Photo by Robert Burroughs
For contemporary, no-nonsense New England snow, nobody beats Russell Banks.
Back to the child: Nancy Drew and the stolen missile parts
The first time I went into the Prince and the Pauper, a tiny storefront on Adams Avenue's book row (so called for the presence along that avenue of Safari Out of Print Books, Normal Heights Bookstore, Adams Avenue Bookstore. Writer's Bookstore & Haven). I went in hope of finding a book my grandmother bought for me when I was in second grade.
Winter books issue cover illustration Picture-Books in Winter by Jessie Willcox Smith
Other people were browsing that day — an older man. a middle-aged woman, a woman in her 20s — and in the small space we brushed hips and arms and shoulders as we made our way along the shelves. The store, which specializes in used, out-of-print, and collectible children’s books, had been open only several months, but even then, the floor-to-oeiling shelves, which wrap around all four walls, and the mare of free-standing bookcases in the middle of the store's 500 square feet were stacked double deep.
The Prince and the Pauper
Of course, there were copies of The Prince and the Pauper, the Mark Twain classic from which the store takes its name. Also The Wizard of Oz. The House at Pooh Comer. At the Back of the North Wind. Curious George, Billy Goats Gruff. Peter Rabbit. Little Pig Robinson. Dr. Doolittle. Tom Swift. Nancy Drew. Pippi Longstocking. Little Women. Little Men. Madeline in London: collected here were the books that lit imaginations of generations of children.
Store owner Jack Hastings: "By the time I was 16. I had bummed my way about the United States. My mother gave me a note to carry that said I had permission to be wherever I was."
The book I wanted was about wild animals in North America. So I searched the nature section. Leafed through The Adventures of Buster Bear and then Thorton Burgess's Mother West Wind stories with Harrison Cady's happy illustrations. I stopped at a drawing titled "Grandfather Frog Gets a Ride," which shows the frog — dressed in formal coat and red polka-dotted bow tie — waving his red top hat. I looked at horse stories by Marguerite Henry, dog stories by Albert Payson Terhune.
I found myself then next to the woman in her 20s as she slid one of the Little Bear series from the shelf. She turned pages slowly. Her breath quickened. She stroked illustrator Maurice Sendaks round-eyed, fat-bellied, stippled-hairy little bear. "I still love that bear!" she said.
James Keeline: "I have one of the better Tom Swift collections in the country."
Meanwhile, the man filled his arms with Scribner’s Illustrated Classics — Kidnapped. illustrated by N.C. Wyeth; Lugene Field's Poems of Childhood, illustrated by Maxfield Parrish; and The Children of Dickens, illustrated by Jesse Wilcox Smith. Humming, he carried his swag to the counter, above which, in a wooden cage as wide as a playpen, a green parrot said, “Hello, hello.”
Sunlight streamed in from a window and through the store's front door, which was ajar.
But as I shifted through the maze of bookcases, from shelf to shelf, and touched cloth and leather binding, variously trimmed and stamped and embossed and gilded, the light in the store seemed to take on that submarine gloom that I picture as the light always turned on above thrumming turbines in the engine room of the unconscious mind. I ran fingertips down spines whose titles summoned beanstalks that grew to heaven and turreted castles and secret rooms, deep forests and the sharp-toothed wolves and foxes who plotted how to make meals of vulnerable piggies and hapless bunnies. I opened books that reminded me how easily I’d believed quicksilver transformations and solved-at-the-last minute riddles. These books' pages were the property room from which I have drawn a lifetimes dream images, lo stand close to these books evoked equal portions of comfort and terror.
I moved to the back of the store. From among tier after tier of Hardy Boys and Boxcar Children and Nancy Drews and other series books. I chose The Clue of the Tapping Heels. in which Nancy signals for help by tap dancing in Morse code.
But I hadn't found the book for which I was looking. "It was a big book. It had a brown and beige cover." I told store co-founder and co-owner Jack Hastings, a dark-haired, dark-bearded man in his mid- 50s. Hastings, who speaks in a scratchy gravel bass straight out of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, asked what I remembered about the book.
The title, I believed, was Home and Habitats of Wild Animals, and it had line drawings and color illustrations. I said, and added, all in a rush, feeling as if I were speaking some detail too intimate to be confided in a stranger, “and in one of those illustrations. I remember a white snowshoe rabbit.”
No book by that title or description was on the store's shelves, nor could Hastings recall ever having had it in the store. He helped me fill out a card — name, telephone number, book's title, and anything about the book I could remember. Feeling the same half-hearted hope I feel when I dole out for a lottery ticket. I scribbled answers and said good-bye and forgot it.
Six months later, the telephone rings. The Prince and the Pauper. The gravelly “Who's been eating my porridge?" voice. He thought he had the book I wanted.
So I go in. There's a black cat I didn’t recall from my last visit. The cat is asleep atop a glass front bookcase. The parrot calls out in the cat's direction. “Kitty, kitty, kitty." and then "meeow. meeow.” Jack Hastings offers me a stool by the counter. The parrot — "His name's Prince," says Hastings — looks down at me and screeches. Hastings picks up a plastic spray bottle, lightly sprays Prince with water. Prince retreats to his swing. From a ledge behind the counter,
Hastings draws out a book I have not seen in 30 years. Its dust cover is intact. Its title is not Homes and Habitats of Wild Animals but Homes and Habits of Wild Animals. I turn past the glossy, sharp-clawed wolverene, past the spotted faun, past beavers busy repairing their dam. There he is, my white showshoe rabbit. I swallow hard.
I thank Hastings and write a check for $15 and ask if he is as often this successful in finding books for which people asked.
He gets, he says, from 10 to 40 requests per day, most by telephone. ’The call may come from New York or Los Angeles or La Mesa.
Sometimes we can say, ‘Yes, we have it.’ We've probably found 50 percent of what people are looking for.
“It’s not always easy. People come in. and they won't remember the author or the title. But they remember the story or some detail in the story. Like, ‘On the last page of the book, there is a lion rolling in the daisies.’ Sometimes a person will describe the illustrations. So one thing we do is get out books and show the person examples from various illustrators — like showing mug shots.
“We've found books people have been looking for for 20 years. When we first opened, a woman, probably 80 years old. came in. She wanted the original Little Engine That Could, published by Platt and Munk. At that moment we had two copies. I put them down in front of her. right here where your book is. and I thought I was going to have to make it around the other side of that counter because she looked as if she would faint.
"The whole key in anything with an out-of-print bookstore, and especially a children’s out-of-print bookstore, is that we can only rely on the books that people actually bought, kept, and then later on sold to a bookstore. Also, you have to remember, books have a lot of enemies, not the least of which are silverfish. Or water, dampness of any kind, heat, fire.
"Children’s books have become among the most collectible of all books, and they are the scarcest because the books children enjoyed the most tend to be the most worn. Children practice their handwriting on books’ pages, color in black-and-white illustrations with crayons. They play Frisbee with books, and when the dog catches a book, he may chew it up.
"Dust jackets are especially difficult to come by with children's books. We can use a laser copier and make jackets, of course. But a children's book with an original dust jacket can be very, very pricey. You can go all the way up and down the coast of California, and I don't think you would see more than a half a dozen Tom Swift original dust jackets.
"We get books in every possible way. We subscribe to Antiquarian Bookman Weekly and both place and answer ads in that. Collectors bring in books for trade. We correspond with book salesmen. We go to garage sales, flea markets, auctions. In Orange County, there’s a place where thrift stores offer stock for sale before that stock is distributed to stores. There are always huge bins of books there and book dealers going through those books."
Hastings shows me a copy of Antiquarian Bookman Weekly, which is published weekly in New Jersey and mailed first class from the East Coast on Monday. “If you’re lucky, it gets here by Thursday. If we don’t get it until Monday, however, and there’s a book advertised that we want, we don’t even bother to call. It’s a forlorn hope. The book will be gone. Even if it comes on Thursday and you see something you want — like this," Hastings reads, “ ‘Shirley Temple in Wee Willie Winkie. 1937, $25. Square, small. 32 pages, profusely illustrated’ — well, you don’t even finish reading the ad. you just start dialing. Once in a while you get lucky."
I ask what sort of prices a much-desired collectible children’s title can bring. Hastings answers that early this year the first edition of Tarzan and the Apes, in fine condition, in dust jacket, sold for $50,000. Later this year, two other early Edgar Rice Burroughs titles sold for $20,000 and $30,000, respectively.
Across the country, says Hastings, there are some 50 dealers who buy and sell only collectible children’s books. Few of these dealers, perhaps no more than half a dozen, have open shops in which people can actually come into the store and browse.
Hastings has never done a count but estimates that the Prince and the Pauper has on its shelves some 20,000 titles. "We have books for collectors and books for readers. We have books for several thousand dollars and books for 50 cents. You can buy a copy of The Swiss Family Robinson here for any sum from $50 to $2.00“
Children’s books of the type Hastings stocks are wanted, he tells me, for many reasons. Collectors tend to want particular authors, titles, or illustrators or titles from specific editions of certain series. There are people who collect anything connected with Alice in Wonderland or first editions of Newbery and Caldecott medal-winning books or all of the Nancy Drew titles. Recently, someone came in and bought every book Hastings had about Peter Pan.
"Some customers,” Hastings says, "simply want reading copies of their own childhood books to read to their children and grandchildren. Then, we also get younger parents who would rather bring their kids here and spend five or ten dollars to pick out four or five of our less expensive books. You go to Crown, and you’d better have more than ten dollars for even, one or two books.
"You get the occasional oddball request. We had a man who wanted everything to do with Dick and Jane. A close friend of his named Dick was marrying a woman named Jane.
"Fun With Dick and Jane, the first-grade reading primer that was used in public schools during the 1940s,” Hastings adds, “is far and away the title most often requested. We simply can’t keep them in the store.
“But often, as in your case, a person just wants a very specific book she remembers.
Certain books that were read to children or that children themselves read become part of their deepest, fondest memories of their childhood or everything that their childhood was for them.
Say the book that person wants is A Child's Garden of Verses. That title comes now in 30 or 40 formats. Peopie don’t want just any copy of that book, they want the book they remember. They are not just looking for the words but the gestalt — and for that, you need the same binding, dust cover, typeface, illustration, frontispiece."
Hastings reaches up to the ledge from which he took down the book that now sits open on my lap (this book. I reflect, when I first had it. must have seemed huge) and takes down Bibliophile in the Nursery, A Bookman's Treasury of Collectors' Lore on Old and Rare Children's Books by William Targ. Hastings says that this book explains children’s-book collecting better than he can. He asks if I mind if he reads to me. and I assure him I don’t.
- Collecting children's books is an activity that can be related to "second childhood." It is a kind of return the first, euphoric childhood of memory, the recalled world of fantasy and adventure, mirrored in the magic of printer ’s ink and paper.
- It is a sentimental journey, if you will, to the best of all possible worlds, that of childhood. And what, after all. is collecting but affectionate appreciation stemming out of early impressions, nostalgia, and new understanding?
Prince squawks. Hastings interrupts his reading, picks up the spray bottle, sprays Prince. Prince's green feathers fluff up. he hops off his swing onto the cage floor. He spreads his wings, showing red and blue feathers. Sunflower seed hulls fly down through the cage's bars, scatter.
- A good children's book strikes a vibration in the soul that lasts a lifetime And when a reader or collector achieves maturity and a special sense of values, he may recognize that the best books are really those that children have loved for many generations of lifetimes.
Closing the book. Hastings says. “So when you reach up in a shelf and take down a book from childhood that someone’s wanted, and you put the book in their hands, it’s a pretty great feeling.”
In the year and a half the store has been open. Hastings has discovered what he calls "the 30-year formula.” He explains: "Thirty years pass between the time a book was initially popular with children and the time that book reaches a nostalgia point. We’re almost to 1990, and we are seeing people in their 40s who come in wanting the white-spine Oz books published in the 1960s. A year ago, we were able to sell those books for $15. and now when I buy them for re-sale. I have to pay $30 or $35 for a copy."
The original Oz were bound in cloth and had an applique picture applied to the face and came in a dust jacket. In the '60s. they used a washable-type material that is white. and the title on the spine was printed directly on the white background.
Hastings’s mother, sister, and aunts read to him as a child. He remembers his sister and himself "sitting in our small house, in front of the stove while our mother read to us from Beatrix Potter, from Grimms' and Anderson’s fairy tales. Hans Brinker. Then one day after I’d started school, my mother brought home one of the Hardy Boys series and read eight or nine chapters to me. Then she closed the book and handed it to me and said. ‘If you want to know how this comes out. you will have to read it yourself.’ Several months later. I had bought all of the Hardy Boys series I could find. Next it was the Tom Swift series. By the time I was 20, I had some 10,000 books. I later sold the collection. I felt like I sold part of myself and have never quite gotten over it."
Hastings himself, it turns out. as a youngster, had something of a boy’s adventure-book life. Born in Pasadena, he began at 12 to wander. "By the time I was 16. I had virtually bummed my way about the United States. My mother finally gave me a note to carry that said I had permission to be wherever I was. She was tired of getting phone calls from the authorities, wondering if I was a runaway. By the time I was 18, I had managed to travel through the majority of the Western nations.
"I read Howard Pease — The Heart of Danger, and Bound for Singapore, and The Tattooed Man — when I was young, and at one point. I came back to California with the idea that I’d get enough money to bum around South America and then turn myself in to the US. consulate as a destitute citizen so they would get me seaman’s papers to get back to San Francisco. Then, I figured, with those seaman’s papers I could travel the world. Unfortunately. I got waylaid by a good job.”
Before Hastings and his wife, a registered nurse, opened the Prince and the Pauper, Hastings worked in sales for Cox Cable and on weekends, with his wife, bought and sold collectibles at antique shows. As sellers, they specialized in Royal Doulton ceramics. As buyers, however, they found themselves acquiring increasing numbers of collectible older children's books. Soon, they had added the books to the ceramics. The books sold so well that they decided to concentrate on children's books. Then, because there wasn’t a store in the area that sold only children’s out-of-print and used books and because the Hastingses had grown weary of traveling weekend after weekend to antique shows, they decided to get a shop. To acquire basic stock, the Hastingses bought out children’s books from seven stores that sell used books.
Adams Avenue Bookstore, now at 35th Street and Adams, had its start at this same address.
But when the Hastingses leased the space, it was being used for storage. "My original idea was that we would haul everything out. scrub, build bookcases, and open for business. But the place was an absolute shambles. We started hauling everything out and discovered the ceiling was falling apart, that we'd have to build a new floor, rebuild the walls for structure. Virtually none of the original surface is here. It was 30 days of hard, hard work before we opened the doors. You’d think we sat down and planned to make it interesting, but the fact is, we just tried to figure out how to get everything in and not have browsers feel crunched.”
"May 1, 1988." Hastings tells me. when I ask when the store opened its doors. "That first day. 240 people came through before I quit counting. People were so amazed — an entire store stocked with used children’s books — that they would go home and get other people.
"We — my wife and I — had intended to do this as an avocation. I would keep my full-time position at Cox. We would do this as a hobby. It quickly became clear that at least one of us would have to work at this full time, so I quit my job. Two of our children help out here, and we have a full-time assistant — James Keeline — a physics major at San Diego State."
At just that moment. Keeline — slight, darkhaired. boyish — comes through the door. Hastings introduces us. and Keeline tells me that it was his attempts to gather Tom Swift titles that brought him to the Prince and the Pauper, first as a customer and later as a worker.
"My father started me off with gadgets and with the books about Tom Swift, boy inventor and lover of gadgets. I read them and enjoyed them and wanted more. So I’d go through the Yellow Pages and call book stores, and maybe if I got lucky. I would get one new title a year. When the Prince and the Pauper opened. I called them."
Hastings had been sure, he says, that they could turn up the Swift titles Keeline wanted.
But in the first weeks of his search, he turned up only one. Keeline came to pick up the book. "I expected a man in his 40s, at least." Hastings said. "Those are the men — in their 40s. 50s, 60s. and even 70s — that are avidly seeking Tom Swift titles. Jim here introduced himself, and after I got my jaw closed, I showed him our pitiful offering, one measly book.”
Blushing. Keeline takes over the story’s thread. "The neat thing about this store was that first there was that one book, then it was 3 books, then it was 9, and then in June. Jack came up with 40 books. Now I have one of the better Tom Swift collections in the country, including some very rare books, one of which is one of 17 known copies to exist anywhere."
“Over the next few months, as James says, we kept turning up books for him and he was always around helping. and then I got that entire set — and it was a very expensive set — but he had shown such an interest that I thought it over and gave it to him. Then he started helping us out on a more regular basis. I said, ’That’s very nice that you come here and pitch in, but I didn’t give the books to you with the expectation that you’d pay for it by working. I simply gave it to you. As a gift. So. tell me when we’ve nan out of credit.’ "
Have they run out of credit? I ask Keeline. who answers in a tone of mock-weariness. “A long time ago."
Keeline plans to get an advanced degree in physics and work for the space program. But for the present, he says. Tom Swift has become a growing interest for me, and I'm writing a book about Tom Swift and the Swift series.
"Officially. I started working here in December 1988. In this last year, I’ve learned a lot about series books other than Tom Swift and have made contact through collectors’ special-interest magazines with series collectors. There are entire magazines devoted to series books. These magazines will have four or five hundred subscribers, people intensely interested in their series — Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew."
About 30 percent of the Prince and the Pauper’s stock is series books — Frank Merriwell, the Rover Boys. Tom Swift, Nancy Drew, Happy Hollisters. Five Little tappers. Honey Bunch, Vicky Ban. the Motor Boys. Penny Marsh. Sue Barton. Cherry Ames, the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy Boys, the Dana Girls. "We cannot keep these books in stock," says Hastings. "Nancy Drew is the most collected of all the series books."
Why did Hastings think that was so? He thinks a moment, says. "She represented the free spirit"
Series books. Keeline and Hastings explain, were typically written by ghost writers on contract to large syndicates. These books can be particularly tricky for beginning collectors because individual titles have been reprinted, and, over the years, revised.
Keeline goes to the rear of the store, where series books are shelved, and returns with five successive printings of the first Hardy Boys title, The Tower Treasure, first published in 1927. We line the books up on the counter.
The 1927 edition is bound in khaki ckoth and shows, emblazoned in brown, the silhouette of the two Hardy boys. One wears a cap and tie, and both wear the baggy trousers popular in the '20s. The boys appear exceedingly wholesome and not more than 13 or 14 years old. Pictured behind the boys is a Gothic tower. The second edition is quite similar to the first. On the third edition, the tower has transmogrified into ultramodern, and the boys’ caps have disappeared, and the boys themselves have aged, appearing to be 17 or 18. In the fourth edition, put out in the late ’50s, the boys remain much the same, but their clothing is updated to match '50s styles, and the tower is less modern appearing. The fifth and most recent edition uses the same illustration as the fourth, but the book is bound in a glossy, cheap binding. "This is typical." says Hastings, brushing his hand across the line of books, "of changes that have taken place in series books."
During the late 50s, the Bobbsey Twins. Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and several other series were also methodically rewritten. These rewrites, explains Keeline. "took into account changes in clothing styles and transportation modes. Racial biases were removed.”
"But in some of these updatings.” says Hastings, “stories are dramatically changed. In the original version of The Clue of the Flickering Torch, the flickering torch was the signal used by highwaymen who robbed cars as they drove by. Now the book offered under this same title is a story about rock bands and stolen uranium, and the flickering torch is the name of a rock band."
"In the original The Clue of the Moss-Covered Mansion, a Nancy Drew title, it was stolen heirlooms and now it is stolen missile parts at Cape Canaveral.”
We walk, then, around the store, while Prince, perhaps intending to keep our attention, begins to duck like a chicken. Then he calls. "Hello! Hello!” Says: "I am a good boy! I am a good boy!"
Keeline and Hastings point out the shelf filled with children’s cookbooks, then the section in which are shelved books that older children, in their teens, would have read — Edgar Rice Burroughs, Gene Stratton Porter, Harold Bell Wright. We stroke spines of Bible stories and fairy tales, books about transportation, natural science, children of other lands.
Hastings laments the shop’s lack of room. Children's books, he points out. tend to be much thinner than adult books. So that while he can get many more titles on shelves than can a store that sells books for adults, "the spines of children's books don't tell much. We would like to be able to show the faces of more of our books. Beautiful, beautiful books and we cannot display them properly."
We arrive before a bookcase in which are arranged the type of book I always think of as "supermarket kiddy book." Hastings explains their presence here. "There is an entire other area of books that people remember, inexpensive books, like Little Golden Books, but not Little Golden Books. There were Tell-a-Tale Books. Wonder Books — hundreds and hundreds of titles that only appeared in this kind of Little Golden Book format. Books with titles like The Rattle Rattle Dump Truck. Somebody is going to remember that.
"We had a lady call from North County who said she wanted a particular book. She had been looking for it for years, asking in various bookstores. The title was Churkendoose. It was about an imaginary beast that was a combination chicken, turkey, duck, goose. James here had been working on putting together a list of books of the Little Golden, Wonder, Tell-a-Tale type.
“I just happened to know we had one. I said, 'Oh. wait a minute, you’re talking about the Wonder Book by that title.’ There was a long pause on the other end of the line. 'You mean you have Churkendoose?' She was so delighted."
For how much do they sell something like Churkendoose? ’Two dollars," says Hastings. "The postage was almost as much as the book."
The mailman is at the door. Until now. Hastings and Keeline have been attentively showing me the store. But as soon as the packet of envelopes is handed over, both men concentrate on the mail. From the customer’s side of the counter, I can see that there are postmarks from Fresno. Chicago, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Montana, New Hampshire. Hastings stops for a moment, explains. "Most of what we have here are other book dealers' responses to ads we’ve placed for books for which we're searching in the Antiquarian Bookman."
"Here’s one," Keeline grins, "offering us Howard Pease's Seven League Boots. Here’s someone who’s got Andrew Lang’s Green Fairy Book."
Hastings passes a letter to Keeline. “Here’s a man who wants reading copies of Horatio Alger.”
Keeline takes the proffered letter, hands another across to Hastings. "Here’s someone who wants Alice in Wonderland with color plates."
Prince again is calling. “Kitty, kitty. Meeow. Meeow." Princess, the cat. from her perch atop the nearby bookcase, has begun to study the parrot intently. Hastings bob up from the heap of mail on the counter, gazes at the cat. the parrot, and back again at the cat and says to Keeline: "That cat’s fascination with the parrot may well have overtones of the hunter instinct.”
Which reminded me of why I’d originally sought out Hastings’s store. So I thanked Hastings and Keeline and took home my copy of The Homes and Habits of Wild Animals and read: "The snowshoe rabbit is a different creature from our more familiar Molly Cottontail: and one of the most striking differences is that he changes his brown summer coat to a white one for the winter.... The snowshoe rabbit gets his name from his big feet, which help him to run on the snow.”
— Judith Moore
Hot: the creosote club
It is only a small irony that we, living in the southwestern most city in the land, have to go east to find the real Southwest. Accidents of nature and population have combined to create in San Diego the anomaly of a western East Coast metropolis with good weather. But the Southwest is out there, and "there'' is in the desert.
Mysterious lands: the four great deserts of the Southwest; the Chihuahuan. Sonoran. Mojave, and the Great Basin
To me and many others, the desert is where things happen; the rest of life is filler between trips. Part of what spans the empty times for us — if the profusion of books published about our deserts in the last couple of years is any indication — is reading about where we'd rather be. More than armchair adventure, these books enhance the enjoyment of our trips by helping us identify the desert's unique flora and fauna and giving us historical perspective on the places we’ll see. They tell us what to expect there and warn us of potential dangers. And the books inspire new ideas and try to find answers to the questions that most of us ask ourselves. Why do we go out? Why the desert?
Red Line is reporting, not nature writing. It gets underway with the birth of Bowden's son in a Tucson hospital.
Ann Haymond Zwinger's point of view, in her book The Mysterious Lands (Dutton. 1989, $22.50), is that of the dedicated naturalist. Her scope is broad; she takes as her topic the four great deserts of the Southwest; the Chihuahuan. Sonoran. Mojave, and the Great Basin deserts. She covers them in sweeping detail, never losing sight of the fact that they all interact with one another and share as many common bonds as they have differences.
Eureka Valley in Time's Island. Time's Island rises above its uninspired prose and sometimes lackluster photography to present a landscape worth saving.
The book's 300 pages brim with facts.
Rainbow Ridge from Coyote's Canyon. "Pull out your pocket-knife, open the blade, and run it across your arm. If you draw blood, you are human."
Zwinger is adept at disguising information in lyrical language, and you enjoy the experience so much you don’t realize it was good for you. like medicine hidden in a sugar cube. While covering such scholarly subjects as how the deserts were formed, why they're hot in the daytime and cold at night, and how plants and animals adapt, she teaches fascinating survival lessons. Shrikes, for example, "cursed with a raptor's beak but a perching bird’s untaloned V feet" manage to eat what they can't hang on to by impaling their prey, mostly horned lizards, on the sharp terminating spines of yucca leaves.
And century plants may not survive; they're endangered because the bats that pollinate them are being diminished through human encroachment on their habitat.
While the sheer weight of the information in The Mysterious Lands might be overwhelming at a single sitting, the book can replace half a dozen specialized field guides. The desert plants are here, vividly described (some even illustrated in detailed, multiple-viewpoint pencil drawings by the author), as are the reptiles, birds, insects, and mammals. And while ihe language of most field guides calls to mind high school biology textbooks. Zwinger’s is clear and frequently poetic.
I reach the band of creosote bushes, soaked Cymbals of lightning flare, sound made light. light made sound. Drops saucer the sand about me. sending up minute sprays of sand when they strike, each interrupting the last perfect depression until the sand is a senes of tiny puckered peaks. Despite the sound of the thunder, the rain is almost silent, absorbed by the sand, falling through the open creosote-bush branches, absorbed by the granular dryness.
Zwinger presents each chapter as a separate trip into the desert. Her forays have many goals, or perhaps excuses; counting bighorn sheep, studying lizards, or following a 16th-century trail linking Santa Fe with Chihuahua. Mexico. She weaves the natural history around the details of the trip, so the reader discovers the desert with her rather than being lectured to about it.
Zwinger is aware of the desert’s human history as well. She writes about the native inhabitants, the early white explorers, and the inroads made by technology, agriculture, and greed. She’s rarely overtly critical, but the subject of human impact upon the land arises repeatedly, in varying contexts. Her lesson is that improper management of desert lands isn't even good for those who might seem to benefit the most.
Close to home, agribusiness concerns in the Imperial Valley have "made the desert bloom" but at the price of oversalinated soils, hungry insect pests that breed and adapt quickly, and poisoned water supplies. "The gloomiest estimates are for only 20 years more life before the valley is no longer fit for crops and the desert takes back its own."
The book closes with 60 pages of notes, keyed to text pages and divided by chapter, plus an annotated bibliography. Although there’s enough natural history in our four deserts to stuff an encyclopedia, Zwinger. through careful selection, distills it into a readable, informative brew that won't soon be bettered.
For Charles Bowden, author of Red Line, (Norton, 1989, $16.95). the desert is background, fixation; his subject is himself. Bowden is committing self-therapy in print, usually among the most heinous of literary crimes, but his writing is so meaty, he earns the reader's forgiveness. There’s something elemental about his writing, raging with the force of a flash flood.
Red Line is reporting, not nature writing. It gets underway with the birth of Bowden's son in a Tucson hospital. “I think, what a place to begin life, in a huge building devoted to proving life is hardly worth all the risks. All the wings are named for crushed Indian tribes." The next morning, two drug dealers are found dead. A friend, a retired cop, comes to Bowden (who at the time of the book’s writing was editor in chief of Tucson's City Magazine) and convinces him that they should team up to investigate the deaths, particularly that of the notorious Ignacio Robles Valencia. a.k.a. “Nacho." Bowden knows there’s no way to sell the story of the murder of a drug-dealing Mexican psychopath, and the retired cop has no formal authority anymore. But that doesn't stop them. “I am going after Nacho because I am as hungry and empty as he is," Bowden writes. "The details of my life have begun to catch up with me."
The hunt for the truth about Nacho gives the book its narrative structure. Bowden and the cop travel to barrios in Tucson and Nogales, talk to people who knew Nacho, are warned off by cops on both sides of the fence and finally by some of Nacho’s associates. Since this isn’t a true crime book or a detective story, they don't turn up the murderer. “A year after Nacho's death, a Mexican is indicted for the killing. The man has the usual past.” Details don’t matter. The Nacho story is a metaphor and a framework. Wrapped around it in constantly shifting layers are other stories, other times and places. Desert trips, political meetings, relationships with women, pets, wetbacks, strangers in bars, and meditations on urban sprawl and bureaucrats and the author himself fill the pages, always in the presence of the desert.
Bowden is less awed by nature than Zwinger. "The desert is flat in this weak light, a pan of creosote punctured here and there by skinny towers of the saguaro.” His desert is today’s desert, straining under the burden of humanity's presence. One wonders if his desert can coexist with hers. Not that he loves it any less or is any less concerned about its future. “I can remember when the ground was pretty much the way it had been the day Cortes burned his ships and left his men on the beach to win Mexico or die. Which is to say, I can remember back four or five years" It may be his bleak view of the desert’s future that drives him into it now, seeking to crowd as much of it as possible into his experience.
Gibbs Smith, based in Utah, publishes a line of beautifully made books about the desert Southwest. Typically, these are short books, paperback, expensive-looking but a bargain when you see what you get. Great care is taken with the color reproduction, and the photographers are among the best working with the Western landscape today.:
Gibbs Smith's Coyote's Canyon (1989, $15.95) combines the photographs of John Telford with the words of naturalist Terry-Tempest Williams. In this book, though, Williams assumes the role of myth-maker. Her seven stories are exercises in creating "a new mythology for desert-goers, one that acknowledges the power of story and ritual, yet lies within the integrity of our own cultures." She has a clear, if unique vision of her audience. "Pull out your pocket-knife, open the blade, and run it across your arm. If you draw blood, you are human. If you draw wet sand that dries quickly, then you will know that you have become part of the desert. Not until then can you claim ownership."
Her stories are short, four or five pages, and range from a tale of a woman's rebirth to a creation myth about a couple who create all the animals, the stars, and their families from riverbed stones. Along the way. we are exposed to a smattering of natural history, some Indian lore, and conflicts between those who understand the desert and those who don't.
Telford's photographs, surrounding the stories and sandwiched between them, elucidate the text without trying to illustrate it. Both photographs and text benefit from the layout of the book; the text is presented in clean, well-spaced. uncluttered pages. The photos take as much space as they need, up to a full page, maintaining the integrity of the photographer's original vision.
Another recent book from Gibbs Smith is Time's Island (1989. $16.95) by T.H. Watkins, illustrated with photographs from a number of sources, including the author. But the book is awkwardly designed, making it hard to read; this is unfortunate, because its message is worthwhile and important. The most blatantly political of the books under discussion. Time's Island examines in detail some of the environmental problems facing California's deserts and offers as part of the solution Senator Cranston’s Desert Protection Act. Ultimately, Time's Island rises above its uninspired prose and sometimes lackluster photography to present a landscape worth saving, a concise look at the difficulties ahead, and some hope for the future.
Implicit in all these books is the fact that unless we change the way we treat our deserts, before long the books will be all we have left. Meanwhile, those of us who love the desert will continue to seek that magical culmination of sand and smoke tree, cactus and kit fox, the sharp scent of creosote bush, and the whisper of wind rustling mesquite branches.
— Jeffrey Jay Marlotte
Cold: favorite snow scenes
What I don't like about where I live is that it doesn’t snow. The other day. I saw one of those glass balls that has a snowman in it; you shake the globe up and down, and "snow’’ falls. It is a piece of kitschy junk. It cost $13.95. I bought it. I brought it home and put it in my bedroom. I get up in the morning and shake the globe and watch the snow drift and swirl down onto the rim of the snowman’s little black top hat. I do miss snow. And now that it’s December. I go to my bookshelves and search — in poems, novels, essays, short stories — for snowfalls, snowstorms, blizzards, icicles, sleigh rides, ice-skating.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
The poem with snow in it that we all learned in school is Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Even the title stirs memory.
- Whose woods these are I think I know.
- His house is in the village though;
- He will not see me stopping here
- To watch his woods fill up with snow.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
It is the poem that ends with that grim quatrain to which teachers resorted to introduce the enigmatic element in poetry.
- The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
- But I have promises to keep.
- And miles to go before I sleep.
- And miles to go before I sleep
Photo by Robert Burroughs
The teacher always asked. “What do you suppose the poet intended with his mention of promises to keep'?'' I didn’t care then and don’t now what Frost intended and am satisfied to say out loud merely the title, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Those seven words start snow sifting through cold air. sticking on bare, black boughs.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Frost’s poem "The Onset," less well known, offers a more closely observed snow that
- ... lets down as white
- As may be in dark woods, and with a song
- It shall not make again all winter long
- Of hissing on the yet uncovered ground.
Easily as wonderful a Frost snow poem is his eight-line “Dust of Snow." whose first quatrain so quickly establishes its presence that words vanish and nothing remains but
- The way a crow
- Shook down on me
- The dust of snow
- From a hemlock tree.
Basho's On Love and Barley contains three haiku, the first of which "works" in much of the way of the Frost four lines — the words disappear, the world to which the words point remains.
- Snowy morning -
- one crow
- after another.
- Come, let’s go
- till we're buried.
- Snow-whisk sweeping
- this path,
- forgets the snow.
This bit of snow writing is not a poem, but it’s written by a poet. Lord Byron, on January 5, 1821, wrote in his journal:
- Rose late — dull and drooping — the weather dripping and dense. Snow on the ground, and sirocco above in the sky. like yesterday. Roads up to the horse's belly, so that nding (at least for pleasure) is not very feasible. Read the conclusion, for the fiftieth time (I have read all W. Scott’s novels at least fifty times), of the third series of Tales of my Landlord - grand work — Scotch.
- Clock strikes — going out to make love.
- Somewhat perilous, but not disagreeable.
Wallace Stevens's "The Snow Man” is one of those poems that stalks you for years and finally one day hits you in the heart. Were I to give the poem a title based upon the effect it has. I’d title it "Exit Wound"
- One must have a mind of winter
- To regard the frost and the boughs
- Of the Pine-trees crusted with snow;
- And have been cold a long time
- To behold the lumpers shagged with ice.
- The spruces rough in the distant glitter
- Of the January sun; and not to think
- Of any misery in the sound of the wind.
- In the sound of a few leaves.
- Which is the sound of the land
- Full of the same wind
- That is blowing in the same bare place
- For the listener, who listens in the snow.
- And. nothing himself, beholds
- Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
Back when I lived where snow fell every winter, a friend and I, on the occasion of the year’s first snow, would stand on the street comer under lamplight and read out loud together Robert Penn Warren’s "Function of Blizzard."
- God's goose, neck neatly wrung, is being plucked.
- And night is blacker for the plethora
- Of white feathers except when, in an air-tower beam.
- Black feathers turn white as snow. Which is what they are.
- And in the blind trajectory travelers scream toward silence.
- Black ruins of arson in the Bronx are whitely
- Redeemed. Poverty does not necessarily
- Mean unhappiness. Can't you hear the creak of bed-slats
- Or ghostly echo of childish laughter? Bless
- Needle plunging into pinched vein. Bless
- Bless snow! Bless God. Who must work under the hand of
- Fate, who has no name. God does the best
- He can. and sometimes lets snow whiten the world
- As a promise — as now of mystic comfort to
- The old physicist, a Jew. faith long since dead, who
- is getting
- High-lonesome drunk by the frosted window of
- The Oak Room bar in the Plaza And bless me even
- With no glass in my hand, and far from New York,
- as I rise
- From bed. feet bare, heart freezing, to stare out at
- The whitening fields and forest, and wonder what
- Item of the past I'd most like God to let
- Snow tall on. keep falling on. and never
- Melt, for I. like you. am only a man. after all.
It's difficult to know, after that, which so nearly says all there is to say about man and God and love and snow, what can follow.
Joseph Wood Krutch in The Twelve Seasons suggests: "The snow itself is lonely or. if you prefer, self-sufficient. There is no other time when the whole world seems composed of one thing and one thing only."
Gaston Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space. meditates upon what he calk "praiseworthy space” — the closets, comers, cellars, garrets that attract the poetic imagination. In chapter two. “House and Universe." Bachelard “reads" houses and rooms “written" by writers.
Although at heart a city man, Baudelaire sensed the increased intimacy of a house when it is besieged by winter. In Les paradis artificiels he speaks of Thomas de Quincey's joy when, a prisoner of winter, he read Kant with the help of the idealism furnished by opium. The scene takes place in a cottage in Wales. "Isn’t it true that a pleasant house makes winter more poetic, and doesn’t winter add to the poetry of a house? The white cottage at the end of a little valley, shut in by rather high mountains; and it seemed to be swathed in shrubs." Reading Baudelaire’s passage, Bachelard suggests that we too are “ ‘swathed’ in the blanket of winter."
And we feel warm because it k cold out of doors. Further on in this deep-winter "artificial paradise." Baudelaire declares that dreamers like a severe winter. “Every year they ask the sky to send down as much snow, hail and frost as it can contain. What they really need are Canadian and Russian winters. Their own nests will be all the warmer, all the downier, all the better beloved."
Russians, of course, dependably produce paragraph after paragraph of snow description. Chekhov's "Heartache" opens thus:
- Evening twilight. Large flakes of wet snow are circling lazily about the street lamps which have just been lighted, settling in a thin soft layer on roofs, horses' backs, peoples' shoulders, caps. Iona Potapov. the cabby, all white like a ghost.
As hunched as a living body can be. he sits on the box without stirring. If a whole snowdrift were to fall on him. even then, perhaps he would not find it necessary to shake it off. His nag. loo. is while and motionless.
One of the oddest snow scenes occurs in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Natasha. Sonya, and Nikolai costume themselves in clothes of the opposite gender — Natasha as a hussar, Sonya a Circassian with burnt cork eyebrows and a mustache. Nikolai as an old lady in a farthingale. The group gathers in Nikolai’s troika, which k draped with harness bells:
- Nikolai, in his old lady's dress over which he had belled his hussar's cloak, stood in the middle of the sledge, reins in hand It was so light that he could see the moonlight reflected in the metal of the harness and in the eyes of the startled horses ...
- Nikolai set off after the first troika; the other two noisily followed, their runners whining.... As they drove by the garden the shadows cast by the bare trees fell across the road obscuring the bright moonlight, but as soon as they had passed the fence, the still, snowy plain, all bathed in the radiance of the moon, sparkling like diamonds and with a bluish sheen, opened out before them....
- Nikolai glanced at Sonya and bent down to look more closely into her face. A quite new. sweet face with black eyebrows and mustache — so near yet so remote in the moonlight — peeped up to him from her sable furs.
One of the classic cold-weather novels is Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain that suggests Hans Castrop’s confinement in a tuberculosis sanitarium as analogy to Europe's post-World War I crisis:
- The winter came mildly on. at first no different from many a day they had seen in the height of summer. The wind had been two days in the south, the sun bore down, the valley seemed shrunken, the side walk at its mouth looked near and bald. Clouds came up. behind Piz Michel and Tinzenhorn. and drove north-eastwards It rained heavily. Then the rain turned foul, a whitish-grey, mingled with slow-flakes — soon it was all snow, the valley was full of flurry ; it kept on and on. the temperature fell appreciably, so that the fallen snow could not quite melt but lay covering the valley with a wet and threadbare while garment, against which showed black the pines on the slopes.
For seven days snow falk across Mann's valley. And then, this:
- The world, this narrow, lofty, isolated world up here, looked now well wadded and upholstered indeed: no pillar or post but wore its whitecap; the steps up to the entrance of the Berghof had turned into an inclined plane: heavy cushions, in the drollest shapes, weighed down the branches of the Scotch firs — now and then one slid off and raised up a cloud of powdery white dust in its fall.
American author Cynthia Ozick in chapter four of The Messiah of Stockholm places Lars Andemening at night on foot in Stockholm.
- There was a bitter wind now. lording it over the black one o'dock. The blackness went on throwing the snow into Lars's face, and he packed tus scad over hk nose and mouth — how-warm his breath was in the little cave this made! ... The spiraling flakes stuttered around him like Morse code. A smell of something roasting, what was that? Chimneys...
- Under the screen of revolving flakes the steeples had the look of whirling Merlin hats.
A few years ago I ran across Yasunari Kawabata's novel Snow Country. The author's descriptions of snow on the west coast of Japan, which sometimes falls 15 feet deep, are some of the most satisfying I know. I look forward to leaning against the bookcase and reading them aloud to myself until I fed the cold he writes climb up on me.
- The earth lay white under the night sky.
- The brightness of the snow was more intense,
- it seemed to be burning icily.
- Presently, as the mountain chasms were far and
- near, high and low, the shadows in them began
- to deepen, and the sky was red over the snowy
- mountains, bathed now in but a wan light.
- The snow on the distant mountains was soft
- and creamy, as if veiled in a faint smoke.
- From the gray sky. framed by the window, the
- snow floated toward them in great flakes, like
- white peonies.
- The cedars, under a thin coating of snow, rose
- sheer from the white ground to the sky. each cut
- off sharply from the rest.
When I want North American snow, I turn first to books set in the Midwest and then to my childhood books, to the Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House” books. A section from Wilder’s Long Winter furnished me with material for what must have been my earliest childhood snow nightmares. Laura follows her father out into a late-fall snowstorm:
- Outdoors the sun-glitter hurt her eyes. She breathed a deep breath of the tingling cold and squinted her eyes to look around her. The sky was hugely blue and all the land was blowing white. The straight, strong wind did not lift the snow, but drove it scudding across the prairie...
- The cattle were standing in sunshine and shadow by the haystacks — red and brown and spotted cattle and one thin black one. They stood perfectly still, every head bowed down to the ground. The hairy red necks and brown necks all stretched down from bony-gaunt shoulders to monstrous, swollen while heads...
- They did not seem like real cattle. They stood so terrible still In the whole herd there was not the least movement. Only their breathing sucked their hairy sides in between the rib bones and pushed them out again ... Their legs were braced out. stiff and still And where their heads should be. swollen while lumps seemed fast to the ground under the blowing snow.
For Midwestern winters. I like Willa Cather's My Antonia, which has as its landscape the authors childhood home in Nebraska.
The first snowfall came early in December. I remember how the world looked from our sitting-room window as I dressed behind the stove that morning: the low sky was like a sheet of metal: the blond cornfields had faded out into ghostliness at last....
The sky was brilliantly blue, and the sunlight on the glittering white stretches of prairie was almost blinding. As Antonia said, the whole world was changed by snow; we kept looking in vain for familiar landmarks. The deep arroyo through which Squaw Creek wound was now only a cleft between snowdnfts — very blue when one looked down into it ... The cold stung and at the same lime delighted one. My hone's breath rose like steam, and whenever we stopped he smoked all over....
In the morning when I was fighting my way to school against the wind. I couldn't see anything but the road in front of me; but in the late afternoon, when I was coming home, the town looked bleak and desolate to me. The pale, cold light of the winter sunset did not beautify — it was like the light of truth itself. When the smoky clouds hung low in the west and the red sun went down behind them, leaving a pink flush on the snowy roofs and the bluedrifts. then the wind sprang up afresh, with a kind of bitter song, as if it said: "This is reality, whether you like it or not. All those frivolities ol summer, the light and shadow, the living mask of green that trembled over everything, they were lies, and this is what was underneath This is the truth.""
For contemporary, no-nonsense New England snow, nobody beats Russell Banks, whose Affliction tells the story of Wade Whitehouse. a part-time policeman in a New Hampshire mill town, who goes on a violent rampage. Banks writes the dirty Rust Belt snow that has driven south more than one New Englander.
- Wade liked the way the river looked in the new snow and milky early morning light. That is a tourist's idea of New Hampshire, he thought, with pine trees drooping over the water and snarls of lode-laden birches clumped at the edges of eddies and pools, with large snow-covered boulders in the middle of the stream and dark-green water churning, swirling and splashing past and over them, raising a thick while crust of ice at the crest marks ...
- When the snows do come, it is as natural and as inescapable and in some sense as welcome as gravity.... The first scattered flakes drift almost accidentally down, as if spilled while carted by a high wind to somewhere east of here, to the Man times or New Brunswick: a single hard dry flake, then several more, then a hundred, a thousand, too many to be seen as separate from one another anymore: until at last the snow is falling over the valley and the hills and lakes like a lacy soft eiderdown billowing out and settling over the entire region, covering the trees, the rocks and ridges. the old stone walk, the fields and meadows behind the houses in town and out along Route 29. the roofs of the houses, barns and trailers, the tops of cars and trucks the roads, lanes, driveways and parking lots: covering and transforming everything in the last few moments of the night, so that when at dawn the day and the month truly begin, winter too will have arrived, returned, seeming never to have left...
- The snow was coming down with fury, in while fists, and as he drove slowly through the stuff. Wade thought, I can't stand it anymore.
Mark Helprin’s stories' and novels' surfaces glitter and shimmer and shine with snow and ice. Perhaps no living writer, in English, does as well with plays of light over snow. In the prologue to Winter's Tale, he describes snow falling on New York City.
- But the city is now obscured, as it often is. by the whitened mass in which it rests — rushing by us at unfathomable speed, crackling like wind in the mist, cold to the touch, glistening and unfolding, tumbling over itself like the steam of an engine or cotton spilling born a bale. Through the blinding white web of ceaseless sound flows past mercilessly, the curtain is breaking ... it reveals amid the clouds a lake of air as smooth and dear as a minor, the deep round eye of a white hurricane.
- No Renaissance engine belching fire or hurtling stone could keep pace with even one while dap of a New York winter, and winter there dapped as endlessly as a paddlewheel on one of the big whiteboats slapping across the lake in seasons gone by. Battalions of arctic clouds droned down from the north to bomb the stale with snow, to bleach it as while as young ivory, to mortar it with frost that would last from September to May.
An excerpt from Joe Bemardini's Singapore: A Novel of the Bronx is an example of non-romanticized urban snow:
- In all fairness to the Bronx, snow is greeted with great cheers of delight.... The snowball fights we used to have in the lot constituted the happiest moments of my youth.... I recall throwing a snowball that landed wide of the mark. It struck the window of a recluse who was forever sitting with his nose pressed against the pane. He appeared to be staring straight at me. there was no way possible for him to overlook the snowball, and yet as the snowball approached and then struck his window he didn't budge an inch. Frightened out of my wits. I ran all the way up to Bainbridge and returned hours later when it was dark.
- The light from the street lamp illumined his window and I saw that a piece of cardboard had been wedged against the opening and above the cardboard I was even able to make out the man's forehead and a few wisps of hair. He was sitting there with his nose pressed against the cardboard Do you understand? Snow was falling on the Bronx. For several hours a dean, white blanket would cover the grime. Then dogs would yellow it with their pee and boots would riddle it with holes and soot belched from the incinerators would settle on its surface and it would turn to slush, and in contrast to the few white patches that remained, the Bronx would appear even grimier than before. So snow meant nothing to him. It was still the Bronx.
Snow passages in fiction and poetry are splendid opportunities for writers to set up dazzling pictorial contrasts. Peter Handke's Afternoon of a Writer offers this:
- He switched off all the lights. Because of the snow and the reflection of the dty in the clouds, il was light in all the rooms, a nocturnal light that made the objects in the rooms all the darker In another example of this use of snow for effects of visual contrast, there is in Kawabata's novel a paragraph in which his emotionally frozen male character watches a geisha as she looks at herself in a mirror that reflects both her face and the snow outside the window: "The white in the depths of the mirror was the snow, and floating in the middle of it were the woman's bright red cheeks."
An early scene in Banks’s Affliction, a deer hunt, is another passage in which snow's whiteness and purity are used as a graphic contrast medium.
- Slugs, pellets, balls made of aluminum lead, steel, rip into the body of the deer, crash through bone, penetrate and smash organs, rend muscle and sinew. Blood splashes into the air. across tree bark, stone, onto smooth while blankets of snow, where scarlet fades swiftly to pink. Black tongue lolls over blooded teeth, as if the mouth were a carnivore's; huge brown eyes roll back, glassed over, opaque and dry; blood trickles from carbon-black nostrils, shit spits steaming into the snow; urine, entrails, blood, mucus spill from the animal's body: as heavy-booted hunters rush across the frozen snow-covered ground to claim the kill.
Perhaps precisely because snow offers such a canvas on which to draw contrasts, mystery, suspense, thriller and honor writers show a fondness for wintry settings. Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park provides particularly vivid examples of the use of snow as a backdrop for violence. As bits of ice glimmer in the air, a chief investigator for the People's Militia, Arkady Renko, strides through snow "to the telltale humps" in the center of a clearing.
There were three bodies ... They lay peacefully, even artfully, under their thawing crust of ice. the center one on its back, hands folded as if for a religious funeral, the other two turned, arms out under the ice like flanking emblems on embossed writing paper. They were wearing ice skates.
In The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Hemingway 's Harry, a writer, is in Africa, suffering a gangrenous leg. Lying on a canvas cot at the edge of the bush. Harry looks across “the heat shimmer of the plain." He knows he’s going to die. "Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well."
Snow was one of the things he'd saved to write, and Hemingway gives Harry a seven-paragraph riff that’s about the best snow anybody's written. Paragraph three:
- In Schrunz, on Christmas day. the snow was so bright it hurl your eyes when you looked out from the weinstube and saw every one coming home from church. That was where they walked up the sleigh-smoothed urine-yellowed road along the river with the steep pine hilts, skis heavy on the shoulder, and where they ran that great run down the glacier above the Madlener-haus. the snow as smooth to see as cake frosting and as light as powder and he remembered the noiseless rush the speed made as you dropped down like a bud.
When I ask people what in literature they remember for its snow scenes. Dickens's Christmas Carol is spoken of. and Barry Lope's Arctic Dreams. Peter Matthiesen's Snow Leopard. John Irving’s Owen Meany, O.E. Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, and always Jack London. Not a few readers are reminded of Conrad Aiken's haunting story “Silent Snow. Secret Snow." in which the snow is imaginary, the vision of a young boy's disturbed mind. But almost no one fails to mention the conclusion of "The Dead," the final story in James Joyce’s Dubliners.
- Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and. farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too. upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gale, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end. upon ail the living and all the dead.
— Judith Moore
From their outposts around San Diego County, some local writers share their reading styles and current | passions:
Sandra Alcosser directs the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at SDSU. Her book of poems. A Fish to Feed All Hunger, was an Associated Writing Programs winner in 1986. and her work has appeared in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. among others. In preparation for a Christmas trip to Brazil. Alcosser is stocking up on Jorge Amado’s books. "He's the godfather of Brazilian literature." famous for Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands and Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon — in addition to being an honorary voodoo priest. Alcosser is also immersing herself in the literature of chaos theory, in preparation for a spring-semester seminar: "I want to talk about how literary forms change in response to scientific discoveries and theories. For example, there are many parallels — in the wake of Darwin, the naturalists appeared; anD with the advent of the industrial revolution and the rise of the middle-class, literature began to focus on the individual."
Alcosser recommends a book of poetry by Lorine Niedecker, The Granite Tale, recently issued by North Point Press. “I consider Niedecker a modern-day Emily Dickinson. She was very much allied with the Moderns and well respected by Williams. Zukofsky. and Basil Bunting. Living on an island near Milwaukee, she worked as a librarian early on. then she scrubbed floors and did janitorial work. She didn't marry until late in life, and through it all she just wanted to write her poetry without having to go through the business of giving readings or teaching classes. And through it all. she wrote some very challenging stuff.” Alcosser also respects the work of Robert Hass, a California poet who teaches at Berkeley. The latest of his four books of poetry is Human Wishes, and he's also a primary translator of Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet who won a Nobel Prize in 1980. "Hass is also a great essayist, very intelligent and humane."
As a teacher. Alcosser is pleased that so many people are studying poetry now. "Because poetry is an act of attention. Writing poetry allows us to pay close attention in a world that is constantly trying to distract us."
Jerry Bumpus was dubbed by Vance Bourjaily in 1967 as "the king of America's underground writers." Bumpus adds. "Someone overheard Vance at a party once, and the quote somehow ended up on my first book cover." Ever since. Bumpus has been publishing steadily his unique fictions while serving as a professor of creative writing at San Diego State University. "Since I teach short story writing. I spend a great deal of time reading collections like Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize anthologies. Not to mention literary journals. I read most of the university publications and keep up with The Paris Review and the like. Even The New Yorker."
Outside this wealth of short fiction. Bumpus mentions Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale. William Gibson’s science fiction dazzler Neuromancer. and Duff Brenna's The Book of Mamie as three recent favorites. "I also enjoyed Ron Argo's Vietnam novel Year of the Monkey, partially because he’s a former student of mine."
Bumpus is currently working on a series of stories that portray the psychological effects of war. He has been researching personal accounts from World War II, including George Wilson’s If You Survive. Does this mark a departure into realism? “No." Bumpus replies, "because the more I read about war. the more unreal it seems.”
Cris Mazza's first collection of short stories, Animal Acts, was published this fall by the Fiction Collective. A native Southern Californian and a San Diegan since the age of three. Mazza was praised last month by The New York Times for “fictions that are remarkable for the force and freedom of their imaginative style."
Of late. Mazza has been re-reading classics like Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, books she taught in literature courses at the University of San Diego prior assuming her present fiction-writing post at UCSD. A personal interest in feminist poetics led her back to Edith Wharton also. "Her novel Summer is an amazing book for its time. Many people think the feminist movement came out of the '60s; but actually, it was restarted in the '60s. Wharton deals openly with themes of female individuality and sexuality — even abortion. Not bad for 1911."
Ken Kuhlken published his first novel. Mid-Heaven. with Viking, and his short fiction has appeared in Esquire. Virginia Quarterly, and other periodicals. A long-time San Diegan. Kuhlken currently is wrapping up a novel about the '60s. "That period in our cultural history has been caricatured and romanticized to death." he maintains. “In this new book I'm trying to get closer to the truth of that era.”
His two favorite novels are Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. "I think that’s the only Kerouac novel that still holds up. probably because he was willing to rewrite and revise it." Recent purchases by Kuhlken are two works from Japan: Kotaro Takamura's collection of poems. Chieko's Sky and Yasunari Kawabata's contemporary classic novel. Snow Country. And? "I’m not a big mystery (In fact, about the only ones I can stomach are Tony Hillermans Navajo mysteries. But I'm reading one now — Skinwalker — and it’s great."
Terry Hertzler is a poet who saw combat in Vietnam. His book of war poems, The Way of the Snake, has sold more than 1500 copies locally. Hertzler also edits and publishes the "No Street Poet’s Voice," a monthly broadside showcasing works by local poets, along with a schedule of readings and events. "I've got books all over my house." he admits, "and I read on the average three to four books each week. My wife's an avid reader loo, and we spend a lot of our extra money on books. A lot."
Lately. Hertzler has gobbled up a pile of history: Harvey Wasserman's History of the United States, and two big Vietnam books — Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, and America's Longest War by George Herring. He just completed Neon Bible, by John Kennedy Toole, author of A Confederacy of Dunces. "That’s a phenomenal work of fiction, considering how young he was — 16. At the time. I was also listening to a new Phil Ochs’ CD. Toole and Ochs both committed suicide, a coincidence that led to one of my newest poems."
Hertzler confesses his eclectic tastes then spins off a list of other books he's read in the past few weeks, to include Hunter Thompson's Generation of Swine, William Kotzwinkle's Hot Jazz Trio, and Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. "I also enjoy stuff I call mind candy.' like Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder mysteries. William Gibson's new science fiction novel, Mona Lisa Overdrive, and Tony Hillerman’s mysteries." One of the most memorable novels he’s read in the past few years was John Nichols’s American Blood, "a truly intense Vietnam book."
Joan Oppenhelmer has published 22 novels; four of those books became after-school network television specials for young adults. Originally. Oppenheimer started out writing short fiction for adults. An early story of hers appeared in Redbook, "Little Mr. Tall Tales"; it was later adapted for the small screen and presented on the old Loretta Young show. She now devotes herself to writing mystery novels.
Part of her work includes reading the competition. One of her favorites is Robert Parker. "His Spencer series is great; it's like eating popcorn. He’s heavy on dialogue, but marvelous dialogue." Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels are "the best of the police procedural books." She also enjoys, albeit reluctantly, the dark themes in Jonathan Kellerman's books. especially The Butcher's Theater. "That one’s about a serial killer in Israel, one of the bloodiest, sickest, darkest books I’ve ever read.
In the last ten pages, you're in the mind of the killer — it’s absolutely ghastly. Kellerman explores the mythology and pathology of the country very well. Even so. my first impulse after finishing the book was to take it out and burn it. His latest (book) is called The Silent Partner."
For the past four years. Charles Harrington Elster has provided language commentary on his regular KPBS radio segment, A Word to the Wise. In 1988. Macmillan published his word book. There Is No Zoo in Zoology: And Other Beastly Mispronunciations. Another work of the same species is forthcoming: Is There a Cow in Moscow?
Recently Elster's reading list has included Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose, "because I'm into words, and the words in that book are fabulous; I devoured it." And the Vietnamese odyssey When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip and Jay Wurts; the taut Presumed Innocent by fiction-writer-tumed-lawyer-tumed-fiction-writer Scott Turow; the darkly comic Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos; and the immense Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe, "a big laugh — really funny black humor." Elster says he waits for most of the new books to come out in paperback. "I just bought Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera: I'm really looking forward to that one. He's awfully lyrical.”
Duff Brenna struggled and persisted, seeing his first novel through to publication after years of rejection by dozens of agents and houses. His Book of Mamie (University of Iowa Press) won the 1988 Associated Writing Programs prize for best novel of the year — ahead of 264 other entries.
Without hesitation. Brenna admits reading everything that crosses his path. Within this stream of books, however, there are classics he returns to often — for pleasure, for rejuvenation, for release from writer's block: Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth; Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. War and Peace; Conrad’s Lord Jim. "I have absolute faith in these geniuses that keep getting read and reread." Brenna says.
Among recent reads. Brenna mentions Louise Erdrich's Beet Queen. Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and two books for Flaubert fans. Mario Vargas Llosa’s Perpetual Orgy and Julian Barnes’s Flaubert's Parrot.
Brenna liked two recent books on controversial topics: William Calvin’s River That Flows Uphill, a nonfiction adventure that provides a convincing argument for the reality of evolution, and John Romer's Testament, an examination by a respected Egyptologist into the sources of the Bible. “I believe this is the sort of information a novelist needs to have. The more ideas you possess, the more you understand your place in the universe." □