Winter reading

Stack of books


I’ve been out of town. A stack of books from the library and online were waiting when I got home.

The Steinbeck work journals for East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath are recommended by Louise De Salvo in The Art of Slow Writing as essential if you’re writing a book-length work and want to learn about process.

Deep snow in backyardThe Age of Miracles is this year’s selection for “If All of Rochester Read the Same Book.” We love to read through the deep winters in our part of the world, and this novel of catastrophe and survival will be on many a nightstand here. Why not try it along with us – I’ll be writing about this debut novel by Karen Thompson Walker soon.

The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland, a memoir, and Wolf Winter, a novel. I want to know more about my Scandinavian roots; biography, memoir, and fiction are a great way to explore ancestry and heritage.

Wendell Berry’s Our Only World (ten essays), because Berry is one of our greatest prophets, writing about the clash between humanity and nature and how we must do better. He’s been called a modern-day Emerson or Thoreau.

Backpacking with the Saints, a travel narrative and spiritual memoir. Belden C. Lane’s take on Celtic, Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Hindu and Sufi Muslim writings as he treks the Ozarks and the American Southwest. The book jacket compares him to other lovers of the backcountry, including John Muir and Cheryl Strayed, whose memoir, Wild, was just released as a movie.

Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed, is an overdue Christmas gift for my photographer son. This newly published series of interviews with the filmmaker is so popular it’s been out of stock. I hope he finds it worth the wait.

No one writes about creating art with as much love and eloquence as Vincent Van Gogh.

More about these in upcoming posts at Books Can Save a Life.


Reading The Snow Child in a Deep Freeze

frost on window
Frost on our window

It was a bright winter’s day when I took this photograph, but it came out dark, evoking for me the deep winter chill of our snowbound evenings in upstate New York, which are perfect for reading books by the fire.

Before winter’s end, you must read The Snow Child.  Based on a Russian folk tale, The Snow Child suspends readers between fantasy and reality in remote, 1920s Alaska. (One of many English versions of the Russian folk tale is “The Little Daughter of the Snow” in Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales.)

Mabel and Jack, a childless, middle-aged couple, move from Pennsylvania to the Alaskan Territory to homestead on 160 acres of land. For ten years, they’ve been locked in a private world of grief over their stillborn child; Mabel, especially, hopes to escape from and the young families and children in Pennsylvania who remind her of her sadness.

One day, Mabel and Jack build a snow child whom they dress in a red scarf and mittens. The snow child melts, but a little girl with a fox begins to appear in the woods around their cabin. Is she real, or is she an unearthly fairy child born of their own longing? You’ll find yourself seesawing between Jack’s harsh, real-world view of who, exactly, the girl they call Faina is, and Mabel’s wishful, fantastical, mystical one.

For me, The Snow Child (a Pulitzer Prize finalist) was ideal reading: perfect for the time of year, entrancing, deceptively simple storytelling set in a frontier that has fascinated me of late. I kept thinking of the breathtaking world evoked in Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams. Lopez writes of virgin land, animals and people at risk from encroaching civilization, and I think of Faina as a metaphor for the wild and untamable.

Faina embodies, for me, my deep-rooted desire to have and love children. Mabel and Jack, through Faina, do find their hearts’ desire but, like all parents, they eventually must let go.

I loved how Mabel finds another kind of fulfillment through her art, and learns to channel grief, insights, and a growing love of the natural world into renderings and sketches.

The Snow Child is our city’s “If All of Rochester Read the Same Book” choice for 2014. The author, Eowyn Ivey, will travel here from her home in Alaska for three days (March 19- 21) of readings and talks at local schools, libraries, and Rochester’s Writers & Books.

We take “If All of Rochester Read the Same Book” very seriously here. We began marking it in January with countless book clubs discussing The Snow Child over tea and hot chocolate; writing workshops and readings by Ken Waldman, an Alaskan poet and fiddler; short, short plays that contain the word “fox” written and performed by locals at Geva Theatre Center; and for kids, making paper snowflakes and readings/discussions of fairy tales from Russia and around the world.

Still to come:  on February 20 a presentation of “Alaskan Odyssey: Cruising the Inside Passage and Beyond”; on February 28 an exhibition of winter images at Image City Photography Gallery; on March 4 a demonstration of basket weaving in the Alaskan tribal pattern; and a Snow Day party with music, fruit pies in flavors inspired by the novel, and a scavenger hunt on March 7.

On March 8 a how-to-survive-in-the-snow adventure at Mendon Ponds Park sponsored by the local Sierra Club chapter will explore whether or not a little girl could survive in the winter wilderness. Also on March 8 there will be an Afternoon of Winter Fancies: Creative Movement Workshops and Flights of Winter Fancy at the Hochstein School of Music & Dance; and on March 18 – 19 an exhibition of quilts inspired by The Snow Child, sponsored by the Genesee Valley Quilt ClubEach quilt will be a “novel” and feature the artist’s love of quilting and reading.

On March 4, Rick French of Pack, Paddle, Ski, who has been to just about every country in the world, will host a Sleeping in Ice class at the Penfield Public Library. (Rick has spent many nights sleeping in igloos and snow shelters; my husband travelled to Alaska with him, but that’s another story.) Rick will demonstrate how to make an igloo in the backyard and how to survive a surprise blizzard in the mountains.

For those of you who are local, you can find a complete schedule of Snow Child events here.

Snow Maiden in forest
Snow Maiden, Viktor M. Vasnetsov

The Snow Child book cover

Family reunion reading: TransAtlantic

It occurred to me it would be fun if all the book lovers attending our extended family reunion this summer read the same book. Similar to what we do here in Rochester, NY once a year: “If all of Rochester read the same book,” a great project started by librarian Nancy Pearl in Seattle.

At the reunion, we could have an optional, one-time-only gathering to talk about the book.

Wouldn’t it would be interesting, I thought, to read a book that explored my husband’s family’s Irish heritage?

Easier said than done, because we all know what great storytellers the Irish are. When I asked for book suggestions on the family reunion Facebook page, the list got longer and longer.  I hoped no one would suggest James Joyce.

Fortunately, no one did. (Librarian and former book editor that I am, I haven’t read a single book by James Joyce. Like every other avid reader in the universe, I intend to. Someday.)

Angela’s Ashes was on the list, of course. But with all due respect to Frank McCourt, his ship sailed some time ago, and we have to make way for younger authors.

I’m no good at conducting family polls and other administrative tasks, so I made an executive decision. I chose Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic, because it’s hot off the presses, getting lots of attention, and Irish through and through.

Transatlantic book cover

I hope my husband’s family doesn’t mind I made this unilateral call, especially since I don’t have one ounce of Irish blood.

One of the things I most admire about my husband is his unshakeable sense of justice and fairness. I’ve seen this in my in-laws, too. In fact, I’ve seen it in many members of the family I was so fortunate to marry into. This is not just something they give lip service to. In many different ways, they live their beliefs.

Maybe being Irish has something to do with it.

I work directly across the street from Mount Hope Cemetery where former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a prominent figure in the history of Rochester and our nation, is buried. There is a riveting scene in TransAtlantic that captures the essence of Douglass’s trip to Ireland in 1845.  I hadn’t realized Douglass had traveled to Ireland. That made TransAtlantic, for me, all the more relevant.

Members of our extended family have married or plan to marry into families from Nicaragua, Thailand, Saint Lucia, and other countries I can’t name simply because there are too many relatives to keep track of. (They are, after all, Irish.) If you’ve read my blog, you know I’m fascinated with the idea we may inherit from our ancestors a unique sensibility and way of looking at the world. I’m also intrigued by the wonderful new possibilities that may arise with the union of different cultures, possibilities inherent in the children who will be coming to our reunion.

Upcoming post on Transatlantic

In my next post, thoughts about Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic, as well as his Let the Great World Spin. which won the National Book Award.

Here is a link to an interview with Colum McCann on Charlie Rose.

If you’ve read either of these books, tell us what you think in the comments. Are there books that speak to your own family’s ancestry?  Let us know!



The Sea, by John Banville

Circle of Friends, by Maeve Binchy (and other titles)

My Left Foot, by Christy Brown

Ireland, by Frank Delaney (and other titles)

The Gathering, by Anne Enright

The Wild Colonial Boy, by James Hynes

Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt

‘Tis, by Frank McCourt

Charming Billy, by Alice McDermott

The Mammy; The Granny; The Chisellers, all by Brendan O’Carroll

Trinity, by Leon Uris