Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Lela Nargi

Lela Nargi is a freelance reporter and author of books – some about food; some about material culture and knitting; and most recently, about bees, in the form of her first children’s book, The Honeybee Man (Schwartz & Wade/Random House, March 2011). She’s written numerous essays for such journals as Gastronomica, Petits Propos Culinaires, Descant, and Natural Bridge.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m in that weird holding pattern between books – wanting to read but not able to find just the right thing. Sometimes, this has to do with the fact that I’m in the process of writing a book or an essay and I’m purposefully not reading – I’ve found, to my horror, that I accidentally steal ideas, phrases, voices and not reading ensures that I stay honest. But at the moment, I’m just plain uninspired by the books I’ve got lying around.

Someone recently gave me a novel they thought I’d like, but I lost interest after a few pages. Novels are tricky. Those I enjoy are few and far between and usually not contemporary: Salinger’s Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters (which I’m actually thinking of picking up again – maybe this afternoon, it’s raining here in Brooklyn, perfect Salinger weather); The Moviegoer, Walker Percy’s first (and somewhat imperfect) first novel; T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, which I absolutely cannot wait to read to my daughter, once she’s old enough to be patient for the endless riveting descriptions of falconry and knightly arms and other arcana; Lolita of course. I don’t like to read just for reading’s sake; I don’t enjoy quick, simple reads to pass the time. I want to lose myself in language, the more unexpected the better. I’ve only ever made it through the first 75 pages of Ulysses (three times), but I’ve enjoyed every minute that I was reading and re-reading it.

I’m more frequently drawn to nonfiction, and I just put a library hold on To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron. I hope it will be as engrossing as some of my favorite “travel” books: The Black Tents of Arabia by Carl Raswan, Aldo Buzzi’s Journey to the Land of the Flies; My Journey to Lhasa by Alexandra David-Neel; Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, which I admit, made me angry in fits and starts as I read it. This may not have been the case 10 years ago but now, as a parent, the idea of abandoning my young child (and one whose other parent has just died) in order to undertake my own spiritual journey, strikes me as self-indulgent in the extreme. Still, this didn’t impede my enjoyment – I don’t mind having conversations and arguments with the books I’m reading.

This brings me around neatly enough to the other category of book that is consistently appreciated in my house: the children’s book. There are two reasons for this. First, I’m someone’s parent and this someone, at the age of 7-1/2, still enjoys being read to at bedtime – and I am in absolutely no hurry to see this tradition come to an end. We’re in the process of finishing up J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, but we’re both finding ourselves in a bit over our heads. Some of the language eludes even me, which does not make for relaxing pre-bed story time. Past favorites have been Edward Eager’s books about magic; The House of Arden and The Magic City by Eager’s chief literary influence, the truly remarkable storyteller E. Nesbit; and the Little House on the Prairie series. I literally wept aloud as I read Wilder’s descriptions of her family’s first Christmas on the prairie, when Santa (in the unlikely guise of neighbor Mr. Edwards) has brought her and Mary each a tin cup, a candy cane, a heart-shaped cake and, making the whole experience almost too marvelous for them to bear, a shiny new penny. That, and her intense descriptions of Indians preparing for battle in their camps by the creek then finally, after days of terrifying war cries piercing the night, filing past the Ingalls' home on their horses, hundreds of them with their “proud straight” backs and eagle feathers waving on their heads and their “straight black hair” blowing in the wind. It’s not often I’ve felt the weight and fascination of American history. Man, do these books ever drive it home.

Second, I’ve just published my first children’s book, The Honeybee Man, about an urban apiarist and his tender relationship with his bees. Ever since I signed the contract with Random House three years ago, I’ve been inundated with requests from friends and acquaintances for my editor’s name, a contact email for my agent. It seems everyone has an idea for a children’s picture book; and how hard could one be to write, really? The truth is, amazingly hard. Trying to follow-up with a second one now, and finding the experience to be the greatest challenge of my writing career, I’m astounded that I ever managed to hammer out the first one. And that the bookshelves are teaming with excellent examples written by myriad excellent authors. I didn’t appreciate the genius of Sendak, Jean de Brunhoff, Ruth Kraus, Margaret Wise Brown, and Arnold Lobel before I wrote a kid’s book of my own. Well, yes I did, but I certainly did not fathom the challenges and complexities that lie behind a slim little picture-laden volume of 1,000 words. In a picture book more even than in a short story – which so many people believe to be the ultimate literary difficulty – the words you DO NOT write are ever so more relevant than those that you do. How do you flesh out a complete and engaging story, replete with emotional impact and global immediacy, in this minuscule space? I swear, it’s magic. Now I re-read my own childhood favorites – about wild things and talking elephants, giant carrots and runaway bunnies, best frog-and-toad friends – and am duly astonished.
Visit Lela Nargi's website and blog.

Read--Coffee with a Canine: Lela Nargi and Jaffa.

--Marshal Zeringue