Think about the house you grew up in. What do you remember? Are there blank spots in the floor plan of your imagination, or do you recall the exact geometry of the bathroom tile you stared at while you were brushing your set of baby teeth?
Ann Peters is the second kind of person. By the end of the first chapter of her unique memoir, “House Hold,” it becomes clear why this is so. Peters grew up just north of Fond du Lac in a house built from the ground up by her father, who designed it and then situated it backed up against a rock ledge overlooking the “woods, lawn, field, farm and lake” of the Wisconsin landscape.
Peters, now an associate professor of English at Yeshiva University in New York City, has written a book that charts her life’s journey so far through the buildings she’s lived in and the books that shaped her thought, and tells of the surprising ways in which they overlap. The memoir is as hard to describe as it is engaging to read. “House Hold” weaves personal narrative with the writing and lives of authors Peters has read and studied — writers like Henry James and Willa Cather, whose vivid descriptions of place are essential to understanding their fictional characters.
“I really wanted to write a book that somehow could be both true to myself as a reader, and true to myself as a writer,” said Peters in a recent phone interview. “I wanted to show how my sense of place is both coming out of my personal experience and connected to the stuff I read and teach.” In combining the story of her journey from her childhood home to her adult life in New York City with history and literature, Peters hits on common truths about the universal search for a home.
With her acute eye for detail, Peters points out the way some of her favorite authors have drawn on memories of their own surroundings in creating fictional places. In doing so, she also reconstructs the lives of her parents — especially her father, a restless entrepreneur whose forward-thinking architectural design was literally the landscape of Peter’s childhood.
“My father grew up south of Fond du Lac,” said Peters, “and my mother grew up in town, and they both ended up in town. But my father had this desire to move back to the country.” The home they built from the ground up was a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired creation with skylights, an alternately airy/cozy floor plan, and — of course — leaky roofs. Peters feels nostalgia for her “'70s, run around in the woods” childhood, and she is keenly interested in the ways that nostalgia colors her memories of the place.
The second half of “House Hold” concerns Peters’ transition from rooted Midwesterner to peripatetic apartment-renting New Yorker. It’s a dramatic change from her Wisconsin home, where residential longevity is measured by generations, to a city where no apartment seems permanent. ”It was at a point in my 20s where I was moving sometimes twice a year,” says Peters.
Stability came with the purchase of a house in upstate New York where Peters spends her time when she’s not teaching in the city. The quirky rural property, complete with chicken coops, echoes her own parents’ back-to-the-country move decades before. “We are all remembering this idyllic time when we were just farmers,” she says in characterizing the contemporary trend for returning to hobby farming and rural life.
Although she is now officially a New England property owner and has just moved into her first non-rented apartment in New York, Peters still feels deeply connected to her roots in Fond du Lac. “I have to say, I feel very regional,” she said. “I go back for long stretches of time and I still talk about it as going home.”
Math savant visits Madison
“Acquired savant syndrome with mathematical synesthesia” is a bit of a mouthful. But that’s exactly what to Tacoma, Wash., resident Jason Padgett has after injuries associated with a violent mugging left his brain permanently altered. The result was a dramatic increase in his ability to understand math and physics and to depict on paper the complex patterns he sees around him. His is the first documented case of its kind. His book, "Struck by Genius: How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel," tells the story of his recovery and his adaptation to his dramatically different mind. Autism expert Temple Grandin has described Padgett’s story as “an extraordinary example of the human capacity for adaptation and the immense importance of exploring the individual strengths hidden inside every person’s brain.” Padgett will speak at the Central Library, 201 W. Mifflin St., at 7 p.m. April 28.
Biggest book club ever
It’s not every day that an author as well known as mystery writer Nevada Barr comes to town to host a book club. The Wisconsin Book Festival has enlisted Barr for two appearances April 24 to discuss the 18th installment of her Anna Pigeon series, which will be published this spring. The first event is a lunchtime “Nosh With Nevada” at 11:30 in the Central Library’s Community Room. The “Nosh” is a ticketed fundraising event for the Madison Public Library Foundation; tickets are sold out. In the evening, Barr will conduct a book club event at 6 p.m. which is free of charge but with a 200-person attendance limit. Preregistration is available at the MPL website. At 7:30 she will give a talk that is open to the public, subject to the room’s seating capacity, of course.
An Irish affair at Mystery to Me
Just because St. Patrick’s Day is in the rear-view mirror doesn’t mean Madison readers have to hang up their shillelaghs. Mystery to Me will be hosting a double-barreled evening of Irish-themed books Friday, April 11, when authors Erin Hart and Paddy O’Brien will be making a return trip to the Monroe Street store. Hart’s novel “The Book of Killowen,” out last month in paperback, is set in modern-day Ireland and features the exploits of archaeologist Cormac Maguire and pathologist Nora Gavin as they unearth a pair of bodies — one ancient, one not — and with them a few secrets about the nearby colony of Killowen. Paddy O’Brien is an Irish musican, composer and collector of his country’s traditional music. His book, “The Road From Castlebarnagh: Growing Up in Irish Music” is his autobiography. The event takes place from 7 to 9 p.m. at 1863 Monroe St.