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Sunday, June 30, 2019

Allow Me to Recommend a Book For Your Consideration

I have never asked a bookseller for a book recommendation. Disclosing desires and expectations to a stranger whose only connection to me is, in abstract, the book, seems too much like Catholic confession, if only a more intellectualized version of it. Dear bookseller, I would like to read a novel about the banal pursuit of carnal desire, which ultimately brings unhappiness to the ones who pursue it, and to everyone else around them. A novel about a couple trying to rid themselves of each other, and at the same time trying to save the little tribe they have so carefully, lovingly, and painstakingly created. They are desperate and confused, dear bookseller; don’t judge them. I need a novel about two people who simply stop understanding each other…. 
- Valerie Luiselli, Lost Children Archive

As a bookseller myself, I am perhaps oddly cautious about recommending books. I absolutely never tell anyone they should or, worse — God forbid! must read something, but my reticence goes further than that. Even when directly asked for to make a recommendation, I counter gently with a general question of my own, such as, “What kind of books do you like to read?” Because there’s no point in recommending a tome on history or economics to someone looking for light fiction or vice versa. And I cannot think of a single book, no matter how extraordinarily wonderful, that would do as a recommendation for anyone and everyone. Often I’ll go so far as to say that I enjoyed or even loved a particular book and to suggest that the person looking for something to read might also enjoy or even love it because..., giving a few of my reasons, which might or not be reasons for that other person, but I never insist. There is no better way, I believe, to put someone off a book by trying to trap or shame them into reading it. Years ago, a man visiting my bookstore who learned I had not, at that time, yet read Kristin Lavransdatter told me, in these very words, actually (I kid you not!) shaking his finger as he scolded, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” Rather than rushing to mend this fault in my character, I avoided reading the book for years, seeing that horrible man’s scolding face whenever the title came up in conversation or a copy of the novel came, briefly, into my hands. 

No, no, there are books I wish more people would read, but I refuse to present reading them as a duty.

I will, however, if asked — and occasionally without being asked, as I do in today’s post — recommend a book for someone’s consideration on the basis of my own fascination with it. So if your interests and reading tastes and preferences are similar to mine, you might be moved to try it, and if it’s not up your alley at all, for whatever reason, you’ve saved time by finding that out, too. Although I’m not sure, now that I think about that…. Maybe if it sounds like something you wouldn’t care for, I’ve somehow misrepresented it? I certainly hope that won’t be the case today!

…We order four hamburgers and four pink lemonades and spread our map out on the table while we wait for the food. We follow yellow and red highway lines with the tips of our index fingers, like a troupe of gypsies reading an enormous open palm. We look into our past and future: a departure, a change, long life, short life, hard circumstances, here you will head south, here you will encounter doubt and uncertainty, a crossroads ahead.

Brief digression: Years ago I sat at a table in a bar with a group of other graduate students in philosophy, and one of the group, a student from another country (the young man from Spain or Otto from Finland?) asked innocently, of a song playing on the jukebox just then, what "City of New Orleans" was about. Well, ask eight philosophers what anything in this world is about and prepare yourself for a perfect storm of disputation! 

I think of that evening and the philosophical discussion that ensued because Lost Children Archive could be characterized in so many ways. In the most basic and simple sense, it is the story of a road trip, as a couple married for four years, his young son, and her even younger daughter set out on a cross-country road trip from New York to the American Southwest. They travel first in a southerly direction, then in South Carolina begin their westward trek. Their progress is unhurried, as they take time to sight-see along the way. In the car they listen to audiobooks and music but always remain attuned to towns and landscapes they are passing through, parts of the country they have never seen before. Road trip. That’s the simplest, shortest way to describe the book.

Of course, there’s much, much more to it.

Right at the beginning we learn that the man and woman share an unusual career. She is a sound “documentarian” (her word), he a “documentarist” (his word). Both record and assemble documentary soundscapes. They first met on a project in New York, where their assignment was to go about the city and record as many of the world’s spoken languages as they could find. The different names they give to what they do, however, indicate differences in both background experience and what kind of projects they want to take on in the future, differences that put their future as a couple in doubt. Will they remain together or part to go in different directions? That is one of the relationship questions posed by the novel.

At Chiricahua National Monument
Their travel destination is one the man has chosen for a new project he has conceived on “echoes” of the Apaches who lived in the Chiricahua Mountains in southeast Arizona, and the woman has realized that she can expand new work she began with immigrant children in New York to an exploration of the situation of undocumented children along the border with Mexico. In that way, their separate projects can be pursued in parallel, at least for a while, once the family reaches the Southwest. As they makes its way toward what they mistakenly believe to be Fort Still, Oklahoma — learning of their error only when they arrive, which seems strange, because wouldn’t they have seen it written as Fort Sill on their maps? Yet we often see what we expect to see rather than what is before our eyes — the woman begins to see a way in which the separate projects may actually overlap, at least for her. As the man tells the children about the Indian Removal Act,
I don’t interrupt his story to say so out loud, but the word “removal” is still used today as a euphemism for “deportation.” I read somewhere, though I don’t remember where, that removal is to deportation what sex is to rape. When an “illegal” immigrant is deported nowadays, he or she is, in written history, “removed.” I take my recorder from the glove compartment and start recording my husband, without him or anyone noticing. His stories are not directly linked to the piece I’m working on, but the more I listen to the stories he tells about this country’s past, the more it seems like he’s talking about the present. 

art on border wall at Douglas, AZ
And so, the novel is also about American history and American current events, Apache history, history of the Western frontier (and the myth of the frontier and the vanished frontier), about U.S.-Mexican history, the current situation on the border, immigration, and more. With makers of sound documentaries at its center, documents and documentation and archives form another general theme of the book, specific needed documents also being what the immigrant children, at risk of being “removed,” too often lack. And it is about what makes families and what holds them together. There are also two very specific "lost children," two girls, undocumented, that the woman has been asked by their mother to look for in New Mexico or Arizona. 

The main characters are referred to simply as “the man,” “the woman,” “the boy,” and “the girl” throughout the novel. We are never given their names. The woman tells the story -- thus we have more physical descriptions of the other three, more of the woman’s thoughts as they travel -- but we see and hear them all as they interact. The boy, ten years old, is learning to use a camera, undertaking his own documentation of their trip. The five-year-old girl, full of life, brings a fresh perspective to many moments. [Later note: Halfway through the book, the boy takes over for a while as narrator, and later still voices mingle, in ways and for reasons I leave you to discover for yourself.]

All this “about” talk, though, tells you nothing of the spellbinding narrator’s voice. Indeed, it tells you nothing of the spell cast by the the story of the trip itself, deepening with every mile as we learn more of what has brought these people to where they are and what propels them forward into their uncertain future, as we share their experiences along the road. 

For a reader without deep concerns about immigration or border security or lost children (though I ask myself, who could that reader possibly be?), Luiselli’s novel can/could be read for the innovative and yet somehow timeless beauty of the writing. That would be reading at the level of enjoyment. Deeper still, one can read the story (as I’m sure most will) for both its contemporary and historical context. 

Finally, then, a personal note, one that comes very early on in the novel:

Finally, one night, my husband spread the big map out on our bed and called the children and me into our room. He swiped the tip of his index finger from New York all the way down to Arizona, and then tapped twice on a point, a tiny dot in the southeastern corner of the state. He said:
Here, what? the boy asked.
Here are the Chiricahua Mountains, he said.
And? the boy asked.
And that is the heart of Apacheria, he answered.

There it is, you see, for me. It all comes together for me, as it seems to be coming together (I am as yet not halfway through the novel) for the woman telling the story: the Chiricahuas (Echo Canyon), the Dos Cabezas, the Dragoons (Cochise Stronghold); Cochise and Geronimo and Lozen and U.S. policy with Native Americans from the beginning of our country's history; the U.S. border with Mexico; immigration and immigrants without documents and the lost immigrant children; where we’ve been as a nation, where we are now, and where we’re going; the sights and sounds and roads and small towns and big cities across this land. It’s all here. It’s all in this book.

north of border

south of border

You might want to think about reading Lost Children Archive. If you love it only half as much as I do, it will be well worth your time.

July 1 postscriptThe only part of the book that really bothered me was reading about Cochise being buried at Fort Sill. He wasn't. His grave is not there and never was. Cochise died in Arizona and was buried somewhere in the Stronghold, by Apaches, in an unmarked grave. When the fictional family in the book is on the road, on their way west, they think they are going to Fort Still — they have the name wrong — and that took me aback, but it’s their mistake, and when they see the sign they realize their error, so I kept thinking they would correct the part about where Cochise was buried, too, but apparently the author is the one who misinformed her characters on that score. Did she visit Fort Sill? I’d say not. There is so much Apache history in the book, how did she miss the fact that Cochise died before Geronimo and the others were “relocated” by train to Florida? In biographical/historical terms, it’s a serious error. In literary terms, in terms of the length of a book’s life span, maybe it doesn’t matter quite as much. Who am I to say? Historians, as well as living descendants of Cochise today, cannot have the viewpoint of possible heirs of world literature centuries in the future — if civilization lasts that long.

The thing is, I haven't even begun to describe for you the lyrical beauty and the interweaving of life, literature, and documentation that make this book worth your consideration. Please give it a try!

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