My lookout tower is situated five miles from the nearest road, on a ten-thousand-foot peak in the Gila National Forest. I live here for several months each year, without electricity or running water. Although tens of thousands of acres are touched by fire here every year, I can go weeks without seeing a twist of smoke. During these lulls I simply watch and wait, my eyes becoming ever more intimate with an ecological transition zone encompassing dry grasslands, piñon-juniper foothills, ponderosa parkland, and spruce-fir high country. On clear days I can make out mountains 180 miles away. To the east extends the valley of the Rio Grande, cradled by the desert: austere, forbidding, dotted with creosote shrubs and home to a collection of horned and thorned species evolved to live in a land of little water. To the north and south, along the Black Range, a line of peaks rises and falls in timbered waves; to the west, the Rio Mimbres meanders out of the mountains, its lower valley verdant with riparian flora. Beyond it rise more mesas and mountains: the Diablos, the Jerkies, the Mogollons.
It is a world of extremes. Having spent each fire season for nearly a decade in my little glass-walled perch, I’ve become acquainted with the look and feel of the border highlands each week of each month, from April through August: the brutal gales of spring, when a roar off the desert gusts over seventy miles an hour and the occasional snow squall turns my peak white; the dawning of summer in late May, when the wind abates and the aphids hatch and ladybugs emerge in great clouds from their hibernation; the fires of June, when dry lightning connects with the hills, sparking smokes that fill the air with the sweet smell of burning pine; the tremendous storms of July, when the thunder makes me flinch as if from the threat of a punch; and the blessed indolence of August, when the meadows bloom with wildflowers and the creeks run again, the rains having turned my world a dozen different shades of green. I’ve seen fires burn so hot they made their own weather; I’ve watched deer and elk frolic in the meadow below me and pine trees explode in a blue ball of smoke. If there’s a better job anywhere on the planet, I’d like to know about it.
She leaves university around 5 p.m., just as the sun is falling behind the dark mountains to the south, and steers her white Honda Civic down the hill toward the border. It’s a short drive, maybe 10 minutes, past the fast-food restaurants and strip malls of El Paso and over the I-10, where Texans sit in traffic to head home to the suburbs, then alongside the two fences—electric and brown metal—that divide Texas from Mexico.
Then, she waits. Valeria Padilla is accustomed to waiting—for four years she has commuted from the home she shares with her mother and grandmother in Ciudad Juarez to the campus of the University of Texas-El Paso, where she, like many other Mexican nationals, qualifies for in-state tuition. But the wait used to be to get into the United States. Now, she waits to get out, too.
For the first time ever, the jury has given the Nobel Prize in literature to a writer who cannot be appreciated by the deaf. In their citation, the jury lauded Bob Dylan’s “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” But can song lyrics be rightly esteemed on the page, or do they need a tune and a voice?
Dylan’s lyrics — absent the memory of the chords that fed them life — read like dead fish. But they swim in sounds like nothing else. I remember they do, but deaf, I can’t hear them now. And just as color cannot be helpfully explained to a blind museum patron, so the lilt of a voice cannot be helpfully explained to one who’s deaf. The Nobel Prize in literature has gone to someone I’m no longer able to “read.”
To satiate this curiosity and hunger for near-obsessive detail, few can top “When Paris Sizzled,” a book so packed with intriguing character sketches and associations as to be almost encyclopedic. McAuliffe, the author of several books about Paris, draws on the troves of material left behind by the era’s great writers and expats to bring the city to life in a kind of you-are-here-with-Cocteau-and-Chanel tableau vivant. And everyone is here at McAuliffe’s proverbial Montparnasse party.