Winter, not spring, is the season for big books. During another long, bitingly cold winter, I made it most of the way through Moby Dick. It was winter both times that I read The Name of the Rose, Great Expectations, and David Copperfield. I started Middlemarch in the middle of February one year and finished it in a hurry during the blush of an early spring, carrying the brick-like hardback around with me to read at bus stops and on university steps between classes, the stronger gusts of wind still tinged with the frost of January.
Soon, though, the temperatures will be averaging closer to the forties and fifties (above zero). We’ll remember that things like color exist, and birds. The world will be a little too enticing to pay attention to books for more than an hour at a time.
Still, we don’t want to give them up entirely, do we? (Shake head no.) Here then are five recommendations for the front porch or the back steps, all under two hundred pages, slim but not lightweight, completable between unwinding with a beer after work and being fashionably late to the barbecue.
John McPhee has written page-turning nonfiction on geology, fish, rivers, pine barrens, Alaska, experimental aircraft, oranges, and nuclear energy. Here he approaches the craft of birch bark canoe building through a profile of one of its few remaining practitioners, the irascible young Henri Vaillancourt. He also visits the history of the North American fur trade and unfolds the tale of an uncomfortable expedition to the Maine wilderness in the company of Vaillancourt, three friends, and two handmade canoes. The book is funnier than Thoreau’s The Maine Woods, less gothic than Dickey’s Deliverance, and more revealing of McPhee’s own personality than most of his other works.
A number of completely finished canoes might be strewn about the yard at any one time, for Vaillancourt is slow to ship them out, or if people are coming to get them he is in no hurry to notify them that the canoes are ready. He likes to keep his canoes awhile — use them some, test them out. Whatever the excuse may be, he does not like to let them go.
In one sense, this novel is a coming-of-age story, told retrospectively by one of Lorrie Moore’s funny/fraught female characters from the vantage of a stalled middle-age marriage. As teenagers, narrator Berie Carr and her best friend Sils have summer jobs at a fairy-tale-themed amusement part near their home in upstate New York. Anyone who has read Ms. Moore’s short stories can imagine the richness of this material in her hands. Let me just say that there is a teenaged Bo Peep played by a friend of theirs named Randi, who shows up in bonnet and white ruffled pantaloons (“Have you seen my fucking sheep?”) to join Berie and Sils on their smoke breaks.
Sils gets in some trouble and Berie tries to rescue her. But as with another great coming-of-age tale (Brideshead Revisited comes to mind) there’s a more difficult question waiting in the wings: How do you go about your present life while the memory of another life, with which you’ve cut ties, is always upon you?
When we got home, I hurled my purse across the kitchen floor. “I think maybe I should go see Earl,” I said. Earl was Earl Gray, a matrimonial lawyer whom everyone in town called Mr. Tea. I believed myself to be unafraid of rupture.
Bruno Schulz was an early twentieth century writer, a Polish Jew whose brief but brilliant career was violently extinguished when he was shot by a Nazi officer in the Drohobycz ghetto. He is known for his collections of tales: The Street of Crocodiles and The Sanitorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. At the time of his death, Schulz was working on a longer work titled The Messiah, but no remnant of it has ever been found.
That much is history. Cynthia Ozick’s novel begins in Stockholm, during the latter part of the century. Lars Andemening is a forty-two year old orphan, a Monday morning book reviewer for an up-and-coming city paper. Mad for obscure Eastern European writers and Schulz most of all, Lars believes himself, despite almost no evidence, to be Schulz’s lost and unknown son. It is a mystic’s assurance. Only one other person, the owner of his favorite bookshop, knows his secret, but she is not so certain of its truth.
After one hundred and forty feverishly narrated pages, you will be left to decide for yourself the difference between dream and delusion: what separates one from the other, what each is worth. You will want to read all of Bruno Schulz, and you will want to read more of Cynthia Ozick. You should indulge these desires.
That roasting in the air. His own sweat. The exertion. His legs like gyros. O the chimneys of armpits, moist and burning under wool. Ahead, he made out the mullioned door of Heidi’s shop. She was often among the nighttime wakeful. A woman of sixty-five or so, a round little bundle, with a girl’s name. She wore curly bangs, like a girl; but they were white and sheeplike, and dropped in ringlets over two serenely misplaced black mustaches that jumped intermittently above reckless eyes.
Most of Daniel Pinkwater’s fiction will be found in the children’s or young adult section of the library, and most of it, sadly, won’t be found in bookstores at all. This may be because Pinkwater is the kind of writer whose imagination runs so wild, he does not want you to suspend disbelief so much as to run alongside it and carry the snacks.
Borgel, which chronicles the rollicking adventures of young Melvin Spellbound, his dog Farfel, and his not-quite-uncle Borgel, is my personal favorite. They take off in the middle of the night in a 1937 Dorbzeldge sedan in search of nothing in particular and find instead a time-space root beer stand, a strange little guy named Pak Nfbnm* (a native of Benton Harbor, Michigan?), and maybe, just maybe, the Great Popsicle.
Borgel turned up one day with thirty-two large, lumpy, black valises. He brought them in a taxicab. My mother was home alone at the time.
“Missus Spellbound?” he asked when my mother came to the door.
My mother said yes, she was Mrs. Spellbound.
“Congratulations!” Borgel said. “You are going to be allowed to take care of an old man. God will like you for this.”
Joseph Mitchell was an admired New Journalist before the term really existed. He wrote for The New Yorker magazine from the thirties through the sixties.
Joe Gould’s Secret concerns Mitchell’s acquaintance, over twenty-some years, with Joe Gould, an irrepressible vagabond who hung around the bohemians of Greenwich Village during the early part of the century.
The story turns in a fairly important sense upon a short article from 1942, “Professor Sea Gull” in which Mitchell profiled Gould as a seagull imitator, friend of e. e. cummings, and author of “An Oral History of Our Time.” In the follow-up piece, Mitchell describes how he came to write the earlier profile, its effect on his long, conflicted friendship with Gould after publication, and his discovery of the secret referred to in the title, a revelation which is not as surprising, I think, as it is thought provoking. If you have seen the 2000 film with Stanley Tucci and Ian Holm (which I have not) you may still find the book worth reading.
Standalone versions of the book contain both the shorter profile and the longer memoir, but you can find them both also in Mitchell’s epic collection Up in the Old Hotel. The vast majority of his New Yorker writing is collected there, mainly profiles of other New Yorkers on the margins: fishmongers, gypsies, vocational drinkers, high-iron workers, a don’t-swear-man, a gifted child, a bearded lady. This is a book to which one could devote an inclement week or so of winter reading, yet one is also free to dip in and out as the glory days of spring allow.
In the “Insanity” essay, I came across three sentences that stood out sharply from the rest. These sentences were plainly meant by Gould to be a sort of poker-faced display of conceit, but it seemed to me that he told more in them than he had intended to. In the years to come, as I got to know him better, they would return to my mind a great many times. They appeared at the end of a paragraph in which he had made the point that he was dubious about the possibility of dividing people into sane and insane. “I would judge the sanest man to be him who most firmly realizes the tragic isolation of humanity and pursues his essential purposes calmly,” he wrote. “I suppose I feel about it in this way because I have a delusion of grandeur. I believe myself to be Joe Gould.”