Celebrated Days

10405657_10106229416396525_3529221544828816157_nDear Readers, it seems like just yesterday I was writing about We Do! American Leaders Who Believe in Marriage Equality, and now look where we are! We’ve been celebrating not only the wonderful news about marriage equality over the past week with family and friends, but also the birth of our friends’ first baby (hi K and T and baby E!). Here’s an Emily Dickinson poem that reminds us to treasure, to celebrate, the present.

Emily Dickinson
Forever – is composed of Nows –

Forever – is composed of Nows –
‘Tis not a different time –
Except for Infiniteness –
And Latitude of Home –

From this – experienced Here –
Remove the Dates – to These –
Let Months dissolve in further Months –
And Years – exhale in Years –

Without Debate – or Pause –
Or Celebrated Days –
No different Our Years would be
From Anno Dominies –

Recommended Reading: The Shepherd’s Life, by James Rebanks

Gorgeous cover; the photograph was taken by the author. And this book has some of the best endpapers I've ever seen.

Gorgeous cover; the photograph was taken by the author. And this book has some of the best endpapers I’ve ever seen.

When Helen MacDonald says a book is “bloody marvelous,” you can bet whatever you like that I will read that book, and you will come out a winner.

And so I read James Rebanks’s The Shepherd’s Life*, an account of current shepherding practices in England’s Lake District, a landscape which is perhaps familiar to you from the poetry of Wordsworth or Coleridge. If that’s the case, Mr. Rebanks, the shepherd whose Twitter account with its gorgeous photos has made his farm famous, has a bone to pick with your teachers:

My grandfather was, quite simply, one of the great forgotten silent majority of people who live, work, love, and die without leaving much written trace that they were ever here. He was, and we his descendants remain, essentially nobodies as far as anyone else is concerned. But that’s the point. Landscapes like ours were created by and survive through the efforts of nobodies. That’s why I was so shocked to be given such a dead, rich, white man’s version of its history at school. This is a landscape of modest hardworking people. The real history of our landscape should be a history of nobodies. (19)

Angered by the contempt shown his parents’ and grandparents’ occupation in school—he is fervent about his secondary education’s uselessness—Mr. Rebanks only later continued his formal education (at Oxford, no less; clearly his teachers missed an opportunity to reach a bright student). But by the time he reached his twenties he’d been educated in farm life for more than a decade. His family farm raises sheep. “We are a tiny part,” he writes, “of an ancient farming system and way of life that has somehow survived in these mountains because of their historic poverty, relative isolation, and because it was protected from change by the early conservation movement” (23).

The Shepherd’s Life is split into four parts that correspond with the seasons; each part is composed of short sections on shepherding practices, geography, Mr. Rebanks’s grandfather’s life, and Mr. Rebanks’s own life’s trajectory, all of which are sometimes intertwined. The sections that deal heavily with shepherding practices are the most successful and interesting in the book.

For example, Mr. Rebanks shows in vivid detail what it’s like to herd sheep in craggy fells, how important a good sheep dog is (they aren’t pets, though very deeply valued), and just how brutal the long days of lambing season are. In his world, “things are driven by the seasons and necessity, not by our will” (32).

In these pages, Mr. Rebanks makes the passionate and persuasive case that traditional farming is a way of life that is worthy of respect, and worth preserving. However, while there is a great deal of material in the book to help readers appreciate the very hard work that he and his family do (and that this work is not particularly remunerative; many farmers have second or third jobs to make ends meet), I didn’t feel there were enough concrete prescriptions for how to go about supporting it in practice.

The Shepherd’s Life is a book for those who want to immerse themselves in another kind of life, one that we might think has already vanished or that is so grindingly hard that people must want to escape it. To the contrary; Mr. Rebanks rails against what he perceives to be the degradations of the modern world, which doesn’t leave people much choice about how they live and work (which might sound odd coming from a shepherd whose family has worked the land for generations, but, given Mr. Rebanks’s biography, makes sense). During a summer in London, he thinks, “it’s like the gods are showing me how tough everyone else’s lives are and what I have left behind. I understand for the first time why people want to escape to places like where I live. I understand what national parks are for, so that people whose lives are always like this can escape and feel the wind in their hair and the sun on their faces” (179).

Despite this sentiment, he also chides the conservation movement, which, despite its acknowledged successes and ways of helping the Lake District, often at times seemed to value land more than people, to look down on traditional ways of raising food. He reminds us that “when local traditional farming systems disappear, communities become more and more reliant upon industrial commodity food products being transported long distances [. . .] They begin to lose the traditional skills that made those places habitable in the first place, making them vulnerable in a future that may not be the same as the present. No one who works in this landscape romanticizes wilderness” (218).

My reservations about this book are eclipsed by its positive aspects, but I would note that the style, though excellent when it comes to description, was not wholly to my taste; there is a tendency toward repetition that is at times awkward, and the inconsistent tenses were a bit maddening, making some parts of the work sound like strung-together blog posts. And it is a book very much about men (fathers and sons, and grandfathers), though women (family members and other shepherds) do make appearances. I would have liked to see a fuller picture of the no doubt grueling work the author’s mother, wife, and grandmother put into running the farm. Particularly troubling here are two or three passages in the middle of the book that seem to belittle the author’s grandmother’s concerns and experiences.

These reservations aside, The Shepherd’s Life is a fascinating book, and well worth reading. Recommended.

If you’re looking for more on sheep farming, you might look at Evie Wyld’s novel All the Birds, Singing, or, for a very different take, Sir Thomas More’s Utopia. For a perspective on modernity that I suspect Mr. Rebanks would find congenial, and because there’s no opportunity I won’t take to recommend it, you might consider picking up The Lord of the Rings.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

Recommended Reading: Music for Wartime, by Rebecca Makkai

photo (54)Last year I read and loved Rebecca Makkai’s novel The Hundred-year House (Ms. Makkai was kind enough to agree to an interview, too), and so I was delighted to read that a collection of her short stories would appear this summer.

Music for Wartime is that collection, and it’s excellent. In well over a dozen stories spanning more than a decade of her writing career, Ms. Makkai traverses a wide landscape of emotion, space, and time, drawing from her family’s history (some of the strongest pieces in the collection are very short family legends) and her own power of invention.

In one story, an elephant dies mid-act in a small town during the 1940s, ushering in some very strange weather and serious questions for the local pastor. In another, a reality-TV producer steers contestants into producing perfect soundbites—and maybe toward falling in love. In “Painted Ocean, Painted Ship,” a professor accidentally shoots an albatross, and the hefty fine is just the beginning of her bad luck.

Often funny, often sad, and always graceful, these stories are linked by themes of art and war, or at least violence, as you might suspect from the title. You’ll find painters, sculptors, violinists, circus performers, and even Bach within these pages. It’s a tribute to Ms. Makkai’s virtuosity that it’s very difficult, often impossible, to tell which stories are earlier efforts and which are more recent. I was only disappointed when I turned the last page.

Boston Readers: You just missed Rebecca Makkai at Newtonville Books and Harvard Bookstore—sorry about that—but if you’re trekking up to Vermont this summer, you can hear her read in Burlington at Phoenix Books on July 28th at 7p.m.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

“All of us dazzling in the brilliant slanting light”: Barbara Crooker’s “Strewn”

Not exactly right, but you get the idea.

Not exactly right, but you get the idea.

Last week, my uncle, who lives in Maine, came for a visit, which was excellent in all respects except that it was too short. And it just so happened that last week’s American Life in Poetry column, curated by Ted Kooser (which I highly recommend as a way to get into poetry–the poems are about the experiences of everyday life, and are always accessible) featured a poem by Barbara Crooker about the Maine coast.

“Strewn” is beautifully detailed. I love the list of broken shells that the speaker describes, and the idea of the sunlight on the beach like “a rinse / of lemon on a cold plate.” But it’s the turn at the end of the poem that brings the other people on the beach—and by extension the reader—into the speaker’s orbit that still resonates for me days after reading the poem.

Recommended Reading: Stir, by Jessica Fechtor

IMG_3839One of the pleasures of reading, the truism goes, is the pleasure of recognition. We see in characters or settings or allusions or experiences something  we know, which opens up into a whole host of secondary associations. And this is in addition to the delights of reading, in the first place, the text on the page, which the author has written without knowing just what kinds of associations it will call up in readers.

This brings me to Jessica Fechtor’s moving memoir, Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home*, which is out today, and which was so peppered with moments of recognition for me that I kept nodding in appreciation (more on this in a little while).

When she was twenty-eight, Ms. Fechtor’s calm, happy life veered quite suddenly off course. On a run one morning, an aneurysm in her brain burst, and suddenly the Harvard graduate student found herself close to death. Over the next few months, she endured multiple surgeries and infections (which left her with a facial deformity), lost the sight in one eye, and found she couldn’t taste anymore. Her plans to start a family with her husband were put on hold, as was her dissertation.

This is one of the best narratives of illness (and recovery) that I’ve ever read, in part because Ms. Fechtor gives readers not just the story of her illness, but of her life before it; a bit about her childhood, more about her time in college, and most of all about the charming love story she shares with Eli, her husband. Her family and friends make this book come alive, their support for Ms. Fechtor a testament not only to their loyalty and steadfastness, but to the love she inspires in them.

As a narrator, she’s a careful, unflinching examiner of both joy and pain, and her own thinking:

I was furious with myself […] for ever thinking that health was something I could count on. I’d always had excellent luck and my genes were enviable. No broken bones, maybe one cold a year, great-grandmothers and great-great aunts who lived into their nineties. I took care of myself. I ate oatmeal and kale. I flossed. I followed the rules that were supposed to keep me safe.

Don’t get me wrong–I’d imagined illness. Critical, devastating, out-of-nowhere illness. I was right there in the imagined hospital rooms of my worst nightmares, alongside Eli or a parent or a friend. Only I was never the one in bed. I was the big-hearted helper, the devoted cheerleader. I brought the cookies. (148)

When it turns out that she’s the patient in the bed, it was eating and cooking that helped Ms. Fechtor pave a way forward from the terrifying experience. Food and illness are always linked, of course; food helps us get well, or signals that we’re well, or tells someone we wish them well (who hasn’t delivered a casserole?). In Stir, Ms. Fechtor shares more than twenty-five recipes that have been meaningful to her, from a simple tomato soup, to her mother-in-law’s cholent and kugel, to pan-roasted salmon and baked apricots with cardamom pistachios. I loved the recipe-writing here: there’s enough backstory to give a sense of connection to the recipe’s origins, and enough detail to be precise and helpful, but they’re never overwrought.

And you know the recipes are going to be good, because Ms. Fechtor is the force behind the blog Sweet Amandine, which she started during her recovery as a distraction from all the trappings of illness (as she points out, “Being sick is like walking around with a microscope strapped to your face at all times with your own body squished beneath the slide” [187].). It’s a gorgeous blog (this is coming from someone who used to be a food blogger), and I highly recommend it, unless you’re hungry and lacking the prospect of a good meal in the near future.

The recipes are part of the recognition I was talking about at the beginning of this review; there’s a cookie recipe from the Hi-Rise Bread Company in Cambridge (one town over from where I live), a recipe for a gorgeous golden-clear chicken broth that reminds me of the matzoh ball soup my best friend’s mother makes (Hi, Mrs. Klein!), and—wait for it—Corbo’s cassata cake.

Cleveland readers know what I’m talking about: an unbelievably decadent white cake with layers of custard, strawberries, and whipped cream. It’s a cake that has bittersweet associations for me, but I’d still never turn down a slice.

The cake makes an appearance in the book because Ms. Fechtor grew up in Cleveland; I did too, as you’ve probably gathered. And our graduate student years overlapped in adjacent towns, so all the Boston landmarks, culinary and otherwise, resonated with me, as did quite a few other details. And her meditations on what it’s like to be sick struck a nerve for me as well.

I loved Stir for all those pings of recognition, for the recipes, for Ms. Fechtor’s charming, serious, and thoughtful voice. And I’m grateful to have read it because she articulated something I’ve wanted and failed to say for years. Predictably, she started hearing “everything happens for a reason” from well-meaning people trying to offer solace. But, she writes,

I don’t see it that way at all. To me, only the first part is clear: Everything happens. Then other things happen, and other things, still. Out of each of these moments, we make something. Any number of somethings, in fact.

What comes of our own actions becomes the “reason.” It is no predestined thing. We may arrive where we are by way of a specific path—we can take just one at a time—but it’s never the only one that could have led to our destination. Nor does a single event, even a string of them, point decisively to a single landing spot. There are infinite possible versions of our lives. Meaning is not what happens, but what we do with what happens when it does. (106)

Stir is a wonderful book, one that I highly recommend. One day, almost certainly, we’ll all find ourselves as the patient in the bed, or the one bringing the cookies. This book will help either way.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

“Then he unlocked the back door / and stepped out into the garden”: Paula Meehan’s “My Father Perceived as a Vision of St Francis”

Photo courtesy Breno Machado via Unsplash

Photo courtesy Breno Machado via Unsplash

A few weeks ago, I was reading about contemporary Irish poetry (living life in the fast lane, as always), and I learned a little bit about Paula Meehan, named the Ireland Professor of Poetry in 2013. The Irish Times had a feature about her this winter, in which Ciaran Carty wrote,

“It’s more than 40 years, and nine books, since Meehan emerged from childhood in the inner city Dublin tenements to give voice to the disenfranchised everywhere, less in anger than with compassion and an intuitive understanding that, through verse, imbued their lives and memories with mythic dignity.”

Sounds pretty good to me.

Professor Meehan’s poems are a little tricky to find–she doesn’t have an entry at The Poetry Foundation, which is my go-to poetry site, but you can read “Ashes” at Poets.org. The poem that really caught my eye was this one: “My Father Perceived as a Vision of St Francis,” over at The Poetry Project, which is a site devoted to Irish poetry. It’s a lovely poem, anchored in everyday detail, but transcendent all the same.

Off the Reading Path: The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins

The title sounds promising: The Library at Mount Char*. I’m bookish; naturally I love libraries. This book should be right about my alley. Right?photo (50)

Well, no—but somehow Scott Hawkins’s debut was pretty fun reading.

The protagonist’s name is Carolyn, which is my name. It’s not a particularly unusual name—I’ve met a half dozen other Carolyns in the last thirty years—but it’s not Jessica or Emma or Katie, names I run across in books pretty frequently, nor is it a strange enough name that authors often choose it to set their characters apart. What I’m trying to say is that it is really weird to keep reading your own name when not accustomed to doing so, especially when the book’s first sentence is: “Carolyn, blood-drenched and barefoot, walked alone down the two-lane stretch of blacktop that the Americans called Highway 78.”

See? Oh, and don’t worry: it gets worse for Carolyn. Much worse.

The Library at Mount Char is a book that’s way, way out of my reading comfort zone (it might be in Rory’s, for those of you, like me, who love being vicariously scared through Fourth Street Review): it’s very violent, and the genre is a cross between horror and contemporary urban fantasy, with quite a bit of Jacobean revenge tragedy thrown in. It’s a bit like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (which I loved), I suppose. Maybe that’s why I simply could not stop reading it.

It’s disturbing and horrifying, sure, but it takes place in a world that is not ours, which makes the violence almost theatrical. Think Titus Andronicus. It is also a deeply bizarre book; it went in directions I certainly didn’t anticipate, and while I had one major plot point figured out in the beginning of the novel, it’s a testament to Mr. Hawkins’s power of invention that the book managed to surprise me in almost every chapter.

By now you’re probably wondering what this deeply bizarre, inventive, and violent book is about. It’s tricky to give you a plot without giving too much away, but here goes: Carolyn is a very special kind of librarian, one of twelve people taken in as children by Father after all their parents died. Each of them is an expert in his or her own (strange) catalogue, but Father is master of them all, and his power is unmatchable: he can bend the rules of time and space, and to disobey him is to suffer.

When the book opens, Father is missing, and the library that contains his secrets and his power is up for grabs. Carolyn wants in—very badly.

The Library at Mount Char is not for the faint of heart, but if you want a wild ride, some serious thinking about family, nature versus nurture, cruelty, and love, you might want to give this book a try. I didn’t love all of it—quite a bit is downright unpleasant, and I have some issues with the ending, which I would love to talk about with somebody—but I kept turning pages in surprise.

What’s the last book that took you out of your reading comfort zone?

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review