No book should ever be 700 pages. That’s just a book editor not doing their job.
“A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara is a case in point. “Barkskins” by Annie Proulx, the same. I saw some critics joke that if Proulx was really concerned about trees, she might have saved a forest all on her own with a little discretion here.
But IMO, that’s her editor’s job. I mean, a writer’s gotta write, right? In Proulx’s case, I imagine that after “Shipping News” and “Brokeback Mountain”, she’s got the clout to overrule any editor. Mistake, I say. If you haven’t done it in the first 500 pages, you’re not doing it right.
So I’m not recommending “Barkskins” even though I read all 713 pages. I wanted to like it (and I did, in some ways). But it was just too much – too many pages, too much switching back and forth from one time-frame to another (man, do I hate that literary gimmick; enough already!), waaay too many characters to keep track of, no less care about.
But this is a recommendation blog so here’s what I actually recommend this time – another book but sort of the same: “The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World” by Andrea Wulf. It’s one of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year written by an award-winning author.
But – it’s non-fiction.
That’s often a deal breaker for me. I want to read non-fiction, I really do, especially a book like this. I like to read about travel and history. I want to be informed about important global trends. But non-fiction is sometimes soo boring. I need the characters, the dialogue.
Oftentimes, when I’m trying to get through a book of non-fiction, I’ll read another book at the same time. I know I’m not the only person who does this. (In fact, Wulf writes about people doing this very thing!) Sometimes you have an “upstairs” book and a “downstairs” book. Sometimes, it’s brain candy to offset a thriller. With me, I often turn to a novel for a break while I’m reading non-fiction.
This time, I found the perfect combination – if you too are a Proulx fan and you think you want to give “Barkskins” a try but are daunted by the sheer size of it, try reading it in combination with “The Invention of Nature”. They go together so well that some characters mentioned in one book are also in the other.
Humboldt was a scientist and naturalist at the turn of the 18th century who, Wulf claims, was the first to note the symbiosis of all life on the planet. He influenced others including Thomas Jefferson and Charles Darwin and he called out climate change nearly 200 years ago.
Wulf’s story ranges from the jungles of South America to the establishment of the German state and is really interesting history. It’s all the more interesting with regular injections from Proulx’s characters, who are set in the same time-frame and are living out the effects described by Humboldt.
Your mission here, if you decide to accept reading both books in tandem, means you’re in for more than 1,000 pages. Are you up for the challenge?