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My friends Peg & Nicki recently recommended Robin Wall Kimmerer‘s book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Kimmerer is a scientist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Her book is part memoir, part sharing of indigenous knowledge and beliefs, and part natural (and unnatural, in the case of the poisoning of Onandaga Lake, clear cutting of forests and draining of estuaries) history. It’s a book that describes ecological degradation as a broken relationship. This makes the work of repairing the damage we’ve done to the environment clearer, although not necessarily easier: “Here is where our most challenging and rewarding work lies, in restoring a relationship of respect, responsibility, and reciprocity,” Kimmerer writes.

This is countercultural, at least from the perspective of the dominant culture in America today. In fact, visiting an Onandaga Nation School near her home in New York, Kimmerer watches the children leading and participating in the Thanksgiving Address, and comments on how this teaching is so different from the way most people relate to the earth as a collection of resources to be exploited. This passage gives you a sense of her wonderful writing and the main point of Braiding Sweetgrass:

“You can’t listen to the Thanksgiving Address without feeling wealthy. And, while expressing gratitude seems innocent enough, it is a revolutionary idea. In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires. Gratitude cultivates an ethic of fullness, but the economy needs emptiness. The Thanksgiving Address reminds you that you already have everything you need. Gratitude doesn’t send you out shopping to find satisfaction; it comes as a gift rather than a commodity, subverting the foundation of the whole economy. That’s good medicine for land and people alike.”

The Thanksgiving Address is very different from the Pledge of Allegiance Kimmerer (and most of us) grew up saying in school, which purports that the flag stands for “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” — a notion that is clearly not the case if you spend any time examining the way race and socioeconomic status, as well as gender, cultural background and religion if it’s not Christian, determine who has access to liberty and justice in contemporary America. The Thanksgiving Address “reminds the whole community that leadership is rooted not in power and authority, but in service and wisdom.” It’s “a pledge of interdependence,” Kimmerer notes. Imagine.

Whether she is writing about restoring the pond behind her home, healing the legacy of government schools where Native American children were stripped of their culture, learning alongside a graduate student that harvesting Sweetgrass makes it grow more plentifully, making Maple syrup, rescuing salamanders from a roadway, or raising her daughters, Kimmerer infuses her prose with appreciation and gratitude for the natural world, and a sense that “We are bound in a covenant of reciprocity, a pact of mutual responsibility to sustain those who sustain us.”

Which is what justice for all is really about, and what most if not all faith traditions teach — that we are here to care for one another. Kimmerer extends that to what she refers to as non-human people, including plants. It seems to me that this thinking helps make a way forward with regards to environmental and every other kind of justice clear (and again, I don’t mean easy). Gratitude and mutual responsibility towards each other and the earth, definitely. But for starters, simple awareness that everything we own, consume, use up, is likely in our life because another life ended for it — trees and other plants, the prehistoric creatures who died and became fossil fuels, insects, animals, algae, etc.

This isn’t an easy or quick read. Kimmerer’s writing is beautiful but requires careful consideration. It took me over two weeks, although I was also finishing a class and  started with the eBook version from my library, which crashed so often I went to my local indie bookstore and bought a paper copy, for which I am grateful. I think this is a book to savor and to return to. But if you’re looking for a summer read with some substance, Braiding Sweetgrass is an excellent choice. Thanks, Peg & Nicki!

 

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I love a book that expands my “to be read” list, and Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen by Mary Norris did that. Not only does she recommend some classic books about Greece (such as Lawrence Durrell‘s and Patrick Leigh Fermor‘s work) but also, she writes eloquently about Homer and I have had Caroline Alexander’s translation of The Iliad on my shelf for some time.

Mostly it’s a joy to read about someone’s passions, and for Norris, the Greek language, literature, and Greece itself are longtime passions. She was a young copy editor at The New Yorker when she first began learning Greek, and her boss, Ed Stringham, encouraged her and even agreed it would help her work so it could be paid for by the magazine. He encouraged her to travel and suggested things to read (like the books mentioned above). Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone came across a mentor like that, who sees a spark and fans it?

Norris intersperses her writing about Greece and Greek with writing abut herself and her family, but this book doesn’t hit you over the head with interpersonal drama or devolve into navel gazing. Instead Norris is thoughtful, observant, introspective at times without being self-absorbed, curious about her family relationships without playing them up for effect. In short, she writes an intelligent, beautiful book that is informative and entertaining. Even though I went through a Greece phase of my own — we took a family trip when I read that there were deals to be had after the Athens Olympics, and I made sure the kids and I were immersed in all things Greek for about six months before we went — I learned a good bit reading Greek to Me, especially regarding connections between Greek and English.

Norris’s descriptive language is evocative and also makes the foreign familiar, as with this passage about the earthquake restorations at the Daphni monastery:  “The scaffolding inside made it look like trapeze school . . . by now multiple earthquakes had shattered the mosaics, which had collapsed onto the floor in jumbles of tesserae. The restorers’ work was of a magnitude I could barely comprehend: they were putting the Almighty together again.” Or this one, about the view from the Kalamitsi Hotel: “The sun left a pink smear above the distant gray-blue peninsula, and the sea was like a bolt of ice-blue satin, with matching sky, except that the colors of the air were not as nuanced, having no surface, existing as pure distance measured in light. In the grove in the foreground the trunks of olive trees twisted seductively A tongue of sea eased in from the Messenian Gulf below a steep hill covered with pines, plane trees, and pointed cypresses . . . .” It goes on, but you should read the book for the full effect.

If you’re staycationing this summer, this would be a great book to take you away, and if you’re planning a trip to Greece, this is a don’t miss. But even if neither of those describes you, this is a wonderful read. I wanted to sit down with the author over some coffee (or ouzo!) and hear more stories, take in her fascinating experiences, and enjoy her voice after I reached the end. In fact, I never looked for her first book, Between You & Me, about her time at The New Yorker when it came out, but I’ve added that to my list as well.

 

I wasn’t able to see the film version of Red Joan while it was playing at my local indie theater, so when I went to Los Angeles I downloaded the Europa Editions novel by Jennie Rooney. I enjoyed it, although the ending didn’t do much for me. Still, a quick skim of the film reviews indicates the book was better, although Judi Dench gets good reviews for her part as the main character.

Joan is in her 80s, taking ballroom dancing and watercolor classes and enjoying living in England near her son and his family after many years in Australia. In the first few pages of the book, she reads an old friend’s obituary and MI5 agents come to her door to take her away for questioning — not in his death, precisely, but in relation to new evidence they have from a Soviet defector that Joan and her friend were spies.

Joan’s thoughts make it pretty clear — as does the title — that she was. Rooney uses the questioning, which takes place over a few days, as the mechanism for going back to Joan’s youth, her days as a physics student at Cambridge in the late 1930s, and her romance with Leo, a Russian emigre, and friendship with Leo’s cousin, Sonya. The cousins take Joan to communist meetings, which she points out to her interrogators was pretty common in those days; lots of intellectuals in Europe admired, at the very least, theoretical communism, and Stalin’s crimes were not yet fully understood. She never joins the party, even though Leo calls her his “little comrade.” The war comes, Joan decides to do her part, and Leo gets her a job at a metals lab in Cambridge, where she meets Max, the lab director, and an unhappily married man.

As Joan recalls her life, prompted by documents shown to her by the MI5 agents, her son, Nick, who conveniently happens to be a lawyer, finds out she’s a suspect and rushes to help her. As it dawns on him that she really did pass secrets from Britain’s nuclear program he is incensed. This conflict allows Rooney to slowly spin out the story of Joan’s loves and friendships, the way she was manipulated, and the choices she made. I appreciated that she is presented as neither purely a victim nor purely a traitor. For Joan, whose father lost a limb in WWI, and who lived through WWII, nuclear deterrence means peace, while for Nick, it is madness. While much has been made of the fact that Rooney credits a news story about an 87 year old English woman revealed to have been a Soviet spy as inspiration, she says in the author’s note that there is little else her character and the “granny spy” share and that she was also inspired by other historical events and people.

While as I said the ending wasn’t my favorite, overall this was an interesting read. I enjoy historical fiction and I felt like Rooney hit all the right notes. The ideas the characters grapple with are more nuanced than the usual good versus evil that often appears in books set in or after WWII. There is much for a book group to discuss, starting with the fact that Joan acts according to her values, believing that she is “sharing” secrets, not stealing them. I was intrigued enough to want to read late over the weekend to find out what happened.

I needed something that would be entertaining but not mentally taxing to read as I attended the Institute for Research Design in Librarianship, a weeklong applied research methods intensive, last week. Good Riddance by Elinor Lipman fit the bill. I’ve written about her books before here on bookconscious — novels and her wonderful essay collection I Can’t Complain. I love her wit, her smarts, and her wonderful writing, so  choosing this book to download was a no-brainer. I was away for 9 days and chose not to check a bag, so downloaded library books instead of packing the physical kind — I didn’t love the format, but I loved the light bag.

Good Riddance is about Daphne Maritch formerly of fictional Pickering, New Hampshire and now a New Yorker. When the novel opens, Daphne has been Kondo-ing her apartment and discards an old yearbook her mother bequeathed her. She can’t understand why on earth it was left to her. It’s for the Pickering High Class of ’68 and is dedicated to Daphne’s mother, the yearbook advisor. Over the years her mother attended many class of ’68 reunions and added commentary to her copy of their yearbook.

Daphne dumps it in the recycling like any ecologically minded apartment dweller, and her kooky neighbor finds it and starts digging into the story of the class of ’68, at first for a documentary, then a podcast. Daphne gets wound up by this and tries to prevent further embarrassment to her family, especially her father, Tom, who is getting back into the world about a year after his wife’s death. This is romantic comedy at its best, with Daphne and Tom both developing love interests while also developing theories about the yearbook and its significance. I got a kick out of the New Hampshire references as well.

A fun comedy of manners poking affectionate fun at New York, family dynamics, and social trends.

“Herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, — all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, — who is good? not that men are ignorant, — what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.”  That quote sums up for me the essence of W.E.B. Du Bois‘ The Souls of Black Folk, which my book club is reading. If men would just know men, “double consciousness” would not be a way of life for people of color — a way of living that splits people in two, the person they are and the person the racist world sees them as.

Du Bois wrote this book around the turn of the 20th century; Jim Crow was the law of the land, and the initial hope and promise of the Freedmen’s Bureau was a distant memory. Du Bois’ descriptions of life in south Georgia (the “black belt”) are haunting to me because we spent five years living just 45 minutes north of Albany in Americus, and the legacy of systemic inequity is still evident, or was within the last two decades when we were there. The places where each race attends their own churches, their own schools (although not officially, but in many parts of rural Georgia, including the town where we lived, many white families send their kids to private school and the percentages of black and white children in public school don’t come anywhere near matching those of the population at large), their own entertainment — still existed when my family lived there in the early 2000s.

I was also struck by the chapters on individuals’ struggles to live as their true selves — Of Alexander Crummell and Of the Coming of John — which are especially powerful positioned after essays on reconstruction, the economy of share crop cotton farming, education, etc. I struggled, if I’m honest, to get through some of the history and sociology; important as it is to understand, it’s dense and difficult. Anytime I read about reconstruction I wonder what would have happened if Lincoln lived?

As I’ve thought many times recently when trying to read a more diverse history of the U.S. than what I was taught, it’s appalling that public schools don’t fully teach American history. There is so much I am only learning in more depth as an adult that was glossed over in a few sentences in my childhood history books. Someone I know told me recently that every so often he looks at 5th grade social studies books and checks to see if Martin Luther King is mentioned in a sidebar — rather than having his own chapter.

King, at least, is a household name. What about Alexander Crummell, who I’d never heard of until reading The Souls of Black Folk, or A. Philip Randolph, a man who is among the most important labor and civil rights pioneers in this country but I’ll bet many of you have never heard of (I only learned about him at a free breakfast about using online sources for historical research at the ACRL conference)?

It’s never too late to add “narrative plentitude” to one’s understanding so I’m going to keep learning about privilege and its lack.

A few year’s ago I read Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. When I saw Sourdough at a used bookstore in New Haven a few weeks ago, on the $1 cart, no less, I thought it looked like fun. I’m about to study research methods for a solid week so my brain needed something fun. Sourdough was as predicted.

To be clear, fun does not mean lightweight. This is an enjoyable, fast paced read but it examines some big questions: does technology have a place in the way we produce food and nourish ourselves? Is organic, farm to table food part of the solution or part of the problem? What about technology? How do we determine the value of work? What makes a good life?

Lois Clary, Sloan’s heroine, is a brilliant programmer who lands a coveted job at a tech startup in San Francisco. She moves there knowing no one and works such long hours she doesn’t even have time to cook. But she finds a Lois club like the one she and her grandmother belonged to (just what is sounds like, women named Lois), and she grows fond of the two brothers who run a small take out operation illegally from their apartment making a strange, spicy soup and bread. She learns to enjoy their strange music and food, and then they leave for Europe, gifting her with a crock of sourdough starter.

Lois stays in touch with one of the brothers via email. She tells him about learning to bake bread, he tells her the history if his people (a fictional group called the Magz), his family, and his dream of opening a restaurant. She works and bakes, and then she gets a chance to participate in a strange underground market in an old missile storage bunker. She meets a whole community of people doing unusual and interesting things with food. She gets into the market because her bread is weird and because she programs robotic arms.

The rest of the novel is the story of how her view of work, baking, and life evolve as she becomes more committed to the market and its mysterious but anonymous founder, and more convinced that she can solve the puzzle of her life the way she solves the puzzle of teaching a robotic arm to crack an egg — “not by adding code, but by taking it away.” She creates a technical “blink” in which her robot “was no longer second-guessing its second guesses a thousand times a second.” She calls her code Confidence. And this work, along with her bread-baking and her new friends, convinces her to live more boldly herself.

A lovely, fun, and thoughtful book. If you like Marie Semple, you’ll enjoy Robin Sloan.

The subtitle of John Gilbert Winant’s memoir of his time as US Ambassador to Britain during WWII is “An account of a stewardship.” Several years ago I read Lynne Olson’s terrific history of this time, Citizens of London and I became a fan of the unassuming Winant. His view of ambassadorship as stewardship is one of the reasons why: he was a public servant, who took seriously his call to serve the greater good and not American interests alone.

Winant opens the book, addressed to Geoffrey Story Smith godfather of Winant’s son John, by explaining that he is writing from the flat in the embassy building in London, which he is moving out of, reflecting on the momentous years he’s lived there. “One of the deeper reasons for wanting to write to you is the growing disillusionment of today; which not only dims and obscures the present, but is trying to cloud the past.” He wants to set the record straight: men and women did selfless things, quietly heroic things, to defeat fascism.

What’s especially moving about that line  is that Winant committed suicide around the time Letter from Grosvenor Square was published. The book is so full of kind and admiring observations, even about people who don’t come across as well in other accounts, like Roosevelt. Winant seemed to see the better nature of people, and to principles of fairness and justice, including fair labor practices. After describing how women contributed to the British war effort, he notes, “The part women played is still a binding force in the light and life of human progress.”

Because this is a first person account and not a history, it’s incomplete — Winant tells the things he felt were memorable or notable about his work, and the work of those around him. He explains some details of U.S. farm policy that made it possible to supply England with more food, but he doesn’t talk about his son being shot down and taken prisoner by the Germans, except briefly in the opening chapter addressed to Smith. And he tells a number of stories about Churchill and other British leaders but speaks particularly admiringly of ordinary British people who carried on with their lives regardless of the relentless German bombing.

If you want the full story of Winant’s time as ambassador, don’t miss Citizens of London, and if you want a glimpse into the generous spirit of the man who spent his entire adult life in the service of others, read Letter from Grosvenor Square.