Friday, October 03, 2014

Clea Simon, Guest Blogger

Do you have a favorite book that you re-read? Is there something special that once touched your heart, and still does? Author Clea Simon does, and she's willing to share it with us today.

What I’m (Re-)Reading

By Clea Simon

I’m writing again. I’m always writing, but what I’d really like to be doing is mucking about in boats. For although anyone walking into my book-strewn office might think they see an adult female human seated at her desk, in my heart of hearts I am much smaller and covered in fur.

Maybe it’s because I write about cats – both in my nonfiction and, more recently, in my two mystery series. Maybe it’s because of all the discussion in the media about YA and “adult” fiction, about what we should read and what we do read. Whatever the source, I have learned to accept this truth: In my heart of hearts, I am one of the strange and personable animals who populate Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows.”

I might be Rat, not a nasty city creature but a river rat, whom we first meet as he readies his handy
little rowboat for an excursion. Stuck here at my desk, I often feel like old Badger, who stays grumbling in his den unless serious action is called for. Many times, I know, I act like Toad of Toad Hall, carried away by my enthusiasms and impulsive actions. But in my heart, I am Mole, clumsy and bumbling, an innocent at heart who emerges out of his hole (and his spring cleaning) just as I do when a manuscript has finally been submitted, blinking and amazed by the great world around me. As Mole and Rat set out on the river – and on their adventure – I rediscover a universe outside of my den once again too.

Grahame’s 1908 classic has sentimental appeal for me. While I have browsed with interest (i.e., book lust) the 2009 The Annotated Wind in the Willows (Norton), the one I invariably return to is my trusty 1970s Magnum paperback, “larger type for easy reading,” which introduced me to this marvelous fantasy tale back when reading was still a relatively new joy. Given to me by a beloved camp counselor one summer when I was stuck, sick with fever, in the camp infirmary for what seemed an interminable period, it is dog-eared and yellowed. Its cover illustration – Toad in his motorcar, chasing Rat and Mole off the road – evokes memories of that infirmary stay, the sick weariness and the white tiles. But it also calls to mind the escape that a great book provides. As I set off with Mole and Rat, I am freed from illness and infirmity. I am, rather like that reckless Toad, having an adventure.

A recent re-reading of this odd little classic reminded me quite strongly of two things. The first is how much I envy any of you who haven’t read it yet. You have a great discovery ahead of you – the story of a friendship, of trials faced, and battles won. A truly magical and fully imagined world set in the quiet English countryside.

The second realization is how unlikely a children’s book this is. While critics have pointed out the oddity of one particular chapter in which the pagan god Pan appears and helps find a lost baby Otter, others note the strange proportions of a book in which toads drive motor cars and are arrested by human police. Still others tut-tut about the real sense of danger that pervades these small animals’ sojourn in the great woods.

These traits do make the book interesting reading – and re-reading – for us more adult readers, and each time I pick it up again, I am surprised once more by its audacity. But although “Wind in the Willows” is unique, it is not alone. As any fan of C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” or any number of more contemporary dystopian YA novels knows, children can read difficult books, with scary themes and complicated issues at stake. They want to. In the pages of a book, we can conquer the world.

Which may explain why I re-read this book (as well as the others mentioned above) at regular intervals. Maybe it is a children’s classic, aimed at little ones who are learning about the larger world. But “The Wind in the Willows” is also a book for all of us. In our hearts, we are all small and tender creatures, bracing ourselves to face the great Wild Wood. In our hearts, we are all Mole.

Clea Simon is the author of 16 mysteries, all of which involve animals. Her latest, Stages of Grey: A Dulcie Schwartz feline mystery (Severn House) was published on Oct. 1. She can be reached at


Lesa said...

Thank you for the terrific guest post, Clea. I have one children's book I reread, Snow Treasure by Marie McSwiggan. It's an adventure about WWII in Norway. The adult book I go back to over and over is a collection of essays called A Thread of Blue Denim by Patricia Leimbach. It reminds me of home.

Clea Simon said...

Thank you, Lesa, for the space - and the suggestions. I've never read either of those! My adult re-reads alternate - when I need something light, I go for Trollope (usually "The Eustace Diamonds"). When I want something meatier, I re-read Hilary Mantel's "A Place of Greater Safety," historical fiction about the founders of the French Revolution. I don't know why I find it comforting (it doesn't end well), but I do! I'd love to hear what others re-read. Readers, won't you share?

Beth Hoffman said...

Thanks so much for your surprise guest post, Lesa.

Clea, THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS is one of my all-time favorite stories. It was first read to me by my grandfather, and that did it, I was hooked. It's the most unique and loved book of my childhood.

Nancy said...

Reading this lovely post I feel wistful about the books I didn't read or have read to me in my childhood. I didn't own any books until I was close to the teen years. Or perhaps my early teens. Long story. Perhaps that's why I enjoyed reading to my children beyond measure. How odd that I didn't know about any of the great children's classics, so my children were also deprived of the books you mention. Still, there were many lovely books we found to read. I read the Harry Potter series to my youngest and stayed interested longer than he was. We both loved the Dinotopia books with their fantastic illustrations. As for rereading, the only one I can think of is the Armand Gamache Three Pines books by Louise Penny. I'm thinking of doing that again.
I'm also thinking of going back to the Margaret Atwood books and Georges Simenon. Also, just thought of the Rabbi books by Harry Kemelman. The trouble is, there are so many new books out that I have to read.

Lesa said...

Oh, Beth! I'm so glad Clea's post touched you, and brought back memories of a beloved book. Sometimes the best memories are those just because we shared them with someone we love. My Mom and sisters all read Snow Treasure, and that's part of the memory for me.

Lesa said...

You're right, Nancy. It's so hard to go back when there are so many new ones. But, I go back to Pat Leimbach when nothing else but a comfort book will do. With Snow Treasure, I go back when I'm talking to someone or some group about favorites.

Clea Simon said...

Thank you, Beth and Nancy, for responding! Beth, I'm so glad I touched off a fond memory. And Nancy... it is never too late to read a book you've heard good things about. Remember, it's new to you!