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Archive for May, 2021

A couple of summers ago I read and loved Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. My mom gave me Kimmerer’s first book, Gathering Moss, for my birthday last fall but I hadn’t read it yet. It’s the time of year when I admire the wildflowers (which some people call weeds) and mosses in our lawn (the less grass the better as far as I am concerned), so I pulled it out of the teetering pile beside my chair a couple of weeks ago.

Kimmerer opens the book by describing how we humans “contrive remarkable ways to observe the world.” We make powerful telescopes and microscopes, but, she goes on, we “are often blind to the myriad sparkling facets that lie so close at hand. We think we’re seeing when we’ve only scratched the surface. Our acuity at this middle scale seems diminished, not by any failing of the eyes, but by the willingness of the mind. Has the power of our devices led us to distrust the unaided eyes? Or have we become dismissive of what takes no technology but only time and patience to perceive? Attentiveness alone can rival the most powerful magnifying lens.”

Among the things we don’t see? Moss. Gathering Moss is all about what Kimmerer has seen and learned of and from mosses as a biologist, professor, and mother. She writes with expertise but also with vulnerability. As in Braiding Sweetgrass, she combines indigenous and scientific knowledge about plants with stories about being human, and this book opens eyes, minds, and hearts to all that we could know if we paid attention, particularly to the natural world.

Jacqueline Winspear writes about her father teaching her to pay attention to the natural world in her memoir This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing. When I placed a hold on the new Maisie Dobbs book recently, I saw that Winspear had written a memoir. Since she’s written about how the Maisie books are based in part on the impact the two world wars had on her own family, I was intrigued. Readers of the series will notice people, events or places that are familiar, and in some cases Winspear points them out. I enjoyed hearing more about the hops harvest.

It is an interesting book, and very personal. Winspear writes lovingly but also with a frankness that reveals the difficulties she had as a child (including eye surgeries) and the challenging relationship she had with her mother. It’s a book infused with gratitude and appreciation for the many people in her life who were kind or generous or loyal, including her parents. This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing is also about being true to your ambitions — Winspear wanted to be a writer from early childhood but a test indicated she should be a teacher, a far more practical career in her parents’ view, and she spent many years working in education. But she did not forget her ambition, and eventually worked to realize it.

And that theme of being true to who you are and what you want to do also appears in a book I read last weekend, Jojo Moyes‘ most recent novel, The Giver of Stars. A departure from her other books, this one is historical fiction set mostly in a Kentucky coal mining town. It’s the story of a young English woman, Alice, who marries an American, son of a coal mine owner, and moves to Baileyville. She is lonely, tired of her overbearing father in law, uninterested in trying to fit into the gossipy local society, and confused about why her husband seems unattracted to her after a romantic courtship. When she attends a town meeting about a new mobile library service, a WPA project that is part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s efforts to improve literacy, Alice sees an opportunity to get out of her house.

She meets the other librarians — Margery, orphaned daughter of a notoriously violent moonshiner, Beth, only girl in a houseful of men, Izzy, carefully protected survivor of polio, and eventually Sophia, the only real librarian among them, a black woman who worked in Louisville but has come home to the mountains to care for her brother, who was injured in a mining accident. Alice finally has friends, purpose, and eventually, intrigue. I really enjoyed the story, even if it was bit dramatic. Moyes says in an author interview at the end of the book that she wrote it to highlight the real life horseback librarians, and that she traveled to Kentucky three times to research the book. She also noted that it made sense to her, an English woman, to tell the story from the point of view of an English main character, rather than try to make all the characters American, and I think that works well in the story.

Three excellent reads!

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I’ve taken a few weeks off from blogging here at bookconscious — I just wasn’t feeling it. I wasn’t feeling much of anything. Something that is so common right now that the New York Times wrote about it: languishing. Anyway, I was reading, I just didn’t feel like writing about it. Book I read since my last post:

Not In My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped A Great American City, by Antero Pietila, about Baltimore’s racially segregated neighborhoods that was the campus wide read at my alma mater, Goucher College. A tough book, meticulously researched. Pietila was a reporter at the Baltimore Sun for 35 years. In the Zoom discussion of the book, I heard about a new book on the topic, The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America by Lawrence T. Brown, that I’d like to read.

With Sighs Too Deep for Words: Grace and Depression, by my friend and bishop, Rob Hirschfeld, which my chapter of The Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross read together last fall. I didn’t read it at the time, but decided to after I heard Rob speak at our chapter meeting, and then it sat in my to-read pile for a bit. It’s beautiful, and not just for those with depression but those who love them, too.

The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline, and New Hope for Beloved Community by Stephanie Spellers. I’m facilitating a discussion of this book starting this week. It’s interesting and thought provoking.

The American Agent, second to latest book in the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear. I saw that a new one is out and realized I had missed the last one. Loved it as I do the whole series.

Persuasion, another #APSTogether pick, which I’ve read before and loved again. Jane Austen is wonderful, and I had heard Rachel Cohen, who led the APS discussion, at an online event, also at Goucher. I also heard Ta Nahesi Coates at a Goucher event (the recording doesn’t seem to be online) and realized that he loves Jane Austen.

So when I finished Persuasion, I decided to read Clair Tomalin’s biography, Jane Austen: a Life, which I picked up on a sale rack in a bookstore/coffee shop in Maine a couple of year’s ago. It was very interesting, both re-reading Persuasion and reading the bio. I’ve loved Jane Austen’s work since college, and her novels are among a handful of things I own that I’ve read multiple times. But, I’ve never read Sanditon. I think I’m going to give that a try at some point, and plan to watch the series on PBS. It’s a very modern story.

Speaking of modern, when I wrote about I Told My Soul to Sing, I mentioned that I was going to watch Dickinson on Apple TV. I watched both seasons and found it very entertaining.

This weekend, I read The Library of Exile, about Edmund de Waal’s exhibit of the same name. I had given this book to my dad for his birthday after we both read The White Road, and he loved it and decided I needed a copy too. The book includes an essay by Elif Shafak, which reminded me that after I read her book Honour last summer, I wanted to track down more of her work, and I haven’t yet.

So, that’s what I’ve been reading. I’m sure I’ll get back to more regular blogging when I’m not feeling so “meh.” I spent a lot of time outside this weekend, getting all my seedlings planted out in pots and beds. That definitely lifted my spirits!

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