Local Author Spotlight
Why did you write your new book?
For almost twenty years, I taught a Mount Holyoke College seminar on Dickinson in the Emily Dickinson Museum. My students loved learning about the poet in the very rooms where she wrote. When I wrapped the day’s lesson around a pivotal moment in Dickinson’s life, I noticed my students became especially engaged. That reaction gave me the idea of writing a biography of Emily Dickinson that focused on ten transformative days in her life. And because I’ve lived in Amherst for over forty years, I also wanted to give readers a sense of the texture and influence of this remarkable place. I often think of These Fevered Days as my love letter to Amherst.
What was your favorite book growing up?
Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink. A fifth-grade teacher changed my life. Mrs. Nolte gave us a creative writing assignment — the first one I ever had — and I loved it. I felt something click in my brain when I wrote from imagination. Next she asked us to do a research project about our hometown: Florissant, Missouri. I dove in, studying old maps in the local library and reading reminiscences of early settlers in the town historical society. I felt like a detective. And Mrs. Nolte read to us every day after recess. We would come in tired and sweaty, and I remember closing my eyes, putting my head on my hands, and listening to her read Caddie Woodlawn. As she read, I conjured up images in my head of prairie pioneers and endless land. It was magic. The creative writing assignment, plus the research project, and the soothing sound of Mrs. Nolte’s voice pointed me in the direction my life would take. I wish I could have thanked her.
Martha's Favorite Books (with her comments)
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. You don’t grow up on the banks of the Mississippi River without Mark Twain seeping into your consciousness. Huck’s “All right then, I’ll go to hell,” is as good a motto as I’ve ever had.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. It was the first book I read that combined the techniques of storytelling with the reportage of nonfiction. I know there are problems with the book — but it knocked my socks off for showing me what narrative nonfiction could do.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Vast, sprawling, and thoroughly engaging. There’s never been a better opening to a novel. Sentence fragments and all.
The writings of Audre Lorde. I have ditched most of the brain cells for everything I taught over the years in gender studies classes, but not Audre Lorde. Sister Outsider and Zami will always stay with me.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. I’m a big fan of graphic novels, and Fun Home hits it out of the park. Searing, hilarious, and uncompromising.
Do you have a favorite book that is set in or about the Pioneer Valley or New England?
Though it ranges farther afield, John McPhee’s The Founding Fish has some great scenes of shad fishing at the Holyoke dam, where I too go to lose tackle and envy the luck of others during the annual spring run. I would read anything by McPhee, the longtime New Yorker writer who first hooked me decades ago with an entire book on oranges.
Why did you write your new book?
I wish I could tell you that I predicted the entire 2020 pandemic and decided to write Cardboard Box Engineering because I knew families would be stuck inside with bored children and piles of shipping boxes. But when I began, all I had was the suspicion that today’s digital generation might like the chance to build cool stuff with their own hands. I figured projects that involved using knives, saws, pointed skewers, and hot glue guns might be enough to lure them from their screens. But I also saw the book as having a social payoff. The more kids tinkering with cardboard today, I reasoned, the more inventors and engineers we’ll have tomorrow, helping create a more sustainable world.
I still recall reading My Side of the Mountain by Jean George, and for years afterward wishing I could live in a hollow tree with a pet falcon. Combined with my Ranger Rick magazines, that book was my gateway drug to environmental awareness, which in turn led me to an appreciation for the sciences. Those passions have only intensified: I am now a staunch defender of the natural world (except for the freeloading creatures eating my garden — you know who you are!), and I’ll rant at length about why reason-based humanism represents our best hope for a livable future. Blame it all on Jean George.
Jonathan's Favorite Books(with his comments)
The New Victory Garden by Bob Thomson. I acquired this how-to guide back in 1987, when I was planting my first vegetable gardens, and it’s been a trusted resource ever since. It approaches gardening as a yearlong campaign, with each chapter presenting a month’s tasks. My only quibble is it doesn’t offer psychological counseling to help with gardening’s inevitable, soul-crushing disappointments.
You Can Teach Hitting by Dusty Baker (and others). A quirky pick, I realize, but one that baseball coaches and players will appreciate. I bought my now dog-eared copy 20 years ago when I was enlisted to coach my son’s Little League team. The design, photography, and clear language throughout all help ease the pain of what every kid (and creaky old-timer) soon discovers: hitting a baseball consistently is very difficult. Baker’s MLB success makes him a voice of authority, but what comes across even more strongly is his compassion for those of us whose love for the game far exceeds our ability to play it.
Other books that have left an impression:
Straight Man by Richard Russo – has hilarious resonance for anyone living in a college town.
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby – let me hang out with characters who are even more neurotic and obsessed with music than I am.
Growing Up by Russell Baker – showed me how a gifted journalist can sift significance from life’s everyday moments.