Tuesday, September 24, 2019

September 2019 Nightstand

I think I've finally, after a year, figured out how I want these nightstand posts to go, so as to not overwhelm you (or me) with every single book I read in a month. I'll just share one or two that stand out, and that may have some link like this month's selections do, and I'll share other books I've enjoyed during the month on Instagram. Follow me there @andrea.lani. Books I don't like I'll just keep to myself. [I rarely read a book I don't like—maybe because I'm so picky about what I choose or maybe I'm just easy to please—but I did read one this month. I almost gave up on it halfway through (literally nothing had happened yet—and it was a mystery novel, not avant-garde literary fiction), but I have a hard time quitting (especially when I paid good money!) and I hoped it would redeem itself—it didn't. The ending was pretty terrible too. I'll just chalk it up to education—I now know exactly what is meant by everything must serve the story, and not just be random names, places, events, people, and food (oh the food; I think this writer should have stuck with cookbooks instead of who-done-its) dropped in for no purpose. Okay, enough vague-blogging, onto the meat of this post!

I bought Barbara Kinsolver's latest novel, Unsheltered, as soon as it came out a year ago. And then I didn't read it. I don't know why. Old-fashioned Catholic self-denial? Was I afraid it wouldn't stand up to my hopes and expectations? Was I just too involved with reading other stuff? Whatever the reason, I finally pulled it off the shelf this month, and it was every bit as delightful as expected. The story alternates by chapter between the current day and Victorian times. The contemporary story revolves around a family experiencing many of the horrors of the modern world (climate change, downward mobility, crushing student loan dept, aging parents, political divisions, and suicide) while trying to keep the ancient house they inherited from literally falling down around their heads. It feels almost pre-apocolyptic, if that's a thing. The historic part of the book takes place in a utopian community in New Jersey, where a young teacher struggles against the strictures of the closed society and the unrealistic financial expectations of his pretty wife, meanwhile becoming fascinated with his next-door neighbor, the real-life naturalist Mary Treat. I'm always a sucker for stories about "lady naturalists" who grubbed around in the dirt at a time when women were expected to be empty-headed ornaments for the drawing room. And I adore Kingsolver's language—every sentence pregnant with metaphor and meaning and lush with poetry and human empathy—and humor! So many wry, funny lines. I still don't know why I put reading this book off, but I'm so glad I finally picked it up!

My parents have been visiting, and as a consequence I've gone into more stores in the last two weeks than I normally do all year. Since most of these have been bookstores and yarn shops, I've been quite happy. In one bookstore I couldn't resist this little volume that appeared on a display table: A Butterfly Journey: Maria Sibylla Merian, Artist and Scientist by Boris Friedewald. It's my very favorite size for a book—about six by eight inches—and has my very favorite accessory, a built-in ribbon bookmark, and when I got it home I discovered the gorgeous cover beautifully reflects that of Unsheltered. Best of all, it's about a lady naturalist. Maria Sibylla Merian was born in 1647 in Germany and spent her life collecting, drawing, and painting caterpillars, butterflies, and moths. Not only did she paint them, she raised the larvae through the pupa and metamorphosis, studying and sketching each stage, and producing several books of her paintings and research. Another interesting parallel between the books is that, like Mary Treat, Merian lived for a time in a cultlike utopian society, which she eventually left for the cosmopolitan city of Amsterdam and from there traveled to Suriname to study the plants, butterflies, and wildlife of that colony. The book is a quick little biography, filled with images from Merian's books. It's written in an odd style, almost like it's directed at children, with the occasional rhetorical question followed by a "perhaps we will never know!" statement. I wonder if it's just a byproduct of translation (I almost heard it read in a German accent inside my head). Nevertheless, it's a delightful, quick read that I'll revisit again and again to admire the gorgeous artwork and marvel at this woman so very far ahead of her time.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Autumn Adjustment

There's a hint of fall in the air—chilly nights (and mornings) and crickets singing like there's no tomorrow (which, for crickets, is kind of true). It's a tough time of year, when everyone else is rhapsodizing about wool sweaters and wood stoves and I'm on my knees, begging for just one more day—or week or month—of 80 degree weather.

A little over two weeks ago, on a Tuesday morning, C and I dropped E and Z off at their new bus stop for their first day of high school, then kept on driving till we got to M's college. There we moved his bike, his guitars, his crate of Adidas, his duffels of clothes, his extra long sheets, his hot pot and clip-on fan and lights and, of course, him into his tiny new dorm room. We spent the day on campus doing all the things they had arranged for move-in day, then we left M to his new friends and neighbors for a week of orientation, picked E and Z up from cross-country practice, and came home.

I was a little anxious for the twins, because the first day of high school is an anxious time, but I was just happy dropping M off, excited for all the opportunities that await him, and, to tell the truth, a little jealous that they didn't offer those opportunities when I was in college. But over the next few days, when I'd think about needing to turn on the porch light for M, or when I'd drive in the driveway and look for a third car, I slowly came to the realization that he's not just at school or drama practice or work or a housesitting job, he's really and truly gone, and in the quiet left behind by his absence, I missed him. 

It's hard, when someone is a part of your everyday existence for 18+ years, for him to be gone all of sudden (even though it's not really all that sudden, but rather a slow, slow peeling away).
Fortunately, he's just around the corner, and he joined me for his brothers' cross-country meet last week, then we all went out to dinner. We got to hear all about his new adventures and E and Z got to tell him about their new adventures. Then we dropped him off at his dorm and drove home through the early dark of an autumn evening to our quiet, quiet house.

This post went out last week to subscribers of my newsletter, along with some bonus material. You can subscribe here.

Monday, September 9, 2019

New Boys' Room

It's taken a long time to get E and Z's room spiffed up for them since M moved into his own room last November. First we had to spackle and repaint the ceiling and walls, which took most of February. Then we had to clean out the closet, into which I had shoved everything but the beds and dressers before we painted. All the furniture, toys, books, and random junk had to come out, get sorted into piles for keep, toss, give away, and store. Then I had to paint the walls. Then I had to put everything back, arranged neatly (notice how I drop the "we"—we all know who exactly did most of this work).

Meanwhile, C was busy in the garage building new desks for the nearly high-schoolers, all from scrap wood (inspired by a butcher block counter that my inlaws were replacing). We each finished our respective jobs right before our trip to D.C. in early August, and since then the room has been arranged, enjoyed, and made messy cozy again.

Two small items remain to be done: a switchplate for the closet light swithc (I was going to decoupage one with old maps, but Z, who is really into maps, tells me this would look tacky) and curtains on the small windows (I have a third purple Indian-print panel, which I need to make into two half-panels, but right now my sewing machine is inaccessible due to all the stuff I've "cleaned up" from the rest of the house having accumulated in my bedroom).

I was hoping that after they saw how tiny M's dorm room is, E and Z would have greater appreciation for the expansiveness (and hominess) of this space, but still it does not seem to be big enough for the two of them, and most study sessions turn into Nerf gun battles. So much for that soothing purple color.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

August 2019 Nightstand

I initially thought my new monthly nightstand posts would be different from my old monthly reads posts—in that I'd envisioned them as a snapshot of what I happen to be reading at a point or two during the month, but as it turns out, I still just end up rounding up all the books I read over the month. But at least my nightstand gets dusted and tidied once a month.

I haven't finished this one yet, but I know I'll love it to the end: Odes by Sharon Olds, which I picked up at a reading by the author a little over a year ago. In a refreshing departure from Grecian urns, the very first poem is "Ode to the Clitoris," so that tells you all you need to know—Olds doesn't hold anything back and dives right into writing tributes to all of the important but not-talked about aspects of our lives.

Still hunting for comps—and inspiration as I revise—for my book, and in that vein read Almost Somewhere, an entertaining tale of a hike along the John Muir Trail in the early nineties, from the perspective of a young woman on the trail with two other women as they learn how to support each other rather than compete over the attention of males. At the other end of the spectrum is Elevations, which, though the subtitle is "A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," is much more about the history of the areas the Arkansas flows through (from its beginning in the mining district of Leadville, Colorado to the border between Kansas and Oklahoma) than about the author's personal journey, though that does come in some. I was amazed at how many significant events in history took place in my home state about which I was never taught in school (one of the largest Labor wars in history, Japanses internment camps—which the author rightly calls concentration camps—and the Sand Creek Massacre, which I did learn about eventually, long after completing Colorado history classes in school).

I'm way behind the times here, but I picked up Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies while we were in DC and read the whole thing the day after we returned (I was too tired to do anything else). It is so good, funny, and suspenseful, though I did feel like the ending was tied up in a little bit too neat a bow.

Over the month I also slowly delved into Claire Keegan's short story collection Antarctica. The stories are almost like poetry—gorgeously rich language, dense and full of meaning but also a little inscrutable, leaving me wondering a bit at the end of each one what exactly happened. Is it weird that I wish I could write exactly like both Liane Moriarty and Claire Keegan, even though they're both so incredibly different? It is perhaps why I have not successfully written beyond page 30 of any novel I've started—I want too much to write everything every way at once.

Finally, I read Stowed Away by Maine mystery writer Barbara Ross. I read most of it while on or near the water, which was fitting. It was a fairly entertaining mystery in the classic cozy style, a fun frolic.

What's on your nightstand?
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