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Thursday, March 19, 2020

To Stretch It Out and Make It Last

If you’re a reader (any why would you be looking at this blog if you’re not?), you probably have had the experience of not wanting a book to end, of wanting to stretch it out to last as long as possible. Many years ago, I had the experience memorably, to the -nth degree, with George Feifer’s Moscow Farewell. I read the book one summer while living out in the country (Barry County, Michigan), where I had that year, conveniently for more than one purpose, an ambitious vegetable garden. The closer I got to the end of the book, the more tightly I rationed my reading, the fewer pages I let myself read at one sitting, until finally I was reading only one page at a time and then going out to the garden to weed and hoe or water or harvest. There might have been a few dishes washed, too, before I gave in again to temptation and picked up the book. But you know what I mean? I could not bear to come to the last page — although ultimately, of course, that’s just what came to pass.

One thing I'm doing at present to stretch out my reading is turning to cookbooks. Those particular books inspire me to launch into baking and cooking projects, which not only help pass the time but give us something to look forward to when we sit down to the table. 

Another technique I've often used for making books last is to have several going at the same time. Say, one in each room of the house. Here in our ghost town cabin, we do not have multiple rooms, but we do have areas, so there are books on bookshelves and tables and next to the bed and sometimes left on chairs, and however long the coronavirus pandemic lasts, we are in no danger of running out of reading material. For one thing, we don’t just read — we also re-read. And by the by, I know not everyone does that, but I’ll never understand how someone can love a book and not want to revisit it, spend time again with characters who became friends during the first reading and re-experience vicariously their lives, whether historical or fictional. Also, re-reading a book is like re-watching a movie, in that one always notices something previously missed.

Sometimes I read a book more quickly than I’d really like, as I did with Joshua Henkin’s Morningside Heights. That was because the publisher had sent me an advance reading copy, and I wanted to write up a review for this blog. And let me say right here that Joshua’s book comes out in June, so please consider placing an advance order for it with your favorite local bookstore, because bookstores, like every other business in these days of pandemic, are hungry for revenue, struggling to hang on, and worrying about how long they’ll be able to do so, and while I haven’t read anything yet about authors’ worries, they too must be wondering nervously about their book sales in this strange year of 2020. 

Here's another book I read more quickly than I would have otherwise -- because when I was still in the opening pages, I told my sister about it and promised to send it to her as soon as I finished, and I didn't want to make her wait too long. How to Catch a Frog: And Other Stories of Family, Love, Dysfunction, Survival, and DYI, a memoir by Heather Ross, held me enthralled. While her childhood was anything but idyllic (cold and hunger were frequent housemates), and while Ross does not gloss over the difficulties, she tells her story with deep love for poor, rural Vermont, and there is little self-pity in her tales, even when she includes in her list of ways she has learned to multitask “sobbing and driving.” At least, I think that was in the Ross book, not in the Barbara Kingsolver book of essays I was re-reading almost simultaneously…. Anyway, those of you readers who also knit and sew and engage in crafts will find a kindred spirit in Heather Ross for other reasons besides her writing, for her entrepreneurial work in fabric design preceded her career as a writer. And if you're smart, you'll ration your reading to, say, a chapter at a time and make the book last as long as possible. Her illustrations are charming, as you can see from these endpapers:

So, yes, getting around finally to making books last, my subject for the day, yes, I am re-reading Barbara Kingsolver’s High Tide in Tucson, and I’m taking my time with it. I had been reading another Arizona writer, Charles Bowden; however, brilliant and incisive and detailed and evocative as his writing is, I needed a break from his bleak, grim, harsh view of la frontera land around me. (Bowden was a journalist, did a lot of crime writing for his newspaper, and he was a hard drinker. Alcohol + immersion in crime = dark view of world. Or maybe it was simply his nature. Who knows? Jim Harrison nailed it when he called Bowden “America’s most alarming writer,” and Jim’s essay using that phrase gave the name to a new book about Charles Bowden, which I will read, eventually, just as I will eventually finish reading Bowden’s Blue Desert, but the world is bleak and grim and harsh enough right now, so I’m taking a break from Bowden.) Kingsolver’s Tucson is friendlier, even when she is attacked in her own home at knifepoint, an incident she disposes of, in passing, with a single sentence:
…Wariness of strangers I learned the hard way. When I was new to the city, I let a man into my house one hot afternoon because he seemed in dire need of a drink of water; when I turned from the kitchen sink I found sharpened steel pressed against my belly. And so I know, I know. But I cultivate suspicion with as much difficulty as I force tomatoes to grow in the drought-stricken hardpan of my strange backyard.
- Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson

My sister would like this book, too, especially the first essay (from which the collection takes name), in which the author tells of inadvertently bringing home a hermit crab with shells she collected on a beach vacation in Caribbean. My sister did the same thing this past winter, returning to the cold Midwest from not-so-cold coastal Florida and finding she had unknowingly acquired a new pet.

(And here’s another coincidence: Barbara Kingsolver writes, “I know, I know,” and in the Ross memoir, one of the most touching moments comes when Jane, her aunt, embraces the young girl and murmurs sympathetically, “I know, I know.” Sometimes people angrily respond to this with “You don’t know!” but both Kingsolver and Ross’s aunt had been there, you see. That was the point.)

An ARC I got from Wayne State University Press, like the Kingsolver essays, is another book I’m stretching out, but for different reasons. Northern Harvest: Twenty Michigan Women in Food and Farming, by Emita Brady Hill, is a collection of oral histories of women from my northern Michigan home, and since I know the majority of women personally, picking up the book is like sitting down with friends and listening to their stories: I can hear their voices as I read the words on the page. Out here in the Southwest at present, so far from the Great Lakes, and hungry for the voices of Michigan friends (though also very happy to be near Arizona friends, whom I will miss in turn, come summer), I want to make this book last as long as possible. Also, Emita Hill and the first woman in her book, dear Julia Brabanec, are scheduled to be my first Thursday Evening Author guests, and right now, with all of life and commerce, including the book world, hanging in such uncertainty, I can only hope we will be able to get together in June as planned. So, a few pages at a time….

Then there is reading in bed. 

In December 2019, when we first began the winter’s nighttime reading aloud in bed, the Artist and I picked up a book we’d enjoyed before, My Life in France, by Alex Prud’homme and Julia Child. It was Julia’s life, of course, as I’m sure you know, and her irrepressible personality comes through every chapter. Also, the Artist and I love Paris, as did Julia, so we love picturing the scenes she describes and laughing with delight (and occasionally tears in our eyes) over the situations of her French life with her own beloved husband. Re-reading this delightful book was anything but “old hat” to us.

Somehow, though, we fell away from reading aloud for a while, and when we got back to it we tried something else (and I forget now what that was), but when one of the books I gave the Artist for his birthday was The Silent Traveller in Paris, by Chiang Lee, that’s the one he wanted me to read aloud at night, and we are currently having a wonderful time with it. Some nights we read a single chapter, sometimes two, and sometimes only a few pages. It doesn’t matter. It’s all very satisfying to us both. I have read many, though probably not all, of Chiang Lee’s books, and I love every one I’ve read. His illustrations add to the charm of all his silent traveling accounts.

When I sense I am losing my audience, though, I suggest we stop for the night, and I pick up something else with which to read myself to sleep. Right now it’s Wild Horse Country: The History, Myth, and Future of the Mustang, by David Philipps. I don’t need to explain that choice, do I?

How about you? What are you reading these crazy days? Do you re-read favorite books? Do you try to stretch out books you’re enjoying to make them last longer? Please tell me, because there are too many days I walk out to an empty mailbox, making these online connections all the more precious! 

Yesterday was cold and windy and rainy here in the mountains, not at all a day inviting long walks. Sarah and I did walk to the mailbox, however, and — lo and behold! Oh, joy, the mailbox was not empty! There was a book I’d ordered through Alibris from a seller in California, one that ought to hold me for a while, don’t you think?

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