On a sheep farm in the high desert of Oregon, I grew up devouring books about the countryside. I recognized my world of chores, manure and dusty roads in Charlotte’s Web and Where the Red Fern Grows. During my Dungeons & Dragons phase, I wandered the fantastic rural landscapes of The Lord of the Rings and endless Dragonlance paperbacks. Later on it was Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley, and the logging community of Wakonda in Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. I loved these books for their intoxicating sense of place. Just as people had secret histories, so did mountains, forests and rivers.
During my senior year of high school, like a plucky George Willard, I went looking for the grotesque in my own hometown as a correspondent for my local paper, The Bend Bulletin. Writing about the Wild West settlement of Laidlaw, I unburied the history of violence that predated the ski resorts and golf courses in the region.
Yet even as I plumbed the reservoirs of Central Oregon, I was obsessed with a distant place: Brazil, the country I was adopted from during the twilight of its military dictatorship in 1981. When it came to that story, I had little to go on but old Kodachromes and my parents’ recollections of their long, tedious journey to bring me home. Brazil was an abstraction, a heart-shaped splotch on the globe, an imaginary homeland that I filled with my own desires.
I was 25 when I visited the real Brazil for the first time on a solo backpacking trip to get to know my birth country—perhaps even find my birth mother. It was 2006. I still remember the jolt of the landing gear touching the runway in São Paulo. In that moment, the Brazil of my imagination crumbled.
By that time in my life, I’d traded journalism for fiction, but I was still entranced by writers who could bring an entire world to life with an elixir of lived experience, research, and unbridled conjuring. The blood-soaked borderlands of Cormac McCarthy. The antebellum Virginia of Edward P. Jones’ The Known World. García Márquez’s Macondo. Richard Price’s New York City. Annie Proulx’s badlands. What I admired wasn’t just the vivid atmosphere but how these writers established a worldview, a governing intelligence that arranged the landscape in service of a story, a theme, a politics of place.
When I first visited my birthplace, the story I wanted to tell myself—that the world wanted to tell about Brazil—was the triumphant tale of a country on the rise, emerging from a dictatorship to democracy. I spent that summer traveling the country by car, by bus, by boat, by plane, by foot. In my naivete, it felt as if Brazil were welcoming me home, but in retrospect I was as anonymous as any other gringo with a guidebook. Yet on an otherwise ordinary night at the bus station in downtown Belo Horizonte, I met my birth mother for the first time. She did welcome me home.
In the months and years that followed, I wrote maudlin fiction about Brazil, trying to render the city where I was born, the countryside where I grew up, trying to bring into focus a worldview of how I got from there to here and back again. Even thinking about that old work makes me cringe. The desperate wanting on the page. The desire to connect with my material, as if forging those links could make up for what was lost to me in real life.
Somewhere on the border between fantasy and fact, my imagination failed me. I needed to put aside the novel and return to my reporter’s notebooks.
Sad but true: There is only so much room in the English language for stories about non-English speaking countries. Within that shrunken universe, only so much room for Latin America. Even less room for Brazil. Despite being the world’s fifth-largest country by population and area and one of the world’s largest and most diverse democracies, in the Western imagination, it remains more or less an island, roughly the shape of Rio de Janeiro, full of soccer, samba, favelas and festive costumes and cocktails.
When it was announced that Brazil would host the World Cup in 2014—with the Olympics to follow in 2016—I sensed an opportunity to report on my home country in hopes of enlarging that picture in some small way. By the time I started covering World Cup preparations in 2013, the wheels were beginning to come off the wagon in Brazil, which was in the throes of its largest street protests in decades. Millions demonstrated against economic inequality and social injustice, with thousands of Brazilians across the country evicted or relocated in the name of order and progress, even as the government poured billions of dollars into lavish stadiums and vanity projects to rebuild Brazil’s cities in the image of the cosmopolitan first world.
When I visited in the Amazon rain forest in 2014, I saw a region transformed since my first visit eight years earlier. There is a story you can tell about the Amazon that is a tale of progress and sustainable development. This is the world of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, a world of optimism and charts that trend toward prosperity. This is the world of Pico Iyer’s The Global Soul, in which all of us, or at least those with the freedoms of capital and travel, are connected through the wonders of globalization.
Depending on what you’re willing to ignore, that story is plain as day in the Amazon. Where once there were tribes relying on the barter system, now there are riverboats going up and down the river with ATM machines on board. Where once it was impossible to find a steady phone connection, now satellites orbit, beaming Instagram and “Pokémon Go” to tweens surrounded by 2 million square miles of rain forest.
In this worldview, the history of the Amazon rain forest is one that moves from savagery to civilization, from darkness to light.
It’s the kind of story that appeals to venture capitalists and those who believe there is no problem that cannot be solved with an app. It is a story of conquest in which this forest was discovered by Europeans who could only untap its utopian potential with guns, germs and steel.
How can a writer rebuild a world that has been erased by colonists, that has been built on the bodies of the oppressed, designed to mirror the sophistication of European capitals, complete with baroque theaters and bike share kiosks? What right does an outsider have to even try telling a different story?
Though I was born in Brazil, the country will always be foreign to me, and I will always be a foreigner on its streets and rivers. The foreign correspondent is tasked with translating a distant part of the world for the folks back home. Rarely does that mean bringing home good news. Joan Didion’s Salvador exposes the sinister aftereffects of U.S. interference in Latin America. Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder investigates the brutal murder of one of Central America’s leading human rights activists, Bishop Juan Gerardi, bludgeoned to death in “The Crime of the Century” in Guatemala.
Telling the story of the contemporary Amazon rain forest means looking past the utopian rhetoric of presidents, generals, and captains of industry and digging for the dystopian elements they are trying to plaster over. Some kids chase monsters in “Pokémon Go”; others run from monsters in police cruisers. College kids post selfies on Instagram; death squads coordinate their movements on WhatsApp. The Belo Monte hydroelectric dam brings thousands of jobs, billions of dollars and a new skate park to a tiny town on the banks of the Rio Xingu; the kids who congregate at the skate park could never afford a skateboard. They run up and down the half pipe until they are winded, left to look out over the river where they used to swim with dolphins.
The work of the foreign correspondent, like the work of the foreign multinational company, is extractive. Arrive, discover, return with something of value—and blood on your hands. As much as journalism has changed, if it bleeds, it still leads.
In the last five years, I’ve written tens of thousands of words on Brazil. Very few positive words. Yet a country can be two different countries, a world can be two different worlds, depending on where you look, who you listen to, what you choose to omit. In life and on the page, we choose what to record and what to ignore, what to amplify and what to leave behind.
In Brazil, here is what doesn’t lead: my nieces’ birthday parties. The White Stripes rocking out the Teatro Amazonas. Cold beers piling up on plastic tables as the entire outdoor bar sings along to Zé Ramalho’s cover of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Paddleboarding on the Rio Negro as sea planes buzz off into the sunset. Grilled tambaqui with a squeeze of lemon and good conversation. A forest so enormous that it reminds you that the human world is nothing, and nothing we build will last.
I blotted so many rays of light from the world I built in my book. The beauty of Brazil is so spectacular that looking directly at it can render you blind to its history of genocide, exploitation, oppression—its history of history repeating itself. The Third Bank of the River is a world built from forgotten scraps. The title is borrowed from the classic short story by João Guimarães Rosa, a fabulist tale of life, loss and death set in a riverside village. On my river, nothing is invented, but everything is chosen. It is the history of the country where I was born and the country where I was raised. In both Americas, our histories are right in front of us, reflecting each other like the river at dawn, when the water is a calm, rippling mirror of the forest.
Image: Flickr/Breno Passos
“I’m not sure that I have a social conscience,” Joan Didion once said in an interview about her 1983 book, Salvador, about the El Salvadorian civil war. “It’s more an insistence that people tell the truth. The decision to go to El Salvador came one morning at the breakfast table. I was reading the newspaper and it just didn’t make sense.”
This is what separates Joan Didion from the rest of the world. We all wake up to news that makes no sense every day. What, we wonder, is going on with all these white cops shooting black men on our streets? How can it be that we still haven’t closed the prison at Guantanamo Bay? On what planet is Donald Trump a viable candidate for president? We register the answers we receive to these questions as nonsensical, but then we click the next link and go on with our day. Didion, facing her era’s knottiest public puzzle, hopped the next flight to El Salvador.
Salvador, as it happens, was not Didion’s finest hour as a reporter. She spent just 12 days in-country, had little Spanish and less knowledge of the country’s culture and history, and the book she wrote had, by her own admission, “no impact. None. Zero.” But her reasons for writing it offer a revealing window onto her working method and provide her biographer, Tracy Daugherty, with a crucial plot point in the thematic arc for his sprawling biography, The Last Love Song, which comes out this week.
In the 1960s, as Americans battled in the streets over civil rights and the war in Vietnam, Daugherty reminds us, Didion lost faith in the defining narratives of American life. A fifth-generation Californian whose ancestors had crossed the plains in covered wagons, only narrowing missing disaster at Donner Pass, Didion found that the country she lived in had ceased to make sense to her. A popular presidential candidate was shot in a hotel kitchen just miles from where she lived. A newspaper heiress was abducted from her Berkeley apartment and weeks later strapped on an M1 carbine to help her abductors rob banks. A scrawny self-styled guru set up camps in the desert where he persuaded a loosely organized family of runaways to kill a pregnant woman and three friends with steak knives. “I was supposed to have a script and I had mislaid it,” wrote Didion in the title essay of her collection The White Album.
I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequences, images with no ‘meaning’ beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie, but a cutting room experience.
Putting her finger on the sense of dislocation felt by Americans of her generation, raised on John Wayne movies and rousing tales of America’s triumph in the Second World War, made Didion famous, but it also left her at an intellectual and emotional dead-end. This, after all, was the woman who opened The White Album with the words, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” If the stories we tell ourselves no longer make sense, if even the briefest glance at the underlying facts exposes our national and personal narratives to be transparently hollow, how are we to live with ourselves?
In the 1980s, in a series of books that began with Salvador, Daugherty argues, Didion learned to look past the official narrative and focus on the story behind the story, the one found in a close reading of trial transcripts, declassified cables, and the back pages of underground newspapers. “Increasingly, in the 1980s,” Daugherty writes, “Didion’s writing discovered the real American stories not in the scenes, but behind them, in obscure rooms in queer places with unpronounceable names, where our government’s military and economic interests coiled in dark corners.” There, “in the outposts and archives, in the safe houses and bunkers, a logical, continuous, and traceable — if findable — narrative was unfolding all along.”
Didion’s pursuit of the story behind the story lifted her out of her post-1960s malaise and set the stage for a stream of brilliant late-career reportage, much of it written for The New York Review of Books, that peeled away the façade of American political and cultural life, laying out in Didion’s distinctive flat, declarative sentences how things really work. This late run culminated in Didion’s best-selling book, The Year of Magical Thinking, her 2005 memoir of her husband’s death in which she turned her formidable powers of analysis back on her herself, exploring how the lies we tell ourselves can also save us.
The Last Love Song is far too long, devoting hundreds of pages to decades-old Hollywood gossip and exhumations of skeletons in the closets of Didion’s extended family members, but at its core it provides an indispensable guide to understanding not just the value of Didion’s contribution to American literature, but how she pulled it off. Among the pleasures of Daugherty’s portrait is the light he sheds on Didion’s literary education, first at U.C. Berkeley, where she learned the close reading skills that came in so handy later in her career, and then at Vogue in New York, where a first job writing captions for photo spreads taught her how to get the most meaning from the least number of words.
In this age of blogs and YouTube rants, when the length of a piece of prose is determined largely by the amount of time its author can afford to spend writing it for free, we forget how formative the demands of writing for a physical page were for writers of the print era. At Vogue, Didion’s photo captions were a kind of fashion-plate haiku, “blocks of text, thirty lines long, each featuring sixty-four characters.” Didion’s editor would have her write 300 to 400 words, and then, attacking the page with a blunt pencil, whittle it down to the most evocative 50. “It is easy to make light of this kind of ‘writing,’” Didion later said. “I do not make light of it at all: it was at Vogue that I learned a kind of ease with words…a way of regarding words not as mirrors of my own inadequacy, but as tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page.”
From caption writer, Didion climbed the masthead at Vogue while taking assignments from publications as varied as Mademoiselle and The National Review and writing her first novel, Run, River, at night and on weekends. These were the fat years of the Age of Print, when television was still in its infancy and the G.I. Bill had just put a generation through college. At Time, where her husband John Gregory Dunne worked when Didion was at Vogue, “waiters from the Tower Suite on top of the Time-Life Building rolled in buffet carts with beef Wellington and chicken divan and sole and assorted appetizers and vegetables and desserts.” Liquor was served in “prodigious quantities” and hotel rooms “were available for those suburbanites who had missed their last train, or would so claim to their wives when in fact all they wished was an adulterous snuggle with a back-of-the-book researcher.”
The largesse of the print-era gravy train meant that when Didion and Dunne moved to California, they not only could count on a national audience for the columns they wrote for Life and The Saturday Evening Post, but that they could afford to do so while living at the edge of an estate overlooking the sea a few miles south of Los Angeles. In fact, in the 50 years since Didion left her editor’s desk at Vogue in 1964, decades in which she and Dunne lived in some of the toniest neighborhoods in New York and L.A., neither of them ever held a job other than writer.
Of course, the economic bounty provided by glossy magazines and Hollywood script deals would have meant nothing if Didion had nothing to say, as is demonstrated, perhaps unintentionally, by Daugherty’s exhaustive chronicling of the checkered careers of John Gregory Dunne and his brother Dominick. Daugherty’s tales of the Brothers Dunne, along with that of Didion’s sad, alcoholic adopted daughter Quintana, who died of acute pancreatitis in 2005, comprise a sort of shadow narrative in The Last Love Song, one that bloats the book to more than 700 pages and occasionally threatens to overwhelm the central story.
But if Daugherty makes too much of John Gregory Dunne’s angst over his mediocrity and Dominick Dunne’s long road from cokehead movie producer to closeted bisexual celebrity crime journalist, one comes away from The Last Love Song with a renewed sense of how rare true talent is, what a gift it is — for the bearer, and for her audience. John Gregory Dunne was every bit as committed to his craft as his his wife, and Dominick Dunne far eclipsed her gift for self-reinvention, but only Didion possessed the luck of serving as a human tuning fork for the anxieties of her age and the dogged curiosity to pursue those anxieties wherever they led.
At Salon, Kyle Minor listens to an audiobook recording of Joan Didion’s Salvador and finds that it remains “immediately relevant to a new reader whose memory of its context is more the kind of memory that arises from having read books about history than one that arises from having been old enough in 1983 to understand the meaning of phrases such as death squad, or body count, or mechanism of terror.”
A recent Millions essay by Michelle Huneven got us thinking: much hay has been made of how various print and digital platforms affect reading practices, but what about setting? Where you do your reading, and how much unbroken time you can give to it, will arguably shape your experience far more than does the difference between screen and page. And as cable and the web colonize our homes, it seems to us that the best reading is increasingly done in transit – for better and for worse. We’ve read pieces of War and Peace on the DC Metro (tough) and half of Anna Karenina in a single gulp on a night train through Tuscany (sublime).
By way of starting a conversation about the ideal marriage of text and transportation, we’ve asked our contributors and our Facebook group to make recommendations for three modes of transportation: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. “Planes” should be self-explanatory; “Trains” comprises commuter rail (and buses) as well as longer distance trips; and “Automobiles,” perforce, centers on audiobooks, podcasts, and works read out loud by those not behind the wheel. Contributor responses appear first, followed by selections from the Facebook response. We invite you to add your own in the comments section or via twitter (using the hashtag #roadbooks). Bon voyage!
Sonya: While traveling far from home, I like to give myself over fully to a changed perspective, leaving my customary myopia behind as much as possible; The Economist is my preferred reading. The robust “World” and “Business” sections in particular knock me off my precious literary perch, which can be awfully refreshing.
Kevin: My criteria for a plane book are two: I want it to be fast-paced, and I want to be able to finish it, if not by the time I touch down, then at least during the return flight home. I’ve never had a better plane reading experience than Boston to Los Angeles, 1994, The Hunt for Red October.
Edan: When flying, I always want something short enough to read cover-to-cover (in addition to a novel, a fashion magazine or gossip rag, and a book of jumbles, crosswords, or soduku). On my last few flights, I’ve brought a volume from Melville House’s Art of the Novella series. I’ve written about Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra here. I can also recommend Customer Service by Benoît Duteutre, about a man with cell phone issues who just wants help from a goddamned human being. It’s an appropriate read for when you’re flying through the air in a magical bullet, and you’ve just been forced to pay for a bag of peanut m&ms (a.k.a., dinner) with your credit card because cash is no longer accepted.
Garth: Last summer, en route to Hawaii, I read most of Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife. If I say that I wasn’t even tempted to look at The Real Housewives of New Jersey (on a continuous loop on my back-of-seat TV), it’s not to slight Jacqueline or Dina, but to indicate how engrossing and provocative I found Talese’s exploration of sex in America.
Anne: For the nervous flyer (like myself), who wants to forget they’re in a fuselage for the duration of the flight, Lucy Grealy’s memoir Autobiography of a Face offers a gripping and unsentimental account of her childhood bone cancer and living with the consequent facial disfiguration. The book can captivate for the time it takes to cross an ocean – even, in my case, the Pacific.
Emily W: My fear of flying makes reading when skybound a rare pleasure. For me, it’s usually the iPod, cocktails, and a Vogue or a Harper’s Bazaar. The one book that managed to suppress my fear of death in the sky for five hours was J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, which I read from cover-to-cover on a red-eye from San Francisco to DC.
Max: Plane rides are perfect for magazines, especially the New Yorker. The freedom to work through an entire issue in one sitting feels like a luxury, even if the leg room is lacking.
Anne: Amy Hempel’s Collected Stories offer enchantments brief enough for daily a commute, but the collection provides a cornucopia of word play and eclectic tales to occupy a longer haul. Plus, Hempel’s story, “To Those of You Who Missed Your Connecting Flights Out of O’Hare,” is a sure endorsement of the soothing lull of a long train ride.
Sonya: I like the Russians for train travel. When you’re watching the natural landscape – the largely uninhabited regions – of a country fly by in flashes, it just feels right to be reading stories that take place over the great land mass of Mother Russia. For a long trip, Dr. Zhivago; for, say, the DC-New York Metroliner, Chekhov’s “The Steppe” – in both cases, the land journey is also the journey of the soul.
Garth: The subway is feast or famine for me. The right book, and I’ll miss my stop; the wrong one, and I’ll read for half an hour without registering a single word. When I don’t have a New Yorker handy, Joan Didion – say, Play it as it Lays or Salvador – is perfect subway reading: lucid enough to let me in quickly; sophisticated enough to hold my attention; and discretely structured, for ease of exit.
Kevin: Typically before boarding at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, I stop at a news kiosk and pick up the NYT and the WSJ. I enjoy having the time to read each front to back, and I like being able to change from news to business to sports and then back again. There’s also no doubt that I like the romance of a newspaper on the train: the economy fold, the crinkle of the pages mixed with the sound of the clattering tracks.
Emily W: On trains, I’m usually one for gazing out the window or striking up a conversation with a stranger, but this winter on the Northeast Direct from DC to Boston, I found Poets and Writers’ January/February 2010 issue quite absorbing, particularly their “Literary Life” essays. I’m a bit of skeptic when it comes to writing about writing but P&W convinced me otherwise.
Edan: I never travel by train, but the next time – or, really, the first time – I get the opportunity to ride one across the country, or even state lines, I plan to bring along my copy of Selected Stories by Alice Munro. I will flip immediately to “Wild Swans,” a startling, discomfiting, and accurate account of an encounter with a stranger on a train. Munro writes: “Victim and accomplice she was borne past Glasco’s jams and Marmalades, past the big pulsating pipes of oil refineries.” I’d like to read that sentence as another landscape glides by my own train car window.
Max: There’s something about taking a longer train ride that puts one in the mood for adventure. When I was younger, I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on a train ride from Washington D.C. to New York and emerged from Penn Station feeling pleasantly addled and ready for a night on the town.
Amir Hother Yishay: I finished the last 200 hundred pages of A Storm of Swords, by George R.R. Martin, on a subway ride
Jane Weichert: Nothing Like It in the World by Stephen Ambrose is an very readable story of the building of the first transcontinental railroad. It was built by the immigrant Chinese and Irish and gives an understanding of the brutal conditions under which they worked. Last Train to Paradise by Les Standiford is a spell-binding tale of the last of the privately financed infrastructure projects undertaken by larger-than-life 19th century businessmen. Here Henry Flagler races against his own mortality to complete a railroad from Jacksonville to Key West, with the final run south from Miami requiring herculean engineering, management, and financial resources.
Becky Donahue: Short stories are wonderful…just finished reading Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro. Podcasts…Slate does a great job and lots of content to choose from. My new favorites are Spilled Milk and The Moth.
Sonya: Once weekly, I drive two hours each way – prime audiobook time. “As read by the author” is often a great way to go when choosing nonfiction in particular. I recommend Elizabeth Gilbert reading Eat, Pray, Love; Anne Lamott reading any of her memoirs; Helene Cooper reading The House at Sugar Beach; and, my favorite among these, Dreams From My Father. The author was allowed much more range of expression back in 2005 when he recorded it, and it’s a rare experience hearing a future president do Kenyan accents and urban “Negro dialect” (ahem) and using the f- and n-words. [Ed.’s note: for the latter, we also recommend the Lyndon Johnson tapes.]
Anne: It’s rare that I travel by car these days, and even rarer that I find myself behind the wheel, but when I do, I like to listen to In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry. Listening to poems, like songs, lets me internalize their rhythms and cadences. This collection features a wide range of twentieth-century poets reciting their own poems, from Sylvia Plath’s contemptuous “Daddy” to Gertrude Stein’s playfully repetitive “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso.”
Emily W: With audiobooks, it’s all about the reader; audio samples are essential to choosing a good recording. On recent car trips, my husband and I have found Huckleberry Finn and The Da Vinci Code particularly entertaining (in the latter case, guffaw-inducing) because the readers were so excellent at accents, genders, and dialects. And I have extremely fond memories of listening to Larry McMurtry’s Anything for Billy with my parents and sisters on a childhood drive from Virginia to Massachusetts.
Kevin: Audiobooks are not foolproof. A couple years ago I tried to listen to Cold Mountain on a road trip; between changing lanes, counting out toll money, and generally trying to stay alert, I found Charles Frazier’s slow, somnolent reading impossible to follow. These days my voices of choice are David Sedaris (yes, please, Santaland Diaries one more time) and Garrison Keillor, or anyone else working in short-form comedy.
Garth: Though my wife and I like to read aloud to each other on long trips, The Lannan Literary Foundation podcasts are a recent discovery I’m pretty enthusiastic about: lengthy readings by writers like Deborah Eisenberg and Samuel R. Delany, followed by intelligent discussion with peers like Ben Marcus and Junot Díaz. We parcel them out like rest stops.
Max: A good travel audiobook can make even a drive from Chicago to New York seem something more than just endless fields and turnpikes. Most memorable was Paul Theroux’s account of his train trip from Cairo to Johannesburg, Dark Star Safari. The library is great for these.
Amir Hother Yishay: I always read on car rides, never having been a fan of audio books myself. One of my greatest car reading experiences would probably be reading One Hundred Years of Solitude over a two week trip from Toronto to St. Johns.
Miriam Parker: One of my most enjoyable long car rides included listening to Born Standing Up by Steve Martin. He reads it and is fantastic. I actually had to stop the car once to write down something brilliant he had said or else I would have caused a huge accident on I-40.
Christine Magee: Commuting in and out of the city on a regular basis last year was made palatable by listening to Carson McCullers, The Heart is a lonely Hunter. The fact that the narrative transported me to a different place and time made it the perfect choice. It got to the point where I was looking forward to sitting in traffic so I could hear more! This wonderful book full of tension and struggle made my daily commute seem like a breeze!