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.