Curled up as I am in the south brown chair at 3rd Crow Wing—there are two brown chairs in the living room—in front of the picture window as the sun brightens the living room in the late afternoon hours, my view is as much of the north wall of the living room as it is the picture window towards the lake. The first day at the Cabin, I hauled various wooden boxes from their places around the Cabin and arranged them into a bookshelf system, something I’d seen done a few times and always wanted to try. The Cabin is full of these wooden boxes, orange crates, peach crates, Hauenstein beer crates from the brewery in New Ulm, where my mother grew up. Some boxes go horizontal, some go vertical, and I arrange them in various patterns until the composition pleases me. Then I start putting books on my new shelves.
I have books for the summer that need a home, the books I’ve hauled north so I can complete my comprehensives this summer, books that I’ve rescued from various thrift stores, and those I’ve ordered from Amazon since I arrived. I’ve spent time at the local library once or twice a week, but I find myself strangely disappointed by its selection. I think that if I returned to Hubbard County to live, I would be spending a lot of money buying books, filling up every inch of wall space with bookshelves packed with colored spines of stories.
But my parents have been in and out of 3rd Crow Wing in the last few weeks, selling their house, moving Gram from her assisted living here to her new place in Minneapolis. They and their puppy, Daisy, have been sleeping in their camper, not the house. The first night they were here, we watched Chocolat, and my mother and I were surprised that my father stayed awake for it. But watching that movie and Vianne’s magical knack for picking someone’s favorite chocolate concoction, I was reminded of something: I want to be that kind of savant for those looking for books in my shelves. I want to be that person that someone comes to my house and says, “I need something to read,” and I can put a pensive finger to my lips, look across the spines of the books there, and pick out something that I know the person will like. The kind of book that they never knew they couldn’t live without.
I may need more books for this.
Sometimes, already, I get to do this, but it’s harder when my family is so far away from my library. My mother is the most willing to take my suggestions. She doesn’t like violence, likes a satisfying ending. She likes mysteries, but not too dark. For her, I’ll pick Nevada Barr off my shelves, or Kathy Reichs. She likes her Louis L’Amours—the only author that my parents can both agree on. My father, however, is a tougher sell. Not because I can’t read him, but because he’s stubborn. I can tell him that he’ll love Lee Child until I run out of oxygen, but that man will find every excuse not to read them until he has no other options left to him—and then he reads them, loves them, and reads everything they ever wrote. It’s gotten to the point where I look at him, shake my head, and scold, “Just read the damn book already!” He tends not to remember that I’ve never steered him wrong yet. It’s that first, hard step to get him into the pages that’s the obstacle. I’d give my mother Tana French, but not my father. My father likes strong, male protagonists. I wonder if I could get him to read Nevada Barr, though, given that her protagonist is a park ranger in various national parks. I will try. After he reads Dennis Lehane.
My sisters are trickier. K2 likes clever, witty fiction. For her I’ll pull down Jennifer Crusie, though lately she’s been engulfed by Hunger Games and Game of Thrones—neither of which series I own. For years, K2 and I traded the same copy of The Count of Monte Cristo and I suspect she still has it, hoarding it somewhere. K2, I would give what I call “critical imagination” books—spinoffs of various classics, like Mrs. Dewinter or Rebecca’s Tale, spinoffs of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. After Christmas one year, I gave her the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice (the one with Colin Firth), and two Jane Austen spinoffs—the Jane Austen Book Club and another variation of Pride and Prejudice.
K3, I once made the mistake of giving popular fiction, which I knew was wrong when I handed it to her, but I somehow did it anyway. I don’t think she ever read it. K3 prefers nonfiction, but political nonfiction, political memoirs, Michael Pollan, Jonathan Safran Foer, and those. K3 is more likely to read CNN before bed rather than a book, so she is incredibly well-informed. I did give her David Sedaris once, but that felt vaguely wrong too. For all that she is my sister, she is my youngest sister, four years younger, and she is still as much a mystery today in our adulthood as she was when we were children. I do want her to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, though.
I also want to be the Aunt Karen (or right now, Aunt Kinny) who has the magical bookshelves for C., my blond dynamo of a niece, to pull from. I collected children’s books long before I ever knew she would arrive, just for the promise of nieces and nephews who would someday visit my house. For birthdays, I give my goddaughter Emily and my nieces-by-friendship-not-blood Harper and Violet books. Violet got The Little Blue Truck for her first birthday. But I want my shelves to be books that offer something new and exciting anytime my nieces come to visit, books for when they’re toddlers, books for when they’re starting to read, books that I can read to them at bedtime, books they can curl up with when they’re cuddled up next to the picture window at 3rd Crow Wing, watching a hummingbird named Harlan at the feeder.
Right now, my crates and crates of children’s books are in the basement of K2’s house, on the lower shelves of their living room bookshelf, just waiting for C. to pull them down. Sometimes, C. double-fists her books: sitting with her mom, or K3, or her Nana, as they’re reading to her and C. has a different book open on her lap.