Patagonian Road: A Year Alone Through Latin America by Kate McCahill
Kate McCahill brings the reader along on her yearlong journey through Central and South America, roughly following by bus the journey Paul Theroux made decades earlier by train. She gets a writing fellowship that pays for Spanish lessons, rooms in hostels, food, and travel. Kate also volunteers as an English teacher in a couple of villages and in Buenos Aires. She misses her lover and her Finnish grandmother, shares her joys and fears, and tries to immerse herself in the local culture, although she’ll always be a traveler, not a local. While readers of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild may enjoy this book, I think closer readalikes are Wild by Nature, by Sarah Marquis, and Jodi Ettenberg’s blog, Legal Nomads. I enjoyed the occasionally lyrical writing, descriptive without being wordy, and McCahill’s willingness to share her experiences and feelings with the reader.
Dinner with Edward: A Story of an Unexpected Friendship by Isabel Vincent
Isabel, an investigative reporter for the New York Post, is befriended by her colleague’s father, Edward. They both live on Roosevelt Island, in the East River. Edward was married to Paula for 69 years, and promised before her death to keep on living. Happily, he’s a gourmet cook, and Isabel starts visiting weekly for dinner and advice. Edward tells stories about his life, shares his poetry, and turns Isabel into a foodie. She has moved many times with her husband and daughter, and her marriage is unraveling. In later chapters, Edward is visibly aging, while Isabel might be falling in love again. This charming memoir reads like fiction. I only wish that it were longer and included recipes.
The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery
Naturalist Sy Montgomery, author of The Good Good Pig, meets a forty pound octopus named Athena, and becomes fascinated by octopuses. She becomes an octopus observer at the New England Aquarium in Boston and meets aquarists, interns, and volunteers who bond while an octopus wraps an arm or two around their arms, and while they stroke her soft head. Octopuses (not octopi) are intelligent, very curious, and capable of changing the color, pattern, and texture of their skin many times in an hour. Boneless, they can and will fit in very tiny places and try to escape from their tanks to explore the world. The suckers on their eight arms can smell and taste, and are both strong and flexible. Over a couple of years, Sy gets to know four giant Pacific octopuses in Boston, travels to Seattle to watch octopuses mating, and learns to scuba dive. Sy observes wild octopuses in the Caribbean and the South Pacific. Poignantly, she also watches a favorite octopus, Octavia, grow old. After reading this absorbing, moving memoir, I look forward to spending time at aquariums observing the amazing octopuses.
Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris
I was charmed by this short and funny memoir by a copy editor at The New Yorker. Between explaining the eccentricities of spelling and grammar at The New Yorker and a chapter titled “Ballad of a Pencil Junkie”, Norris entertains and educates. Gender in the English language, how to decide if commas in a sentence should stay, and an enlightening look at the history of compound words which may or may not be separated by a hyphen are a few of the topics covered. Anyone who has groaned at the sight of a sign boldly stating: “Buckle Up! Its the Law” will likely enjoy Norris’ personal and literary anecdotes; I certainly did.
Not Fade Away: A Memoir of Senses Lost and Found by Rebecca Alexander
In this inspiring memoir, Rebecca Alexander tells her story of life lived to the fullest while simultaneously losing most of her vision and hearing. Rebecca has a vary rare form of Usher’s Syndrome, which was diagnosed when she was a college student. A recent cochlear implant seems to have given her back much of her hearing, but at 37, she has only a narrow field of vision and no idea how long it will last. Nevertheless, she travels, teaches spin classes, dates, plays with her dog, walks around New York City, and works as a psychotherapist. Sarcastic and funny, Rebecca describes her life, with all its calamities and joys, and how she seeks to find her own unique identity, ask for help when needed, be a visible face for people with often invisible disabilities, and enjoy experiences even if they scare her. Since this book was published in 2014, she has climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with her sister and stepmother. A remarkable life, well-told. For more about Rebecca, visit her website.
Walking the Nile by Levison Wood
Levison Wood, who was a major in a British parachute regiment, likes a challenge. So why not hike along the banks of the entire Nile River, over 4000 miles? So off he goes, with a guide, occasionally a police escort, and even pack camels in the desert, to find his path through swamps, lakes, villages, cities, and desert. He is very discouraged at times, especially after extremely high temperatures leads to tragedy. Sometimes he can’t remember why he’s making such a challenging journey, such as when dealing with bureaucratic red tape or civil unrest. But the extremely warm welcomes he finds in small villages, and numerous wildlife encounters, including rescuing a baby monkey whose habitat has been burned, enliven the book. Wood doesn’t mention until the acknowledgements at the end that a small film crew shared parts of the journey with him, a curious oversight. I earlier reviewed his second book, Walking the Himalayas, which was more enjoyable for the reader (and probably the explorer), although less suspenseful.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Hope is a Norwegian American from Minnesota, daughter of a community college science teacher, who was expected to major in English at the University of Minnesota, but found her calling instead in science. She has been a scientist for over 20 years, and along with her lab manager Bill, has built and run laboratories in Georgia, Maryland, and Hawaii, as well as done fieldwork in Ireland, Norway, and many other places. Her field is geobiology, which seems to be a blend of geology, botany, and the environment. Her passion is for plants and trees, and her story is framed with descriptions of the life cycle of different kinds of plants. The themes of her story are cold, night, silence, sleeplessness, the joy of discovery, and the rewards of persistence and asking questions. Bill is a delightfully quirky, sarcastic character, and I’m glad to know they still work together. Hope struggles as a young woman in a sexist environment, and as one with a bipolar disorder. There is actually plenty of humor here, along with the evident joy she feels in a scientific life of research, discovery, and teaching. Her difficult journey to motherhood is also shared. I was fascinated by Hope’s well-publicized memoir, and found it a very quick and satisfying read.