Wednesday, January 9, 2013

December Storytellers: A Month of Books

Where have I been? On the prairie in the 1800s. Spending time with a watchmaker mouse. Lost in poetry. In upstate New York searching for clean water and air. These storytellers were my last of 2012, guiding me in my path finding my own American dream, reminding me of what I love: history, the beauty of the word, caretaking for the environment, home, and gratitude.

The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder, 50 cents, Housing Works Thrift Shop, New York City.

"Historians have written about that hard winter of 1881. It was worse than anybody remembered. I wrote about it too though not so much as a recorder of history as an observer of people and the people I knew on the prairie in those years would have given you a puzzled look if you called them heroes. They ventured into the unknown lands because that is where their hearts took them." - from Beyond the Prairie: The True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Laura says in Beyond the Prairie, "This is where I told myself I must remember. The feel of things, the scratch of wool on your skin, the sharp smell of a wood fire, the long stagnant afternoons when it seems nothing interest can ever happen."

Laura writes about the heavy undergarment her mother made her wear when she longed for cooler cotton, a blessed event when an unexpected blizzard comes, one of many that would plague De Smet, South Dakota. An old Indian comes in and warns the townspeople of seven months of blizzards, a true prophecy. Pa observes the animals making thicker, more supportive shelters. How often we can take our queues from the animal world.
"Few of us I think have an unmistakable moment to mark the end of childhood. There's just a change, subtle and bewildering, a time when we are suddenly strangers to ourselves until one day we discover the person we have become," Laura says in Beyond the Prairie. She finds herself blossoming from that childhood in her marvelous Little Town on the Prairie,  Laura Ingalls Wilder, 50 cents, Housing Works Thrift Shop, New York City. How I wished to spend a Friday evening at one of the literaries she described. I also remember the simple delights she mentions, like a rare orange at a birthday party for a classmate.

If I could invite five people, living or dead, to a dinner party, Laura Ingalls Wilder would make my list. Laura, how did you feel going from a girl on the prairie entertained by your pa's fiddle to seeing the expansion of the American West, two world wars, the Great Depression, the birth of the aviation industry, and the age of television? I so often feel overwhelmed by the fast moving change in our society, especially with technology. I feel lost in conversations about apps and excitement over devices. Did Laura ever feel overwhelmed by change?

Leave Your Sleep, by Natalie Merchant and Barbara McClintock, free, the library. A beautifully illustrated book for children young and those just young-at-heart, this is an adaption of Merchant's tour-de-force Leave Your Sleep double album she created a few years ago, making songs out of 18th and 19th American and British poems. I've been a long-time fan of Natalie Merchant's works and consider her to be a sonic poet anyway.

Merchant talks about being a latecomer to poetry. I too feel like I've arrived late for the party, but I'm glad Ms. Merchant has helped open the door. "A poet transports you to a place where you can experience what they saw, what they felt, what they smelled, what they touched."

And thankfully, someone talking about aging gracefully.

Merchant writes in the introduction,

"This collection of songs represents the long conversation I had with my daughter during the first six years of her life. It documents our word-of-mouth tradition in the poems, stories, and the songs that I found to delight and teach her...I tried to show her that her speech could be the most delightful toy in her possession and that her mother tongue is rich with musical rhythms and rhymes. With these poems, I gave her parables with lessons on human nature and bits of nonsense to challenge the natural order of things and to sharpen her wit. Poetry speaks of so much: longing and sadness, joy and beauty, hope and disillusionment. These are the things that make a childhood, that time when we wake up to the great wonders and small terrors of our world. Poets are our soft-spoken clairvoyants. But poetry on the page can be difficult to penetrate; sometimes it needs to be heard."

Time to Smell the Roses by Michael Hoeye, $3.98, Better World Books. Watchmaker mouse Hermux Tantamoq is back with another wonderful adventure, this time in the battle over fragrance.  Rose is one of my favorite fragrances, and after reading this book I have new meaning when I spray on my thrifted bottle of Tea Rose perfume from the Perfumer's Workshop. I thought of this book when reading a New York Times article on celebrity fragrances and made me wonder why everyone needs to be an industry now.
Returning here too is the deliciously wonderful love-to-hate Tucka Mertslin, the neighbor of Hermux and the cosmetics tycoon who would never age gracefully. Think Nellie Oleson in mouse form. I love the underlying commentary here about the beauty industry. At one point, fame-, power- and money-obsessed Tucka finds herself reviewing a lesson she once learned:

"Wealth is the key to happiness.
People are the key to wealth.
Envy is the key to people."

But isn't that so much what lines pockets? Envy and emulation of others by the masses driving profits?

Hoeye's books are captivating, page turners with amusing commentary on our society. I adore the gratitude letters Hermux pens to the universe. Hoeye has created characters who will stay with me always. Read his books and I dare you not to be charmed.
Brindle 24, by J.J. Brown, a gift from the author, a friend of mine.

“Promising volcanic change of plot.
Where will this lead us, I'm scared of the storm.
The outsiders are gathering.” – The Outsiders, R.E.M.

I thought of Michael Stipe's words in the R.E.M. song after finishing this novel. The outsiders here are the oil companies with their promise of good jobs and cleaner energy. In the area of public trust, how high do you hold these companies?

This is a environmental cautionary tale of what happens to the people, plants, and animals effected by hydraulic fracturing - fracking - which is part of the process to extract natural gas in the fictional town of Brindle in upstate New York. The story takes place over 24 hours, but what happens because of fracking will long outlive any of us. Brown presents the science here in a very digestible way. I was never that interested in science as a student. Brown's writing made me wish I had been, but it's never too late to learn. This book is about fracking, but more than that it's about family, community, the value of clean air and water, connection to our land and each other and about being caretakers to our earth. I don't understand how environmentalists get marginalized by society. A clean ecosystem is in all of our interests.

I kept feeling the spirit of the great American conservationist John Muir who said to "Leave your legacy for the earth." Sharing some favorite passages here.

"The ancient trees are the deep earth's language for speaking to the universe. The earth communicates through trees to the animals and to the birds living above - and to the very heavens. The trees draw the earth's water up from the ground. Then breathing, they return it to the air for the clouds and the blessed rain that falls to begin the cycle anew. She thinks of the thin layer of living things as a fragile space between earth's molten rock core and the frozen outer universe of stars. The thin layer is like her own life here - precious, finite."

"So much for land ownership, Henry thinks; it's a modern myth.  You can buy and sell rights to use the land; you can't actually own it. He tries to remember who said, the land doesn't belong to you, you belong to the land; the author was certainly Native American, but he can't pin down the source."

"He remembers what the spiritual visionary, Wallace Black Elk, a Lakota said – man's scratching of the earth causes diseases like cancer. He meant the mining and drilling for coal, gas, oil, uranium. The scratching brings up the things deep in the earth that should have stayed down there. Henry shudders."

Simply put, "We had paradise. We threw it away."

Check out the Brindle 24 site, including the News section. Until I read this book, I had no idea doctors were stifled by gag orders over racking chemicals. Read more here. So much for freedom of speech.
If Brindle 24 becomes a film, I think Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi should play as the ending credits roll.

I've been reading more than I ever have in my life and feel better for it. I'd rather live in a world obsessed with books read (or just knowledge gained) than pounds shed which seems to be a national fixation every January.

My favorite storytellers in 2012 were: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith; Vector: A Modern Love Story and Brindle 24 by J.J. Brown; Rules of Civility by Amor Towles; Mandy and The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Edwards Andrews; Confessions of a Prairie Bitch by Allison Arngrim; Let the Hurricane Roar by Rose Wilder Lane, the Little House books (On the Banks of Plum Creek, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and all of Michael Hoeye's Hermux Tantamoq adventure books: Time Stops for No Mouse, The Sands of Time, No Time Like Show Time and Time to Smell the Roses.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on these storytellers or your favorites.


  1. Thanks for your great book review column here and for including a review of my new book Brindle 24. I look forward to reading the "Time to Smell the Roses" after reading your review!

  2. Thank you for writing Brindle 24! I began and ended my year with your wonderful books. "Vector: A Modern Love Story" was in my January 2012 reading list, and I was captivated by the story with its backdrop of Puccini's La Boheme. While she had a smaller roll, the homeless woman in that book was another character that stays with me, and I think of her when I pass the homeless in and around Port Authority and try not to grumble about my limited exposure to the cold weather.

    I visited Muir Woods in California this year and will think of your poetic prose about the trees when dreaming about my time there. I know you would have made John Muir proud with that passage. Much like the animals building their shelter in The Long Winter, we must hear their signals. I also loved the Native American prose you included, and it reminded me to read and share more Native American storytellers in 2013.