City Lights: 162 pp., $16.95 paper
"Some things, no matter how far apart, occur again the same. They happen the same again and over again. The same except for different, and forever." Now that we are swimming in information, facts often seem more like flotsam than train tracks leading anywhere. The circle seems ever more appropriate as the shape of history.
Rebecca Brown, info-entrepreneur, can write her own history, pairing, for example, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Brian Wilson (who grew up in Hawthorne, Calif.). "Hawthorne, writer from the east, and Hawthorne, suburb in the west, are twisted in a Mobius strip: the child and its evil twin, the maker and its son. The City on the Hill became the suburb in the sand."
Out of this archaeology comes a new view of Puritanism, scarlet letters, dreams of the Founding Fathers. Snail paths intersect at junctions (matrices) formed by common names and places. Brown admits to being a nostalgic child (nostalgia as a kind of pain, "The pain of returning returns . . . the pain of leaving what you left / and knowing what you wanted never was.")
The essays in "American Romances" cover a lot of ground: listening, faith, invisibility, extreme reading, the West. They practically read themselves, that's how much fun they are.
The Perfect Fruit
Good Breeding, Bad Seeds, and the Hunt for the Elusive Pluot
Bloomsbury: 228 pp., $25
Chip Brantley was 27, living in L.A., working as a Web producer in Culver City. He was "skimming the world's muchness," always the best man, never the groom; interested in "surfing, reforestation, orienteering, improv theatre, home brewing, bass guitar, bullfighting" et cetera, et cetera. Two things happened: He fell in love with the woman he would marry and he fell in love, one day at the Culver City Farmers Market, with a fruit. It was the pluot, a combination plum and apricot, the brainchild of a world famous fruit breeder from the San Joaquin Valley, octogenarian Floyd Zaiger. "When I bit into it," Brantley writes, "it felt almost liquid, like plum jelly." He bought five pounds and found a focus, a thing, a purpose. With great humor, a love of detail and the kind of curiosity that opens one roomful of questions after another, Brantley leads us through the history of plums, the San Joaquin Valley, fruit breeding and the deep connections between food and love.
Following the Water
A Hydromancer's Notebook
David M. Carroll
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 188 pp., $24
"What good is it to be alive on Earth and never come to know at least the place where one lives?" asks writer, artist and naturalist David M. Carroll, who has spent the last 21 years writing about water and wetlands; turtles, frogs and swamp creatures. This collection of notes and drawings runs from March to November; from the first days of spring, the "season of remembering," when the water is "set free," to the long shadows and glittering light of early winter, when the "alder shadows creep across the snow," and the crows begin to caw. Carroll writes about turtles that emerge from hibernation missing legs that have been eaten by predators (mainly otters). He marvels at mayflies, gray tree frogs, red deer and gray foxes. His detailed, beautifully shaded drawings illuminate the text; his patience is contagious. "There are no empty hours in these wild places," he writes, "no unit of time in which nothing happens."