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.“
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.
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.
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 Evilby 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?
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.
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.
A restless night spent worrying about my first public overnight outing proved needless as the two-day excursion with The Directors was as fun filled as expected. As the last member of the group to travel so far as to necessitate a motel room, I was also the last to indulge in restaurant dining. While I did make that first brave step on tax day, this trip required my second restaurant experience. My friends were exceedingly gentle as I ventured (still somewhat timidly) into our formerly masked, now vaccinated world. As we wove through the green farmland of east central Minnesota and western Wisconsin, there were stops along the way for wine tasting and shopping, and while this later activity is usually not a high priority for me the company made the day enjoyable.
I attribute my lack of shopping enthusiasm to a career move to Georgia just after grad school. My next door neighbor was also a northern transplant, a cataloging librarian from Michigan, and she loved to shop. Faced with unexpected resistance to implementing what I considered standard library operations like offering storytimes for the public rather than only by appointment, I took solace from workplace challenges by joining her at the mall. (Remember when window-shopping under one roof in a temperature control environment was a new, novel experience?) When we moved after 18 months on the job, she to Augusta and me to Peoria, I had two maxed out credit cards. And, while that debt was paid off years ago, there is still a residual caution when considering what I want versus what I need. Although, on this trip, I was less hesitant at the bookstore and the two wineries as evidenced by the assorted vintages and the stack of new books that filled the boot.
Also on this trip, The Directors (my library loving, book reading, wine drinking group of retired friends) initiated a new but to-be-repeated practice of secret book gifting. We each brought 1-2 recently read titles, wrapped to hide any clue as to content other than to know we were exchanging books. After tours of the Shades of Green Garden and delicious home-prepared meals our hostess initiated a quick game of “I am thinking of a number between 1 and 100…” and we picked our surprises. Each book will guarantee good reading for the weeks ahead, as well as a promise to exchange these gently used reads next time we meet.
Whether it is because of a career immersed in libraries or just that libraries provide intriguing settings for the storyteller, I am always drawn to stories (even badly written ones) where the library becomes its own character integral to the plot. For instance:
The Star Trek episode from the 60s set in a dying planet’s library;
When David Tennant, as the tenth Doctor, takes Donna (personally not my favorite of The Doctor’s companions despite her importance in saving all of humanity) to a planet-sized library holding every book every written where they meet River Song (definitely among my most favorite of the Whovian characters);
To Joss Wheadon’s setting for Buffy the Vampire Slayer where the school library is the gateway to magical powers, as well as the entry point for the terrifying beings that only Buffy can defeat;
And the list goes on…leading me to The Midnight Library and the most recent The Directors’ book discussion.
Chosen Best Book of 2020 in the general fiction category by nearly 74,000 Goodreads’ members, The Midnight Library introduces the reader to Nora Seed, a young woman so wracked by regrets she attempts suicide. But in that in-between time – between life and death – she enters the Midnight Library with its infinite collection of green covered books all of which enumerate the stories of her life, each different depending on the subtle or dramatic decisions she made.
Unlike Buckaroo Banzai in one of my favorite movies, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, where Buckaroo is simultaneously a rock star, neurosurgeon, brilliant scientist, and a test pilot who just happens to save the world from evil alien invaders, Nora experiences one-by-one what might have been as Olympic swimmer, rock star, mother, or glaciologist. Some lives are deeply unsatisfying while others are almost, but not quite, comfortable as she is suddenly inserted into these parallel realities.
Despite an abundance of book challenges, expertly curated title lists and even a fun assortment of book bingos to choose from, The Directors (my library loving, book reading, wine drinking group of retired friends) elected to reverse engineer its own reading challenge. We read a book recommended by one of us and then assign our 2021 reading challenge nomenclature with The Midnight Library dubbed magical realism fantasy.
Depending on the day and the conference, visiting library vendor exhibits might be hard work with promises for future negotiations or a simple pleasure. Some days I could afford the time to stand in line to purchase a signed copy of a much loved book. There were also those serendipitous moments when I discovered the unlikely opportunity to nab a quick gift for Richard in a nearly empty booth; when the entire encounter from handing the cash to the publishing house rep, to a brief conversation with a favorite writer, to carefully stashing the prized conference loot all occurred within just minutes. Such was my very brief encounter with Eric Carle one ALA conference day.
The world is blessed to have had this genius of children’s literature whose many stories and brillant textured art evoked rich reading opportunities and colorful playfulness.
Libraries have always adapted to the changing world by expanding resources and services, even more so in these Covid times. Celebrate National Library Week, April 4 – 10! Visit your library online or in person (if allowed) to learn how you can check out books, technology, multimedia content, educational programs and so much more to help you be your best self.
I promised myself retirement would be like my favorite summer, 1976, filled with lots of reading and time with friends. That was the only summer after high school where I was not taking college classes or working or both. Nearly four years into this relaxed life, my plan is working although Covid has put the nix (at least for now) on face-to-face time with friends but I am exceeding my reading goals, albeit mostly easy titles that don’t require deep contemplation. Aiding me in the task of diversifying my reading pleasure have been three book clubs and One Book One Minnesota.
The Directors’ – My library loving, book reading, wine drinking group of retired friends who, in pre-Covid times enjoyed an outing every 2-3 months but now gather every two weeks via Zoom, decided 2021 was the right time for a book club. While our first two titles have been mysteries with earlier posts, The Thursday Murder Cluband The Bookseller, we are switching genres. Next up – Cicely Tyson’s memoir, Just As I Am.
Knit Camp Reads Club – A new venture for Knit Camp knitters who want to read (or listen) together. The first selection is fiber related, Casting Off by Nicole R. Dickson, a nice tie in with the Knit Camp January workshop and group knit, Fiadh.