I may only eat rice and beans, but I am rich in books and beaches.
I have been very blessed to have a lot of time to read while in the DR. It has dwindled significantly, as I have taken on more volunteer duties, but my first month and a half I worked only in the morning. My first three weeks in Muñoz I not only had free afternoons and evenings, but also no internet: a perfect recipe for losing myself in a few novels!
Books are my first love - before I discovered writing or anthropology or traveling or even dancing, I had books. I can't think of my childhood without thinking of Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, Little House on the Prairie, all of the classics that I read and re-read. Of course, I read a lot of new fiction as well, and the biographies my mom would give me, but it's the classic books and their heroines that always come to mind. I've somehow just run into books here in the DR, finding them in the oddest places, and they have become intertwined with my Dominican experience.
The first book I picked up here in the DR was A Year in the World - Journeys of a Passionate Traveller by Frances Mayes and I hated it. I was given it as a hand-me-down from a well-traveled aunt and was immediately intrigued. But here I was, in a very grungy, loud, lonely living situation, reading about lovely Frances as she frolics about Europe describing, in great detail, her gourmet meals in white-gloved restaurants. It was pretentious and it made me hungry, and angry. Hangry.
So I put that down, and picked up It's Not About the Tapas: A Spanish Adventure on Two Wheels by Polly Evans, which made me feel infinitely better because at least I wasn't riding a bicycle through gangs of dogs in the Spanish countryside, living off of bananas and bar food. It's a funny, light read that was perfect for a poor girl lying on the beach.
Then I read The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood, which I found at a used English bookstore (who knew that existed here?). It was, of course, brilliantly well written, insightful, and rather depressing. The reader becomes so close to the three main characters you almost feel that you are them, in a way that I don't with most books. Sometimes the closeness and the sadness was almost suffocating, but it's still well worth the read. I'm afraid though, in my already lonely state, it wasn't the best choice...
I then moved on to another woman-focused, internally driven, rather sad book that I found in the hostel: Unless, by Carol Shields (you can read a great review here). It is a book of musings. There isn't much plot at all, really, just a central event that the musings cling to. But Shield's prose and insight are so beautifully sharp that I was surprised to find myself in the middle of the book in a day, and more surprised when I finished it in 3 hours, first sitting at the beach, and then in the park. Unless is about a female writer of "light fiction" who is dealing with a family tragedy surrounding one of her daughters. She wonders if this tragedy could have been sparked by her daughter realizing "how casually and completely she is shut out of the universe". I read a lot of women focused literature, but Unless was one of the few that I've read recently that really made me think. And seriously, I was so amazed by the wonderful, wonderful writing that I kept jotting down quotes.
I then moved to Muñoz, and maybe it was my feeling of being a wandering orphan that lead me to pick up David Copperfield, the great Dickens novel. And maybe it was our lack of internet that lead me to finish it in a week, but I found myself really loving this novel. A lot of the old-fashioned norms and ways had me laughing or frustrated (seriously, everyone is surprised she likes the rich, charming guy?), but I still fell deep into this book, and so missed merry old England afterwards that I am currently reading some Jane Austen.
Then, in the little art shop where I work (check out the goods here!) I found the book Ru by Kim Thúy, and fell in love with it. It is a gorgeous little book that reads like a poem. It is moving and profound and a fantastic history lesson. It is about the plight of the Vietnamese in the aftermath of the war, and it helped me get my head out of my own little woes (bucket showers! bees!). It is a book to savor slowly. (Check out an NPR interview here!)
I then needed another beach read, so I gave Frances Mayes another try. This time I enjoyed A Year in the World much more, though I can only take so much of it at a time. So I save it for my beach visits, where I sit on the sand snacking on cheap cookies or the rice I brought and reading about her culinary adventures in Portugal. (BTW, that book single-handedly made me want to visit Portugal.)
I'm also dabbling in Persuasion by Jane Austen, and gearing up to dive into War and Peace (can you tell I have the Kindle free classics?). What strange images will be associated with my time in the DR! Aside from the tropical landscape and beaches, I'll also see gloomy London, war-torn Vietnam and wintry Canada.
Like any good reader, I also have a wish list - topping it is The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa. One fellow reader told me this book was a must read for anyone wanting to understand the DR and the time of Trujillo, and Vargas Llosa is a brilliant author. Snow by Orhan Pamuk, or really, anything by him, has also been on the list for ages. I read one of his novels before I visited Istanbul, and after that visit I needed more. So if anyone nearby has these books, I'll trade!