Post Road Magazine #8

Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr and Of Kinkajous, Capybaras, Horned Beetles, Seledangs, and the Oddest and Most Wonderful Mammals, Insects, Birds, and Plants of Our World by Jeanne K. Hanson and Deane Morrison -Gwendolen Gross

These two books do not go together. But of course, in some ways, they do. I've always been fond of odd associations: when I lived in San Francisco, my neighbors on hilly Valley Street constructed wild winter wonderland displays amidst their cacti-strewn, no-water landscaping, precipitous chunk of yard.

But these books are my neighbors as well; they sit on my shelves along with whatever else I haven't given away or relegated to the basement where there's space and cool, even in the summer.

I was lucky enough to meet Harriet Doerr at her Pasadena home, where, mostly blind, she gave me a tour of her garden and talked about writing characters. In the way she talked about both flowers and people, she revealed an exquisite way of seeing, the kind of vision—the eye—poets strive for, a kind of synesthesia of the known and the invented, of sensory reality and association. Stones for Ibarra, Doerr's first novel, describes another kind of vision: the vision afforded by distance. The just-over and just-under forty couple who unfold themselves for the lens of her book are Americans who move to a small village in Mexico to reopen a copper mine. Doerr manages to pull off these second and third sentences, “The driver of the station wagon is Richard Everton, a blue-eyed, black-haired stubborn man who will die thirty years sooner than he now imagines. On the seat beside him is his wife, Sara, who imagines neither his death nor her own, imminent or remote as they may be.” We care about them, through the course of her book, the way we care for all mortals we know and believe and eat and talk with, even learning their mistakes and the other perspectives around them, even knowing about the death she has allowed us to foresee. Consider This, Senora, her second novel, is richly peopled as well; perhaps it's an easier read, but no less passionate, no less worth the journey.

Of Kinkajous, Capybaras, Horned Beetles, Seledangs, and the Oddest and Most Wonderful Mammals, Insects, Birds, and Plants of Our World by Jeanne K. Hanson and Deane Morrison may not live up to the length and superlatives of its title, but it's as refreshing as a walk through a please-touch science museum. I open it when I'm thinking we humans have far too complicated brains. Of course we do! Our companions in evolutionary splendor include orchids that mimic the shape or smell of female insects so the males of the insects' species will try to mate with them and in the process, pollinate. The word “orchid,” Hanson and Morrison tell us, comes from the Greek word for testicle. A clown fish, explains a section called “Sex Changes in the Wild,” changes from male to female when his mate dies. The book's organized into vignettes; there's nothing encyclopedic about it, except if you like to open encyclopedias (okay, I do) for brief hits of information. Not enough to write a thesis, just enough to start making all kinds of analogies. A small museum of wonders on the premises.

I think of San Francisco, and I think of winter, of gnomes, sleighs, fake snow, blooming ice plant, cacti, the works. When I sat down to write this I thought: what can I recommend that hasn't already graced a hundred Staff Recommendation tables? Those you know about already, but still, when I started a list, it was quickly longer than the word limit by itself. So I picked just two books, one emotionally profound, the other a reflection of our factually tantalized tastes, but both well worth a read •

Gwendolen Gross is the author of the novels Field Guide and Getting Out. Book Magazine has dubbed her “the reigning queen of women's adventure fiction,” and despite that, she lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children.

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