Sunday, August 2, 2009

A Trail of Books

This past Friday was as rainy and dismal as the day I baked the Tassajara loaves, and so I spent the evening meandering through one of the Upper West Side bookstores near my apartment. My meandering wasn't completely aimless, however; on Wednesday, NCT and I leave for ten days of hiking in the Alps, and I needed to decide what books I would be bringing with me. Lest you think this is an easy task, I feel obligated to point out the following impediments to what I like to call "book selection for travel in an isolated pocket of a non-English speaking country": 1) due to a lack of English language bookstores, you are truly committed to your biblio-choices; 2) your choices must cater to a range of potential moods and needs; 3) your choices must be relatively engrossing, and thus able to counter both abysmally long plane flights and cold nights in mountain huts with snoring, non-English speaking strangers. In fact, I think High Fidelity's Rob Gordon (aka John Cusack) explains the significance of this type of book selection best--his quote concerns making a mix tape, but it doesn't matter: "The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don't wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules."

Yes, there are a lot of rules. Which is why I ended up spending a couple of hours in this bookstore, wandering up and down the aisles, and revisiting many of the titles that have seen me through past summers. I know that I'm not the first or the last person to state this, but encountering much beloved books in a bookstore or a library is akin to encountering a much beloved memory; in fact, this encountering often re-awakens memories that have long lain dormant. And so this past Friday evening I re-visited many of my summers, which was bittersweet, yet left me smiling as I walked back in the humid rain to my apartment.

Michael Cunningham's
The Hours swept me back eight years ago to Carmel Valley, and to a conversation in the shade with JC about whether or not I was enjoying the book. Memories like that, in which I can actually hear her voice, make me think that she's not really gone forever, but has just gone away for awhile, and that I just need to find a bookstore to find her again. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle evoked reading with AAH on the cabin deck at Upper Angora Lake as we prepared for our junior year of high school, and George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss conjured the flight to DC to see AFD five Augusts later. The Isabel Allende shelf reminded me of reading in Yosemite Valley in late May on middle school trips, Che Guevara's Motorcycle Diaries re-created the July bus rides home from the Mission to the Richmond District, and E. M. Forster's A Room with a View evoked a sunny August trip through Gloucestershire and Somerset with my father thirteen years ago. And Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice will forever be associated with waking up at sunrise and sneaking out onto my great-uncle's dock at Clear Lake, so that I could finish the book before breakfast and before everyone else woke up.

But mostly the books re-created Carmel Valley and San Francisco, the two places where I read the most in my summers.
Green Apple supplied most of my fodder, and Thunderbird Books in Carmel, which is now closed and where DHU, LRC and I would always pick out new books to read by the pool, provided the rest. I read Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls in the arms of a giant valley oak, and Markandaya's Nectar in a Sieve while fighting the gloom of a foggy and cold San Francisco July. Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family and Richard Llewellyn's How Green was my Valley, two of my favorite books, are impossible to remember without also remembering the numerous swims, ping-pong games, and piano playing breaks I took between the chapters. For a rainy Upper West Side evening, it was a very rich and colorful few hours.

I did not forget the task at hand, however, despite the fact that the book I'm currently reading, Steinbeck's East of Eden, has made it very difficult to focus on new books to read. I've never been a big Steinbeck fan--I enjoyed Cannery Row, and tolerated The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men--but East of Eden grabbed me within the first few paragraphs, and I've found it difficult to put down in the last couple of weeks (having a job has been a major impediment to reading as much as I would like to!). Part of the attraction lies in the geographical context, which is the very same in which I spent part of my own childhood summers, where I could see "the Santa Lucias [standing] up against the sky", and the California poppies "of a burning color--not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the color of the poppies", and the "dusky and shady" valley oaks. Part of it lies in the Hamilton family, which Steinbeck describes very much like my own Irish family, which is "connected and related to very great people and very small people, so that one cousin might be a baronet and another cousin a beggar. And of course they were descended from the ancient kings of Ireland, as every Irishman is". And part of it lies in the inherent power of a story that chooses to depict people "who trusted themselves and respected themselves as individuals, because they knew beyond doubt that they were valuable and potentially moral units--because of this they could give God their own courage and dignity and then receive it back".

Wonderful as it is, I will finish East of Eden before I leave for the Alps, and so I had to focus and to choose. Bearing in mind Rob Gordon's maxims, and my own knowledge of the pitfalls in selecting such texts, I chose three books. The first, Leif Enger's Peace Like a River, I can read on the flight over and later trade with NCT. The second, Julia Child's My Life in France, will provide useful escapism when days on the trail see me growing a little tired of largely almond butter, chocolate, muesli, and baguettes for fuel (hard to imagine, but true). And the third, the most crucial of all, will bring me out of the mountains to Lake Geneva, and then back to the Upper West Side. It is the novel that ranks as one of my mother's favorites, and which she read many summers ago as a young adult, and it is the natural complement to Steinbeck's Northern Californian epic. It is Helen Hunt Jackson's much loved novel of early Southern California history, Ramona.

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