Definition: Smeuse

smeuse: “A gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal.”

 

smeuse
Photo by @angelt on Twitter @RobGMacfarlane

Smeuse

Driving slowly near my home,

I surprised a woodchuck standing in the road.

It was in no danger from me

But I suspect the poor beastie did not

Share my confidence

In its security.

With speed defying its corpulent shape

It dove in a bound to the grass

Then through the smeuse I had never noticed before

But can no longer unsee.

Like the word itself, “smeuse,”

“A gap in the base of a hedge

Made by the regular passage of a

Small animal.”

The woodchuck is gone

Though its trail remains open,

And in my mind

A gap is now filled

By a perfect word.

— David Marvin

 

For the book that inspired the poem above see the link to:

Book Review: Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane

Book Review: Landmarks, Robert MacFarlane

Book Review: Landmarks, Robert MacFarlane

Nonfiction: Landmarks, Robert MacFarlane

 

I have read books that deeply affected me, books that I believe changed the way I saw the world, that gave me insight into myself or society, that taught me new words and concepts and facts. Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane did all of that for me, but also did something that no other book has inspired me to do.

 

I wrote poems.

 

I have written poetry for awhile, though I don’t flatter myself that publishing houses are waiting breathlessly for my submissions. But I have never read a book that made me put it down and write out a poem inspired by the thoughts and images of the book. Landmarks did this to me, twice.

 

Landmarks is a unique, special book that is a love letter to Britain, to the land, to the English (and related) languages, and to the people of the land. It is a review of books, a celebration of authors, a review of landscapes, a celebration of life. It is a collection of words, a “word-hoard,” a series of glossaries, and a resurrection of dead and dying words. MacFarlane has worked with authors and others around the country to gather words that describe places and (yes) landmarks, words that are falling into disuse in our increasingly urban and indoor culture. Even children’s books and dictionaries are dropping words like “dandelion” and “kingfisher” in favor of words reflecting online and networked realities. This loss of language comes with other, more ineffable losses.

 

My city condo backs up to a park which has some wildlife, including woodchucks (large rodents also called groundhogs). One wandered into our road when I was driving home, but decided upon seeing my car that it wanted to go back to the park. I had never noticed the small gap in the shrubbery, but the woodchuck dove through it with alacrity and familiarity. A few days later, reading Landmarks, MacFarlane introduced the word “smeuse,” which is defined as a small gap in a hedge or wall used by animals. Now, I cannot drive along that section of road without looking at the smeuse and thinking of my visitor. I did not know that word was missing from my life; now I am thrilled to have it and the accompanying memories.

 

Each chapter introduces one or more authors who wrote elegiacally about the land and its inhabitants, flora, fauna, and features. Some of the authors are deceased, some are living, some are (or were) friends of MacFarlane, others are known to him only through their words. Each chapter also includes a lengthy glossary of terms related to the chapter, words relating to moors, to highlands, to water, etc.

 

Landmarks is a beautiful book that dances lyrically with language and with the landscapes. It is one that is inspiring, lovely, and one that I hope to return to again and again when I am looking for new ways to see familiar things.

Book Review: Landmarks, Robert MacFarlane

Book Review: Summer Hours at the Robbers Library, Sue Halpern

Book Review: Summer Hours at the Robbers Library, Sue Halpern

 

Summer Hours at the Robbers Library, Sue Halpern

Fiction: Summer Hours at the Robbers Library, Sue Halpern

 

Summer Hours at the Robbers Library is an unexpectedly sweet and poignant story of a family of friends drawn together by accident and need. Kit is the reference librarian at the Robinton, NH public library. Sunny is a teenage girl caught and convicted of stealing a dictionary from a local bookstore. And Rusty is an unemployed Wall Streeter from New York trying to start over. When Sunny is sentenced to community service for her crime, she is assigned to be Kit’s assistant. Then Rusty begins spending long hours at the library, researching his own past in hopes of finding a path to his future. Over the course of the summer, the three of them find in each other the support they need to heal their own pasts, come to grips with their present, and possibly open a door to the future.

 

We at Scintilla are HUGE fans of libraries, and we are especially blessed to live in the same town as Schlow Centre Region Library (https://www.schlowlibrary.org/). It is easy to see from this book that author Sue Halpern shares our love for the local public library. Public libraries are one of the last remaining free gathering places for communities. Our local library provides help for job seekers, daytime shelter from the elements for anyone who needs it, tax forms, computer access, board games and book clubs and children’s workshops and author talks and the local writer’s network. Oh, and books and magazines and periodicals and ereaders and on and on. All of it free to the user. When we visit, we see people who are studying, who are learning, who are playing, who are reading, who have come together with the amazing staff to create one of the best places to be in State College. I am writing this in preparation for National Library Week, and it’s fair to say that www.Scintilla.Info would be an impossible project without the help of Schlow. Words may be our stock in trade, but there simply are not words to express our love and gratitude to Schlow Library and every other library out there, serving their communities with love and faithfulness.

 

The staff and patrons of the fictional library at the heart of this book are fun and funny, but they are fleshed out and real characters. We learn early on that Kit is fleeing the wreckage of a previous life, one that involved a marriage that ended badly, but we only learn the details gradually through the course of the book. Sunny is a homeschooled/no-schooled teen whose parents live as much off-the-grid as they can, and their reasons get fleshed out through the course of the book. “The Four,” a group of elderly men who gather every morning at the library to read the paper and gossip with each other, also figure prominently in the story. Nicknamed by Kit after the T.S. Eliot book “The Four Quartets,” these men take both Rusty and Sunny under their wings. Rusty’s own past as a stockbroker is more straightforward, but even he feels regrets about choices he made putting profits ahead of people. In its own way, the library becomes a place of healing just by bringing these people together and involving them in each other’s lives.

 

The name “Robbers Library” is part of a joke by “The Four,” based on the original name of the library. It was named after its founding patron, a “Mr. Robers,” but as he was quite unpopular the name changed soon after his death. With Sunny’s petty larceny and Rusty’s background as a “robber baron,” the joke comes to include them as well in a friendly and affectionate way. The library was their library, belonging to all of them. Whoever had need, whoever had desire, the Robinton Public Library existed for them.

 

That’s what libraries do. That’s what libraries are. Summer Hours at the Robbers Library is a sweet book, not specifically about libraries, but more about the family and community that a library can create amongst those who love them. Kit and Sunny and Rusty become friends and then could almost be called a family of choice. As they fill holes life has opened in their lives, a story of love and healing takes place in the shadow of an institution that represents that opportunity as much as any place in a community. Regardless of creed, color, age, gender, or any other division, a library exists to pull us together.

 

Read more books about books and libraries:

Booklist: Books about Books for Shared Reading with Children

Booklist: Books about Libraries for Shared Reading with Children

Book Review: Summer Hours at the Robbers Library, Sue Halpern

Book Series Review: The Invisible Library, Genevieve Cogman 

Book Review: The Mortal Word, Book 5 of The Invisible Library Series, Genevieve Cogman

Book Review: The Library Book, Susan Orlean

Quote: The only thing you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library. Albert Einstein

Quote: Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation. Walter Cronkite

Quote: Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future. Ray Bradbury

Quote: At the moment that we persuade a child, any child, to cross that threshold, that magic threshold into a library, we change their lives forever, for the better. It’s an enormous force for good. Barack Obama

Summer Hours at the Robbers Library, Sue Halpern

Book Review: Summer Hours at the Robbers Library, Sue Halpern

Book Review: When My Brother Was an Aztec, Natalie Diaz

Book Review: When My Brother Was an Aztec, Natalie Diaz

Poetry: When My Brother Was an Aztec, Natalie Diaz

The first line to the titular poem says, “he lived in our basement and sacrificed my parents / every morning. It was awful. Unforgivable. But they kept coming / back for more. They loved him, was all they could say.”

 

So opens the brutally personal and painful collection of poems by Natalie Diaz. When My Brother Was an Aztec is brilliant. I have a solid vocabulary, but Diaz’s dancing from English to Spanish to other languages, her use of English (I had to look up “oubliette,” among other words), her references to stories and myths and religions and historical events sometimes left me gasping for air and reaching for Google. It was challenging intellectually, which is always something I welcome.

 

More than that, it was challenging emotionally. Diaz’s brother has a meth addiction. And many of the poems in this collection deal very frankly with the emotions she feels when dealing with him. Her description of him as an Aztec talks about him draining her parents’ blood, about them offering themselves to him day after day. Somehow they are physically restored, then the addiction in her brother’s body requires that her parents sacrifice themselves again and again. She dreams of his death. She tries to take her brother out for dinner, knowing that there is a beginning, middle, and end to dinner and she will not be trapped. He takes all of the lightbulbs in her parents’ house to use as homemade meth bowls, forcing them to live in the dark. She compares her father to Sisyphus, driving to the jail at 2 a.m. knowing that it won’t matter, that he will push his heart to the jail again and again and again and again.

 

This is not to say that she hates her brother. Or rather, that hate is the only emotion. She loves him. She hates him. She is disgusted by him. She pities him. She wants him to get better. She wants him to die. She wants him to live. I cannot imagine the grief and despair and anger and longing that one might feel when faced with a loved one who is in these circumstances. Thanks to the power of Natalie Diaz’s poetry, though, I may have had a glimpse.

 

Mixed in with the poems about her family’s struggles are poems about lust and longing, about being Native American in a hostile world, and about her family at different (if not better) times. Even if those poems are not any easier to read emotionally or intellectually, they are a welcome respite from the despair engendered by her brother’s choices and addictions.

 

I am not trying to condemn or excuse her brother. Addiction is a disease, and for far too many it becomes incurable. But with any disease there are choices that people make. My sister has cancer. She chose to treat it. She will be on chemotherapy the rest of her (hopefully long) life. I have mental illness. Sometimes I get treatment. However, sometimes I convince myself that I am fine and don’t need any medicine (ironically enough, I usually make that decision when I am on the medicine, which is of course why I am “fine”). Those times inevitably result in pain and suffering for my loved ones, let alone the confusion and disorder they create in my own mind and circumstances. Diaz’s poetry helps me see things from the other side, the side where the sick person is loved and desired and wanted–and yet that same person has created through their choices and refusals a climate of pain and hurt for those who love them the most. I may have more in common with her brother than I want to admit.

 

Natalie Diaz grew up on the Mojave Reservation in Needles, CA. She played professional basketball overseas for many years before getting her MFA from Old Dominion in 2007. When My Brother Was an Aztec was her first book, published in 2012. I first heard her speak at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC in 2018. She is an amazing person and an amazing poet, and someone I hope we hear much more from in the years to come.

Book Review: When My Brother Was an Aztec, Natalie Diaz

Book Review: The Library Book, Susan Orlean

Book Review: The Library Book, Susan Orlean

The Library Book, Susan Orlean

Nonfiction: The Library Book, Susan Orlean

I read The Library Book without knowing a lot about it. For instance, I had no idea that author Susan Orlean was such a wonderful observer of humanity. She describes a patron in “one of the carrels in history, a man in a pin-striped suit who had books on his desk but wasn’t reading held a bag of Doritos under the lip of the table. He pretended to muffle a cough each time he ate a chip.”

 

I did not realize how passionate she was for libraries in general. She describes them as “a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality, in the library, we can live forever.”

 

The Library Book focuses on a singular event in the life of one library. The 1986 fire in the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library destroyed literally millions of books, microfiche, photographs, magazines, and other documents and records. Much of the damage was irreplaceable. The event itself did not get the national publicity warranted for a simple reason: it occurred on the same day as the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Still, it was the largest library fire in US history.

 

Orlean spends a lot of time looking at the possible cause of the fire, the effects, the aftermath, and the person ultimately blamed for starting the fire (he was never formally charged due to a lack of evidence). But she also looks at the history of the library and of libraries in general, and brings the story to the present and the future of libraries.

 

I cannot tell you how much I love this book. I am a sucker for libraries, and the library branch she mentions early in the book, Studio City, is very few miles from the North Hollywood branch we patronized during our brief sojourn in Los Angeles. Even though we lived in LA while they were rebuilding the main branch after the fire, I do not recall being fully aware of the devastation of the fire, so this book taught me a lot about a library in a town I lived in during the time frame when I lived there.

 

More than libraries, though, I am a sucker for a great book. This is a wonderful, amazing book. Susan Orlean’s choice of characters, her spot-on descriptions, and her engaging storytelling style makes this read more like a novel than a nonfiction narrative. I could read this book again and again, and probably get more out of it each time I started.

 

Some of the characters are the leaders of the LA Public Library. One of the leaders literally walked to Los Angeles from Ohio! After becoming the head of the library, he became known for his passionate advocacy for the library, his zeal in expanding the library’s collection and services…and his messy affairs which led to his divorce. In the early 1900s, this made news headlines, even in LA. A future librarian was so keen on reading that she advised people to fib their way out of social engagements so they could instead stay home and read a novel in a single gulp “like a boa constrictor.”

 

Apparently in Senegal the polite way to refer to someone’s passing is to say, “his or her library has burned.” Their stories have ended, their chapters are closed. What a beautiful and appropriate metaphor! The Library Book is full of bon mots like that. Not many nonfiction books can make you laugh and cry and sigh and feel better about life after reading them. Susan Orlean has accomplished all of that and more.

 

—————————

 

We of www.scintilla.info LOVE libraries, especially our local library, www.schlowlibrary.org. Almost every book we’ve reviewed has been borrowed from Schlow and is part of their collection. Like every library we’ve ever visited, they have helpful friendly people, they know almost everything, and they can put their hands on any book you would ever need or want.

 

Read more books about books and libraries:

Booklist: Books about Books for Shared Reading with Children

Booklist: Books about Libraries for Shared Reading with Children

Book Review: Summer Hours at the Robbers Library, Sue Halpern

Book Series Review: The Invisible Library, Genevieve Cogman 

Book Review: The Mortal Word, Book 5 of The Invisible Library Series, Genevieve Cogman

Book Review: The Library Book, Susan Orlean

Quote: The only thing you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library. Albert Einstein

Quote: Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation. Walter Cronkite

Quote: Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future. Ray Bradbury

Quote: At the moment that we persuade a child, any child, to cross that threshold, that magic threshold into a library, we change their lives forever, for the better. It’s an enormous force for good. Barack Obama

 

The Library Book, Susan Orlean

Book Review: The Library Book, Susan Orlean

Book Review: Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Seanan McGuire

Book Review: Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Seanan McGuire

Book 2 in the Wayward Children series

Down Among the Sticks and Bones cover

Fiction: Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Seanan McGuire

Book 2 in the Wayward Children series

 

Normally I avoid reading a series out of sequence, although I seem to be doing that with frustrating regularity in recent months. Regardless, I have done it here once again, but because Seanan McGuire is a merciful author who takes pity on the fans who adore her, she has written Down Among the Sticks and Bones in her Wayward Children series as a book that stands well on its own and does not require having read the first book for it to make sense.

 

Twins Jacqueline and Jillian were raised to be the ideal daughters of a truly vapid couple. Jacqueline was her mother’s ideal little girl. She wore dresses, she never got dirty, and she always behaved herself. Jillian was the son her father did not have. She wore jeans, played soccer, and presented herself as a tomboy. The fact that neither of their daughters actually felt at home in her role never occurred to their parents. They wanted two perfect children, and that is what they demanded.

 

This disconnect between who they had to be and who they actually were made them quite unhappy, and this unhappiness opened a doorway into a different world. One stormy day the girls decide to wander into their grandmother’s room. Their grandmother had lived with them when they were preschoolers, but since she did not correspond to their parents’ ideal version of a grandmother/nanny, she had been banished from the home. The girls entered the room as twelve-year-olds planning a day of dress up and play. What they found was a doorway to another place, one with monsters and myths at every turn, and there they spent the next several years.

 

How they grew up there, how their decisions as to who they were shaped who they became, and how they eventually returned home, I will leave to the reader to discover. McGuire does a masterful job of revealing how each girl’s choices affect her, and her sister, and others in this new world. Not many authors can walk the line between humor and horror the way McGuire does. Even in the opening chapters when we meet the parents, page after page causes alternate wincing and chuckling. The title of the opening chapter promises this very reaction: “The Dangerous Allure of Other People’s Children.” Those of us who are parents recognize this fact. The ideas we had about parenting were shaped by our exposure to other people’s children, be they our own siblings or cousins or friends when we were children, or the children of our family members and friends when we grew up. The arrival of our own children very quickly teaches most of us an astounding fact: we knew nothing!

 

McGuire captures that reality–completely unknown to most non-parents who feel quite competent giving advice to parents on childrearing–beautifully in her opening chapter:

 

“This, you see, is the true danger of children: they are ambushes, each and every one of them. A person may look at someone else’s child and see only the surface, the shiny shoes or the perfect curls. They do not see the tears and the tantrums, the late nights, the sleepless hours, the worry. They do not even see the love, not really….

It can be easy, in the end, to forget that children are people, and that people will do what people will do, the consequences be damned.”

 

Jacqueline and Jillian–Jack and Jill as they are known in the other world–start life being molded into their parents’ ideal children. Breaking into a new world lets them break out of that mold. Since they had no model for a different life, though, the choices they make have unintended consequences that they are not prepared to face. And when they return to the world that gave them birth, they are not recognizably the same girls.

 

Down Among the Sticks and Bones is the second book of the series. Ideally, start with Every Heart a Doorway. Beneath the Sugar Sky came out in January, 2018, and In An Absent Dream will arrive in January, 2019. If the other books are as good as this one…well, what am I saying. This is Seanan McGuire, winner of Hugo and Locus and multiple other awards, writer of October Daye and Incryptid series and Spider-Gwen comics and (under the pen name of Mira Grant) the Newsflesh series. She is amazing; she rewards all of her readers with humor and insight and fun and fear all rolled together. The other books will be good. Read them, read this one, and cringe-laugh-cry your way through some amazing stories.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones cover

Book Review: Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Seanan McGuire

Book 2 in the Wayward Children series

Book Review: Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird, Katie Fallon

Book Review: Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird, Katie Fallon

Nonfiction Natural Sciences: Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird, Katie Fallon

 

“A turkey vulture is a perfect creature.” The opening line of the main text captures the entire premise of the book. The subtitle to Vulture is a bit misleading: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird. Katie Fallon herself belies it. She loves vultures. Turkey vultures, black vultures, old world, new world, condors and gryphons and buzzards and any other name you care to give them.

 

That is not to say they are the easiest birds to love. Although their colors can be beautiful, their habit of eating by plunging their heads into open carcasses can be off-putting. And although there are no documented cases of vultures harming humans and very few credible stories of vultures going after live prey at all, birds which attack aggressors by hissing and projectile vomiting at them are less highly regarded than those which simply tweet assertively.

 

None of these things dissuades Fallon, though, who has a vulture friend named “Lew,” and who buys vulture onesies for her daughters, and who has traveled extensively studying vultures around the US and beyond. Fallon unabashedly loves vultures, and after reading this book, maybe I do, too.

 

Vulture was chosen for the Centre County (PA) Reads program, an effort to have as many people as possible in our county read the same book. I will admit, I was not entirely sure why the book was chosen before reading it. Now, I can see the choice was inspired. Katie Fallon has local roots. A Pennsylvania resident for much of her life (now living in next-door West Virginia), Fallon is a Penn State University graduate. Apart from the local connections, the book itself is beautifully written and deeply thoughtful. Each chapter starts with a short essay written from the perspective of a vulture. These are done without anthropomorphizing the animals. She does not attempt to interpret their emotions. Rather, she writes about more basic feelings: hunger, cold, wind. After these short essays come chapters that go into depth on the vultures themselves, on her life as a birder, on her work with her husband in caring and rehabilitating injured birds, and on her family’s fascination with these creatures. She includes carefully worded essays that are very pro-hunting but anti-lead-ammunition, explorations of the dangers posed by chemicals in mammals to the birds which eat their carcasses, and celebrations of the work being done by scientists who are studying the migratory patterns and other behaviors of these birds.

 

Although turkey vultures are doing very well right now, other vulture species around the world are threatened and endangered. Most notably, the California condor population had fallen to 27 individuals before unprecedented species recovery efforts began. The population is now up to several hundred, but that is still an extremely small number of birds and there are no guarantees it is a sustainably stable population. Without human help, the condor population would quickly die. Of course, without humans they would not have almost gone extinct to begin with, so there is an argument to be made that we bear responsibility to fix what we’ve broken.

 

Fallon includes a number of personal and family anecdotes in the book, some of which are quite funny. Her efforts to see a vulture named “Jennie” take her to an elementary school and to the edge of an Air Force bombing range, where she ultimately decides that jumping the fence and dodging rattlesnakes and unexploded ordnance might not be the best course of action. Part of this decision was the potential for the headline, “Mother arrested…,” which fortunately remains unwritten outside of her book (and now this review). She does not actually cross the fence.

 

Fallon concludes her book with a number of steps that individuals can take to help preserve and protect vultures. Most importantly is a decision by hunters to eschew lead ammunition. Katie Fallon is pro-hunting and pro-gun. However, lead bullet fragments are poisonous to vultures. “Gut piles” are a valuable and vital source of food for wild vultures, but when they are contaminated by lead, they become deadly, especially to their chicks. Although I am not a hunter, this seems like a reasonable and doable request, and I would hope that hunters would take this concern seriously.

 

Vulture is a very good book for any independent readers who love animal stories, though the youngest readers might find some of the scientific vocabulary challenging. Anyone who enjoys animals and natural history stories will appreciate the personal and scientific approach Katie Fallon uses to tell the story of a bird that may be underappreciated, but thanks to her cannot truly be called unloved.

Book Review: Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird, Katie Fallon

One Year!

One Year!

No Fooling! April of 2018 was the first post of Scintilla.Info. Here is a link to that blast from our past…

 

http://scintilla.info/2018/04/01/books-to-laugh-out-loud-with-your-children/

 

In the last year we have reviewed almost 200 books, posted some fun recipes and tea time suggestions, tweeted 1300 times, and had an absolute blast!

 

We visited the Central PA Book Festival, the National Book Festival, joined the Nittany Valley Writers Network, bought a cute pair of bookish shoes, and (most importantly for us) drew closer as a couple.

 

We are hoping to do more this year: more books, more conventions and festivals, more writing, more posts, more tweets, more memes, more recipes, and maybe some cool book shoes for Dave as well!  😉

 

We are also hoping to improve the site, fix some of the statistical measuring and backend issues that have fought with us this year, and keep having fun.

 

Thank you for joining us on this journey. We hope you have enjoyed Scintilla.Info almost as much as we have enjoyed making it!

 

Love to all,

 

Maria and David Marvin