Desiderata: The Best Reads of February

Desiderata (things desired): A monthly review of books recently read

My reading life took a hit in February. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I have teetered between the joy of buying a house and the anxiety of strange and still-unexplained health issues. My attention span is in tatters. And now we are all facing massive anxiety. The world seems have turned upside-down. I believe we will get to the other side of this worst hard time, but right now, in the face of school and restaurant closures, of store shortages and hospital overloads, it feels dire. Let’s all breathe and move more gently in the coming weeks. May you find comfort and refuge with family, loved ones, nesting in your home. Go for a long walk in this hemisphere awakening to spring. Cook some soul and body  nourishing food. And allow a good book take you away for just a little while.

Here are few suggestions from my February reads:

The worst hard time had befallen South Carolina long before the Depression sank the rest of the nation. In the years following a boll weevil infestation which decimated the cotton industry, the town of Branchville is barely hanging on, even as its secrets rise like the eyes of an alligator surfacing from the depths of a murky swamp.

Deb Spera paints a vivid picture of the rural South in the early 1920’s – the bleak existence, Jim Crow segregation and racism, the plight of women controlled by amoral men. Call Your Daughter Home alternates its first-person perspective between Gert, a young mother of four daughters who frees herself from the tyranny of an abusive husband but is still prisoner to grinding poverty; Retta, a Black housekeeper who mourns the death of a beloved only child; and Annie, the wife of a plantation owner and mother to four children, two of whom are estranged- her daughters- for a crime that she did not commit, but for which the girls still hold her responsible.

The novel is both a mesmerizing work of historical fiction, deeply rooted in time and place, and of literary suspense. Tension and dread flow thick and dark through the story as the reader wonders if Gert will be called to reckoning for her crime and if Annie will seek justice for the wrongs committed to her, and others’, children. Gothic melodrama overlays much of the book’s final third, as acts of God, epidemics, and shocking revelations merge into a breathless denouement, but the strength of the characters and their intertwined relationships hold the reader’s emotional attention.

A Pilgrimage to Eternity by Timothy Egan

To know me is to know that I am fascinated by the history of Europe in the Middle Ages, I love long-distance walking, I have written a novel about the Catholic Church’s crusade to rid France of the Cathars, and my bucket list is full of pilgrimages, even though I’m not, nor will ever be, Catholic.

So I couldn’t wait to curl up with Timothy Egan’s A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith, not only because of its setting and subject matter, but the author himself. A personal hero, one my Pacific Northwest compatriots, whose narrative nonfiction ranks among my favorites.

The author takes on the 1,200 mile Via Francigena, a medieval route between Canterbury and Rome, to contemplate the Catholic faith, search for meaning in its history, and come to terms with his own ambivalence. Egan was raised in a large Irish Catholic family in Spokane, home to the Jesuit university, Gonzaga. His mother was a vibrant, selfless, would-be artist who traded her own ambitions to raise a family and be a wife-mother to a taciturn salesman. He is a self-professed skeptic and abandoned his faith in the face of the Catholic church’s and God’s many failings, “You can see why people shun a supposedly benevolent creator who presided over the slaughter of the Wars of Religion, the African slave trade, the butchery of the Great War, Stalin’s mass executions, genocide in Germany and Uganda and Cambodia.” But Egan is hoping to reconnect with some manner of spirituality. His sister-in-law is dying of cancer, and he’s getting to the age when one’s mortality begs the question of an afterlife.

A Pilgrimage to Eternity is a humane, funny, gentle and engaging travelogue, a glimpse into the fraught and fascinating history of Catholicism and Christianity which is in many ways the history of Western Europe. Egan pulls no punches when detailing the broken promises and travesties of the Church, either historical or contemporary, including a harrowing episode of a predatory priest in Spokane, but he remains unabashedly admiring of Pope Francis and eagerly hopes for an audience with the pontiff at the end of his journey, using his connections as a journalist to reach out to the Vatican.

It’s not clear what inner demons he calmed during his long walk to the seat of the Catholic Church; this books is less about Egan’s spiritual journey than his physical and cultural one. It made me long to lace up my boots and strap on my pack, recalling the mind-emptying meditative bliss of my own long foot journeys through Ireland, and the peace I found in walking. I now add the Via Francigena to the long list of pilgrimages throughout Europe I will take in the years to come. Glad to learn the trick about taping heels (and toes- oh, that was so painful to read!).

A lovely travel narrative by one of my favorite non-fiction writers and journalists.

Inland by Téa Obreht

Inland by Téa Obreht 

I feel sorry for the next book I pick up. When I love a read as much as Inland, the subsequent story or two usually pales unfairly in the afterglow.

This is a work of historical fiction, a panoramic western in the great tradition of Cather, McCarthy and Portis, but author Téa Obreht is too skilled a writer to be confined by expectations and conventions of genre. She writes with such urgency and empathy, with wonder for her story and compassion for her characters, that this reader was simply swept away in the moment, carried on the current of a brilliant narrative through a parched land where drops of water are as precious as flakes of gold. I think of recent historical fiction by the outstanding William Kent Kruger and Mary Doria Russell, and those novels now seem plodding and clunky compared to the ethereal grace of Obrecht’s Inland.

Two stories unfold, one expanding over four decades, the other in a span of hours, until they come together in the novel’s final, gutting pages that left me sobbing the smallest hours of the morning. Lurie, an immigrant and wanted man, hustles west from an Eastern seaport where he landed from Bosnia as a boy. He attaches himself to bands of itinerants and outlaws, trying to outrun his own WANTED poster. He finds himself astride a camel, imported as pack animals by the Army which supposed the beasts well suited to the desert west of the Arizona Territory. His compatriots hail from Greece, Turkey, and the ancient cultures of the Levant, places we don’t typically associate with the settlement of the American West. Lurie spins out his long tale to his beloved companion, the stalwart camel, Burke.

Her throat aching with thirst, Nora Lark homesteads with her husband, Emmett, and three sons in “a little mining district between Phoenix and Flagstaff.” Emmett is three days late returning with their water supply and the morning after a heated argument with Nora, the two older Lark sons disappear in search of their father. Nora is left on the forlorn property with fragile seven-year-old Toby, stroke-addled Grandma, and her husband’s scatterbrained young cousin, Josie, who claims to commune with the spirit world. Nora maintains a heartrending patter with her daughter, Evelyn, who died of heatstroke as an infant, but in conversation is a sophisticated and articulate foil to the cruel, unforgiving land that her family survives in. Nora carries a slow-burning torch for Sheriff Harlan Bell, with whom she has a shadowy unrequited love that is full of longing and empathy. Their few scenes together are full of aching desire, their loneliness epitomizing the beautiful, terrible landscape that shifts between silence and violence in a heartbeat.

Obreht creates a breathless tension as Lurie’s and Nora’s stories track toward collision. The desiccated land is haunted with ghosts, menaced by drought and starvation, riders appearing on the horizon are unknown as friend or foe until they reach shotgun distance. And yet the cast of characters retains an enchanting humanity with Nora, tough, broken, resolute and loving, the greatest among them.

It’s been eight years since Téa Obreht’s celebrated debut The Tiger’s Wife, which I lauded for its beautiful prose, but lamented the lack of connection to character and the overwrought fabulism. Inland is the work of an author deeply in touch with her rich cast, allowing them agency in this exquisitely rendered story. I didn’t expect to love Inland as much as I did, given the low rating here. I’m so very glad I ignored the naysayers to discover this unusual, luminous novel.

Also, I love camels.

Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

Shattering and vital.

“Numbers and maps tell horror stories, but the stories of deepest horror are perhaps those for which there are no numbers, no maps, no possible accountability, no words ever written or spoken, And perhaps the only way to grant any justice—were that even possible— is by hearing and recording those stories over and over again, so that they come back, always to haunt and shame us. Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalizing horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.”

In the spring of 2015, Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli, while her own immigration status was under review, began working as a Spanish-language interpreter for the New York immigration court. Her task was to conduct a forty question interview of children who had arrived in the United States illegally, crossing the US-Mexico border. Nearly all of these children had fled their home countries of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico to escape crime, poverty, abuse, making the perilous crossing with paid coyotes, risking rape, enslavement, and the desert elements. Once in the United States, they are at the mercy of ICE and the civil court system.

This slim books recounts the ways in which children responded to the questions posed by Luiselli during the court intake interview and the contemporary history of the immigration crisis in America, which has become a veritable shitstorm under the Trump Administration, aided and abetted by all previous administrations, and of course, the United States’s decades-long meddling in every aspect of Central America’s affairs, leaving a bloody and intractable mess in their wake.

This book came to my attention in the long list of What to Read Instead of American Dirt, and as a study guide/precursor to Luiselli’s recent novel Lost Children Archive which Forty Questions inspired. Please read.

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