Caribou Island & the Joy of Second Hand Books

What a pleasure it is to actually justify bringing home books by the sleigh-load! There have been far too many times down the years where I’ve bought a bunch of books only to have them collect dust on my shelves. Not only was I aware that I was wasting money, but I felt like a failure as a reader. I became resigned to the idea that I just couldn’t commit, that laziness and impatience were permanent fixtures of my personality. As I’ve stated in other posts, 2017 has really eschewed those fears. Human behavior is not something innate; none of our traits are set in stone. Instead behavior is like clay. Everything can be molded, smoothed and sculpted into a different shape. This year, I discovered my productivity- and it’s very much a work in progress, something I have to constantly manage and amend.

Last weekend I finished reading David Vann’s novel Caribou Island. It’s another title I got from our favorite Houston book retailer- Half-Price Books. This summer saw me leave that place with bigger stacks than your momma’s Ihop brunch plate. The only difference this year was that I knew I could justify every purchase and finish every book. Looking back on our frequent trips there, it occurred to me how well second-hand bookstores go with my new approach to reading. I’m trying to branch out as much as I can. My mission this year has not only been to read as many books as I can, but to read from as many voices as I can. With second-hand bookstores there’s no assurance you’ll find what you want. I found that many times I went in and searched for a tried-and-tested author, only to not find him or her among the publications Half-Price had in stock. So then I’d look around and inevitably leave with a novel by an author I had never heard of. Half-Price Books has helped me discover new voices in world literature. When I was in Crete I read Bone Horses by Lesley Poling-Kempes, another purchase from Half-Price, and then I moved onto Caribou Island. Both novels serve as examples of books I took a chance on; glancing briefly at the covers, scanning the blurb without retaining much of it, and then of course checking the pages to see if the print wasn’t too small. And I’m so happy I did roll the dice on them, because now I can’t imagine my life without these authors.

But what is Caribou Island about? In a nutshell, it’s a story about a deteriorating marriage. Irene and Gary live in the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, in a landscape that draws you in with its stunning scenery, only to reveal that its wildness is not an idyll, but something bitter and unforgiving. The novel sees them attempt to build a cabin and live a frontier lifestyle without electricity, heating any modern comforts, in the hope that such an existence will rekindle their love. The novel also features Gary and Irene’s son Mark and daughter Rhoda, now grown-up and still living in and around the city of Soldotna. If I had to describe this book in one word it would be dark, with the runner-up being beautiful. There’s no graphic sex or violence, and it’s not particularly seedy in any way. It’s not dark in the visual or horrifying sense. Instead it’s just depressing. Don’t get me wrong, I loved this book. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read and I felt extremely invested in the characters, especially Carl and Rhoda who are perhaps the most sympathetic figures. But when I was finished I did feel quite sad. I could feel the exhaustion of the characters weighing on me like a baby panda, dragging me down. The novel explores the dark places of the human psyche. It’s about emotional trauma and the breaking point it takes us to. The characters in this book are self-loathing, disenfranchised, and discontented. Everyone seems to have a chip on his or her shoulder, and half of the characters are cheating on their significant others or contemplating doing so. It’s a book that makes readers uncomfortable because of the dark conclusions the characters reach about the institutions of marriage and family. Hell, one character is so lost for meaning in life that he consciously devotes himself to having as much sex as possible, regardless of the consequences on his partner. It’s a book about failed dreams and broken promises. For David Vann, the American Dream is a desolate wasteland. Everyone in this book is searching for meaning in some way, and lashing out at each other when they don’t find any.

I would definitely recommend this novel and it’s easily one of the best I’ve read this year. The dialogue is snappy, intelligent, and engaging, and the descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness are truly beautiful. This book is a must-read for any of you interested in marital, familial and domestic dramas!

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