Archive for April, 2008

Spring Fever

April 21, 2008

Finally! It feels like spring.  This winter felt especially long.  There was not much snow but it was stayed cold for a long time.  In New England where I went to college, spring seemed to arrive really abruptly; like one day it is 20 degrees and snowing, the next day is 50 degrees and there’s mud everywhere, the next day it is 70 degrees and then its summer.   But spring comes to New York really slowly, so when that first warm sunny day finally comes around, I am just ready to burst.  It is painful for me to inside on the first spring days.  I NEED to be outdoors or I’ll loose my mind.

So, what better time to pick up The Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City?  I read most over it over the weekend.  There’s actually maps and descriptions of really neat city parks.  Not just the super stars like Central Park and Prospect Park, but lesser known places like Alley Pond Park in Queens and Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, which used to be the city’s first airport and now features the city’s only (legal) overnight campgrounds.  Not only do you get descriptions of the parks but Leslie Day provides directions to the park – via bus, subway or car, gives you maps of park trails, info centers, and parking sites.  This is the most helpful thing ever.  Besides Central and Propect, I haven’t really been to any other city park.  I know they’re out there, but I never knew how to get to them, what they are like, where the entrances where, where to park my car if I drive there.  Parks in NYC are just green blobs on a map.  But now finally, I have maps to navigate these green blobs and I can’t wait to go exploring and cure my spring fever.

However, the field guide to plants and wildlife is lacking and not that comprehensive.  If you’re going on a nature walk to observe wildlife, you’re better off going with a Audubon or Peterson’s field guide.  But for natural history and user-friendly info on NYC parks, this book is great.  Plus the author lives in a houseboat on the boat basin off 79th St, which is neat.

The Devil’s Highway – A True Story

April 18, 2008

I was going to stop reading The Devil’s Highway after I almost started crying on the train ride home on Monday. This is the story of 26 men who tried crossed the U.S. / Mexico border on foot. They got lost in the desert. Fourteen of them died. The part that almost did me in? When the author, Luis Alberto Urrea, lists the things the Border Patrol agents found the bodies: a rooster belt buckle, a folded letter, green socks with matching boxers, a tattoo of a name: Maria, a pocket mirror, Mexican coins, a wallet, a faded photo ID. But I couldn’t stop reading. I started this book on Monday and now I’m finished.

The writing is so engaging and so poetic and surreal, it is beautiful, but at the same horrific. I couldn’t put it down. It is the all of the details that you read about that make this book so nightmarish. When Urrea goes through the step by step process how hyperthermia and heat stroke affect the human body (“Your muscles, lacking water, feed on themselves. They break down and start to rot. Once rotting in you, they dump rafts of dying cells into your already sludgy bloodstream”). The way the bodies looked like when they were discovered by the border patrol (“Have you ever seen a mummy from ancient Egypt? That gives you an idea. They looked shriveled up”). How the men looked in death (“The dead have open mouths and white teeth. They are stretched in angular poses, caught in the last gasps or shouts, their eyes burned an eerie red by the sun. Many of them are naked. Some have dirt in their mouths . . . They look like roadside attractions, like wax-and-paper torsos in a gas station Dungeon of Terror”). How the women at at the Mexican consulate in Tuscon light candles for each body that is found in the desert. The magical realism of the landscape, the Devil’s Highway becomes the main character of this book. The desert in this book is terrifying (“Desert spirits of a dark and mysterious nature have always traveled these trails. From the beginning, the highway has always lacked grace – those who worship desert gods know them to favor retribution over the tender dove of forgiveness. In Desolation, doves are at the bottom of the food chain. Tohono O’Odham poet Ofelia Zepeda has pointed out that rosaries and Hail Marys don’t work out here. ‘You need a new kind of payers,’ she says ‘to negotiate with this land.’ “)

So, an emotionally difficult read. But also, an important read. Definitely one of the best books written about the border. I found the author’s website and his blog, which he actually seems to update a lot. It’s interesting to go back and read his entries about this book; to read about his frustrations with his book tour, because whenever he tried to give a speech or lecture at a college or bookstore there was always someone in the audience yelling at him about how Mexicans are destroying America, and that he must hate America and accuse him of being unpatriotic. Still, other entries are really funny, especially the entries about his children. I plan to read his other books; his newest one is The Hummingbird’s Daughter, a historical fiction novel based on his family’s history that took him 20 years to research.

Among other things that I am thankful for, including being able to live comfortably in a country where I have citizenship, I am glad I don’t live anywhere near the desert.

Horse Heaven = winner

April 10, 2008

I love love love this book.  Absolute winner.  There were so many crazy, quirky animal and human characters in this novel but my favorite characters were a horse named Justa Bob who always won races by a nose and has a habit of pooping in his water bucket; and Elaine, a highly-opinionated Jack Russell terrier.  The human characters were equally enjoyable and hilarious.  This book is about thoroughbred horse racing, but even if you don’t know anything about horses or racing, Jane Smiley’s thoughtful and flowing writing style will help you figure it out for yourself.   Its a little challenging to keep track of all of the people in this book and who owns what horse, but Smiley gives all characters equal amount of time and attention and the all the story lines flow into one another. 

I always feel kind of sad when I finish a book that I really enjoyed.  I have to take a few days off from reading to clear my head, because all the characters become so real to me.  Plus its hard to figure out what to read next.  I picked up The Devil’s Highway at that bookstore in Hastings, so that’s probably next, but I know it will be an emotionally intense read and I’m not quite ready for that yet.