Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser

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A friend recommended this book so vehemently that she actually sent me a copy. As I mentioned before, I’d never read the Little House books, so I’ve been catching up on them as I read this biography. Wilder always maintained that her stories were true, but questions arose even as the books were taking the world of children’s literature by storm. Now Fraser’s meticulously sourced account shows what is fact and what is fiction in those books.

That is not a criticism of Wilder. She was writing for children and wanted to spare them the most devastating details. She was also writing to memorialise her parents, her father in particular, so of course she managed the details to show them in a good light.

For example, one thing that was obvious to me reading the books as an adult, even without Fraser’s clarification, was that Wilder’s father was not above stealing, as when he knowingly tried to homestead on land that belonged to the Osage. He was also terribly reckless, constantly dragging the family away from security to chase a dream of a self-sufficient farm far from other people.

Fraser makes clear the near impossibility of achieving that dream, given the lack of federal programs at the time, the uncertain and often disastrous natural conditions—drought, storms, locusts—and the unsuitable land set aside for homesteaders. There is much here for us to consider looking at today’s situation: ongoing ecological damage that has put us on the edge of another Dust Bowl, the difficulty of making a small farm work even with boutique vegetables and the growth of farmers’ markets, and the near takeover of agriculture by enormous farms run by corporate agribusinesses with large federal handouts.

Yet, as the book’s subtitle, The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, asserts, that image of the self-sufficient pioneer pulling himself up by his bootstraps is a big part of the U.S.’s mythology. Much of the credit for that goes to Wilder’s books, as Fraser’s account shows.

As an adult, however, I could glean even from Wilder’s idealised stories that the family often depended on the help of others. The truth is even more substantial, not only during Wilder’s childhood, but even as an adult when she somehow didn’t see the hypocrisy of decrying government assistance while receiving federal money herself. Just as many of the people today who hate the government are the ones themselves receiving the most assistance.

Before reading Fraser’s book, I was unaware of the influence of Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, on the books and on her mother. It was Lane, already a journalist, although one who larded her stories with fictional elements, who pushed her mother to write the books. It was Lane who first edited them, with the two wrangling over changes. Lane also wrote her own books, appropriating some of her mother’s stories and penning a thinly-veiled Mommy Dearest novel.

Fraser treats Lane fairly, acknowledging her strengths while not hesitating to point out her weaknesses. She presents her as emotionally unstable, with several nervous breakdowns, and increasingly prone to paranoid conspiracy theories. Lane was part of the triumvirate of Founding Mothers of the Libertarian movement, along with Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson. She also pushed her mother to join her in her angry rants against the government, adding political screeds to some of her mother’s later books.

Of course, we are still struggling with the effects of Lane’s work. Many of today’s politicians criminalise the poor, condemning them for needing assistance. Many demand that the federal government be downsized, if not disbanded, while living high on the hog on federal money themselves, ignoring the hypocrisy. An egregious example is Maryland Republican Andy Harris who campaigned on doing away with the Affordable Health Care Act, which would take away heath care from up to 10 million citizens, complaining when elected that his taxpayer-funded health care wouldn’t take effect for a month.

It is no wonder that during the Great Depression and WWII people flocked to Wilder’s simple tales of a loving family, enduring hard times together, as embodied by a line from a hymn that recurs in the books: “We are all here.”

The Little House books are lovely fairy tales for children, but not something to base a nation on. However, even if we question the myth of a self-sufficient, rugged individual, many of us today embrace other values extolled in Wilder’s books: the importance of family, being happy with simple things, pulling together and being brave when things go wrong.

Even if you’ve never read the children’s books, this biography is essential to understand how we in the U.S. have gotten to where we are today.

What book have you read that illuminated an historical era and its effects on us today?

Heart Earth, by Ivan Doig

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As children, we find it hard to imagine that our parents had lives before we were born. However, as we grow into the ages at which we knew them, it’s not uncommon for us to wonder what our parents’ lives were like, what they felt, what they dreamed. Perhaps we compare ourselves to them at the age we’ve now gained. Perhaps we use our own experiences and insights to illuminate what once seemed so mysterious.

Ivan Doig was hampered in doing this by his mother’s death from asthma when he was only six years old. His slim memories of her didn’t stretch very far. That changes when he inherits a collection of letters from his mother to her brother Wally while he was stationed in the Pacific during the last months of WWII. Doig was estranged from his uncle, something he regrets now that Wally is gone, so was unaware of the letters.

His mother’s words not only anchor his own memories, but give him a rare insight into her thoughts and feelings. This poignant and lyrical memoir, a prequel to his memoir This House of Sky, traces what he knows of Beneta Ringer Doig’s short life combined with his own recollections as they move from a ranch in Montana to a factory boomtown in Arizona and back again.

His evocation of the harsh reality of life in rural Montana combines love for the rugged beauty of the landscape with respect for the grit and determination of its people. The area is only just beginning to recover from the Great Depression, not yet sharing the wartime economy. They move to Arizona hoping the desert air will help Beneta’s asthma and the work improve their financial outlook.

I love the way Doig combines the larger picture of what is happening in the country with his own family’s experiences. His memories of playing war in the dusty factory town and drawing pictures of airplanes and Uncle Wally’s ship remind me of my own childhood a decade later. As writers we sometimes forget to include the social context of our stories, the political and cultural trends that help form our characters. This memoir is a good model for how to do that well.

I love, too, his description of his parents’ relationship, filtered as it is through his child’s eyes, family stories, and now his mother’s own words. They move back to Montana, hoping a higher altitude will help her asthma, and dreaming grand dreams of finally succeeding at making the land pay off. Their struggle reminded me of Laura Ingalls Wilders’s family fifty years earlier each year looking ahead to finally getting a good wheat harvest to pay off their debts.

Part of why I enjoyed this audio book so much is that it is narrated by Tom Stechschulte, one of my favorite narrators, not only because of his laconic yet engaging voice, but also because his accent reminds me of my friend Frank. I relaxed into the rhythm of his speech, barely noticing the sometimes overwritten passages that might have bothered me if I’d been reading the book.

I think I’d still have enjoyed this portrait of family life in a particular time and place. I would also have loved the portrait of Beneta, a lively, determined and passionate woman whose steadfast spirit seems to capture all that is best in our image of the American West.

What memoir have you read that vividly captures a time period through the lives of ordinary people?

Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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I never read these books as a child, being too busy with fairy tales and Arthurian stories, and never saw the television series. However, Caroline Fraser’s biography of Wilder, Prairie Fires, came highly recommended to me, so I thought I’d better catch up on these children’s books.

In this, the third book in the loosely autobiographical series, Laura and her family leave their beloved Wisconsin house in the big woods, described in the first book, and set out for Kansas. The experience of traveling in a covered wagon is vividly conveyed, seen from young Laura’s perspective, though the discomforts are minimised. Laura, her older sister Mary, and baby Carrie get restless sitting in the wagon all day, and Laura worries about the dog Jack who has to run the whole way, but she’s also fascinated by all she sees and comforted by the sound of the horses feeding as she goes to sleep.

As in the other books, the small family encounters hazards and setback, but Ma and Pa can always be relied upon to keep the girls safe and feeeling loved. Eventually they find themselves on an open, seemingly uninhabited prairie near Independence, Kansas. The descriptions of the grasslands—their shy colors and scents, their creatures and breezes—show a genuine love of this land.

Reading this book as an adult gives me a curious double perspective. I know too well the ecological damage done by farmers like Pa plowing up the fragile prairie. I know too much about blatant lies of the government and railroads that lured homesteaders onto lands not appropriate for wheat farming, and of course about the injustice and genocide visited upon the Osages who in fact inhabited this land.

There has been some outcry about the depiction of the Osages in these books, but at least in this one I found it pretty even-handed. Remember that it is from a child’s point of view, one who knows nothing of the larger picture or the history. When the Native Americans do turn up on their seasonal migration, Ma and some of the other nearby homesteaders are afraid of them, but Pa treats them as neighbors, with courtesy and respect. Young Laura describes the ones she actually meets as beautiful and awe-inspiring.

I also know too much about poverty, and do not take at face value the nostalgic recreation of life in a one-room cabin with sometimes only potatoes for dinner. If I’d read this book as a young child, in a bedroom well-stocked with toys and books, nourished on three balanced meals a day, I wonder how I would have reacted to young Laura’s blissful descriptions of her single doll, a rag doll made by Ma, and the comfort of a single potato or turnip for dinner and Pa’s fiddle afterwards.

As an adult, I was fascinated with her detailed description of the house Pa built: the way he notched the logs, put on the roof, built the door, and crafted leather hinges for it. Laura’s childish pursuits are charming, but what captured me was Ma and Pa’s endless toil, the heartbreak of lost harvests, the impossibility of breaking even.

It was not a simpler time; it was an infinitely more difficult time. I’ve chopped wood for winter fuel and washed clothes with a washboard. I’ve tried to live off what I can raise. The hardships of frontier life, of homesteading don’t seem romantic to me. Perhaps they might have if I’d read these books as a child, unaware of all that was being glossed over.

Have you read or reread a children’s book that seems different to you as an adult?

Setting the Family Free, by Eric D. Goodman

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This latest novel by my friend Eric Goodman, author of Tracks and other stories, takes us to Chillicothe, Ohio where Bobbie Anne Thompson looks out of her kitchen window and sees a tiger attacking her horses, killing and eating one even as she calls 911.

She knows where it came from: her neighbor Sammy Johnson has been collecting exotic animals for years. As much of a hoarder as he is with his guns and cars, Sammy has collected 60 or 70 animals (reports differ), including lions, cougars, bears, tigers, leopards, panthers, wolves, komodo dragons, monkeys. And now he has turned them all loose.

One of the things I love about this novel is the compassionate insight Goodman brings to Sammy, the animals themselves, and the various men who must hunt them down before they kill any more people. Though the female characters are all secondary, I was disappointed that they are not presented with the same insight as the men.

Another thing I admire about this book is the unusual format. Chapters with traditional scenes alternate with sections made up of snippets of quotes from various people, and sometimes with news articles. This combination speeds up the pace of the story and plunges us into the terrible race to save the citizens of central Ohio. The hunters are rural police officers, aided by a couple of animal experts. Already horrified at what they must do, they are hampered by the questioning and accusing voices of those sitting safely far away. Their job is also complicated by the obliviousness of those who continue hiking and walking to work and taking children to playgrounds despite the urgent warnings to stay inside.

Though the prose is not difficult to read, the content—human and animal killings—is probably too upsetting for middle grade level. However, this book would be appropriate for a Young Adult (YA) audience, and would be a great starting point for a discussion of our relationship with animals.

It’s a fascinating premise for a story, contrasting the way Sammy and his wife view the animals—as family, as their children—with the way others view them, including the animal experts, the citizens who’ve lost family and pets to them, the animal lovers who aren’t actually being threatened by them, and the first responders caught in the middle.

There is not a clear protagonist for this story. We dip in and out of a number of points of view, including various members of the responding officers, Sammy and his wife, and several of the animals.

Equally, no human antagonist has been identified. The closest is an ambitious reporter who takes the low road: inciting anger at those taking on the difficult—physically and emotionally—task of killing the animals. This reporter whips up the public with opinionated pieces using words like “massacre” and unrealistic claims that the animals could have been tranquilized instead of killed, all of this in the hopes of furthering their career, and maybe leading to a high-level job in New York.

You’ll notice I used gender-neutral terms. One concern I have with this novel is that the author makes this reporter, who is putting their own career ahead of the safety of citizens and first responders, a woman, thus joining in on the way our society attacks women for behavior that is considered normal for men. In our society, ambitious and powerful women are derided and demonized. I know the author and I know that he is not misogynistic, but I wish he had not chosen to egg on the misogynists by perpetuating this negative stereotype.

I’m not advocating censorship. But I do believe that authors should take responsibility for the effect their work may have on our culture. They should think carefully before employing negative stereotypes.

We all should be rethinking how we view others, questioning stereotypes, not leaping to conclusions based on inaccurate and emotional reporting, just as we should be rethinking how we view animals. As we learn more about animal intelligence, we begin to question the idea that we should have dominion over them. This book is a valuable step in opening that conversation.

Have you read a novel that made you question a long-held opinion?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Taproot, by Kathy Mangan

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I immersed myself in my friend Kathy Mangan’s poetry this week. In this new collection, each poem reaches deep into our common experience to bring out the bitter herbs and sweet blooms that crowd our lives. Reading them while watching my late sunflowers finally unfurling their fragile gold petals makes me consider the ground they have sprung from. I try to imagine what this patch of earth takes from the vast mantle of living soil that surrounds it, that we walk on every day, heedless, and what it gives back.

Mangan deftly welcomes us into each poem, ensuring that we find ourselves in that particular time and place. For example, “After Morning Visiting Hours in the ICU” begins:

The suck of the hospital’s revolving door thrusts
you into the stun of noon sun, and you stop at the corner,
squinting down Lombard Street —

You don’t have to have experienced Baltimore’s roasting summers to feel the heat here. Mangan’s strong verbs and vivid gerunds—suck, stun—surprise us even as the music of stresses and internal rhyme lulls us into a daze.

The title of “Portrait in a Foreign Flat” begins our orientation, while the first lines make it specific:

Before I knew anything;
she was simply the sweet blond
girl in the gilt-framed portrait
over the piano in the living room.

We know because of the first line and the “simply” in the second that we are in for a story, and Mangan does not disappoint. I could not help being stirred by the story that unfolds before returning to the portrait over the piano.

Each poem is like a miniature novel, an entire life in a single moment, each scene an emotional experience. These are the sort of poems that I delight in, poems where the personal becomes universal and the everyday opens to new revelations.

I especially enjoyed the marvelously titled “Instead of Preparing Your Morning Composition Class on MLA Documentation, You Want to Write This Poem.” The narrator’s reactions—sometimes warm, often hilarious—to specific things and people encountered on her walk to work, bounced against footnote rules, delighted me.

Whether she’s writing about little things like a grandchild’s fantasy game or watching a son take the ice for a hockey game, or big things like illness and death, Mangan finds a new way into them, a way to bring them directly to our consciousness. We grieve with her; we celebrate with her.

Most of all, we remember our own joys and losses with sudden clarity. These poems give us our lives back.

What poets have you read who have opened your eyes to the world around you?

Meet Me in Monaco, by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

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What a delightful summer read! Whether you’re at the beach, on a plane, or—like me—glued to a fan, weathering a heat wave in town, this Novel of Grace Kelly’s Royal Wedding, as the subtitle says, is the perfect read.

The story opens in May of 1955 as Grace Kelly arrives in Cannes for the film festival, trailed by a horde of paparazzi. Among them is James Henderson—“Jim to my friends”—an English photographer more interested in landscapes than celebrities, but needing to make a living to help support his divorced wife and beloved daughter Emily.

Despite her sunglasses and headscarf, Grace is spotted by Jim and takes refuge in a small perfume boutique. The shop and the perfumerie in Grasse where the perfumes are produced are owned by Sophie Duval. Her home in Grasse, “a stone farmhouse surrounded by sunflower and lavender fields”, is where Sophie prefers to spend her time, creating new scents and experimenting with different blends, but she needs to maintain the shop in Cannes. Luckily she has her and her father’s longterm employee Natalie to run it, but Sophie must be present during the festival.

With Sophie and Natalie’s help, Grace avoids Jim, but he’s not disappointed. He tries out his terrible French on Sophie and snaps a parting shot of her, capturing her angry response. Even in the scrum of the film festival, the two will run into each other again, as Jim struggles for the perfect photo of the film star while Sophie attends events with her wealthy fiancé Lucien.

I loved this story. (Full disclosure: I’m acquainted with one of the authors.) The time period is beautifully evoked, pulling the curtain to reveal more of the reality behind the glamour. The characters, including Grace herself, come fully alive, even minor characters like Natalie, Jim’s daughter Emily and his friend Teddy. They linger long after the story is brought to a satisfying conclusion, like the ghost of a scent.

The perfume business is what most intrigued me in this novel. Sophie’s father taught her that “A parfumeur is to be a keeper of memories.” The scents she creates conjure up memories of people and places. It’s what she thinks of when she meets someone for the first time: what combination of ingredients capture this person’s essence? The descriptions of these blends are enchanting: verbena, vanilla and ginger for young women; violet, oakmoss and cinnamon for an older woman; lime and jasmine for someone who sparkles. Caught up as I was in the story, I still was happy to absorb some information about how perfumes are produced and the way the scents are layered.

It can be risky to write historical fiction set in a time that is still within living memory of many readers, disconcerting as it is to realise that what seems to vivid to some is considered history by younger generations. It can also be risky to include real people as characters. But Gaynor and Webb meet both these challenges effortlessly. Or so it seems; it is only in retrospect that I can appreciate the amount of research that must have gone into this novel and the care taken to keep it from intruding on the story.

If you’re looking for a read that will carry you off to destinations such as Provence and the French Riviera, a story that will fill your senses and your heart, you can’t go wrong with this novel.

Have you been surprised by a novel that appeared to be pure entertainment, but turned out to be something much more substantial?

True North, by Jill Ker Conway

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This sequel to The Road from Coorain begins in September of 1960, as Conway travels from Australia to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she will be a graduate student. She says:

The future of a woman alone in the world and the 1950s was a blank page, because no one I knew had lived that way, and the rules of the culture were clear that they shouldn’t. So I experienced my leave-taking as a farewell to the known, a jump off the edge of the world into an unknowable future.

From the weather to the customs—such as dinner being served at 5:30 pm, the time for nursery tea back home—she has to find her bearings in this new world. I love her descriptions of Cambridge, such as:

It was old, by any standard, and sparer, in a fashion I could not quite comprehend, than any urban landscape I’d yet seen.

and

I’d never thought there could be beauty in a pallet of gray and white, but suddenly I could see in the low slanting light, the bare branches, and the gleaming snow of an early winter afternoon images I’d seen before in a Rembrandt drawing but never properly understood.

She is buoyed up by the “easy good manners and cordiality” of the people she meets. She quickly finds herself in a group of like-minded women, most of them a year ahead of her. Best of all are the courses she plunges into for this next phase of her scholarly career. She adeptly describes the excitement of the ideas in her seminars and the individuals teaching them.

As a teaching fellow in her second year, she finds herself working for John Conway, a war veteran from Canada. Although she comes to their first meeting “prepared to be very businesslike,” they quickly veer into discussing their “shared experience of a first encounter with the United States.”

Reader, she marries him. Then he gets an irresistible offer to be on the faculty and a master at one of the colleges at York University in Toronto. They agree to take turns: ten years for his career, ten for hers, and they move to Canada. It is a good move for her as well. She becomes involved in college administration and, at the end of this book, is invited to become president of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

I loved her descriptions of Toronto as well, where she has to adjust to a longer winter. Her insights into the Canadian view of the U.S. also intrigued me.

Unfortunately, she encounters some of the same prejudices she’d left behind in Australia. In fact, this last aspect became one of my greatest rewards in rereading this book. As she details her strategy for getting equal pay for herself; then all women faculty at the university, and then the other women working there—secretaries, lab technicians, cleaning women, career counselors—I remembered all those hard-fought battles, the ones we seem to be having to fight all over again.

She also talks about her work as a historian, writing about women’s roles, how they changed, and how the women themselves perceived their roles. Fascinating.

I’m eager to move on to A Woman’s Education, Conway’s third memoir, this one about her time at Smith College and one I’ve not read before. These books not only bring to life specific times and places, they chronicle the inspiring life of one woman on the cusp of major changes in our culture. Even better, they encourage the reader to consider and reconsider ideas and, perhaps, memories that speak to the issues we are struggling with today.

Have you read a memoir or biography that seems extraordinarily relevant today?

The Road from Coorain, by Jill Ker Conway

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Rereading this bestselling 1989 memoir reminds me of why I enjoyed it so much back then. Conway gives us the opportunity to experience a childhood on a ranch in the Australian outback. She describes the austere beauty of the landscape, the desperate need for rain, the solitude for herself and her parents.

With no children besides her two older brothers within a hundred miles, she relies on her imagination and books for company. Helping out with the ranch work, she learns self-sufficiency and a practical grasp of what’s needed in the world. It is this combination of imagination and practicality that sends her into the world in search of education and greater understanding, a journey that will make her president of Smith College one day.

On this reading, I found myself fascinated with her parents in a way I hadn’t been before. She describes them as risk-takers, purchasing the land in 1929, not knowing that the drought was not seasonal but would become “legendary”, not knowing that the Depression was about to start in a few months. The ranch was her father’s dream, but the places he’d worked after returning from the horrors of the Great War were in a part of the country with a more forgiving landscape.

Her mother had grown up in a lush country town and enjoyed her career as a nurse, actually running her own country hospital. Yet she gave all this up to go with her new husband to the new home they named Coorain, an aboriginal word meaning “windy place”.

My father, being a westerner, born into that profound peace and silence, felt the need for it like an addiction to a powerful drug. Here, pressed into the earth by the weight of that enormous sky, there is real peace. To those who know it, the annihilation of the self, subsumed into the vast emptiness of nature, is akin to a religious experience. We children grew up to know it and seek it as our father before us. What was social and sensory deprivation for the stranger was the earth and sky that made us what we were. For my mother, the emptiness was disorienting, and the loneliness and silence a daily torment of existential dread.

Had she known how to tell directions she would have walked her way to human voices.

Despite all that, her mother is a figure of strength in Conway’s childhood, facing each new setback with courage and action. Her mother encourages Conway to read by asking her to read aloud while her mother works at daily chores, made more onerous by the lack of electricity and running water. Cooking is done on a wood stove even in the brutal heat of summer. Her mother has to be ready to treat snakebite or help fight bushfires.

But three years after the death of Conway’s father, she and her mother move to Sydney, leaving a good manager to run the ranch. There, her mother’s drive has no outlet and she becomes more and more controlling. Weighed down by grief and anger—she sometimes rages at strange men for daring to be alive when her beloved husband is dead—she begins drinking and her moods become unpredictable. Conway takes refuge in her schooling.

No matter where she travels, Conway never loses her love of her native landscape, though as she learns more, she becomes more critical about the treatment of aboriginal peoples and the ambiguous morality of land ownership.

It’s a fascinating story of an earlier time, a place and a culture foreign to me, and yet Conway’s experience was like mine in so many ways. My book club all raved about the book, finding Conway’s prose beautiful to read and her life inspirational. We want more of this, they said.

Have you been inspired by a memoir about a woman overcoming obstacles, both internal and external, and going on to accomplish great things in the world?

Fruits of the Poisonous Tree, by Archer Mayor

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I’m continuing to read Mayor’s mystery series featuring Vermont detective Joe Gunther. In this fifth book someone close to Joe is the victim of a terrible crime, and he quickly realises that the best thing he can do to help—indeed, the only thing—is to find the perpetrator as quickly as possible.

However, that’s not so easy when police protocol calls for him to stay out of the investigation. His boss strikes a deal with States Attorney James Dunn, involved in a tight reelection race, that allows Joe to participate while his second-in-command runs the investigation. Also, Joe must be babysat, i.e., accompanied by another cop wherever he goes.

This is one of the most exciting of the Mayor novels I’ve read so far, with several nail-biting chases and standoffs in surprising locations, phsyical danger for Joe and others, and plenty of personal conflict for Joe as he examines his own motives and capabilities.

But what I most enjoyed were the descriptions of the town of Brattleboro itself. Often what draws me to a mystery series is the use of location as a character: Boston for Robert B. Parker, Baltimore for Laura Lippman, Paris for Cara Black, Venice for Donna Leon. Even fictional locations work, such as Three Pines in Louise Penny’s series.

Mayor’s descriptions of Brattleboro are brief but capture its personality. Here, for example:

Brattleboro is an unusually mixed bag of a town. An icon of the previous century’s industrial might, it has an imposing downtown of stolid red-brick buildings, a few obligatory tree-lined neighborhoods of impressive Victorian showpieces, and a vast number of standard, modest, updated nineteenth-century homes—in good or poor shape depending on the locale. The whole thing rests on a broken-backed, topsy-turvy, creek- and river-creased patch of land . . .

Sprinkled throughout, however, just off the well-traveled thoroughfares, Brattleboro has a contrasting scattering of neighborhoods unique into themselves. They are poor or middle class or shyly redolent of old money, but they all share a separateness from the whole, as if, during the town’s early evolution, hidden genetic strains of other far-distant communities were subversively introduced.

Now that I’ve gotten to know the town a bit better, I can recognise some of the neighborhoods and follow Joe’s slippery race through falling snow to a street near where I live. As with Boston and Baltimore, my own knowledge of the place makes me nod with recognition at Mayor’s descriptions of the town’s character.

Ian Rankin once said he began writing his enormously successful Rebus series in order to get to know Edinburgh, his then-new home. As in reading Rankin’s books, Mayor’s series rewards the reader with a cornucopia of pleasures. You can read them for the puzzle or the excitement of the chase; you can read them to immerse yourself in a unique location; or you can read them for the satisfaction of watching a character like Joe Gunther grow and develop. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

What mystery series do you enjoy? What do you like best about it?

My House, by Nikki Giovanni

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This month my poetry discussion group read and discussed the work of Nikki Giovanni, one of my first favorite poets. It was a joy for me to reread her work, including this collection from 1975. We all were delighted by her sly sense of humor and her true-to-life portraits of people and places. We appreciated the way she sometimes uses these gifts to open up political and social issues in a down-to-earth way.

Some of the poems we particularly liked take an everyday occurrence, use vivid language to draw us in, and then at the end open up into something larger. An example is “Legacies” where a grandmother calls a girl in from the playground to teach her to make rolls. The girl can’t express her reasons, which have to do with foreseeing the old woman’s death, so she says:

“i don’t want to know how to make no rolls”
with her lips poked out
and the old woman wiped her hands on
her apron saying “lord
these children”
and neither of them ever
said what they meant
and i guess nobody ever does

Giovanni captures family dynamics with subtle accuracy. In “Mothers” she describes going home to visit her mother and how they “kissed / exchanged pleasantries / and unpleasantries . . .” and the encounter calls up a memory from childhood:

i remember the first time
i consciously saw her
we were living in a three room
apartment on burns avenue

We were fascinated by this and talked at some length about consciously seeing your mother, about the moment when a child recognises and acknowledges another as a person, when, as Sartre describes, she realises that what she saw as another object (which he calls “being-in-itself”) in the world is actually a subject (or “being-for-itself”).

The poem goes on to describe her mother sitting in the darkened room.

she was very deliberately waiting
perhaps for my father to come home
from his night job or maybe for a dream
that had promised to come by

I couldn’t help but think of Faith Wilding’s amazing poem “Waiting”, first performed in 1973. But Giovanni goes in a different direction. Her mother calls her over and teaches her a little poem about the moon, and Giovanni ends with an intriguing and profound reversal:

i taught it to my son
who recited it for her
just to say we must learn
to bear the pleasures
as we have borne the pains

Giovanni has written many children’s and young adult books, so it’s not surprising that some of her poems speak in a child’s voice, capturing so well a child’s outlook. One in this collection is the short but lovely “Winter Poem”.

Once a snowflake fell
On my brow and I loved
It so much and I kissed
It and it was happy and called its cousins
And brothers and a web
Of snow engulfed me then
I reached to love them all
And I squeezed them and they became
A spring rain and I stood perfectly
Still and was a flower.

I’m reminded of this poem whenever the two-year-old I care for squeezes the cat because he loves her, not remembering that she is fragile and could melt like the snow.

Do you have a favorite poem by Nikki Giovanni?