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1. The Memory Garden

I was really excited when my turn for The Memory Garden by Mary Rickert came up at the library. I had read a few blog reviews of it (I’m sorry I don’t remember who!) and knew, as a first novel, it was a bit uneven. Still it sounded good and I was enchanted by the prospect of the shoe garden.

The book was a bit bumpy. There were moments when it had an identity crisis. It flirted with being a YA book. It thought about being a coming of age story. Sometimes it wanted to be a mystery or a ghost story. What it finally ends up being is a story about friendship.

Nan, Mavis, Ruthie and Eve were best friends. They were always together and not only was their friendship special, they were special too — an unusual knack for gardening and herbal lore, a special ability to heal through the art of cooking, a certain charisma that made everyone listen and follow orders. Nothing so very strange but strange enough for their peers to notice and whisper “witches” behind their hands. But being special does not make one exempt from tragedy. The four are sixteen, seventeen, when Eve dies. There is a secret around Eve’s death that is slowly revealed as the story progresses, and it is that secret that spilt the remaining three friends apart.

Years have passed, they are now all old women in the their seventies. They have not seen each other in that long time. Now Nan, feeling her age and worried about her fifteen-year-old daughter, Bay, invites Mavis and Ruthie for a long weekend visit, hoping for, she is not quite sure what.

Bay is not Nan’s biological daughter. Nan never married. Nan was well known as an herbalist who could help women out of difficulties, and one day a baby in a basket was left on her porch. In the basket with the baby was a caul. Babies born with a caul are witches by default. Nan has kept this a secret from Bay but recent incidents compelled her to tell Bay about the caul and what that means. But Bay, being a teenager who wants nothing more than to be “normal” refuses to believe anything. She is used to hearing Nan called a witch. People come by in the night fairly regularly and throw shoes at the house or yell or, on Halloween, smash all the pumpkins. Nan has turned all the shoe “donations” into a garden that passersby stop to admire. Bay loves the garden and her Nan while, in typical teenage fashion, is utterly embarrassed by her and her ways.

And then Mavis and Ruthie arrive. The three friends carry their old resentments and anger just below the surface where it frequently bubbles up and burns anyone who happens to be around. When they finally begin to see each other as the people they are now, the old women they have become, they are able to let down their walls, talk about what happened to Eve, and forgive themselves and each other. It is this story, the story of three old women and the ties of friendship that stretched so thin they almost broke, this story is what the book finally decides to be about. We don’t get to read stories about elderly women and friendship very often. Sure there are some unusual elements, but the witch thing is so very minor, and really, when you think about it, women are often accused of being witches. You can embrace the light fantasy aspect of it or you can stick with the light social commentary on women’s friendship and behavior that the label plays with. Of course you can also enjoy both, which I did.

The writing is sometimes rough but it moves along at a good pace and the description of the flower feast is really wonderful. The Memory Garden isn’t a great novel but it is an enjoyable one. It will make you think of your own best girlfriends and remember just how special their friendship is.


Filed under: Books, Reviews Tagged: Mary Rickert

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2. 3 Sections

Until Vijay Seshadri won the Pulitzer for poetry earlier this year for his book 3 Sections, I had never heard of him before. Born in Bangalore, India in 1954, he came to the United States when he was five. He grew up in Columbus, Ohio and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. He teaches poetry and nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College. I am really glad he won the Pulitzer because otherwise I might never have heard of him and his book, 3 Sections is well worth reading.

It is not a mystery why the book is called 3 Sections because it actually has three sections. The first and longest section is poetry, mostly one to at most two pages long. The second section is a prose essay about salmon fishing called “Pacific Fishes of Canada.” The third section is one long poem called “Personal Essay” which is, perhaps, an essay in the form of a poem. The Pulitzer committee describes the book as a “collection of poems that examine human consciousness, from birth to dementia.” They make it sound as though the book has a progression of some kind beginning with birth and ending with dementia. But this is not the case. I am certain there is some kind of logic behind the arrangement of all the pieces in the book, there generally always is, but it is not something I found especially noticeable. I just liked the poems a lot.

I also like Seshadri’s voice. It is firm, assured, sometimes funny, sometimes sad. His lines have a pleasant pacing, slow, but not so slow they become plodding. The slow movement of his lines serves to soften the firmness of his voice. He is not melodic but he is at times soothing. Seshadri’s language is straightforward, everyday. Though this does not mean that he doesn’t have some fantastic and startling images:

Therefore is he choked in the coils
of his being’s enormous Ponzi scheme
(Yet Another Scandal)

And:

Self-esteem is leaking and oozing
over the concrete floor to pool around the feet.
Its color is the pink color of anti-freeze. The air is stringent
with the smell of anti-freeze.
(The People I Know)

And while Seshadri’s voice is firm and his language plain, one could even say grounded, he manages to write a number of poems that approach the spiritual. Here is the entirety of a short one, “Imaginary Number,” to give you an idea:

The mountain that remains when the universe is destroyed
is not big and is not small.
Big and small are

comparative categories, and to what
could the mountain that remains when the universe is destroyed
be compared?

Consciousness observes and is appeased.
The soul scrambles across the screes.
The soul,

like the square root of minus 1,
is an impossibility that has its uses.

One of my favorites in the collection is called “Memoir.” Here is a taste:

Orwell says somewhere that no one ever writes the real story of their life.
The real story of a life is the story of its humiliations.

And one October afternoon, under a locust tree
whose blackened pods were falling and making
illuminating patterns on the pathway,
I was seized by joy
and someone saw me there,
and that was the worst of all,
lacerating and unforgettable.

Humiliated by joy. But isn’t it true? Those moments of pure joy when we are and aren’t ourselves, should someone see us in such a moment, we are so very embarrassed by it. I wonder why that is?

I am not quite sure how the second prose section fits into the book. The narrator gets a job on a fishing boat during salmon fishing season. There is one sentence that really stood out for me:

my duties were light enough to give me plenty of time to indulge my invented self, my sea-going fictional self, and wallow in my version of the well-documented affliction that causes people to live in literature rather than life.

Heh.

And the final section, “Personal Essay,” is a marvelous, somewhat meditative poem on consciousness, identity, and reality. One of my favorite lines in the poem is this:

Clouds oversized, exaggerated in the pale sky, drawn with a crayon by a kid,
which confirms that we are in a fabrication, maybe even in a mistake,
maybe even in a cartoon.

There is a wonderful poem called “Rereading” in which David Copperfield is taken to task for dismantling the lives of the Peggotys in their cozy beached boat upon the strand. And I was also pleased about “Three Urdu Poems.” I love ghazals, a poetic form in which the couplets tend almost towards aphorism at times. I love trying to puzzle out how the seemingly unrelated lines actually do relate and form a whole. It is not a form that those who write in English use very often so they always get my attention when they turn up.

3 Sections is a great collection, full of all sorts of gems. And for those who don’t really consider themselves poetry readers but would like to read poetry now and then, I bet you’d like this one too.


Filed under: Books, Poetry, Reviews

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3. Sunflower Season

Perennial sunflowers gone wild

Perennial sunflowers gone wild

This week as I walked through my garden delighting at the lush green, the tall corn, the yellow flowers, the bees, the birds, the pumpkin vines running everywhere, and weeds, weeds, weeds, wherever I looked, I realized that the late summer garden in all of its weedy wildness has a lesson to teach about control.

In spring it is easy to fall under the illusion that I am in control of everything. I dig the dirt, I plant the seeds, I water the seeds, I pull the weeds, I create the conditions right for growing, heck, I even give myself credit for the seeds sprouting, flowering and giving me fruits and vegetables. If it weren’t for me, there would be no garden after all. In spring everything is neat and tidy, orderly.

In late summer I am made to understand that I have absolutely no control over anything. There is nothing neat and tidy about the garden. It is a wild riot of sound and color and plants doing whatever they want to do and the weeds have long ago moved in faster than I can pull them. The tidy paths between beds have plants flopped over on them. There are weeds taller than the beans. The morning glories appear to be trying to smother everything they can grab onto.

For a moment yesterday I was in despair. I had a panic and felt like I should punish myself in the heat and humidity, spend

Perennial sunflowers close up

Perennial sunflowers close up

the whole day until my back hurt pulling weeds, tying up plants, putting everything in order. But then I heard the cicadas buzzing, and a loud symphony of crickets, and a chorus of sparrows darted and hopped through the garden, their chirping punctuated by a screech of a jay taking a bath. Sure I could exhaust myself trying to attain an artificial tidiness but it wouldn’t last, it isn’t supposed to. And no one seemed to care about the wildness except me. So I took a deep breath and then another and another and I gave up control. I stood on my deck and watched the birds and the bees, watched the corn and the sunflowers swaying in the light breeze which I also felt on my skin, listened to the chirping, the buzzing, the squawking, the singing, the sound of children playing in a yard a few houses away, and had one of those moments of deep happiness that you wish could go on forever.

This morning when I walked out into the garden I felt again, briefly, the urge to take control. But I looked at the the sprawling perennial sunflower and the bees and pumpkin vines and I couldn’t help but smile. They have everything under control and don’t need my help.

***

Giant sunflower

Giant sunflower

It’s the end of August which means it is sunflower season! The perennial sunflower has turned into a large colony. The annual sunflowers we first sprouted in pots in spring and let grow several inches tall before planting out to protect from the squirrels are about 10 feet (just over 3m) tall with morning glories climbing up them. The morning glories are reseeded from ones that we planted a few years ago. They began as heavenly blue and as they reseed year after year, have reverted to pink and purple with only the occasional blue one.

And then there is the sunchoke, also known as Jerusalem artichoke. It is in the sunflower family too. It is perennial. We planted a small one last year. It grew a few stems and got about waist high. The roots are edible, you dig them up in late fall after a hard frost or in early spring after the ground has thawed and eat them like fingerling potatoes. I thought, oh it is going to take a few years. But unbeknownst to me those few stems of last year were fueling an underground riot of roots that has come up this year as a thicket and grown well above my head. We will be able to harvest a few this year. Since I am anxious to try them, I have never eaten them before, I think we will dig them up this fall instead of waiting until spring.

Last weekend I was going to give you an update on my red wiggler worms but had gone on so long I decided to save it for

Sunchokes

Sunchokes

this week. I have made my second harvest of compost from the worm bin and oh, is it ever good stuff! Black and loamy. And the worms, they are sex maniacs! There are so many worms in the bin now that nine months after I started the bin, their population has tripled. I could actually hear them moving through the dirt. It was weird and creepy and really neat all at the same time. I upended the bin onto newspapers I spread out on the floor, then put fresh bedding into the bin along with some sand to aid digestion and calcium to encourage reproduction. It seems they don’t need much encouragement on the latter, but what the heck. Then I spent quite a long time separating the worms from the compost. Some of the compost goes back into the bin with the worms to keep a stable environment. This is easy to do because towards the end when I picked up a handful of compost I also got a big handful of worms. If you are squeamish about worms, worm composting is not for you. I had worms crawling up my arm and around the back of my hands. I was having fun, though the worms were a little stressed out and glad when I had them all back in their bin. I found lots and lots of little worm egg sacks and many sometimes very tiny worms too. I had been giving then only one margarine-sized container of food scraps a week but I’m pretty sure that is no longer enough food for them so this week I’m giving them two feedings a week.

I’m not entirely certain if they will control their own population growth or if I will have to split the bin and create a second one. But then what? I can’t keep making new bins, so I will have to trust that the worms know what they are doing and won’t suffer from overpopulation. Meanwhile, I have a small bucket of fresh worm compost to deposit in the garden somewhere. I haven’t decided who gets it yet. The first bucket in the spring went to the newly planted asparagus. Oh, I know! I am expecting garlic to be delivered in a few weeks. I’ll save the compost for the garlic. Won’t that be lovely!

And one final thing to report on: the monarch butterfly. It hatched! I check on the chrysalis every morning and Wednesday when I checked it on my way to out to work the chrysalis had gone translucent. That means hatching was imminent. Bookman had to work that day too. When I got home from work I ran out to look and hoped to see a butterfly still hanging around. But all I saw was a clear, broken open chrysalis and no monarch. I am sad I missed its emergence but so very happy it is now flying around in the world. There has been a monarch butterfly visiting the anise hyssop over the last few days. I don’t know if newly born butterflies hang around before they fly off, but I’m assuming it is “our” monarch and every time I see it I get a little thrill. I stand and watch it sipping nectar and send it good wishes, drink up, get strong, you have a long journey ahead of you, may you make it there safely.


Filed under: gardening

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4. A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Rebecca Solnit has gone on my list of authors whose work I’d like to own and read all of. It started off with her newest essay collection Men Explain Things To Me and was cemented by A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Field Guide was on my TBR list for years but I just never got around to it. Why did I take so long? I am a believer that every book has the right time and for whatever reason the right time wasn’t until now.

How to describe the book? Essays? Yes but not really because each one is connected. But it isn’t straight up nonfiction either because there is no real “plot” other than the theme of getting lost. Which makes it very much a long meditation. But yet there is a direction of sorts because four of the chapters/essays are called “The Blue of Distance” and these alternate with chapters called things like “Abandon” and “One-Story House.” The blue chapters all tend to be outward facing, about someone — the artist Yves Kline for instance — or about something — a certain color of blue or country western music. The other chapters tend to be more personally reflective and wide-ranging discussing things like leaving the door open for Elijah during Passover dinner, hiking in the wilderness, and family history. But even the distinction between the blue chapters and the named chapters blurs as Solnit will include personal reflection in the blue chapters and quotes Meno, Simone Weil, and a Tibetan sage in the personal chapters. I found all this intermingling to be satisfying and wanted the book to be longer than it is. A Good sign, right?

A Field Guide to Getting Lost is about many things, but at its core it is about stories:

A story can be a gift like Ariadne’s thread , or the labyrinth, or the labyrinth’s raving Minotaur; we navigate by stories, but sometimes we only escape by abandoning them.

Stories anchor us, tell us who we are or point to who we want to be. We can become lost in our stories. We can also be oppressed by our stories and only find out who we are by giving them up and losing ourselves. Trouble is, we think of being lost as a bad thing, but when we are lost we are more open to possibility than we are when we are sure of ourselves and our stories:

Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra icognita in between lies a life of discovery.

Even when we are sure of our stories, we still change over time and lose the person we used to be. When it happens so slowly we don’t even notice it we are not bothered by it until we are startled into awareness by an old photograph or letter, or a person we haven’t seen in many years. Sometimes, of course, loss happens very fast and unexpectedly and we are thrown for a loop. Not only do we write the story of our past but we write it well into the future and a sudden loss throws us into uncertainty, a place in which we do not feel comfortable spending time. And so we worry:

Worry is a way to pretend that you have knowledge or control over what you don’t — and it surprised me, even in myself, how much we prefer ugly scenarios to the pure unknown. Perhaps fantasy is what you fill up maps with rather than saying they too contain the unknown.

In the last chapter there is a beautiful piece of a lecture Solnit shares that she heard given at the Zen Center in San Francisco. Zen, you may know, is all about mindfulness, paying attention, living in the hear and now not dwelling on the past or projecting into the future. And this lecture coming as it does nearly at the end of the final chapter, serves to sum up much of the whole book. It is such a wonderful story it is hard to pick out an exact sort of summary quote, but this might give you and idea:

‘Maybe if I really paid attention I’d notice that I don’t know what’s going to happen this afternoon and I can’t be fully confident that I am competent to deal with it. Maybe we’re willing to let in that thought. It has some reasonableness to it, I can’t exactly know, but chances are, possibilities are, it’s not going to be much different than what I’ve usually experienced and I’ll do just fine, so we close up that unsettling possibility with a reasonable response. The practice of awareness takes us below the reasonableness that we’d like to think we live with and then we start to see something quite fascinating, which is the drama of our inner dialogue, of the stories that go through our minds and the feelings that go through our heart, and we start to see in this territory it isn’t so neat and orderly and, dare I say it, safe or reasonable.’

The story goes on to remind us that it is okay to not know; okay to be uncertain; okay to run into a barrier and ask for help. It is okay to be lost. Because we can only really find what we need if we are lost:

That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.


Filed under: Books, Essays, Nonfiction, Reviews Tagged: Rebecca Solnit

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5. Yawn

I recently began reading Far from the Madding Crowd on my Kindle. I am so glad I am finally getting around to reading Hardy. Why did I wait so long? Please don’t answer that.

Anyway, after work today on the train I was reading and Oak, the main character thus far, was playing Peeping Tom, watching an older woman and a young lady he had just seen for the first time earlier that day feed a cow and take care of her new calf. The hour was late, somewhere around 1 a.m. by the stars Hardy tells us. The young lady yawns (but not in an inappropriately large way, she does have manners) and Oak, peeping through the gap in the barn boards is overwhelmed and suddenly yawns too. And I, reading the book, found myself attacked by a yawn.

Has this ever happened to you before? You are made to yawn by a character in the book yawning?

Or what about when a character is really thirsty, have you ever suddenly found yourself thirsty too? Of hungry? Books make me hungry all the time and there doesn’t even have to be a description of a great meal that makes my mouth water. I am currently reading The Memory Garden and there is an amazing dinner scene. I was doing fine, until they had blueberry sorbet. Oh that sounded good, give me a some please! I could even taste it and feel the cold in mouth even though the author didn’t spend any time actually describing it. But what has really gotten me is the chocolate cake that was mentioned a couple times. I was struck by a sudden craving. I came really close to asking Bookman if he would make one.

Other times while reading I have felt hot or cold or found myself squinting along with the character in an imagined bright sun. And of course tears. There have also been tears springing to my eyes as quickly as they spring to the eyes of the character in the book.

Being so affected probably has something to do with an active imagination and mirror neurons. When you see someone pick up a cup, for instance, mirror neurons supposedly fire in your brain in the same areas that would go to work if you were actually picking up the cup yourself. I’m wondering if I start reading books in which people get lots of exercise whether that means I am exercising too? Wouldn’t that be nice? Reading about someone running a marathon does not equal me actually running one. Very much wishful thinking but you can’t blame a girl for trying.


Filed under: Books, Reading

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6. Poem for a Monday

I am feeling tired today. My cat Dickens has been known to wake me up at night but he has gotten really bad lately. He sits on the floor next to the bed and meows at me. Why can’t he be like Waldo and just sleep draped across my feet all night? The books say to ignore it. So I do. I lay there in bed, wide awake, waiting for him to get tired and stop. He can go for a surprisingly long time. This has been going on for a week now and he is not getting the hint that such behavior does not get any attention. He’s persistent, I’ll give him that. I am regularly as bleary-eyed as my coworker with the four-month old baby.

So it seems like a good day for a poem. Well any day is a good day for a poem in my opinion. I get a poem everyday in my email box from the Academy of American Poets. If you have not signed up for this wonderfully free service, you totally should. It’s easy.

Yesterday I got a poem by Hazel Hall who turns out to be from St. Paul, Minnesota. Her poem is in the public domain so I can post the whole thing without worrying about a visit from the copyright police. The poem is called “Hours” and since I’ve been having some foggy hours and hours that sure felt like eternal pain, I thought it only fitting. So here you go, enjoy.

Hours

I have known hours built like cities,
House on grey house, with streets between
That lead to straggling roads and trail off,
Forgotten in a field of green;

Hours made like mountains lifting
White crests out of the fog and rain,
And woven of forbidden music—
Hours eternal in their pain.

Life is a tapestry of hours
Forever mellowing in tone,
Where all things blend, even the longing
For hours I have never known.


Filed under: Poetry

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7. How To Tell When Fruit is Ripe

A guide for the perplexed.

Lemon squash

Lemon squash

Last year and this year we began planting fruit in the form of berries in the garden. Last year we planted blueberries, a huckleberry, a thornless blackberry, and two bush cherries. This year we planted a Juneberry, a black raspberry, and a currant, and a gooseberry and a lingonberry. Neither the blueberries nor the huckleberry bloomed this spring because we have yet to manage to make the soil acidic enough. We are trying though so maybe next spring. The bush cherries did bloom and the gooseberry, small as it is, was blooming when we bought it. Also the blackberry got a few blossoms on it. Gooseberries can be green or red and for the life of me I couldn’t remember what variety I bought. I could have looked it up but where is the logic and fun in that?

I knew the gooseberries should be ripe sometime in July. So, early July I bent down over the thorny bush and looked at the two dozen berries. Are they ripe? I gave on a gentle squeeze. It was pretty firm so I figured, no not ripe. A week later I checked again. Hmm, still firm. Maybe I should give it taste test? So I plucked a gooseberry and popped it in my mouth. Now, I have never had gooseberries before so I had no idea what a ripe one would taste like. I assumed sweet so when my mouth puckered up and I exclaimed, oh tart! I decided, nope, not ripe.

A week later I checked again. Oh look, they are starting to get pink! I guess my gooseberry is a red one. A week later and they were still pink but getting darker. A few more days I thought. And then I forgot until a week had gone by. As I squatted down before the gooseberry my mouth watering in anticipation of the ripe red fruit I was about to taste, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Not a single berry. Zip. Nada. Nothing. The thorns on a gooseberry are about half an inch (1.3 cm) long and I stabbed myself upon them several times looking under leaves and little branches just to make sure they were all gone. With the thorns, I didn’t expect any critters would bother it. Guess again.

So, how to tell when gooseberries are ripe? Someone else eats them before you do.

The bush cherries are small but each one had about thirty little hard green cherries on it all summer long. My neighbor’s cherry tree gets ripe around July 4th, my little bush cherries were adamantly green. And then suddenly, the end of July they began to blush. Joy! I checked on them a week later. They were all pale red, not ripe red. Another week. I checked a few days later just to be sure. Not ripe yet, a few more days. I took a bowl out with me to pick the cherries into. Oh I was excited. There wouldn’t be enough for a pie but I’m sure we could use them in muffins or scones or something. I bent over the first little bush and moved aside a branch. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Where did they all go? I rummaged around through the shrub, no thorns this time. All the cherries were gone.

I moved to the other cherry and found two cherries left. They were light red, not dark cherry red. Left because they weren’t quite ripe yet. I picked them anyway because I was so mad at myself for thinking the birds would leave the cherries alone even after they ate all the gooseberries. You can’t do anything with two marble-size not quite ripe cherries so after a day I tossed them in the compost bin.

Now, those blackberries. I am not a novice when it comes to blackberries. There won’t be many because there is only one cane from last year for them to bloom on (blackberries and raspberries bloom on second-year growth) but I will be putting bird netting over it this week. I love blackberries and have picked them growing wild in the redwoods before. So delicious. They will be getting ripe in about three weeks and by golly, I’m the one who is going to eat them, not the darn birds!

The turnip seeds we planted last week are doing wonderfully. They sprouted right up after only a few days. It was a warm, mostly dry week and we had to water the little sprouts and the garden about every other day. It turned hot, well hot to me, and humid Friday and the air has been hot and thick since. We had a little rain last night and we’ve had an off and on light rain this afternoon. Not a lot, the garden should really have more, but good enough that we don’t have to water for a day or two. Hopefully our rain barrels got a bit fuller too.

Yesterday I pulled all the bolted lettuce out of the polyculture bed. It was looking really sad. The broccoli we planted has mostly been eaten by either slugs or grasshoppers or both. The beets have pretty red leaves but they never got very big and they have no fat root. Another year of beet failure. I swear, the year I manage to grow a good crop of beets I am going boil them and pour the red water over my head and then do a beet dance of victory through the garden. And then I will spend the next several days explaining to everyone why I am red as a beet an no one will understand. No matter. The parsnips, well, they aren’t exactly tall and leafy so I don’t have high hopes for them, but then they have until early October to get it together and do something so maybe they will.

Also in that bed we had planted Jacob’s cattle beans. They are a dry been that is supposed to be good in soups and stews.

Jacob's cattle beans

Jacob’s cattle beans

You leave the beans on the plants until the pods dry. Well, they are dry. So today I picked all the dry pods and pulled up the mostly dead bean plants. Next year I will be planting more of these beans. I think I might have beans growing everywhere, after all when they are dry beans, can you really do too many? They are called Jacob’s cattle but they remind of appaloosa horses, the ones with the shiny brown withers and the white and brown spotted hindquarters. I had an aunt and uncle who lived on a farm in Oklahoma and they had several appaloosas. We spent two weeks there one summer when I was thirteen and I got to have my very own horse and he looked just like these beans. In spite of the heat and the record heat and humidity that year, it was one of the best summers ever.

Anyway, the polyculture bed is pretty much empty now. So I planted some more radishes that will be ready by the end of September, and scattered white clover throughout the bed for a nitrogen-fixing cover crop.

What else? Zucchini! We’ve been managing to keep up more or less but there are two in the fridge at the moment and three in the garden that need to be picked tomorrow which means we are about to fall behind. We’ve had it breaded, we’ve had it as “noodles” with spicy peanut sauce, we’ve had it sliced up on pizza. I think we are about to have it as latkes. And we plan on trying to make a sweet relish. And of course there will be zucchini bread too.

Looking corny in stockings

Looking corny in stockings

There are also tomatoes coming out of the garden. We planted four paste tomatoes and one slicing tomato. Most of the paste tomatoes have suffered from blossom end rot which is caused by a lack of calcium in the soil. The lack of calcium can be brought on by excessive moisture or drought. My guess is the excessive moisture from the first half of summer and then the lack of moisture the second part of summer. This happened last year too. And it only happens with the paste tomatoes. I think next year we might skip the paste tomatoes and do more slicing and perhaps a cherry tomato or two, see if they survive the wacky weather better.

Corn! The corn is going crazy! For some reason I thought there would only be one ear on each stalk but there are at least two. We have about a dozen corn plants. You do the math. Thank goodness they aren’t all corning at the same time, it will happen in stages. The biggest ears closest to being ripe (a week or so away) now have nylon stockings on them in an effort to keep the critters away. So far, so good, but since it isn’t harvest time yet it is hard to tell if it is working. In the meantime the corn is all dressed up with nowhere to go, which is just as well given the stockings kind of sag around the ankles.

One more utterly fantastic thing. We have a monarch butterfly chrysalis! Bookman noticed it first about Tuesday. Remember

Monarch butterfly chrsalis

Monarch butterfly chrsalis

in the spring I saw two monarch caterpillars on the milkweed in my garden? I haven’t seen them all summer and thought they must have been eaten or something. But the chrysalis says at least one of them survived. It is hanging under the edge of the siding on my neighbor’s garage which edges up to the bed where the caterpillars were. It will be 10-14 days for the butterfly to emerge. The chrysalis will get transparent just before hatching so we will know when it is going to happen. Fingers crossed it will happen on a weekend when we can see it instead of during the day while we are away at work. Bookman and I are so excited. We check on it every morning and every evening. It is such a tiny, vulnerable looking thing, I fear for its safety. But the caterpillar did select a good place, out of direct light and protected from the worst of the weather. When I check on it I say hello and give it encouragement. With luck I might be telling you about a butterfly next week.

And, because this post isn’t long enough already, here is a video I took about two weeks ago of my “hellstrip” garden. That is the garden in my front yard that runs along the street and public sidewalk. It’s kind of long, sorry, but if you watch, I hope you enjoy it!


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8. Kindle Flare

Most of you are probably aware by now that I have a plain old e-ink Kindle and that I read on it five days a week during my public transit commute to and from work as well as during my lunch break. When I first started reading on a Kindle five years ago there was hardly anyone one else on the metro train who had an ereader. In fact, I’d frequently have people ask me questions about mine. Now there are so many people reading on ereaders, tablets, phones and iPods that the people actually carrying books are outnumbered.

As someone who loves to spy and see what people are reading, with the increase of digital devices it has become difficult. Though there was a woman yesterday next to me on the train who was obviously reading over my shoulder. It wouldn’t have been so annoying if she had been a bit more surreptitious about it. It was so bad I almost tilted my screen towards her a little and asked if that was better for her. I doubt she was able to figure out what I was reading — Willa Cather’s The Troll Garden. I have considered taping a piece of paper with the title of my book to the inside of my Kindle cover so when I am reading the curious reader will not be left wondering, but I’ve never gotten around to it.

But now The Onion reports the release of the Kindle Flare, a Kindle that will loudly and repeatedly tell everyone what you are reading. And, if you are reading something you aren’t so very proud of, it has an “explanation mode” where it will explain that yes you know the book is trash but you are also reading Infinite Jest.

My favorite feature, however, is “bookshelf mode.” In bookshelf mode you can place your Kindle on you now empty bookshelves (because, you know, you don’t need to buy print books any longer) and it will run through a list of all the books on your Kindle. So it is still possible to impress your friends at parties by the books on your virtual shelves.

I think I’ve got to get me one of those Kindle Flares!

If you haven’t figured it out by now, this is a joke produced by the satirical newspaper The Onion. Unfortunately, The Onion and WordPress would not let me embed the video, so you will need to click on the link above to have a good laugh. Enjoy!


Filed under: Books, ebooks, Humor, Kindle

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9. Perdido Street Station

I read my first China Miéville book a couple years ago, The City and the City. Imagine two cities with different cultures and architecture existing in the same space. So, for instance, you live in one city but your next door neighbor lives in the other city. You see each other coming and going but you live in two different cities and you are not allowed to even acknowledge you see one another or the government will come and take you away for reconditioning. But that is not what the book is about, that is just the setting. The book is actually a police procedural. Trippy, right?

So when I sat down to read my second ever Miéville, Perdido Street Station, I was prepared to be plunged into something richly imagined but I had no idea what. The thing I like about reading Miéville is that you do just plunge in. He has created an incredibly detailed world with geography and beings of different races each with their own history and cultures but he doesn’t just tell you about it, he lets you experience it in the context of the story. This makes the beginning of his novels both exciting (you never know what you might discover) and hard going (you have no idea what is going on). If you are going to read Miéville, you have to be okay with total immersion and the confusion and uncertainty that goes along with it. Eventually you will know everything you need to know, you just have to wait and pay attention.

And so at the beginning of Perdido Street Station we find ourselves arriving by boat on a filthy river with a stranger to a city called New Crobuzon. And then the narrative shifts to Isaac and Lin and we don’t know who this stranger is for a number of chapters. But we don’t know who Isaac and Lin are either. Through the story we learn Isaac is human and Lin is Khepri, a humanoid woman body with an insectoid head, and the pair are lovers. Prejudice against inter-species love abound and so we start to think that this is going to be a love story of sorts about breaking through boundaries. And it is that, but that does not turn out to be the main story.

The main story congeals around Isaac a scientist semi-attached to the university but no longer really welcome there because his research is just too far out of the realm of what anyone believes is possible. Except it isn’t. And his far out research ends up in a breakthrough that eventually saves the entire city of New Corbuzon from being destroyed by slake moths, nightmare creatures escaped from government control that suck the consciousness out of sentient beings leaving them as living vegetables.

The book manages to be a romance, a thriller, science fiction, and horror all rolled into one. And it works. It really works. Miéville is always in control and no matter how weird the story gets or uncertain the reader might start to feel about making sense of it all, you can trust Miéville and so relax and enjoy the ride. This is speculative science fiction at its best, a substantial story, complex and intricately told. His vocabulary is one that sent me to the dictionary again and again. It’s smart and makes demands of the reader. And as alien as the world and the story turn out to be, it is all so richly detailed with such a sense of depth to it that it feels real and you believe in the places and peoples and histories and cultures. It really is astonishing.

If you don’t read a lot of science fiction, I wouldn’t recommend this book to you, however, if you are an avid SF fan or even read it now and then and feel comfortable in an SF world, definitely give this book a try. It is worth all the effort you will have to put into it.


Filed under: Books, Reviews, SciFi/Fantasy Tagged: China Mieville

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10. Hearing Voices

When you read do you hear voices in your head? I do. I just asked Bookman and he does too. I suspect most readers hear a book as they read.

What you hear, is it you? Or do you hear the characters? I have a narrative voice and the characters get voices too but they aren’t especially distinctive voices, they are more like my narrative voice doing voices rather than say, Jim Dale doing all the voices on the Harry Potter audiobook with each one distinct. But even my narrative voice, while it is me, it doesn’t sound like me if I were to speak. I wish my speaking voice did sound like my inner narrative voice because that inner voice sounds so much more assured and resonant with lovely tonal variation that my real speaking voice does not possess.

Bookman tells me he has a narrative voice too. And, if he has seen a movie made from the book he is reading or has listened to the book on audio and heard the voices animated, he hears those voices when he reads. I think I have an inclination towards that too, just like the visuals of characters I have seen in film will overlay the visuals of the characters in the book.

You may or may not be surprised to know that the phenomenon of hearing voices is not a well studied one. Some academics at the University of Durham in the UK are working on changing that and you can help. Currently they are at the Edinburgh book festival talking to readers there, but, if you, like me, aren’t there, you can still participate in the study by filling out their online survey.

Before you take the survey, be sure to read a bit about it at the Guardian.

I took the survey and spent about 15 minutes or so at it. You should know it asks about more than just hearing voices while you read. It also asks about whether or not you talk to yourself and whether you had or have imaginary friends. I’m not sure what imaginary friends have to do with it. Oh, yes, I suppose when talking to an imaginary friend you might hear that friend’s voice. As someone who never had such a friend I was confused by those questions but now I get it. I can be a little slow sometimes!

It’s a fascinating topic so help them out and fill out their survey. Also, be sure to let us all know whether you hear voices. I can pretty much guarantee we won’t think you are crazy.


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11. Founding Gardeners

Who knew that gardening could be such a political thing? That a gardening philosophy could have such an impact on the beginnings of a country and how its people conceived of themselves? Until I read The Founding Gardeners: How the Revolutionary Generation Created an American Eden by Andrea Wulf, I had never really thought much about American politics and gardening. That there is a connection is still amazing to me.

A number of the early founders of America were great gardeners, Thomas Jefferson, for instance. This is generally well known. What is not so well known is how revolutionary his gardening was and how that also played itself out in his politics and his vision of America. Wulf takes a look at not only Jefferson, but also George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison, all great gardeners, all signers of the Declaration of Independence, all Presidents of the United States.

Early in this country’s beginning, a lack of labor combined with heavy duties and taxes by the British prevented the not yet United States from developing much in the way of manufacturing. Thus, forcing the colonists to rely on British goods and keeping them under the thumb of the king. So instead of developing as a manufacturing country, the roots of America grew in the soil. A vast country with rich and fertile land, the colonists took to the fields raising raising grain, corn and tobacco. Almost all the colonists lived off the land, and became self-sufficient which eventually allowed them to break away from British rule and become the United States of America.

So it was that George Washington, general and first president, was himself a farmer. And it was planning and tending his farm that kept him warm all those cold winter nights during the revolutionary war. When the latest march was finished and the newest plan against the British worked out, Washington would sit down and write long letters to his farm manger about what to plant, where to plant it and when it should be planted. Not only was he a revolutionary war hero but his garden too was revolutionary. Independence from Britain also meant independence from the nation of British gardeners. It meant using American plants instead of plants from Britain and Europe. It meant finding the beautiful that existed in this country and elevating it to an even higher status as being worthy of being not just part of a wild landscape, but part of an ornamental garden.

This choosing to create gardens using the plants of America was something Adams, Jefferson and Madison did as well. Sure, they would travel to Europe and get ideas about gardening and agriculture, but then they would go home and adapt those ideas to their native American soil. These men, especially Jefferson, believed the future of America was in agriculture. They wrote letters to each other and their farm managers and wives and children about compost and crop rotations, about vegetables and trees.

Jefferson installed an extraordinary vegetable terrace at Monticello. Instead of hiding away the vegetables like most estates did, Jefferson turned his into a gorgeous experimental garden in its own right. He obtained seeds of every kind and variety he possibly could from anyone and everyone and planted them and observed and tasted. His goal was to find the best beans, the best, corn, the best squash and then spread the word and seeds to other farmers. America was to be an agrarian Eden, a republic of hardy, moral men working together to create something great.

In the beginning of the country there were no political parties. This lasted until Hamilton ran for president. His vision of America greatly contrasted with Jefferson’s and friends’ agrarian one. Hamilton wanted roads and cities, trade and manufacturing, and during his presidency established a national bank, a move which Jefferson though would be the end of everything that made America great. And so two parties formed. Which is really interesting because those seeds remain in the parties that exist today and is especially noticeable in Minnesota. The democratic party in Minnesota goes by the name “DFL” or Democratic Farm-Labor Party. It is the party that Jefferson and the others would likely find themselves agreeing with, though they would perhaps not be so keen on the social liberal part of the agenda. The republican party in the state is always on about business, trade, money, an agenda Hamilton would likely find familiar.

When it came to the building of Washington D.C., agrarian versus manufacturing politics played out there as well. Jefferson want a small town surrounded by farms. If he had his way the White House would be nothing more than a fancy farm house and the streets would be lined with trees and gardens and the city surrounded by fields. The other vision was one of broad avenues and grand architecture. In spite of Jefferson’s best efforts he mostly lost that argument. Though the presence of an organic vegetable garden at the White House these days harkens back to the past when we were all farmers.

By the time James Madison came along the fertile soil that had sustained the early colonists had begun to be depleted. The country was so large though that instead of taking care of the fields that had already been created, people started moving west, ploughing new fields. Forests were already disappearing and to Madison this was a travesty. Yes, this new country was large and full of resources, but that was no excuse to ruin one part of it and move on to ruin another part. Eventually we would run of out of room and then what? Long before Thoreau and John Muir, Madison began speaking out about the importance of conservation, of taking care of the fields, of saving forest land. Madison’s Address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle was groundbreaking and at its publication amounted to a bestseller. It did not turn Americans into environmentalists overnight, but it began a movement that led to people recognizing that American forests were a national treasure.

As wonderful and revolutionary as the gardening practices of the Founders were, they still could not manage to bring themselves to rise above and see slavery as an evil. All of them had slaves. All of them worked their slaves on their farms and in their gardens. In creating a park lined with trees in front of his house, Washington made his slaves dig up full-grown trees in winter from the forest on the estate and move them to their new location. Madison was considered forward thinking when it came to slaves. He created a model village in the middle of his garden for a few of his slave families. They each had a small cottage and a small garden. The “village” was in full view of the house and was much admired by the constant stream of guests visiting Madison. The slaves, of course, had to pretend to be happy, always on display, always putting on a performance. Meanwhile, the rest of the slaves who worked in the farm fields lived in dingy cabins down by the fields, out of sight of the house and all the visitors. It will always be a disappointment to me that these great thinkers could never think their way clear of slavery.

Nonetheless, the early vision of America as an agricultural paradise lingers. These days even though the majority of Americans live in cities, we still have a view of ourselves as a nation of farmers. It is in the songs we sing about our country — amber waves of grain and fruited plains — and in the pride we take in our national parks and “purple mountain majesty.” It is in the upsurge in popularity of farmers markets, community supported agriculture and urban farming. It is in the pendulum swing from consumer capitalism to a movement towards self-sufficiency, homesteading, resource sharing, do-it-yourself alternatives. The vision of our founders still speaks to us, still captures our imagination, and still holds promise.

I had been wanting to read this book for ages so I owe Danielle for finally getting me to read it with her suggestion we read it together. Be sure to hop over and see what she has to say about it.


Filed under: Books, gardening, History, Nonfiction, Reviews

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12. Climate Change and the New Normal

Bee balm

Bee balm

So it appears that summers here have reached a new normal with climate change, at least for now. It begins with a wet spring and wet early summer. We had the wettest June on record with flooded lakes and streams and rivers and basements (thank goodness my basement didn’t flood). And then after this over abundance of water, the tap is turned off and we start to get dry and before long “abnormally dry” turns to “drought.” This has been the pattern for the last two years and is looking like it will be how this year turns out too. We had hardly any rain in July and August is so far continuing the trend. We had rain promised this weekend but so far all we have gotten are a few sprinkles. Sprinkles do not water the garden. Our two rain barrels are almost empty. If we don’t get any significant rain soon they will be empty and then we will have to turn on the hose and start paying for water from the city.

We have already determined that since this seems to be how summers are going to be now, we will get another rain barrel next year and connect it to one of the existing ones so as one barrel fills up it spills into the second barrel. We will see how we do with three rain barrels and if that doesn’t suffice, we will get a fourth, and keep going until we can manage to save enough water in the wet spring to last us through the end of summer drought. And with our luck, as soon as we are filled up with rain barrels, the weather pattern will change again and rain will be more consistent or we will have dry springs and wet end of summers when having a lot of water saved going into winter means losing it because we cannot save it in the rain barrels over winter because it will freeze and burst the barrels. But I can’t worry about that now, I have to just plan for saving as much water as I can and deal with whatever happens when it happens.

Do you know how hard it is to search the internet for whether putting socks on your corn will keep critters away? You

Phlox

Phlox

search for corn socks and you get socks that look like corn. I did manage to find a newspaper profile of a gardener in Missouri or someplace like that who has been gardening almost as long as I have been alive. The article had a photo of his corn. His corn was wearing white cotton tube socks. He said he has been putting socks on his corn for years because it is the only method he has found to keep birds, raccoons and squirrels from eating his corn. He puts the socks on when the corn silk turns dark which means the corn will be ripe in about two weeks. Bookman worked today and came home with a pack of 20 knee-high nylon stockings. We are going to try those before going the more expensive tube sock route. I hope the nylons work because I can reuse them to cover the water outlfow of my washing machine to catch all the lint from going in the drain and clogging it up. It will be like a two-for. The silk of my corn is red so it is hard to tell if it is dark or not. But I think on two ears it is dark as a newer ear just getting silk is pink. So tomorrow we will add socks to the garden.

I am a new fan of pole beans. Not only are they space savers because they vine up, and vine nicely up my corn stalks, but they are oh so tender and tasty. The rattlesnake heirloom variety we are growing are green with purple mottling. I included a photo of them in last week’s garden blog. When you cook them the purple does turn green but it doesn’t quite match the green of the rest of the bean. If you really look at the bean on you fork you can see it is mottled two-tone green. Not eye-popping, but noticeable if you pay attention. And did I mention they cook up really tender?

It is also time to plant for fall. The peas finished last week. When they went they went fast too. One day they were green and lush looking, the next day almost every single plant was brown. The timing was perfect and so was my planning because I had planned to plant turnips where the peas were growing. The peas were looking so good for so long I was getting worried I had made a mistake in my planning, but I did alright. So we pulled up the peas and planted a long row of turnip seeds where the peas had been. We have never grown turnips before, but if all goes well, they should be ready to start eating in early October, just after we get a frost to sweeten them up a bit. Root vegetables do not like growing in my sandy soil, so fingers crossed that planting them where the nitrogen-fixing peas had been growing for a few months will mean I will be having yummy mashed turnips in a few months.

One of my favorite gardening sites had a blog post during the week about the patience of a gardener. The author is referring to her own patience in letting her garden develop over time, in getting to know her soil and climate and plants. This patient, slow approach as opposed to homeowners who hire landscape companies to design and install fully grown gardens for them. The instant gardens certainly look beautiful but there is no pleasure in watching them grow and develop and change.

Zinnia

Zinnia

The author acknowledges that yes, it is hard to wait for things to grow, for beds to fill in, for trees and shrubs to reach their mature size. And sometimes neighbors might not appreciate how bare an area looks as the plants grow. But, she says, one of the most rewarding experiences she has had in her garden in planting New England aster from seed and watching as, over the years, it spreads through the garden and in the process begins to produce a variety of flower colors from light pink to deep purple. She feels like she has gotten to know the species rather than just one plant.

And it all takes so much patience. Patience to match the right plant to the right site. Patience to learn what the right site even is. Patience in allowing nature to do her thing. Patience in developing a relationship with the plants and the garden. One does not get a picture perfect garden from a seed packet. But one gets so much pleasure and experiences a kind of personal growth by tending to those seeds something the instant garden delivered to your door from the landscaping company can never provide.

I very much enjoyed this article because I often find myself walking around my garden and getting frustrated over not having made a garden bed here yet, or planted something over there. And I sometimes get grumpy over how long it takes difficult areas of garden to fill in with plants — I’ve done so much, why can’t you plants do something for me? Why do you have to take so long? They take the amount of time they are supposed to take and they are working hard at it, harder than I am most of the time, I just try and provide the right conditions and they do all the work of growing. And they do give. In reward for my patience, they give me so much more than I ever give them so that I learn not only patience but gratitude as well.


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13. Dept. of Speculation

I gave up on Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book One and began reading Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost instead. Much better! I am once again a happy reader. Another novel that has gotten lots of buzz is Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. This one lived up to expectations.

It is a small, slim novel written in short chapters. Each chapter itself is made of of mostly small paragraphs that do not necessarily follow one to the other. They make leaps and associations on a small scale like the chapters do on a larger scale. One would think that a story told thusly would be disjointed and difficult to follow especially since the book covers a span of many years from courtship to marriage to having a child, to the child getting a little older and the marriage coming apart because the husband had an affair and their struggle to make repairs and keep going. Or not. The book ends in uncertainty. The husband the and the wife, always called such and never named, may or may not save their marriage.

Part of the struggle of the wife, aside from her husband’s affair, is something that artistic women have always struggled with:

My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.

She manages to publish a novel and at a party thrown by a friend on her 29th birthday she meets the man who becomes her husband. After that the mundane interferes and the time passes and she is still working on her next book and getting nowhere. Instead of being an art monster she has to take work as a ghost writer, writing someone else’s books. And when the baby arrives it becomes even harder:

And that phrase — “sleeping like a baby.” some blonde said it blithely on the subway the other day. I wanted to lie down next to her and scream for five hours in her ear.

The wife worries about how easy it is to forget about being an art monster, yet she doesn’t forget because it keeps popping up again and again. She has no room of her own. The husband is not a bad man. He is involved with raising their daughter. He loves his wife. But the mundane overtakes him too and he has an affair with a younger woman at his office.

In the midst of their marriage falling apart and trying to put it back together, the wife

has begun planning a secret life. In it, she is an art monster. She puts on yoga pants and says she is going to yoga, then pulls off onto a country lane and writes in tiny cramped handwriting on a grocery list. She thinks she should go off her meds maybe so as to write more fluidly. Possibly this is not a good idea.

An interesting thing to note, at the end, the very end in the last two paragraphs, the pronouns change from she and he to we, you and I. What does it mean? The reader can only speculate really. And the speculation is satisfying.

The title, Dept of Speculation, comes from the return address the wife and husband used to put on letters they wrote to each other. The book begins with a quote from Socrates:

Speculators on the universe … are no better than madmen.

And really, aren’t we all mad then? Because when you think about it we live our lives as speculators, getting married, having a career, having children. We make plans and decisions based on how we think things are going to be and operate in the present as though that future were true. And when things don’t turn out how we imagined, we deal with it or we don’t all the time. But if we weren’t speculators, what kind of life would that be? Some things are worth the risk, some are not. The trick is figuring out which is which.


Filed under: Books, Reviews Tagged: Jenny Offill

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14. August Reading

I didn’t plan to skip posting yesterday but after I got through all my email and myriad other tasks that I have been neglecting and could no longer put aside, I found myself out of time for blogging. Sure I could have skipped my nightly workout but when you work at a job where your day is spent mostly sitting, skipping a workout is not a good idea for both mental and physical health reasons. This evening I was going to tell you about a really good poetry book I just read but my commute home was rather sapping due to the Twins baseball game going in to extra innings and all of them trying to get home while all of us who worked all day were also trying to get home. Playing at sardines does not make for a happy metro ride home. But enough of all that, I’m going for easy tonight and what could be easier than talking about what I’d like to read in August?

Actually, it isn’t easy at all. I managed to read quite a bit in July including a book on growing your own mushrooms to review for Library Journal. I have a bunch of recently finished books to write about, but I didn’t really get to all that I had planned read. I didn’t once pick up the Judith Herzog book of poetry. Nor did I get to Medea or Angle of Repose.

After a three-week hiatus from My Struggle, Book One by Karl Ove Knausgaard because I had to return it to the library, no renewals, I managed to get a copy from the university library. I picked up where I left off a few nights ago and I dunno. The book started off great but the more I read, the more I began to lose interest. Then I had to take a break from it and now that I have it again I am finding it hard to care. I am well over halfway through the book, almost two-thirds of the way, and I have lost whatever point there might have been to the book. I have ceased to really care about Karl Ove and his struggles that aren’t really struggles at all but more like part of the middle class human experience. I know Knausgaard is being talked about as a kind of modern day Proust, but at least Proust turned his life into something interesting and he wrote a lot better too. So I am having a dilemma. I am so far committed to this book do I just give up on it? Or, if I stick with it until the end will it manage to redeem itself?

Gathering Moss came in for me at the library and I started reading that and will continue. My goodness moss is fascinating! I have some patches of moss growing in the shade under the apple trees in my front yard and this book makes me want to buy a magnifying glass and go out and peer at the them. My neighbors probably already think I am crazy so seeing me kneeling in the dirt with my face near the ground would likely only provoke a raised eyebrow.

My turn has also come up for Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. I haven’t had the chance to start it yet. Perhaps I should give My Struggle the heave ho and dive into this instead?

Meanwhile, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is waiting for me to pick up at the library and The Memory Garden by Mary Rickert and Mindfulness in the Garden: Zen Tools for Digging in the Dirt by Zachiah Murray are both in transit to my library and will be ready for me to pick up in a day or two. So the more I think about it, the closer I am getting to returning My Struggle. Actually, I think I will unless one of you who have read it tell me I should stick with it because the funeral of Karl Ove’s dad and everything that comes after is that amazing. If no one tells me that, then back to the library it goes and Knausgaard gets a check in the overhyped book category.

Currently on my Kindle, which has been very well behaved since I zapped it back to its original factory settings, I am reading Willa Cather’s book of short stories The Troll Garden published in 1905. I believe this is her first book of published fiction. I am enjoying it though if I hadn’t already read a number of Cather novels and fallen in love with her, I don’t think this book would make me want to read more. Not that it is bad, it is just very early and undeveloped.

With all those books on my plate and very likely a few that are not even on my radar at the moment, I won’t be surprised if come September I have a long list of books I didn’t manage to get to. But then who knows? Perhaps I will have a wild reading frenzy. It could happen.


Filed under: Books, In Progress

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15. In Paradise

I’m not sure what to make of Peter Matthiessen’s novel In Paradise. I’ve never read Matthiessen before but I have wanted to read his nonfiction book Snow Leopard for quite some time. I have never been especially interested in his fiction. But as things work out in odd ways sometimes, it is his fiction I read first.

It also happens that Matthiessen died in April of this year, just a few days before In Paradise was published. What made me want to read this book if what I really wanted to read was his nonfiction? I read a glowing review that made the book sound so very special that I immediately placed my name on the library hold list for it. My turn has come and, while the writing is good and Matthiessen raises some interesting issues and questions in the book, I did not find it to be particularly special in any way.

It is 1996 and we follow Clements Olin, poet, academic, expert in Holocaust literature, to a meditative retreat at Auschwitz. Early on we learn that Olin is of no particular religion (though we learn he was baptized Episcopalian), that his family is Polish, and even came from Oswiecim, the Polish name of the town the Germans call Auschwitz. His name is actually Olinski and his grandfather is a Baron. Olin was born in Poland just before the war. His father and father’s parents were able to leave for the United States. Olin’s mother did not go to the U.S. and the family will not talk about her. All he has of her is a photo, young and pretty leaning from a window in her family’s house, smiling at the photographer.

Olin isn’t especially interested in the retreat. His grandparents are dead and his father is recently deceased. All three had sternly insisted he never go to Poland. Now they are no longer around to stop him, he has decided to go and try and find out about his mother.

There are about 100 people at the retreat. They are actually staying at the concentration camp. Each morning they are to go sit on the train platform where the Jews were unloaded at the camp, and meditate. In the evenings there are short talks, but mainly anyone who feels compelled is invited to stand and talk. This causes all kinds of conflict as you can imagine because among those gathered are Jews from around the world, a few Holocaust survivors, some Buddhists, a former monk, the priest from the local Church, several nuns from a nearby convent, and a number of unaffiliated individuals like Olin and some non-Jewish Germans.

The Germans want to be absolved of the crimes their country committed. The Catholics want to mend fences but mostly refuse to admit the church’s complicity in sending all of the Jews in Oswiecim to die at the camp. And there is Mr. Earwig, an apt name for the most caustic of people. He calls it as he sees it and refuses to feel bad about hurting anyone’s feelings. No one can understand why he is even there. Of course, when we find out his story, it is heartbreaking.

And that is what kept me from finding this book special. Of course Mr. Earwig is so mean because he is in pain and has a tragic history. Of course we learn that Olin’s mother was actually Jewish, not Episcopalian, and died in the camp. Of course Olin feels romantic stirrings for a rebellious nun who also seems to feel something for him in return. Of course they each go their separate ways at the end, sadder but wiser. And then there is the ironic title. I could probably have put up with all of it if it hadn’t been for the love story. It felt artificial, a forced thing to show that there can be something beautiful even in the ugliest of places. On the plus side, all the emotions, anger, hatred, uncertainty and sadness the weeklong stay at Auschwitz stirs up are not easily cleansed and Matthiessen refuses to let everyone leave feeling healed and content. Our Mr. Earwig finds what he came looking for and leaves just as pissed off as he was when he arrived.

The writing itself is strong and sturdy. There is nothing maudlin about the tone nor is it overly serious or depressing. In spite of the volatility of the characters, the book remains careful and respectful. A bit too careful really. Overall not a bad book. I just failed to find what the reviewer I read believed was so special about it. If you decide to read it, I hope you find it.


Filed under: Books, Historical Fiction, Reviews Tagged: Peter Matthiessen

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16. Amy Pond and Corn Taller Than Me

pumpkin vines on the move

pumpkin vines on the move

After having several extra days off during the week for Bookman’s birthday and enjoying time in the garden and a good dose of pure laziness, it is hard think about putting a blog post together and that I have to return to work tomorrow. It seems to me the more time I spend in front of a computer, the more time I spend looking at a screen even when I don’t have to and the more time I spend doing other things, the less time I spend looking at a computer screen. I realize I really enjoy not spending a lot of time in front of a computer even if I am not busy doing much of anything other than staring at the wall. But computer time begets computer time and I spend my days at work in front of a computer. Barring very early retirement or managing to become a full time gardener, I am doomed to be a computer slave. Sigh.

I read a really good gardening book this week called Hellstrip Gardening: Create a Paradise Between the Sidewalk and the Curb by Evelyn J. Hadden. She discusses the challenges of gardening in this no man’s land and offers ideas for how to cope with those challenges. My challenges are poor soil and several feet of snow mixed with salt and deicer that gets plowed up from the street every winter. So far I have two small beds in this area of my yard. They were so hard to get going too but after years of trying and killing large numbers of plants I have found a number that thrive in the badlands. I have space for two more beds and have been trying to figure out what to try and now I have some great ideas thanks to this book. If you are looking to beautify your own hellstrip, get your hands on a copy of this book for some great ideas and inspiration.

The saga of Amy Pond continues. We installed the solar pump last Sunday. It was cloudy but the pump was still working and

Exterminate!

Exterminate!

we set it all up and were happy. Lesson number one: never set up a solar pump on a mostly cloudy day. The sun came out very late in the day but we did not notice anything amiss until I walked by the pond on my way to the bus the next morning to discover it was empty. What? How? Bookman filled the pond up before going off to work. When I came home that evening of a very sunny day, I checked on the pond. Empty again! But, I noticed the ground on one side of the pond was kind of damp. Can you figure out what happened? Since we adjusted the pump and the little fountain nozzle when it was cloudy, when the sun came out and the pump and fountain were going full force, it shot up and sprayed all the water out out of the pond. I am only sorry I never got to see it happen.

We refilled the pond, shortened the fountain stem, and while it was sunny, adjusted it all so the water just burbled at the surface of the pond. Oy. Then we had a raccoon visit again. And now the pump has decided to stop working and we don’t know why. I can’t find that the raccoon chewed anything on the wiring or broke the pump, so it is a mystery why it suddenly stopped working. On the positive side, in spite of the raccoon and the pond being drained to within an inch of empty twice, there is still one, hardy goldfish keeping things mosquito-free. That survivor goldfish is my hero.

Now, I was hoping to reveal something super fun, a repurposing of the Doctor Who salt and pepper shakers we found earlier in the week, but since the pump has decided to stop working the project is postponed. The plan, when it all gets up and running again, is to turn the Tardis into a tiny fountain. At the moment it is just sitting forlorn in the pond with the dalek looking on. Exterminate! Exterminate!

We’ve had a couple of hot, dry days and the peas are definitely done now. Very happily I got almost as many peas this second time around as I did the first. So tasty. I will miss you fresh peas. The beans are still going and now the zucchini is too. We had zucchini “noodles” with a spicy peanut sauce earlier in the week this evening we are having breaded zucchini along with some salad. The zucchini is ramping up its production though so soon we will be frantically making and freezing zucchini bread and trying our hand at making zucchini relish as well as drying a bunch to try in soups over the winter.

Meanwhile, the pumpkin vines are escaping the confines of their bed and zooming off across the garden to take over

Lost in the corn

Lost in the corn

everything. And the corn, well, two weeks ago it was chest high on me and now it is taller than I am. We have decided that once we get ears of corn, we will put nylon stockings over them to protect them from critters. Hopefully that will work. We just came up with the idea ourselves and I haven’t gone looking to see if anyone else has tried it with success. I probably should do a bit of research before we go and buy a bunch of cheap stockings at the drugstore.

This week I have a video for you of the anise hyssop and all the bees buzzing on it. You will also see a red admiral butterfly. We have had a huge swallowtail butterfly visit it a number of times but it was not present when I took the video and when it did drop by and I ran out with my camera to try and get a photo I was too fussy trying to get a good angle and a decent close up and it flew away with me yelling “please come back!” after it. Oh well. The red admiral still came by and looks lovely as do all “my” bumblebees. Enjoy!


Filed under: gardening

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17. I Got Presents Too

Yesterday I was away celebrating Bookman’s birthday. He says he turned forty-ten. Sure, why not? We went out to breakfast at our favorite cafe, spent some time in the garden, went for a walk at the lake and went to a bookstore. I also made him a cake so chocolatey that it is a good thing we have been building up our chocolate tolerance for years otherwise we might have overdosed. Also, it is just as well that I don’t cook very often, especially when it comes to things like cake. As I was mixing up all the ingredients I was overcome with horror — how much sugar? How much butter? OMG, MORE sugar?!!! Of course when it came to eating cake I still had a piece, though maybe not as big as I would have had if I had been ignorant to the sugar and fat content. It’s a good thing Bookman has a birthday only once a year!

One of the things Bookman decided he wanted to do was go to a bookstore. So we did. We went to Half Price Books. It has been a really long time since we have been there and we had even vowed to never go back after some bad experiences there, but it is close to our house and we decided to check it out.

They must have had a sale recently because there were large gaping holes on their shelves where I would have expected books. And browsing, it seemed like there just wasn’t much of anything. However, I still managed to bring home three books.

  • Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors by Susan Sontag. Leslie Jamison mentions Sontag and this book in Empathy Exams and I have seen it crop up in other places. It seemed like it was about time to get a copy.
  • Angel by Elizabeth Taylor, the NYRB edition. I’ve heard good things about Taylor but I rarely see any of her books turn up at the secondhand shop so when I saw NYRB and Taylor together, I couldn’t pass it by.
  • Vita Nuova: A Novel by Bohumil Hrabal. I do love Hrabal and his books are hard to find in bookstores either new or secondhand. This one is the second in a trilogy of fictional memoirs but it seems I don’t have to read them in order. At least I don’t think I do. It is written from the perspective of his wife and depicts their life in Prague from the 1950s to 1970s.

Not bad, huh?

We also found Doctor Who salt and pepper shakers that we are attempting to repurpose. We are in the midst of a little setback on that project but hopefully we will be able to figure it out and I can make a happy reveal of it soon. In the mean time you will just have to imagine what one might use salt and pepper shakers for besides salt and pepper. Hmmmm.


Filed under: Books, New Acquisitions, Personal

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18. I Couldn’t Help it, the Words, They Made Me

I read a review in the Los Angeles Review of Books the other day about a collection of essays called Xylotheque by Yelizaveta P. Renfro. I had no idea what xylotheque meant and I had never heard of the author before but before I even got to the part of the review that began to explain the title I had already decided I was going to buy the book. Why? I had no idea what the book was about, I still don’t really because I never actually finished reading the review, but the reviewer hit so many key words and phrases that had my synapses buzzing I had to have the book.

What had me so worked up? Let’s make a list!

  • lyrical essays
  • borderland between prose and poetry
  • sure-footed in their gamboling
  • revel in the gap between knowing and unknowing
  • provoking meditation

I was caught hook, line, and sinker. The book is now sitting next to me on my reading table and I still don’t know what it is about. for the record though, xylotheque is a collection of wood.

Then I got to thinking about other words that pop up in reviews that make me pay attention and want to read a book. And that led to words that make me not want to read a book. The words on both lists aren’t always the same (sometimes they might change lists depending on my mood) and they aren’t even words I would necessarily use when describing a book, but they are words that trigger a reaction in me when someone else writes them.

For future reference, if you are writing about a book and want me to read it, these words will serve you well:

  • thought-provoking
  • provocative
  • meditative
  • lyrical
  • complex/difficult/challenging
  • quirky
  • unusual/different
  • darkly funny
  • mind-blowing

Also, if anyone ever calls a book a good mind-fuck I will squeal in delight. I love it when a book messes with my head and such a description is so rarely encountered even when expressed less crudely that I will pretty nearly come close to dropping everything to read that book. Unless it is horror. When messing with my head turns into nightmares, won’t go there.

Words describing a book that usually turn me off wanting to read it:

  • cozy
  • simple
  • part of a series (I will sometimes make exceptions for this)
  • romantic
  • in the style of *famous author* (unless you say “this book could be the love child of Virginia Woolf and David Foster Wallace” or something equally as odd, then you’ll have my interest)
  • if you liked X then you will like Y (though it is ok to say “this book reminded a little bit of X”)

Hmm, I thought the turn off list would be longer. I will very likely think of more words for it after I click the “publish” button.

So what about you? What words trigger an “OMG I have to read this!” reaction in you and what words immediately convince you a particular book is not for you?


Filed under: Books, Reading

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19. The Gardener of Versailles

The Gardener of Versailles by Alain Baraton is a delightful book whether you are interested in gardening or Versailles. Baraton has been the Gardener in Chief at Versailles since 1982. Don’t you just love that title? He was the youngest ever installed in the position. He began working at Versailles in the 1970s with no intent on becoming a gardener. As a teen all he wanted was to have enough money to afford his scooter and the hobby of photography he decided to take up. He mowed lawns and weeded for cash. He had no real aspirations for anything so his parents enrolled him in horticulture school. Afterwards, he got a job at Versailles selling tickets at the gate and after a little while there was an opening for a novice gardener and he was given the job which he only took because the chief gardener at the time told him he would be able to live free in the gardens in one of the employee apartments.

As a young man who didn’t believe himself to be very attractive to women, he found that being a gardener at Versailles and living on the grounds had its perks. He was able to provide private tours to willing young women who suddenly found him very attractive. Heh. Years later he met his wife at Versailles. She was visiting the gardens alone and got caught in a downpour and he invited her into his house to dry off and warm up.

The Gardener of Versailles is an enjoyable mix of memoir, history, and personal opinion from an experienced gardener. I fell in love with Baraton at the start when he talks about the trees of Versailles:

I’m not an overly sentimental or nostalgic person; I don’t wring my hands in pity over a broken vase, and I don’t play Mozart for my hydrangeas. But a tree is a living thing. After living alongside my trees for more than thirty years, I’ve acquired more than simple know-how. I feel something like botanical sympathy; I can tell whether a tree needs attention, whether it is suffering or flourishing.

There was a severe and devastating storm that hit Versailles in 1999. The garden lost more than 18,000 trees that were either uprooted by the storm or were so damaged they had to be cut down. Baraton was heartbroken over the losses and it still haunts him all these years later. Throughout the book he keeps returning to the storm again and again; there was the garden before and the garden after and the garden after is just not the same.

Of course with any top position one finds that one no longer gets to spend as much time doing the things one loves most. Baraton discovered that as Gardener in Chief he spends most of his time worrying about budgets and filling out paperwork. Nonetheless, he still makes it out into the gardens and does he ever have some good stories!

You might think his greatest enemy would be drought or flood or pests but it turns out it is busloads of senior citizens. The elderly women are, more often than not, plant thieves, sometimes uprooting entire plants and stashing them in bags to take home!

On the other end of the spectrum are the young couples who think they will have an exciting and romantic time having sex in a secluded part of the garden. Only many times they only think they are out of the way and have been discovered by tour groups, almost run over by a lawn mower or suffered other indignities. Baraton feels for them though and offers some helpful suggestions for would-be lovers:

dress appropriately. Versailles is infested with mosquitoes, and I’ve seen more than one romantic idyll ruined by the impromptu arrival of a swarm of hostile insects. The destination should be the broad, green allées in the depths of the domain — the air is purer and the landscape will lend a charming country atmosphere to your lovemaking. There are also fewer passersby, and with luck, you might even see some wild animals…Above all else these distant destinations allow you the occasion for a long walk — the distance will allow you to get to know one another better, and as the case may be, fan the flames of your companion’s desires or reassure your companions of your good intentions.

Versailles is used to people making love. The various Louiss (Louis’s? Louisies? Louises?), especially the XIVth, had mistresses galore. The statues even tell tales. Louis XIV had a statue of himself as Eloquence made for the garden. His statue was placed so it looked directly at a statue of the nude huntress Diana, made in the likeness of his favorite mistress. When the statues were revealed the affair was made public. Louis’s wife was incensed and had a couple of yews planted to keep the two statues from looking at each other.

And mixed in with all of that is a dose of gardening advice:

But a good gardener should never lose sight of the fact that gardening is a perpetual balancing act of pleasure and necessity. The healthiest plants are obtained by those who know and respect the laws of nature.

And:

What makes a good gardener? The essential ingredient can be reduced to a single word: joy. Our work may be tiring but it is also extremely gratifying.

Baraton may not have started out wanting to be a gardener but he has grown to love the work and the garden he works in. His love for both shines throughout the book making me want to visit Versailles just to meet him and maybe if I am lucky he would show me some of his favorite trees and tell me their stories.


Filed under: Books, gardening, History, Memoir/Biography, Nonfiction, Reviews

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20. Summer Heat – Updated

Nasturtium and alyssum

Nasturtium and alyssum

Why does the best gardening weather always happen during the work week? Summer heat and humidity finally arrived and, according to the forecast, it will be around for awhile. Up until now the weather this summer has been my idea of perfect but that is over. Today was 90F (32C) with humidity near tropical. In addition the air is smokey due to forest fires in Canada. Smoke from Canada, humidity from the Gulf of Mexico, and Minnesota sandwiched in between. Oh yes, I think now I am supposed to remember standing at the bus stop at 6:30 a.m. in January and shivering in -40F&C wind chills. Ah those were the days!

The garden grows and grows. The corn is thinking of tassels, the blackberry has a few flowers on it, the gooseberries are almost ripe, the pumpkins are flowering and vining, the beans are going like gangbusters, and I pulled up five garlic bulbs big enough to eat and there is still more in the garden.

The Amy Pond saga continues. We could not find a small enough solar pump or fountain locally so Bookman ordered one on

Corn is waist high!

Corn is waist high!

the internet. It has not arrived yet. We could not wait for it because after two days we had mosquito larva in the pond already. Wednesday Bookman picked up four goldfish at the fish store. The next morning on my way through the garden to catch my bus, I discovered the raccoon had returned in the night. It tried hard to get the fish. It moved the bricks and rocks around, it pulled leaves from the floating water plants, but the fish managed to escape the carnage. The raccoon came back a few nights later and tried again. The fish survived. Except the next afternoon one of the four went belly-up probably from all the stress. The solar pump will be delivered Monday or Tuesday and between fish and pump we should manage to make it through the rest of the summer without becoming a mosquito breeding ground.

Bookman with pepper

Bookman with pepper

One thing I have noticed with the pond, the outdoor neighborhood cats like to stop at it in the mornings and afternoons for a sip. And even though I still have the frog birdbath fountain going, the birds really like the pond a lot. In fact, it seems most critters prefer the pond to the fountain which is staying much cleaner this year because the wildlife isn’t using it as much. In spite of froggy being lonely I will still keep him going because I like to hear the water splashing when it is sunny.

One of the things I have become interested in over the last couple of years is learning about edible weeds, dandelion being the one everyone is most familiar with. Pre-blogging days I actually bought dandelion seeds from a seed catalog even though my yard was full of them. The seeds I bought were for French dandelions, they were supposed to somehow be better than my American ones. I planted them in a row in the garden and eagerly awaited their sprouting, imagining how delicious their greens were going to taste. Not one sprouted.

Fast forward to this year. Did I learn a lesson from the French dandelions? Of course I didn’t. At the plant sale Bookman

scarlet runner beans

scarlet runner beans

and I attend every year they had on offer edible weeds: four purslane for $2 and a chickweed for $1. I have these growing in my garden like the weeds they are. They had not sprouted yet, and it was still early spring. So I bought some.

The purslane was a different variety that what I had seen in my garden. My purslane was smaller leaved and darker green. The purslane I bought had bigger leaves and was a yellowy-green. I planted it and within two weeks it was eaten to the ground. Every time it has tried to come back, something eats it. Meanwhile, the purslane weeds I paid nothing for have been coming up all over the garden and I have been pulling them out like crazy. Nothing wants to eat them, not even me apparently. Who wants to eat free weeds when there are weeds I paid for being regularly snacked on by something?

Marshmallow

Marshmallow

As for the chickweed, it was so very tiny and delicate when I bought it. I planted it carefully, watched it grow and begin to spread. Oh it was starting to look really good. Just a little bigger and I can pick some to add to salad. And then we had a week-long dry spell during which I didn’t think to water the chickweed. Why would I need to, it should be able to withstand a dry week, it’s a weed. Of course it didn’t make it. It dried out and became a crunchy skeleton of its former self. Meanwhile, I am now regularly pulling chickweed from my vegetable beds. It’s everywhere. And even after a week of no rain, it is showing no signs of shriveling up. Of course I have no interest in eating this free chickweed, how could it be as tasty as the now dead one I paid a dollar for?

Have I learned my lesson? I don’t know. If someone told me quackgrass was edible and high in vitamin C and iron and had a slightly peppery taste, put it in a pot with a price tag of $2, I would probably buy it and plant it and watch it die while I cursed the quackgrass I yanked out from the strawberry bed.

Dinner this evening involves calendula flowers made into a pilaf. Did you know that calendula is a cheap substitute for saffron? I just found that out from a book on herbs which is where I got the recipe for the pilaf. There will also be green beans and kale at dinner. Yum.

Bookman saved me by uploading the text before he went off to work. I will add photos and a video tour of the herb spiral and polyculture garden tonight so check back later or tomorrow.

Update: I have internet! I have all my files! Woo! I added the photos and below is a video tour of the herb spiral and polyculture bed. Enjoy!


Filed under: gardening

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21. Oh Monday!

My internet was out last night so I wasn’t able to post even though I wrote everything up. Now this morning I seem to have misplaced some files. Happy Monday! Perhaps later I will get it all together and have the post and some photos. In the meantime, I do have a video! Scratch that, to go along with the theme of Monday, I can’t get it to upload. Sigh.

Since I am off to work, it won’t be until tonight that I will likely be able to fix it all. I hope your Monday is going better than mine is!


Filed under: Books

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22. Lovely and Inspiring

The kind Sarrah has awarded me a One Lovely Blog Award and the marvelous Litlove has named me a Very Inspiring Blogger. I feel so loved!

Conveniently, both these recognitions come with similar results: I am supposed to say thanks — thanks! — share seven facts about myself, and nominate fifteen other blogs. The more these recognitions go around the more difficult it is to share the love all around, but I will try.

So here are seven things:

  1. How I have answered the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” at various times in my life: ballerina, teacher for the deaf and blind (Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan were my heroes), horse racing jockey, forest ranger, computer scientist, zookeeper, field biologist for National Geographic, actress, large animal/exotic animal veterinarian, high school biology teacher, high school English teacher, professor of literature, independently wealthy, I have no idea, human maybe, librarian, grow up? When will that be exactly?
  2. I am very ticklish, especially my feet. I am so ticklish that when I was a kid all my dad had to do was pretend he was going to tickle me and I would collapse on the floor in a hysterical fit of laughter.
  3. Speaking of feet, I hate shoes. I have a high arch and a wide foot and have a difficult time finding shoes that fit well. I would prefer to go barefoot all of the time. Or wear thick socks if it is cold. I wish my employer would find bedroom slippers acceptable footwear.
  4. I am very likely doomed to never being able to speak a language other than English. I have tried Spanish, German, French, Spanish again, German again, Spanish again. I’ve gotten furthest with Spanish. But even if I should ever make it to close to fluent, I will always have a terrible accent. No matter how hard I try I am always told my accent is terrible. Seems like the only accent I am good at is a Minnesota one.
  5. When I was a pre-teen I used to sometimes wait for my mom to leave me alone at home (parents used to leave their kids home alone and see what sort of trouble they’d get into?) and I would raid her under-the-bed stash of Harlequin romances looking for the “dirty bits,” which in those days weren’t very dirty at all but involved lots of heaving bosoms, passionate kisses, and burly men tossing women over their shoulders. When I read Judy Blume’s YA book Forever, it was more explicit and shocking than my mom’s romances and I never felt the need to raid the Harlequin box again.
  6. I also loved reading fantasy and science fiction and still do. I was more interested in magic and dragons, aliens and space exploration than trying to figure out what was dirty about the dirty bits in my mom’s romances. I mostly wanted to know details so as not to embarrassed by my ignorance at school. It was so much more interesting imagining myself killing orcs and overcoming evil or figuring out the complexities of space travel and trying to communicate with aliens than it was imagining myself being tossed over a burly man’s shoulder for a night of passion on his pirate ship. In fact, if I ever imagined being thrown over a burly man’s shoulder I probably ran him through with my awesome elven sword before he could even lay a hand on me.
  7. After ten years of blogging it is really hard to come up with seven remotely interesting things about myself.

And the fifteen, trying to not duplicate the other lists in no particular order:

  • Bookgirl’s Nightstand. Iliana not only reads a lot but she also makes books and is creatively talented. Also she loves washi tape and gifted me with some extra she had for which I will be forever grateful.
  • Bookpuddle. Cipriano is a Jose Saramago fan which proves he has great taste. He also loves cats, has a fabulous plant named Robert Plant, has a coffee addiction of which I approve and a hamburger addiction which I forgive him for.
  • Magnificent Octopus. Isabella loves smart science fiction and she has added to my TBR list without mercy. She also likes to read NYRBs classics and, I don’t think she knows this, is responsible to getting me hooked on Doctor Who.
  • Marks in the Margin. Richard is always thoughtful and very kind. He likes novels and movies that make him think. He loves Florence, Italy and is a world class surfer who spends his winters in Hawaii.
  • Whispering Gums has been giving me an education in Australian literature for a number of years now, adding books to my TBR list and making me curse US publishing for not printing more books from Australia. She also is a former librarian, travels a lot, and regularly attends live music/dance/drama performances then writes about them so beautifully she makes me think perhaps I should move to Australia someday.
  • Wuthering Expectations. Tom is always thoughtful and interesting, frequently funny, and often challenging. He got me to read Sartor Resartus and Edmund Burke on the sublime. An intrepid reader, he frequently ventures into books no one else would even consider in order to find forgotten and neglected gems.
  • BookerTalk. Booker winners and classics and more. I’m always interested to see what she is reading and learn her thoughts on it. Plus, I get to live vicariously through her when she goes to the Hay Literary Festival.
  • Mockingbirds, Looking Glasses and Prejudices. Funny, always kind, and a fellow lover of poetry, Cirtnecce is always a pleasant stop on my blog visiting rounds.
  • Indextrious Reader. Melwyk is a Canadian librarian who loves reading books of letters and other postal related books even more than I do. She also has an awesome eye for finding dress patterns that match the dress on the book cover. One of these days I am going to succumb and actually sew one of them for myself.
  • Things Mean A Lot. Ana is one smart cookie. She also likes fantasy and scfi. And she never fails to call a spade a spade. I love her perceptiveness and honesty.
  • Time’s Flow Stemmed. Anthony is a thoughtful fellow who loves many of the same authors I do and some I have never heard of, which also makes him a dangerous influence on my TBR pile.
  • Stainless Steel Droppings. Carl is one of the biggest SFF geeks around. He regularly forces me to add books to my TBR pile. Or to my husband’s TBR pile. Plus, he is the ever gracious host of the annual R.I.P. Challenge during which I get my fill of melodramatic gothic literature and creepy but not genuinely scary because it will give me nightmares reading.
  • Pining for the West. An avid reader and just as avid gardener in Scotland, visiting her blog never fails to be enjoyable. Plus she regularly provides lessons on Scottish words so should I ever visit Scotland I just might be able to understand what they are saying.
  • Biblioglobal. She’s trying to read a book from every country in the world and regularly expands my reading horizons. Hers is a project I cannot help but admire.
  • A Garden Carried in the Pocket. Jenclair is an eclectic reader, talented crafter and quilter, and also a gardener. She feels no shame about adding to my TBR list and her works of art never fail to earn my admiration.

If any of the named bloggers choose to play along, I give them the option of choosing their award, the Lovely Blog or Inspiring Blogger, though all of them deserve both!


Filed under: Blogging

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23. Word Crimes

So last night I thought of a good topic to write about for today’s post. Walking to work through downtown after getting off the train this morning on my way to work I reminded myself of it, oh yes, that will be good, I thought. Now, when I am home and sit down to actually write it, do I remember what that good topic is? Of course not! If you blog, does this ever happen to you? I hope I eventually remember it or it will drive me just a little more crazy than I already am.

In lieu of what I am certain would have been a stellar post, I give you instead Weird Al Yankovic’s new video Word Crimes. Enjoy.


Filed under: Rambling

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24. Quiet Week

Rattlesnake pole bean

Rattlesnake pole bean

There wasn’t much going on in the garden this week, at least not with the gardener. A bit of heat, a lot of humidity, a few nights of not good sleeping, and bad allergies have worn me out. I did manage to get out and do a little weeding during today’s chilly windy morning. It is still cool and windy out and we just had a brief rain shower. I was going to do a video this morning of all the flowers blooming in my front yard but it was too windy so it will just have to wait for another time. Next week maybe.

The corn is chest high now and blooming and I picked a few pole beans this morning. The beans are growing up the corn. They are an heirloom variety called rattlesnake, green with purple streaks. I haven’t cooked them yet so I don’t know if the purple will remain. I’ll let you know.

We picked the first zucchini of the year and a couple of fat pickling cucumbers. Bookman will turn the cucumbers into

Pumpkin blossom

Pumpkin blossom

refrigerator pickles. The zucchini, not sure yet. We knew they were coming eventually but we aren’t quite ready for them since we’ve been busy keeping up with the beans. And a second flush of peas is coming ripe. Summer has always been too hot by now that I have never gotten a second harvest of peas, but this year, in spite of a few really hot days, it has been incredibly mild. The peas this second time around are smaller than the first batch but no less tasty. I also pulled up the rest of the German garlic and for the most part it came up with decent bulbs, a little on the small side maybe, but big enough to use.

The anise hyssop is is full bloom now and covered with fuzzy purple flowers and pollinators of all kinds — several different kinds of bees including “my” bumblebees, flies (very important pollinators, these are not houseflies), and the occasional moth and red admiral butterfly. All these creatures are so loud, I can hear the plant buzzing when I walk by it. Since the bush beans are planted right next to it, picking beans is a nerve wracking experience because everyone has to come investigate me too. They just buzz by my head, realize I am not a flower to pollinate and go back to the hyssop, but while my head knows they are not after me, the little kid inside who is terrified of getting bit or stung has a hard time being nonchalant about it. It takes a conscious effort.

Mystery flower no more

Mystery flower no more

In the polyculture bed the mysterious weed I mentioned in my video tour has bloomed. Big white trumpet flower on an upright plant. It looks very much like a Datura of some kind, and what do you know? It is! An easy Google search revealed it to be Datura metel “Belle Blanche.” If I had a warmer climate it would turn into a shrub-like plant 4 feet (1.2m) across. The flowers are supposedly sweetly scented like honeysuckle, especially at night. I say supposedly because I generally don’t go around sniffing flowers due to my allergies and standing next to it while taking a photo I did not smell anything. Maybe Bookman will agree to brave the mosquitoes tonight and go take a whiff on my behalf. I have no idea how this made it into my garden, a squirrel or bird must have left a seed behind and it sprouted. It’s pretty so I will let it be for now, at least until it shows signs of turning into a 4-foot monster, then it will have to go.

Amy Pond is recovering from all of the raccoon attacks. The floating “cabbages” that go shredded have reproduced from

Blackberry flowers

Blackberry flowers

their broken pieces so now I have about six little ones floating in the water. There is at least one fish still in the pond, perhaps all three are still there but they have become very good at hiding. The solar pump Bookman ordered online arrived Friday and we put it together and installed it this morning. The pump is for a fountain so has a fountain stem through which it forces the water. We have it sitting just at the surface so the water comes out but doesn’t go far, just dribbles back and moves the surface of the pond a little. The solar panel is of excellent quality too, it even works when it is lightly overcast. Very pleased. So now should a raccoon decide to eat the remaining fish, we are still covered on the mosquito prevention front. Win!

The week ahead is looking fine. Bookman has a birthday on Wednesday and we have taken days off from work which means I only have to work Monday and Tuesday. The weather forecast is indicating comfortable humidity and temperatures around 80F (27C) during the day and cooling off to around 58F (14C) at night. If that comes true and my allergies don’t continue to trouble me, I should be a very active gardener during the week. Who knows what exciting stories I might have for you next Sunday?


Filed under: gardening

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25. The Empathy Exams

What a marvelous book is The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. A collection of essays published by the local Graywolf Press, it actually spent time a little time on the bestseller lists. Now having read it I understand why. It is a beautiful and thoughtful book that examines empathy from a variety of angles and in some surprising places.

The first essay, “The Empathy Exams,” sets the tone. Jamison is working as an actor, playing patient for medical students who are being scored on not only how well they diagnose and treat a problem but on how well they treat the patient. Do they show empathy?

empathy isn’t just measured by checklist item 31 — voiced empathy for my situation/problem — but by every item that gauges how thoroughly me experience has been imagined. Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard — it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see.

Between her experience as an actor for med student exams, Jamison weaves a story of her own medical problems, when she had an abortion and then heart surgery not long after. She has difficulty getting what she needs, getting any sense of empathy or caring from her own doctors; they don’t want to deal with her guilt or her tears and are dismissive of her fear. As a result, she demands so much from her boyfriend that he can’t deliver what she wants either:

I needed something from the world I didn’t know how to ask for. I needed people — Dave, a doctor, anyone — to deliver my feelings back to me in a form that was legible. Which is a superlative kind of empathy to seek, or to supply: an empathy that rearticulates more clearly what it is shown.

In the essay “Devil’s Bait” she attends a Morgellons Disease conference in Austin, Texas. People with this disease, seventy percent of whom are women, believe they have crawling, biting things under their skin as well as fibers growing through their skin. They end up picking at the “fibers” and scratching and itching themselves so much they cause very real sores that are sometimes so bad they become disfiguring. It is a delusional disease currently not recognized my the medical community. When treatment is given, it is generally an antipsychotic drug which many of the patients end up not taking because they reject their doctor’s diagnosis of delusional parasitosis. The question then becomes, one of “what kinds of reality are considered prerequisites for compassion”? Jamison wonders

is it wrong to call it empathy when you trust the fact of suffering but not the source? How do I inhabit someone’s pain without inhabiting their particular understanding of that pain?

She finds herself wishing she could

invent a verb tense full of open spaces — a tense that didn’t pretend to understand the precise mechanisms of which it spoke; a tense that could admit its own limits.

Jamison’s wide-ranging essays take us from a writer’s conference in Tijuana, Mexico, to Nicaragua when she was teaching kids and got punched in the face while walking down the street. The man took her wallet and broke her nose. We visit the silver mines of Potosí in Bolivia where the miners are doomed to be dead by the age of forty either from a mine accident or silicosis. It is big business for tourists to go to the mines and go down into them to see the miners are work. You are to bring gifts for the miners: sodas, sticks of dynamite, small bags of cocoa leaves. The gifts help you feel better when you get to leave and breathe fresh air again, knowing the men you just met will be underground for another five hours or more.

She goes on a guided tour of South Central Los Angeles and Watts. Run by former gang members the tour fee goes to help pay for the conflict mediation work they are also doing. As they drive around on an air conditioned bus, protected from the outside and being regaled with stories of gang violence, one of the guides talks of Rodney King and his beating by police. Jamison was only nine at the time and she remembers thinking that the police only would have hit him if he had done something wrong. The truth is far more difficult than that of course. So what good is taking such a tour?

The great shame of your privilege is a hot blush the whole time. The truth of this place is infinite and irreducible, and self-reflexive anguish might feel like the only thing you can offer in return. It might be hard to hear anything above the clattering machinery of your guilt. Try to listen anyway.

There is a wonderful essay on sentimentality and melodrama that tries to pinpoint just why we despise it so much yet desire it at the same time. And another in which she writes about three men who were wrongfully convicted as teens for murder and spent eighteen years in jail.

The book’s concluding essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” made me want to cry and cheer at the same time. Cry because a 2001 study revealed that women are less likely than men to be given pain medication. Instead, women are given sedatives. The essay discusses through literature and culture and personal experience the ways in which female pain is fetishized or dismissed. These days women are “post-wounded.” Instead of becoming an angel in our suffering we are supposed to pretend we aren’t suffering at all. But, Jamison asks,

How do we represent female pain without producing a culture in which this pain has been fetishized to the point of fantasy or imperative? Fetishize: to be excessively or irrationally devoted to. Here is the danger of our wounded womanhood: that its invocation will corroborate a pain cult that keeps legitimating, almost legislating, more of itself.

Jamison doesn’t come to any definite conclusion on how female pain might be represented, but she is certain that is should never be dismissed even at the risk of its being fetishized:

The wounded woman gets called a stereotype and sometimes she is. But sometimes she’s just true. I think the possibility of fetishizing pain is no reason to stop representing it. Pain that gets performed is still pain. Pain turned trite is still pain. I think the charges of cliché and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want our hearts to be open. I just wrote that. I want our hearts to be open. I mean it.

Empathy of course is the solution. An open heart allows one to be empathetic to the suffering of others whether their pain comes from a delusional disease or a source that cannot be pinned down, or from getting punched in the nose. As she says in an early essay in the book, empathy isn’t just something that happens to us it is also something we choose:

to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, the dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it’s asked for, but this doesn’t make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations: I will listen to his sadness, even when I am deep in my own

A beautiful book guaranteed to make you think. I highly recommend it.


Filed under: Books, Essays, Nonfiction, Reviews

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