Wednesday, January 7, 2015

These Were My 2014 Storytellers: A Year of Books

"He said that if culture is a house, then language was the key to the front door; to all the rooms inside. Without it, he said, you ended up wayward, without a proper home or a legitimate identity." And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, not just a storyteller, but a master storyteller.

One of my life's passions is a love of books. I am not a fast reader, quite the opposite. I'll never be one of those people who boast, "I finished the book in a day." I love to linger over a passage that stirred my soul and imagination.

Aside from reading for pleasure, it is a part of continuing education for me. Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, talking about early childhood education said, "Anyone who thinks learning starts at 5 really doesn't understand child development and brain development." I'll add to that anyone who thinks education ends at 18 or in your twenties also doesn't understand development, or should I say betterment. I'm always inspired not by people's material conquests, but their pursuits to better themselves. I came into this life learning and I want to leave it learning, as well as growing and changing.

Singer John Mellencamp said at age 62, "my inspiration today is coming from authors like, I hate to sound pretentious, but Steinbeck, Hawthorne,  Faulkner so I'm trying to write about those type of things and not typical rock things." I found two things striking: the wisdom that comes with aging, and the apologetic tone for embracing these authors. I don't think Mellencamp sounds pretentious at all. We should be proud to be seekers of knowledge.

The year 2014 was a splendid year of reading. Even though I am now a stay-at-home mom, I found at times I was reading less than when I was working full time, realizing how much reading I got done waiting in line at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, on the bus, and occasionally on lunch breaks. I give up on books I don't like, even if I am more than half-way through. The author Elizabeth Gilbert talked at a book reading of how baffled she was when people write scathing reviews of one of her books and wonder why they carried on reading if they hated it so much. It's supposed to be for pleasure, not torture, was the gist of her sentiments.

I meant to write quarterly storyteller columns, but my blog has taken a backseat. I did want to recap my storytellers for 2014 and share a few favorite passages, along with some photographs of my past travels. Books are going to continue to serve as armchair and time traveling. I read several picture books from the library to Grace but am not including them here.

Storyteller Passage on Reading
"After a lesson on photosynthesis, she drew diagrams in the small notebook Talmadge had given her, and regarded these drawings often, improving upon them, thinking: And this is how it works: the sun, soil, sugar, water...She could not wait to tell Talmadge about it.
The other chief love - and how similar it was to science, and how different - was reading. As soon as she realized the figures on the page meant something - could be strung together as words, and then sentences, and then paragraphs, she was covetous of the whole system. It seemed a new universe to her. And it was. Everything opened up. Some stories were meant to inform, and others were meant to entertain. And then other stories were separate from those - this young teacher did not tell her, it was something Angeline figured out on her own, the first year, when a man visited and read them a poem out of tome of poems - that seemed crafted to relay some secret, and even more than that, some secret about herself. Angelene was mesmerized. What was available for her to know? What secrets did the world hold? Which secrets would be revealed through the soil, and which through words?" - The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin, a sweeping novel set in Washington state of two mysterious pregnant girls who enter the lives of orchardist Talmadge.

A Little Free Library in Seattle. I love book exchanges. I read The Orchardist because some kind soul brought it to the book swap at my former workplace.

Storyteller Passage on Kindness

"J'aurais dû être plus gentille—I should have been more kind. That is something a person will never regret. You will never say to yourself when you are old, Ah, I wish I was not good to that person. You will never think that." And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini.

Kindness not just to people, but to animals too, are values I want to teach our daughter Grace about. At the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, New York.

Storyteller Passages on Dreams and Imagination

"But when dreaming, where was the dreamer? The landscapes a dreamer visits are unknowable to anyone else. He suspected the dreamer visited that undefined, mysterious place we all came from before we were born, and where we each return at the end of our conscious life, another world." The Doctor's Dreams by J.J. Brown, two novellas, one on a doctor who mysteriously disappears on New Year's Eve whose brother finds her dream diary, and the other on the uncertainty and fear following a layoff.

In Capri, Italy, a cat slumbers. Could it be visiting the land of dreams?

"The beauty of writing is imagining new endings to a time of darkness, like burning off a morning fog with the heat and clarity of the sun." - The Doctor's Dreams

The sun shines on a dog overlooking Mount Vesuvius in Italy, his thoughts like our dreams and the dreams of others, a world so mysterious.

Storyteller Passage on Gratitude
"And when you crush an apple with your teeth, say to it in your heart,
"Your seeds shall live in my body,
And the buds of your tomorrow shall blossom in my heart,
And your fragrance be my breath,
And together we shall rejoice through all the seasons."

Apple picking in High Falls, New York.

"And in the autumn, when you gather the grapes of your vineyards for the winepress, say in your heart,
"I too am a vineyard, and my fruit shall be gathered for the winepress,
And like new wine I shall be kept in eternal vessels."
And in winter, when you draw the wine, let there be in your heart a song for each cup;
And let there be the song of remembrance for the autumn days, and for the vineyard, and for the winepress." The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

A man waters a garden aside a vineyard in Capri, Italy. When the memory of this moment is recalled, I have a song for the bounty of gardens and for the seasons.

Storyteller Passages on Seasons, Simple Pleasures, and Storytelling

Sandra Dallas had me at the first line of Prayers for Sale,

"The old woman peered past the red geraniums in her deep front window at the figure lingering in the moon-white snow at the gate." I think of Laura Ingalls Wilder talking about geraniums, to the geraniums my maternal grandmother and my mother had, to the ones in my garden. It as if they are some thread that binds us all through lapses in time and space.

Raspberry jam for sale at Mr. Apples in High Falls, New York.

"Nit liked her sweetness, and God knew, raspberry jam on a winter's morning took away the blue devils. It was like tasting summer." Prayers for Sale is a story of friendship, quilting, and life on the mountain in a Colorado mining town in the 1930s, with flashbacks to 86-year-old Hennie Comfort's early life.  Hennie "remembered how Billy always picked the first apple blossoms and put them into a tin cup for her. They made the house smell like springtime. Billy said apple trees were a double blessing, first for the blossoms and then the apples." Aren't these pleasures so timeless, with even curative powers at times?

Prayers for Sale is about so many things. Most people wouldn't call Dallas an environmental author, but I would, as she writes about mankind taking from the mountain, and the revenge it takes on the people in the harshest ways, from miscarriages to death. The novel is also a love letter to storytelling. "Stories were a living thing. They changed to suit the teller or the times." With Hennie Comfort in her golden years, without her passing on these stories to her friend Nit, so much her personal history and the history of the town and its inhabitants would be lost. With aging parents, it is reminder how important it is to draw forth these stories.

A television series I've fallen in love with is When Calls the Heart on the Hallmark channel, which originated as a movie based on Janette Oak's books, which I have not read. Set in the fictitious Coal Valley in Canada in the 19th century, like Prayers for Sale it is wonderful storytelling about life in a mining town, and if you are a Little House on the Prairie fan (which I am) and looking for family friendly entertainment, look for this series which set for a second season this spring with the first out on DVD. Here is an old trailer:

Storyteller Passages on Time in Nature and Birding

"I think the most important quality in a birdwatcher is a willingness to stand quietly and see what comes. Our everyday lives obscure a truth about existence - that at the heart of everything there lies a stillness and a light." - Birding with Yeats: A Memoir by Lynn Thomson. The first-time author, a bookseller with her husband in Canada, gathers memories of birding with her son, Yeats.

In Venice, Italy, birds basking in water in the light. I'm not a "birder" per se, going out in the woods with binoculars, but I adore watching the birds at my backyard feeder and observing them too when I travel.

"Every bird at the marsh filled us with a little light. I wondered if I was just so simple that this was all it took. But then I thought, I'm lucky that this is all it takes, and knew that I was especially lucky that this was all it took for my teenaged son, too." - Birding With Yeats

In Lands End in San Francisco, California.

"The sharp thrill of seeing them [killdeer birds] reminded me of childhood happiness, gifts under the Christmas tree, perhaps, a kind of euphoria we adults manage to shut out most of the time. This is why I bird-watch, to recapture what it's like to live in this moment, right now." - Birding With Yeats

At Lands End.

Storyteller Passage on the Power of Place

"She drank in the golden sunlight, the fresh air, the delicious fragrance of the flowers, and desired nothing more than to remain there forever. A good while passed this way, and Heidi had gazed so often and so long at the lofty mountaintops that it seemed as if they all had faces and were gazing down quite familiarly at her, like good friends." Heidi by Johanna Spyri

In Switzerland, passing by mountainside quaint villages on a train journey. My parents were born and raised in Switzerland and our family is still there. I have such strong memories of my childhood summer visits there, and dream of taking Grace here when she is older. Heidi had me thinking a lot about the power of place, how much it shapes our destinies. I also wish for Grace, and for myself, far more time spent in nature than in front of a device.

Storyteller Passage on Food and the Good Life

"Parisians take their work quite seriously, but they take their enjoyment of the little moments just as seriously. Sometimes sitting in a café with close friends or family and enjoying a shared plate of macarons is just as important as sitting in an office working. You know, some Parisians start their morning with a mug of hot chocolate.
Really? Emilia asked, taking a fourth and fifth sip.
The chocolate is like medicine to take away your troubles and help you see that life is sweet."
Recipe for Adventure: Paris!, Giada De Laurentiis written with Taylor Morris. There are other destinations like Naples, New Orleans and Hawaii in this adventure travel series with an emphasis on food geared toward children. The Paris book, the only one I've read so far aloud to Grace, has recipes for hot chocolate and crepes.

We aren't all lucky enough to live in or visit Paris, but we can enjoy the Parisian state of mind. I used to love savoring the macarons (cassis and honey lavender above) at Macaron Café in New York City when I worked nearby. Just recently, enjoying a cup of a hazelnut hot chocolate and a gingerbread scone at The Rolling Pin Café in Westwood, New Jersey.

Storyteller Passage on Tea

“It is not a cold day, but she looks warmed by the tea. Tea has that effect on people. I love watching it bring comfort." The Color of Tea by Hannah Tunnicliffe, about a woman struggling with infertility issues who opens a tea and macaron shop in Macau.

No greater comfort than a cup of tea and my mom's homemade apple pie.

Storyteller Passage on Parenthood

"It was as if she had grown, changed, overnight; her hair was different, her eyes; the shade and texture of her flesh, her limbs; and, most disconcerting and delightful of all, she was beginning to speak. She increasingly talked back to him when he murmured to her, and he understood that she was becoming what she was destined to become, when he first held her in the open air of the world: her own person, her own independent and particular self. He marveled at it all. And what would she grow up to be like? What was inside her, already formed, that would draw forth with time, and what was it that she most needed him to teach her? Would she be amenable to his help, his advice in worldly matters? And what advice did he have to give her?" - The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin

Grace changes so quickly and will be a year old in February. I wonder too what advice will I have to give her, and will she be amenable to it? I do so hope to plant a lifelong love of stories.

These were my 2014 storytellers:

From the Library:
Lessons from Madame Chic, Jennifer L. Scott
Wanderville, Wendy McClure
Charlotte's Web, E.B. White
The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White
The Color of Tea, Hannah Tunnicliffe
The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh, A.A. Milne
Recipe for Adventure: Paris!, Giada De Laurentiis written with Taylor Morris

From book shops:
And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini, Shaw's Book Shop, Westwood, New Jersey
My Antonia, Willa Cather, Shaw's Book Shop
The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Shaw's Book Shop. Purchased years ago, this was a reread from my home library.
My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself, Kelly Kathleen Ferguson, The Well Read Book Shop, Hawthorne, New Jersey
Birding with Yeats: A Memoir, Lynn Thomson, The Well Read Book Shop
A Wilder in the West: The Story of Eliza Jane Wilder, William T. Anderson, from the gift shop of the Wilder Homestead in Malone, New York

Secondhand treasures:
The Talking Earth, Jean Craighead George, Better World Books.
On the Way Home, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Better World Books.
On the Far Side of the Mountain, Jean Craighead George, Better World Books
Prayers for Sale, Sandra Dallas, Better World Books
Heidi, Johanna Spyri, translated by Helen Dole, C.A.T.S. Resale Shop, Westwood, New Jersey
Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt, a book swap
Stuart Little, E.B. White (I think an estate sale or thrift shop)
The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin, a book swap

The Doctor's Dreams, J.J. Brown, a gift
On Love and Barley: Haiku of Basho, a wedding gift
The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran, a wedding gift
A Child's Garden of Verses, Robert Louis Stevenson, a gift for Grace


  1. The Orchardist sounds so interesting, I will have to look for this and read it. Having a growing library is a treasure you'll be sharing with your daughter, and I remember how much I enjoyed looking through my mother's and father's libraries at home well before I could even read their contents. Thanks for sharing these gems here from your 2014 reading!

  2. The Orchardist was one of my favorite books I read last year. Enjoy it if you get to read it.

    Storytime is already such a joy with Grace. I love hearing her babble along when we read aloud to her. I adore having books in every room. I get cheered just looking at them, even more so reading them!

    I suspect those inspiring libraries planted a seed in the garden of your imagination, helping you become the great author you are. I find it's so true that all that best writers are avid readers. I'm looking forward to more stories from you in the future, and to a great year of reading ahead.

    Happy reading!