(We Celebrate Reading!)
These words adorn a blue canvas shoulder bag of Chris’s. We picked it up at a bookstore chain in D.F. called Gandhi – something like the Mexican equivalent of a Borders Books and Music. And one of the great things about Gandhi – besides canvas bags that say “We Celebrate Reading” – is that, in addition to stacks and stacks of Spanish-language books, it carries a small but really good quality selection of English-language books.
Outside of Gandhi, we’ve acquired English-language books in used bookstores (mostly near Coyoacan in Mexico City), at the expat-oriented Sandi Books in Guadalajara (where you can sometimes find the latest Rolling Stone magazine in English – though at twice the price), at the best bookstore ever in Oaxaca City called Amate Books (hundreds upon hundreds of English translations of Mexican and Latin-American writers, fiction and non-fiction…incredible…we only wish they’d open a branch in Jalisco), at Borders Books in the Dulles Airport last month (in which I suddenly appreciated this new trend of turning airports into shopping malls), by receiving them as Christmas gifts (thanks Erica!) and, of course, by having relatives bring our Amazon.com orders to us in December and April (thanks Moms and Dads!). Yes, it means that we end up carting around a suitcase full of books that gets heavier and heavier, but what can we say? We love reading. (And really - did you actually think that a couple who used to go on dates at the local Barnes and Noble could go for a year without books? ☺)
Ademas, since the Mexico Semester Program ended, I’ve had a lot more time to read. I did manage to read a few non-school-related books during the fall semester, which I’ve blogged a bit about before – most especially Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (lyrical prose on the spirituality of nature in the Blue Ridge Mountains), The Power and The Glory by Graham Greene (a high-suspense thriller about a priest on the run in 1920s Mexico that somehow also manages to be the most profound reflection on the sacraments I’ve yet read – don’t get me started about how good this one is – just thinking about it makes me want to read it again!!), and The Book of Lamentations by Rosario Castellanos (a fictionalized account of an indigenous uprising in 1930s Chiapas). Still, since December it’s been hard to catch me without a (again, non-school-related) book in hand.
First I read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which is a book I’ve always wanted to read and, since I suddenly have time, figured why not now? But I was totally unprepared for what lay within this one. I think I expected some lyrical meditation on the Dust Bowl. Instead what I got was a systematic attack on the horrifically exploitative changes taking place in the economic system of 1920s-1930s America (a system which, with only minor changes (thanks, FDR) remains largely the same today). There was lyrical prose, alright, but Steinbeck used it to tell the story of a family who takes an unrelenting beating until there’s hardly anything left of them. Chris, who read this one in high school and re-read it this year, was similarly blown away – which for Chris, who reads ten times as many books as I do in a year, is saying something.
Next I turned my attention to The Samurai, by the late Japanese author Shusaku Endo. I stumbled on this one in 57th Street Books in Hyde Park just before we moved last summer. I noticed the word “Mexico” on the back cover, and so I read the whole teaser. After reading it, I couldn’t not get this book. Here it is, in its entirety:
The Samurai, without doubt one of the late Shusaku Endo’s finest works, seamlessly combines historical fact with a novelist’s imaginings. Set in the period preceding the Christian persecutions in Japan, The Samurai traces the steps of some of the first Japanese to set foot on European soil. Rokuemon Hasekura, a low-ranking warrior, is chosen as one of Japan’s envoys to the Viceroy of Mexico and Pope Paul V. The emissaries set sail in 1613, accompanied by an ambitious Franciscan missionary who hopes to bargain trading privileges with the West for the right to head his order in Japan. The arduous journey lasts four years, and the Japanese travel from Mexico to Rome, where they are persuaded that the success of their mission depends on their conversion willy-nilly to Christianity. In fact, the enterprise has been futile from the start and the mission returns to Japan where the political tides have shifted: the authorities are pursuing an isolationist policy and a ruthless stamping out of all Western influences. In the face of disillusionment and death, samurai Rokuemon’s only support and solace come from the spiritual lord is not even sure he believes in.
Wow!!!!! Does that sound good or what?! In truth, the book started kind of slow (only re-reading the back of the book kept me going), but it soon picked up steam and by the end had earned a place next to The Power and The Glory on my soon-to-be-created bookshelf of “Great Novels About Christianity (Usually Written By Catholics).” Shockingly (for me), by the end the book dovetailed neatly with Greene’s work in that both became a meditation on martyrdom. I commend both for Lenten reading.
As you can see in the photo, I’ve also been reading plenty of anthologies about Mexico. In the pile above, Mexico in Mind and The Reader’s Companion to Mexico are both collections of short pieces and excerpts of English-language writing about Mexico. The Reader’s Companion is mostly travelogues, mostly by Brits and Americans from the first half of the twentieth century. There’s some truly great travel writing in it. Mexico in Mind is a more diverse collection that includes a fair amount of poetry and reflection by Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, as well as some travelogue stuff. Another book, Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion, which is not pictured because we left it behind in Guadalajara (hey, you can’t carry everything!), is a collection of contemporary Mexican fiction, organized according to the Mexican state each piece comes from. It was a good one to read last month, now that I finally have a good sense of Mexican geography.
Below those two in the photo is the thickest and heaviest book we’re carrying, The Mexico Reader – but it’s worth its weight in the suitcase. Even Chris’s academic advisor, a research professor at Indiana University, says it’s really good - which should also tell you who it’s aimed at: Graduate students and high-level undergrads in Mexican history courses. It’s a collection of primary documents from the Aztecs to the Zapatistas, each document preceded by a fantastic introduction. You might think this would be boring, but – thanks in part to those fantastic introductions – it’s not at all. Either that or maybe I’ve inherited the history buff thing from my dad, who read a ton of Civil War books when we were growing up…either way, I’m loving it. I’ve read nearly all the introductions, and now I’m making my way through the primary documents. (Can I get course credit for this?)
You might be looking at the list and thinking: “One of these things is not like the others…” when your eyes hit Far Appalachia: Following the New River North by Noah Adams. I picked that one up in a local bookstore in Lewisburg, West Virginia. I try to pick up a book there every time I’m in town (which has now been precisely twice). I enjoyed it – it made me want to spend time in Appalachia again – but there was a bit too much on whitewater rafting. Still, a good read that made me want to go on a hike. Too bad there’s not really anywhere to do that around here…sigh.
Graham Greene’s The Lawless Roads is in there, too. It’s the nonfiction account of his trip to southern Mexico in the 1920s, an experience he drew on to write The Power and The Glory. Greene hates Mexico with a vengeance, and yet he manages to write what is by far the most engaging, best-written travelogue I’ve ever read. Chris started reading it yesterday, and even she says Greene is a really, really good writer. Again, remember the rule – if Chris praises a book, it’s really saying something!
This morning I just finished Slumdog Millionaire (originally published under the title Q & A) by Vikas Swarup. I had picked this one up in the Dulles Airport for Chris. It’s very different from the movie – almost a completely different story, just with the similar gambit of kid-from-the-slums-goes-on-gameshow-and-knows-all-the-answers-through-life-experience. Sadly, the writing - especially the dialogue - is pretty terrible. The only thing it does better than the movie, I think, is to grapple a little harder with the problem of money. Other than that: See the movie, buy the soundtrack, read the book only if you’re in rural Mexico with nothing else to read.
Finally there are a few at the top of the pile. I read The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times, by Dean Brackley, during the fall semester, and I’m re-reading it during Lent. It pulls together social justice/community service concerns with Ignatian contemplation – two of my own interests. I’ll write more about this one a little later.
The top three I’ve just started. First up, two books by early-twentieth-century Mexican authors that Chris picked up for me in Guadalajara (see earlier post). Then, if I can stay with it: Juan Rulfo’s work – Pedro Páramo and The Burning Plain - in the original Spanish! I think I may need the Fulbright Scholar’s help for that one…
Well, that’s my reading list these days. (I wish they had a Book It! program here – anybody remember that?) How about you - what have you been reading? What do you want to read next?