For years, when people asked if I had read The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, I would stumble around on my words. In fact, it was one of my favorite books ever, but somehow I felt like I hadn’t earned the right to say that. Because (this is where I lean in closer to you and lower my voice to a whisper) I listened to an audio version of it.
BUT it was unabridged, and I listened to every word, and if I sound defensive it’s because I am.
For some reason I’ve always felt like a cheater when I listen to a book rather than read it. In fact, I eventually read the print version of The Shipping News, partly because I loved it so much, but also because I didn’t want any more of those awkward social moments. Now I can state loudly and perhaps too emphatically, “Yes, I have read that.”
Yet I suspect it’s a silly, slightly snobby way of looking at books. Of course listening counts. And I know there are books I’ve finished and ultimately really enjoyed because it was an audio book. The Shipping News is one of them. Several people recommended it to me, but every time I started the first few pages, I found it so depressing I couldn’t go on.
One winter I was running a trapline north of our home. I had an hour drive to get to the trail. To pass the time, I decided to listen to The Shipping News. At first it was sad and slow, but before long I was reluctant to leave the warm truck and incredible story when I arrived at the trail head. I would sit there for a few minutes, listening, before finally turning off the truck and putting on my backpack.
I’m not running a trapline this year, but for other reasons I’ve been making frequent trips to Anchorage. It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive, one way, from our house. So when I was at the Sutton Public Library the other day, I picked up Bill Bryson’s At Home on CD. He is an author I’ve always wanted to read, but I rarely make time for nonfiction.
The book was fascinating to listen to as I drove. I learned about how silverware first came into use, and how people’s fancy wigs used to get infested with vermin, and why concrete houses never became popular. Bryson’s voice is wry and clever, and he seems to let his curiosity carry him, and the listener, from one odd fact to another.
I was disappointed when it was over. But the next time I was at the library, I picked up the unabridged audio of In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson. Again this is a narrative nonfiction, this one set in Germany during the rise of Hitler. It follows the fate of the unusual American ambassador to Germany at the time. Again, this is not typically my kind of book — I mostly read novels. But it is an incredible story, and with just two CDs left, I find myself bringing it in from the car each afternoon so I can listen to more of it while I wash the dishes.
Even as I’ve listened to these audio history books, I’ve read a half-dozen print novels. And I wonder if I’m experiencing them differently, the audio versus the print.
Do you ever listen to audio books? And do you feel the same about them as print books you’ve read?
Dear artistic reader,
I first struck on the idea for my novel The Snow Child when I discovered the Russian fairy tale Snegurochka. An old man and woman have one great sorrow — they are unable to have children — but one night they build a little girl out of snow, and she comes to life. This simple folktale has been told through lacquer paintings, opera, ballet, and many other forms. But my own inspiration came from a paperback children’s version of the story with illustrations by the Alaskan artist Barbara Lavallee.
So it is wonderful and surprising, with my novel now published, to learn that The Snow Child is continuing this chain of inspiration. Having read my book, a UK artist completed a series of ice sculptures and ultimately produced this “ice animated” short film in Finland. It is beautiful and magical.
In his blog, the sculptor wrote:
In October a publishing firm had sent me a proof of a book called the Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, it had not been published at the time and I found it quite magical and was very lucky to read it before anyone else. This led to me writing my own story about an Angel that Had No Wings, and this became the theme for an Ice Sculpture Trail in Bradford. So it dawned on me that this girl would want to play with the Lights that I think are just simply Life, the sparkle of Life that is within us all that just wants to play. But as with many things that sparkle is often shy and they run away from the girl.
You can read more about the film on his blog, at www.sandsculptureice.co.uk/blog/.
With much gratitude to the talented artist Jamie, and cheers to you all,
A woman recently sent me a kind message on Twitter — she enjoyed The Snow Child and wanted to discuss it with other readers. Did I have any suggestions for starting up a book club?
Her question got me thinking about my own book club. About nine years ago, my mom read the novel Unless by Carol Shields and couldn’t decide what she thought of it, or what it meant. She asked me to read it, and we spent the next several jogs together discussing it. But we still felt unsatisfied, so we decided to start a book club.
I have mentioned The Betties in earlier letters to you. We are a group of women of varied ages, political backgrounds, and careers. But one of our commonalities — we all love to read.
I’ve also attended several other book clubs recently as an author to discuss The Snow Child. One was organized through a local church, and the women met at 11 a.m. on a weekday with a potluck brunch. Another was a neighborhood club that gathered on a weekend evening at a house at the end of a long, snowy road. There were men and women, wine, moose meatballs, salads, and guacamole. Another group was coordinated through a local library, met on a Saturday morning, and featured hot coffee, sweet breads, and fresh strawberries.
They all were fun, engaging groups. So what’s the recipe for a good book club?
You begin with the people. And I don’t necessarily think they all have to be people you know really well. Acquaintances can make great club members, because the one thing you’ll have in common is the book.
There might already be a group organized through a local library or bookstore, but if you want to start your own, reach out to friends, coworkers, neighbors, acquaintances from the local coffee shop or bookstore. A diversity of age and background is helpful because it can provide more depth to the discussion.
A lot of clubs, it seems, are all women. I know of one local group that is restricted to men. Originally we had wanted to include both men and women but at the time couldn’t find any men who were willing to sign on, and hence we became The Betties.
While you might begin by being open to whoever stops by, I’ve found that in the long run book clubs do best with a stable membership. Over time, you will hopefully establish a rapport and comfort level, and even develop your own inside jokes having to do with the books you’ve read. To protect that feeling of safety and familiarity, you might want to close to new members at some point.
From what I’ve seen, 6 to 12 members is rather ideal.
So besides the people, the only absolutely necessity? No, not food and wine, although those are nice, too. Books. Some clubs choose books for the entire year and make up a schedule. In our group, we just pick the next read the night of book club. It allows for some spontaneity. If someone has just heard of a new book or has a recommendation, we can jump in.
We try to read everything — fiction, nonfiction, new release bestsellers, classics, translations. We read poems during National Poetry Month (which is April, by the way.) And at least once a year we choose a young reader book so our children can join in.
Perhaps surprisingly, books we all enjoy are sometimes duds for a discussion. “I liked it” “Yep, me, too” “So … how is Jenny liking fifth grade?”
Instead, complex, layered, controversial books often lead to the most intense conversations.
Another smaller, but also important, detail: where to meet? Library meeting rooms, coffee shops, and bookstores are all great options. Our own group rotates among the members’ homes. There are a couple of advantages — visiting someone’s house can make you feel more connected. It also allows us to do a potluck meal. We each bring a salad, dessert, or main dish, as well as a bottle or two of wine.
But if you’re just starting out, you don’t know the club members well, or you don’t want to have to frantically clean your house, then a public place is a great way to go.
As for the discussion, you can opt for formally organized or more relaxed. To keep things on task, some groups I know assign a discussion leader for each meeting. They bring talking points, questions, background information, etc. While I suspect this works well for guiding the discussion, we Betties have opted for a more casual approach. We just start talking. Someone will often read aloud a passage they enjoyed or questioned. Another person will sometimes bring historical background or further reading.
For about an hour or so, we concentrate on the book, asking each other questions, trying to probe more deeply into the text. Then the discussion is usually drawn to other matters — our children, our jobs, our pets, our trials and tribulations.
But that can also be the joy of a book club: you begin with books, and end in friendship.
I’d love to hear from you — are you in a book club? How is it organized? Or are you thinking of starting one?
Dear April reader,
Thank you again for your lists of things that make you happy. And all of you were right — just reading them made me happier!
Today I want to share a few news items with you, including some upcoming events:
* BBC’s Book at Bedtime has produced an adaptation of The Snow Child with the amazing Miranda Richardson narrating. The first of 10 episodes airs tonight in the UK. It eventually will be archived on their website, where you will you be able to listen to it as well. I had a chance to hear a recording of it earlier. They have adapted the novel seamlessly, and Miranda Richardson is fabulous at the different voices. You might know the actress from movies like Harry Potter, in which she played Rita Skeeter, and The Hours, Enchanted April, Chicken Run, and many others.
* Join me on Twitter later this week for a tweet chat with the book club for Chatelaine Magazine in Canada. You just need an account on Twitter, and then follow the hashtag #ChatBooks. The tweet chat will be Thursday, April 5, at 8 pm EDT.
* Friday Reads is hosting a giveaway of The Snow Child this week. Friday Reads is an online community of book lovers, and you can learn more about how it works and how to get involved by clicking here. More about the contest can be found here.
* Kate Evans with Australia’s Radio National recently interviewed me. She had such great questions, and the editing and sound effects were lovely. If you’re interested in listening, click here.
* Earlier this winter I was fortunate enough to participate in an on-stage discussion at the Anchorage Museum with fellow Alaskan novelist Andromeda Romano-Lax (author of The Detour and The Spanish Bow.) The conversation is now available online — click here to listen.
I know some of you who read my letters are just getting introduced to blogs, so I want to explain the many links in this letter. If you put your mouse arrow on the words that are highlighted and underlined, and then click, a new page in your browser will open with the website page I want to share with you.
Dear lovely readers,
What makes me happy? One of you said it perfectly — reading people’s lists of things they love.
It’s been a joyful surprise for me to read about jigging for halibut, the sweet laughter from your grandkids, hiking anywhere and everywhere with your sisters, a good cup of coffee, cooking soups especially when they turn out even better than expected, brown bear tracks on the snow on a mountain in the spring, sitting with your husband on a favorite picnic rock in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, baking a pie, the smell of small wildflowers blanketing the floor of the desert in spring, the sound of the sea, drinking Earl Grey tea while watching evening snow fall, new socks, tulips emerging, and becoming obsessed with an art project.
And much to my surprise and delight, my husband Sam, who has teased me about blogging and Facebooking and twittering, came home from work yesterday with his own list. So here are some of the things that make Sam Ivey happy:
- Caribou hunting and camping with my girls — Eowyn and our two daughters.
- Feeling connected to nature when moose hunting or when studying animal tracks/behavior on the trapline.
- Lying in the snow on a dark night and listening to the power of the Matanuska River winds and the creaking of the trees overhead.
- The sounds of my oldest daughter practicing her flute and singing opera pieces.
- My 5-year-old offering to help me clean out the wood stove.
- Late-night writing discussions with Eowyn about elements of her projects, especially plot and place. (The Snow Child was a favorite pastime.)
- The extremes of Alaska’s seasons — I love each one, but always look forward to the next.
- Sourdough pancakes.
- Friends and neighbors always willing to lend a helping hand, even when you need help lifting a 500-pound beam into place.
- Singing a commonly known song with my 5-year-old daughter, using words she has invented, only to have her tell me I’m not singing it right.
- Working on house projects.
- Hooking a king salmon.
- Copper river reds.
- Cutting wood.
- Singing in the church choir with my oldest daughter.
- Packing moose meat out of the woods with Eowyn.
P.S. We can’t have too many happy things, so please tell me more.
Today, I want to write about happiness. Here are 20 things that leave me content, make me laugh, fill me with joy —
* Sledding parties on sunny March days when everyone from 5 to 50 flies down the hill and their laughter echoes through the trees.
* Coming indoors after a sledding party to a crackling wood stove and hot cocoa.
* Sunshine after 8 p.m.
* The fact that my father’s delight when I gave him a signed first edition of Bernard Cornwell’s newest novel wasn’t because it was a signed first edition, but because it was one he hadn’t read yet.
* Two hours spent utterly absorbed in a good book.
* The lines from my mother’s newest poems:
I was born in a wet month
that rains promises
of a forever spring.
* Hearing my husband Sam’s voice over our walkie-talkie as he plows the driveway in the dark. “The Northern lights are out!” Turning off all the house lights and rushing to the window to see a sheet of electric green rippling behind the mountains.
* Two hours spent cross-country skiing out of our backyard through sunlit birch trees, crossing paths with fox, ermine, grouse, and moose.
* Sam making moose meat burek for dinner when we learned The Snow Child will be published in Albania (recipe and publishing deal courtesy of Tracy at Little, Brown & Co.)
* News that The Snow Child’s list of foreign publishers has grown to include Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Turkey, Brazil, Israel, Serbia, Romania, Albania, and Poland.
* Listening to my oldest daughter as she sings Italian arias.
* The knowledge that our children will have talents and do things we never would have dreamed of doing.
* The hope that we might drill a well this summer and not have to haul water anymore.
* Warm chicken eggs in the nest on a cold morning.
* A 5-year-0ld’s knock-knock jokes, that only she gets but that make us all laugh.
* Pussy willows.
* Mud puddles.
* Knowing spring will come, and then be gone again.
What makes you happy?
Dear springy reader,
According to the calendar, today is the first day of spring. You might think otherwise when you look out on our yard. One of the snowiest winters ever means that we still have a long wait for green grass and tulips.
But there is one hopeful sign of the season — sunlight. And lots of it. The days are growing by nearly six minutes, and we now have more daylight than darkness, a remarkable change from the winter months. And all the white snow just makes the sunshine more beautiful and brilliant.
When I wrote my last letter, announcing an opportunity to win a copy of my novel, I was expecting to hear from a handful of you — curious people who hadn’t read it yet and hoped that with a little luck they might get a free book. Instead, as I sit here this St. Patrick’s Day morning, I’m feeling like the lucky one.
More than 130 of you asked to be entered in the drawing. As if this weren’t enough of a wonderful surprise, as I read through your comments I discovered that the vast majority of you had already read the book. You told me how it moved you, why you loved it, who you had shared it with.
I heard from Paris, Texas, London, Italy, Scotland, New York, Arizona, Chicago, Australia, Ohio, Ireland, Georgia, Massachusetts, Texas, Norway, and just down the street. I heard from booksellers and librarians, readers and book club members and writers. I heard from Alaskans, those of you who miss Alaska, and those who dream of visiting here someday.
Some of you asked for it to be inscribed to a friend, mother, daughter-in-law, grandchildren, or newborn child. Others confessed you wanted it entirely for yourself, and that made me smile.
One man wrote that he and his wife had read the novel and shared the original fairy tale with their young daughter, who now likes to pretend she sleeps in a bed of snow. Another wanted it inscribed in memory of his dear wife.
One of you described reading it on a beach in the Middle East. Another said she had wished for a longer train ride home from Glasgow, so she wouldn’t have to put it down.
You made me happy. You brought tears come to my eyes. You made me wish I could send each and every one of you an inscribed copy.
Choosing only two winners wasn’t easy. But I decided to enlist the assistance of my daughters. I asked each of them to pick a number between 1 and 136. My youngest, who just turned 5, chose her new favorite number: 5. My oldest, who at nearly 13 prides herself on being logical, randomly chose the number 90.
So, without further ado, the winners are the 5th and 90th entrants.
Drew, who wrote:
“I’d love a signed UK copy. Hope you enjoyed your time over here.”
And Amy, who wrote :
“Dear Mrs. Ivey,
I have just purchased a digital copy of your book and decided to investigate the web link. What a pleasant surprise I found. I have a friend who is intrigued by Alaska. If I were to be lucky, I would be very honored to receive a copy of your US edition and have it addressed to “Sharon”. Congratulations on the success of your first book. Kind Regards, Amy”
If each of you would please email me at email@example.com with your mailing address, I’ll get your copies in the mail right away.
And to every one of you, thank you. May all your dreams come true.
Dear lucky-charm reader,
I’ve had some exciting news these past few weeks. Here in the United States, The Snow Child has stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for four weeks running — it’s currently #24. And in the UK, it is consistently making the top 10 on the Sunday Times bestseller list.
Some other exciting news: my personal copies of the US and UK editions recently arrived. To celebrate and thank all of you for coming along on the adventure with me, I’ve decided to have a contest.
Next Saturday, on lucky St. Patrick’s Day, I will give away one copy each of the US and UK editions. To enter the random drawing, leave a comment on this blog post (not any other post) between now and Friday, March 16, and tell me: which edition are you hoping to win? Also tell me if you would like me to sign it, and if you want it inscribed, to whom. These will be first edition, first printings.
On St. Patrick’s Day, I’ll randomly select the two winners.
Dear book-seeking reader,
I have discovered an unexpected joy in being a published author — I get to meet other authors and find out about their books! During these past few months, this has led me to some wonderful novels I want to share with you.
The Detour is the newest novel by Alaskan novelist Andromeda Romano-Lax. I first saw Andromeda at a public reading years ago in Anchorage where she was sharing a passage from her debut novel, The Spanish Bow. I was mesmerized by her description of the cello and music in general. Interestingly, Andromeda’s first two novels are not set in her home state of Alaska, but instead in historical Europe. During an on-stage talk between the two of us a few weeks ago, she says she might still have an Alaskan novel up her sleeve. In the meantime, read The Detour. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the relationship between Hitler and art, individuals and the social forces that shape history. But it is told through the intimate, sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, perspective of one man — Ernst Vogler.
When two authors have novels released around the same time, they begin to bump into each other on the book trail. Fortunate for me, this has happened to me with Julianna Baggott. Her most recent novel Pure was released in February around the same time as The Snow Child. I first met her in Oregon at a bookselling conference, and then again in New Orleans for a similar event where we signed books next to each other. Between the two events, I devoured her novel. Pure is the first in a post-apocolyptic trilogy. It tells the story of Pressia, a young girl who is surviving in a strange, twisted, destroyed future Earth. The story is page-turning and surprising; the images haunting.
I don’t know if I would have picked up J. Courtney Sullivan’s newest novel Maine on my own. The cover looks like a beach read, which isn’t my usual choice. But then at Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver, we were a part of the same author event. When Courtney stood at the microphone and read a few pages from the book, I was stirred to laughter, shock, and recognition. I decided right then to read the novel, and I’m glad I did. Maine tells of three generations of Kellehers women tied to a cottage in Maine. It is about the love and strife that comes between mothers and daughters, and the urge to shape ourselves even as we cannot deny the influence of our families.