summer reading

ImageI have been reading a lot of posts lately about summer’s end. It doesn’t feel much like summer is ending here, and in truth the heat will not abate until late September, but we may have rain before then, which will mark a great shift.
Summer here is hot and bone dry, and all thoughts are of water — water for the plants, water for the chickens, water for the cat and the dog and water for us. When water falls from the sky again, we let these thoughts go, slowly at first and then abandon them for other concerns. Rain boots will be dusted off, the earth will beckon us to dig again, and we will marvel at how the rain waters everything at the same moment. What a generous gift.

We are still a ways off from that day, though, and its unforgettable smell of the parched earth drinking at last. Until then, we are keeping everyone watered and endeavoring to keep the boys entertained. Baki, newly back from what seems to have been a hectic and wildly enjoyable month away, is bursting with energy that needs to be burned off. Luckily, the sea is about 15 minutes away by car, so we gather bottles of water to drink and cups and big yogurt tubs to play with, and trundle down to Cirali to spend some time letting our thoughts drift out to sea. The boys have a lovely time, burying each other in the pebbly sand and splashing in the water.

I suppose that this is where I am meant to do that Summer Reading that we always hear about. I read all year round, naturally, but somehow Summer Reading is a separate entity in my mind. There are summers that are defined by what I read (like the summer that I spent buried in the five books of Game of Thrones) and there are summers where one book just leads to another. I sometimes prepare for summer, stockpiling books, and other times, like now, the books drift in and I immerse myself.


I’ve read plenty this summer, though never at the beach — I read in the heat of the day when it is too hot to go out to the garden, even with a hat on, or late at night after my chores are done and everyone is asleep. And I wanted to share three books with you. I thought of writing what I thought of them, but I think I’ll just type out the opening passage of each book and let them speak for themselves. Well mostly, anyway!

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time bring is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.
A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be. As for me, right now I am sitting in a French maid cafe in Akiba
Electricity Town, listening to a sad chanson that is playing sometime in your past, which is also my present, writing this and wondering about you in my future. And if you’re reading this, then maybe by now you’re wondering about me, too.
[Ruth Ozeki is one of my all time favorite writers. Her books are cozy like tea and toast.]

City of Bohane by Kevin Barry

Whatever’s wrong with us is coming off that river. No argument: the taint of badness on the city’s air is a taint off that river. This is the Bohane river we’re talking about. A black water surge, malevolent, it roars in off the Big Nothin’ wastes and the city was spawned by it and was named for it: city of Bohane.
[Kevin Barry’s writing is as lean and muscular as a snake. He’s got a collection of short stories being released in the US in the fall, called Dark Lies the Island, that is dynamite. Really. Smoke comes out of my ears when I read them.]

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

Before our first encounter with the bear, I had already finished building the house, or nearly so.
In the hasty days that followed, I feared we moved in too fast and too early, the house’s furnishings still incomplete, the doors not all right-hinged – and in response to my worries my wife said that was no trouble, that she could quickly finish what I had mostly made.
Beneath the unscrolling story of new sun and stars and then-lonely moon, she began to sing some new possessions into the interior of our house, and between the lake and the woods I heard her songs become something stronger than ever before.
[I find this book’s tale difficult because it is a story with an ugly streak, but the writing is so beautiful, I keep coming back to it.]

My dad agreed with the conventional wisdom about judging books by their covers, but he always said that if a book couldn’t grab you in some way by the time you turned the first page, it wasn’t doing something right. (Actually, he put an enormous stake on first sentences, as a writer.) Did any of these grab you?

How do you address a tree?


I have always liked to read the paper, and while many newspapers have perfectly good websites, I just can’t enjoy reading them online as much as I do rustling through paper pages. To that end, we subscribe to the Guardian Weekly, and although it reaches us a little late, it serves us well in thoroughly depressing us about the state of the world. If I am not feeling brave, I start from the back so that I can read the culture pages first and then work up to the misery in the front pages.


In a recent-ish issue, I came across an article by George Monbiot about the poet John Clare, born 13 July 1793. It inspired me to look up a poem that he mentioned, the Fallen Elm, which I thought I might share here. It looks long-winded, but do not be afraid of it — it whisks swiftly along as you read it.

The Fallen Elm

Old elm that murmured in our chimney top
The sweetest anthem autumn ever made
And into mellow whispering calms would drop
When showers fell on thy many coloured shade
And when dark tempests mimic thunder made –
While darkness came as it would strangle light
With the black tempest of a winter night
That rocked thee like a cradle in thy root –
How did I love to hear the winds upbraid
Thy strength without – while all within was mute.
It seasoned comfort to our hearts’ desire,
We felt that kind protection like a friend
And edged our chairs up closer to the fire,
Enjoying comfort that was never penned.
Old favourite tree, thou’st seen time’s changes lower,
Though change till now did never injure thee;
For time beheld thee as her sacred dower
And nature claimed thee her domestic tree.
Storms came and shook thee many a weary hour,
Yet stedfast to thy home thy roots have been;
Summers of thirst parched round thy homely bower
Till earth grew iron – still thy leaves were green.
The children sought thee in thy summer shade
And made their playhouse rings of stick and stone;
The mavis sang and felt himself alone
While in thy leaves his early nest was made,
And I did feel his happiness mine own,
Nought heeding that our friendship was betrayed,
Friend not inanimate – though stocks and stones
There are, and many formed of flesh and bones.
Thou owned a language by which hearts are stirred
Deeper than by a feeling clothed in word,
And speakest now what’s known of every tongue,
Language of pity and the force of wrong.
What cant assumes, what hypocrites will dare,
Speaks home to truth and shows it what they are.
I see a picture which thy fate displays
And learn a lesson from thy destiny;
Self-interest saw thee stand in freedom’s ways –
So thy old shadow must a tyrant be.
Thou’st heard the knave, abusing those in power,
Bawl freedom loud and then oppress the free;
Thou’st sheltered hypocrites in many a shower,
That when in power would never shelter thee.
Thou’st heard the knave supply his canting powers
With wrong’s illusions when he wanted friends;
That bawled for shelter when he lived in showers
And when clouds vanished made thy shade amends –
With axe at root he felled thee to the ground
And barked of freedom – O I hate the sound
Time hears its visions speak, – and age sublime
Hath made thee a disciple unto time.
– It grows the cant term of enslaving tools
To wrong another by the name of right;
Thus came enclosure – ruin was its guide,
But freedom’s cottage soon was thrust aside
And workhouse prisons raised upon the site.
Een nature’s dwellings far away from men,
The common heath, became the spoiler’s prey;
The rabbit had not where to make his den
And labour’s only cow was drove away.
No matter – wrong was right and right was wrong,
And freedom’s bawl was sanction to the song.
– Such was thy ruin, music-making elm;
The right of freedom was to injure thine:
As thou wert served, so would they overwhelm
In freedom’s name the little that is mine.
And there are knaves that brawl for better laws
And cant of tyranny in stronger power
Who glut their vile unsatiated maws
And freedom’s birthright from the weak devour.

In case you were wondering what environmentalism sounded like 200 years ago!

I found myself thinking of how loving a portrait of a tree it is and was reminded of an episode where I came face to face with a childhood book and was in for an unpleasant surprise.


A friend of mine in Istanbul, upon hearing I would be in NYC, asked me to bring back a copy of the Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. I remembered having read it as a child, so I was eager to see it again and went to pick it up first thing. Imagine my surprise when I read it and was overwhelmed by an unavoidable sense that it was entirely misogynistic. This boy just takes and takes from the tree and the tree just gives and gives and never calls the boy on what an utter cad he is being (in fact she is happy, the author tells us again and again) and it only ends when the boy is too tired to take any more from the tree and the tree has nothing to give anyway. I thought, what, is this what mothers are supposed to be? Is this the ideal woman? How could I have read this and just accepted it as a child — has it formed me somehow? I guess some books don’t stand up as well as Good Night Moon to being revisited (endlessly, in that case).

I bought the book and gave it to my friend without comment, because I thought why not let her form her own opinions of the book. And now that I have found this poem, I have decided to adopt it as my favored ode to a tree. There must be many more. If you have any favorites, won’t you let me know?

And with that, the boys and I went out for a walk to visit some of the neighborhood trees…


Little old me

Some of the best ideas are the ones that make us rethink our own. While I was in Istanbul at the end of January, I indulged in one of life’s greater pleasures and visited a bookstore. They had a whole table of the Penguin Great Ideas series, and I hovered over it for a good long while. I eventually walked away with St. Augustine’s Confessions of a Sinner and Henry David Thoreau’s Where I Lived and What I Lived For.
Now, either of these books has plenty of grist for the old mental mill, but just to be superficial about it, let me confess that I didn’t so much as open the Thoreau before falling deep into thought over the quotation on the cover:
“Rather than love, than fame, than money, give me truth.”

It sounds so upright and good, and I can think of people in my life who would wholeheartedly espouse this (I’m married to one of them). Myself, I could easily turn down fame, and we all know what money can’t buy, but therein lies the rub. You see, I’m pretty sure I’d settle for love. And reading that quote, with the stark trees etched beneath it, I felt somehow smaller for that.
Then again, isn’t the truth supposed to hurt? What’s so great about that?