Book Bag: ‘Noche Triste’ by Robert Radin; ‘My Girl Vaida’ by Caitlin Quinn

The late Vaida, Caitlin Quinn’s faithful hiking companion.

The late Vaida, Caitlin Quinn’s faithful hiking companion. CONTRIBUTED

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 12-26-2023 11:04 AM

Noche Trist: A Memoir of Anorexia

By Robert Radin

Ibidem/Columbia University Press

 

A few years ago, Robert Radin, the the director of citizenship and immigration services for Jewish Family Service in Springfield, wrote a memoir about his experience teaching English to refugees, a book in which he also explored other incidents in his life, including experiencing antisemitism and a near-fatal car crash.

In his new book, “Noche Triste,” Radin, of Hadley, offers another snapshot of his past: his struggles with anorexia, beginning in the early 1980s, when at one point his 6-foot frame dropped from about 145 pounds to 80 and he became too weak to do any kind of exercise beyond yoga.

In a narrative that offers an unusual portrait, in that anorexia is a disorder overwhelmingly associated with women, Radin also examines the history of self-starvation: as a ritual for religious purification, as a social phenomenon, and as a means of political and social protest, such as practiced by British suffragettes of the early 20th century.

Writing in a stripped-down style that matches his grim subject, Radin, who grew up in California, explains that he first learned of anorexia in the late 1970s when he developed a crush on a withdrawn girl, Julia, in his high school art class. One day Julia disappears without notice, and Radin only later discovers she’s been hospitalized for severe weight loss.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Jena Schwartz: Things I have not said
As Hadley works on energy storage bylaw, some question why the town has to allow them at all
Residents seek to balance intersection upgrades with preservation of Sunderland character
Don Michak: Dig deeper after scandalous court ruling in Soldiers' Home case
Susan Tracy: Support Ukraine funding
Amherst police chief finalists stress anti-racism cred, discuss other issues in separate meetings with public

A sister of one of his friends also struggles with an eating disorder. Radin, meanwhile, makes a brief attempt to bulk up his own skinny frame by lifting weights in his high school weight room; then he takes the opposite tack after he meets another girl, Nicole, who likes his thin looks, though Radin is much more self-critical.

Standing in front of a mirror, he describes how he sees, just for a moment, “what she saw, my reflection through her eyes. But then the moment passed, and I wanted to get it back, and I thought I could, if I just lost a little more weight.”

On a trip to Mexico with Nicole in the early 1980s, Radin got dysentery and lost 10 pounds in a few days. Soon he became obsessed with improving his diet, convinced it had too much fat in it, and after consulting nutrition books began cutting his food intake dramatically.

Breakfast became bran and millet cooked in boiled water, lunch a green apple, and dinner a can of plain tuna, some bulgur wheat, and a stalk of raw broccoli.

“The hardest part of the day was when I finished dinner,” he writes, “when I took the last bite of food and knew I had nothing more to look forward to until morning.”

When he got hunger pains in his stomach, he says, “I told myself that each spasm was cutting into the fat in my body.”

None of this makes for easy reading. At one point, Radin, who had dropped out of college and was working in a factory that assembled parts for elevator hoists, risked losing his job because his lack of food was causing him to fall asleep at work. His vision also grew blurry, causing him to make mistakes in the assembly process.

But coupled with Radin’s explorations of the history of self-starving — such as an account of “hunger artists” in Europe and the U.S. in the late 19th century who fasted publicly for money — “Noche Triste” makes for an interesting if dark read.

As one critic writes, “Robert Radin … turns a lens on the role that hunger has played both in public and in private … Ultimately, though, this is a strikingly intense and personal story framed within the larger context of an illness that continues to defy generalizations.”

 

My Girl Vaida: An Adventurous Hiker, Her Big Yellow Dog, Their Everlasting Bond

By Caitlin Quinn

 

After reading Caitlin Quinn’s memoir about her extensive hiking trips with a four-legged companion, you might need to amend the phrase about dogs being “man’s best friend.” They can also be “woman’s best friend.”

Quinn, an Amherst native who now lives in New Hampshire, has spent years hiking throughout New England, especially Vermont, climbing every significant peak and then some.

And for some 10 years, she took just about every hike with her faithful companion, a lab mix rescue dog that she got as a puppy from Arkansas in 2009 and named Vaida.

Quinn, who graduated from Amherst Regional High School about 20 years ago and then played softball for four years at the University of Vermont, describes herself as something of a storyteller. But in her first book, “My Girl Vaida,” she puts the emphasis on her beloved dog, who died in late 2021.

“Vaida was my adventure partner, my best friend, my partner in crime. She was my soulmate,” Quinn writes. “I never worried what people thought about me, my crazy life, or my sometimes questionable decisions, because in the end, I had Vaida.”

As Quinn notes, she’s led a simple, unconventional life since graduating from the University of Vermont, working a number of jobs, including at a music venue and an outdoor clothing company in Vermont, mostly as a means to finance her real passion: hiking.

Quinn explains that she’s social enough and enjoys company; she’s dated different men over the years. But she’s also lived on her own for many years and enjoys a good amount of solitude at home or on the hiking trail, with Vaida previously supplying much of the companionship she needed.

“One of the best things about hiking with a dog is that you never have to listen to complaints,” she writes. “It didn’t matter what the conditions were or how long the hike was, Vaida just did it.”

Indeed. “I always marveled at how she could be up on a mountain in zero-degree temperatures and blowing snow with an ice beard and she was fine,” Quinn recounts. “She would sit or lie down when we got to the top of the mountain, even in near white-out conditions … and take it all in.”

Eventually, though, Vaida began to slow down. And when Quinn set out in 2019 to hike the Appalachian Trail south from its northern terminus in Maine, she had to do it on her own, as Vaida was staying with her parents in Amherst.

Vaida did take one small, last hike with Quinn that summer on a section of the A.T. in Connecticut — just a quarter-mile before she lay down to rest as if to say “enough.” Two years later, Quinn took an ailing Vaida to the vet to have her put down.

But her memories of her dog and its impact remain.

“Vaida helped me gain confidence as a hiker, taught me more about myself than I could ever have learned on my own, changed the way I see the world, and helped me see how I want to live my life,” she writes.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.