Books Living

Lazy Afternoon

A grey, soggy Sunday afternoon just a week before Christmas. Our weather is now shifting aggressively into winter, as the rain cycle begins its annual turn once again. Blustery southerly winds accompany the sheets of water, forming curtains that almost shimmer out the front window. The high trees on the hill groan as they sway. Long, lingering dark nights, such brief daylight – yes, mid-December days in northern California.

Yesterday morning browsing at Kepler’s, I came across This Is My Best – Great Writers Share Their Favorite Work, edited by Kathy Kiernan and Retha Powers (published by Chronicle Books earlier this year). Tucked away as it was in the middle of the fiction table, I must have passed it by many times as browsing for new fiction isn’t often my nature. Featuring an introductory explanation by the writer followed by the writer’s “best” work, the book is a delight to browse – and mine led me to a story by Barry Lopez titled “The Mappist“. More on that in a moment.

I was tickled by the book’s premise: tell us about your best – best ever – work. Apparently a common question at book readings, some of the authors swept across their work in their introductions before settling on their choice. Lopez was different than most, coming right to the point about The Mappist – and he drew me right into the story.

I’ve read some of Lopez’s earlier nature work but none of his fiction. Reading The Mappist makes me want to read more. One of the short stories included in one of Lopez’s collections from a few years ago, the story is told in the first person. The narrator begins by mentioning a book he read and enjoyed as an undergraduate that had particular impact. As he continues his course work, he reads several other books – all with the examination of cities of the world as their theme. The stories, while published under the names of different authors, appear to have all been written, in that same style of the first, by the same man.

The rest of the story is a whole lot of fun as Lopez turns over the stones to figure out the linkage – and more. I won’t say more lest I spoil your fun. But the story’s last few sentences, which if read here won’t spoil the story for you, particularly illustrate the tight and powerful writing of Lopez.

After a few moments I turned off the headlights and rolled down the window. I listened to the tires crushing gravel in the roadbed. The sound of it helped me hold the road, together with instinct and the memory of earlier having driven it. I felt the volume of space beneath the clear, star-ridden sky, and moved over the dark prairie like a barn-bound horse.

Wow, superb! Lopez says this is his best – and I believe him!

That’s a very tough question for me to put my finger on, what would I consider my best work? No masterworks in my collection, for sure, but it’s a fascinating question to mull over in my mind – all the while watching the greys darken as the rain briefly pauses – outside my front window on this lazy Sunday afternoon.

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