Book Bag: ‘The Boy Who Walked to Distant Lands: Stories’ by Zane Kotker; ‘Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb’ by Tinky Weisblat

Friday, May 25, 2018

by Steve Pfarrer


By Zane Kotker

Levellers Press


Northampton author Zane Kotker began her career as a novelist, publishing three well-received titles in the 1970s and early 1980s before turning to a career in journalism to help secure a more regular paycheck as she raised a family and then cared for her late husband,  Norman Kotker, a fellow writer and editor.

But in the last four years, Kotker, now in her 70s, has returned to fiction, publishing an historical novel, “The Inner Sea,” and a novella, “Goodnight, Ladies,” with Levellers Press in Amherst. In her most recent work, “The Boy Who Walked to Distant Lands,” also by Levellers, she offers 11 short stories that feature characters facing uncertainty, loss and other challenges in their lives.

As she did with “Goodnight, Ladies,” a story about three widowed older women and friends and their efforts to navigate their later years, Zotker employs crisp, stripped-down prose in her new work that easily moves between poignancy and humor, sometimes within a few sentences, in stories told both in the first and third person.

In “The Color of Trees By Night,” two middle-aged women and friends, Ana and Judith, take a walk after dinner at Ana’s house through woods and meadow, in a town that seems to stand in for Northampton. Judith grouses about the difficulty in dealing with her elderly mother, now in a nursing home, which reminds Ana of the strained relationship she had had with her late mother.   

“Ana hadn’t gotten on so well with her mother, either. Even so, when that small, white-haired shape under the sheets stopped breathing, she’d felt the sky over the hospital empty itself.”

And as she contemplates the arc of her life, Ana suddenly feels menaced by the dark and the familiar woods; she wants nothing more than to be a child again, “walking with her mother in a winter’s snow, leaning against her, and her mother wearing the coat with the fur collar and the fur on the ends of the sleeves that came down over her beautiful hands.”

The narrator of “Pots,” by contrast, offers a satirical take on her boyfriend having dumped her for a younger woman and what she does to move on.  

“You call your best friend, the one you don’t see much anymore because she’s done it all already — house down in Silver Springs, great job, great kids, her own Mr. Right. Well, her own Mr. Okay.”

The narrator’s friend suggests she take a pottery class (“You liked that back at school”) and, against her better judgment, the narrator takes the plunge, joining “half a dozen nondescript women with no more to do at night than you”; in her first class, she makes “a sort of prehistoric looking pot.”

Yet she actually comes to like the class — and, after it ends and she suddenly decides to escape her solitary apartment in wintry Vermont for a trip to Guatemala, she unexpectedly discovers a sign that her karma might be changing.

And Kotker saves one of her most compelling stories for last. In “He Remembered His Life,” a lonely, aging American academic moderating a small conference in Spain with much younger colleagues takes a walk through a timeless land that’s seen many civilizations — Romans, early Christians, Moors — come and go, and in that wash of time he finds a comfort in his dreams as he looks back on his days as a young husband and father. 


By Tinky Weisblat

The Merry Lion Press


Tinky Weisblat wears a number of hats: writer, singer, memoirist, and wisecracker. For her newest book, though, the Mount Holyoke College graduate has put on her chef’s hat, literally and figuratively. “Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb” has her posed on the cover with a large clutch of rhubarb stalks and a colorful cap, while the inside of the book is stocked with dishes made with rhubarb.

Weisblat, who splits her time between Hawley and Alexandria, Virginia, writes that as a kid, she couldn’t stand rhubarb, in part because its tartness was no match for her love of sweets. And given both her mother and grandmother “doted” on the plant and tried to get her to eat it, of course she had to say no.

But at some point in the 1990s, she says, she looked at the rhubarb growing in her backyard and thought she should reconsider her views: “My grandmother had died and my mother was aging. Eating a plant they loved suddenly seemed like a tribute to them rather than a surrender.”

In “Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb,” Weisblat makes up for her previous cold shoulder to rhubarb with a vengeance, offering a wide range of recipes for it — appetizers, salads and breads, desserts and main courses. How about some swordfish steak with rhubarb salsa, or rhubarb pizza or chili? And what of rhubarb brownies?

She also discusses a bit of the plant’s history and its cultural associations, like an expression in Canada, “hitting the rhubarb,” that means running your car off the road.

And Weisblat writes that she loves being able to take rhubarb straight out of her backyard and making something good to eat from it. “Eating this way, I feel I’m channeling my grandmother, who grew up on a farm in Vermont … Rhubarb and my grandmother remind me always to find joy in the moment.”

Tinky Weisblat will teach a class on cooking with rhubarb on Thursday at 6:15 p.m. at the Baker’s Pin, 34 Bridge St. in Northampton, and she’ll return there June 2 at 11 a.m. for a book signing. Her website is tinkycooks.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.