Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Five Small Book Reviews

Today's theme for the Blogathon asked us to write about five of our favorite writing books. Confession: I haven't read a writing book in eons, and I'm sure it shows. I do have a few on my shelf, but they take a backseat to the garden books and any I'm in the process of reviewing. Instead, I decided to write about five books that inspire me to better writing or a new way of thinking about the world around me and therefore how I write about it. These authors also the bar for good writing (and might explain why I'm so dead shy about sending about pitch letters). These are books that I savor and that make me shiver with the sheer beauty of their writing.

Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on my Family Farm by David Mas Masumoto (1996), Harper Collins.

Written five years before Micheal Pollan's books took center stage and just as the food movement in America was thinking about starting in earnest, Masumoto wrote a little book dedicated to, of all things, a virtually unknown variety of peach. What his rich story-telling revealed was the loss of heirloom varieties, of flavor, of history, and subsequently the family farm. All of these were things I knew of, talked about, and even wrote about, but Masumoto's vibrant imagery had me wiping juice from my chin after a first big bite, seeing the wildflower carpet in his orchard, and feeling the chill of the morning fog as he worked trimming his trees.

And then some. Sentences like this one: “The faint smoke carries a whisper with it, of a peach variety no one bought, of consumers driving a fruit from the marketplace, of another farmer at the mercy of the public's taste.” (pg. 159) have me smelling sorrow and a little bit of anger, too. Or these three: "I read of a Japanese wood craftsman who spoke about freeing the soul of a tree. Like a sculptor, I too labor to free that soul. But the souls of my trees and vines are alive and they respond to my actions. I live with them daily.” (pg.76) and these three: “For months I live and work in the midst of magic, such as the simple power of sunlight and the transformation it causes in plants. Science may call it photosynthesis. I call it a gift from nature.” (pg. 128) confirm my belief that the farm and garden are more than spaces provide food. It's how I wish I could write of my own experiences.

The Earth Knows My Name: Food, Culture, and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic Americans by Patricia Klindienst (2006), Beacon Press.

This is easily one of the best books I've ever read about gardening. Possibly about anything. While I didn't get any specific tips on how to better tend my vegetables, what I did find was a treasure of stories embedded in seeds, flowers, and fruits so beautifully shared that I'm getting shivers just thinking about this book again. Klindienst artfully combines the voices of her subjects with her own reflections to produce a startlingly beautiful piece of prose that simply transports the reader to gardens that exist simultaneously in the present time and place, and in an old place and the past. We walk the rows and harvest the fruit with gardeners, their memories, and the ghosts of friends and family who join them there. Take for example, Ralph Middleton, a resident of St. Helena Island's Gullah community who says: “ We feel that we are part of the land,” he says in his deep, calm voice. 'This is where we've been, where we've worked, for generations. You know your grandparents and great-grandparents planted here. We have memories about the land, about what they did here. So it's important. It's sacred.” For Gullah's the land is freedom. It is the ground of their dignity and the reason they have endured.” (pg. 37)

I think of this book often as I work with the farmers and in my garden here in Tokyo. I lived in America when I first read The Earth Knows My Name, and at that time it made me think of my own immigrant ancestors. Now I live in Tokyo, and as I pamper my rhubarb, kale, swiss chard, and bergamont, I realize I sit on the other side of that equation. I'm the migrant nurturing a taste, sight, and smell of home with each shovel of compost or seed patted in place. Again, I can only hope to write so well.

High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never by Barbara Kingsolver (1995) Harper Collins.

I first received this book while we living in Kazakhstan as a Peace Corps Volunteer. My husband's grandmother sent it over as part of a set that included three novels, as well. English reading material was desperately scarce then, and I devoured them all in short order. The novels failed to capture my imagination, but this book did. I liked it enough to break up the set and ship it home at the end of our tour. Tightly written pieces thoughtfully reflecting on child-rearing and the power of natural rhythms had me pulling it off the shelf again and again through our service and even in the years since then. Her piece on a hike through one of Hawaii's National Parks where she spots a Nene goose as well as the Maui Silver Sword, blew my mind. (I can't quote it as I regretfully did not bring it to Tokyo. What was I thinking?) It remains a dream to make that hike myself as well as write half as well as she does in these essays.

Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris, (1993), Houghton Mifflin.

This is another book that didn't get tucked into my suitcase when we packed two years ago, although I once made a point of reading it every year since first discovering it. Norris' prose is almost as stark as the landscape she finds herself living in as she describes her first year living on her grandparents old homestead. The lessons she learns and the things her new life reveal to her about herself read almost like poetry as she describes a walk at sunrise through tall prairie grass or finding her grandmother's rain barrel broken with ice on a winter morning. Like Klindienst's gardeners and Masumoto, she finds herself attending church potlucks and going to the grocery store with the ghosts of her grandparents as community members ask who her people are, if she's so-and-so's girl while her own memories of childhood visits run like a second landscape over the scene. My writing will never be as sparingly beautiful as Norris', but she reminds me often that less can be more.

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry, 2004) Tanya Amyx Berry.

I am not certain if it's trite or required that I include Wendell Berry on my list. As America's preeminent poet-philosopher-farmer, Berry is perhaps more quoted and referenced and revered than Michael Pollan, Joan Gussow, Marion Nestle, or Barbara Kingsolver as people think about food and farming on that big continent these days. And for good reason. He's been talking about these topics for ages. He warned of the danger of big agriculture for farms and our food system before anyone else even gave it a thought.

Berry's writing, whether fiction or prose or poetry, is complex and beautiful as he weaves it around the topic and subsequently the reader. Hannah Coulter is one part of a series of novels focused on single members of Port William, a fictional community where Berry works his way through the intricacies of rural society as it intertwines with the issues facing those country communities. What drew me to it initially, I'm sure, was his name on the cover, but what compelled me to keep reading was the power of his prose. Scenes from it still play out in my mind – the felling of a woodlot that was a last remnant of old growth forest ecosystem – in the rush 'to get big or get out' in the seventies. Hannah, widowed and white-haired, standing on a hill of clover looking out over the land she'd worked in tandem with her husband, Nathan, and their sons. Fiction isn't my area of expertise, but again if I could paint with words only so well...


Alison Law said...

Joan, I love your recommendations here. I wanted to scan this post, but found myself getting caught up in your writing until I digested every word. I'll have to come back to soak up more of your gardening insights. I'm attempting to learn more on the topic since moving into a home with spacious yards about a year ago. All the best to you in Tokyo.

Joan Lambert Bailey said...

Thanks, Alison. I'm glad you liked what you read. I'd, obviously, highly recommend them all. Spacious yards? Oh, you're going to have so much fun!!

Kris @ Attainable Sustainable said...

A friend recommended Epitaph for a Peach years ago and I keep forgetting about it. Going to add it to my library holds Right Now! Thanks - gret list.

LT said...

I love Kathleen Norris! You're the second person this month to recommend Wendell Berry; looks like I have someone to add to my list. Thanks for sharing your list.

Joan Lambert Bailey said...

Thanks, Kris and LT. These are books I certainly enjoyed, and that still inspire me. I hope you both enjoy them as much.