Tag Archives: Great American Novel

20 Books of Summer, 17–20: Bennett, Davidson, Diffenbaugh, Kimmerer

As per usual, I’m squeezing in my final 20 Books of Summer reviews late on the very last day of the challenge. I’ll call it a throwback to the all-star procrastination of my high school and college years. This was a strong quartet to finish on: two novels, the one about (felling) trees and the other about communicating via flowers; and two nonfiction books about identifying trees and finding harmony with nature.

Tree-Spotting: A Simple Guide to Britain’s Trees by Ros Bennett; illus. Nell Bennett (2022)

Botanist Ros Bennett has designed this as a user-friendly guide that can be taken into the field to identify 52 of Britain’s most common trees. Most of these are native species, plus a few naturalized ones. “Walks in the countryside … take on a new dimension when you find yourself on familiar, first-name terms with the trees around you,” she encourages. She introduces tree families, basics of plant anatomy and chemistry, and the history of the country’s forests before moving into identification. Summer leaves make ID relatively easy with a three-step set of keys, explained in words as well as with impressively detailed black-and-white illustrations of representative species’ leaves (by her daughter, Nell Bennett).

Seasonality makes things trickier: “Identifying plants is not rocket science, though occasionally it does require lots of patience and a good hand lens. Identifying trees in winter is one of those occasions.” This involves a close look at details of the twigs and buds – a challenge I’ll be excited to take up on canalside walks later this year. The third section of the book gives individual profiles of each featured species, with additional drawings. I learned things I never realized I didn’t know (like how to pronounce family names, e.g., Rosaceae is “Rose-A-C”), and formalized other knowledge. For instance, I can recognize an ash tree by sight, but now I know you identify an ash by its 9–13 compound, opposite, serrated leaflets.

Some of the information was more academic than I needed (as with one of my earlier summer reads, The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham), but it’s easy to skip any sections that don’t feel vital and come back to them another time. I most valued the approachable keys and their accompanying text, and will enjoy taking this compact naked hardback on autumn excursions. Bennett never dumbs anything down, and invites readers to delight in discovery. “So – go out, introduce yourself to your neighbouring trees and wonder at their beauty, ingenuity and variety.”

With thanks to publicist Claire Morrison and Welbeck for the free copy for review.

 

Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson (2021)

When this would-be Great American Novel* arrived unsolicited through my letterbox last summer, I was surprised I’d not encountered the pre-publication buzz. The cover blurb is from Nickolas Butler, which gives you a pretty good sense of what you’re getting into: a gritty, working-class story set in what threatens to be an overwhelmingly male milieu. For generations, Rich Gundersen’s family has been involved in logging California’s redwoods. Davidson is from Arcata, California, and clearly did a lot of research to recreate an insider perspective and a late 1970s setting. There is some specialist vocabulary and slang (the loggers call the largest trees “big pumpkins”), but it’s easy enough to understand in context.

What saves the novel from going too niche is the double billing of Rich and his wife, Colleen, who is an informal community midwife and has been trying to get pregnant again almost ever since their son Chub’s birth. She’s had multiple miscarriages, and their family and acquaintances have experienced alarming rates of infant loss and severe birth defects. Conservationists, including an old high school friend of Colleen’s, are attempting to stop the felling of redwoods and the spraying of toxic herbicides.

A major element, then, is people gradually waking up to the damage chemicals are doing to their waterways and, thereby, their bodies. The problem, for me, was that I realized this much earlier than any of the characters, and it felt like Davidson laid it on too thick with the many examples of human and animal deaths and deformities. This made the book feel longer and less subtle than, e.g., The Overstory. I started it as a buddy read with Marcie (Buried in Print) 11 months ago and quickly bailed, trying several more times to get back into the book before finally resorting to skimming to the end. Still, especially for a debut author, Davidson’s writing chops are impressive; I’ll look out for what she does next.

*I just spotted that it’s been shortlisted for the $25,000 Mark Twain American Voice in Literature Award.

With thanks to Tinder Press for the proof copy for review.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (2011)

The cycle would continue. Promises and failures, mothers and daughters, indefinitely.

The various covers make this look more like chick lit than it is. Basically, it’s solidly readable issues- and character-driven literary fiction, on the lighter side but of the caliber of any Oprah’s Book Club selection. It reminded me most of White Oleander by Janet Fitch, one of my 20 Books selections in 2018, because of the focus on the foster care system and a rebellious girl’s development in California, and the floral metaphors.

In Diffenbaugh’s debut, Victoria Jones ages out of foster care at 18 and leaves her group home for an uncertain future. She spends time homeless in San Francisco but her love of flowers, and particularly the Victorian meanings assigned to them, lands her work in a florist’s shop and reconnects her with figures from her past. Chapters alternate between her present day and the time she came closest to being adopted – by Elizabeth, who owned a vineyard and loved flowers, when she was nine. We see how estrangements and worries over adequate mothering recur, with Victoria almost a proto-‘Disaster Woman’ who keeps sabotaging herself. Throughout, flowers broker reconciliations.

I won’t say more about a plot that would be easy to spoil, but this was a delight and reminded me of a mini flower dictionary with a lilac cover and elaborate cursive script that I owned when I was a child. I loved the thought that flowers might have secret messages, as they do for the characters here. Whatever happened to that book?! (Charity shop)

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013)

I’d heard Kimmerer recommended by just about every nature writer around, North American or British, and knew I needed this on my shelf. Before I ever managed to read it, I saw her interviewed over Zoom by Lucy Jones in July 2021 about her other popular science book, Gathering Moss, which was first published 18 years ago but only made it to the UK last year. So I knew what a kind and peaceful person she is: she just emanates warmth and wisdom, even over a computer screen.

And I did love Braiding Sweetgrass nearly as much as I expected to, with the caveat that the tiny-print 400 pages of my paperback edition make the essays feel very dense. I could only read a handful of pages in a sitting. Also, after about halfway, it started to feel a bit much, like maybe she had given enough examples from her life, Native American legend and botany. The same points about gratitude for the gifts of the Earth, kinship with other creatures, responsibility and reciprocity are made over and over.

However, I feel like this is the spirituality the planet needs now, so I’ll excuse any repetition (and the basket-weaving essay I thought would never end). “In a world of scarcity, interconnection and mutual aid become critical for survival. So say the lichens.” (She’s funny, too, so you don’t have to worry about the contents getting worthy.) She effectively wields the myth of the Windigo as a metaphor for human greed, essential to a capitalist economy based on “emptiness” and “unmet desires.”

I most enjoyed the shorter essays that draw on her fieldwork or her experience of motherhood. “The Gift of Strawberries” – “An Offering” – “Asters and Goldenrod” make a stellar three-in-a-row, and “Collateral Damage” is an excellent later one about rescuing salamanders from the road, i.e. doing the small thing that we can do rather than being overwhelmed by the big picture of nature in crisis. “The Sound of Silverbells” is one of the most well-crafted individual pieces, about taking a group of students camping when she lived in the South. At first their religiosity (creationism and so on) grated, but when she heard them sing “Amazing Grace” she knew that they sensed the holiness of the Great Smoky Mountains.

But the pair I’d recommend most highly, the essays that made me weep, are “A Mother’s Work,” about her time restoring an algae-choked pond at her home in upstate New York, and its follow-up, “The Consolation of Water Lilies,” about finding herself with an empty nest. Her loving attention to the time-consuming task of bringing the pond back to life is in parallel to the challenges of single parenting, with a vision of the passing of time being something good rather than something to resist.

Here are just a few of the many profound lines:

For all of us, becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it.

I’m a plant scientist and I want to be clear, but I am also a poet and the world speaks to me in metaphor.

Ponds grow old, and though I will too, I like the ecological idea of aging as progressive enrichment, rather than progressive loss.

This will be a book to return to time and again. (Gift from my wish list several years ago)

I also had one DNF from this summer’s list:

Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson: This reminded me of a cross between The Crow Road by Iain Banks and The Heavens by Sandra Newman, what with the teenage narrator and a vague time travel plot with some Shakespearean references. I put it on the pile for this challenge because I’d read it had a forest setting. I haven’t had much luck with Atkinson in the past and this didn’t keep me reading past page 60. (Little Free Library)

A Look Back at My 20 Books of Summer 2022

Half of my reads are pictured here. The rest were e-books (represented by the Kindle) or have already had to go back to the library.

My fiction standout was The Language of Flowers, reviewed above. Nonfiction highlights included Forget Me Not and Braiding Sweetgrass, with Tree-Spotting the single most useful book overall. I also enjoyed reading a couple of my selections on location in the Outer Hebrides. The hands-down loser (my only 1-star rating of the year so far, I think?) was Bonsai. As always, there are many books I could have included and wished I’d found the time for, like (on my Kindle) A House among the Trees by Julia Glass, This Is Your Mind on Plants by Michael Pollan and Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard.

At the start, I was really excited about my flora theme and had lots of tempting options lined up, some of them literally about trees/flowers and others more tangentially related. As the summer went on, though, I wasn’t seeing enough progress so scrambled to substitute in other things I was reading from the library or for paid reviews. This isn’t a problem, per se, but my aim with this challenge has generally been to clear TBR reads from my own shelves. Maybe I didn’t come up with enough short and light options (just two novella-length works and a poetry collection; only the Diffenbaugh was what I’d call a page-turner); also, even with the variety I’d built in, having a few plant quest memoirs got a bit samey.

Next year…

I’m going to skip having a theme and set myself just one simple rule: any 20 print books from my shelves (NOT review copies). There will then be plenty of freedom to choose and substitute as I go along.

Three on a Theme for Mother’s Day

In advance of (American) Mother’s Day, I picked up two novels and a set of short stories that explore the bonds between mothers and their children, especially daughters. The relationships can be fraught or fractured, but always provide good fodder for psychologically astute fiction.

 

Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander (2020)

Hope: A Tragedy, Auslander’s 2012 debut, is among my absolute favorites, an outrageously funny novel that imagines Anne Frank is alive and dwelling in a suburban attic, frantically tapping out her endless magnum opus. Solomon Kugel, the sap blessed to have an icon sharing his home, has a deluded mother who actually grew up in Brooklyn but believes she survived the Holocaust and now hoards food and curses the Nazis who ruined her life.

I start with that bit of synopsis because Mother for Dinner showcases rather analogous situations and attitudes, but ultimately didn’t come together as successfully for me. It’s a satire on the immigrant and minority experience in the USA – the American dream of ‘melting pot’ assimilation that we see contradicted daily by tribalism and consumerism. Seventh Seltzer works in Manhattan publishing and has to vet identity stories vying to be the next Great American Novel: “The Heroin-Addicted-Autistic-Christian-American-Diabetic one” and “the Gender-Neutral-Albino-Lebanese-Eritrean-American” one are two examples. But Seventh is a would-be writer himself, compelled to tell the Cannibal-American story.

For years Mudd, the Seltzer family matriarch, has been eating Whoppers for each meal in a customary fattening-up called the Cornucopiacation. She expects her 12 children, who are likely the last of the Cannibal kind, to carry on the tradition of eating her corpse after her death. It’s a way for ancestors to live on in their descendents. The Cannibal Guide, disguised as a deer processing manual, sets out the steps: Drain (within two hours), Purge, Partition, Consume (within 24 hours). Unclish, the Seltzers’ uncle, drilled the rules into them when they were kids through rhymes like “A bite and half / and you won’t need another, / whether it’s your father, your sister, / or even your mother.” From her deathbed, Mudd apportions her body parts to her offspring, some tenderly and some vengefully. Their inheritance – a Brooklyn dump that will still net $5.2 million – is conditional on them performing the ritual.

Interspersed with sections on the practicalities of butchering and cooking a morbidly obese woman are flashbacks to key moments of Cannibal history, which has turned into myth. In 1914, Julius Seltzer left the paradisiacal “Old Country” with his sister Julia, who pretended to be his wife and traveled with him to Detroit to work for Henry Ford. (An overt parody of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex.) Mudd is vocally intolerant of all other minority groups, from Blacks to homosexuals, and always chooses the version of history that reflects best on her own ancestors, while the Seltzers’ father was more willing to admit flaws.

My proof copy, with a joke on the cover, came with a napkin!

Auslander is pushing the boundary of what an author can get away with, not just with a literal cannibalism storyline but also with jokes about historical atrocities and the recent trend for outing beloved figures as reprehensible (what Seventh calls “Contemporary Assholization Studies”). He shares Lionel Shriver’s glee for tipping sacred cows. I did appreciate his picture of the pervasiveness of xenophobia – the “You’re Not Me” look that anyone can get when walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood – and his willingness to question the value of beliefs and ceremonies once they’ve stopped being reasonable or of use. But with all the siblings known by numbers, it’s hard to distinguish between them. The novel ends up heavy on ideas but light on characterization, and as a whole it leaves a bit of a bad taste in the mouth.

My rating:


With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.

 

The Mothers by Brit Bennett (2016)

{CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS.}

Like so many who were impressed with the Women’s Prize-shortlisted The Vanishing Half, I rushed to get hold of Bennett’s California-set first novel, which, while not as skillfully put together, is nearly as emotionally engaging. After her mother’s suicide, 17-year-old Nadia Turner only has her father, a Marine, but they are bolstered by their church family at Upper Room Chapel. Nadia is a bright girl headed to Michigan for college, but in her senior year she gets mixed up with Pastor Sheppard’s 21-year-old son, Luke, leading to a pregnancy and abortion that his parents swiftly cover up / pay for. Luke drops her at the clinic and hands over the money, but doesn’t pick her up; that looks the acrimonious end of their relationship.

But in the years to come, especially when Nadia takes a break from law school to care for her father, their lives will intersect again. Nadia’s best friend in that final year of high school was Aubrey Evans, who is estranged from her mother, who failed to protect the girl from sexual abuse at the hands of her own boyfriend. Now Aubrey wears a purity ring, enamored with the idea that faith will make her clean again. Once Nadia leaves, she starts dating Luke, ignorant of her best friend’s history with him. This sets up a love triangle mired in layers of secrets.

There is dramatic irony here between what the characters know about each other and what we, the readers, know – echoed by what “we,” the church Mothers, observe in the first-person plural sections that open most chapters. I love the use of a Greek chorus to comment on a novel’s action, and The Mothers reminded me of the elderly widows in the Black church I grew up attending. (I watched the video of a wedding that took place there early this month and there they were, perched on aisle seats in their prim purple suits and matching hats.)

Nadia and Aubrey are relatable characters, and Luke earns our sympathy after the cruel return of his football injury. (I was intrigued to see that Peter Ho Davies was one of Bennett’s teachers – his novel A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself is a rare picture of male grief after abortion, also present here.) Bennett explores multiple facets of motherhood: memories of a mother, the absence of a mother, the choice to become a mother, and people who act in the place of a mother by providing physical care or being a source of moral support.

The timeline is a bit too long, which makes the plot wander more than it needs to, but this is a warm and bittersweet novel that always held my interest. Bennett has produced two winners in a row, and I look forward to seeing what she’ll do next.

A favorite line: “Maybe mothers were inherently vast and unknowable.” (not literally vast like in the Auslander!)

Source: Birthday gift (secondhand) from my wishlist last year

My rating:

 

Close Company: Stories of Mothers and Daughters, ed. by Christine Park and Caroline Heaton (1987)

I read 14 of 25 stories, skipping to the ones that most interested me (by familiar names like Sue Miller, Sylvia Plath, and Jeanette Winterson), and will read the rest next year. The only story I’d encountered before was Margaret Atwood’s “Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother,” originally published in Bluebeard’s Egg. The title phrase comes from Jamaica Kincaid’s story. A recurring theme is women’s expectations for their daughters, who might repeat or reject their own experiences. As the editors quote from Simone de Beauvoir in the introduction, “the daughter is for the mother at once her double and another person.”

I particularly liked “The Pangs of Love” by Jane Gardam, a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of “The Little Mermaid,” and “Swans” by Janet Frame, in which a mother takes her two little girls for a cheeky weekday trip to the beach. Fay and Totty are dismayed to learn that their mother is fallible: she chose the wrong beach, one without amenities, and can’t guarantee that all will be well on their return. A dusky lagoon full of black swans is an alluring image of peace, quickly negated by the unpleasant scene that greets them at home.

Two overall standouts thus far were “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker and “The Unnatural Mother” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In Walker’s story, which draws on the parable of the Prodigal Son, a hip Afro-wearing daughter returns to her mother’s rural home and covets the quilts and butter churn – to her this is quaint folk art that she wants to take away and display, but her mother and sister resent her condescension towards their ‘backward’ lives.

Gilman is best known for The Yellow Wallpaper, but this story has a neat connection with another classic work: the main character is named Esther Greenwood, which is also the protagonist’s name in Plath’s The Bell Jar (consider this a preview of my next Book Serendipity roundup!). A gossiping gaggle of women discuss Esther’s feral upbringing and blame it for her prioritizing altruism over her duty to her child. A perfect story.

Source: Free mall bookshop

My rating: (so far)

 

If you read just one … Make it The Mothers. (But do also pick out at least a few stories from the Close Company anthology.)

Classic and Doorstopper of the Month: East of Eden by John Steinbeck (1952)

Look no further for the Great American Novel. Spanning from the Civil War to World War I and crossing the country from New England to California, East of Eden is just as wide-ranging in its subject matter, with an overarching theme of good and evil as it plays out in families and in individual souls. This weighty material – openly addressed in theological and philosophical terms in the course of the novel – is couched in something of a family saga that follows several generations of the Trasks and the Hamiltons. (Some spoilers follow.)

Cyrus Trask, Civil War amputee and fraudulent hero, has two sons. He sends his beloved boy, Adam, into the army during the Indian Wars. Adam’s half-brother Charles stays home to tend the family’s Connecticut farm. There’s a bitter sibling rivalry between them; more than once it looks like Charles might beat Adam to death. When Cyrus, now high up in military administration in Washington, dies and leaves his sons $100,000, Charles is suspicious. He’s sure their father stole the money, but Adam won’t accept that. Adam takes his inheritance and buys a ranch outside Salinas, California, taking with him his new wife Cathy, who turned up battered on the brothers’ doorstep and won’t reveal anything about her shadowy background.

Cathy is that rare thing: a female villain, and one with virtually no redeeming features. No sooner has she given birth to Adam’s twin sons than she runs off, shooting him in the shoulder to get away. Unbeknownst to Adam, who still idealizes a wife he knows nothing about, she gets work in a Salinas brothel and before long takes over as the madam. As her sons Aron and Cal grow up, they hear rumors that make them doubt their mother is buried back East, as their father claims. Aron is drawn to the Church and falls for a girl named Abra, whom he puts on a pedestal just as he does his ‘dead’ mother. Cal, a wanderer and schemer, is determined not to follow his mother into vice even though that seems like his fate.

The John Steinbeck House (his childhood home) in Salinas, CA. By Ken Lund [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile, the Hamiltons are a large Irish-American clan headed up by patriarch Samuel, who’s an indomitably cheerful inventor and land advisor even though he’s hardly made a penny from his own ranch. He’s a devoted friend to Adam in the 11 years Adam is lost in his grief over Cathy. At about the halfway point of the novel, we finally learn that the narrator is a version of the author: this John Steinbeck is one of Samuel’s grandchildren, so at the same time that he’s mythologizing the Trasks’ story he’s also expounding family stories. I’ll have to do more research to see to what extent the family’s Salinas history is autobiographical.

This was a buddy read with my mother. We were surprised by how much philosophy and theology Steinbeck includes. The parallels with the Cain and Abel story (brought to mind by both sets of C & A Trask brothers) are not buried in the text for an observant reader to find, but discussed explicitly. My favorite character and the novel’s most straightforward hero is Lee, Adam’s loyal Chinese cook, who practically raises Cal and Aron. When we first meet him he’s speaking pidgin, as is expected of him, but around friends he drops the act and can be his nurturing and deeply intellectual self. With some fellow Chinese scholars he’s picked apart Genesis 4 and zeroed in on one Hebrew word, timshel or “thou mayest.” To Lee this speaks of choice and possibility; life is not all pre-ordained. For the two central families it is a message of hope: one does not have to replicate family mistakes.

Steinbeck with his third wife, Elaine Scott, in 1950. The character of Cathy may be based on his second wife, Gwyn Conger, who cheated on him on multiple occasions and asked for a divorce. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

There are plenty more scriptural echoes if you look out for them. Two brothers taking their inheritance and doing different things with it reminded me of the Prodigal Son parable. Siblings squabble over a father’s blessing as in the Jacob and Esau story, and the Hamiltons are like the many children of Israel – the youngest is even called Joseph. It’s rewarding to watch how money and technology come and go, and to trace the novel’s repeating patterns of behavior – some subtle and some overt. (There are three $100,000 bequests, for instance.)

At 600 small-type pages, this is a big book with many minor threads and secondary characters I haven’t even touched on. Steinbeck grapples with primal stories about human nature and examines how we try to earn love and break free from others’ expectations. His depiction of America’s contradictions still feels true, and he writes simply stunning sentences. “It is one of the best books I’ve ever read,” my mother told me. It’s a classic you really shouldn’t pass up.

Page count: 602

My rating:

 

A few favorite passages:

“It is the dull eventless times that have no duration whatever. A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy—that’s the time that seems long in the memory.”

“Adam Trask grew up in grayness, and the curtains of his life were like dusty cobwebs, and his days a slow file of half-sorrows and sick dissatisfactions, and then, through Cathy, the glory came to him.”

“We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”

 

During the month I spent reading this I could hardly get these two songs out of my head. Both seem to be at least loosely inspired by East of Eden. I’ve pulled out some key lines and linked to audio or video footage.

 

“Salinas” by Laura Marling

When the clouds roll in, we start playing for our sins

With a gun in my hand and my son at my shoulder

Believe I will run before that boy gets older […]

Ask the angels, “Am I heaven-bound?”

 

“By the Skin of My Teeth” by Duke Special

My luck ran out just east of Eden

Oh, I proved you right

I’m a danger […]

I’m tired, don’t let me be a failure