Archive for August, 2014

Ten Books

August 20, 2014

 

Books

A friend tagged me on Facebook to list 10 books that had had an impact on my life. Or words to that effect. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about my answer. I just stood in front of my book shelves and noted the titles that resonated the most. Then I narrowed the list down from 20 to 10. Here are the ones I choose, and why.

 

Time of Wonder (Robert McCloskey)

Of course I love Make Way for Ducklings, Blueberries for Sal, and Homer Price and the Donut Machine. But none of them got inside me that way this gem did – in large part, I think, because of the way my mother read it to me. I could tell that she loved it, and implicitly understood why: the sound of the language, the wild New England coast, the reverent attention to the sounds and sights that signal shifts in the weather, and in the season. This book is one of the main reasons I write picture books. It’s also the reason so many of the texts that are closest to my heart meet with rejection, always on the grounds that they’re too “quiet.”

Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)

Before I could read, I pored over Garth Williams’ illustrations. When I learned to read, I learned to seek out any book in my school library that was illustrated by Williams. He was instantly recognizable, and never steered me wrong. I had a hard time choosing among the many Williams-illustrated books that I loved, but in the end this it was a no-brainer. What’s not to love about Fern’s courageous defense the runt of the litter? Templeton the Rat’s relish of discarded fair food? Wilbur’s hopeful innocence? And then there’s Charlotte. I have re-read this book more times than I can count, and have never failed to weep at the ending. “Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” That’s what I want them to write on my grave.

 

Animal Family (Randall Jarrell)

Love makes a family. I learned that lesson from this lovely fairy tale about the love between a hunter, a mermaid, a bear, a lynx and a little boy. It’s a lovely story, and also a lovely book, from poet Jarrell’s mesmerizing language, to Maurice Sendak’s lush “decorations,” to the thick, soft paper the pages are printed on and the size and weight of the volume. This is my sister Rachel’s book, but at some point I absconded with it. I hope she doesn’t mind.

Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Tom Wolfe)

Required reading for 14-year-old aspiring Dead Heads in 1971. Nuff said.

World According to Garp (John Irving)

When I was a student at Hampshire College, Irving was teaching writing up the road, at Mt Holyoke. In my freshman year I took his writing workshop, and in my junior year I did an independent study with him. I would have tried to study with him my sophomore year, too, if he hadn’t been on leave, writing Garp. It’s not my favorite book in the world, but of the various writers I studied with, Irving was hands-down the most encouraging.

 

Machine Dreams (Jayne Anne Phillips)

Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson)

Pigeon Feathers (John Updike)

Family relationships. Complicated characters. Resonant descriptive details. Utterly absorbing. I read all of these just after college, when I was trying to figure out how to keep writing while holding down a day job. When I’m stuck in my writing, I’ll sometimes pick up one of my favorite books and read a few sentences, to remind myself of what I’m trying to do, and why. These three are among those I go to most often.

 

Street of Crocodiles (Bruno Schultz)

Isaac Bashevis Singer on acid. That big book of mine that’s still searching for a home might be described as a conversation between Schultz and the three writers above.

Kaddish (Leon Wieseltier)

How a book hits you is all in the timing. I started reading this maybe a month before my mother died, and finished it maybe a month after. I’m a slow reader, and it’s a dense read — a personal search for the arcane origins of the Jewish mourners’ prayer. Kaddish was to my 42-year-old self what Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was to me at 14.

 

What are your 10?

Final Cut

August 8, 2014

2014-08-07-18-10-46When I went to get my hair cut yesterday, I brought along a bottle of Prosecco in a glittery gold bag. Enclosed was a card congratulating my hair guy Mario and his husband Tom on their 35th anniversary.

In the five or six years since Mario started cutting my hair, we have talked a lot about marriage. Also parents and politics, food and religion, travel and health, hairdressing and writing. And Mario has told me great stories about life in our little village, where he has been cutting hair for more than 30 years.

Yesterday, we didn’t discuss any of that. I didn’t even getting around to asking how he and Tom planned to celebrate their milestone. Instead, Mario discussed an even bigger milestone. At the end of this month, he’s putting down his scissors.

Hairdressing can take a toll on the body. All that standing can get to your feet or your legs. The leaning forward can kill your back. Or, as in Mario’s case, the repetitive snipping motion can a number on your hands. After multiple surgeries, Mario’s doctor has told him to stop. And Mario is listening. But it wasn’t an easy decision.

“I love my job,” he told me yesterday. “I love hair, and I love my customers. I have been to bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, funerals. This year I went to three 90th birthday parties, for women whose hair I’ve been cutting since they were 60.”

In the relatively short time that I have been going to Mario, I’ve gotten glimpses of that history. The shop itself, which Mario shares with his business partner, Joel, doesn’t seem to have changed much since it opened, with its wood-panel walls and paintings of clowns and landscapes. I’m not their youngest customer, but just about. And I get the feeling that the younger customers have been coming since they were children. Conversation is constant and intimate, full of references no one has to explain.

Mario and I have had our own understanding. We were thrilled to run into each other at a Marriage Equality rally at the Statehouse a few years back, and I was thrilled to see Mario wearing his Marriage Equality button on his apron until the law finally passed. We no longer have to talk about my hair, because Mario knows how I want it (naturally gray and as easy as possible to deal with). But he has taught me a thing or two about how to be a woman who goes to a hairdresser.

For example, appointments. For years, getting one with Mario felt as hard as gaining admission to a private club. The sign outside the shop doesn’t indicate what sort of business it is. It just says Bucarr, a combination of Mario and Joel’s last names. They’re not open every day, and they have no answering machine (“Why should we?” Joel once said, when I complained. “That would just mean we’d have to return all those calls.”).

Flummoxed, I improvised my own solution. When my hair got so long that it irritated me, I would start strolling past the shop, hoping to find it open. If it was, and if Mario was there, he would put down his scissors and open his appointment book. If it was open but Mario wasn’t there, Joel would tell me when to try next.

Last May, I finally thought to ask, “Do most of your customers schedule their next appointment before they leave?”

Mario smiled. “I think I have two who don’t.”

“But how can I tell when I’ll need my next hair cut?” I asked.

“You get your hair cut every three months,” Mario said.

“I do?” I said.

“You do,” he said. And he opened his book to show me.

That’s when we made my August 7 appointment, and he told me it was his anniversary. At the time, neither of us knew that it would be our last appointment.

It was a sweet half hour. Joel wasn’t working, so we had the place to ourselves, and the conversation flowed more freely than ever. Mario, who is usually such a great listener, did most of the talking.

“I have never dreaded coming in here,” he said. “Not once. Even after a vacation, I have always been glad to be back. I love what I do.”

“You’ll surprise yourself,” I said. “You’ll love the freedom.”

“Oh, I know I will,” he said. “But this month is so hard. Every day, it’s like going to a funeral.”

“Who will cut my hair now?” I finally got around to asking. “Joel?”

“Joel is moving to Florida,” Mario said. “You didn’t know?”

Our 9:00 was over. My hair was done — exactly the way I like it. But Mario didn’t seem to have a 9:30, and we weren’t done talking. So I stayed a while longer. When at last I did get up to go, I wanted to say, “Keep in touch.” But I knew we wouldn’t.

Never mind who will cut my hair now. I will miss Mario. And I will miss being a part of that secret slice of my adopted village. Mostly, though, I will miss Mario.