Travel is a vanishing act, a solitary trip down a pinched line of geography to oblivion.
Paul Theroux

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Morning After

Do you sometimes feel like you can't check the Facebook without seeing some beaming new mom, some tiny newt, some proud papa you knew a million years ago in high school? Is your fridge so covered with birth announcements and baby shower invites that you can't find the handle? Is the man getting you down? Are you just downright feeling old? Have you simply read one too many Jennifer Weiners?

Okay, maybe not, maybe not.

Maybe, after a long semester and a long winter and a long week, that's just where I am right now.

Anyway, it was all those things and so many more, until I read Elisa Albert's After Birth. 

Yes, my squeamish readers, it's about birth. Yes it's about being sad afterwards. Yes it's about being white in the first world with a good man and a good job, a good degree, good friends. And yes, yes, there is whining. There is bitching. There is menstrual blood.

Pick up a copy anyway, friends. Male or female, I don't give a sucky banana. Want to know what it's like to give birth and then have to inhabit this world? Too bad! You need to learn anyway! Too many new American moms are made to feel helpless, afraid, alone, torn apart, and sucked dry. Do you wish for a friend, a good listener, a good storyteller, a fighter? Do you wish someone would laugh in your face and shake you by the shoulders? Do you want to read something sneaky, deviant, angry, and true? Are you ready for a slap in the face and a bite on the ear?

All right, then.

Go visit your friends, the book shouts as you hold it in your hands. Don't leave new moms alone!! Don't assume they're okay! Don't fret when you see their beaming faces on your News Feed! Don't be jealous! Don't feel inadequate! Just go on over there now, and bring food!

Albert writes that giving birth "is not at all dissimilar to the time surrounding death: periods of profound change and transformation that demand our complete attention." She tells us not to be so afraid of giving birth, of asking for what we want, of seeking a second opinion, of letting ourselves truly feel. Let's let our bodies do what they have always known how to do. Let's trust ourselves. Let's read this book, and then let's make more books like this one.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Alan Lightman is coming to town!

I was 22 and spending the night at Wellesley with my friend Claire. I’d graduated already; she still had a semester to go. I slept on the floor in her door room, which was lit with pink bulbs, the walls decorated with charms and beads and scarves she’d collected in India, where she’d studied abroad. I arrived in the late afternoon. We ate dinner in the dining hall, and then went out to a party. We stayed up late, as I recall, drinking wine from a box and watching the lake. It was fall, an Indian summer.

What I remember most, though, about that visit is waking up the next morning, lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling while Claire slept. She’s always been a late sleeper. After a while, quiet as could be, I turned so I could study the bottom row of her bookshelf. Among many textbooks, a couple of novels I’d read, and an English-Arabic dictionary, I saw a tiny book, a book I could manage to skim while Claire snoozed. I tugged it off the shelf: Einstein’s Dreams.

I read the whole book while Claire slept, falling into Alan Lightman’s words, leaving that college dorm room where outside delivery trucks came and went, students left their rooms to go to the library, or the dining hall, or church.

“In the world in which time is a circle,” Lightman writes, “every handshake, every kiss, every birth, every word, will be repeated precisely. So too every moment that two friends stop becoming friends, every time that a family is broken because of money, every vicious remark in an argument between spouses, every opportunity denied because of a superior’s jealous, every promise not kept.”

I read every word and didn’t stop for water or the bathroom or a breath of fresh air. It was Milan Kundera, but American, I thought. It was physics and math, and it was, to me, one long poem. Lightman was talking about time, Einstein’s mind, metaphysics—and I could understand it perfectly. This was science in beautiful, tragic metaphors. Many times I wept as I read Einstein’s Dreams, but Claire never stirred. Sunlight travelled in patches across the floor as I fell in love with the book in my hands.

“They stand quietly,” Lightman writes, describing those waiting to see the Great Clock, the first clock ever invented, the thing that would count their lives down. “They stand quietly,” he writes, “reading prayer books, holding their children. They stand quietly, but secretly they seethe with their anger. For they must watch measured that which should not be measured.”

Claire finally woke up. She looked at me and asked, “What it is it, my love?” I held up the book, asked whether she’d read it. “Not yet, my precious one,” she replied. “It’s for a class.” We went to the dining hall for breakfast, and then I drove back to Cambridge, cleaned my apartment, took a nap, and cooked a meal. Time rolled past, winter into spring into ten years from that day. Still, Einstein’s Dreams come to me often, and now I check the time less.

Don't miss Alan Lightman in Santa Fe this Wednesday! He'll be discussing his latest, The Accidental Universe (Vintage). 

May 6, 7:30 PM, at the James A. Little Theatre on Cerrillos Road...thanks, Santa Fe Institute!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

To Nepal, with love

My brother was in Nepal for almost five weeks, and he left Kathmandu eight hours before the earthquake struck.

Between Kathmandu and JFK, he spent his layover in Dubai, walking past sleek perfume shops and turnbaned men and women with heavily-lined eyes and stiletto shoes. I imagine that the Dubai airport is breezy and sweetly-scented, the walls all windows, the air cool. I imagine my brother there, scruffy, a little bit smelly. He washed his own clothes in Nepal. I imagine that the well-dressed, well-coiffed women and men stared at my brother with amusement, mild repugnance, certainly a hint of jealousy in how free he must have seemed, not caring how he looked as he walked in flannel and denim through the beautiful airport.

His phone didn’t get service until he landed in New York, and so for many hours after the earthquake hit, he didn’t hear the news. Across the Atlantic Ocean, he must have closed his eyes and brought Nepal back: snow-capped peaks, torn prayer flags flapping, alpine flowers and glacial streams. Bright, noisy cities and towns; whitewashed temples; street venders. Crowds, smiles, wind scented of incense and something else, something sweet and smoky, faintly rotten. Dust on your hands and in your hair after a day on the streets. The teeming wildness of it all, and the flush of color on every sidewalk and wall.

It was only when he landed at JFK did he hear the news. First, he listened to frightened voicemails my mother had left—Call when you get here, call right away. And then he had to put away his phone to go through customs, and while he waited in line he wondered why my mother had sounded so afraid. No phones allowed in customs, he was told. The moments dripped by so slowly, and finally he took his phone out again and called my mother and she told him the news.

Now, he grieves for a place he just met. When I spoke to him on the phone the morning he arrived at JFK, I asked if he’d seen any signs, if he’d gotten a clue. Nothing, he’d said. No sign. Everything was fine: the sun shone, the people milled about, the temples stood. Now, he eats dinner with my mother and father, and drives the quiet streets of our hometown. Winter is finally melting away. The other drivers are orderly; no one honks; it seems so clean and sterile here. There is an absence of color, now that he’s home. He wonders about the people he met; so many faces he glanced at, so many smiles he exchanged, for my brother is a friendly guy, handsome and exuberant and chatty. He hears from a few of them; houses have been lost, lives have.

Eight hours before the earthquake hit, he boarded a plane and looked out at the Himalayas for the last time. Nepal had a piece of his heart now. The sun shone; the plane took off; there was never any sign.

Readers, kindly make your way to Cloudy Alberg, my brother Dave's blog about mountains, books, bikes, teaching, and travel. He's just returned from Nepal - he left Kathmandu eight hours before the earthquake struck. You can read his Nepali chronicles here, and learn how you can help.

(All photos on this page copyright Dave McCahill, 2015)

Monday, April 13, 2015

State Untamed

If you haven't read An Untamed State already, I suggest you run and not walk to the bookstore, library, or your favorite online book purveyor. Roxane Gay's account of one Haitian woman's kidnapping and subsequent release is a powerful, raw reflection on faith, mental strength, and the power of love. It's a book about Haiti, about Miami, about a new baby and a couple madly in love. It's about a father's betrayal, a wife's bitter silence, a gang of angry men with violent pasts and sad, violent futures. It's about money, poverty, beauty, and death. It's about revenge, and it's about healing. An Untamed State has earned rave reviews all over the net and beyond, but I wouldn't feel right about reading the book and not promoting it myself, from my own humble corner of the world.

Readers be warned: An Untamed State is not for the faint of heart. The book is rough and emotional right from the start, jarring the protagonist, the spirited Mireille, off a sunlit Haitian street and into a  cell. From there, we are thrown into Mireille's experience of profound violence, fear, and survival. I read the book with tears and chills; some parts I could hardly get through at all. And that, I'd say, is what good writing is: an exposure of primal truths that are so many other people's stories, too. Gay's writing took me straight into Mireille; the strongest writing comes when the narrator descries, at the mercy of her captors, the different ways she dies - first her body, then her faith, then her identify. In these places, the prose is exquisite.

Gay doesn't sugar-coat things. I was surprised in the first few chapters to find that her prose is spare, unadorned, lacking in fancy sentence structures but littered with fragments and the occasional comma splice. Gay doesn't hold back in the violence she describes, nor does she beautify the painful years that follow Mireille's capture. There is no happy ending to this book; the narrator's fairy-tale memories contrast, over and over again, with her unbelievable, near-death reality.

An Untamed State is sobering, vivid, and unforgettable. I look forward to reading much more by Roxane Gay.


Monday, April 6, 2015

Night at the Fiestas

It feels only natural to post a follow-up to last week's post on Kirstin Valdez Quade's new collection of short stories, Night at the Fiestas. She read from it at Collected Works Bookstore, where, long ago, she was employed. Now, she's a graceful, beautiful, well-respected artist whose dreams, as she told her audience, came true the night she read from her book in Santa Fe.

Her newfound fame is well-deserved. Night at the Fiestas reads like you'd expect a first book to - there are a few frayed edges, a couple sharp, abrupt endings, several strange and jaunty shifts in time and space. The stories linger and endure nevertheless. Each one captures a distinctive, realistic portrait of a wild place. The writing feels truer than fiction, vivid and swiftly-paced and stylish. The collection focuses mainly on Northern New Mexico, and showcases Quade's brilliance - namely, at creating realistic interactions between people. Where her descriptions of landscape fall short, her dialogue takes over - as acute as if she transcribed actual conversations, word for word. (For example, I've never, ever read the word 'Doy' - as in 'Duh' - in anything, ever, and yet sixth-graders use it all the time. Masterful.)

Overall, my favorite stories weren't the ones the New Yorker celebrates - "The Five Wounds" and "Ordinary Sins" felt too carefully-sculpted to read naturally. Too overworked, perhaps. What I loved was the closing story, which Narrative Magazine has snapped up: "The Manzanos" is a testament to the power of subtle, quiet prose. This was the story my body responded to - shivers, hairs on end, tears at the corners of my eyes.

I look forward to seeing what's next - a novel, the author claims, but superstition keeps her from saying more.

In the meantime: Brava, Ms. Quade, brava. You've done Santa Fe proud.


Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Family Life

Family Life, the latest by Indian-American writer Akhil Sharma, chronicles one boy’s youth, from bright and vivid days in Delhi to rough, confusing years in the American school system. Perhaps the book’s strongest moments are those when Ajay, eight years old when he moves from Delhi to Queens, discovers for the first time grocery stores, elevators, post offices, highways, American-style. Sharma captures well the movie-star glamour of America through the eyes of young Delhi boys, and the reader shares Ajay’s heartbreak at discovering the cruelty of American schools and the silent sterility of even Queens’ streets.

The book took just a few days to read, but the story lingers. Sharma’s images – gritty, graphic, honest – stick in the reader’s mind long after the book’s close. Don’t be misled – though Sharma writes from the perspective of an Indian American, this is no work of Jhumpa Lahiri, with her winding stories, thick with detail and conversation, of the lives of Indian nationals. Sharma’s style is more spare, and more real.

The book struck a chord; I’ve been to India, and upon return I noticed what Ajay noticed: our country’s empty streets, the orderly lines of cars on the highway, the endless boxes of cereal and soap in the grocery store. I know how it feels to marvel at our country’s wealth, but what I admire most about Sharma’s prose is the way it captures the life of India, the vigor and color and joy that infuses each day. In comparison, Family Life makes clear, the United States seems almost inert – hyper-clean, devoid somehow of the pumping energy that saturates India.
Through Ajay’s eyes, we witness a tragedy; the rest of the book chronicles the years to follow. The descriptions of nursing homes, hospital beds, and helpless patients made me weep, for these sections are told with brutal humanity. No detail is spared, least of all details concerning bodily functions.
Perhaps the weakest sections of the book come at the end; I read the last line, then looked for more. There is no clean ending, no bow tie to wrap things up, no moral lesson imposed. The narrator achieves monetary success, but there is no ultimate triumph. I left the book feeling empty, wanting more…but perhaps that was Sharma’s intention: to bring us from India to the United States, and then leave us to our devices, material or otherwise.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

One Night in Puno

Please find my illustrious publication at!

It's an excerpt of my enjoy! The book is forthcoming. 

Thanks for the limelight, Judith.
Meanwhile, wishing everyone....a spring! Just any old spring would be great!
Love, Kate