"The Old Farmer's Almanac" turns 218 years old this month -- and like just about everything these days, it has a website. Reading through "A Porch Sofa Almanac" (University of Minnesota Press, 152 pages, $16.95), a collection of short observations on everyday Minnesotan life, one can sense how Peter Smith might feel about this all-pervasive technological creep. Smith on nature writing: "fundamentally positive and reassuring." Smith on election night radio: "to heck with the Internet and TV and all those new media." The past, through Smith's rose-tinted prose, was a simpler, more earnest time. Such customs as have surfaced in our modern age, Smith chronicles with tender ridicule.
Stemming from an assignment for Minnesota Public Radio (Smith's segments run on "Morning Edition"), each brief essay in "A Porch Sofa Almanac" addresses the minutiae of life in the Upper Midwest. From back-to-school to book clubs, Smith's topics progress with the seasons. Often gently mocking -- the book club piece, for example, is titled "Thinking Ill of the Literate" -- Smith's prose can have the flavor of Bill Bryson or of that old Minnesota standby Garrison Keillor. Other parts of "Almanac" are infused with an autumnal quality that's movingly elegiac. In its loftiest passages, Smith's language recalls Annie Dillard's "An American Childhood," with lines such as, "oak broods as it burns, as if it were sulking or giving up spirits."
"Almanac" begins in September, with the most lively and memorable writing coming in the first half of the volume. As the pages -- and seasons -- progress, the effect of the essays falters. Smith's nostalgia begins to grate, though he is relatively careful not to romanticize subjects like corn farming. The February-May pieces can seem to struggle for traction (a treatise on green minivans is the book's real low point). Three essays on golf seem like two too many.
Though Minnesota is a much larger and more diverse place than the narrow slice of experience this book explores -- one begins, after a while, to bristle at the term "real Minnesotans" -- Smith's little volume is, overall, heartfelt and appealing. "Almanac's" minor problems stem not from its words or ideas, but from the inherent limitations of its structure. Reading one short essay after another, a sense of monotony is unavoidable. What works well as a regular radio segment cannot be digested wholesale; this is a book best read -- and enjoyed -- over many sittings. If readers are lucky, perhaps Smith will try his hand at a longer form next time.
S.J. Culver is a fiction writer living in Minneapolis.