Reading · Travel

American Bloomsbury

I have a copy of Michael Holroyd’s definitive biography of Lytton Strachey.  A gift from a friend, the two-volume boxed set serves as a bookend anchoring a shelf of history titles.  My friend was a Bloomsbury aficionado.  He read everything he could about these post-Victorian intellectuals even waiting patiently to purchase The Letters of Virginia Woolf published in six volumes; book-by-book over 10 years.  He also gifted me his extra copy of The Loving Friends: A Portrait of Bloomsbury by David Gadd.

When the Pilgrimage to Massachusetts reading list (yes – an actual two-page bibliography of primary and secondary sources) included American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever, I thought this title could be the primer I needed (just as The Loving Friends had been) to better understand our American literary giants.  As the subtitle describes, American Bloomsbury focuses on the lives, loves, and work of Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau. 

These profoundly talented people moved among each other, sometimes living together, sharing books, reading what each other wrote, and relishing in deep philosophical discussions.  In the introductory “Note to the Reader” Cheever describes her intent to work chronologically but to do so from each of her primary character’s perspectives thus her timeline moves back and forth as she describes overlapping incidents and conveys the stories of their lives life in Concord and the surrounding environs during the 1830s – 1890s.

Their individual accomplishments – Little Women, The Scarlett Letter, Walden, Or Life in the Woods – create for us a tableau of 19th century life; a young country, a growing divide over slavery; and women’s rights still but a wishful glimmer only in some minds.  But, taken as a whole, these hearty New Englanders defined a literary, philosophical, religious, and political movement that we call Transcendentalism with its core belief in the inherent goodness of the individual and nature. 

I leave early (4:45 am) tomorrow to see their homes and haunts.

Reading

Small Kindnesses

This spring, I learned about a new creative project led by Suleika Jaouad that encouraged participants to “create one tiny beautiful thing each day” for 100 days as a way to bridge the isolation of Covid and return to an as-yet-to-be defined new normal.  The choice of how to excite the imagination was to be determined by each participant.

When I was young, I enjoyed reading poetry but somewhere along the way, poems assumed an impenetrable guise and poetry become something I rarely read.  Although I did take a significant plunge into well written verses during the summer of 2012 when I joined Karen Sandberg and Rose Mish in presenting a summer service comprised entirely of poetic readings.  With the 100-Day Project the timing seemed right to revisit poetry.  I decided I would read a poem each morning and discover (or re-discover) a poet every day.

I created a poem calendar to track my daily progress complete with hyperlinks so that I could re-read the gems I discovered.  One such beautiful verse is Small Kindnesses by poet Danusha Laméris.  She asked 1,300 teenagers about the small kindnesses that make a difference to them and then used their answers to write this poem:

Small Kindnesses

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying. 
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other. 
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress 
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”
Knitting · Reading

Book Club: Knitlandia

cover art for Knitlandia by Clara Parkes

A retirement gift from my friend Amy, I re-read-Knitlandia:  A Knitter Sees the World by Clara Parkes for this month’s Knit Camp Reads book club.  This collection of travelogues necessitated a different type of discussion as we could not rely on old standby questions about character development, unexpected mystery twists, or conflict resolution.  Instead, we talked about which chapter or chapters resonated with each of us.  Mine were the chapters on New York and Iceland. 

My visits to New York have been limited but each trip holds a Cinderella moment – meandering slowly down the grand concourse of the Guggenheim all by myself at 16, the breathtaking view at a top floor reception in the World Trade Center, my first (and only) taste of caviar in the Waldorf Astoria ballroom.  As well as remembering that sense of relief when cresting the Hampton hills just north of Zumbrota on my homeward trek after a summer trip and seeing green which washed away the overwhelming vision of nothing by undulating yellow sheet metal racing and then screeching to red light stops. 

Unlike the New York chapter where I could draw upon memories of real sounds and smells, Parkes’s description of her Icelandic fiber tour moved into the realm of wishful thinking but Covid dashed hopes.  In 2019, I booked a Rowan Tree Travel tour to Copenhagen and the Faroe Islands but the 2020 and the 2021 September trips were canceled and I eventually opted out of the April 2022 rescheduled tour.  While I recognize Denmark and Iceland are distinct countries with unique cultural differences, they share a Nordic heritage and a deep appreciation of northern clime woolens.  I could easily imagine myself with Clara visiting an Icelandic sheep farm just as I had hoped to spend a day in the home of a Faroese fiber artist with Rowan Tree Travel guides Heather and Suzie.  I do have one tangible connection to Iceland in the form of four skeins of yarn purchased by Amy (the same person who gifted me this book) when she was in country for a destination wedding; yarn I later knit into a Solène Le Roux Cable Promenade Cowl.

As we slowly emerge from our Covid existence, I take to heart Clara’s advice: “There is a time for sitting at home in your pajamas, watching and clicking and quietly forming connections in your mind.  And, there’s a time for getting out and being with others, for reaching into the picture and becoming part of it.

Reading

Poetry Avoided

For nearly half a century I avoided poetry.  

three books against wood background

I have fond memories of rhyming verses in Mrs. Miggawa’s third grade class.  I wrote a published poem senior year in high school.  (Although, to be honest, the small pamphlet printed as part of my Catholic all-girls high school curriculum had a minuscule readership.)  And, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind is one of my favorite books.  But somewhere between early enjoyment and today, poetry assumed an impenetrable guise.  I blame this on too many instructors asking “What does it mean?” then being dissatisfied with my blue book reply when the real question was “What do I believe it means?” and, having missed his, her, their personal interpretation, my exam response messed with my college GPA.

My version of The 100-Day Project with Suleika Jaouad will be to read poetry.  It may be a single poem each morning but I want discover (or re-discover) a poet every day.  I intend to banish the judgmental “What does it mean?” question from my vocabulary and let the poem simply rest on the page.  The poet’s meaning may leap off that page or remain mysteriously obscure, either will be fine.  

Reading

Book Club: The Girl Who Wrote In Silk

cover art for The Girl Who Wrote with Silk by Kelli Estes

Synopsis – The novel is written from the perspective of parallel protagonists whose stories intertwine on a Pacific Northwest island – Mei Lein in the late 19th century and Inara in present day.  While undertaking the restoration of an island cottage, Inara discovers a long hidden, intricately embroidered silk sleeve.  As she explores its meaning, she discovers a hidden secret within her own family surrounding an unspeakable act which draws a full circle.  Through Mei Lein’s voice we hear about her life in frontier Seattle, how she survived genocidal atrocities performed by Inara’s ancestors without repercussions under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and her life on a small, secluded farm during which time she artistically depicted her story through thousands and thousands of hand stitches, one silk stitch at a time so her son might know his ancestors.

This debut novel by Kelli Estes was the most recent title discussed with my library loving, book reading, wine-drinking group of retired friends dubbed The Directors.  We felt it was a “readable” book although we each agreed that Mei Lein’s story was the more believable.  Our next title has yet to be chosen but we are leaning toward non-fiction with a bit of oomph.

Baking · Reading

Gâteau au Yaourt

Paris train stopped on platform

While I am by no means a Francophile, (my time in Paris is limited to an arrival at Gare de l’Est, a quick Metro ride, and a departure from Gare du Nord) my recent book purchases tell a slightly different story. Just days ago at Rochester’s new used bookstore, Garden Party Books, I picked up Monet’s Garden: Though the Seasons at Giverny in hardcover with gorgeous photo illustrations and a paperback copy of The Paris Seamstress. The Paris Library is downloaded on my iPad ready for next month’s Knit Camp book club; and, last year at this time, The Directors – my library loving, book reading, wine-drinking group of retired friends – read The Bookseller, the first of the Hugo Marston mysteries, where the foul deed occurs on the banks of the Seine. For a 2018 January potluck, The Directors planned an entire luncheon menu with recipes from Monet’s Table: The Cooking Journals from Claude Monet.

With one very inattentive year high school French, my language skills are limited, my wardrobe is far from haute couture and I have never taken a French cooking class but I enjoy the writing and the cooking inspiration offered by Clotilde Dusoulier. Her Chocolate & Zucchini: Daily Adventures in a Parisian Kitchen has been a trusted source for culinary inspiration and yesterday she came through again as I made her easy, not too sweet gâteau au yaourt. The tartness of the yogurt paired with a tablespoon of light rum blend tastefully into a moist yellow cake which I garnished with freshly made blueberry sauce. Yumm!

Bibliography: Books mentioned in this post or on my shelves:

Photo credit: Adrien Olichon from Prexels

Reading

Book Club:  Matrix

cover art for Matrix by Lauren Groff

The Story – – – At a time when women were often considered less than a commodity the farmer’s cow or the nobleman’s land prized above a wife or daughter, Marie de France, by sheer force of will and bolstered by what she believed were divine visions, created a religious stronghold where women were not only safe but valued as industrious leaders.  Considered an unmarriageable orphan within the court of Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine relegated Marie to a nunnery.  But rather than allow herself to be forgotten, Marie transformed the impoverished abbey, where the nuns were dying of starvation when she arrived, into a religious center where women illuminated manuscripts (considered a task suitable only for men) and built a cathedral.

While written as fiction, Lauren Groff’s protagonist did exist in the real life of the 12th century although little is known of Marie.  Even her name has been lost to the centuries as she is simply dubbed Marie de France.  Reputable sources – the British Library and the Encyclopedia Britannitica – consider her the earliest known French female poet.

Our Matrix book discussions occurred during two gatherings, the first when The Directors – my library loving, book reading, wine-drinking group of retired friends – ventured into the frigid January weather for soup in St. Paul.  But we were too starved of lively catch-up banter to give this title our focused concentration and hence came back to it on another frigid day, this time over Zoom with everyone snug at home.  Everyone agreed Groff’s stylized writing flowed lyrically off the page even if the degree of enjoyment brought by this “read” varied. 

Happy reading!

Reading

What to read next?

A pleasantry in retirement and augmented by the ongoing pandemic isolation is time for reading – both good literature and, sometimes, those fun but not so well written books.  I find my next read is just as likely to come from a friend’s casual comment or an intriguing cover spotted among BookBub’s daily offerings as from my lengthy (189 title) Want to Read electronic shelf on Goodreads.  Thus, it is easier to report what I am reading rather than guess what I might read next. 

In eBook format – A re-read of Dune by Frank Herbert spurred on by the newly released movie directed by Denis Villeneuve, which is as impressive an adaptation as critics claim.  The actors capture adeptly the characters’ personalities, the scenery is as harsh as the reader might envision the treacherous desert planet, and the masterful CGI depict the scale of futuristic intergalactic travel.  And, simultaneously, to prepare for next week’s Knit Camp Reads book discussion, The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes.

And, for multitasking while knitting my red Vivi sweater – #3 in the Cormoran Strike mystery series, Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (a.k.a. J.K. Rowling) in audiobook.

Nothing in paper at the moment; although The Rose Code by Kate Quinn is on the book rack next to the couch and most likely to be the next read among The Directors (my library loving, wine drinking group of retired friends) and thus the logical response to Bloganuary’s 18th prompt:  What book is next on your reading list?

Reading

Adieu MALF

three shelves of library books

Four+ years ago, as I approached retirement I knew I wanted to stay peripherally involved in my profession.  After all, it is hard to undo 45 years of immersion into every aspect of librarianship – from a page shelving books to a director testifying at the legislature – but I vowed I would not become the dreaded old retiree who attends every meeting spouting “…but we have always done it that way” or, even worse “… we tried that in #### [fill in the blank with a long ago date] and it didn’t work…”  MALF, the Minnesota Association of Library Friends, let me support libraries, their trustees, and Friends but also graciously decline requests for more visible involvement.

Continuing Education is a key service in the MALF stable of support.  Pre-pandemic, MALF hosted live events, even going so far as to “round-robin” the state to minimize windshield time for participants.  With the aid of very talented staff and dedicated board members, MALF reacted nimbly as Minnesota went into the 2020 quarantine.  Quicker than many other organizations, MALF shifted plans for its first annual Saturday Splash from an in-person event keynoted by author, William Kent Krueger, complete with book sales and Friends’ awards to a virtual experience.  The attendance exceeded all projections and Saturday Splash 2021 stayed in the ZOOM cyberspace and featured the always witty Lorna Landvick.  ZOOM also enabled MALF to begin offering quarterly webinars – one of which is broadcasting today and will be the last of my official MALF board duties.   

Adieu MALF continue the good work!

Photo credit: Prexels – Element5 Digital

Reading

Book Club: Four Winds

Even as The Directors – my library loving, book reading, wine drinking group of retired friends – have begun carefully venturing out into our Covid plagued environment, we continue our online book discussions.  Our most recent title was Four Winds by Kristin Hannah.

Our intrepid discussion leader prepared 26 questions, each with such perceptive depth that responding to any one of them could easily have filled a college exam blue book.  With our limited time, we focused on the millenia of challenges women have endured and those specifically presented by the author through the lens of the protagonist Elsa Martinelli.

book cover of four winds by kristen hannah

We wondered how so much strife could affect one person but coalesced around the knowledge that there are those whose lives seemed blighted by every bad thing that can happen – whether as a result of misguided decisions or circumstances beyond their control or an unlucky combination.  And, indeed, we each realized that there was someone we knew who could be identified as Elsa-like.

Of all of Hannah’s descriptions of her charcter’s hard life, (Dust-Bowl storms which my mother remembers, a deadly flash flood, and hours of bloody, back-breaking labor picking cotton which my father did for only one day) I connected most closely with the unending debt created at the company store.  When I was small, maybe around five while visiting Alabama, I walked to the store with my Granddaddy. I had a nickel (a large amount to a child in the 1950s) to buy whatever I wanted.  But I could not spend my precious five cents.  I remember being both elated and disappointed.  Excited that the penny candy was free (or so I thought) and deflated that I could not make the cash transaction like a big girl.  Years later, long after the company store had became just a corner grocery did I realize that even a child’s treat went “on account” against Granddaddy’s next payday.  Tennessee Ernie Ford’s classic song, I Owe My Soul to the Company Store was a truism for thousands of workers including the tragic heroine of Four Winds.