Well, it's the end of the month, and one reading list is coming to a close while another begins. I finished five books over the last week (the three-day weekend certainly helped). Here's what I finished last week:
While I was reading Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve earlier this month, the chapter on clichés in modern literature really resonated with me. It struck me that they might be one of the biggest problems I have with contemporary fiction. Being so tuned into clichés in writing by that book, though, nearly ruined my listening experience with the fourth in Jan Karon's Mitford series, Out to Canaan. I don't know that it is worse than any of the other books in the series, but it seemed like nearly every paragraph or conversation between characters contained at least one cliché. It was driving me nuts. I felt bad that I was reading something so riddled with formula and platitudes. Until. One morning while listening I realized that clichés are one of the things I like about the Mitford books. I grew up in a very small town (pop. 419) like Mitford, and I'm here to tell you, folks in small town talk in clichés. Not necessarily because they're uneducated, but often because that's part of the shared culture of a small place. I've noticed that in a small town, people often see big ideas different and distill them to their essences. They ignore nuance and skip directly to a logical conclusion. That's what happened in Mitford, and that's what happened in my hometown. I was able to enjoy Out to Canaan quite a bit after I stopped listening for the clichés and looking for the wisdom behind them. In this novel, Father Tim announces his retirement 18 months hence, his wife Cynthia is working on another Violet the cat book for children, and the town is looking at a lot of possible change including a nasty mayoral election. I liked this one, and I recommend the series to anyone looking for fiction without sex, drugs, infidelity, and drama, and with a heavy dose of faith and old-fashioned values. My rating: 4 stars.
I come from a long line of flower-obsessed women--on both sides of the family. My mother's mother grew African violets with blooms the size of silver dollars. She could coax most anything to grow in her red, sandy soil. My great-grandmother was known for her gladiolas (her name as Gladys, Glady for short, so that makes sense). Her daughter, my grandmother, would rather spend her time mucking in her garden than anywhere else on earth. My mother has the bug, too. From these women, I inherited a great deal of plant knowledge which includes identifying a plant I've never seen before. It's a spooky blessing. I guess some things are just born into you and locked away until you're walking through a plant nursery. But while I enjoy flowers, I don't really enjoy gardening. Keeping flowerbeds weeded is the bane of my existence. I love looking at flowers and learning about gardening, but I don't want the work that comes with them. Enter Floret Farm's Cut Flower Garden. This fabulous book breaks down how to grown dozens of common varieties of flowers (e.g. irises, chrysanthemums, dahlias, etc. etc.). The author takes you through her huge cutting gardens season by season, telling you what to plant when, how to get more blooms, when to cut flowers for arranging, and lots more. Each season chapter is broken down into chapters on the flowers flourishing during that season, and there are loads of photos of different varieties of each flower. The information is comprehensive but not overwhelming. The tone is friendly and helpful. And the photos are to die for. I loved this book. And I'm going to order a copy for my mother, who I know will love it too. My rating: 5 stars.
I love memoirs. And I especially love travel memoirs. I'll read about anyone's trip anywhere. Armchair traveling is one of my favorite bonuses of reading. So in early April, when I kept seeing At Home in the World pop up on other author's blogs and in their Instagram photos, I decided to pick up a copy. I'm so glad I did. This a wonderful book. The author and her husband, Americas who met in Kosovo, decide to take their three young children (ages 9, 7, and 4, I believe) on a nearly yearlong journey around the world. They stop in China, Australia, several African countries, Turkey, Italy, Germany, France, England, just to name a few destinations. They carry everything they need in a backpack each, stay in real homes, visit with expat friends, and see some of the great wonders of the world. The book isn't exactly what I've come to expect from travel memoirs. They often focus heavily on where they went and what they saw, but this book focuses more on how the places felt. Throughout the book, the author talks about the equal longing in her for both adventure and for home. When she's traveling, she wants to be home; when she's home, she imagines herself halfway around the world. It was an interesting frame for the story of their year abroad. I noticed time and again that wherever they were, they tried to make it a home. Not to say they resisted the culture they found themselves in, they did, after all, choose to be there. But the family did look for the stability of home in places like Beijing and Nairobi. This made the book much more real than other travel books I've read. At first I was disillusioned because it focused so much less on the cities and sites than I'm used to from these books, but I finally got over this preconceived notion and was able to enjoy floating along with them. I recommend this book highly. My rating: 4 stars.
Encyclopedia Of an Ordinary Life is one of my favorite books on the planet. There, how's that for an opening line of a nonbiased review? I read it for the first time in 2005, shortly after it came out, and returning to it now was so familiar and, just, wonderful. I love the way Amy Krouse Rosenthal's mind works. I love that her books have such unconventional narrative styles. I love how she collects coincidences and everyday experiences and displays the baubles of her mind in such a fresh, openhanded way. Her books have a very generous spirit, fun, self-aware, and superficial yet deep. They're just so wonderful. And this is the one that started it all for me. It's Amy's memoir written as encyclopedia entries. It's a fun book to dip into and out of. It's so witty, and I defy you to read it and be unable to do two things: (1) share at least one quote or anecdote from it, and (2) want to write your own encyclopedia memoir. My all-time favorite moment: when she describes how her brother, who grew up with three sisters, was a grownup before he realized he didn't need to wrap the bath towel around his chest. If you haven't read this book, pick up a copy. You're in for a treat. My rating: 5 stars.
I also finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. Very much like her previous little book on feminism, We Should All Be Feminists, this was a long essay explaining how to raise a feminist daughter in Africa. I'm a little confused by the popularity of these books. There's nothing here I didn't encounter in my high school sociology class in the early 1990s. (And that was in a tiny Wisconsin town.) Her suggestions are so pat and simple, things like reject the notion that pink is for girls and blue is for boys, be a role model of what you want her to learn, etc. Some suggestions are just plain questionable: teach her that sex is good and never immoral. Never does spirituality enter the picture; how does a woman live a whole life without taking care of her spiritual needs? Perhaps this book and its predecessor are intended for the African audience, as the examples of gross patriarchal overreach are all African, and apparently Africa has not progressed past 19th century American culture when it comes to issues of gender and equality between them. I just find these books much to simple and uninteresting for the American woman. My rating: 2.5 stars.