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.

Nonfiction
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.

Fiction
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.


Nonfiction
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.

Poetry
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. 

Fiction
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?

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