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Monday, December 28, 2009

Winter Reading

It's that deep waiting stillness that only comes before a storm. It's been dark and cloudy all day, with a chilly sunlight occasionally peeping through. The birds are ravenous - it's impossible to keep anything in the seed or the suet feeders; they are emptied as soon as I fill them. Most recently this afternoon I went out and liberally smeared the cottonwood's trunk with my favorite new find: bark butter. It's a product resembling peanut butter, and smelling strongly of peanuts too, but containing beef suet and corn as well as peanuts and peanut oil. I stir in some seed mix, then spread it on the tree bark, in much the same way you'd spread peanut butter on a sandwich. It has brought a whole new group of birds just outside the kitchen window: several different kinds of woodpeckers, chickadees, creepers, even a curvebilled thrasher shows up most days. I need to go out and do one more feeder refill before it's totally dark, or the crowd of finches, sparrows and doves that arrives at first light will be very angry with me. They know snow is on the way, and they're tanking up.

It has been truly cold in the Southwest, or at least here in New Mexico, through most of December. My sister and her family were planning on coming out for a Christmas visit, and they did actually pile into the car and set off across north central Texas, only to be stopped cold near Wichita Falls, by dangerously icy road conditions, which would only have gotten worse as they approached the Panhandle. Friends from Texas who were in Santa Fe for their winter vacation encountered the same conditions days later on their way back home. So, we're sitting tight for now, with a wonderful glut of very fat library books, and plenty of firewood. It's an embarras de richesse, for sure.

After a rocky beginning, I sped through John Irving's new opus, Last Night in Twisted River. (This is but one of a gazillion reviews, you could read them for as long as it takes to read the book. But the book is better reading.) The beginning put me off with a surplus of information about logging in the north woods of New Hampshire (of course New Hampshire, it's John Irving), a subject I care next to nothing about. But, I persisted, and soon fell into the narrative that began in the logging camps mid twentieth century, and carried me along, much like the river carries the logs, through fifty years of our less-than-glorious history. The protagonist is a writer, whose life and career clearly follow Irving's own history in many ways. The story is filled with most of Irving's familiar themes: New Hampshire, bears, Exeter, college teaching, strange sexual relationships, parentless children, father/son relationships, the constant knowledge that life is an accident waiting to happen. There is a wonderful new theme also running through the story, as we follow the writer's father's life and career from his beginnings as a logging camp mess cook to his final ownership of a gourmet restaurant in Brattleboro, Vt, we vicariously share Dominic's amazing repertoire of food categories, preparations, and menus. As one reviewer noted, it's not a book to read on an empty stomach. Or, I might add, when you have a houseful of holiday goodies that have been gifted upon you. If you have ever loved John Irving, and you have some time to curl up by a fire with a fleece throw and a cat or two, this book will keep you happy through some long winter afternoons.

Now I have started an even fatter book than Irving's, A.S. Byatt's new enormous novel, The Children's Book. I am a serious fan of Byatt's, not just the book that brought her a lot of attention some years back, Possession, but of her shorter novels and her wonderful short stories. I have loved her and her sister, Margaret Drabble, also a very literary writer, for many years now. We are all of an age, and I am very pleased that they have the stamina to continue writing books that will keep me reading well into my old age. It's too soon to say much about The Children's Book, (though it's already on the "Best of 2009" lists that are starting to appear) as I haven't gotten very far into it today. Time to make some soup, light a fire, settle in under the fleece and cats and start turning pages. Ahhhh, winter. And, Gail Godwin, Anne Tyler, Tracy Chevalier, and John Burdett all have new books!!

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