April Book Reviews

This was a lighter reading month — both because it’s warm enough to begin frantically putting things in the ground and because I’m slowly wading through Crime and Punishment for Well-Read Mom. (Pippin’s Dog Man: Grime and Punishment is apparently not an acceptable substitute.)

Lemons by Melissa Savage

Synopsis: When nine-year-old Lemonade Liberty Witt’s mother dies, she leaves behind her city to move in with a grandfather she’s never met, in a small town in northern California obsessed with Bigfoot. Her mom named her Lemonade hoping she’d always be able to make lemonade out of the worst situations, but has Lemonade lost her ability to find the good as life hands her lemon after lemon?

My first-ever book recommendation from Pippin, who loved the audiobook. He says it’s the sort of book Yoda would assign Luke Skywalker because it talks about overcoming sorrow and anger. High praise!! As an adult reader, I found this book fine — the narrator was a little squeaky (think the little brunette in Garfunkel & Oates) and the story was fairly predictable for a jaundiced old reader like myself. But I thought its emphasis on emotional resiliency, its quirky cast, and its charming setting all made it a good story for Pip and a pleasant enough read for me.

The Modern Cottage Garden: A Fresh Approach to a Classic Style by Greg Loades

Mr. Loades, I guess I don’t like prairie perennials all that much, or at least, I find it hard to get excited about ornamental grasses. But I appreciate your emphasis on working with a gardener’s whims in accumulating plants, and your challenge to extend the season of interest for a garden with late bloomers and interesting foliage.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

I remember clearly reading this beside the pool the summer after Uganda, the summer we rented a pool house, back in 2009. I was 23, and couldn’t cook very well, although most of what I knew I’d picked up cooking seasonally (by force) in the Rwenzori Mountains the year before. At the time I was interested, but not especially motivated: adult life was already bewildering enough without adding in any additional strictures. Now it’s interesting to see how much I’ve learned and grown and changed in the interim, and to find myself with the margins to keep pushing more into Kingsolver’s direction. (And, bonus, we are now in the same growing zone!)

Takeaway Passage: “When we traded homemaking for careers, we were implicitly promised economic independence and worldly influence. But a devil of a bargain it has turned out to be in terms of daily life. We gave up the aroma of warm bread rising, the measured pace of nurturing routines, the creative task of molding our families’ tastes and zest for life; we received in exchange the minivan and the Lunchable.”

The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry by Wendell Berry

I finally made it through this behemoth, narrated yet again by the lovely Nick Offerman. There was some overlap with the collection of Berry’s essays I listened to earlier in the pandemic, The Unsettling of America. I’m still not convinced audiobook is the way to go on these — I had to stop periodically because I’d realize I wasn’t retaining anything and try again weeks or months later, and these are definitely meaty ideas that would benefit from being marked up so I could wrestle with them and remember them better later.

The collection’s essays, in seeking to distill Berry’s ideas and writings across five decades, tackle local food economies; our relation to place; the human responsibility to care, both for our landscape and each other; and critique technology. Berry, as ever, resists clear conservative/liberal definitions and challenges the reader. This would be an excellent introduction to Berry and such fun for a reading group or book club to work through.

The Bride Test by Helen Hoang

Synopsis: Vietnamese-American Khải Diep’s mom, refusing to accept that her son is successful, dutiful but a loner (who’s ever heard of autism in Vietnam?), takes matters into her own hands when she brings home Esme Tran. Esme, raised in desperate poverty in Vietnam, has her own reasons for accepting an offer to spend a summer in the US trying to romance an eligible — if resistant — bachelor. But what lessons do Khải and Esme need to learn about themselves before they’re ready to love another?

The same is true for romcom books as for romcom movies, I guess — while I claim to like the genre, I rarely find one that actually satisfies me. This one was raunchier than I’d hoped. I really, really don’t need a play-by-play of the male love interest’s arousal at any given moment. (I find Modern Mrs. Darcy’s distinction between open- and closed-door romance helpful; I’m closed-door all the way.) I was interested in the conversations about culture, poverty, privilege, and the agency of women, though, and enjoyed the relationship between Khải and his brother, Quan, who accepted how Khải was different while challenging his little brother when he needed it.

Takeaway Passage: “My heart works in a different way, but it’s yours. You’re my one.”

March Reviews

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Synopsis: Like every good novel heroine, Eleanor Oliphant has life figured out. Her life just happens to look different than those of other heroines: As she puts a traumatic childhood behind her, she manages a functional work life and crippling loneliness with structure, frankness, and a weekend bottle of vodka. That is, until she sees a singer perform and falls for him hard. Can she overhaul her life to make it more normal, more appealing? And what about if her past insists on intruding?

I liked but didn’t love this. I liked Eleanor, and many of the characters who gradually populated her lonely life. I laughed aloud at points and cheered for Eleanor. But the ending included what felt like a superfluous bit of showmanship in a plot twist — I think a quieter ending would have suited me better.

Takeaway Passage: “There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar. A strong gust of wind could dislodge me completely, and I’d lift off and blow away, like one of those seeds in a dandelion clock.”

Confessions of an Organized Homemaker: The Secrets of Uncluttering Your Home and Taking Control of Your Life by Deniece Schofield

Another recommendation from Real Learning Revisiting — surprisingly engaging prose and weirdly nostalgic, as the author, revising her book for the 1990s, is basically chronicling the minutiae of my suburban childhood. A shocking amount of the content was outdated, things have changed so in one generation (!), but it did get me to start slowly reorganizing my cabinets and basement, making order out of chaos in this weird, still season as I waited for spring.

The Exiles by Christine Baker Kline

Synopsis: Follow Evangeline, an unworldly new governess whose missteps lead her to prison and from there to a sentence of transport to the colonies. She, and the women she meets along the way, will form a chorus that speaks of the injustices of colonial life in Tasmania.

I hated this! So much! And yet I listened to it all! I was excited to read a book set in colonial Tasmania, but the book was unremittingly and sometimes gleefully grim and while I get that Kline set out to show the harsh realities of prison transport and the powerlessness of women in the early 1800s, it was just a lot to deal with, and not worth it. Also — and, ok, I’m not that good at placing accents — I felt like some of the reader’s here were Not Good.

Mandy by Julie Andrews Edwards (yes, that Julie Andrews)

Synopsis: Mandy lived in the orphanage all her life, but suddenly new vistas open up when she discovers a forgotten cottage just beyond the orphanage grounds. Soon she’s sneaking every spare moment to make the little cottage her own, but at what cost?

I remember reading and loving this as a tween, but found it just better than meh as an adult. As a kid, I found stories of kids striking out on their own, and especially the mundane details of their housekeeping, fascinating. (Hey, look at me now!) But rereading it as an adult, I was struck by how wobbly Edwards is in walking the very delicate psychological territory of an (obviously traumatized) orphan presented with a new home. (If you want to know what I’m talking about, think about how carefully Gertrude Chandler Warner skirts around the deaths of the Aldens’ parents in Boxcar Children. The parents have to die so the kids can have this adventures, but also the kids can’t be at all broken by the experience or the book won’t be a fun adventure!) Edwards keeps tiptoeing into Mandy’s psyche when I think it would be better to just gloss over that reality or abandon the project entirely. Still, I was reading it, a chapter or so a week, to Scout, and she LOVED it, so I guess that’s the point. Just be a kid, and think about how fun it would be to grow your own garden and decorate your own little cottage. (If only your parents would just kick it so you could go to the orphanage!!)

St Patrick’s Summer: An Adventure Catechism by Marigold Hunt

Synopsis: Cecilia and Michael are just a couple of kids in the British countryside, wiling away their days until they can make their First Communion when HOLY MOLY St. Patrick himself starts appearing sporadically to elucidate theology and church history.

This was so good, you guys. I know I made fun of it in the synopsis, but seriously, it has glimmers of a more focused, more Catholic and and more rigorous Narnia. We have been doing a very inane video-based First Reconciliation and First Communion prep the church requires, and while I think Pip learns something there and certainly enjoys the cartoon gerbil (!), I looked forward to this book to come along behind and do the heavy lifting. There’s time travel and apparitions amongst the theologizing, and concepts are broken down with helpful analogies. My kids and I particularly connected with references to the persecutions under Queen Elizabeth because of our time in York in 2019, especially at the Bar Convent Heritage Centre. A couple caveats: St Patrick’s Summer is firmly pre-Vatican II so you may have to explain some differences in the Mass to children unfamiliar with the Latin Mass, and it’s also not even a little bit ecumenical, so while there are explanations and beautiful passages that I think would still work well in a high church Anglican family read aloud, some of it is going to be a bit uncomfortable.

The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett

Synopsis: Stella and Desirée Vignes are identical twins, inseparable and firmly ensconced in 1960s small town Mallard, Louisiana where fair skin and “white” features are everything, even if you are, technically speaking, still classified as “colored.” Then they light out together for New Orleans, and it’s not long before they prove not so inseparable after all. The girls’ lives diverge as Stella disappears, bent on passing as white; Desirée returns to Mallard fleeing an abusive marriage — with a very dark daughter in tow.

I wanted to love this more than I did, as it came highly recommended. The beginning was compelling — as an audiobook, the variations of tone and accent are stupendous — but something about the pacing felt off. We abruptly veered from Desirée’s story and by the time we looped back to her head (only a few days later in my reading!), I’d lost the thread of who she was, having seen her from so many other perspectives. I wanted more on the men in the novel, especially Early. And while I get that the book was about all kinds of loneliness, alienation, and not belonging, I thought Bennett cast her net a bit wide and drew some false equivalences that clouded what she was trying to say. Beautiful prose and lovely characters, though, prickly and broken and loving.

Takeaway Passage: “When you married someone, you promised to love every person he would be. He promised to love every person she had been. And here they were, still trying, even though the past and the future were both mysteries.”

Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City by Eric Toensmeier

A book out of Holyoke, where I cut my teeth in librarianship! It was so cozy to read about references to all the landscapes that hosted my grad school years, and it made me wish the book had come out while I was still working in Holyoke, as it would have helped me to understand the city better. I’m skeptical of the low-effort claims of permaculture — it’s cool they don’t have to weed, but they’re also out hand-pollinating some of their trees, so I suspect it’s at the very least a wash. Still, much more approachable than my other recent library checkout, The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach, which will forever live in my memory as “the book about peeing on plants,” but most of which I didn’t understand. (I’m not reviewing that one as I only spent about two hours skimming it and refusing to try to understand its weird charts.)

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Synopsis: Vida Winter is the world’s most famous author, a cross between Charles Dickens and J.K. Rowling. But here’s the thing: she famously never tells the truth about herself interviews. That is, until she summons reclusive bookseller Margaret Lea to her spooky manor, inviting Margaret to write Winter’s biography. But is the fantastic story Margaret is hearing real? And if so, what is she supposed to do with Vida Winter’s story?

People I know who’ve read this adore it and prefer it very much to Once Upon a River, so I was surprised at how much I disliked it! But maybe the explanation is in that eternal question from I Capture the Castle — “Which would be better – Jane with a touch of Charlotte, or Charlotte with a touch of Jane?” For me, the answer is obvious and unequivocal: Jane all the way, and down with the Brontës. And this, dear reader, is a Brontë book. Still lovely prose and a mystery that kept me reading even as it exasperated me, though.

Takeaway Passage: “People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in the ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic.”

The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom

Synopsis:

This is a book I was probably supposed to read between the ages of 15 and 21 but somehow didn’t. And it was worth the wait! For a lifelong Christian, I feel like I have a pretty low tolerance for earnest Christianese in books (…and conversation), but Corrie never made me roll my eyes with her gentle faith and her family’s. The story was staggering (I didn’t know it), especially, and unfairly, in the context of a nice, dumpy late middle-age spinster. (Can anyone else think of another conventionally unattractive heroine in the same vein?) Just a truly uplifting read and a very good Holy Week pick.

Takeaway Passage: “Mama’s love had always been the kind that acted itself out with soup pot and sewing basket. But now that these things were taken away, the love seemed as whole as before. She sat in her chair at the window and loved us. She loved the people she saw in the street—and beyond: her love took in the city, the land of Holland, the world. And so I learned that love is larger than the walls which shut it in.”

Acts of Hope

The other day I was kneeling on our curb endlessly digging holes for a bunch of bulbs a friend had given me. They were bulbs she’d bought me to commemorate the loss of our little one, and they were bulbs instead of a bouquet because she couldn’t just casually run into the grocery store for flowers what with coronavirus. I know you don’t need me telling you this, but — what a year.

So even more than usual when it comes to planting bulbs, planting these particular bulbs felt like an act of hope. Who knows what my life and the world will look like when they finally open their bright faces on the world this spring? Maybe our guy will be in office, maybe not. (Maybe we don’t have a guy.) Maybe there’ll be a vaccine, or maybe we’ll still be waiting. Maybe I’ll be out digging in the garden then, or maybe I’ll be laid up inside with a new pregnancy, not a replacement for the baby we lost this year but a new adventure all his or her own. Maybe not.

It made me think about the other small acts of hope we are choosing right now. Ordering Christmas cards felt like another one this year for me — I always order ridiculously early, and who knows now what might change to make my message hopelessly out of date? But just like I know that whatever happens in the coming months, flowers won’t go amiss, I can be pretty sure that our people will still like getting a reminder of our love for them in the mail. (Provided we still have the mail. We’ll still have the mail, right?)

Maybe you’re hacking away at your own little act of hope right now. You’re growing that baby for the uncertain world she will face. You’re starting the next lesson in math with your kid even though concentration seems impossible or irrelevant in light of the headlines. You’re training for a marathon that may not happen this year. You’re doing the things you’ve always done because they’re the right things to do, and if your stance is a little grimmer, your confidence a little shakier, who cares — the important thing is you’re still doing them.

Frugal Accomplishments from the Month of April

Schoolwork in pajamas. We NEVER do schoolwork in pajamas, but I guess this is our Pandemic Normal.
  • I mean we are all saving from the things that were canceled that we wish weren’t, among them for me the Motherwell Charlotte Mason retreat. But let’s not get too bleak and move on to the things I’ve intentionally accomplished.
  • I used Gap rewards to buy new pajamas for the kids, since that’s pretty much all they’re wearing during quarantine, a maternity shirt for a newly pregnant friend, and a dress for myself, as a treat since I was supposed to currently be in maternity clothes myself. The total came to $11. I am really missing thrifting and this was a pleasant approximation.
  • From scraps and bits I’ve made dandelion green pesto, candied violets, chicken stock, meatballs with bacon (from an unsuccessful roasted uncut bacon venture) and bread crumbs (from frozen ends of sandwich bread and sourdough). Most of these have also been free entertainment/education for the kids, too, as they’ve helped me.
  • I’m still enjoying the bounty I lugged home from a local pharmacy’s going out of business sale just before the pandemic broke: greeting cards, Easter basket craft kits, batteries and vitamins were among my biggest wins at 75% off.
  • As the warm weather approaches, I’m sorting out castoff clothes for friends and pulling from the basement things I’ve saved in future sizes, and we will swap with porch drop offs, no contact required. As a bonus, we decided that both Pip and Scout can still wear last year’s sandals.
  • On a walk around campus we found a bunch of tulips beheaded by a severe thunderstorm the night before. The girls and I gathered them up and distributed around the neighborhood in jam jars.
And then I washed the grit from them in the salad spinner.
  • In clearing grass from around my raspberry plants, I discovered new volunteers from the main plants, and in digging, realized they were a sort of sucker situation. I tried to carefully separate them from the main plant with plenty of root, and if they make it, I have three new raspberry plants. I also learned how to use a similar method to score free blackberries from roadside clippings, so I’ll try that, as I killed all my blackberries from last summer.
  • I signed up for the local college’s seed library. Next month I’ll pick up hollyhock seeds and Brussels sprouts seeds, and in exchange I’ll leave behind Mexican sunflower seeds. I also dug up and left out for neighbors day lilies, which continue to be the bane of my gardening existence.
  • I bordered new garden beds with rocks from a vacant lot in the neighborhood and bricks that I keep excavating from the site of our old shed.
  • We had switched Roo to a floor mattress at the beginning of quarantine when we found her sneaking out of her crib, but it wasn’t a permanent solution because mattresses will mold on a bare floor. So I looked into a sort of slatted platform like we have for Scout’s floor bed but a crib-sized one was as expensive as a toddler bed — and a twin mattress. So we just bit the bullet and ordered the twin mattress she’d eventually need anyway, used the old bed frame from the basement and figured out a way to fit three beds into their postage stamp of a bedroom.
Their room is basically impossible to photograph because it’s so tiny.

Of Soils and Souls

When I was a kid, my dad had this book rattling around in his powder blue Honda Civic hatchback. It was a book of soil samples meant, I think to help him identify the varieties of soil he encountered in the rural Florida panhandle in the course of his work. All I knew was the beauty of the different varieties: yellowish sand, rich brown, iron-tinged red clay.

Fast forward to my own garden. Read More »

Commonplace Book, 50

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

We celebrated Pippin’s feast day with the Feast of St Peregrine this week. He chose breaded fish, barbecue chips, cherry tomatoes, homemade ciabatta and cinnamon rolls he helped me make. He was over the moon. Kids are so easy sometimes.

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A Literary Love of Flowers

photo via

So, I think one of the perks, if not one of the outright goals, of educating little kids yourself at home is that you get to choose what to stuff into their little brains. Maybe that sounds nefarious, but aren’t the early years mostly just about learning how to learn, and learning to love learning? That’s why I used a saint-based curriculum this year for Police Preschool and it’s why as the school year winds down we are focusing on nature and birds and most of all, flowers.

Because maybe someday Pippin will be a police officer and Scout will be something totally depressing, like a dentist, but they’ll keep these memories of the difference between a dandelion and a daffodil and the way robins dance beside the turned-up garden soil and how grape hyacinth smells like Concord grapes (and maybe a fact or two about St Thérèse, too).

And on our quest, there are plenty of books to light this love of flowers.

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Commonplace Book, 49

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

In the garden, our arugula is getting started under an old window screen to keep out the [REDACTED] neighborhood cats who like to poop in the container garden. I’m counting down the days till our inherited peony blooms and the kids and I have put in marigolds, petunias, more peonies — and some gladiolus and dahlia bulbs that are almost certainly dead. (I got them last year for Mother’s Day but was too morning sick to get ’em in the ground.)

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