I’ll Gather My Geese by Hallie Crawford Stillwell

It has been a long while since I read a book given me by Fil (three years!), but I remain grateful. I’ve been recently traveling in the Big Bend region (and you can check out my travels here), and so I packed this one along.

Hallie Stillwell was born in Waco, but when she was a year old the family moved to West Texas, and (aside from three years in New Mexico) she would live the rest of her life there. The towns she knows best and describes here – Alpine, Marathon, San Angelo, Ozona – are familiar to me from my visits to the region, and there is always a warm fuzzy feeling when I recognize the places I encounter in books.

Hallie moved to Presidio in 1916 at age 18 to teach school, leaving at 20 to marry a rancher, Roy, in the borderlands. She would be by his side until his death in 1948. She was born in 1897 and died in 1997, just shy of her 100th birthday: that fact alone would make her memoir significant – just think of all the changes she’d seen. As Hallie briefly catalogs in her preface, she lived through Pancho Villa’s revolution; the Spanish influenza epidemic; the 1929 crash and the Depression; two world wars; and countless technological advances. This is her memoir.

The title is explained: her father thought, when she headed to bordertown Presidio (where I ate lunch just the other day) as a teenager to work, that she was chasing wild geese. She told him that she’d gather them then. This is a phrase that recurs, and shows the early strength of character that would mark her life. This book has a style I recognize: the writing is uncomplicated, straightforward, not a work of fine art but of reportage. I did note some fun colloquialisms: “not worth a tinker’s dam,” “so upset that I could have fought a circle of saws.” But the point is the stories, not the writing.

I also noted Hallie’s habit to sum up her feelings. Often sections of text end with a remark about how contended and happy her family was; or, conversely, about how frustrating Roy could be, with his taciturn nature and resistance to change. However Roy irritates her, though, or however often she bemoans her own inexperience and ignorance of ranching operations, she always returns to the refrain: “I remember thinking… ‘I hope our lives will always be this way.'” “I felt that my life was complete… I often wondered what more I could want.” The overall effect is of a woman pleased with her lot, through the unbelievably hard times and Roy’s often obnoxious (though often funny) behavior. This kind of refrain could get tiresome, as Pollyanna as it is. But it felt authentic here. Perhaps Hallie is trying to convince herself as much as she is us, in looking back at a life that was hard but worthwhile. It feels real. It also feels in line with the untutored, amateur, honest memoir style.

I was a bit disappointed to see this book end with Roy’s death, as she lived almost another 50 years after that point. The “In Memoriam” epilogue to my memorial printing says, “Roy’s death in 1948 at the beginning of the longest drought of the century impelled Hallie to diversify. Having already mastered the roles of teacher, rancher, marksman, and mother, she became a justice of the peace, barber, journalist, author, storekeeper, RV innkeeper, and celebrity.” (Markswoman, please!) But none of these stories are told in this volume. I think that’s a loss.

But what is here is fine reading, and I do recommend it.

Rating: 7 head of cattle.

Lizards on the Mantel, Burros at the Door: A Big Bend Memoir by Etta Koch with June Cooper Price

lizards burrosThanks to Fil for another hit. (Still don’t give me any more books, though, I tell you I’m swamped.) Reading this memoir about a place I love was engaging, amusing and comforting.

Etta Lindeman was born in Ohio in 1904. She was an active youngster but sickly in her young adulthood, when she married Peter Koch. One recommendation to help her breathing troubles was to move to a warm, dry climate. This, combined with Peter’s professional ambitions, took them on a trip cross-country that was to wind up in Arizona, where they would settle and continue to raise their three daughters. Peter was a newspaper photographer who wanted to make nature films and travel the country giving accompanying lectures; the National Parks Service helped by engaging him to promote several parks, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and eventually… Big Bend. The Kochs drove their 23-foot trailer (“Porky the Road Hog”) from Ohio to the Smokies, through Louisiana, where Peter filmed the wetlands’ water birds, and into Big Bend through Marathon, Texas. As Etta relates in this journal-like memoir, her family’s adjustment to the West Texas desert near the Mexican border was not without challenges. She was initially leery: “Texas had always been for me a movie set… A place of flimsy barrooms people by six-footers with six-shooters.” But eventually it wins their hearts and they settle permanently. The three Koch daughters have remained in Texas. The eldest, June, is co-author here, having done her own research, pulled together her mother’s papers and a first draft and seen them through to publication.

Etta’s voice is charming. She is not a professional writer, and her prose is perhaps not artful; I think of the term “outsider art” – but surprisingly lovely in moments, too. I liked her evocative descriptions, and these lines:

Nearby is a weeping juniper that is so strange. At first I thought the tree was wilting and perhaps ready to die but was told it is a dejected tree by nature.

Her style is mostly reportorial, but with a brisk, conversational tone. The chapters generally cover episodes or events: the surprise birthday party Pete throws her; a trip to Hot Springs; Pete’s trip down the Santa Elena canyon in a homemade boat. She has a sense of humor, too, a sense of fun (despite describing herself as the scaredy-cat of this active family). My favorite part must have been the final chapter, “Kaufman’s Draw,” which describes an adventure driving across the desert: it reminded me of Abbey’s “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” that story in The Journey Home that I loved so much.

I found the Big Bend I know and love in this book, although earlier, cleaner. When Etta writes,

I didn’t know the sky was so big… so blue… but as we traveled west I discovered that although the earth grew whiter and vegetation sparser, the sky grew more intense, more brilliantly blue.

I recognize this precisely. I have yet to find the scientific explanation for it, but the light out there is different: sharper, brighter.

Lizards on the Mantel, Burros at the Door is also a fine primary source on the work of community building, which is part of what it means to pioneer or homestead: as the Park Service’s settlement (in the Basin of the Chisos Mountains) grows in population, Etta – who had home-schooled her children since arriving in Big Bend – teamed up with other wives and mothers to provide schooling and cultural activities. The community puts on dances, has potluck dinners and cooperates in living and raising kids in such a remote spot.

Simply told but with unmistakable personality, this first-person account of roughing it in far West Texas won my heart. It will get extra points with readers who love the place, like I do, but there is certainly something here for everyone who likes history, memoir, and the romance of simple living.

Rating: 7 murals.

From Alaska to Tierra del Fuego: Across the Americas in Two Years by Michael Boyny

fromalaskaAnother gift from Fil, and another winner!

This is a coffee table book that is part travel narrative and part photography or art book. Author Michael Boyny tells us that he and his partner, Sabine, are travel junkies. They conceived of this road trip from tip to tip of the Americas and planned it well in advance, buying a 1985 Ford F250 with motorhome cab in their native Germany, fitting it out and test-running it on a trip through Scandinavia before shipping it to New York and setting off across Canada. Chapters each detail a segment of the trip and run, oh, 4-8 pages each: quick descriptions of places that struck them in terms of natural beauty, culture, physical activity, or other item of interest (good and bad). Whole states may be covered quickly or require more time, depending on how they struck Boyny. Two years of travel are covered in under 200 pages, and a number of those pages are devoted to photographs (on which more in a minute), so the text is necessarily a little cursory here and there; but no matter. It is less an in-depth study of anyplace in particular and more a travel journal: just the highlights. I took my time reading this book in bursts of just a few pages or chapters at a sitting – at my coffee table, in fact. And it was very enjoyable.

Boyny’s English is perfectly fine, but sometimes a little odd; he is very fond of adjectives. Perhaps someone told him that an adjective for every noun was a good method of descriptive writing? At least that was my impression in the opening pages; either he settled down or I stopped noticing. Call it a nuance that I noted, but didn’t get in the way too much. Another funny item I noticed was the exhaustive translation of kilometers to miles (centimeters to inches, etc.), which I appreciate very much in theory but which sometimes turned downright amusing in practice:

240 becomes 230, like magic!

240 becomes 230, like magic!

Michael and Sabine see Alaska; Canada; the Western United States; Mexico; Central and western South America. They are outdoorsy types (perhaps this goes without saying: they’re living in a truck for two years!) and often camp outside, sometimes rent rooms or hotel rooms, even occasionally a more permanent dwelling (seven weeks in a rented house in San Miguel de Allende taking Spanish lessons). They also do quite a bit of hiking (overnight backpacking included), and outings (again sometimes overnight) in the canoe they carry on top of the truck; a scooter racked behind allows for easy short trips as well. The physical activities they undertake set them well apart from your average (American) RV dweller. They compile a fine list of places they could live, across both continents, and are kind in their sparse criticisms; the coast of Peru gets a poor rating but the highlands of that same country become a highlight just pages later.

But oh, the photographs. Don’t get me wrong: Boyny’s narrative of two years spent traversing 15 countries was well worth reading, an interesting education in snippets, even within my own country or places I’ve visited, because he enjoys his own unique perspective. But the photographs alone make this book a special find. Boyny is a passionate amateur photographer (maybe I shouldn’t say amateur; it’s how he makes his living when he stays in one place) and his photos share roughly equal space with text, including a good number of amazing two-page spreads. These photographs include portraits of the inhabitants of various places, wildlife (toucan! quetzal!) and scenes of commerce and lifestyles; but the strongest, unsurprisingly, are landscapes. The largest spreads include views of the Yukon; Monument Valley; the Grand Canyon (naturally); Bryce Canyon; the Mayan ruins at Tulum (Husband and I have been there!); the Galapagos; Machu Picchu; and Patagonian lakes. I can’t say enough about his captures of some of the most extraordinary views on the planet – they alone make this trip worth it, both for Michael and Sabine, and for his readers.

A major hit for photos alone; an an interesting travel story to boot. Thanks, Fil!

Rating: 8 muddy tracks.

The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich

Edit: see Pops’s review here.

solaceThe observation that sticks with me most from this slim, beautiful book is: it’s interesting how poetic nature writing never grows old for me, even though in some ways Ehrlich’s work here is not particularly new. She is unique, like every one of us snowflakes – I don’t mean to call her derivative; read on – but she definitely follows in a tradition; and what I’m trying to say is, I am always ready for another literary descendant of Thoreau, Leopold and Abbey. Especially when she’s a woman and offers a little different take in that respect.

Gretel Ehrlich is decidedly special, for all that I’ve compared her to the greats that she has followed. For one thing, her writing is exquisite, like perfect drops of water with points of light shining on them. Her story is her own, too. She was a filmmaker in New York City who traveled to Wyoming in 1976 to shoot a film, and also to escape the way in which her life was falling apart: the man she loves, her business partner, had just been given only a few months to live. She hangs around sheep ranches until she becomes one of them, a sheepherder, a ranch hand, a rancher. She visits with the dying man, keeps in touch, in pain, and then he dies far away while she’s preparing to fly home to see him. So her time in Wyoming, in the wild, on the frontier, with animals and laconic men, is a time of mourning and healing, as in Mountains of Light, or somewhat as in Fire Season.

Ehrlich’s wild is not Ed Abbey’s, or Phil Connors’, or Derrick Jensen’s, or Aldo Leopold’s wild; hers is populated by humans, nonnative stock animals and plant species, and irrigation. But it is far wilder than New York City, and far wilder than most of our country then and certainly most if not all of it now. It retained a wildness, including a human wildness. I love her descriptions of the human and animal personalities she comes to know. I also love her discussion of what it is to be a cowboy (or cowgirl, of which there are also several stunning examples).

But the best part has got to be her writing. And as I’m inclined to do in such cases, I’m trying to write less myself and share more of her lovely thoughts and phrases.

Disfigurement is synonymous with the whole idea of a frontier. As soon as we lay our hands on it, the freedom we thought it represented is quickly gone.

The old conundrum. We love it; we want to save and preserve and conserve it so we can enjoy it; but every act of enjoying is a failure of preservation. If we all lived in the wild it would be gone. (Which we’re headed towards, anyway.)

True solace is finding none, which is to say, it is everywhere.

As the title indicates, Erhlich is seeking solace – in the mourning of her lost partner, but also in the need for change more generally, I think.

Because she is the granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, I imagined she possessed unusual reserves of hardiness. But she protested. “I don’t do a very good job of it,” she said modestly. “I get in these hoarding moods and get mad at myself for all the stupid things I do. Then I pick up this old kaleidoscope and give it a whirl. See, it’s impossible to keep just one thing in view. It gives way to other things and they’re all beautiful.”

Isn’t that lovely? It’s always changing, and always beautiful. (Can’t say I’m not partial to an Emerson allusion, either.)

Winter scarified me. Under each cheekbone I thought I could feel claw marks and scar tissue.

Great imagery here, about the harshness of the world out there, in a Wyoming winter.

The seasons are a Jacob’s ladder climbed by migrating elk and deer. Our ranch is one of their resting places. If I was leery about being an owner, a possessor of land, now I have to understand the ways in which the place possesses me. Mowing hayfields feels like mowing myself. I wake up mornings expecting to find my hair shorn. The pastures bend into me; the water I ushered over hard ground becomes one drink of grass. Later in the year, feeding the bales of hay we’ve put up is a regurgitative act: thrown down from a high stack on chill days they break open in front of the horses like loaves of hot bread.

Derrick Jensen would like that. Ever since I read him (and before; but especially since), I’ve been thinking about the concept of land ownership, so this struck a chord.

And finally –

Leaves are verbs that conjugate the seasons.

Could a person ask for more than this? Leaves as verbs. Gretel Ehrlich, you have won me over.

Rating: 9 cowboys.

book beginnings on Friday: The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.


Fil wins again with this outstanding and unknown (to me, and I’m pretty sure he said to him as well) little book. Gretel Ehrlich writes beautifully and I love it. She begins:

It’s May and I’ve just awakened from a nap, curled against sagebrush the way my dog taught me to sleep – sheltered from wind. A front is pulling the huge sky over me, and from the dark a hailstone has hit me on the head.

She’s writing about living in Wyoming, nearer nature than most of us do, working as a sheepherder and a ranch hand and escaping her life in New York City and a recent personal tragedy. It’s lovely. I marvel at how I can’t get enough of lyrical nature writing; and this is a woman’s story of dealing with life, to boot. I recommend it. Review to come.

As usual, thank you, Fil.

books from Fil

I thought it was time for a feature post on my most frequent book gifter. He does an excellent job of selecting reading material for me; I’m sure you will recognize the themes from the list below. Nothing he’s given me (that I’ve read) has been less than great, yet. But I still have many of them to read.

I first met Fil at the bike shop where he works, and where I would later work alongside him. That would have been, oh, almost ten years ago. The first book gifts he got me were back when we were coworkers, for my birthday, I’m fairly sure; and those were bike themed. Since then, we have also shared interests in Mexico and in travel in general. I’ve made this list in vague alphabetical order, from memory, and I’m not completely sure that it’s exhaustive, but it’s a great start:

six days

Six Days of Madness by Ted Harper: a 1993 book about six-day racing in the United States in the “Golden Age” of cycling, the 1890’s. I read it, pre-blog, and LOVED it: track racing is obscure enough, but six-day racing is an extra-special, rare reading subject.

bicycle racing

Bicycle Racing in the Modern Era: a VeloNews production covering 25 years of pro cycling in multiple disciplines (road, track, mountain, cyclocross, BMX), and the beauty of it is that the 25 years covered are 1975-2000 – meaning that Lance Armstrong has only a bit part. In a totally Lance-saturated world, this was inexpressibly refreshing; and I learned a lot. I read it pre-blog.


Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride by Peter Zheutlin: the story of Annie Londonderry’s bike ride (ostensibly) around the world incorporates adventure, women’s issues, world travel & cultures, as well as the Golden Age of cycling. There is even a thread running through it regarding women’s clothing and clothing reform – interesting stuff.


Spokesongs: Bicycle Adventures on Three Continents by Willie Weir: a series of anecdotes by a man who cycle-tours several continents. A focus on the developing world makes for some interesting cultural tidbits.


I’ll Gather My Geese by Hallie Crawford Stillwell: the memoir of a woman who headed off into the unknown of far southwest Texas in the 1910’s to work as a schoolteacher and live on a ranch. Sounds good! I just haven’t gotten to it yet.


From Alaska to Tierra del Fuego: Across the Americas in Two Years by Michael Boyny: just looking at that gorgeous cover (click to enlarge) makes me anxious to get to this one, a coffee-table book, which I think was technically given to Husband but Husband does not read… It’s the story of a couple that traveled the length of the Americas in an old pick-up truck, and promises “superb pictures.”


The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros: an exceptionally beautiful and powerful collection of short stories that might be poems. Not one to miss! And Fil had never read it; so I was able to recommend it back to him. Note that this edition is extra-special because of the lovely introduction (by Cisneros) that is included.


Incidents of Travel in Yucatan by John Lloyd Stephens, Volumes I & II: Barnes & Noble claims that “Edgar Allan Poe called it ‘perhaps the most interesting travel book ever published.'” That might do it for me, right there! Husband and I have a special fondness for Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, and an 1800’s-era travelogue with that kind of blurb definitely belongs on my book shelf.


Cruisers by Jonny Fuego and Michael Ames: another given to Husband, and more of a coffee table book than a cover-to-cover, although I confess I haven’t looked at it much yet. Pictures of beautiful bicycles, of course, do belong on our coffee table. For a little context, here’s Husband on our wedding day on the bike I got him for a wedding present:
I brought Ritchey to the wedding on my cruiser:
Sorry, I got distracted.


The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich: reputed to be a fine, lyrical observation of the American West of the 1970’s. Hopefully – and I think this is Fil’s intention – it will fall in line with the tradition of Edward Abbey and Phil Connors; and more recently, Isabella Bird (see below). Bonus: just the other day, A.Word.A.Day featured Ehrlich for their “thought for the day”:

Walking is also an ambulation of mind.

Which is a lovely one.


The Noblest Invention from Bicycling Magazine: another coffee-table bike book, this one on the history of the bicycle, presumably a celebration of our relationship with two wheels and with lots of good pictures, as well as a well-advertised foreword by Lance Armstrong, who has been inescapable in cycling publications for years – maybe that will change now with his newfound ignominy?


The Road to Wellville by T.C. Boyle: I know nothing about this one, and I believe the same goes for Fil; I think it was purchased on the strength of Boyle’s reputation, which I know although I have read none of his yet. So, fair enough, Fil. A reading assignment. Okay.


Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike by Grant Petersen: “radically practical” sounds like a quite fine way to describe Petersen himself, a personality I’m familiar with through the Rivendell Reader (an occasional serial publication from Rivendell Bicycle Works, Petersen’s company – you can see a few issues here). He is the definitive retro-grouch when it comes to bicycles, and my reaction to his philosophies is mixed: much of what he says makes sense (and I have a little retro-grouch, even a little Luddite, running through me), but some of it seems to be clearly grouchiness for its own sake. Fil had already become ambivalent about this book by the time he gifted it to me! And I haven’t looked at it yet; but I will. I have David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries on my shelf, too (also a gift, from another friend), despite BikeSnob‘s relentless fun-making of him, and I may as well get all sides of this story! I suspect I will fall in line with the majority of Petersen’s directives, at least.


Team 7-Eleven: How an Unsung Band of American Cyclists Took on the World – and Won by Geoff Drake: the story of professional road racing in the pre-Lance era, back when all their gear was recognizable and Americans were new on the scene. I can read that.


Adventures in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird: just recently read, of course. I have an idea that this might make a fine comparison read next to The Solace of Open Spaces, above, which is similar in being a woman’s perspective on the natural beauty and benefits of the American West, but from precisely 100 years later. Perhaps that’s the next Fil-gifted read I shall look forward to. Hm. I am also most attracted (in making this list) by I’ll Gather My Geese, From Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (who can resist the Poe endorsement!). In other words, Fil is still doing well around here! Oh, and I feel I should get to the David Byrne book, too, and compare it to Bike Snob and Just Ride.

Which books on this list appeal to you especially? Do you have friends who consistently give you books, or consistently give really good gifts, or (lucky you!) both?

Adventures in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird

adventuresI have a friend named Fil who won’t stop bringing me books. I’ve told him how badly my reading is backlogged, but still we can’t have dinner or a drink without bringing me a book, or several. There are worse problems to have. He certainly does a fine job of selecting them, there’s no question about that; I just worry about finding time for them all. This one, however, fit perfectly into a hole in my reading at the time it arrived: I was a little behind and needed a quick read to review for you all here when he brought me this small, slim paperback of 119 pages. Perhaps it’s wrong to choose one’s reading based on length! but sometimes it does go that way. So, enter Isabella Bird.

From a brief bio in the opening pages, I learned that she was born in 1831 in England, and was sickly and in poor health for the first 40 years of her life, until she traveled to Hawaii and climbed a volcano. From there, she realized that outdoor activity was much more her style than were British sickrooms, and she embarked on a different lifestyle. Adventures in the Rocky Mountains is a collection of letters (and excerpts from letters) she sent to a sister back home while tramping around the Rockies, then not yet a part of the United States but a frontier dominated by hard drinking, hard living, and men.

Bird’s writing is remarkable for its lovely, evocative descriptions of natural scenery, as well as its equally evocative, but less praising, descriptions of frontier life. She retains some disdain for the uncivilized dress and manners of some of her neighbors, but before we call her prudish we will note that she was “bagging 14ers” in a time and place when women were scarce, and were hardworking frontier wives rather than adventurers. In other words, despite preferring a well-dressed conversationalist as companion to a ragged and “coarse” one, she was a tough cookie. A quotation from one of her letters graces the front cover: “There’s nothing Western folk admire so much as pluck in a woman…”

Aside from the descriptions of natural beauty and frontier life, I found a third reason to recommend this book: the character of Mr Nugent or ‘Jim’ (never referred to without the ‘single quotation marks’!), and his dog ‘Ring’ (also always so designated). ‘Mountain Jim’ is a well-known ruffian and desperado with no end of violence and criminality in his past – he confides in Bird at one point such atrocities that she can’t bring herself to relate them. But he is also a perfect gentleman, apparently, in the right mood. He is a “countryman” of Bird’s, a wonderful conversationalist, and quite chivalrous as well as respectful of her abilities to be one of the guys. He is described as charmingly as are the Rocky Mountains. For that matter, the less prominent Evans (another very likeable but also alcoholic and problematic frontiersman) gets a similarly colorful character sketch; and the UNlikeable Lyman as well; so really I should add characterization of people generally to Bird’s list of literary talents.

I am going to stop telling you and show you, through a few choice passages, below.

on a sunset:

The sun was setting fast, and against his golden light green promontories, wooded with stately pines, stood out one beyond another in a medium of dark rich blue, while grey bleached summits, peaked, turreted, and snow-slashed, were piled above them, gleaming with amber light. Darker grew the blue gloom, the dew fell heavily, aromatic odours floated on the air, and still the lofty peaks glowed with living light, till in one second it died off from them, leaving them with the ashy paleness of a dead face. It was dark and cold under the mountain shadows, the frosty chill of the high altitude wrapped me round, the solitude was overwhelming, and I reluctantly turned my horse’s head towards Truckee, often looking back to the ashy summits in their unearthly fascination.

on ‘Jim’:

Heavily loaded as all our horses were, ‘Jim’ started over the half-mile of level grass at a hand-gallop, and then throwing his mare on her haunches, pulled up alongside of me, and with a grace of manner which soon made me forget his appearance, entered into a conversation which lasted for more than three hours, in spite of the manifold checks of fording streams, single file, abrupt ascents and descents, and other incidents of mountain travel.

on a sunrise, and the lightening of the world:

There were dark pines against a lemon sky, grey peaks reddening and etherealising, gorges of deep and infinite blue, floods of golden glory pouring through canyons of enormous depth, an atmosphere of absolute purity, an occasional foreground of cottonwood and aspen flaunting in red and gold to intensify the blue gloom of the pines, the trickle and murmur of streams fringed with icicles, the strange sough of gusts moving among the pine tops – sights and sounds not of the lower earth, but of the solitary, beast-haunted, frozen upper altitudes.

on a high mountain lake:

I thought how their clear cold waters, growing turbid in the affluent flats, would heat under the tropic sun, and eventually form part of that great ocean river which renders our far-off islands habitable by impinging on their shores.

on society, even where people are scarce:

…in truth, this blue hollow, lying solitary at the foot of Long’s Peak, is a miniature world of great interest, in which love, jealousy, hatred, envy, pride, unselfishness, greed, selfishness, and self-sacrifice can be studied hourly, and there is always the unpleasantly exciting risk of an open quarrel with the neighbouring desperado, whose “I’ll shoot you!” has more than once been heard in the cabin.

Isabella Bird’s story of travel through Colorado Territory in the 1870’s, told in letters to her sister, spans almost precisely three months in time; but it is a lifetime of beautiful, incisive, gorgeously told observations, and we are lucky to have them today.

Rating: 7 breaths of rarefied air.

As usual, thanks Fil!

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Another gift from my buddy Fil, and another hit! Fil says he hasn’t read this one yet, himself, and I say to him and to all of you: hurry up and read this slim but powerful book! My 25th anniversary edition includes an introduction entitled “A House of My Own” by Cisneros, which was gold; do find an edition with this intro, because it’s wonderful. I would say it was my favorite part of the book but I can’t relegate any other part to less-than-favorite.

So first, the introduction. (A bell rang for me as I opened this book, as I was reading A Room of One’s Own simultaneously.) Cisneros describes a former self, the woman pictured on the opening page, a young woman living in her own apartment in Chicago, after graduate school, working to become a writer. It’s a really lovely essay all on its own, describing some of the challenges that faced a young Latina writer and looking at that former self through her older, wiser eyes. It was beautiful. I cried a little, not because anything was too terribly sad (okay, there was that one bit), but because it was so well-done. And it served as a beautiful introduction, as it introduces the young woman who composed the short stories, the episodes, the anecdotes that make up The House on Mango Street, not yet knowing that they would become a book. Rather, she was working on her MFA thesis in poetry, so those fiction fragments (or “little-little stories”) were extracurricular, failed to fit into a known body of work. But oh, the book that they became…

The House on Mango Street is a collection of short stories, and I mean short – the longest run to 3-4 pages, most 1-2, some just a paragraph long. As a whole, they follow Esperanza (the narrator) through the first year of life at the first home her parents own, on Mango Street. It is not the home they aspired to and Esperanza doesn’t like it very much. She has a lot in common with Cisneros – the city, the time, and the ethnic background; but I know from “A House of My Own” that Esperanza is really a combination of Cisneros’s students, people she’s known and people she’s made up, and herself. There is a coming-of-age element, as well as a theme of home – what makes a home, what a person need from her home.

The stories are entrancing. The style is great, is dynamic; it’s both poetic and conversational. It’s not formal; sometimes a sentence runs on until it loses track of itself, but I’ve come away with the strong impression that every word was carefully chosen and exactly in its place. The economy of language reminded me of Hemingway, although I don’t suppose Cisneros gets compared to him very often, and I don’t mean to say that they’re very similar. Rather, they both seem to have very carefully created what looks like simple language but turns out to be poetry. (There is of course always the danger that I see Hemingway everywhere because I’m crazy about his work.)

The subject matter is mostly mundane and ordinary (a young girl’s life and disillusions, her disappointment that she has to wear old shoes with a new dress to a party) but also serious, weighty, and sad (because such things happen to a young girl, too). I only knew Sandra Cisernos by reputation before I picked up this book; that will have to change, because she’s amazing. It’s only about 100 pages long (including the introduction), a super-easy read, and so powerful. No excuse! Go get yourself a copy.

Spokesongs: Bicycle Adventures on Three Continents by Willie Weir

This slim (140-page) volume is less traditional travel memoir and more a series of one-to-two page reports on individual experiences, or meditations on what it means to be a cycle-tourist in underdeveloped areas. The eponymous three “continents” of India, South Africa and the Balkans make up only a small portion of Weir’s experience as a cyclist and as a cycle-tourist (that is, someone traveling by bicycle). He also has experience as a bicycle courier in Seattle, something which will always increase credibility in my eyes. (I did the same in Houston for a few years, in an earlier life.) He calls his brief vignettes “verbal songs of the road,” which I think is a nice turn of phrase.

Each episode or anecdote tells a very simple, brief story; as a whole they don’t make up much of a sum narrative, which is not a criticism. This could be a coffee-table book, to be picked up time and again at random. It’s very easy, an effortless glimpse into one man’s adventures, with a touch of a love story coming in at the end. The writing isn’t sophisticated (nor even consistently correct, grammatically) but it’s sweet, and it’s real. While there are certainly far more complete, involved stories of bicycle adventures of various kinds, this might be the simplest to enjoy and one of the briefest. It was a gift from our buddy Fil to Husband, the Not-Reader, and I think it actually has a chance of being read by him, at least in parts, which is saying something. I recommend it for what it is: a brief look at cycle-touring in the developing world, or a collection of brief, captivating experiences.

Teaser Tuesdays: The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just open your current read to a random page and share a few sentences. Be careful not to include spoilers!

I had a difficult time choosing a teaser from this amazing book for you. My review is yet to come, but in a nutshell – read it.

From “Minerva Writes Poems,” here’s your teaser:

Minerva cries because her luck is unlucky. Every night and every day. And prays. But when the kids are asleep after she’s fed them their pancake dinner, she writes poems on little pieces of paper that she folds over and over and holds in her hands a long time, little pieces of paper that smell like a dime.

Speaking of poems… prose poetry, no?

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