Photo: boy sleeping bag Maine

Nature provides "gifts that last" in rural Maine, the stage for Settled in the Wild.

Photograph by Jose Aze, Aurora Photos

By Don George

January 2010

Book of the Month:
Settled in the Wild,
by Susan Hand Shetterly

In one of the first essays in this collection, Susan Hand Shetterly recounts how she used to walk through the woods around her house in rural Maine with her infant daughter cradled in a carrier on her back: "I believed that even if she fell asleep, which she always did, the trees, the tracks of wild animals in the snow, the dead leaves rattling on the branches, the hoot of an owl, a grouse feeding on birch catkins—everything—would pass into her life and make it good....These are gifts that last."

This passage encapsulates many of the riches of this lovely book, a gathering of 26 essays that probe, ponder, and celebrate life and landscape on "the edge of town," as the subtitle places it. In a succession of wise, quiet, attentive pieces, Shetterly introduces us to a world resplendent with wild things: loons, cormorants, coyote, red oaks, wild turkeys, deer, mackerel, alders, alewives, and white pines, among others. Like Annie Dillard, Shetterly slows herself down and takes the time first to really apprehend these things, and then to evoke them for us. With poetic precision and cadence, she conjures the way a late March day is "lacquered in last night's cold rain," the high, thin calls bay-breasted warblers make as they head south through the night sky, the painstaking jump-flap-flap steps a young raven makes as he teaches himself to fly. In so doing, she forces us to slow down with her, and to marvel at the soul-sustaining Maine wilderness.

Reading these pieces transported me to the woods behind my childhood house in Connecticut, where I sloshed after deer through glinting streams, sat enrapt under song-strung boughs, and scrunched through autumn-smelling leaves. Shetterly showed me anew how such precious places imprint themselves on us, waiting for the moment when we slow down and rediscover them—one more lasting gift of this bountiful book.

Life Within War

Three new novels explore the clash of class, politics, faith, and family when in the throes of war. Anastasia Hobbet deftly portrays the shellshocked city of Kuwait during a brief pause between Gulf War conflicts in Small Kingdoms, which follows a set of misfits—a California doctor, an Arabic teacher, an Indian cook, an American housewife, a wealthy Muslim native—who band together to stop a murderer who is targeting housemaids. Beneath the Lion's Gaze, Maaza Mengiste's debut novel set during Ethiopia's 1974 revolution, lyrically depicts a family's struggles while their country faces drought, famine, and mutiny. Protagonist Hailu, a doctor in Addis Ababa, must protect his sons from violence and wrangle with their dueling ideologies, all while trying to evade the military junta that threatens his life. It's tough to know who to believe in Land of Marvels, the new book from Booker Prize-winner Barry Unsworth, set in the rising chaos of pre-WWI Mesopotamia. A planned railway project through the desert becomes a battleground between a British archaeologist, a German oil industrialist, and an Arab confidence man who is duping them both.

Sweet Temptations

The salivary glands go into overdrive when perusing the tantalizing photos in Paris Patisseries: History, Shops, Recipes, an illustrated tour of the macaroons, mousses, and croissants that make any Francophile swoon. Twenty pastry chefs have collaborated to share their signature recipes and celebrate the tradition of French baking, charting its evolution and looking to the future generation of exciting new pastry innovators. Sweet tooth not satiated? The book includes the addresses of the best patisseries and tea rooms in Paris.

One Last Thing: A Literary Roadmap of Europe

Some of my most telling guides to foreign places have been fiction writers, from Nikos Kazantzakis and Yasunari Kawabata to James Joyce and W. Somerset Maugham. So I was excited to discover Best European Fiction 2010, the first volume in a new series dedicated to introducing American readers to noteworthy contemporary European writers. With short stories and novel excerpts from 30 countries, alphabetically spanning Albania to the United Kingdom and stylistically encompassing a spectrum from Belgian sci-fi to Lithuanian metafiction to Latvian realism, this ambitious anthology presents a provocative mosaic-map of 21st-century Europe's spiritual, cultural, and intellectual geography.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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