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Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps (American Lives) Paperback – March 1, 2004
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Season by season, Kooser reflects upon life in, around, and beyond his home nestled in the rolling hills of eastern Nebraska, an area he slyly calls the "Bohemian alps," then honors the German and Czech immigrants who originally settled the area by liberally scattering their inspirational homilies throughout his essays. His are sweet little observations, nothing monumental or earth-shattering, just the everyday kind of occurrences we've all been privy to: the satisfaction that comes from cleaning the garage, the possibilities that can occur when answering a wrong number. An artist and poet, Kooser takes delight in the ordinary treasures found in one's own backyard: "If you can awaken inside the familiar and discover it new," he says, "you need never leave home." Kooser is full of other such gentle, homespun wisdom: what it takes to be a good neighbor, what it means to be a dutiful son. Through his eyes, we learn to see, then appreciate, the beauty and grace in everyday miracles, the comfort and sanctity in local wonders. Carol Haggas
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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"To be happy, according to Webster, is to be favored by luck or fortune, and the first syllable of happiness, hap- with its luckiness, its chanciness, its sudden surprises- is a source of much delight in my life."
The eponymous "Bohemian Alps" are the low rolling hills north of Lincoln, originally settled by Czech and German immigrants, where Kooser lives in the small town of Garner. Superficially the book is a journal of a year in Kooser's life there but is in reality so much more. There is no traditional structure to the book, just simple divisions into Spring/Summer/Autumn/Winter and within each section there are observations of nature and small town life, poignant memories and quiet appreciation jumbled together by a poet.
And it is abundantly clear throughout that this is written by a poet. The heavy use of both simile and metaphor paints vivid pictures of the changing seasons and life through Kooser's eyes. I think many paragraphs could be lifted whole and formatted to read as a standard modern poem. But like Kooser's poetry, it is all very accessible, written in modern, casual syntax making it easy for anyone to read and enjoy.
While it is tempting to compare "Local Wonders" to Thoreau's "Walden" that would really be a disservice to Mr. Kooser. While great in its own right, besides being difficult to read, Thoreau did have a decided tendency to pontificate and lecture. There is no pretention here and it was easy for me to become totally wrapped up in Mr. Kooser's corner of the world. Mr. Kooser's gentle sarcasm toward a school board that decimated their small school system and quiet sorrow over the incursion of wealthy subdivisions of McMansions (in spite of the objections of residents, environmentalists, planning boards, Fish & Wildlife officials) left me outraged and wanting to do battle for "my" community.
So... I want to move into that abandon farmhouse with the massive old lilac bush. I want Mr. Kooser to be my neighbor and visit the small town shops and hear about old Czech recipes. But I could no more survive one of their winters than I could fly, so I will have to settle for occasional "visits" with this lovely little book.
It is a book that helps you see, hear, and appreciate the life that surrounds you. And it does so with a light humor that borders on a caress. Not the irony of Mark Twain or the self-mockery of Garrison Keillor, but more of the smile of a family story teller. It all comes in an easy prose that reaches into poetry yet is full of the local and colloquial.
"The Bohemians say, `The cat makes sure whose chin it may lick,' . . . As my neighbors would say, `Sheltered by a wall, even an old man becomes courageous.'"
The "Bohemian Alps" of the sub-title is a north-south running range of low hills (about one hundred feet from bottom to top) in eastern Nebraska, about seventy miles west of the Missouri River. It was settled in the late nineteenth century by Czech and German immigrants from the region of Europe known as Bohemia. In the early 1980s, Kooser and his wife bought a sixty-eight-acre spread in the Bohemian Alps, with an old barn, an outhouse, and other assorted outbuildings. To the extent that LOCAL WONDERS is a book of nature, its subjects are the seasons and the flora and fauna found in the Bohemian Alps, such as wild plums, Osage orange, coyotes, geese, pheasants, and box elder bugs.
I am not a huge fan of nature writing, so I enjoyed more Kooser's tales of people, most of them conservative in values, rather unassuming, very hard working, thrifty yet surprisingly generous.
Kooser is a noted poet (he is a past Poet Laureate of the United States), and his prose is often poetic in feel. In truth, however, I find Kooser a better poet than prose stylist. As mentioned, the book is quiet, so quiet that I occasionally was bored. Although Kooser is for the most part quite congenial, I also found him smug at times and in a few instances rather mean-spirited and derisive towards Americans from a more urban and less relaxed background. Still, some of his off-kilter observations about his fellow humanity are rather amusing, such as this one about the students he observes in a public library in Lincoln, Nebraska:
"These young people toss their hair and glance about a lot, as if they were looking for mirrors. Theory has it that there was a time during the evolution of the human brain when people became aware of themselves. Before that, we grazed through the days like fat cattle. It never occurred to us to think of ourselves. The story of the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden may allude to that sudden awakening. If evolution is a continuing process of change and refinement, our self-awareness will also continue to evolve. Someday there may be mirrors everywhere you look."
The book is sprinkled with adages of the long-time local Bohemians. Here is one of my favorites: "An old man sees better behind himself than a young man sees in front of himself." I also like the proverb that Kooser uses as an epigraph for the book, the touching personal meaning of which is revealed at book's end: "When God wishes to rejoice the heart of a poor man, He makes him lose his donkey and find it again."