Library Lion, a book review

2 10 2011

Should a children’s book aim to teach important lessons to kids or just exist to entertain? This is a false choice and Library Lion shows just how possible it is to do both. I loved this book about a lion who falls in love with story time at the library, breaks the rules – by roaring in protest when story time is over – and is allowed to stay only on the condition that he obeys all of the rules from then on. Eventually there is a choice to be made between following the rules and roaring to fetch help for someone who is hurt, and the lion chooses to roar and face his punishment. This book is quite plain about the key lesson it is trying to teach – that even good rules may need to be broken for the right reason – but, although the story was clearly written with that lesson in mind, it never strikes a false note in playing to its theme.
Children often relish stories with obvious morals – some of Aesop’s fables have stood the test of time and are still relished today, and the lesson of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is grasped again and again with glee as the story is enjoyed by generation after generation of preschoolers. But some stories with morals can be didactic or simply solemn, weighed down by the burden of an Important Lesson. This story, though, is anything but heavy and is completely natural and uncontrived. The illustrations make a fine first impression, drawn with such charm that they are certain to sway anyone even the slightest bit susceptible to such things: the lion manages to be both strong and cute (maybe even adorable, especially when he dusts the encyclopedias with his tail!) and the expressions of the people in the story are filled with life. The story is just as charming and lively, while also having more than a little drama. But almost every twist and turn has a kind of moral fiber in it that is enjoyable and fulfilling because it comes naturally out of the story and the characters.
I had fun mulling over some of the less obvious moral lessons tucked away in this little story. One is the basic moral choice behind civil disobedience: when the lion breaks the rules, he’s willing to take the penalty, in this case, never returning to the library. Another is the principle of judging people by their actions, rather than by who they are or where they are from. Mr. McBee clearly thinks that lions – just because they are lions – don’t deserve even the chance to be in the library; Miss Merriweather (a woman of some perspicacity) allows the lion to stay as long as he obeys the rules. There’s also, in the book’s final pages, a poignant lesson in empathy and treating others as you’d like to be treated. The lion is gone from the library and it seems likely that Mr. McBee is at least unconcerned by the lion’s absence –it never sat well with him to have a lion in the library in the first place. But one evening he stops by Miss Merriweather’s office on his way out:
“Can I do anything for you before I go, Miss Merriweather?” he asked her.
“No, thank you,” said Miss Merriweather. She was looking out the window. Her voice was very quiet. Even for the library.
(Never mind how delicious I find that fragment “Even for the library.”) Mr. McBee understands Miss Merriweather’s pain and knows what will make her happy so, instead of going home, he goes in search of the lion. It’s a moment of sweet redemption for the previously unlikeable Mr. McBee and in the end there are no “bad guys” in this story. That’s another lesson and, although it may not always come true, I find nothing wrong with the idea that anyone – or everyone – may be redeemed in the end.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression of this book – I love it because it is adorable, exciting and emotionally fulfilling. I love it in my gut, because it is fun and because I just plain enjoyed it (and because the pictures are so charming), not for its moral clarity. But the fact is that, just as in life, the lessons in this story are impossible to separate from the story itself.

Library Lion

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Coconut connection

21 09 2009

A week or so ago there was a spot on the radio about the latest thing – bottled coconut water. Two companies fiercely competing for shelf space in NYC.

This summer we bought a coconut – it was Robin’s choice, actually (“any fruit you want”, I said). We shared the liquid amongst ourselves. Like so many things in life, it came as happiness and sadness. It was fun to see how much was in there, and the taste was sweet and unusual. It was a nice memory for me, remembering the few times we had them as a kid, my father showing me how to strike a Phillips screwdriver into one of the three depressions in the skin, telling me of collecting coconuts along the street in San Diego. Everyone was savoring their individual servings when tragedy struck, a small puddle on the driveway had just been in James’ glass. Small things loom big in a child’s life, and he could barely keep from sobbing. Even after we all shared some of ours with him, he was still sad; it made it all seem more real. The white meat inside, so surprising, was less of a hit.

The same day as the radio spot, I looked for anything on the web about my friend Melanie Faith’s poetry chapbook. I found a review, which reviewed several works, including Paul Hostovsky’s Bending the Notes, which has this poem as its first

Coconut
Bear with me I
want to tell you
something about
happiness
it’s hard to get at
but the thing is
I wasn’t looking
I was looking
somewhere else
when my son found it
in the fruit section
and came running
holding it out
in his small hands
asking me what
it was and could we
keep it it only
cost 99 cents
hairy and brown
hard as a rock
and something swishing
around inside
and what on earth
and where on earth
and this was happiness
this little ball
of interest beating
inside his chest
this interestedness
beaming out
from his face pleading
happiness
and because I wasn’t
happy I said
to put it back
because I didn’t want it
because we didn’t need it
and because he was happy
he started to cry
right there in aisle
five so when we
got home we
put it in the middle
of the kitchen table
and sat on either
side of it and began
to consider how
to get inside of it

 

Poem: “Coconut” by Paul Hostovsky from Bird in the Hand. © Grayson Books. Copied
from http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2006/09/25 (buy now)





the dirt resists you

6 06 2009

Image and Imagination: Georgia O'Keeffe by John Loengard

Image and Imagination: Georgia O’Keeffe by John Loengard by John Loengard

I’ve been trying to pick up a few more art books — I often steer away from them because they seem pricy.

This book pairs evocative pictures of Georgia O’Keefe with some of her most enigmatic images, and a little text about her life. I enjoyed it; the art of the photographer brings insight into the artist and her art. I’ve always only really liked her flower paintings, (I have one on the wall in my living room.) but I enjoyed the motifs of skull and stone and desert house much more in this context than alone.

The pictures are beautiful, O’Keefe is fascinating to see in the life she has made for herself — at 80, one can fairly be held responsible for one’s surroundings.

Here’s a quote, from a book with little text, but still worth reading:

I’m a newcomer to Abiquiu, that’s one of the lower forms of life. The Spanish people have been here since the 18thcentury. The house was a pigpen when I got it in 1946. The roof was falling in, the doors were falling off. But it had a beautiful view.

I wanted to make it my house, but I’ll tell you the dirt resists you. It is very hard to make the earth your own. The ranch is really home to me. I’ve done much less to try to make it mine. All my association with it is a kind of freedom. Yet it’s hard to live at the ranch. When I first came here, I had to go 70 miles on a dirt road to get supplies. Nobody would go by in two weeks. I thought the ranch would be good for me because nothing can grow here and I wouldn’t be able to use up my time gardening. But I got tired of canned vegetables so now I grow everything I need for the year at Abiquiu. I like to get up when the dawn comes. The dogs start talking to me and I like to make a fire and maybe some tea and then sit in bed and watch the sun come up. The morning is the best time, there are no people around. My pleasant disposition likes the world with nobody in it.

View all my reviews.





catching up

26 05 2008

 

Well, so far I’ve done fairly well at sticking to my formal New Year’s resolution on the health and fitness side. But my goal of keeping up with writing about my reading here, poetic and otherwise, fell by the wayside as I got swept up in a bunch of new projects — working many hours to see if my ideas will pan out. Came out from under that in the last week or two, and I find that I’ve read quite a few books without writing them. Now, I write about the books here for myself as much as for any audience — I like looking back over my comments about the books I’ve read — the details of a book fade with time, and although I’m sure that each makes an impression, what I’ve written acts like snapshots of a vacation — triggers for the memory. But I’m doing this for fun, and all of the energy that would have gone here ended up invested in my work, and that would have made this feel like work…

 

I still want to go back over most of these and write at least a few words of what stood out. But I also have stacks of books here and there that I’d like to put somewhere else, so I’m going to jot down a few titles here. The good news (I suppose) is that I’ve started lots and lots and lots of books that I haven’t yet finished (but will!) so I don’t have to write those down. I also have my trip to Arizona, rock hounding, hiking and nature walking to write about. It was actually just before that trip that I last wrote here…

 

Anyway, here are some of the books

 

The Commitments, Roddy Doyle

The movie may actually be better, but, then, the movie is one of my favorites!

The Godfather, Mario Puzo

A reread, but then, I’ve seen the movie twice, also!

Titan, by Ron Chernow

Fat biography of Ron Chernow that was a weekend project — never would have read this without the recommendation of Tim — it will get its own entry)

The Immortal Cell by Michael D. West.

Stem cells and aging and telomerase and so on — I think this book has been on my shelf since it was new in 2003, I got several books on this subject and didn’t read this one.

The WORST-CASE SCENARIO Survival Handbook by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht.

Is there a guy who doesn’t want to imagine that he is prepared should he end up in the water with an alligator, or in need of ramming another car, or lost in the desert? I enjoyed reading most of these — it’s interesting to me which evoked a sense of dread and which evoked interest.

Master & Commander by Patrick O’Brian.

Avoid Boring People by James D. Watson (“Winner of the Nobel Prize”)

Lessons from a Life in Science. The title is two different rules. If you can’t think of both, read it again. OK, I’ll give you a hint: is boring an adjective or a verb?

The Complete Peanuts, 1953-1954. by Charles Schultz

More than just this volume — read through several of these at bedtimes.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, by Laurie R. King

Picked it up because of the beekeeping angle and the Sherlock Holmes angle. I’m not much of a mystery fan any more, but this feminist take, with it’s conceit of a retired Sherlock Holmes and the  strong female Watson was entertaining and true to my memories of the stories. (Although to call her Watson is to insult her — Watson was a mere foil for Holmes, while she is his equal.)

Why Orwell Matters, by Christopher Hitchens

Argumentative, flexing his intellectual muscles, but to good effect.

Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge

Disappointing, but memorable. Not his best science fiction at all.

Two Lives, a memoir, by Vikram Seth

Literary Occasions (essays), by V.S. Naipaul

From Heaven Lake, by Vikram Seth

 

I’m sure that’s not but half of them, but at least I’ve got started here again!

 

Also, without a doubt, the album of the last few months has been dream BIG by Ryan Shupe and the Rubberband.

 

Oh, and I finished the trail with the kids when they were here — not to mountain biking quality, but it’s traversable, and hidden so that people on the logging road won’t come down it and make my neighbor upset.

 





To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow.

11 02 2008

Finished today: Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson

 

Although this book is not a  miracle like Marilynne Robinson’s more recent  Gilead, which I would recommend without hesitating to any lover of literature, (besides my recommendation, it also merits the Pulitzer Prize for literature, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a recommendation from my friend Amanda), this book, Housekeeping (which won the PEN/Hemingway award) shares something of the later book’s style, paragraphs stretched taut with imaginative poetic prose. Gilead had a directness in its poetry that made it an easy read (this nonchalant ease is part of what makes Gilead something of a miracle); Housekeeping demands more from the reader — it’s more literary and conscious of its own significance (perhaps the 23 years gap between the two lent a greater maturity to Gilead). Today was at least the third time that I’ve picked it up to read, but I’m glad I read it today, in the midst of my new “poetic phase.”

 

I think the mood of the book is best summed up by the main character near the end:

If I had one particular complaint, it was that my life seemed composed entirely of expectation. I expected–an arrival, an explanation, an apology. There had never been one, a fact I could have accepted, were it not true that, just when I had got used to the limits and dimensions of one moment, I was expelled into the next and made to wonder again if any shapes hid in its shadows. That most moments were substantially the same did not detract at all from the possibility that the next moment might be utterly different. And so the ordinary demanded unblinking attention.

The mood of this book is one of expectation. Deliberately, almost obviously, poetic, tightly-wound, full of possibilities, mostly worrisome ones. As in earlier postings, this is no review, if you want some background on the story, go to the link at the top…

 

The woods themselves disturbed us. We liked the little clearing, the burned-off places where wild strawberries grew. Buttercups are the materialization of the humid yellow light one finds in such places. (Buttercups in those mountains are rare and delicate, bright, lacquered, and big on short stems. People delve them up, earth and all, and bring them home like trophies. Newspapers give prizes for the earliest ones. In gardens they perish.) But the deep woods are as dark and stiff and as full of their own odors as the parlor of an old house. We would walk among these great legs, hearing the enthralled and incessant murmurings far above our heads, like children at a funeral.

I wanted this paragraph just because of “the deep woods are as dark and stiff and as full of their own odors as the parlor of an old house,” but the themes in this paragraph and this poetic use of language fill the book.

It was as if the light had coaxed a flowering from the frost, which before seemed barren and parched as salt. The grass shone with petal colors, and water drops spilled from all the trees as innumerably as petals. “I told you it was nice,” Sylvie said.

 

Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water–peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing–the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s har is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, long, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.

I chose this not because I am sure of its truth, but because of the language and the images…and perhaps because I am attuned to salt, both because of some slight dislocations in my health (that make me crave it) and because I’ve recently been reading Neruda, who seems to find salt a potently symbolic substance.

 

This last paragraph I preserve here today strikes me as discerning a truth. The authorities are close to removing the orphaned narrator from the custody of her eccentric, formerly itinerant, not quite sane aunt Sylvie:

Sylvie did not want to lose me. She did not want me to grow gigantic and multiple, so that I seemed to fill the whole house [EB: as memories can], and she did not wish me to turn subtle and miscible, so that I could pass through the membranes that separate dream and dream. She did not wish to remember me. She much preferred my simple, ordinary presence, silent and ungainly though I might be. For she could regard me without strong emotion–a familiar shape, a familiar face, a familiar silence. She could forget I was in the room. She could speak to herself, or to someone in her thoughts, with peasure and animation, even while I sat beside her–this was the measure of our intimacy, that she gave almost no thought to me at all.

But if she lost me, I would become extraordinary by my vanishing…

 There is much of loneliness in this book, most of which didn’t cut me, because I am generally comfortable with my own company, and find myself happy alone. But there are separations–for me, it is from my kids, who I must separate from over and over again–that are the exact opposite of the ‘sweet sorrow’ experienced by young lovers from before Shakespeare’s time, lovers who may prefer the separation, with its pangs, a release from the excitement and stress of the possibilities of a new relationship which must be tended each moment together, especially since the return to a lover’s arms comes with a surge of pleasure. To be with someone and not be proving your worth, not be trying to impress, or even thinking about the impression you give, not swooning, but sharing life, is a pleasure that is always best experienced, and longing for it is no sweet pleasure.





the link-boys slouching and the rainy wind

10 02 2008

The trigger for this particular missive was this article in the New York Times — http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/books/review/Logan-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2&8bu&emc=bu — about the book of poems A TREATISE OF CIVIL POWER, by Geoffrey Hill. [this blog entry is excerpted/edited from a letter written on the same day that I started this blog — Jan 23, 2008] The review made me think about art, and changed some of my attitudes toward poetry — and also changed the way I read it. Here’s a bit from the beginning of the article (written by a poet as well, I discover at the end of the review)

 

Living With Ghosts

By WILLIAM LOGAN

Published: January 20, 2008

Gloomy poets are rarely very good, and good poets rarely very gloomy. There was Edgar Allan Poe, of course, and Thomas Lovell Beddoes, denizens of that funereal, willow-shadowed decade of the 1840s, a decade half in love with Keats and half in love with easeful death. Thomas Hardy had his black moods, but also his moments of sour levity. For more than 50 years, however, Geoffrey Hill has written a pinch-mouthed, grave-digger’s poetry so rich and allusive his books are normally greeted by gouts of praise from critics and the bewilderment of readers who might have been happier with a tract on the mating rituals of the earwig.

 

Hill has made brutally plain that the common reader is of no interest to him. Indeed, he believes that sinking to common ground betrays the high purpose of verse; with a withering pride he has refused, time and again, to stoop to such betrayals. This has made him a poet more despised than admired, and more admired than loved. His poetry has been composed of harsh musics, the alarums of battle and the death struggles under the reading lamp — it takes to contemplation the way some men take to religion (Hill’s relation to Christianity has been famously cryptic).

 

Evidently Hill’s poetry is dense with allusion, and all but requires a library and an internet connection to begin to tease the meaning apart. Generally, I have a great disdain for art that disdains the untutored consumer. Art, I think, is a means to communicate — if it is opaque and requiring of special training, then it fails, somehow. But this article gives me a different perspective (although, not, perhaps, exactly what the reviewer intended). If Hill’s poetry is a deliberate tangle of allusion, but one that can be detangled,  then perhaps that is part of the fun, part of the contract. Rather than an unwarranted and arrogant assumption by the author, it could be an assumption of research. Judging from the review, this may not be the case — it may be that these poems are just a form of intellectual strutting, only intended for the informed. But that doesn’t mean that some poems could be approached this way. Near the end of the review (which is worth reading), comes this poem.

 

There are passages of stunning beauty, however, like views through the lens of a Leica, for which a reader will forgive many a sin.

I see Inigo Jones’s great arches

in my mind’s eye, his water-inky clouds,

the paraphernalia of a royal masque;

dung and detritus in the crazy streets,

the big coaches bellying in their skirts

pothole to pothole, and the men of fire,

the link-boys slouching and the rainy wind.

 

Pasted from <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/books/review/Logan-t.html?pagewanted=2&_r=2&8bu&emc=bu>

 

So, I take the opportunity of reading this poem to read about Inigo Jones (I can’t help but think of another Inigo — of The Princess Bride — “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die…” — hopefully everyone in the world will have the chance to see that movie!). In any case, Inigo Jones, although Spanish in forename, is firmly English in surname and turns out to be “the first significant English architect.” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inigo_Jones

He also designed sets for the theatre — “credited with introducing movable scenery and the proscenium arch to English theatre. ” Then I get to read about the proscenium arch — a lot I didn’t know here. This leads me (right now, as I write this), in a digression, to the alley theater — one with the audience on two sides. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alley_Theater

 

I hadn’t known that this was a type of theater — I grew up in Houston where I saw Huck Finn at the Alley Theatre — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alley_Theatre — although I can’t tell if this theater is actually an “alley theater,” I do remember that the audience at least partially surrounded Huck Finn when our school went there on an excursion. (My most vivid memory is of my soda — a rare treat growing up with a “health food” mom — with the can stretched out of shape from having spent the night in the freezer.)

 

I also get to look up link-boy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Link-boy — they seem to be a kind of human flashlight, carrying torches through the streets of London for pedestrians and those riding on litters. Funny that — writing this e-mail is likely preventing me from finishing that so-Victorian novel Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, wherein one old pernicious character is borne about on a litter, or carried by on or another character. (This book wins the prize for having been on my “list to read” the longest — probably 20 years ago that I first started it, and I think I’ve started it 7 or 10 more times since then. It’s good that I like the first chapter…)

 

Anyway, you can see what I mean — rather than seeing this as a impenetrable mass, I suck it dry as an index to interesting lore. I can’t say that I really like the poem that much, even now that I understand it. But it has, at least for the moment, meant that I read even poems that are accessible (and I still think an artists job is to communicate through his or her medium of choice)… I see even these poems with a difference. So, when The Writer’s Almanac arrives (This week I’ve started a system so I won’t miss listening to it.), when it arrives with a Poe poem that is so much Poe as to be recognizable without need for the author to be listed, and that poem has this stanza:

 

Wanderers in that happy valley

      Through two luminous windows, saw

Spirits moving musically

      To a lute’s well-tuned law;

Round about a throne where, sitting

      (Porphyrogene!)

In state his glory well befitting,

      The ruler of the realm was seen.

 

I don’t skip over the word Porphyrogene as a toddlers do, in their intelligent way — ignoring what they don’t understand, rather than puzzling over things that are likely beyond them. No frustration for them — they just move on. And so do I, I realize, trusting to the future to reinforce the tiny bits of meaning that accrue to words through long familiarity. But now I am grown, and perhaps it is worth focusing on those remaining places where I am ignorant. My vocabulary has stalled, and I will not likely run into Porphyrogene again before the traces of this encounter have been erased by the paths of so many other words streaming through my brain. And, besides, it turns out to be interesting to read about Porphyrogenita — “born in the purple” — a true child of a reigning Byzantine Emperor.

 

Porphyrogenita is a medieval Greek word which was used in the Byzantine Empire, meaning “born in the purple”.

The female form is Porphyrogeniti (Πορφυρογέννητη) and Latinized to Porphyrogenita. The male form is Porphyrogenitos.

Being born in the purple means that one was born as the child of a reigning Byzantine Emperor. Being Porphyrogenita added much status to a person. For males it meant they were the legitimate successors of the last emperor, and had a real claim to the throne against rebellious generals. For females it meant they had higher status as a princess and had more value if they were used in diplomatic marriages.

Examples of Porphyrogenita:

Pasted from <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porphyrogenita>

 

So there, a new accretion of knowledge, knowledge without apparent purpose, my favorite kind. And from there I can slip into reading, should I wish, about Byzantine Emperors, the rulers of the Eastern Roman Empire, although I don’t, since it is late.

 





Heart Earth

9 02 2008

Finished (and started) yesterday: Heart Earth, by Ivan Doig

 

This isn’t the first Ivan Doig book I’ve read, and it probably shouldn’t be a first introduction to his works. It’s more revelation than narrative — the flashes of life seen in the pages of this book are the raw materials input to the factory of his creative intellect that eventually produced his great Montana novels. This story is told in two voices — the memories of youth that, Doig,  an old man recreates, and the recovered letters of his mother, sent to her brother aboard a destroyer in the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan. Together he merges the present and the past, his memories and those letters into a brilliant sketch of that brief World War II stretch of Ivan’s life, the short time he had with his mother before she died — on his sixth birthday.

 

I think this book succeeds for me because Doig doesn’t have to persuade me to listen — I know his voice already from the first two volumes of his McCaskill trilogy. I know this hard land of shepherds and this hard life where life is filled with aching beauty, but does you no favors. I know it because it is Montana that seems more real to me than the real thing, the Montana he created in those two books and in the also excellent book The Whistling Season. Certainly there are parts of this book that would appeal to any reader, but it would be a shame if this were your first introduction to Doig because you would fail to appreciate the implication of so many elements of this story, the events whose echoes ring more clearly in his fiction than in this memoir.  So, read, if you can stand the painful reality of it, Dancing at the Rascal Fair, and then (you must, you will) read English Creek. Or if the thought that a beautiful story could be loaded with a share of pain concerns you, then read his most recent book, published just last year, the wonderfully perfect story The Whistling Season (although no great story is all rose petals and spring rain, certainly not one set in Montana in the first half of the century…). I wish I had the time and memory to do justice to those books, or even to write a brief summary of how they handle the issues of love, loss, and the dynamic of a man and a woman, and of a father and son, but tonight is for Heart Earth, and the things I want to hang on to from it.

 

New word from this book: caryatids-

A caryatid is a sculpted female figure serving as an architectural support taking the place of a column or a pillar supporting an entablature on her head.

Pasted from <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caryatids> — go there for a picture!

 

Such civic women are caryatids of so much of that hard Montana past, they carry the sky.

Clever turn of a phrase: “The lariat proletariat, where my grandparents and parents started out, was done in by mechanization, ending up in town jobs or none.”

 

Two extended quotes, the first from Winter in Montana:

 

….World War Two and its songs on the radio had come, and I was the combination of kid who could listen to mairzy doats and dozy doats, and little lambsie divy, and staidly tell you, sure, everybody knows mares eat oats and a doe could too, and lambs would take to ivy; then go outside and disappear into fathoms of imagination the rest of the day. Tough and thorough, doctrinaire and dreamy, healthy as a moose calf, I seem to have sailed through the Faulkner Creek years with my adults giving to me generously from their days. Words on a page became clear to me there, long before school; somebody in the revolving cast of busy parents and young Ringer uncles hired to do the ranch chores and a visiting grandmother checking up on us from Moss Agate, one or another of those had to have been steadily reading to me. My immersion into print, the time indoors with books and a voice willing to teach me all the words, surely I owe to that ranch’s long winters.

 

Winter also brought out the trapper, to be watched from our kitchen window in the snow-roofed house, tending the trapline on Faulkner Creek.

 

The bundled figure sieves in and out of the creek-side willows, a dead jackrabbit in hand for bait. Gray to catch white, for weasels in their snowy winter coats are the quarry, their pelts fetching a prime price from the fur buyer in Helena.

 

The weasels hunt along the creek in invisibility against the snow, terror to grouse and mice, or dart up to the ranch buildings, murder in the chickenhouse; their sylph bodies are such ferocious little combustion tubes that they have to eat with feverish frequency to live. Wherever the double dots of weasel tracks indicate, the trapper sets a small contraption of jaws and trigger and neatly baits it with a bloody morsel of rabbit. Ritual as old as any tribe–though these traps are springsteel, bought from a catalogue–but every trapper possesses a trademark and this one distinctively takes the trouble to bend a bow of branch in attachment to each trap. When the animal sets off the trap, the branch will yank the entire apparatus up into the cold air and the weasel will die a quicker, less contorted death.

 

One after another the traps are attended to this way, an even dozen in all. The trapsetting impulse evidently is the same as in catching fish, the snarer hates to quit on an odd number.

 

Not nearly all the visited traps hold weasels this day but enough do, each frozen ermine form dropped in careful triumph into the gunnysack at the trapper’s waist. At last, from the end of the trapline the figure turns back up the creek, again toward the ranch house with the meringue of snow upon its roof. The trapper is my mother.

 

The second of the freedom his mother gifted him as a child

Any bloodline is a carving river and parents are its nearest shores. At the Faulkner Creek ranch I had learned to try out my mother’s limits by running as fast as I could down the sharp shale slope of the ridge next to the ranch house. How I ever found it out without cartwheeling myself to multiple fractures is a mystery, but the avalanche angle of that slope was precisely as much plunge as I could handle as a headlong four- and five-year-old. The first time my visiting grandmother saw one of my races with the law of gravity, she refused ever to watch again. Even my father, with his survivor’s-eye view from all the times life had banged him up, even he was given pause by those vertical dashes of mine, tyke roaring drunk on momentum. But my mother let me risk. Watched out her kitchen window my every wild downhiller, hugged herself to bruises while doing so, but let me. Because she knew something of what was ahead? Can it have been that clear to her, that reasoned? The way I would grow up, after, was contained in those freefall moments down that shale-bladed slope. In such plunge, if you use your ricochets right, you steal a kind of balance for yourself; you make equilibrium moment by moment because you have to. Amid the people and places I was to live with, I practiced that bouncing equilibrium and carried it on into a life of writing, free-falling through the language. My father’s turn at seeing me toward gravitational independence would come. But my mother’s came first and it came early, in her determination that I should fly free of the close coddling she’d had as an ill child. At the Faulkner Creek place she turned me loose in that downhill spree.

 

They head to Arizona, and his mother writes “I always thought a desert is just nothing, but have changed my mind…It is really beautiful here, in the desert way.”

 

And a  question — can desert dwellers really see this?

Everything so green, my mother’s pen granted. It wasn’t just our outlander imaginations that the saguaro cacti looked more portly every day; they indeed were fattening on the rain, the precious moisture cameled up inside their accordion-style inner works.