Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Summer Reading

Summertime, and the labor’s back-breaking. Like the creeks around here, my fellowship checks dry up in the summer and so, when I'm not working on my dissertation at the PCL, I’m back working at the ranch three days a week. But summertime isn’t just for manual labor: it’s also the season for travel and, on top of that, the season for reading.

I love the intersection of reading and travel, and the resulting double-journey that comes with each summer. You go to one place and you read about another. Like the summer after 8th grade, when I laid out at my grandmother’s pool in Atlanta, looking up at Georgia pine trees over my paperback copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls: I was in Spain and I was in Georgia. Or during our honeymoon, when H and I stayed at an the out-of-the-way finca in Extremadura, and it was unseasonably cold and windy, so instead of hiking around we huddled in our room and read about Tuscany. Last summer, in Havana, I was reading The Rum Diaries, and so I spent the trip skipping between Cuba and Puerto Rico.

The best is when somehow the two places overlap each other, different as they may be. In fact, the more different they are, the more acutely you feel their overlap. That summer in Atlanta, for example, Hemingway’s descriptions of pine trees in Spain in some surprising way taught me something about those pines by the pool, made them more real.

It happens at the ranch, too. Two summers ago, I was studying for my comps and one of the books on my list was José Donoso’s Casa de campo (A House in the Country), which is a strange Chilean novel about a group of kids who get the run of their summer house when their parents head out on an excursion. That was the summer that the drought was the worst in Texas, when everything dried up and it looked for all the world like the Chihuahua desert was about to swallow up the Edwards Plateau. Donoso has these amazing, surreal descriptions of the tall white grasses that surround the house and threaten to overrun the grounds. Looking out over the bleached fields of the ranch that year when even the cedars were losing their color, it seemed like Donoso was also writing about the Texas Hill Country.  

This year, I’ll be going (physically) on a road trip across the South with my family. And it looks like I’ll also be visiting (mentally) Paris with Enrique Vila-Matas, and maybe New Orleans, since I plan to finally read Confederacy of Dunces (that will be a return trip with a quick turnaround, since I just finished re-reading The Moviegoer after writing about Walker Percy). Where else? New York with Anne Roiphe, wherever Mary McCarthy goes in her short stories, and the Dominican sections of New Jersey with Junot Díaz.

And of course, working on my dissertation, I’ll spend a lot of mental time in Havana and in Harlem. But that’s where I live; I’m ready to get away.    

EDIT: I thought of two more: I half-read The Brothers Karamazov in college, and I mean to make amends this year. Also, Simone, by Puerto Rican novelist Eduardo Lalo, which just won the Premio Rómulo Gallegos for 2013.

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