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Wednesday, 25 October 2006 00:00

Sifting through the stack

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For many people, autumn means more than colorful leaves and blue, crisp days. For them fall is, like spring, a time for cleaning, a time for putting the house in order for the winter. Homeowners clean the dead grass off the mower before storing it; they repair the storm windows; they clean out the gutters; they break out blankets and winter coats — and wistfully put away the swimming suits and shorts until next year.

 

This week I need to apply these same principles of order to the ever-growing stack of books at my elbow (actually, at both elbows). In order to reduce the size of these stacks and to give these books some well-deserved attention, I’ve read fast, too fast perhaps. Sometimes I felt as though I was in one of those grotesque eating contests — only I was jamming books into my belly instead of hot dogs.

David Miller’s Awol on the Appalachian Trail (ISBN 1-59594-056-1, $15.95) allows us to sample the pleasures and the pains of hiking 2,172 miles from Georgia to Maine. Miller has a knack for storytelling and for describing his fellow trekkers. He writes about himself as well, of course, but he does so without any great show of conceit or inflated pride. Readers who are considering the Trail or who simply enjoy being in the outdoors will find this book most appealing, but Miller’s talent should bring him an even larger audience. In this passage, he has just encountered a teenage day-hiker who is disgruntled by the Trail.

“Not everyone needs to be a hiker, but using ‘not my thing’ is habit forming. Activities that even momentarily cause discomfort, that don’t provide immediate positive feedback, are subtracted from the realm of experience. We are outraged when we are constrained by others, but willfully, unwittingly put limits on ourselves .... The boy I saw struggling could conclude that he will get in shape .... Or he may realize that the outing was not as bleak as he imagined and resolve to keep a better attitude. These are solutions that build confidence and put no bounds on future opportunities.”

Two quibbles about Awol on the Appalachian Trail: the photographs included in the book are amateurish, add little to the story, and detract from the professional feeling of the text. Second, Awol — this should properly be written AWOL — doesn’t fit Miller’s circumstances; he quit his job. The title’s clever, but doesn’t fit the book.

In Where Waters Flow: A Lifelong Love Affair with Wild Rivers (ISBN 09779314-0-4, $26.95), Doug Woodward writes of his many adventures canoeing and kayaking rivers here in the Southern Appalachian mountains as well as in other parts of the United States, including Alaska. Woodward worked as a technical adviser on the river scenes of the movie “Deliverance” and has also instructed many people in the ways of the river, including President Jimmy Carter. Though he writes in a lively style, Woodward’s book is sometimes as difficult to follow as the rivers he describes. Details tend to jam up his narrative, and armchair paddlers may grow tired of going back and forth in the book to make sense of the narrative. Like Miller’s Awol, Where Waters Flow contains photographs better left in a photo album than in a book.

Claire Messud’s novel The Emperor’s Children (ISBN 0-307-264-X, $25) sweeps us into the lives of three “thirty-somethings” living in New York in the months before 9/11. Marina Thwaite, the daughter of a celebrated writer, her friend Danielle who is a television producer, and Julius, a freelance essayist, reveal the complications and absurdities that attend earning a living in the Big Apple. They also serve, along with Frederick “Bootie Tubbs, Marina’s cousin, to show us how the lives of young New Yorkers, of all Americans, changed dramatically after the September terrorist assaults.

The San Francisco Chronicle describes Messud as having “a literary intelligence far surpassing most other writers of her generation.” Given her competition — more and more, novels these days bear imprint of the MFA and the literary workshop — such praise may be hollow indeed, yet most readers will welcome a change from the usual academy-generated novel. Here, for example, Messud describes a visit from Danielle to Marina.

“Marina’s room was disorganized, in as charming a way as its owner. The chair at her desk was draped with discarded clothes, her dresser cluttered with lipsticks, pens, and an uncapped bottle of perfume, its amber liquid illuminated by the candle’s flickering flame. The bed was messily made up, imprinted with the ghost of Marina’s supine form, and scattered with a few books and a splayed sweater. The lamps shone low, their lights eggy, and through the half-open closet door, Danielle could see competing bursts and tufts of clothing, and a jumbled pile of shoes.”

This splendid stuff is a delight to ear and eye.

Finally, readers of John Dunning’s Cliff Janeway novels, the ongoing story of the former cop who becomes a used and rare bookseller but who still hunts down the bad guys, will be delighted to know that Janeway is back. In Dunning’s latest novel, The Bookwoman’s Last Fling (ISBN 0-7432-8945-5, $25), the bookseller-detective goes behind the scenes of the racetrack circuit to track down missing rare books and a possible murderer. As he searches for the missing volumes in the deceased Candace Geirger’s invaluable collection of children’s books, and as he tries to determine whether Candace died of natural causes, Janeway meets characters ranging from Candace’s wealthy daughter, a woman who uses her money to help injured animals, to the men who train the horses on the track. In his youth John Dunning himself worked with horses at several tracks, and he brings his knowledge of that world and of books alive in this latest novel.

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