Summer Reading

Note: Apparently I wrote this post last year but never published it. So here you go! It’s still mostly true.

I have very fond memories of the Busy Bee Summer Reading Program at the local public library when I was growing up. I especially enjoyed the requirement to read books in various categories that I might not read, left to my own devices—fantasy, science fiction, adventure, biography, travel, history—and I had no trouble reading enough books over a summer to fill out my card and then some. I would have been reading anyway, out on a blanket in the yard or up in the crotch of a tree or on the front-porch swing or in the musty reading room in the public library.

I devoured books, the way my mom had when she was young and would climb up on the garage roof to read, within easy reach of the ripe peaches. In fact, many of the books I enjoyed as a child were ones she had passed down to me—The Middle Moffat; Betsy and Tacy; Five Little Peppers and How They Grew; Little Women; Mary Poppins; The Little Colonel; The Boxcar Children—all with peach stains on the brittle and yellowing war-issue paper.

There is nothing like the feeling of escaping into a book on a lazy summer day, with all the time in the world and no real responsibilities. I still enjoy books, but it’s not the same as before. I generally don’t get “lost” in books the way I once did—with the possible exception of the Harry Potter books and a book called The Thirteenth Tale that my mother gave me, or the series about the girl with the dragon tattoo—and I seldom have the luxury of reading all day long like I did when I was young. Mostly those feelings are connected with a different time and place—before central air conditioning, before Internet, before life got complicated.

But I am a voracious and democratic reader, who always has way too many books going at once. I tend to read more nonfiction than fiction, but I still enjoy a good story about interesting characters. Here are the books I am currently reading:

  • Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D Seeley–This fascinating book is about how honeybee swarms choose a new home
  • Get Up Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite by Bruce E. Levine–I am hoping this book will at some point provide some inspiration and practical actions I can take, but so far it is just reminding me of all the problems that this country faces and how powerless I feel to solve them.
  • At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson–This book reminds me of Bryson’s earlier book, A Short History of Almost Everything
  • Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce by Cathy Thomas
  • Pain Free: A Revolutionary Method for Stopping Chronic Pain by Pete Egoscue with Roger Gittiner

Here are ones I completed most recently:

  • Hour Game by David Baldacci
  • How Did the Government Get in Your Backyard by Jeff Gillman and Eric Hererlig
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I don’t know why I can’t just read one book at a time until I’m finished and then start the next, except that I see interesting books on the new-book shelf at the library and know they won’t stay on that shelf forever, or friends recommend something, or I forgot to take the book I’m currently reading to work and then at lunch pick up whatever is lying around on the table in the break room. (Maybe the same reason I also have three knitting projects going at the moment: a baby hat for a friend at work, an afghan for a very belated wedding present for my younger son and his wife, and a shawl for myself from beautiful yarn that my son picked up for me in New Zealand.)


The Quest for the Perfect Hive (and Other Books I Read in 2011)

illustration of Neighbour's Improved Cottage Hive from  1878

Neighbour's Improved Cottage Hive (1878) is one of the hives discussed in The Quest for the Perfect Hive by Gene Kritsky

I just spent a wonderful weekend with my aunt, during which we spent much of our time talking about books we have read and books we want to read. We are both avid readers of “real books” and don’t believe the dire predictions that e-books will take over the market so that no more paper books will be published. I mean seriously, you can’t read your iPad in the bath tub. My aunt prefers extremely long, well-researched biographies and current history and politics with hundreds of footnotes, but she also read a couple novels in 2011, including several science fiction books written by Philip K Dick in the 1960s and 1970s that have been reissued by the Library of America.

After hearing about the books she has read, I decided to go back and see if I could remember what I read during 2011. My list is less focused than hers. Many of the books I read are ones that people gave me or that I ran across on the new book shelf at the library or picked up in the break room at work. Here are the books I was clever enough to have written down (otherwise, I’m not sure I would have remembered all these):


  1. The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig. (I listed to this one in the car on our trip to Kentucky to attend the Christmas Country Dance School in Berea.)
  2. Deception Point by Dan Brown (I picked this one up in the break room at work; a very enjoyable fast read, with lots of twists in the plot)
  3. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (This one I borrowed from a friend, who thought it was extremely funny. She had gotten it from her 94-year-old father. The story was about an old man who married a young woman and upset his children. Some of the story was quite funny but the overall situation perhaps reminded me a little too much of gold diggers we have known.)
  4. The Saturday Big Tent Wedding by Alexander McCall (One of the charming books about the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency. How can you go wrong?)
  5. Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver (I borrowed this one from my mom and really should return to her, but I loved it so much, I am tempted to hang on to it. Reading this book brought me close to the old feelings I used to get when I had the luxury of reading all day during the summers, up in a tree or on a blanket in the yard. I read Prodigal Summer basically in one setting. The novel “weaves together three stories of human love within a larger tapestry of lives inhabiting the forested mountains and struggling small farms of southern Appalachia.” I loved the characters, the setting, and the stories.)
  6. Hour Game by David Baldacci (I don’t usually read murder mysteries, but I picked this up in the break room at work and found myself hooked.)


  1. Ghosts of the Bluegrass by James McCormick and Macy Wyatt. (This was a birthday gift from mom, written by two of my professors from college.)
  2. Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. (I re-read this while at my mom’s.)
  3. I am America, and So Can You by Stephen Colbert. (We checked this CD out from the library and listened to it in short segments on the way to and from work each day. What a great way to take the stress out of a commute.)
  4. Dave Barry’s Book of Money Secrets: Like, Why is There a Giant Eyeball on the Dollar. (Another CD from the library that kept us laughing on our daily commutes to work.)
  5. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (I had read this one before but decided to read it again when my daughter-in-law brought it back after having borrowed it. Still seems odd to list it with the nonfiction.)
  6. Reading Between the Wines by Terry Theise (I bought this one as a possible gift for my brother last Christmas, but didn’t get it in time, so I kept it and read it myself. Hey Skip, if you want your Christmas present now, just let me know. It was a good read.)
  7. Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (This was a birthday gift from mom, which I had put off reading for a while, because I thought it would be depressing. When I finally got around to reading it, though, I found the book very inspiring, even though the author writes about difficult subjects; I’d like to read more about her and about the topics she addresses; much to think about and try to figure out.)
  8. Four Seasons in Rome (This was a Christmas gift from mom, who thought I would enjoy the memoir about raising twin boys while trying to write a novel in a foreign country, and she was right about that; I’ve especially enjoyed the beautiful in-depth reflections on a city that I just barely met on a four-day trip with my son one Thanksgiving.)
  9. Hard Times Guide to Retirement by Mark Miller (Basically, the advice here was if you are lucky enough to still have a job during hard times, hold on to it and wait as long as possible to retire. Not was I was looking for.)
  10. Why Do Bees Buzz? By Elizabeth Capaldi Evans and Carol A. Butler (This book provided straightforward answers to lots of questions about bees, including: Do bees bleed? How do bees’ wings work? Do bees ever get fooled by predators? Do bees sleep? What is piping behavior? Not much of a plot, but interesting nevertheless.)
  11. The Quest for the Perfect Hive: A History of Innovation in Bee Culture by Gene Kritsky (This book traces the evolution of hive design from ancient Egypt to the present and includes illustrations of some fascinating designs used by beekeepers before the invention of the Langstroth hive, which has been in use for the last century.)
  12. One Year to an Organized Life by Regina Leeds (It’s been almost a year since I read the next four books, and my life is still not organized, but I haven’t given up hope.)
  13. The Fast and Furious Five Step Organizing Solution by Susan C. Pinsky
  14. House Works: How to Live Clean, Green, and Organized at Home by Cynthia Townley Ewer
  15. The Office Clutter Cure: Get Organized, Get Results! By Don Aslett
  16. At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson (I love Bryson’s books. In this one, he sets out to “write a history of the world without leaving home.”
  17. Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce by Cathy Thomas
  18. Pain Free: A Revolutionary Method for Stopping Chronic Pain by Pete Egoscue with Roger Gittiner
  19. Wrong: Why Experts* Keep Failing Us–And How to Know When Not to Trust Them by David Freedman. (This one was more than a little depressing.)
  20. Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D Seeley (This fascinating book discussed the ways honeybees communicate and make group decisions, as when they are searching for a new hive.)
  21. Get Up Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite by Bruce E. Levine (This one left me feeling a bit unenergized and defeated.)
  22. How Did the Government Get in Your Backyard by Jeff Gillman and Eric Hererlig (I really enjoyed all the background information the authors provided on the science and the politics of many environmental issues I care about.)
  23. Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange and Menacing World of Antarctica by Nicholas Johnson (a fascinating book about contemporary life at McMurdo and South Pole, which my son let me borrow just before his most recent trip to Antarctica; apparently this is slated to be a TV series soon; too bad I don’t have a TV. I would totally watch this one.)
  24. The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith (to be truthful, I did not read all of this classic book on liberal philosophy.)
An illustration of a bee hive in a hollow log.

A horizontal hollow log hive (Butterworth 1892) from The Quest for the Perfect Hive

Children’s Books

  1. The Invisible String by Patricia Harst (a picture book that I bought for my grandchildren during my son’s most recent deployment, this time to Afghanistan)
  2. A Paper Hug by Stephanie Skolmoski (another picture book on deployment that I bought for my grandchildren before my son had to leave again to attend captain school)
  3. 39 Clues (I read this and several other books whose titles now escape me, while trying to decide which ones to bring along when we took the grandchildren to dance camp this past summer. I had forgotten how much I love to read children’s books. Those authors can’t afford to waste any time getting to the heart of a story, or the audience gets bored.)
  4. Fablehaven by Brandon Mull (This is the one we finally settled on, a book about grandparents who ran a sanctuary for mystical animals. While at dance camp with our grandchildren in July, we read a chapter or two aloud each night before bed.)
  5. Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie (we listened to this on CD while driving home from dance camp)
  6. The White Fox Chronicles by Gary Paulsen (a sci-fi book that my 11-year-old grandson wanted me to read, and I was very happy I did, not just for the insight into how he thinks, but it also happened to be a gripping story.)

At the moment I am about halfway through reading The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson and The Beekeeper’s Lament by Hannah Nordhaus. (I often have more than one book going at a time.)  I came home from my aunt’s with a 983-page novel called The Kindly Ones, originally written in French by Johnathan Littell and winner of two prestigious French literary awards. It is “the chilling fictional memoir of Dr. Maximilien Aue, a former Nazi officer who has reinvented himself, many years after the war, as a middle-class family man and factory owner in France.” My aunt  warned me that it is morally difficult reading but said it explained a lot of things that she often thinks about.

Organic Food: Safer, Friendlier, Better?

This is the title of Chapter 2 in a great little book we picked up from our local public library called How the Government Got in Your Backyard: Superweeds, Frankenfoods, Lawn Wars, and the (Nonpartisan) Truth About Environmental Policies. I told myself I was not going to get into politics in my blog, but truth is, I think about politics a lot and am fascinated by power struggles and wild differences of opinion. I also happen to subscribe to the belief that the personal is political, so there you go. After spending a week with my dad recently and wondering every minute how we could have ended up so far apart politically while at the same time holding such basic core values in common (e.g., independence, self-governance, fiscal responsibility, stewardship, and an abiding appreciation for “nature”), I especially appreciate this book for its head-on, scientific, nonpartisan approach to some of the biggest environmental issues we face.

The authors are Jeff Gillman, an associate professor in the Department of Horticultural Science at the University of Minnesota, and Eric Heberlig, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. They do an excellent job presenting the complexities surrounding key environmental issues; each chapter focuses on a single issue—organic food, pesticides, fertilizers, alternative energy, genetic engineering, plant patents, invasive plants, legal and illegal plants, local restrictions, global warming—all issues I am deeply interested in but do not know enough about. Each chapter includes essential scientific information about the issue, relevant governmental policies and policy options, ratings from left-wing and right-wing perspectives, plus the “bottom line.” The introductory sections also provide a clear overview of how science and political science interact, as the authors compare the contradictory roles of various players (politicians, scientists, lobbyists, the public), making it abundantly clear why it is so hard to get at the truth of these issues—not least because “politics is about making value judgments,” while “value judgments are outside the realm of science.” So policymakers are left having to decide what outcomes are desirable and at what cost, without the benefit of “hard science” to guide them, because science, which can be contested or modified with future study, does not offer The Truth, but often raises more questions. Add in the conflicting pressures from the public and the lobbyists, with their often narrowly defined self interests, and it is very difficult to know what is the right thing to do.

As I read the chapter on organic food, I found myself thinking in new ways about where I stand on the continuum between increased government regulations and letting producers do what they need to do to raise crops. Where the environment is concerned, I generally weigh in on the side of increased government regulations for the protection of people and the Earth, while my dad generally weighs in on the side of free market and entrepreneurs.  I generally distrust businesses that have profit as their primary motivation, while dad thinks bureaucrats put too many limits on business owners who need flexibility to respond to the market. We both mistrust large corporations, but I lean toward increased regulation to try to protect consumers, while he recommends lowering their taxes and getting the government off their backs so they could be more competitive in giving consumers what they want.

But I can see how the lines could get blurry. For example, I don’t want the city or the neighborhood association to tell me I can’t grow native perennials or vegetables in my front yard but must have a perfectly manicured and weed free (i.e., chemically treated) lawn, so in that instance I would be anti-regulation, I suppose.  As a gardener who tries to raise plants “as organically as possible” but who sometimes reaches for pesticides or fertilizers to solve particular problems, I can appreciate on a small scale how challenging it is to find a balance between philosophical ideals and practical applications. But I definitely want the label to tell me what is in that bottle of spray so I can make an informed decision before I use it. Even if the ingredients are labelled “natural” or “organic,” I prefer to know about any potential dangers they might pose to honeybees or other beneficial insects before I spray my grape vines. I also know that I am one of the lucky ones who can afford to pay a little more for organic and locally produced food, a luxury that many, many people do not have in today’s economy. Given all that, is it right to mandate numerous regulations that increase the overall cost of production and impose undue burdens on small producers, when we have no guarantee that organic methods are superior to conventional methods, or to restrict the ability of large producers to produce foods in the most cost-efficient ways possible?

The authors do a very good job of raising some of the questions that I generally avoid thinking about too deeply. For example, I happen to believe that growing organically is better for our health and better for our planet,  but is it then preferable to buy from a large-scale organic farm, even if they must use nonrenewable fossil fuels to ship their produce to my town, or is it better to buy from a small local farm, even if the farmer occasionally uses pesticides and fertilizers? If a local milk or meat producer avoids the use of hormones, treats her animals humanely, allows them plenty of time outside to graze, and does not put animal waste products or other questionable ingredients in their feed, but does occasionally treat them with antibiotics when they get sick, should the farm lose its credentialing as an organic producer? If a farmer returns from the weekly market with bushels of unsold turnips and lettuce and other produce, should he be allowed to feed it to his pigs at the end of the day, knowing it will go to waste before next Saturday’s market? Or should the state, in an attempt to protect people’s health, be allowed to define the unsold turnips as “garbage” and thus outlaw feeding it to animals that will be sold for meat? These are important but difficult questions that we all weigh in on every time we put food to mouth.

Where did the summer go?

You can tell it’s fall because what used to be a five-minute commute from home to campus now takes twenty to thirty minutes, since 31,000 University students descended on our fair city. These days if you arrive at the office past 7:45 a.m., you must park on the roof of the garage because all the spaces on the first four levels are taken. If you decide later to take a walk during your morning break, you must make your way through crowds of sorority pledges who stroll four abreast on the sidewalks, wearing their look-alike dresses and non-sensible shoes.  And you must dodge the students who careen along the sidewalks on their bicycles, as well as the slow-moving students who text while walking between classes. At lunch time, when you go to meet your friends at Shakespeare’s Pizza, expect to spend most of the hour standing in line waiting for veggie pizza slices to come out of the oven. On the plus side, most of the construction on the steam tunnel that runs underground between the power plant and the hospital has moved on past central campus, so the roads and sidewalks are no longer blocked off as hard-hat areas, and the dump trucks have stopped rumbling past our building.The campus landscape services have replaced the sod between the law school and the alumni building and are making plans for new perennial beds. The gospel choir could be heard singing a capella from the speakers circle the other day, and a man wearing a gorilla suit was playing accordion outside the library. Ah, fall!

Of course, there are other, more conventional signs of fall, as well, such as the yellowing leaves and hard green walnuts raining down on our driveway, the perennials gone to seed in the garden and the flashing goldfinches feasting among them, the bee hives filled with capped honey.  And lately when we sit down to our dinner of fresh local vegetables, we wonder what we will find to eat when winter comes. We are already mourning the absence of peaches and cantaloupes and new potatoes, the dwindling supply of green beans and corn on the cob, even as we enjoy vine-ripened tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini and start to look forward to crisp apples and pumpkin pie.

Some people might think I wasted my summer, because I did not go swimming or boating or camping or backpacking, and I bicycled very little. I also did not keep up with the gardens as I had hoped or spend near enough time outdoors or take a real vacation. Mostly I went to work in an office every day and then spent the too-short evenings doing nothing in particular. But this was still a very good summer. For the first time in  years I got caught up in the kind of summer reading I used to enjoy so much when I was a child, when I had all the time in the world and could read anything I wanted just for the fun of it, lying on a blanket in the back yard  in the sun or curled up in the green branches of a tree, carried away on adventures that took me far from my ordinary life. I also got reacquainted with my local public library, which is a lively place if there ever was one. Over the summer, I read everything I could get my hands on—from good old-fashioned novels with morally upstanding characters and unbelievably happy endings to contemporary action thrillers filled with sex and violence of the most depraved variety.  As though I were back in the Busy Bee Summer Reading Club, I read many different kinds of books: real-life adventure, mystery, action thriller, historical novel, romance, spiritual biography, war memoir, science, history. I read old favorites and recent best sellers. I enjoyed them all.

When I was not reading, I poked through family photos and old letters and reminisced about my grandparents. I started a heritage scrapbook, which felt exactly like playing paper dolls when I was a kid. Sitting on the floor for hours with piles of colorful paper, scissors, bits of ribbon, and glue brought back many happy memories. I also continued my yoga practice this summer, with sessions on campus two or three times a week. We watched a couple good movies at Ragtag, our local independent theater, including Winter’s Bones and Cyrus. We went to a few old-time square dances in a small town nearby; attended an Irish concert by our friends Helen Gubbins and Tim Langan; saw the Carolina Chocolate Drops at a street concert outside the Blue Note downtown; played a little piano and banjo; had friends over for dinner; went blueberry picking; and kept watch over a pair of wrens, who nested in the space above our front window, until the babies fledged. We went to the farmers market regularly: the large one on Saturday morning and the smaller ones on Monday and Thursday afternoons.

Earlier in the summer when the Missouri River was exceptionally high, we started a new tradition, which is sure to become a favorite in years to come: nearly every time we drive out of town to check on the bees, we stop at Coopers Landing on the way back to watch the river go by, enjoy a beer and some Thai food, listen to music, visit with friends, and watch the sun set over the water. Once when the river was  over the road and we couldn’t make it to the landing, we saw a hawk walking awkwardly along the side of the road stretching its wings, taking awkward little hops but not flying even when we drove up right next to it. At first we thought it had been injured and were trying to figure out how to call the raptor rehabilitation group at the University, until we heard a larger hawk screeching encouragement or warning from the tree above the road and realized this must be a juvenile hawk we were watching.

The high point of the summer was my younger son’s wedding, which took place at Stephens Lake on June 26 and brought friends and family from far away to celebrate. (More about this later.) The low point was when my older son deployed on July 19 for a year in Afghanistan. (More about this later, as well.)

Summer Reading List

  • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
  • Anthologist: A Novel by Nicholson Baker
  • Borderline by Anna Pigeon
  • Freckles by Gene Stratton Porter
  • Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter
  • Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larson
  • Kaboom by Matthew Gallagher
  • Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton-Porter
  • Kentuckians by Janice Holt Giles
  • La’s Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith
  • Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come by John Fox
  • Morality for Beautiful Girls (No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Book 3)
  • Tea Time for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith
  • The Double Comfort Safari Club by Alexander McCall Smith
  • Winter Study by Anna Pigeon
  • Wolf at Twilight: An Indian Elder’s Journal Through a Land of Ghosts and Shadows by Kent Nerburn
  • Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

I am currently reading Twilight at the World of Tomorrow: Genius, Madness, Murder, and the 1939 World’s Fair on the Brink of War by James Mauro.

We have promised ourselves a vacation in mid-October.

Garden Books

I like it when different parts of my life converge, even in small ways. Since spring finally arrived, I have, of course, been busy in the gardens and the beeyard, and I’ve let the house go. (If you are curious what I’ve been doing in the gardens, check out my other blog, What’s the Buzz.) But one cool and cloudy day I decided to pick up where I’d left off with my decluttering project, and I found to my delight that the next shelf of books contains mostly garden books. It was like reconnecting with old friends. Most of the books were published in the 1990s, but a few were published in the mid 1970s. These I remember having had when I first left home and was trying to grow my own vegetable gardens.

One year, not long after graduating from college, we rented a large garden plot—about  25 x 50 feet, as I recall—where I grew tomatoes, green beans, corn, cucumbers, watermelons, and squash, space-hungry plants I couldn’t grow at the apartment where we lived. That first garden must have been fairly successful, because about that time I also bought a pressure canner and other canning supplies. I vaguely remember feelings of pride as I looked at a pantry shelf filled with colorful jars of tomatoes, bread and butter pickles, and green beans.

I liked canning vegetables because it reminded me of my paternal grandmother, who lived in the foothills of Appalachia and who regularly put up hundreds of jars of green beans and tomatoes in the summertime. Even when she lived in town and ran a restaurant or worked at her husband’s grocery store, she would still put up vegetables, buying them fresh at the farmers market during the summer and canning them for the winter. Gardening makes me feel connected with something important, a whole way of living that could too easily be lost if we don’t pay attention.  My maternal grandfather was also an avid gardener, who taught economics during the school year and then had his summers off to garden. When I go back to my hometown these days and look at the parking lot that once held his house and gardens and fruit trees, not to mention my swing set and sand box, the space seems unbelievably small compared to the lush gardens I remember once occupied this land.

On this shelf of garden books, there is a noticeable absence of books published during the 1980s, the years when I was raising  young children and going to graduate school and teaching part-time. During those years, the best I could do was plant a few bulbs in front of the porch in the fall and then, after the tulips had bloomed and faded, sow cosmos or zinnia seeds in the same place, which would bloom until frost. We did rent a community garden space through the city parks department for a couple of years during that time, and my sons got to share my amazement at how such small seeds can grow into such large plants, and I got to tell them a few stories about their great grandparents, but the community plots did not have a ready source of water, the summers were often hot and dry, and the swings and slides at the nearby playground beckoned.

You could probably guess by the number of gardening books from the 1990s that we bought our house in 1989. Although it was not the small farm I dreamed of owning someday, I finally had a piece of land where I could grow something besides annuals and a few bulbs. Still, a traditional single-row vegetable garden was out of the question, as the back yard was wooded and the front yard was partly shaded by a Bradford pear and the neighbor’s huge sycamore tree. Furthermore, the soil was typical construction fill and heavy clay, with little topsoil. I decided to start by growing native perennials and herbs, especially those that do well in poor to average soil and don’t need constant pampering, as my children were still young.

The books collected from this time period include general gardening reference books that covered everything from designing your garden to planting and maintaining to solving common problems. Some of these reference books are arranged topically, some alphabetically, and some by seasons. There are several books focusing specifically on herbs; of these my favorite is The Country Diary Herbal by Sarah Hollis, which includes delicate watercolor illustrations that remind me of old botanical books and paintings.

Not having given up completely on my dream of someday owning a larger piece of property, I also have a book on solar gardening and one called Country Life: A Handbook for Realists and Dreamers by Paul Heiney, published by DK, which has numerous photos on home farming and includes sections on fencing, farm machinery, animal husbandry, orchards, harvesting, and processing foods. The shelf also holds several books on native landscaping. These books show how to use nature’s designs to plan your yard, and they are typically organized by growing conditions (e.g., the sunny garden, the dry sunny garden, the moist sunny garden, the shady garden) or by regions (e.g., Eastern woodland, alpine desert, California native garden) or by themes (e.g., Japanese stroll garden, bird and butterfly garden, scent garden). Some include charts that show what month each plant blooms; others include charts arranged by color of bloom. They almost always address ways to attract wildlife to the garden (meaning, apparently, birds and butterflies, not groundhogs and deer) and sometimes draw a connection between gardening and spirituality, as is most apparent in Cultivating Sacred Space: Gardening for the Soul by Elizabeth Murray.

But the books that really capture my imagination are literary reflections on gardening, two of which I rediscovered on my shelf. One is called Second Nature by Michael Pollan, which I had been meaning to reread, especially for what he has to say in his chapter “Weeds Are Us.” The other is An Island Garden, which is a reproduction of a book first published in 1894, illustrated with Impressionist paintings by Childe Hassam. The cloth binding is decorated with gold leaf in the Art Nouveau style that was common in the late nineteenth century, and the text brings back the joy and wonder I felt as a child wandering through my grandfather’s vegetable patch or picking flowers from his cutting beds or climbing up into the fruit trees to read. The author of this book, which I bought many years ago, is Celia Thaxter. Who knew I would eventually meet and marry a man named Thaxter? Perhaps someday we will make a trip to see her island garden ourselves.

Searching for Meaning

This little project I have given myself—to look through all the compartments I have set up over the years (the shelves, the drawers, the boxes, the bags, the baskets) in an effort to figure out what I value, what I would try to save in a fire, what I want to destroy before I die, what I would grieve if it were forever lost to me, what I want to pass on to my descendants—has shown me how easily I allow myself to be distracted in my search for meaning and purpose. I have always admired those who single-mindedly follow their passion, those who believe without doubt in their calling, those who willingly sacrifice things of value for an ideal, a belief, or end.

I have never been like that; I  never wanted to choose a single path, nor did I feel that I was specially “called” for anything, although I do recognize that I have some gifts, and I have at times felt guilty during certain Sunday school lessons about “hiding one’s talents beneath a bushel.”  Even when I try to focus on what is before me, I am continually amazed at how quickly thoughts and insights and observations are gone before I can put them into words and how the act of trying to capture them changes the experience itself. I find myself continually noticing things that I want to explore “later, when I have more time,” but then later, something else has caught my attention or I have forgotten what it was I meant to think about. Occasionally, I may pick up a theme again as in a complicated fugue, but many things have been lost to memory over the years.

I think I know what I will find on my third shelf: books about spirituality and the unseen aspects of life, books that explore the mystery of why we are here, books about lucid dreaming and the dreams of women, about Earth religions and Celtic mythology, faery tales, books about mindfulness, books about the goddesses in every woman and the gods in every man, books about feng shui, books that could send me to prison in repressive governments. And I do find those books I was expecting, but in addition, I find a beautifully illustrated book I had forgotten I owned, given to me by my brother and his wife, written by their friend and former pastor, Jan Richardson, the woman who performed the ceremony at my niece’s wedding.

The book is called In Wisdom’s Path, and I have been reading it with great pleasure this past week, every morning as I drink my tea, before I get ready to face the day. The title refers to the Wisdom of God, portrayed in Proverbs and in apocryphal books as a woman who danced with God at creation and dwelled with God from the beginning of time. I like that. She is depicted as a woman “who had an active hand in history, who cries out for justice, who bids us to feast at her table, who calls out to us to follow her path.” I want to go with her. Jan’s book consists of strikingly beautiful paper collages, brief personal essays, scriptures, and poems depicting her ongoing search for god and the spiritual pilgrimage she made after leaving her position as associate pastor of a large Methodist congregation in Orlando.

The book follows the Christian liturgical year, beginning with “The Cave of the Heart” (Advent), continuing through “Showings and Encounters” (Epiphany), “Art from the Dark” (Lent), and  “Walking Out of the Wound” (Easter). The last section is on “Ordinary Time.” The author wrote this book while serving as artist-in-residence at San Pedro Center for Art and Contemplation, where she lived in a small cabin in the woods near a lake. In this beautiful book, she describes her spiritual pilgrimage and her encounters with God “in some of her forms and in some of his guises.” I feel blessed after having glimpsed a little of what she saw along the way.

Susanne E. Berger

The second book on my shelf (alphabetically speaking) is a book of poems called These Rooms by Suzanne E. Berger. I have no idea where this book came from. I don’t remember reading it before, and I have no particular associations with it. It was published by Penmaen Press in 1979, and a note on the back cover says that the first letterpress edition went out of print in six months. Of course, that doesn’t tell me much. I know that a letterpress edition could have been a very small run, 25 copies even, just enough to give her family and closest friends a copy. The back  is filled with accolades from  the right people and places: Maxine Kumin, Linda Pastan, Boston Globe, Ms, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, who praise the author’s “lyric intensity and fresh vision,” her “vivid and intense” imagery, her “mesmerizing lucidity.”  I fear I must be missing something (perhaps I am not a poet after all), because most of the poems in this volume feel to me like tight-fisted secrets, although I am unable to say quite why.

After reading this book straight through quickly, I feel a vague sense of loss, as though I have just wakened from a dream of someone dying, but I don’t know who died or how they were related to me. (After reading Baca’s book, by contrast, I feel that I know exactly what he has lost and how he felt about it and what he did after.)  I don’t get that same sense of shared experience from Berger’s work,  but there were two poems that reached out and grabbed me. One called “Desert” seems to be about a miscarriage. It begins with the narrator standing at the window, touching her belly,  “as quiet as a desert, as smooth and flowerless” and ends with an image of  the narrator imagining “a small mouthful of Kyrie there singing on in the dark” and tracing “it was nothing, nothing on the mute-faced glass.”

The other is called “New Pig Keeper,” which describes “a dreamless pig, a throne of flesh….the balding queen of fat.”  Although I love the descriptions of the pig in all her physicality, I don’t quite understand the pig keeper. Something about appetites, I suppose, and controlling them or being devoured by them? One of the most powerful stanzas in the poem describes the pig’s “freckled mouth…a universe of buds and warts, slop-tasters each and all.”

A quick search on the Internet lets me know that this was probably Suzanne’s first book, so I should not be so harsh. There is a power in her words, even when I can’t be sure where it’s coming from.  She published another book, Legacies, in 1984, and then, one day in 1985, as she leaned over to pick up her toddler, she felt a tear deep within the flesh across her back, which left her unable to stand or walk or sit, much less canoe or ice skate, as she had done before. The injury ultimately affected her relationship with her child and her husband, and challenged her sense of self, as well, as she struggled for years to regain mobility and learn to live with constant pain. Out of this experience, she wrote, The Horizontal Woman: The Story of a Body in Exile. Having had just a taste of what it is like to become suddenly disabled when I broke my leg a couple years ago, I can easily understand how an injury can change the whole trajectory of your life. Now I want to read about how a promising young poet suddenly became the horizontal woman.


I have finished cataloguing the first three shelves of books. The first consists mostly of poetry books from the 1980s, several with inscriptions from the authors wishing me good luck with my writing. They make me want to read and write poetry again. I wonder how many other books these particular poets have written in the years since. Have they lived up to expectations? How many of these poets have since died or been forgotten? I wonder what it would be like if I had continued writing and publishing poetry after graduate school. Then I would have books with photos of myself as a young artist on the back covers and poems that revealed what I thought and felt twenty years ago, my whole life laid out for others to interpret.

Jimmy Santiago Baca

The first book on my shelf now (after alphabetizing and straightening) is a small volume of poetry by Jimmy Santiago Baca, Martin & Meditations on the South Valley, with an introduction by Denise Levertov, published in 1987 by New Directions Press. The cover, based on a black-and-white photo by Migel Gandert, shows a close-up of a man’s back with three large tattooes etched into his skin.

The central tattoo, which extends along the man’s spine from just below his shoulder blades to his waist, is of Jesus dressed in long robes, with a disc-shaped halo framing the back of his head; he is holding a cross, looking off to one side. A second Jesus—this one dark-skinned with full beard and long straight hair, wearing a crown of thorns pushed down low on his forehead—appears on the man’s left shoulder. A third tattoo, on the right shoulder, is covered by a gold sticker announcing this book as the 1988 winner of the American Book Award.

Two other tattoos, on the backs of this man’s arms, are somewhat difficult to make out. The one on his left arm shows what might be a long-haired worker heading down a path, wearing t-shirt and loose pants, with a handkerchief sticking out of his right back hip pocket, but I can’t tell whether the man is wearing a hat or a halo tipped to one side. The tattoo on the right arm shows a bare-breasted woman wearing tight leggings and high heels and carrying something like a knife. There is a wide strap across her shoulders, between her breasts, and a large circular something on her back (a shield, perhaps).

I don’t remember for sure, but I suspect that I acquired this book while in graduate school studying creative writing under Garrett Hongo. He was always after us to find our own voices, rediscover the places we had come from, listen to the language and the rhythms of our people, tell our own stories—as Baca has surely done in his book. Hongo, of Japanese-Hawaiian descent, could be abrasive within a department that at the time consisted mostly of white men deeply entrenched in the Western canon, but I appreciate the way he encouraged us to seek the myth within the reality of our day-to-day lives.

As I read the two long narrative poems in this book, I am struck by Baca’s powerful voice, his startling images, his syntax and language so different from my own, his moving portraits of the people from his barrio. Denise Levertov in her introduction to this volume calls his work a “Hero’s Tale.” And it is epic in scope. While a distant voice reminds me that what seems exotic to me may seem ordinary to the people living through it and points out that my own life has been filled with experiences worth transforming to poetry, the ungracious, peevish part of me wonders if I could have written more or better if I had been abandoned by my parents at a young age, had been placed in an orphanage, had struggled for survival and ended up on the streets, had taught myself to read and write while in prison.

I do a quick Google search and learn that Baca is two years younger than I and has written ten books since this one was published: seven books of poems, a memoir, a book of stories and essays, a play; and that he regularly teaches writing workshops to Chicano youth. And what have I been doing all those years?

Rare Books

Compared to my mother, who taught literature for forty years, and many of my friends and colleagues, who are avid readers and writers, my collection of books is rather paltry. It cannot even be called a proper collection, having neither theme nor organizing principle. Nor do the books on my shelves adequately  represent my reading life, as many of my favorite titles are missing, and some of the books I own I do not care to read.

I have lately begun choosing books mostly by their covers. I limit myself to the new acquisitions shelf at the public library, either nonfiction or fiction, and I choose books that feel right in my hands, books that have simple, well designed covers, and elegant typography; books of just the right size, with pages that fall open in a pleasing way without cracking the spine.

I usually read the blurbs on the back cover and the first paragraph of the book, but those tend to sway me less than the overall look and feel of a book. I have rejected books on interesting topics or by authors I enjoy when the type was too cramped or the inside margins too tight or when the book was too heavy to hold while reading in bed or in the bath.  But I have also discovered wonderful books this way that I might not have found otherwise, including an inspiring book called The Zookeeper’s Wife, about the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo who saved hundreds of people from the Nazis; an extraordinary novel called Let the Great World Spin, which opens with a breathtaking image of a tightrope walker stepping out onto a cable stretched between the World Trade Center towers; and an exhilarating book called Every Living Thing, which presents portraits of individual scientists in their obsessive quest to catalog life.

In my own quest to catalog life, I have decided to start a database of the books I own, and I am finding it surprisingly satisfying to pull each book off the shelf and open it up to locate the pertinent information. Some of these books I have not opened in many years; some of them exhale a musty breath that reminds me of my grandfather’s books that lined the back hallway of the house near the small college where he taught. Some books I remember well; others I have no memory of having read. A few have personalized autographs from the authors, encouraging me to continue with my writing. So far, I have only entered data on about half the books from a single shelf, mostly poetry books accumulated while I was in graduate school. I had not thought of my books as being in any particular order, certainly not by library school standards. What a surprise, then, to find that at least some of them are arranged chronologically, like the record collection in High Fidelity.

As I examine each book (front and back covers, title page, copyright page, CIP information, colophon), I recall many pleasant days spent in the stacks during library school when I studied rare books and bibliography, history of books and printing, and special collections. I especially loved going into the rare books room at the University, where I would sign in and then put on a pair of white gloves to keep the oils from my hands away from the pages, and the curator would bring out a single precious book at a time. In the quiet reading room, I would marvel at the hand-tooled leather or gold-leafed cloth cover, the deckled pages sometimes gilded with gold, the marbled endpapers, the hand-sewn bindings, the thick creamy watermarked paper, the decorated letters; I wondered how many hands had held this same book over the years. I would run my fingers lightly over the pages, like a blind woman reading Braille, and feel the impressions of each letter where it had been pressed into the damp paper.

One of the happiest times in my life was during an eight-week course in letterpress printing at the King Library Press at the University of Kentucky. I loved the weight of the composing stick in my hand and the soft click as I set each letter upside down and backwards in the stick, line by line. For my individual project, I printed Dylan Thomas’s Poem in October. The class printed a commemorative chapbook for an upcoming program scheduled at the King Library Press, with each of us setting the type for a single page. We then gathered our individual pages together and laid them in the sewing frame, and the instructor showed us how to sew the signature. The page I set was about oranges at Christmas.

After the course was over, I bought a small printing press somewhere, fully intending to print broadsides and chapbooks and poetry books. I wanted to learn more about the art of bookbinding, printing, calligraphy, papermaking, woodblock prints, engraving. I wanted to try my hand at gold leaf. I wanted to collect beautiful books. I did not want to read mass-produced books like the “yellows” and “bloods” that were printed so cheaply during the nineteenth century, books intended for a new mass reading public, books that people destroyed as they read, by tearing off each page and throwing it away. My advisor, Dr. Robert Cazden, had referred to that period as the “nadir” of printing. If he were still alive today, I wonder what he would have to say about E-books and all they represent. I’m thinking he would not be impressed.