I see I haven’t checked in here for a while. I’ve been a little busy helping to organize a union and reading The Count of Monte Cristo, both of which turned out to be huge time commitments. The two efforts came to fruition within a couple of days of each other. Saturday I finished Alexandre Dumas’ 117-chapter epic tale, and on Monday the state of Missouri announced the results of our union election, which we won with 65% yes votes.
Both efforts held surprises for me. Union organizing — gaining big new insights into people I thought I knew. I saw aspects and layers previously hidden to me, most of them good and inspiring, with a small handful of disappointments. The number of hours spent looking at spreadsheets was not something I had anticipated. And I didn’t do nearly as much of the work as some of my colleagues, bless them. Count of Monte Cristo — a lot more drug use than I expected. The psychedelic 1970s had nothing on the 1800s, it seems. There were some truly trippy scenes. Ease up on the hashish, there. Also, a young, early nineteenth century female character who wished to avoid marriage and live independently.
Of course, I was also working both of my paying jobs during this time. So all of this labor movement activity and classics reading led to late nights, with Zoom meetings followed by just another chapter or two. I honestly don’t know how anyone ever runs for office. The stress of campaign-type activities nearly did this introvert in. Often, after yet another meeting, followed by phone calls (shudder) I’d promised to make, or an elaborately-arranged meeting with someone who wanted to sign a union card without being seen to do so, I found myself with an actual need to lose myself in the drama and tension of a fictional character’s story. It was somehow cathartic to transfer the intensity of my feelings into the life and perils and plots of Edmond Dantes, wrongly imprisoned, losing everyone and everything he loved, seeking revenge but unexpectedly finding his heart warring with itself in his resolve.
I’m a different person than I was at the beginning of 2022. This has been the year I determined to pursue some long overdue goals – getting a seat at the table in my workplace and finally pulling The Count from it’s decades-long spot on my to-be-read list. I’m a union woman now, and someone who can speak with knowledge about a Dumas classic.
We’ve won our election, but there’s still organizing to do around electing officers, contract negotiations, etc. And there are enough literary gaps in my world to spend a lifetime filling them. But I might take a breath or two and enjoy some lighter pursuits before plunging myself into the next intense adventure.
I read some books this year. Here are some words about a few of the titles, placed into random categories I just invented.
Biography of someone I’ve always wanted to know more about:
Sometimes You Have to Lie by Leslie Brody. The subtitle for this is “The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy.” Though her book was formative for me in my youth, with a relatable main character who embraced her own quirks, I never knew much about Fitzhugh. Brody presents a satisfying portrait of Harriet’s creator, a person as real and passionate and complicated as the iconic character she brought to life. Fitzhugh was also an accomplished artist, outspoken against racism, and a person who strove to live a life true to herself, openly gay in an era when closeting was more the norm.
Sweetness and awww: A Handful of Happiness by Massimo Vachetta. This little memoir by an Italian veterinarian who opened a hedgehog rescue center will remind you that compassion is never wasted.
Nonfiction book that made me go hmmm while rubbing my chin in a thoughtful way, but also laugh several times: A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling. This book is a sometimes hilarious, other times scary look at a failed attempt to build a libertarian Utopia in a small New Hampshire town. The author does a good job showing the humanity of the people involved, while also detailing the sometimes tragic consequences of prioritizing a rigid black-and-white ideology over the nuances of reality. You can ignore zoning and wildlife regulations in the name of freedom. But when you end up trapped in your house by bears that have come to see humans as their best source of food, that might not feel a lot like freedom.
Poetry that stands the test of time: Flame and Shadow by Sara Teasdale. I went to the way back transporter for this book by one of Missouri’s Pulitzer Prize winners. Her work puts me in mind of the nature-y essence of Mary Oliver combined with the sharp-edged insights of Dorothy Parker. “There Will Come Soft Rains” gives me chills every time I read it.
Nonfiction that made me want to do what they did: Wanderers, a History of Women Walking by Kerri Andrews. The author begins with some of her own experiences in the mountains of Scotland, then forays into ten separate essays, each one focusing on a single woman who walked. How had I never heard about Dorothy Wordsworth before?
Novel written by a friend that’s so good I didn’t have to pretend even a little bit when I said I loved it: A Song for the Road by Kathleen Basi. Full disclosure — I was a beta reader for early drafts of this. I liked it so much, I still took the time to read the final version. It’s a touching but never maudlin look at grief. A year after Miriam loses her husband and two teen children in an accident, she happens across a road trip app her daughter was developing and decides to follow its prompts in an effort to find a way forward in her life. Along the way, she picks up a young pregnant hitchhiker. This sounds heavy, but there are also moments of real levity.
Highly original fiction celebrating neurodiversity, set in a specific cultural niche: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated to English by Ginny Tapley Takemori. This is a story about a woman who truly finds her calling, working part-time at a convenience store. If only everyone else in her life could accept this, things would be peachy. But her parents and sister always hold out hope that she will eventually “get better.” Keiko tries with all her might to understand and obey the rules of being human, observing that “foreign objects get expelled.” This book will resonate with anyone who has ever felt like a misfit.
Science memoir that made me say, Wow!: Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forestby Suzanne Simard. Suzanne Simard is a scientist who knows how to tell a story. Part memoir, part ecology lesson, this book is engaging and enlightening all the way through. The author has a knack for explaining science for the layperson. I was fascinated by the details of her experiments in old growth forests. Her nature descriptions are often breathtaking.
Some things I learned: Many trees in a forest have a reciprocal relationship, sending water and nutrients back and forth. Various kinds of fungi are instrumental in this. In a forest setting, if there’s a dry spell, the older, bigger trees with deep roots will pull up water from underground and send it to the younger, smaller trees with shallower roots to help them survive. That’s one of many reasons that clearcutting out big trees for wood products and replacing them with all new seedlings might not work out well. “We can think of an ecosystem of wolves, caribou, trees, and fungi creating biodiversity just as an orchestra of woodwind, brass, percussion, and string musicians assemble into a symphony.”
Historical fiction with added ghosts that made me say, Wow!: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan. Set in 14th century China, this story explores themes of fate, free will, loyalty, the nature of power, and of course, gender. Though we’re often taken deep into the point of view of Zhu, a girl who takes on her late brother’s identity in pursuit of his unclaimed fate, the author keeps back just enough so that the story does not become predictable. The characters are complex, the plot is clever, and the story a real page turner. Overall, I’d say this book accomplishes what art is supposed to – it made me feel and think deeply.
Laugh riot classic: Carry On, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse. These short stories are a hoot, with the ever-resourceful, comically understated gentleman’s gentleman, Jeeves, time and again saving the skin of his employer, the hapless Bertie Wooster. In the process, Jeeves often advances his own agenda as well. Wodehouse had a genius for turns of phrase — “shrubbery that looked as if it had just come back from the dry cleaner” to describe a meticulously groomed garden, for instance. There’s quite a bit of slang of the era, and some that Wodehouse invented, but it’s easy to figure out the meaning by the context. I felt these stories were bracing — not the least bit rummy.
Following are a few readings relevant to the day. The point of the list isn’t to tell anyone they should absolutely agree with every word of every one of these writings, but just to prompt folks to spend some time examining different viewpoints and really thinking about what peace is and how we might work toward it. Feel free to add your own suggestions for titles in the comments.
The Racial Healing Handbook by Annaliese Singh. The theme for 2021 is “recovering better for an equitable and sustainable world.” This book seems like a good fit. The subtitle is “Practical Activities to Help You Challenge Privilege, Confront Systemic Racism, and Engage in Collective Healing.”
Nonviolent Communication: a Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg and Arun Gandhi. I have found this book helpful in my personal and professional life, especially as I have a job that requires a lot of interaction with the public.
The War Prayerby Mark Twain, who was a consistent critic of U.S. military action in the Philippines. This had a huge influence on me when I read it as a teen. In the story, a church assembly prays for victory in battle for their soldiers. Immediately, an unknown man in a long robe appears, promising the request will be fulfilled, but only if the congregation still wants it after hearing the full consequences of what they are asking.
I’m happy to report I have a much lower degree of hitch in my git-along than I did the last time I posted. I still have to be mindful of how I move while doing certain tasks, but I can take walks again. I have even been on my bicycle. You may ask, what does an avid ambler do while sidelined? She reads about walking, of course!
I will read almost anything about walking and almost anything about women empowering themselves. I found a great combination of the two themes in Wanderers, a History of Women Walking by Kerri Andrews.
Andrews focuses on women who have written about their walking experiences. Some figures were familiar to me — Anais Nin, Virginia Woolf. Others were new introductions. I was particularly interested to learn of Dorothy Wordsworth, who exhilarated in day-long walks of twenty miles or more, and was every bit as accomplished as her brother William. I want to know more about her. I’m also planning to look up the work of Linda Cracknell. In fact, Wanderers grew my to-read list quite a bit.
In addition to profiling ten other women, Andrews also shares some of her own adventures in the mountains of Scotland and elsewhere. She was able to retrace a few of the walks mentioned by women who came before her, exploring her feelings as she follows their footsteps.
She adds a lot of context, too, about women’s lives in different locations and time periods, speaking of the challenges that kept, and still too often keep, our existences restricted. William Wordsworth was usually free to pick up and go at a moment’s notice, while his sister was tied down with domestic chores. And then there have been societal expectations on women’s behavior, plus the extra threats women face when striking out alone. Walking is great medicine, but it’s one some of us have to work for more than others.
I want to finish with a special note of appreciation for the author’s words about the value of walking and re-walking the same routes again and again. Doing this myself has turned out to be one of the most profoundly spiritual practices of my life.
One of my writing buddies has a new book out. The World is Full of A**holes is a picture book for adults, and one that’s just what I needed at this point in time. It was written by K.L. Harris and illustrated by Nik Henderson, with the art and words complementing each other wonderfully.
Picture books for adults is a trend I’ve noticed over the last few years. I like it. I mean, I’ve been known to lose myself in 800-page tomes without illustrations and find it a satisfying experience. But sometimes, especially for deeply felt issues, going back to the format of a simply-delivered message is an effective salve. A poetic reminder that the world is full of assholes but that there are ways to deal with them and to keep from being them is the equivalent of a nudge to remember to drink enough water and to make sure I’m getting a little exercise on the regular. Basic messages and steps that make a huge difference in life.
The playful wording makes the book fun to read. When Harris lists the places and ways we might encounter assholes in our daily lives — “Assholes can be doctors, teachers, or people scooping ice cream” — the illustrations rely mostly on grim color combinations. But things lighten up considerably when the author pivots to the topic of guardians, “People who’ll speak up when you’re not treated right.” The world is full of those, too.
I don’t go out a whole lot. But three friends in one of my writers’ groups all have birthdays in the first half of November. So we decided to have a non-writing brunch yesterday at a locally owned restaurant.
Here’s a fun thing (for book lovers anyway) that will happen if you eat at Cafe Berlin in Columbia, Missouri. Instead of bringing your bill in one of those vinyl folder things, the waiter will tuck it into a used book. I must look like a fun person or a cowgirl, because this was the title presented to me.
Of course, the danger to the restaurant staff in presenting books to avid readers is that we spend time reading before paying our bills. The six women at my table had a few hoots from this before we left.
It’s a quick read, full of wise, pithy bits of advice. “Avoid becoming emotional over a jackass.” “Convincing yourself that a bad idea is a good idea is a bad idea.” You get the idea.
On a final note, how great is the name Gladiola Montana?
Early this evening, Frieda and I went to a book release and discovered someone had left a Bird scooter blocking one side of the bike rack in front of the bookshop. Rude. Frieda was able to fit in on the other side, though.
More important than parking is that my friend just published her first book, Equillian’s Key, the beginning of a fantasy adventure series. Check out this trailer.