The Greening Season
ON MY BOOKSHELF
By Anita Diamant
This assignment fell to me in the spring, and although I didn’t plan it, much of what I read dovetailed perfectly with the greening season.
Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Prodigal Summer, begins in May in a riot of birdsong, worm-work, and blossoms. Sex drips from every page—and the humans are the least of it. Kingsolver’s Appalachian spring is saturated with pheromones, mating rituals, and hatchlings. As I walked my dog under unfurling suburban trees, I was inspired to pay better-than-usual attention to the season. And though on some pages I wished for a shorter lecture about the importance of predators in the natural order of field and stream, I closed the book with gratitude for all I had learned and a new tenderness for Papa Darwin, who got so much of it right.
After that, I veered to a novel set in Tel Aviv in 1946, which was actually a bit of research, since I have embarked on a new book set in Palestine in 1945. Usually, when I’m writing fiction, I avoid novels like poison ivy, and given the current climate, why risk it? (A Million Little Lies, anyone? Or How Anita Read Someone Else’s Book, Forgot All About It, and Unintentionally Regurgitated Enough of the Original to be Sued.)
But a young Israeli told me that I should take a look at When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant to learn about Tel Aviv during the period, and since none of my characters was ever going to set foot in Tel Aviv, I took the risk and enjoyed meeting an odd crew of European refugees starting new lives in the new city of white Bauhaus apartment buildings. I had a hard time with the passivity of the first-person narrator, however; a young British woman named Evelyn Sert. I’ve ever met anyone quite so much the empty vessel, and I frequently wanted to shake her. To be fair, I had just spent a week in Barbara Kingsolver’s world, where women pull themselves together even after they’ve been tragically widowed, accidentally gotten pregnant, or outlived everyone they ever loved.
For Mother’s Day, my husband, Jim, gave me a copy of Nine Horses by Billy Collins, because I keep a copy on my nightstand of Sailing Alone Around the Room, and pick it up from time to time. “Listen to this,” I say to Jim, and read him something about a dog, or a birthday, or a song on the radio. Mary Oliver’s Why I Wake Early is in the same pile, thrumming to the same natural rhythms that make Kingsolver’s heart race. I love Oliver’s poems, but too many in one sitting makes me feel lonesome. Billy Collins is inspired by walks in the woods, too, but then he comes inside and pours himself a glass of wine. He writes about writing and running errands. He describes himself as “an animal in pajamas.”
I think of him as a domestic poet, which makes him sort of “feminine,” in the old-fashioned sense. Perhaps that is why he gets less respect than Oliver (Pulitizer Prize, National Book Award). From what I’ve read, she sticks pretty much to big ticket subjects: Nature and the Soul.
“It is difficult not to be charmed by Collins,” said the New York Review of Books, as though NTRB would prefer not to be charmed by someone who wrote a poem about “Three Blind Mice” and makes fun of himself and of precious enterprise of poetry itself. I picked up Sailing Alone Around the Room and reread the one about the neighbor’s dog that will not stop barking; it is called, “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House.”
Anita Diamant’s most recent novel is The Last Days of Dogtown, in paperback July 2006. She has also published the novel, Good Harbor, as well as a collection of essays, and six nonfiction books about contemporary Jewish life. She is best known for her first work of fiction, The Red Tent.