Every spring I begin building a pile of books for my summer reading. Some of these are books related to my teaching, others are books I read about, others are recommended by friends, and still others come from books I have selected while browsing at my favorite book stores. Invariably, about half way through the summer, this mish-mash of biography, fiction, poetry, current events comes together around a few themes that emerge as though the books had been selected with a degree of intentionality. By the end of the summer I have built up a wealth of ideas, knowledge and material upon which to draw throughout the school year, in my work and at home. Like Leo Lionni’s character, Frederick I am laying up stores for the long winter ahead.
So far this summer the randomness of my pile remains intact. After all, what could Thief of Time(Pratchett), Switch (Heath and Heath), Shadows on the Rock (Cather) , Except the Queen (Yolen), The Value of Nothing (Patel), The Post American World (Zakaria), A Village Life:Poems (Louise Glück), and The Vintage Caper (Mayle) have in common? Yolen and Pratchett explore what it means to be human even when you are not and both authors bend time all out of shape though with very different effects. The Catholics in Cather’s 18th century Quebec do appreciate the wine that comes from France, one of the characters in the novel remarks that God put the wine in the grapes for man’s enjoyment and Peter’s Mayles’ Caper is paean to all French wine. But in truth, I am embarrassed to even mention Mayle in the same sentence with Cather. The first is really sparkling white wine (I once read a reviewer who called one of his earlier books the froth on Champagne) from Lelanau, Michigan, while Shadows is one of those vintage French wines that lingers and continues to reveal more of its richness with each rereading. As for the two fantasy books I need to abandon the wine metaphor altogether or I will end up with my all too tired rant about the artificiality of separating out fantasy as a separate genre.
Cather, Yolen, Pratchett and Patel all speak to the importance of community and valuing those things for which our modern market has no value—friendship, true opportunity, clean air, the exchange of goods and services among friends and neighbors, the messiness of life. Cather’s Quebec is life affirming even in the deaths she describes while Louise Glück’s cycle of poems set in an unnamed village hint at death and decay even in a poem about childhood friends on a picnic. I think I will be hard pressed to finish her poetry. Gluck’s poetry is replete with beautiful images, clear renderings of people and places but depression and dissolution linger in each poem. As I write I am sitting in our boat in Leland, Michigan. We are here an extra day due to small craft advisories. By the numbers Lake Michigan is massive: 307 miles long, 1640 miles of coast line, maximum depth 923 feet, 1180 cubic miles of water (volume) . When we are cruising, Tom will often remark, that’s a whole lot of water out there. The sky is endless and the dunes along the coast line are massive. All of this geography does make me feel small, finite and totally at the mercy of the wind and weather, but I don’t feel diminished; I am affirmed as a part of a bigger world. I am present in this moment, the characters in Gluck’s poetry always seem to be worrying about what is coming next or regretting what has past. Perhaps that is what I dislike, the sameness of the tone. The poets I love, Hughes, Frost, Millay, Giovanni, Levertov, Heaney, cover a range of emotions, tones, ideas, states of being and modes even within a slim volume of poetry. I will give Glück one more evening and then I may well abandon her , I have a Nikki Giovanni with me and Robert Frost.