Every year, the Wheaton Public Library invites the citizens of my small town to join the summer reading program. I loved the “Mastering the Art of Reading” theme in 2008. I actually kept a photocopy of the library’s “little map” of famous landscapes and artists, under which were blank spaces where I could write the names of the books I read, and put it in my journal. (True story.) I wrote about my summer reading in a Poetry Place post of July 16, 2008, but I can’t find a similar post in 2009: I guess I fell off the wagon!
I think that was, in part, because the year’s theme was something do to with a car race, and I had a difficult time connecting to that imagery on my 2009 “little map” (but maybe I just need to go to the next Indy 500 and feel the power at the racetrack, I don’t know). This year’s theme, “Banking on Your Library,” with all of its coins and capitalistic metaphor, struck me as an attempt to draw attention to the fact that our city has shamefully slashed the library’s budget (woe to the budget hackers for such a wicked deed!!). But again, somehow, that imagery did not speak to me as a poet. In consequence, this year, my (aforementioned) wagon has been trudging along at a rather lackadaisical pace, and, as you see, I’m just getting around to writing about my summer reading now that it is October. So be it! “He makes everything beautiful in its time.”
Fiction: Eva Ibbotson’s Star of Kazan celebrates a foundling child, a spirited girl named Annika who grows up with two guardians, a cook named Ellie and a housekeeper named Sigrid, in the Austrian home of three professors: Julius the geologist, Emil the art historian, and Gertrude the harpist. She learns many useful things, including kindness, which causes her to befriend the sickly great-aunt of a spoiled neighbor girl. The woman, in her youth, was a performer — a dancer and an actress — called La Rondine who loved to throw flower petals from swings hoisted high above the stages where she danced … and she had many admirers, some of whom gave her very expensive jewelry. With that jewelry, including a gorgeous emerald called the Star of Kazan, the intrigue begins … for La Rondine leaves gifts for the girl Annika that other people try to steal.
I loved this book. I enjoyed it tremendously, and I recommend it to the whole world. (It made me want to go to Austria tout suite!) It was very well-written, very beautifully and convincingly written. Anyone who reads it will enjoy it.
Since I was in a fictional mood, I picked up another book, convincingly set in our own day, in America, but particularly in Louisiana: The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Unlike the Star of Kazan, this book is not for children! But like Ibbotson, Rebecca Wells does a beautiful job of evoking historical setting and developing likable characters.
Siddalee Walker, the heroine, has a relationship with her mother that is fraught with tension and a confusion that stems from her mother’s troubled past: her own abusive parents and a coping strategy that made her rely more on bourbon than anything healthy. The mother-daughter unhappiness makes Sidda want to run from her otherwise charming and wonderful fiancé, Connor.
The book is actually set over the weeks when she is in retreat from her lover in Seattle, trying to decide if she is actually going to marry him. The ending is happy (which is what the readers are inevitably hoping for), in part because Sidda remembers some redeeming things about her relationship with her mother — her memories involving, at one point, a marvelous elephant named Lawanda the Magnificent. (Yes, you have to read the book to find out what I’m talking about — I can’t give any more details away — I’ve already said the book ends well!!)
I’m still thinking about this book and all that it means.
Memoir: Ever since Joan Didion published The Year of Magical Thinking in 2005, I’ve wanted to read it. It’s about the year of grief she experienced after her husband died and her only daughter almost died from complications that landed her in the hospital for brain surgery. The title alone spoke to me about what happens when we grieve deeply for someone we’ve loved and lost from this earth.
On Christmas Day in 2008, I lost one of my dearest friends in a car accident, and the year that followed was more profoundly shaped by the stages and cycles of grieving (shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression and reflection and loneliness, an upward turn, acceptance and hope) than I had previously realized. Walking with Joan through her story helped me remember the misty steps of mine.
Since I am no longer drowning, I am able to look back at the storm that swept over the ocean that holds my life (that’s one way to say it) and see just how deeply affected I was: how profoundly my judgment was affected (perhaps impaired), how strange some of my decisions might have looked to others. For anyone who has grieved or is grieving, this book has something of value. I did not relate to many aspects of Joan Didion’s life — she is a very different person than I am — but still, like Joan, my experience of loss focused my attention on how death, with an immediacy that can’t be denied, makes us see what is truly important to us in this life.
Now I’m reading Isabel Allende’s My Invented Country, another memoir, more about place than loss (so far). Isabel’s place is, as she celebrates in the book, Chilé. I’ve wanted to read this book ever since I saw Isabel read from it at the Field Museum in Chicago in 2004. What a performance! She was brilliant, funny, gifted in evoking our imaginations. I loved that night.
I was, at the time, too impoverished to buy a book for her to sign, but she kindly signed the program I had managed to pick up for the evening — even tho’ the friend I was with told me it was a faux pas to ask for this. (I’m a writer myself, and I promise, I will sign any program any impoverished reader of mine wants! I understand!) Isabel is so creative …
… and creativity brings me back to childbirth.
Childbirth: I’m reading the 4th edition of Nilsson’s A Child is Born, which follows the life of a developing baby from conception to birth in all of her astonishing detail — complete with a wide variety of color photographs. I have to write a book report on it as part of my education in midwifery (really), but the book is not necessarily for specialists. Anyone could read it and learn from it.
Non-Fiction: In addition to having interests in midwifery, I’m a childbirth educator who recycles, so I thought I’d better brush up on the “green” trends in order to help the families I serve. (I actually have a doula friend who calls herself “The Green Mama.” Love that!) So I picked up Green Babies, Sage Moms: The Ultimate Guide to Raising Your Organic Baby at the local Half-Price Books on my birthday — what a great day!
But I’m not going to lie to you — this book freaked me out. Parabens! Parafins! Hormones! Pesticides! Genetically modified organisms! After I read it, I didn’t feel safe eating chicken, wearing antiperspirant (not to mention make-up), or consuming strawberries grown in California (my beautiful home state!). I still haven’t quite recovered from the cortisol shock that blasted my internal chemistry after reading, but I have made some immediate changes in my grocery shopping and hygiene habits. And while I don’t wish my anxiety on another single soul, I do recommend learning about healthy options for our bodies and the planet.
And that brings me to …
David Bach’s latest book (or one of his latest): Go Green, Live Rich! I have all kinds of admiration for David, who wrote Smart Women Finish Rich and Smart Couples Finish Rich and Start Late, Finish Rich. His book Smart Women was the first financial planning book I’d ever read that put the emphasis not on making more money (which I could frankly care less about), but on making a financial plan based on my own values. All the financial planners I’d read previously always assumed I wanted to be a millionaire, which I didn’t. But I did want to make wise choices and be able to give freely to people I love and causes I care about. And David’s book helped me pull together a plan that didn’t involve living in total poverty. Yay!
Go Green, Live Rich! is not about financial planning, however, but rather about wise, environmentally friendly choices we can make for sustainable, planet-friendly living. I felt good about the fact that I’m already doing many of the things Bach recommends … and glad that I could learn about a few more to implement. I definitely recommend this book!
Moving on …
Medieval Studies: I’m a medievalist by training (another true story!), and I write book reviews for The 16th Century Journal, the most recent on Heather Webb’s great book, The Medieval Heart. This book beautifully explores the history of medieval ideas about the heart, the unity and equality present in the body and relationships and society when the heart’s ruling power is the metaphor for being and doing (rather than say, for example, the hierarchy of the head ). I recommend it to other medievalists, the curious, and anyone who enjoys Italian love poetry, especially Dante’s.
Christian devotional literature: Like Dante, my friend Diana Pavlac Glyer is an artist — in her case, a potter. She has written a lovely book called Clay in the Potter’s Hand. Like the book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Diana’s meditation draws readers into a deeper understanding of what God means when he reveals himself by comparison, whether to shepherd or a potter. I read Diana’s whole book, cover to cover, in one sitting and felt enriched. I plan to gather my artist-friends and read it again, together with them, and meditate more on the book’s many meanings.
One of my favorite chapters in the book is “Redeeming,” which is about when, after the pot of our lives has been broken for the third time — something seemingly impossible — the Potter can take the pieces and make a beautiful mosaic out of them. That idea spoke to me profoundly, for it is the message of my life in Christ without a doubt. As Diana says:
“There is no raw material, no accident, no broken pieces
that our Creator God cannot redeem.”