Book Review: The Awakening & Selected Stories by Kate Chopin

The sidewalk outside NYC’s largest public library building is embedded with plaques such as this one in honor of Kate Chopin. Stopping to read them as I walk along may make me look like a tourist, taking photographs of them definitely does. But surely their purpose is to encourage lingering and contemplation . . . and so I linger, contemplate, and take a photograph.

At home, the 1981 Modern Library version of a selection of Chopin’s work waits by our bedside, our current nighttime read-aloud. Within that volume, the strong wings of Chopin’s words guide us along the inroads of mind, heart, and body. Kate Chopin’s stories are peopled with those who act from deep motivations, and very often they pause to consider the nature and source of their emotions.

The stories are short, well-paced, and thought provoking, making this volume a wonderful read-aloud for adults – and worthy of a book club. The introduction by literary critic Nina Baym offers valuable historical context, and the glossary of terms helps fill in where context clues don’t seem to be enough.

If you pick up this volume and the first two stories lead you to believe that all will end with a lovely sweetness, keep reading. These two stories, “Love on the Bon-Dieu” and “Beyond the Bayou” will begin to teach you how to read Chopin’s stories, but they do not reveal the full arc of human potential that Chopin explores. Highly recommended.

Book Review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

I’m working on a ghost story and, by way of procrastination as much as by way of research, I settled in with two slim volumes of ghost stories: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and More Scary Stories, by Alvin Schwartz. In their pages, I was amused to find a few traditional ghost stories that I myself had heard and passed on. Two of them I heard from my uncle, Gerald Shattuck. He was a very good story teller. The first story he told was a “Cemetery at Night” story.  We were amused, but not scared much. But then, in a low, serious voice, he told the tale of his own experience with the “Ghostly Hitchhiker,”

One night, my friend and I were driving along on a dark road. Suddenly, in our headlights we saw a distraught young woman by the side of the road. She flagged us down. Of course, we stopped. We wondered if she were hurt, but she insisted that she just needed a ride home. She gave us an address and we started off. From the back seat she told us how grateful she was. We were very worried about her, and when we asked her a question and she didn’t answer, I turned to the back to check on her – she was gone! She had disappeared! We stopped at the first little store we came to and reported what we had seen. The people there had heard this story before. We discovered that a young woman had been killed by a hit-and-run driver at the very spot we first saw her. Her spirit has haunted the roadside ever since, looking for the guilty person who killed her.

Told this way, it is a compelling story: we young listeners were suitably caught between belief and disbelieve. I, myself, passed on the story when I told it to a carload of middle-schoolers I was driving to an activity night. To my great surprise, the most credulous among them fell for it hook, line, and sinker, and I spent some time back peddling and explaining the nature of ghost stories.

When they were first published, the series was very popular with children, but deemed too gross and scary by some adults. The stories are based on folktales – old and modern – and they are scary, especially the illustrations. And if you find ghosts eating the pus of their rotting stomachs gross, (which I do!) they are gross. All in all, I agree with Harper’s 1984 review of another Schwartz publication, “a nicely nasty collection.” I’ll be on the lookout for more volumes.

If I find any, I’ll be looking for more than ghost stories. In the Acknowledgments section of the two volumes, an interesting tale is hinted at – that of a marriage and of the changing public roles of women. In the first  volume, published in 1981, the author acknowledges his wife with these words, “My wife, Barbara, who did the musical notation . . .  carried out bibliographical research, and contributed in other ways.” By 1984, he identifies her in this manner, “. . . my wife and colleague, Barbara Carmer Schwartz.” How she came to be acknowledged with her full name and a more professional status is a story I’d like to hear.

What I’ve Been Reading

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.

Book Review: Not Exactly Love

Not Exactly Love: A MemoirNot Exactly Love: A Memoir by Betty Hafner
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!

Winter Deserves Its Own Reading List: A Book Review

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.