Books that stay with us for a lifetime

Dear nostalgic reader,

Once a year, our book club reads a children’s book and our young daughters and sons come to the discussion. In the past, we’ve read Charlotte’s Web, Little House in the Big Woods, Anne of Green Gables. This time we read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and met over the weekend to discuss it. As we nibbled on apples with caramel dip and chocolate brownies, we talked about the story. Several of us, including the younger readers, found the repetitive, simple storytelling a little aggravating. But we also liked the humor and adventures that were largely left out of the movie version.

My mom then said she vividly remembers being maybe five years old and my grandmother reading the Oz books to her. She described the delicious anticipation and excitement of discovering them for the first time.

Another book club member then said she had a favorite series of books when she was a child, and it involved a space ship, but she hadn’t been able to find them as an adult. Then when she was at the public library recently, she spotted them on the shelf.

“Now I want to buy them all,” she said.

It happens all the time at the bookstore — we’ll be sorting through used books people have brought in for credit, and one of us will spot a book from our childhood. It doesn’t matter how tattered and worn it is, we have to have it.

The Tawny Scrawny Lion is the picture book that still gives me warm, happy feelings. And The Boxcar Children is the first one I remember reading on my own and having that certain sensation that comes with reading a good book — a sense that you want to crawl into its pages, or that you already have and you never want to leave.

The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. The Bobbsey Twins. Choose-your-own-adventures. What was the book from your childhood that has stayed with you all these years? Do you have a copy on your shelf?



The gift of a poetree

Dear grateful reader,

There are many things I’m grateful for — my family, my home here in Alaska, the people who are helping my book find its way into the world. I’m thankful for good books, delicious meals shared with good friends, caring neighbors, a hot bath at the end of a hard day.

I’m also grateful for the people and organizations that support art in its many forms. Libraries. Performing arts centers. Nonprofit foundations that assist artists and writers. Together they all help make our world a more interesting place. Yet I mostly take them for granted, and when I do consider how much I appreciate their efforts, I am unable to think of a fitting way to say “Thank you!” except to maybe write a donation check or help with a community project.

But several of my friends recently linked to this website on Facebook, and I thought — now that’s gratitude! An anonymous artist in Scotland has been leaving paper/book sculptures at libraries and artist institutions. The first was a tree made of paper, dubbed a “poetree” and left as a gift at the Scottish Poetry Library. Attached was a note:

It started with your name @byleaveswelive and became a tree.… … We know that a library is so much more than a building full of books… a book is so much more than pages full of words.… This is for you in support of libraries, books, words, ideas….. a gesture (poetic maybe?)

More sculptures followed — a gramophone, a miniature theater, all made of ornately cut and shaped paper and secretly left at various institutions.

Reading about these anonymous gift, I was filled with such admiration. This artist clearly was not seeking fame or fortune. The gifts were given out of true generosity and gratitude.

Several years ago I heard Alaskan author John Straley speak at a conference. He said he writes poems and gives them to loved ones at Christmas. I was reminded that art can be personal and generous — it doesn’t have to always be about seeking an audience.



Where inspiration waits

Dear inspiring reader,

I’m tired today.

I could blame it on staying up late these past few nights, working on our house.  (We bought a fixer-upper recreational cabin several years ago and have been steadily turning it into a real home while we live in it. We’re doing almost all the work ourselves — framing, Sheetrocking, wiring, plumbing, painting. It’s as challenging, rewarding, and exhausting as it sounds.)

I could also blame it on my second career as a novelist, which yields new avenues of challenging, rewarding, and exhausting work. I could blame it on the shortening days, the cooler weather. The daily, relentless chores. Parenting. Housekeeping.

But the truth is, I can’t blame this sort of fatigue on too much work or not enough sleep. This is a creative fatigue, the sense that I have nothing to say, and if I did, I’d be too tired and uninspired to write it. Sleep doesn’t fix it. Neither does whining, as tempting as it is.

I have to go back to the books. The ones that give me goosebumps, the ones that make my heart shudder, the ones that make me hope to be a writer.

At noon the next day they rode into the pueblo of Encantada at the foot of the low range of pollarded mountains they’d been skirting and the first thing they saw was Blevins’ pistol sticking out of the back pocket of a man bent over into the engine compartment of a Dodge car.All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy

These waters, thought Quoyle, haunted by lost ships, fishermen, explorers gurgled down into sea holes as black as a dog’s throat. Bawling into salt broth. Vikings down the cracking winds, steering through fog by the polarized light of sun-stones. The Inuit in skin boats, breathing, breathing, rhythmic suck of frigid air, iced paddles dipping, spray freezing, sleek back rising, jostle, the boat torn, spiraling down. — The Shipping News, Annie Proulx

“Is dying hard, Daddy?” “No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.” They were seated in the boat, Nick in the stern, his father rowing. The sun was coming up over the hills. A bass jumped, making a circle in the water. Nick trailed his hand in the water. It felt warm in the sharp chill of the morning. — The Complete Short Stories, Ernest Hemingway

My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things — trout as well as eternal salvation — come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy. — A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean

What are your favorite lines, from a book, a song, a poem, that make you want to keep going?



Great reads to watch for this month

Dear book-loving reader,

One of my favorite things about working at Fireside Books is the sneak peek I get at books. Publishers send us advance reader copies to help us decide which books to carry in the store. This means I’m often reading books that won’t come out for months.

To my surprise, being a soon-to-be-published author has increased my access to great books. In preparation for a dinner in New York City, I was given several early galleys of books by the other authors attending the event.

Consequently, I’ve got a couple of books I want to recommend to you:

* The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach just came out this week. It’s a novel so firmly rooted in baseball and written with such insightful tenderness that it is about way more than baseball. As I was reading it I flashed on a quote I remember seeing on the cover of a copy of Nabokov’s Lolita, calling it the greatest love story ever written. I liked Lolita. It is phenomenally written. But it is not a love story. The Art of Fielding, however, is one of the greatest, most surprising love stories I’ve ever read. It explores love in its many forms — love of the sport, camaraderie and devotion among the team members, complex and rocky young love, forbidden love.This is one of those rare books I’d recommend to all of my favorite customers at Fireside Books.

* Vanity Fair’s How a Book is Born by Keith Gessen. This is a sort of weird hybrid. Not quite a book. A little more than a magazine article. But for those who are interested in a behind-the-scenes look at publishing, it is fascinating. It’s an article that Chad Harbach’s friend Keith Gessen wrote for Vanity Fair. It will appear next month in the magazine, but this is an extended version that is available online in digital form for $1.99. It describes how Harbach worked on The Art of Fielding for 10 years, struggled to find an agent who was interested in representing it, and then ended up getting a $665,000 advance from Little, Brown & Co. It’s a bit like insider gossip, and I have to admit that’s what I found kind of enthralling about it, but it also sheds light on how book deals happen and how publishing is changing. This one isn’t for everyone, but writers, book sellers, and bibliophiles will enjoy it.

* On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry also came out this week. This is the first I’ve read of Barry. The owner of Fireside Books passed the ARC on to me and likened it to The Green Age of Asher Witherow, one of our favorite books. And I agree — it is lyrical and heartbreaking, atmospheric and in ways difficult to read. It is the story of 17 days in the life of Lily Bere, an elderly Irish-American woman who is mourning the death of her grandson. In typical Irish fashion, this sounds like a real downer. But it is the kind of book I adore, one that delves deep into the heart and looks suffering and hardship dead on, but still finds unsentimental beauty, hope, and love. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. It is not a page turner. At times, it is grim. But for people who love great writing, it is definitely one to pick up.

I’m also part way through an advance reader copy of a novel by a fellow Alaskan author, and so far I’m finding it fast-paced, intriguing, funny, and totally absorbing. But I’m just going to tease you with it right now and write more once I’m finished. This one doesn’t come out until February, the same as The Snow Child, so we’ve got some time.

Happy reading!


Claire Legrand giving away ARC

Dear kind reader,

Sorry to be later than normal with my letter today. Hours seemed to evaporate before my eyes as I worked on bookish things (fun treats to give away with my book, an ARC of an amazing new novel by another Alaskan author, a promotional video for The Snow Child … all of which I’ll write about more later).

Visit Claire Legrand's blog ( to learn more about her contest.

But when I resurfaced this evening, I was welcomed by a message from fellow author Claire Legrand. After reading an advance reader copy of my novel, she gave it wonderful reviews on Twitter and Today she announced that she is giving away her ARC.

Please stop by her blog  and learn more about the contest and Claire herself. She is the author of The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, which will be published by Simon & Schuster August 2012. It sounds fabulous, and her blog is a fantastic place for book lovers!



Turn of the table

Dear bookish reader,

Several years ago I attended the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association trade show in Portland, Oregon. I went with Melissa Behnke, the co-owner of Fireside Books. It was so serious and so fun. We were bona fide booksellers with empty suitcases and notebooks, setting out on an important mission — to learn more about our trade and to discover, and bring home, exciting new books.

But we were also book lovers in a land of books.  We went on giddy binges of greed, walking the trade show floor and filling our arms with free books. We sat in on panel discussions and visited with other booksellers. We talked books, and talked books.

By far the most memorable event was the “feast of authors.” We were all situated at tables in a dining hall. Throughout the meal, selected authors sat down at our table and visited with us. Several authors came to our table that night; I remember two vividly. Floyd Skloot, a wonderful poet, novelist and essayist, told us about his memoir,  A World of Light. Since that dinner, his daughter Rebecca Skloot has published the bestselling The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Another visitor to our table was Laura Numeroff, author of If  You Give a Pig a Pancake among may others sweet children’s books. I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my daughter I had met her.

Never once did I think to myself “I wonder if I’ll be here again someday, but instead as an author.” It didn’t even cross my mind, even though I had already begun work on an early novel.

So imagine my delight and surprise when my publicist emailed the other day to say it was official — I am to be one of the guest authors at this year’s PNBA “feast of authors.”

I would be nervous, except I know how to dress in Portland, Oregon. And I also know — these are my people. They love books. I love books. We’ve got the whole world in common. We’ll talk about their bookstores and Fireside Books, and I’ll have to imagine Marlena my publicist at my shoulder, gently reminding me to not just talk shop with my fellow booksellers, but also tell them a bit about my debut novel. Maybe then I can describe how I was struck with the idea for The Snow Child when I was shelving books at Fireside. I can tell them that being a bookseller is the perfect day job for a would-be novelist.

I can’t wait until October!



Once upon a time …

Dear enchanting reader,

Once upon a time there was a little girl who met a wolf in the woods …

or, there was an old man and old woman who more than anything wanted a child of their own …

or a boy who caught a fish that spoke to him …

or two children with an evil step-mother …

or a bag of magic beans …

Both THE SNOW CHILD and my novel-in-progress have a framework built of fairy tales. I’ve always been fascinated by these deceptively simple stories, and the art, novels, and movies they inspire. A friend of mine, Annie Aube, turns fairy tales into subversive, sometimes disturbing embroidery art. One of my favorite films, PAN’S LABYRINTH, is a Spanish civil war fairy tale. One of my favorite books is THE LIFE OF PI. In each of these, there is the question of what is real and what is fairy tale, and of how and why we translate experience into fairy tale. In the case of Annie Aube’s art, the question is turned upside down, and the stories are viewed through a new lens.

Earlier this week, the author Neil Gaiman recommended through Twitter this incredible New York Times article on fairy tales. It is written by Valerie Gribben, a medical student who finds the connections between her favorite childhood book of Grimm’s fairy tales and what she sees at the hospital each day.

“Fairy tales are, at their core, heightened portrayals of human nature, revealing, as the glare of injury and illness does, the underbelly of mankind,” she writes.

At the same time, I stumbled upon this quote online —

“Fairy tales are experienced by their hearers and readers, not as realistic, but as symbolic poetry.”  — Max Luthi

Between these two interpretations, I feel like I’m coming closer to understanding why I am drawn to fairy tales. They speak a kind of truth — one of human longing and suffering —  but do it through poetic, symbolic language that enables us to see beauty and goodness even as we look at the darkness.

Hope your day is happily ever after,


A poem in your pocket

Dear lovely reader,

Poetry is language in its purest art form. I’ve heard other people use the same analogy – if a short story is a snapshot, a novel a movie, then a poem is a painting. Each brush stroke an act of artistry. And yet, even among my writer and reader friends, I know only a few who seek out poetry.

I’m not sure why there is so much resistance. I think people are intimidated by it, or bored. They think of the sing-songy rhymes they had to memorize as a child, or they come across modern poems that are so obscure and inaccessible that they are like meaningless abstract paintings. Randomly choosing a poem as a representation of “poetry” is like pulling a book off the “C” shelf in a bookstore and thinking if you don’t like it, you don’t like fiction. You could end up with a Clive Cussler, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Willa Cather, or Orson Scott Card. What are the odds you are going to love whichever one you pick?

But I wish writers in particular would read more poetry, because I think it has the potential to seep into the brain and influence the way we put our words together. Most of today’s fiction lacks poetry of language. I read dozens of novels ever year, but I’m lucky if one of those has this kind of attention to the rhythm, sound, and surprising potential of each word. The Green Age of Asher Witherow by M. Allen Cunningham rings with the poetic voice I long for, as does Tinkers by Paul Harding. But these lyrical novels are few and far between.

When I’m struggling with my own fiction writing, I often read poetry. It fills me with such admiration and inspiration.

Here are a couple of examples.

They shut me up in Prose –
As when a little Girl
They put  me in the Closet –
Because they liked me “still” –
Still! Could themselves have peeped –
And seen my brain – go round –
They might as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason – in the pound …

— Emily Dickinson

And from one of my favorite modern poets:

Tibet is rock and mineral
hard sparseness polished
by stark wind
buffeted by bright sunlight
carried as talisman
and pain …

— Julie LeMay (also known as my mom)

And from Olena Kalytiak Davis, another of my favorite modern poets:

Your thoughts have hung themselves from nails
like workshirts.
The sky has stopped
offering you reasons to live and your heart is the rock
you threw through each window
of what’s deserted you, so you turn
to the burnt out building inside you: scaffolding
overhead, the fallen beams,
the unsound framework …

When I read these lines out loud, I hear the music of the words and feel their rhythm like a bass beat against my heart. It’s the magic of language, and I never tire of it.



Wanted: great escape

Dear well-read reader,

I pick up books for a lot of different reasons – to learn, to be emotionally moved and challenged, to be immersed in the lyrical potential of language. But sometimes I read because I’m craving the sensation of being transported. I want the great escape. I love it when I am partly through a book and I don’t want be anywhere in the world but curled up in a chair, devouring the pages. The imaginary people and their concerns have become entirely real. I can’t wait to find out what happens, and yet I dread the end of the book and the end of this other reality.

Strangely, the more I read, the less frequently I fall under this spell. I don’t know if I have become too aware of how language and plot works – it’s like I can see the wires and pulleys that are enabling the characters to fly. Or maybe I am reading the wrong types of books, those that are considered the canon of tomorrow and make me work hard to understand what the author is trying to do and how it will influence literature. I enjoy these types of books, too, and I think they are important for me to read, but they rarely offer escape.

In other cases, a book seems to take me on that perfect little vacation – I rip through the pages, but when I get to the end? As one reader friend put it, it’s like you just scarfed down an entire box of doughnuts. It seemed like fun at the time, but now you are feeling slightly ill and kind of disgusted with yourself for having so little self-control.

It’s such a rare treat when I come across a book that is both well-written and page turning, satisfying in its emotional depth and entirely transporting. Some of the best escape books I’ve read in recent years– the Harry Potter books. There is nothing experimental about Rowling’s writing style. She falls prey to cliché now and again. In ways the characters and plot conform to existing molds. And yet, I can think of few books that have magically swept me off to such an unbelievable world and made me believe so fully.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See was another one of my rare escapes. This lovely novel set me down in 19th century China and wrapped me in the fascinating lives of the characters. I was entirely transported, and when I was finished with the book, I felt changed as a reader.

Just in the past few weeks, I’ve read some really terrific novels, books I think are well-written, important in our social context, entertaining and surprising. I cared about the characters, and the plot kept me turning the pages. And yet, none of them successfully cast a spell over me. I wasn’t swept into another world.

That’s what I want. I want that perfect escape book.

Any suggestions?


Feathered locusts

Dear loyal reader,

I admit it – I’m somewhat of a romantic. I daydream about my home becoming a kind of Eden, where the golden retriever lounges on the porch, wildflowers bloom along the hill, chickens cluck about the yard, and strawberries ripen in the sun.

Reality isn’t as idyllic. They failed to mention it in THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA or ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE.  Or if they did, I skimmed over it in with my rose-tinted glasses. But there is a dark side to paradise.

True, chickens are productive members of a farmish life. During the height of summer, we get as many as seven or eight fresh eggs a day, and because of the different breeds in our 12-chicken flock, the eggs come in blues, greens, tans, and speckled browns. They are beautiful, and flavorful.

And when we are feeling more pragmatic than sentimental, chickens make an excellent dinner. Keep in mind that “free range” also means “tougher than hell.” But that’s why we have a pressure cooker.

In addition to being productive and delicious, however, chickens possess another prominent characteristic – they will eat anything. Absolutely anything. They are like feathered locusts.

In Eden, that means they eat the leftover table scraps and the unwanted weeds and bugs in the yard. Here in the real world, though, it means they eat everything else, too.

I’m not always quick on the uptake. Last summer I planted two raised beds with strawberry plants. I watched the flowers bloom and tiny green strawberries appear. And, just as they began to ripen, disappear.

In the meantime, there were other mysterious goings-ons. Like the rhubarb plants whose leaves were riddled with bite-sized holes.

And then it struck me. Chickens! As they free-ranged their way across our yard, they were consuming everything. Including just-ripened strawberries and rhubarb plants. Yes I know, rhubarb leaves are supposed to be toxic. Our chickens appear to be perfectly healthy eating machines.

I announced loudly off the back porch that if they attacked my plants again, we would be having chicken for dinner, with a strawberry glaze. The flock seemed unfazed. My dad later suggested it might be easier to just put a fence around the strawberry beds.

So this past week, when I noticed the strawberry and rhubarb plants emerging from the moist soil, I got out the heavy artillery. I will not relinquish Eden! Our chickens WILL free range, and our strawberries WILL be fruitful. I spent most of an afternoon erecting around the strawberries what I learned at the local hardware store is called “welded wire fencing.” And tomorrow I will do the same to some of our many rhubarb plants. Be forewarned, chickens – the free-range smorgasbord has been closed!