Americas Archive

Chile and me, by Sara Wheeler

This month brings the silver anniversary of the publication of Travels in a Thin Country, Sara Wheeler’s account of her love affair with Chile. In a piece today for the Review section of The Observer, she reflects on how the country, and she herself, have changed in 25 years. Wheeler, who made her third visit to Chile a few months ago, is due to talk about her experience in a members-only event at the Royal Geographical Society in London tomorrow evening.

Losing weight, and girlfriends, in the Grand Canyon

In my roundup of books of the year, I mentioned The Grand Canyon: Between River and Rim by Pete McBride (Rizzoli, £40), who trekked the length of the canyon with his friend Kevin Fedarko. I’ve just been alerted by the Twitter feed of The New Yorker to a piece the magazine published in September, by Nick Paumgarten, who was invited to join McBride and Fedarko — and found reasons to say no. From his summary of what they went through, it sounds as though he was wise…

On the trek, they each carried packs that averaged about fifty pounds, containing eight days or so of food, as much water as they could hold, and not much in the way of accommodations. They carried a plastic syringe to draw water from potholes in the rock. McBride carried just one camera, one lens, and a solar charger; on cold nights, he kept the batteries warm in his armpit. The temperature ranged from a hundred and twelve degrees Fahrenheit to five degrees. There were hardly any trails, save for those made by game. “Sheep shit was our G.P.S.,” McBride said. They climbed over a hundred thousand vertical feet. “We went through seven pairs of shoes, four ankles”—they each sprained both—“and two girlfriends” (both McBride’s). There were broken fingers, and surgery to remove a cactus spine. McBride, still a bull of a man at forty-seven, lost thirty-five pounds, and, just five days into the first leg, nearly perished of hyponatremia, salt depletion from over-hydration, which is the leading cause of death in Grand Canyon. Once the project was complete, he needed heart surgery.

Burke on books

Until April 2018, I’d never set foot in New Orleans, but I’d travelled there — and to other parts of Louisiana — countless times in the pages of the great James Lee Burke. Burke’s latest Detective Robicheaux story, The New Iberia Blues, is due out on January 10, and the author has been talking to The New York Times about his own reading, how he got hooked on crime fiction and what makes a good mystery.

… and talking about Tangier Island…

Earl Swift (see previous post) has been interviewed for the Writer’s Voice podcast (produced from the University of Massachusetts) by Francesca Rheannon. His contribution starts about 35 minutes in. There’s also a link to the site of the e-book service Scribd, where you can read an extract from Chesapeake Requiem.

Back on the Chesapeake

The Bitter Southerner, which I have mentioned before, has a lovely piece by Mickie Meinhardt on visiting Tangier Island with Earl Swift, whose Chesapeake Requiem was one of the best — and most timely — books I’ve read this year.

The song of the ol’ gray dawg

In “Cash on the Barrelhead”, a Louvin Brothers song  he recorded for his album Grievous Angel, Gram Parsons (the man who invented country rock) sings of a bus driver reminding him that “this ol’ gray dawg gets paid to run”. Greyhound, though, is still one of the cheapest forms of long-distance transport in the US, which is why it’s the choice of what Doug Levitt calls “people on the margins”. Levitt, who describes himself as a former foreign correspondent and “downwardly-mobile” singer songwriter, has clocked up 120,000 miles riding Greyhounds across the United States over the past 12 years, on an odyssey inspired by Woody Guthrie. In The Greyhound Diaries, for the BBC World Service, he trades stories with passengers he meets along the way, and turns some of theirs into songs. 

Breaking down in Bend

Tim Moore is a writer who’s not afraid of a gimmick. For his last book, The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold, he rode a two-geared East German shopping bike along a route that parallels the old Iron Curtain. For his latest, Another Fine Mess (Yellow Jersey), he switches from two wheels to four, travelling coast to coast across the United States through Trump-voting territory in a 93-year-old Ford Model T nicknamed Mike. In an extract published in The Telegraph Magazine, he tells how the car broke down in the town of Bend, Oregon, and he was enveloped in a “two-week festival of resourcefulness and the human spirit”.

Westward Ho!

My elder grandson’s on half-term break. I’ve been spending the days with him and my wife going to and from harbours and beaches along the high-hedged roads of Devon, and the evenings on slightly wider highways on the other side of the Atlantic. No teleportation involved; I just tune in at night to Laura Barton’s American Road Trip on Radio 4 Extra. In a grand audio outing, she heads from New York to LA, combining reflections and reminiscences on her own Stateside journeys with well-chosen excerpts from the radio archives and readings from the works of writers including Jonathan Raban, Joan Didion and Sam Shepard.  It’s a three-hour trip, but an endlessly diverting one, and there are plenty of places where you can pull in for a break along the way…

Writing and firefighting

In the introduction to his latest collection of essays, Figures in a Landscape: People and Places (Hamish Hamilton), Paul Theroux opens with a few lines on fiction and those who practise it: “When writers complain about what a tough job writing is, making a meal of their pain, any fool can see that what they are saying is a crock. Compared with a real job, like coal mining or harvesting pineapples or putting out wildfires or waiting on tables, writing is heaven.” Philip Connors isn’t a novelist, but he does his bit to put out wildfires and write. The website Longreads has an extract from his latest book, A Song for the River, in which “he watches as his beloved forest and his personal life burn, and he tries to imagine what will arise from their ashes”.

“The most secretly interesting place in America’

Sam Anderson first went to Oklahoma City in 2012 to write about its professional basketball team for The New York Times Magazine. He didn’t know then that he was embarking on a much longer project, a portrait of the city that he says is “the most secretly interesting place in America”. That portrait has now been published in Boom Town (Crown), which, as the subtitle has it, is “The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis.” The book is reviewed in the current NY Times Book Review, and Anderson talks about it in a podcast.