Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

And hear the thrushes singing

March 18, 2008

Witch song

Why ride a broom with a long, hard handle?
I’ll ride the wind tonight.
As it rushes high and higher
I’ll rise in a lazy, hazy spire
like the smoke of a blown out candle.

If I want the feel of wood, I’ll light
in a living, breathing tree,
an April tree with buds still new
and seed pods streaming wet with dew,
and rock in the wind all night.

This came from my week’s reading: I came across several witch poems that seemed content to talk about gnarled old women on besoms, and after them, I wasn’t.

Clear, soft, supple lines. A beat, and a beat, and a beat again. Rhythm and rhyme so natural they look easy. They’re not easy. I’ve been reading children’s poetry, these last two weeks. The last hundred years have seen many good children’s poems. And I’ve been finding out how many of them are out of print.

Everything I know about poetry began with my giant Child’s Garden of Verses illustrated by Gyo Fujikawa. I still have it, taped together, with two book plates in the front and my name in crayon. The first poem I learned by heart came from it: In winter I get up at night and dress by yellow candlelight….

Stevenson’s poems sound as simple as talking. They have a child’s sense of time and space — the excitement of waiting for the lamp lighter, a city child’s dizzy, rare glimpse of the night sky. A dark hallway goes on forever. A toad stool holds off the rain. A city winds over the rug and jungles grow behind the sofa. These are poems of games and transformations, the feeling of more to find out, the slow time and endless curiosity of a child’s days.

They are simple, but they are not easy, and they tell stories. A good children’s poem reminds me how it feels to stand up to my ankles in mud, to hold a violet against my cheek, to see everything closely. A good children’s poem has other places and times and echoes in it. It knows change will come. It looks at crickets and neighbors and tigers with a sturdy equality.

A good children’s poem is one a child can read. It’s one a child can play with and hold onto and kick around like a tooth-marked rubber ball. That doesn’t mean it has to be nonsense, or plasticene, or tapioca. It can have meanings the child may not puzzle out for years. But it has to speak and let the child talk back.

A year ago, Sharon Ruth Gill wrote that children’s poetry collections now nearly always go back to the classics — How do I love thee and Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day, illustrated in bright watercolors. Some scholars have actually argued that children should only encounter poems by “the masters”.

An illustrated book of sonnets can be beautiful, and if you want to paint one, I’d love to see it. But please, please, don’t try to teach children poetry by making them afraid of it. Don’t tell them only God-fearing geniuses are allowed to write it. Don’t shut it up in glass fronted bookcases behind wing chairs.

Give me instead the woman from NH who brings a program on children’s books into the schools and encourages children to write and illustrate their own. She talks with them about different stories and different words and pictures — what do you like about them, and what do they mean? She lets the kids play with them and flip them like pennies.

Gill has a list of poets she likes, poets who write for children. I’ve been going through it and looking through the local library for writers— Roger McGough, Aileen Fisher. X. J. Kennedy has a collection with some new voices: Talking Like the Rain. Isak Dinesen opens it, telling about an evening she began talking in Swahili verse in a muddy field. The people she spoke to loved the sound. “As they had become used to the idea of poetry,” she said, “they begged: ‘Speak again. Speak like the rain.'”


The need of being versed in country things

March 3, 2008

I’ve just reread Donald Hall’s Here at Eagle Pond. I’ve been reading a series of books lately that have their feet on the ground. My novel has land at its heart — acres and roots and mud puddles — and Hall loves a New England that moves me too, the hay drying in the sun, the people who remember who lived in that 1800’s saltbox when it was built, the people who work with their hands.

It always surprises me how much I disagree with him. I care about so many of the same things. Rereading him now, when I have lived in New Hampshire and left it again, I often felt homesick. His New Hampshire is a stubborn back country — the winter is cold, families work or starve, and the names on the civil war monuments are the same ones on the mail boxes.

Yes, I know these people, and this spirit. I know people who live within a mile of the place where they grew up. I know people who seek out their elders for their stories and memories, play music with them, tell stories of the Shaker sisters who taught them to cook. I know people who live on odd jobs, a man who has walked across frozen lakes with six-inch nails in his pockets, to haul himself out if the ice gave way. When Hall says his community lives where it lives because it wants to, and that it rejects commercialism and migration, he is partly right.

I love the independence and obstinacy that keeps contradance music alive. And Hall recognizes some of its costs, in rusted trailers and a lack of zoning laws. But he does not recognize all of them. And in upholding their strengths, he limits the meaning of country.

He says, simply, that his counry was created by Protestant Americans after the civil war. He brings into his understanding of country life a set of values, what he calls the country of the church dinner — a value for hard work, for family, for place. But many of these values, otherwise applied, have grown industries and cities. A love for land and an ability to live on it takes many shapes. And 18th century farming clearcut the whole state of Massachusetts.

Reading him raises a vital question for me: what does it mean to live in the country, to live with the land. How can a community be rural and vital at the same time? Country matters vitally: country Hall wants to keep hold of. At the heart of these essays, in his return home to his grandparents’ farm, he is trying to preserve a place he loves, in the face of a world he feels does not value it.

And reading him frustrates me because his definitions keep him from answering fully enough to help me. He doesn’t need to persuade me to hold onto the country. I want to know how. He doesn’t answer because he doesn’t want change of any kind. He wants country to be exactly as it is on the one-family dairy farm. He can be disingenuous in its defense — New Hampshire has a wide tolerance for eccentricity, but it is not, as he claims, diverse. It is also not young. A vital past is a fine, rich thing, but without a vital future, it’s a Shaker museum.

I want to live in the country, and I want to feel alive doing it. I want to know how to help other active, intelligent people live where they love. I don’t want to change old milltowns into mid-town Manhattan to do it: I want the country to be country, wild and fertile and animal and uncut. I don’t think intelligence, a desire for useful work I can do well, and a need for earth under my feet are incompatible.

Those of us who love the country and love to think should stick together; I agree with Donald Hall that we need each other, because others who do not love what we love can so easly take it away and not even know they have. If we are going to keep the country alive, I think we need to see it as here and alive already and kindle it slowly and steadily. The only ways I know how to do this are slow, one light at a time.

One thing we will have to do, and he does: we will have to want it. We will have to teach people its value and hold on to others who want it as much as we do.

Hall actually says the opposite, and this I do not understand at all: “It turns out that the fulfilment of desire is to stop desiring” (18). He’s quoting Sam Johnson, whether he knows it or not, and I’ve written a whole thesis proving him wrong. He proves himself wrong, in the same essay. He loves his place achingly.

He desires it ardently in every page: that’s why he’s writing. The fulfilment of a desire increases desire, deepens it and roots it until it takes over — and delights in it, laughs in it. You ask any couple who have grown into love over time, and not out of it. And when you have realized a desire, when you have held it long enough to believe it is yours — then you will fight for it.

I began these thoughts the last time I reread Eagle Pond; here, for anyone who likes circles, is the beginning of the thread.


Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse

February 14, 2008

I have just fallen for Louise Erdrich. I found The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse at the library, on tape, in a rich, low voice that almost sings the Ojibwe. In honesty, I had seen it before, and snuck quick glances at it as I passed. But only in my mad haring back and forth across the state in November, in need of company in the car, did I work up the courage to take it home.

I had read Erdrich once before and enjoyed her company, but Four Souls is a very different and grimmer book than this one. Four Souls tears a woman out of the woods and watches her disintegrate. Last Report on the Miracles at Little no Horse brings a woman into the woods and watches her blossom and suffer and love and grow old — and draw strength out of the earth.

This is the story of Father Damien Modeste. And — I’m not telling you anything you won’t read by page three — Father Damien is a woman. Through a series of misadventures and tearings up, he comes to the reservation on a spring flood. And falls in love with it. And stays.

I loved this book. It wanders in places, like the memory of an old man, and it is funny and painful at once, like Nanapush towed behind the moose in an open boat and bound to the seat by fishhooks.

The narrative moves along a straight path in the beginning, as Agnes becomes Father Damien. Erdrich gives some of the best description of music I have ever read, and the passion and absorbtion of playing. She writes profoundly erotic scenes in the most unlikely ways and places. A nun fully clothed on a piano bench becomes dangerous and anguished.

Conversely, two priests on either side of a wall of books, who discover that they are man and woman at night, are blessedly normal and safe. Those are her words. Passion can be human and natural and kindly too.

And this is one of the things I most loved: I loved this book for its balance. Conversions are mutual. Father Damien has very little natural arrogance, and what he has he loses. He learns the faith and stories and humor of his people. He gives them comfort and visits the victims of the flu epidemic. He forgives, not out of superiority, but as an act of community. And Erdrich, all the time, is forgiving him for all that his predecessors have destroyed.

And the balance between male and female — the book is founded on that. Agnes becomes Damien because she cannot be what she is called to be as Agnes. She loves the work. She loves men, but she does not submit to them. It is a grief that she cannot openly have both. But it is a warm and just satisfaction that she is free to choose, and that in the most paternalistic of structures, she will not sit still to be patronized.

This is a book of crisp northern pine woods. It feels sometimes less like a novel than like a string of beads, stories woven together. But it is circular . . . and humblingly beautiful.

Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour

November 28, 2007

I’m planning to write a lot of book reviews in this blog — of any kind of book that touches me. This one did. It also had me wired all the way through. And what better subject to mull over, the week after Thanksgiving, than how to make good food… out of pig snouts, calves’ cheeks, steamed cockles and o-toro.

Tony Bourdain travels, often to places hard to reach unless you live there, and eats damn near everything, and writes about it. And gets filmed. One of the many remarkable things about this book is that after the first chapter I am decidedly curious to try pig snout, and pigs’ feet, and all of the parts of the pig most cultures turn into festival dinners while Americans throw them away. He describes them with such uninhibited gusto.

He loves these parts because they taste good. People who make one pig last a winter, and eat the innards as a matter of course, have spent centuries finding out how to get the best use out of them. But more than that, he respects what he eats, and the people who cook it, because they work hard; they pick their ingredients fresh; and they waste next to nothing.


Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

November 12, 2007

I wasn’t in Portugal — but I have seen a freshly dead pig. So has Tony Bourdain, it turns out. I’m reading A Cook’s Tour. When I’m finished, I’ll write a kicked back, going over the whole of it review, but right now, I’m struck with the opening. For the first time, at a family get-together on his boss’s farm, he watches his dinner die.

He slows down for it. If you’ve ever seen or read Tony, you know he delights in innards, butcher’s blocks and adrenaline. Here’s a guy who once tore headlong down a mined jungle road toward a stronghold of the Khmer Rouge. He can anatomize a pig as easily as peeling a carrot. And yet a jovial working day on a Portugese farm knocks the sarcasm out of him.

He’s just kicked off the pilgrimage, and he’s in the hazy morningtime, still blinking around at the grass and shingles and beams and mountains that are impossibly not on the same ground he stood on yesterday. Hot soup sets him dreaming. Two locals gear up with a trestle and a knife and some of last season’s homemade wine (probably in an old milk jug). They wrestle with the pig as their wives wrestle with the stove.


Lay of the Land

November 3, 2007

The Kenyon Review blog posted yesterday a challenge from W. H. Auden to writers of criticism and evaluation: to describe our ideals, so that readers can judge our judgments. In this journal, I plan to talk about books I like and why I like them, about writing and conversation, about the places I walk and the people I meet in them, about whims and facts and stories that are new to me — and I invite you to evaluate it.

Auden describes his ideal place in a list. Here are my answers to his categories.

A living one, a system of systems. People walk barefoot there, and plants grow — lady’s slipper, pipsissewa, chestnut trees a man can walk through upright when they fall and hollow. The Mohican language classifies words as animate or inanimate, having or not having a soul, as other languages call words male or female; in it, mountains are animate.