I wish I’d waited another three months to read Bamboo Fly Rod Suite, a slim but beautiful collection of essays by Alaska writer Frank Soos.
Outside my window, it’s the worst month of winter here in the 49th state. The snow can’t decide if it wants to stay or go, cars splash through lake-sized potholes and optimistic souls break out the T-shirts and shorts (and the goose bumps) despite the chilly slush. Rivers are still buried beneath great slabs of ice, the grayling sluggish and hunkered against the mud, the ocean-running salmon nothing but a distant promise.
I’m about as far from a fly-fishing mood as I’m gonna get.
Until, that is, I read Bamboo Fly Rod Suite and Soos brings my angling fever out of hibernation. I would have been just fine if I’d read these essays in, say, May or June. But no, I had to go and buy the book in the bleak mid-winter.
A desire to be out on the banks of my favorite glacier-fed stream is not the only thing Soos churns up in these pages. He also stirs feelings of the quest for the slow, uncluttered life. In this clock-driven, Internet-fed society of ours, Soos’ volume has universal appeal and should be mandatory for anyone who thinks they’re “too busy for reading.”
C’mon, the book is only 72 pages; you can read it in an hour between sips of espresso. I chose to savor Soos’ rich, dense prose; I stretched my pleasure to three hours.
There’s also plenty of pleasure to be had in the volume itself. This has to be one of the most beautifully-designed books I’ve ever seen. Published by the University of Georgia Press, it is lavishly illustrated with paintings by Alaska artist Kesler Woodward. The result is a perfect gift to give for any occasion (or no occasion at all, for that matter).
[In the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that I personally know Frank Soos. As an English professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, he has been my mentor, my coach, my friend. At first, I hadn’t planned on reviewing his book for Epinions because it would be hard to maintain a professional distance. That was before I read Bamboo Fly Rod Suite. Afterwards, my excitement over this book simply could not be contained; how could I let something this good go unread by others?]
Soos (who has also written two collections of short stories—Early Yet and Unified Field Theory) opens the first essay as he sits in his university office, “minding my own business” and “free of want, free of desire.” Then a colleague stops by with a faded blue cardboard tube. Inside the tube is an old bamboo fly rod. While most people might see it as just a bunch of sticks in search of a Dumpster home, Soos recognizes it for what it really is—the epitome of his material desire: I had probably wanted one as long as I had been fly-fishing—since I was twelve years old.
Soos sets to work restoring the rod, repairing the guides, giving it a fresh coat of varnish, doing his best to create a “perfect” angling tool. We follow him as he haunts tackle shops and flea markets in search of the right materials. Then, more importantly, we follow him to the river where he puts the rod to good use. Along the way, we get much more than a lesson in fly-fishing.
Just as Tuesdays with Morrie is much more than a book about a dying man or A River Runs Through It is deeper than the fish stories of two brothers, Bamboo Fly Rod Suite probes our hearts and minds with a poetic meditation on the things we value—namely, relief from the hustle-and-bustle:
Casting a dry fly is the truest exercise of slowness I know. First, I must lift my rod tip, lift my line off the water. I bring the tip up over my head and the line picks itself up….Then, just behind my head, I stop the rod, and stopping is a hard part because it’s such a pleasure to set a rod and line in motion. It’s such a pleasure to watch a long pennant unfurl back behind me, I’d like to see it go on forever.
Later in that same essay (called, of course, “On His Slowness”), he writes:
My problem is the world itself that has so little understanding of and places so little value on slowness. Sometimes I feel like I am forever wading upriver against a fairly stiff current, picking up one foot, testing my balance, stepping, bringing the other foot up beside it. Waiting before the next step while time keeps pushing against me.
Soos himself works a little magic on the reader. In the hour (or three) it takes to read this regrettably short book, you’ll find yourself slowing down, adjusting to the languid pace of the meandering prose. Like the Alaskan rivers Soos fishes, the stream of thought on these pages eddies and swirls and goes wandering off into tributaries. Soos always returns, however, to the deeper waters, the thoughtful reflections on perfection, materialism and the patient restoration of a bamboo fly rod.
You don’t have to be a fly-fisherman to appreciate this book. You just have to be someone who could use a quiet meditation on the things that are really important in life.