a people "civilized." It's funny and ribald and horrifying. From its opening pages, it mesmerized me.

Throughout our time in the rain forest, we were guided by an Achuar Indian, whose Spanish name, the name we called him by, was Jorge. He was a lovely, quiet guy who walked through the forest as if it were smooth pavement while we stumbled over tree roots, and who could see animals and birds where we could see only leaves. He lived in an Achuar village "three days" walk from the lodge -- that's the way distance is measured in the rain forest. When we asked him his age, he told us he might be 40, but that he really didn’t know for sure. His tribe did not record birth dates, and when the missionaries came, they gave the Indians arbitrary ages along with new names. On the last day of our trip, Jorge took us to an Achuar village where we sat in the grass hut belonging to a young man, his wife and children. With our guide as interpreter, we talked to the man about certain aspects of his life -- the kinds of food the family ate, where the kids went to school, how the community was organized. He answered our questions without looking at us; he was busy sharpening the darts for his blowgun with a sharp knife. His wife served us bowl after bowl of chicha -- a drink that is made when the women chew and spit out yucca plants and then let the resulting liquid ferment. 

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