Now that Spring has sprung in my neck of the woods, I’m pondering what I might cut down, burn, plant, fix, and build, which—because I am more reader than farmer or carpenter—turns my mind to books. So here’s a few books, essays, and stories I’ve enjoyed during my winter hibernation that I think might interest you, regardless of the season.1:
Norwegian Wood. Everything about Lars Mytting’s guide to wood chopping, stacking, drying, and burning, which became an international bestseller, is aesthetically pleasing: Its thick, cream-colored pages, its sturdy cover, its pictures of tools and inventive wood stacks and Mytting’s hearty Norwegian neighbors. And how could you not love a book with section headings like: “The Pleasures of Chopping Wood,” and “The Sculptural Stack,” which delves into topics like how to grow a grove of trees best-suited to your land, and the energy produced by various types of wood, with delightful digressions like how to tell if a man is worth marrying by the state of his woodpile, and the connection between a well-built fire and the Vatican’s method of signaling a new pope?
There is plenty of technical material here for the workman reader, but Mytting’s discourses on choosing the best tool for the job are, for the reader with eyes to see, about more than just chopping wood. This entire book will warm you, and the bookended story of an ailing neighbor ignoring his illness to lay in wood for his family will draw a tear which—if you follow Mytting’s fire-building advice—you won’t be able to blame on the smoke from your fireplace.
Train Dreams. This short novel by Denis Johnson is about a simple man who gets caught between the old and new American West, pinned there by time and tragedy. It moves slowly and it’s not for readers who need a zippy plot. With that said, Johnson’s prose is like a shattered mirror—fragmented in places, but each sentence with a sharp edge, all of them taken together the kind of whole you find when you turn your gaze to broken humanity in a fallen world. Combine this with Johnson’s compassion for the lowest of the low, and his eye for natural detail, and you have a fine little book to read by your fire. Here’s an excerpt to whet your appetite:
“The wolves and coyotes howled without letup all night, sounding in the hundred, more than Grainier had ever heard, and maybe other creatures too, owls, eagles—what, exactly, he couldn’t guess—surely every single animal with a voice along the peaks and ridges looking down on the Moyea River, as if nothing could ease any of God’s beasts. Grainier didn’t dare to sleep, feeling it all to be some sort of vast pronouncement, maybe the alarms of the end of the world.”
“A Kingdom From Dust.” This essay about the rise of a carpetbagging California agricultural kingpin fascinated me in its own right, but for those of you who care about the craft of writing, it’s a showcase. The way the author grabs you early, establishes a present/flashback that builds suspense, and interweaves relevant snippets from his own tragic past is worth attention from anyone who wants to improve as a writer.
And if you do care about the writing craft and you’ve not heard of John McPhee, read this short, fascinating piece about a man who could turn out 10,000 words about oranges and make every sentence delightful. On a slightly dark note, however, the author asks whether the economics of publishing allow for work like McPhee’s any more, but we may as well ask the corollary, which is whether the economics of how we spend our time and what we value has left anyone who cares to read anything longer than an Instagram caption. Oh, and if you’d like to read a short piece on writing by the man himself, this is a good one.
“Milk.” I read this sharp, poignant short story recently and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. It may be especially hard for those of you who are parents, but it’s worth it.
Here’s a poem to remind us that not all poems are about brooks and daffodils; some are about gutting puppies.
And finally, because my thoughts turn to planting, a poem I have framed in my office, by my creative writing mentor and friend Richard Spilman, titled “My Father’s Garden.” It guts me every time, only in a good way.
Well, that’s enough of that. Now go forth and make your corner of the world a little lovelier. And for those of you celebrating Easter, here’s a bonus link to something I wrote last year about the paradox of Good Friday.