Sunday, October 13, 2013

Stray Books

Our Muppet dog is on antibiotics this week, which means both dogs get food twice a day, a mix of wet and dry, because Muppet dog needs to be encouraged to eat in case the pill upsets his stomach and because I always fail my escape-feeling-guilty saving throw versus the otter daughter's reproachful expressions. The otter daughter only gets pumpkin purée mixed with her food, as she is on a diet.

The diet came about because we almost never walk in this neighborhood of nameless neighbors, stray dogs, and reckless cars. We sit on the couch together; I read, the otter daughter slides along the surface of the blankets, twists belly-up, and snoozes. She dreams of running and kicks my hip. I dream of walks I used to take and rub her tummy until the kicking stops. All of this folderol requires a certain kind of book, reminiscent or adventurous, slim, easy to move from the page to your thoughts and back again. Poetry works well.

Last week, the perfect book came unexpectedly into my hands while I was visiting the library. Am I the only who checks out books because I feel guilty for glancing at them, prejudging them, and putting them back on the shelf? This is what I did with Kathi Appelt's My Father's Summers. In this book, Ms. Appelt limns her memories of her childhood in Houston before and after her parent's divorce in brief paragraph poem chapters. These chapters are illustrated by family photos and the book feels like a fascinating photo album you might have found tucked away in someone's closet. A behind-the-scenes extra for the sunny family picture that made the official family album. None of which I knew when I pulled it off metal shelf, glanced at the blurb, thought "depressing!" In that judgy mental singsong, and shoved it back on the shelf.

I moved on. But...Houston! Memoir of a contemporary in a city you've found fascinating ever since your mother declared it was horrible and that she hated it and then sent you to college there! And how many people end up down on the floor, skimming that lower shelf? I glanced back and felt the first hopeful wag of its imaginary tail. It was coming home with me and it would be the first thing I read, curled up on the couch with the otter daughter wedged against my hip. Then, the specificity and brevity of each chapter, the whisking from scene to scene, began to build a momentum that slipped me from page to page, each vignette slipping like a film across the surface of my own memories.

It's not that we shared childhood experiences per se, but the author's voice encouraged a dialogue of memory--it amazes me how memoirists manage the impression of remembering in flashes of narrative that are organized but feel like thought, drained of the chaos but retaining its character.

Just writing this post I can feel the difficulty of that.

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