Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Book Stack ~ August 2020

A monthly list of books read. Previous months here: JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMayJune, July.

I don't know what was going on with August, but apparently it involved reading...a lot.

I've been reading a lot of essay collections, gathering material for a project I'm working on. Here are August's selections (from the bottom of the stack):

Maxine Hong Kingston, Hawai'i One Summer. These short essays were written, I believe, as a column for the New York Times in the late 70s. I haven't read Kingston's fiction, but there's something wonderful that happens when a novelist writes from real life. These brief meditations on everyday things, like buying a house, washing dishes, watching her son surf, are wry and full of heart with not a word wasted.

Camille Dungy, Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History. Do you ever read an author's work and wish she was your best friend? Or at least that you could sit down over tea and talk about all the things? That's how I felt while reading Dungy's smart, sprawling, insightful essays. I especially appreciated one that takes place on a visit to Maine, in which Dungy recounts this state's outsized role in the Civil War--Harriet Beecher Stowe lived in Brunswick when she penned Uncle Tom's Cabin, Joshua Chamberlain, also of Brunswick, accepted the the Confederate Army's surrender in 1865, Maine sent more soldiers to the war, on a per-capita basis, than any other state in the Union, and Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln's first VP, came from Maine. This makes the dumbasses who fly Confederate (traitor) flags around here not only ignorant of geography, but also of history. No surprise.

Annick Smith, Homestead. A lovely collection that covers the years Smith and her husband homesteaded in Montana with their four sons, her husband's early death, the history of ranchers, mountain men, and other Montana characters, fly fishing, and conservation.

Janisse Ray, Wild Card Quilt. A memoir-in-essays about the author moving back to her family home in southern Georgia as an adult and trying to build community there. I find where I live (1/3 old hippies, 1/3 new hippies, 1/3 rednecks) stiflingly conservative, so I can't imagine trying to navigate life in the Deep South, but Ray manages to do it, digging deep to find like-minded people and building coalitions to save the local school, clean up the local river, and preserve a parcel of old growth long-leaf pine. Even when her son moves away to be with his dad in Vermont (where there are "fewer rules" compared to this place where there's "not enough imagination," according to the  insightful nine-year-old), Ray stays and struggles to reclaim her family property and grandmother's home from decay and find people who share her values. 

Jill Sisson Quinn, Deranged: Finding a Sense of Place in the Landscape and in the Lifespan. In the essays in this collection, Quinn braids together the threads of her childhood in rural Maryland, her current home in Wisconsin, and different aspects of the natural world or family history, always questing to find her bearings in her new home's landscape of glacial-flattened plains when her internal compass is calibrated to stream-carved valleys of her childhood.

I received a big load of mysteries in the mail at the beginning of the month and pretty much devoured them.

Jenn McKinlay, Better Late than Never. I did not like this book. I know writing a book is hard and I should only say nice things, but this author has published more than 20 books and is a NYT bestseller, so I think she can take it. She spends a lot of time moving her characters around the page (she picked up her purse, she walked across the room, she turned the doorknob, she opened the door, she left the room). Speaking of characters, there were way too many to keep track of. And, I suppose this is a pitfall of series, there was a lot of ink spilled in service of building the main character's relationships with other characters and moving forward various peoples' life stories irrespective of the plot. Also, the inciting incident was not interesting and the characters' reactions to it disproportionate. I didn't like it. Or rather, it was not to my taste.

Julia Buckley, A Dark and Stormy Murder. This one was much better--still frivolous, but more entertaining. There was an actual dead body at the start, which helps. And though it was a set-up for a series, it didn't feel clunky in that regard. The premise is totally unbelievable, but I was willing to let that slide and go along for the ride. Also, the author hat-tips Mary Stewart, which automatically endeared her to me.

Robin Page, Death at Daisy's Folly. This is another by the author(s) I've written about before herehere and here, which include the Beatrix Potter mysteries (though Potter does not appear in this one). Like the others, it's a cozy who-done-it of the old style, taking place around the turn of the 20th century and involving a few real-life characters of the time (including the king, before he was king, and the eponymous Daisy). The suspense is mild, the thrill minimal, but the writing is good and the story compelling, and the main character charming, so it was a pleasant book to escape into.

Mary Stewart, Wildfire at Midnight. The classic Mary Stewart setup: an exotic location, a heroine who is not a complete ingenue but who is at loose ends, a couple of potential love interests a dark, foreboding mystery, and a plethora of suspects. This one involves a lot more dead bodies than the usual Mary Stewart, and is more of the locked-room type setup than usual. It takes place at a remote hotel in the Scottish Highlands (having recently read The Living Mountain, I felt like I'd been there before myself), and is filled with Stewart's usual flair for the descriptive details of a landscape. My only complaint, which applies  to at least two of my literary heroes (this is going to be a spoiler, but since the book is ~65 years old, I don't feel bad), is the trope of the surly, almost mean, verging on abusive, character turning out to be the hero. Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters uses this trope a LOT. Let's just say it hasn't aged well. 

What have you been reading?

Friday, September 4, 2020

The Most Fragrant Flowers

I've been working on two writing projects this summer—both of which involve deep dives into research, one in my own personal records, journals, and photographs, the other into two centuries of other women's writing. It's hard to feel productive while doing research, at least in that dogged American protestant work ethic way we're stuck with, when all you have to show at the end of the day is a few scribbled notes or pages marked with sticky notes. Still, it's usually engrossing work and I might not come up for air at all if it weren't for the wants and needs of my family. Apparently I'm still required to cook dinner.

Other things keeping me from turning into a dusty book mite are a couple of more community-minded projects I'm involved in. One of these is co-coordinating the 2020 training course for the Maine Master Naturalist Program, which has, like everything, gone online. This weekend we'll have our first in-person field day since February—in small groups, properly distanced, masked, and sanitized—and everyone's thrilled to finally be teaching and learning in real life. Perhaps that's the lesson of this trying year—appreciate the small things, like a walk with fellow naturalists at the arboretum, or breathing.

Another of my ongoing volunteer activities is editing at the online journal Literary Mama, where a couple of weeks ago we launched our brand-new, beautiful website. I had the honor of writing the editor's letter for the issue and of working with writer Nadia Colburn on the issue's Literary Reflections essay.

And nature, of course, continues to pull me outsdoors and outside of my researching/ writing/ editing/ zooming cocoon. Since my butterfly class ended, and most of the butterflies drifted away in the midsummer lull, I've rekindled an interest in dragonflies that I'd let wane over the last few years. The best part about them—other than their colors, variety, acrobatics, big eyes, and insect predation—is that I can watch them from my kayak.

One morning, while paddling slowly along the edge of a lake in search of dragons, I came across a flotilla of fuchsia water lilies. I immediately assumed they were invasive (a symptom of our "we can't have anything nice" society), but my field guide insists that native fragrant water-lily can sometimes come in pink. And fragrant they are, like the smell Johnson's Baby Powder aspires to be: soft, delicate, ephemeral. If you paddle through a dense enough cluster of them, the perfume will drift up at you as your boat glides over their petals.

C and I were paddling through just such a garden earlier this summer, along the edge of a bog, the sweet smell of the flowers competing with the stink of the bog mud our paddles dug up in the shallow water. My friend B tells me there's a metaphor in there—the most fragrant flowers growing from the stinkingest mud. I think I'll wait until 2020 is done having its way with us before I weigh in on whether it's true.

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Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Book Stack ~ July 2020

For a while my laptop has been losing its ability to talk to certain websites and apps. Losing zoom was a real problem in the covid days, and then blogger went too. So it was time for a new one, which arrived almost exactly ten years after the old one did. I'll always feel nostalgic about that old laptop, the very first computer I owned that was all mine (except for the two or three years that M used it for his school work and music and the times E and Z used it to write reports), that produced many issues of my zine, several hundred blog posts, countless essays and short stories. It's the laptop that went to graduate school, and Ireland, with me. It was a good workhorse and writing partner, chugging along even after I cracked the screen a few years ago (oops). 

I think I can drop the pretense that I'm still working toward My 2020 book challenge—to read 50 books from the stack by my bed (and other unread volumes already in the house). By my count I've read 15 books that were already in the house and unread by me (I guess 20 if the Flavia de Luce novels I borrowed from M count). Meanwhile, new (mostly used) books keep making their way into the house and onto my nightstand at an alarming rate. 

Previous months here: JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMay, June.

The one book stack book I read in July was Mariposa Road by Robert Micahel Pyle, about the first butterfly "big year," i.e., his attempt to see as many butterfly species in one calendar year as possible (his goal was 500 and he fell just short of it). I admit that at first I thought it was going to be boring, but I have a soft spot for cutely cantankerous old men (as long as they are cantankerous in the service of good--such as butterfly conservation--and not bad--such as ranting about anything they saw on Fox News), and the book and its author grew on me. I read the book at the same time I was learning butterflies, and it was fun to hear about species in other parts of the country (I really need to get to the Rio Grande Valley). It was also nice to know that a butterfly expert can still sometimes miss netting the butterfly or i.d.ing the species.

I had fallen out of the habit of reading poetry in the morning when I went back to work in the fall. Once bird-watching season ended for the most part this summer, I picked the habit back up and read Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry edited by Camille Dungy. The poems in this collection are so good. I don't know enough about poetry to tell you why (if it sounds good it is good), but at least some of the appeal is in the huge range that includes rhyme, meter, form, free verse. The way it expands the definition of nature writing is part of it too--when bodies have been colonized and abused as badly as the land, when nature is both a place of escape and a source of terror, when a writer's relationship to the natural world is through toil, when the natural world includes rats and cockroaches in substandard housing, then it makes for a much more vast understanding of the genre. 

Still going with escapist in the fiction realm, reading another Mary Stewart suspense, Rose Cottage (more on Mary Stewart here, here, and here), which was, as always, delightful. I'd read the first Kopp Sisters novel back in April, but because I'd accidentally bought #s 3 and 4, but not 2, I had to wait to continue, meanwhile getting distracted by other books. I finally resumed in July, and each volume gets better than the last. The fourth in the series, Miss Kopp Just Won't Quit, is particularly timely, featuring a candidate for office who lies, intimidates, and plays on people's fears as his entire campaign strategy. I won't give anything away, but I do hope real life turns out better. 

What are you reading these days?

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Exquisite Litle Gems

This summer I've been taking an online field course in butterfly identification and ecology. Online and field may seem like contradicting terms, but, as with most things in the world of 2020, even nature has moved onto the internet. This format, of video chats and lectures interspersed with self-directed field work, is ideal for me this summer, when leaving home is both difficult (we are down to two vehicles for the three adults in the house, and the two of them with real jobs get dibs) and terrifying (I'm not sure which is scarier, the deadly virus or the lawn signs and flags championing the two people responsible for making the United States so virulent). When I need a break from writing or editing or housework or the inside of my own head, I grab my net, my binoculars, and my field guide and walk up the driveway to where our wild, raggedy field meets our neighbors' manicured lawn. Here on the edge, where milkweed blooms, is where I find most of my butterflies.

And find butterflies I do! Almost every day that I go out, as long as the sun is shining, I discover new-to-me species. In the six weeks of the class so far, I've identified more than 40 species of butterfly, about three-quarters of which I've never seen before, and even more of which I've never seen here on our property. How can I have missed all these exquisite little gems of creatures that have been here, sipping nectar and dancing over the flowers, for the last twenty years? It's as if my dresser drawers are full of emeralds and sapphires and rubies that I never notice because all I do is reach in and pull out socks and underwear.

I can draw two conclusions from this oversight: 1) I'm a rubbish naturalist; or 2) we don't truly see what we don't look for. There are a lot of terrible things going on in the world today—illness, death, vicious people intentionally trying to make others less safe, other people doing the same out of ignorance. I go looking for these stories every day when I read the news. But there must be other stories out there, too, the exquisite gems of courage, kindness, and generosity, if only we knew how to look.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Book Stack ~ June 2020

My 2020 book challenge—to read 50 books from the stack by my bed (and other unread volumes already in the house). Previous months here: JanuaryFebruaryMarchApril, May.

June's reading stack was a good mix of escapist and serious, and though the stack is tall, only two of them count for my goal of reading 50 books already in my house (ordering used books online is just too darn easy).

In the escapist category, I ready three novels in one of my favorite sub-genres—vintage romantic suspense—My Brother Michael and Airs Above the Ground, both by Mary Stewart, and Black is the Color of My True Love's Heart by Ellis Peters, the latter being the one contribution in this category from my book stack (a library book sale find). These were all a delight. I've waxed rhapsodic about Mary Steward before, here and here, so I won't repeat myself. As for Ellis Peters, I'd only read her Brother Cadfael books a long time ago, so it was fun to read a contemporary (as in 50 year old) book by her.

In a more serious vein, I've been continuing to try to get myself caught up on nature writing. Writing the Western Landscape, edited by Ann Zwinger (the other book from the stack), includes selections from Mary Austin and John Muir. I'd never read Austin before but have always meant to, so it was nice to have this introduciton. I've got two of her books waiting in the wings and I'm looking forward to reading more. The Muir selections were interesting—one about the Grand Canyon that was clearly written for a popular audience and one about Alaska from his journals. I had started this book months ago and put it aside in the midst of the Grand Canyon piece, which is over the top purple prose. But I made myself pick it back up and the Alaska writing is so beautifully wrought, so subltly humorous, so truly lovely. It's fascinating how an audience—real or perceived—can influence a writer's style so much (also I'm sure the passage of time and development of skill plays a role). I hope to pick up Muir's Alaska journals someday soon.

I also read The Nature Fix: How Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. I don't often pick up straight nonnarrative nonfiction, but I'm interested in this topic of course, and under the current circumstances, which are indeed stressful, I'm even more interested in how nature can help keep us healthy and sane. It's a fascinating read and should be in the hands of every teacher, doctor, and policy maker.

Finally, I read The Inland Island, by Josephine Johnson, who is a new discovery for me. This book, written about the plot of undeveloped land in the midst of encroaching suburbs where the author lived for most of her life, is magical. Her descriptions of the natural world are lovely, and her brief commentaries on war (Vietnam was happening at the time of her writing) are powerful.

What have you been reading?

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Book Stack ~ May 2020

My 2020 book challenge—to read 50 books from the stack* by my bed (and other unread volumes already in the house). Previous months here: JanuaryFebruaryMarch, April.

It's almost time to share this month's book stack and I'm just getting around to last month's. Where has the time gone? I don't know…I guess I've been in more of a contemplative, burrowing kind of place than a sharing kind of place, what with one thing and another. I should probably share C's book stack instead of mine—he spent the spring reading books about the civil rights movement (even before it was the it thing to do), while I've been pretty much in full-on escapism mode. I did order a few books of nature writing by Black authors because I realized that was a big gap in my huge pile of nature writing to read (and a big gap in the genre in general). So stay tuned for that. In the meantime, here's what I read in May:

Crocodile on the Sandbank, by Elizabeth Peters. When everyone got sent home for the pandemic, I started reading a P.G. Wodehouse book to the boys, but E quickly lost interest and then M went to work and wasn't around most of the read-aloud time (afternoons for me), so Z got me to read him the first in the Amelia Peabody series to him (we'd skipped this one when we started the series, because I thought they'd prefer to hear about young Ramses's adventures). We've since started the second book (which we listened to on audio during our long road trip three years ago), but once school ended and he didn't need me reading to him as a way of getting out of doing school work, our progress slowed down quite a bit.

Speaking from Among the Bones and I Am Half Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley. These are the last two on the Flavia de Luce books that we own. I thought I might have had my fill after I finished these, but a big bombshell was dropped at the end of the last one, so I'm sure I'll pick up the next couple soon.

A Moment on the Edge, edited by Elizabeth George. I picked up a couple of writing craft books by Elizabeth George, whose mysteries I have enjoyed in the past (and whose book What Came before He Shot Her is one of the best books I've ever read), and I saw that she'd edited this book of short crime stories by women writers. Most of these were great, with a huge range of styles.

Upstream by Mary Oliver. Uncharacteristically this was my only nonfiction read for the month (told you I was all about escapism). I have a weird habit of starting to read a book when I first get it, then setting it aside (because I'm usually already in the middle of three other books) and not picking it up again for a long, long while. That happened with this one, but it turned out to be just the right book at the right time—Mary Oliver's quiet contemplations about writing, nature, and life, just when I needed them.

* The Mary Oliver is the only one of these that counts as a book stack book—the Elizabeth Peters I've already read before (many times), the Aland Bradleys belong to M, and the Elizabeth George I ordered to read.

What have you been reading?

Friday, May 8, 2020

Finish It Friday ~ Very Belated Christmas Vest

Last fall I got it in my head to make a Fair Isle vest for C for Christmas. I bought the yarn for the vest I had in mind—a self-striping green—and went in search of a pattern. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a pattern that met my mental image—knit in the round, with worsted weight yarn, with an abstract repeating pattern. So I took a pattern for a striped vest, added a fair isle pattern from a cowl (plus one stitch for the vest) and voila!

Or maybe not quite voila, but a lot of labor later…

This pattern required a lot of knitting techniques that were new to me, including kirchener stitching, tubular bind-offs, and a few short rows of working on the back of the patterned knitting, carrying the yarn across the front. I did not like that at all (which kind of made the next and most scary new tecnique a little easier to swallow, since it allowed me to knit most of the vest in the round. The scariest new thing I learned was a steek (actually three steeks), which, for the uninitiated, is a part of your knitting that you make with the intention of cutting it later. With scissors. The idea is you knit your whole project in a tube, then cut, in this case, the arm holes and neck V. It is a little magical, but also terrifying. When I first heard about steeks a long, long time ago when my local yarn store was offering a class in it, I thought it was barbaric. Now that I've done one myself, I still think it's barbaric. 

I chose to machine-sew the reinforcement stitches for my steeks. I didn't know enough when I knitted them to alternate colors, and just knitted right through with green, carrying the orange across the back. I figured machine stitching would be my best bet for anchoring those floating little bits of yarn. It worked pretty alright, though I did end up with a few loose threads I had to weave in afterward.

Then I did the cutting. Oh, my heart. I had a moment when I thought I'd cut through the shoulder stitches and almost had a stroke. I don't think I can handle this level of stress from my leisure activities.

But then, ta-da! your weird scrunched tube opens up like a flower into an actual knitted garment.

Needless to say, I didn't get it done in time for Christmas, just finishing it up this week. Every time I approached a new and challenging aspect of the pattern, I had to set the whole thing aside and let it marinate for a while before I could tackle it. Somehow C managed to stay in the dark—even when I was clearly adding ribbing to a vest and weaving in ends on the vest—until I layed it out to block it. He was pretty psyched by the whole thing, even if it was four and a half months late.

Notes about the yarn and pattern(s) on Ravelry.
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