One of us lives on the east coast. One of us lives on the west.

One of us lives in a rural community. One of us lives in a city.

Both of us wander. Both of us witness. Both of us write.

This is a record of what we find.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Landscape of Family

In Lane Smith’s incredible picture book, Grandpa Green, the landscape is a topiary garden filled with the memories of a great-grandfather’s life. Richly-hued chickens and carrots and trains and airplanes, gorgeously green soldiers and wedding cakes populate the garden. A topiary pathway through one man’s life.

I’ve been thinking about Grandpa Green this week as I spend the holiday break with my family at my parents’ farm. I’ve been thinking about how a life is reflected in the landscape it inhabits, how family is landscape…or perhaps how family becomes entwined with the        landscape of a home.

When my two sisters, my brother and I were children, the farm was smaller. My parents’ bedroom was downstairs, right under all of ours. My father’s office was off of the hallway, and as we came in and out the main door we could look in and see him working (working working working…he was always working.) A small barn was on the hill above the house, where a few horses lived (and cows, too, for a short while, but that endeavor didn’t quite stick.) My mother was often planting or weeding in one of the gardens, us kids were playing ball or helping hay the fields or, most often, hanging out in the house, my father was…yes…working in that office.

As the years went by, the farm grew. My parents moved their bedroom upstairs to the opposite side of the house. The barn expanded as my sister’s horse training business bloomed. One of the hills behind the house was leveled for one, two, three wedding receptions. A track of dirt was created behind the house from countless baseball and soccer games played by—not us four kids—but the now seven grandchildren (and counting.) My parents dug a swimming pond above the barn where those grandchildren spend hours and hours during the summer. Donkeys live here now, alongside the horses. And sheep. And goats. And guinea pigs.

And my father moved his office. He still works (and works and works) but now he has more privacy from the packs of people who traipse in and out of the house.

The landscape of the farm has shifted and bent, expanded and been built upon—and our family has done exactly the same thing. The farm’s landscape is deep within me, and I know the same is true for my three siblings. And it is utterly gratifying and wondrous to me that we are deep within the landscape too.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Getting Lost

I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about stories; where they come from, how they grow from tiny bits of inspirationa fleeting glimpse, a certain slant of light, an expressive face, the tinkling of chimesinto something structured and meaningful, compelling and spellbinding. 

I just spent a week in Venice, and while wandering the ancient labyrinth of narrow streets, crossing the myriad of bridges connecting the 118 islandsonce no more than mounds of swampy sledge scooped into clumps, built upon to create the stunning city of Venicethese ponderings found a useful metaphor. Like Venice that grew out of a reedy lagoon into a city of grandeur and center of world power, stories begin with the humblest materials, mere clumps of sledge shaped into a foundation to be built upon; how elaborate or bold or whimsical or complex depends on the intention, the commitment, determination, practiced skills and vision of the architect, the artist. The writer.
Like a good story, Venice is a fantastic place to get lost. Wandering the endless maze of streets, I was mesmerized with the mystery of finding a given destination, (thinking I knew exactly where I was going) then surprised to end up someplace completely different; instead of the Profumo-Farmaceutica that carries the same herbal remedies that have been made by monks since the sixteenth century, I would slip out into a new campo, (square) and stare open-mouthed at an astounding piece of architecture, be lured into another charming cafe, or discover yet another bridge where I had to stop and admire the mysterious play of light down one of the canals. I can understand why so many mysteries and love stories have been set in Venice; I don't think a quiet, ponderous story would work well here. The lushly romantic atmospheric setting whispers intrigue, begs wonder and asks you to expect the unexpected; that things are quite often not what they seem to be.

Venice, of course, has been the setting for many stories, but the one I have enjoyed the most is Cornelia Funke's THE THIEF LORD. The adventurous escapades of Prosper and Bo and the gang of orphaned thieves living under the protection of the young Thief Lord, Scipio, (who turns out not to be who he says he is) the juxtaposition of old and new, youth and age, and the element of magic, matches the landscape perfectly. For me, it has held up over several readings and I have been delighted to put it into the hands of many young readers who have returned it weeks later with an expression of admiration and true book-love in their faces. And the desire to visit Venice some day.

And if all that isn't enough, here's another reason to love Venice; look at this official sign posted at one of the Vaporetto ( water bus) stops:

 (For Christmas, give a book)


Thursday, December 15, 2011

List of Landscape Books

I am going to piggyback on Sharry's post from last week and offer my own list.  A list of books that feature landscape or, in my opinion, simply have vibrant, evocative settings.  Perhaps one of these books will catch your eye and you can find a way to buy one as a holiday gift. (Note: Many of these overlap with Susan Bloom's Best Picture Books Picks over at the Eric Carle Museum's Blog!)

Migrant by Maxine Trottier, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenaut (Groundwood)
Grandpa Green by Lane Smith (Roaring Brook)
Stars by Mary Lyn Ray, illustrated by Marla Frazee (Beach Lane Press)
Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Beth Krommes (Houghton)
Along a Long Road by Frank Viva (Little, Brown)
Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson (HarperCollins)
Blackout by John Rocco (Disney-Hyperion)

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, inspired by Siobhan Dowd, illustrated by Jim Kay (Candlewick)
The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill (Little, Brown)
Tall Story by Candy Gourlay (David Fickling Books)
The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce, photos by Carl Hunter and Clare Heney (Candlewick)

Please, please support your local independent bookstore this holiday season. It needs you. And we need it!


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Making Lists

I am a list maker. It’s one of those compulsive things I do to give myself the illusion of being organized, plus it helps reassure me that I am being productive—there’s nothing like crossing items off a list to calm the fearful jitters that come from worrying that I’m never doing enough. I love the linier quality of lists—the clear terrain, like smooth stepping stones on a path. Or like stair steps leading down into a peaceful valley of satisfaction. As a list maker, I am proud to be in good company; check out Liza Kirwin's Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventions, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists Enumerations from The Collections of The Smithsonian Museum (a great gift for a list-maker! Hint hint.)

I even have lists of lists. To-do lists; to-do today, to-do this week, to-do when I get a chance, to-do in this lifetime. Travel lists; places I’ve been (and what I've packed), places I want to revisit and the places I want to get to before it’s too late. Favorite lists (which are not the kind of lists that things get crossed off of, but rather constantly added); favorite recipes, favorite museums, favorite quotes, favorite books, favorite bookstores--which are also at the top of my favorite places to go list and my list of favorite Urban Landscapes. 

Yes, I definitely consider the interior of a bookstore as a textured and layered landscape—think of all those shelves of books, stacks of books, aisles to navigate, nooks to hide in, and every book a door to another world! 

This time of year, of course there is the gift list and always on this list is a list of books because everybody on my list gets a book. (Personally, I think that everyone on everyone’s list should get a book!) Plus buying books as gifts allows me to pay a visit to one or more of the bookstores on my favorite bookstore list. 

Without giving away the book titles that I’ll be giving this year, I've generated a list of ten books for the writer, teen, child, musician, cook, dreamer, scholar, or seeker in your life:

The Chronicles of Harris Burdock: Fourteen Amazing Authors Tell The Tales by Chris Van Allsburg
Except If  by Jim Averbeck
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry edited by Rita Dove
The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje
Pilgrimage by Annie Liebovitz
Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef  by Gabrielle Hamilton
Wordcatcher: An Odyssey into the World of Weird and Wonderful Words by Phil Cousineau and Gregg Chadwick
Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music by Glenn Kurtz
Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan and Maira Kalman

So head out to your favorite bookstore and pick out a bagful of books for the lucky people on your gift list. And because it’s hard to stop, here’s a list of ten of my favorite bookstores:

Green Apple, San Francisco, CA
City Lights, San Francisco, CA
Books Inc., San Francisco, CA
Book Passage, Corte Madera, CA
River House Books, Saint Helena, CA
Aunties Bookstore, Spokane, WA
Elliot Bay, Seattle, WA
Shakespeare and Company, Paris, France
Bear Pond, Montpelier, VT
The Strand, New York, NY

I’d love to hear about your favorite bookstores and what books are on your holiday shopping list!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Landscape of the (Monster) Body

**SPOILER ALERT** If you haven’t heard anything about A Monster Calls and don’t want to, then please don’t read on…

This is another one of those posts that I am going to write out of order. Where I write about a book that is currently on my mind and then relate it to landscape. I can’t help it. I just finished Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls (inspired by an idea by Siobhan Dowd) and—boy oh boy—that monster came down off of the hill, into my house, into my heart, and here he has stayed.

Conor, the main character in the book, is suffering every which way. He is bullied at school, he has lost his best friend, his relationship with his grandmother is strained, his father is off in America with his new family, and, most critically, his mother is dying of cancer. He is also plagued nightly by the worst nightmare imagineable.

And then the monster comes. And he orders Conor to listen to three stories, and then promises (threatens) that Conor must finally tell a story too—his story—his truthful story. That is all I will tell.

(And even though I have just given you the bones of the book, I truly have not given anything away. I urge you to read this one…)

But Conor’s monster—oh his monster!

As Conor watched, the uppermost branches of the [yew] tree gathered themselves into a great and terrible face, shimmering into a mouth and nose and even eyes, peering back at him. Other branches twisted around one another, always creaking, always groaning, until they formed two long arms and a second leg to set down beside the main trunk. The rest of the tree gathered itself into a spine and then a torso, the thin, needle-like leaves weaving together to make a green furry skin that moved and breathed as if there were muscles and lungs underneath (5.)

A monster born out of a yew tree. How’s that for landscape becoming a central force in a story? Not only is landscape like a character, it is a character. Kind of stunning.

This book churned up many things from the center of my belly. One of those things is the memory of my baby sister Callie’s 6 month chemotherapy experience. She had cancer three years ago—I am relieved and thrilled to report that she is healthy and cancer-free today—and for 6 months she had to go every other week for a grueling round of chemotherapy, and she and my family created a ritual for her for that duration of time. My parents drove her to the treatment, then back to their house on the north shore of Boston, where they would spent the weekend nurturing her. They cooked her the few foods she could eat, they walked on the beach, Callie rested with the multitude of dogs that were inevitably there (upwards of 8, I believe!), and she recuperated as best she could.

I was lucky enough to be able to participate in this ritual three times.

my youngest daughter, me, and Callie

I could write an entire post about what that ritual meant to Callie, and to my family, and I could write a whole other post about my belief in that kind of nurturing as vital to the healing process, but for now I think of Conor and I think of Callie and I think of Conor’s monster—and I can’t help but imagine Callie’s monster too. Maybe he would be born of the ocean. Maybe he would rise up out of the ocean, his lips and nose and eyes made of froth and salt, his arms and legs made of seaweed and sand. I can imagine Callie going down to the beach to meet him.

What stories would he tell to her? And what story—what truthful story—would she tell to him?