A marvelous book – I started reading more slowly to make it last. Honest and unflinching about relationships, death, and the power of story within communities, this novel reminded me of the depth of John Irving’s “Cider House Rules,” and the emotional clarity of Doris Lessing. I found it completely enjoyable.
I’ve sometimes been guilty of explaining why I’m not currently reading a book by joining the club that claims, “too busy,” or “too tired at the end of the day.” I like my life better when I’m explaining, instead, why I read so much. When I was kid, I was a ‘bookworm’ and nothing more needed to be said about why I chose the company of books over people, why I carried a book with me when I climbed the tree in the back yard, or why I stayed up late reading a book by flashlight after bedtime.
When I taught 8th graders, I had an excuse for gobbling down several MG and YA books a week – I needed to read widely so I had many books to choose from when a student needed a recommendation. I always told my students who said they didn’t like to read that they just hadn’t met the right book yet, and then I’d stack a bunch up – pulling them from my extensive classroom collection of paperbacks – and give them the advice to read the first page or so, and when they wanted to keep going, they’d found their book.
But my teaching focus now is writing, and even though I believe reading and writing can’t be divorced from each other, they have drifted apart in my professional life and, by no coincidence, I suppose, in my personal life. So, to bring reading back into focus for me, I’ll share here thoughts on the books I’m reading now.
Open House by Patricia J. Williams
Unfailingly sharp witted and generous, Williams combines her close observations of life, injustice, joy, and expensive take-out with her ability to pull back, always, to the big picture and to ways of making meaning that we can move forward with. Her story-telling carries, for me, faint undertones of the potential for a lecture, but the best kind of lecture – one in which you are given new information by being given new ways to think about things, with never once being crowded into a box of the author’s own making. Never preachy, always on point, this slim volume, subtitled, “Of Family, Friends, Food, Piano Lessons, and the Search for a Room of My Own” is a treat.
I met Betty Hafner, author of Not Exactly Love: A Memoir, at a get-together for writers in Saranac Lake last year. It took me awhile to act on my good intentions to buy her book, and then to read it. It is an impressive book – for all the reasons other reviewers mentioned. Very skillful narration and selection of details, and evocative of a time (not entirely ended) when the pressure to be paired up was palpable and the momentum towards the altar pushed young people along and into disastrous commitments. Bravo!
It’s odd that summer is the only season to inspire reading lists. Doesn’t winter lend itself just as well, if not better, to a cozy read? Long nights and snow-covered gardens ought to be at least as conducive to losing yourself in a book as long days and inviting weather. And, if summer is for light – even guilty – reading, might not winter lend itself to reading of more heft, more words that will stay with you long after you set the book down?
Gardeners know one sort of winter reading, of course – seed catalogs. They find their way to our mail boxes right about now and parade the lush possibilities of spring and summer. With their bright colors and perfect blooms, they provide a temporary escape from winter, a dreamy state of what might be – a sharp contrast to the no-nonsense realities of long nights, winds whipping with snow, and nose-hair freezing temperatures.
But I don’t want always to escape from winter – where is a book that indulges my love of the stark, uncompromising season in which I will never need to mow the grass or pull a weed? A book that celebrates our long winter season here in Northern New York, that makes our heart glad to look out the window to the riches of life when we might otherwise have seen just a barren blanket of snow?
I discovered just such a book in a drugstore rack of works by local writers: Adirondack Nature Notes. Written by Tom Kalinowski and illustrated by Sheri Amsel, this is a book to keep us company in the winter and beyond: it begins with January and moves through the year from there. What can there be to say about January? Moose, muskrat, shews and moles; the Gray Jay and the Snowy Owl; oxygen levels, tracks, and life beneath the snow and under the ice.
Tom is skilled at anticipating what the reader might be wondering about and presenting information in a logical, understandable way. For example, I was wondering about the occasional dead vole I’ve found on top of the snow. Did it go up there to die? Why hadn’t some wild creature eaten it? And I was wondering too, why my dog had no more than passing interest: it seemed like something he would pounce on and gulp down before I could stop him. This book has the answer: turns out that the little creature was caught, and then, when the predator identified what it had caught, it was rejected. Why? Because moles and voles have a horrible taste. So, as Tom points out, that little brown corpse on the snow tells me two things – there is a predator around and food is plentiful enough that it didn’t need to eat this unsavory meal. And that bad taste explains why no other creature, including my dog, made a meal of it. Of course, I knew there were predators around – but now I’ll look more carefully for signs of that particular predator when I see this sort of evidence.
I love to fall in love with a book, to find one I know I will read and come back to again and again. Thank you Tom, Sheri, and North Country Books for Adirondack Nature Notes – it’s the first book on my 2017 Winter Reading List.