I’m doing Read Harder 2017. I would have read both of these books anyway, but it just so happens that they both work for Task 3 (read a book about books).
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch
Publisher/Year: Harper, 2011
What it is: After the sudden death of her older sister, a reeling Nina Sankovitch turns to books for solace. She and her sister frequently traded and discussed books, and on her forty-sixth birthday, Nina begins a literary journey and healing process: she’ll read one book a day for a year and write about every single one. This book is a memoir of that year.
Why I read it: Confession: I got this as an advance copy…6 years ago. I’d always been meaning to read it — when it came out, it was very popular in the book blogosphere — but I just never got around to it until this year.
What I thought: I read anywhere from 75-100 books a year depending on how hectic life gets. I think the most I ever read was 134. So I’m thoroughly impressed with anyone who can read more than that, and being able to read a book a day — and actually sticking with it — is just mind-blowing to me. The complete list at the end of the book is impressive. As for the book itself? It was just okay. She writes a lot about her family history, then ties in the books she read according to the theme of the chapter. It’s occasionally repetitive, and I would have liked more about the books themselves. She’s a lovely writer with beautiful sentences, but insight-wise, I wished she’d pushed it further. It all felt too tidy.
Greetings from Darjeeling, India! In a perfect world, there would be no clouds and I’d be able to see four peaks, including Mount Everest, from an observation point a couple of hours away. Unfortunately, I’m high up in the mountains during monsoon season and there are clouds everywhere — a few times a day, I’m even walking right through them. Oh, well…I still can’t complain! I get to drink locally grown Darjeeling tea whenever I want.
In spring of 1996, Jon Krakauer joined Rob Hall’s Adventure Consultants, one of the commercial outfitters taking amateur climbers up to Mount Everest. Krakauer is a skilled climber who had always dreamed of climbing Everest, and he wanted to write a feature on commercial expeditions to Everest for Outside magazine. Such companies were still a relatively new and controversial concept at the time. But for those companies trying to entice new customers to pay upwards of $65,000 for the experience, getting featured in Outside was a publicity boon.
Rob Hall was a respected climber with an excellent track record of getting people up and down Everest safely; even other teams looked up to him. That year, after seeing the financial possibilities, many new commercial outfitters set up shop on Everest. Many of those groups tried to summit Everest on May 10, 1996 when the weather window looked best, and Hall’s team was no exception. After a brutal storm, the weather cleared and Hall’s team, Krakauer included, set out to summit Everest under ideal conditions. Many of them made it to the summit, Krakauer included, but a surprise storm rushed in when most of the oxygen-deprived climbers were making their way back down. Several people on the team, including Hall, perished. So did sherpas, guides, and climbers from other expeditions. It was the deadliest event on Everest to date.
Greetings from Almaty, Kazakhstan! I apologize for the radio silence as of late. I’ve been traveling for almost two weeks now and just got to Almaty following a 36-hour train ride from Urumqi, China. This is the first solid internet connection I’ve had in a while, so it’s been hard to post reviews. So far, the trip as been exhausting but exciting, and although I’ll only be here for about 12 hours, I can tell you Almaty is gorgeous. I arrived at sunrise and the first things I saw were the snow-covered mountains looming over the city.
During a conversation on a flight, Christopher Robbins learned that his American seatmate was traveling to Kazakhstan to marry a woman he’d met online. The stranger went on and on about this country that few people know much about (other than it being where Borat is from). Robbins was intrigued by this country’s contributions to the world, but the one tidbit that stuck with him was, “apples are from Kazakhstan.” Robbins went on about his business, but after that, Kazakhstan kept calling to him. Finally, he decided to travel there and write a book about the country.
Kazakhstan is a former Soviet territory that is huge: four times the size of Texas. Parts of the country seem inhospitable to life — descriptions of the windy winters on the steppe sound particularly terrifying — yet nomadic Kazakhs lived and worked there for centuries before the Soviet Union moved to wipe them out. Communist Russia also sent a large number of its enemies to brutal gulags in Kazakhstan, and often sent intellectuals into exile there as well; Trotsky was sent into exile there for a period, as was Dostoevsky (partially inspiring Crime and Punishment). Vast areas of land have suffered irreparable environmental damage since then: the Aral Sea is quickly disappearing, and citizens in many areas are still suffering the effects of fallout from nuclear testing. The country has suffered quite a number of dark periods in its history.
I don’t know what I was expecting before I read Gerry Hadden’s Never the Hope Itself: Love and Ghosts in Latin America and Haiti, but any preconceived notions I had about the book quickly flew out the window within the first couple of pages. Hadden was on the verge of becoming a Buddhist monk when he got an opportunity he couldn’t refuse: he was offered a job as an NPR correspondent for Mexico, Central America, and Haiti. Equal parts personal, professional, and travel memoir–with a dash of ghost story–Never the Hope Itself book serves up a number of Hadden’s riveting recollections from his eventful years in Latin America.
The world was a different place in 2000: how easy it’s been to forget that before the United States became mired in the “War on Terrorism,” its main focus was the war on drugs. Based in Mexico City, Hadden’s job was to cover the political upheavals in Haiti and the war on drugs in Colombia and other Latin American countries. Although I did recall a lot of what went on during the war on drugs, I’ll admit I was completely clueless about what was going on in Haiti ten years ago. Luckily, Hadden is a masterful storyteller, contextualizing his stories by giving the reader a brief rundown on what was happening politically at the time. It was fascinating.
Then the events of September 11, 2001 happened.
Almost instantly, the war on drugs vanished and the focus shifted to terrorism. Hadden was left to his own devices, reporting on stories in Latin America while news agencies turned their attention toward the Middle East. What he uncovered were portraits of people who faced devastating hardship, yet whose stories were becoming increasingly common as a result of corrupt governments and detrimental foreign policies. He interviewed people who struggled to survive in the vast slums of (pre-earthquake) Port-au-Prince, went to the front lines of the Central American drug trade, and made the arduous journey many immigrants face as they make their way from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border. In between assignments, he’d journey back to his (haunted) rented home in Mexico City, trying to put down roots and settle in with the love of his life, only to be sucked back into work at a moment’s notice.
Richard Horan is a man on a mission. Inspired during a visit to Abraham Lincoln’s home, he was struck by how much history the tree outside the home had silently witnessed. As his family vacationed their way through the homes of other famous Americans, Horan stopped to collect seeds from the trees he encountered. Over the next few years, he amassed quite a collection of seeds. Encouraged by family and friends, an idea he’d been tossing around in the back of his mind finally fomented: he would visit the locations that inspired important people in American history. He would collect seeds from trees and plant them. Once they grew he’d be able to offer their seedlings as gifts to some of his literary- and history-minded friends. But mostly, these trees would serve as his own unique homage to American history.
When I first started this book, I was charmed. It has a niche audience, yes, but Horan writes with such a passion for these seeds that you can’t help but root for him. Plus, with all the traveling and talk of nature, it fits the mood of summer perfectly. Some of the earlier entries in the book reflected what I though the book would be about: I figured he’d visit the trees that inspired literary greats (as the subtitle suggests), then talk about specific passages in these authors’ works that alluded to said trees. However, the full title of this book–Seeds: One Man’s Serendipitous Journey to Find the Trees That Inspired Famous American Writers from Faulkner to Kerouac, Welty to Wharton–is a bit of a misnomer. Though Horan does visit the homes of many American literary greats, his journey also takes him to other places–some famous, some random–that have little obvious connection to American literature. Fair enough. It doesn’t seem right that one would talk about American trees and American nature without paying a visit to some of John Muir’s favorite territory.