Category Archives: Books

Books for self-isolation.

As you hunker in place while the virus spreads, you may choose to open a book or two or three -depending on how long the assault lasts. I loved Judy’s last (and spookily prescient) write up on The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker. It is a great read. My post today is focused on books filled with people, because it might be nice to have a bunch of characters rattling around the house with you while The Dreamers landscape comes into sharper view outdoors.

Will the scene outdoors eventually come to this?

Strangers and Cousins by Leah Hager Cohen takes place in a crowded historic home as people gather for a wedding. The parents of the bride and owners of the house are Walter and Bennie Blumenthal, a long-married couple who are also hosts of the backyard wedding. Walter and Bennie have four children (and are secretly sprouting a fifth), and it is their oldest, Clementine, who is marrying her college sweetheart. Family and friends gather over several days and to no surprise attendant family and guests don’t help as much as Walter and Bennie hoped and actually end up complicating plenty. This is especially true of Clementine’s eccentric college buddies who set up camp in the backyard and hatch plans to turn Clem’s wedding into an absurdist pageant.

The characters that fill this book are charming. Their energies, affectations, and personal histories alone are enough to propel a reader through the book. But there is another story line that makes this book more than a jolly family romp.    

This story line made me uncomfortable enough that I thought about putting the book down a couple different times. Here’s why; on some level Walter and Bennie remind me of myself. We’re about the same age (okay, they’re younger, but not by that much) and they are educated, liberal, love their community, and like to think of themselves as open-minded and free of prejudice. But their community is changing and that change is causing a rift between the otherwise tight couple and it is exposing a flaw: it’s that their liberal self-satisfaction may not be defensible.

Walter and Bennie’s town is gaining new residents, members of the Haredim, a sect within Orthodox Judaism. The Haredim have a history of moving into communities, buying homes, and then integrating themselves onto school and city boards. Their beliefs and customs are contrary to how the community traditionally functions and from some viewpoints, the Haredim undermine the honored status quo by working to change the community to align with their religious beliefs.

I sympathized with Bennie and her concern about the changes a Haredim population would bring to her town. But Walter’s righteous argument, that welcoming outsiders into a community has to be a universal response for those who wrap themselves in liberal cloth, made me uncomfortable because he was right and I couldn’t get there. There were times when I was reading the book (those times when I wanted to stop reading the book) that I felt Cohen was smartly poking at her readers and their liberal facades but finally I realized it was Cohen’s writing that was leading me to question myself. This is a charming and clever novel rooted right in the middle of everything. 

The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo is her first novel. And it’s another fun family sprawler. The book takes a look back at a 40-year marriage and the 4 daughters that sprang from Marilyn’s and David’s union. Each daughter gets to tell her own past and current day story and each is a distinct fireball. A major story thread is dedicated to unraveling a life-altering secret two of them share. It’s a doozy. And it broke apart my preconceptions of the sisters’ feeling for one another.

But the daughters are all alike in this, they believe their parents have had a perfect marriage and they will never be able to achieve similar passion and companionship with anyone. Ever, never. This incorrect assumption about their parent’s marriage has led the sisters down some unnecessary paths, but their side trips make for good reading.

The lesson here, it’s not just the low-performing bummer parents that screw up their kids.

The Lager Queen of Minnesota: by J. Ryan Stradal. This is another wide-ranging and energetic family saga, this one told from alternating points of two sisters. Edith and Helen grow up on a dairy farm in the late 50’s. Edith is a homebody, bakes blue ribbon pies, graduates from high school, and marries soon after. Her life is good but never is it a big or easy one. Helen on the other hand decides to go to college, hones a gold star beer palate, and marries into a brewery family. As Belizians would say: Helen went there strong.

There are the standard story lines in this novel about family that include long-time grudges, fortunes made, and quick deaths. But this novel is special because of the author’s development of the older women characters, who branch out into new professions late in life and always say ‘yes’ when others their age retire quietly into a corner or when authors write them into a corner.

Here’s a cool side bar to this novel: the older women are a composite of some of the women closest to author — Stradal’s mother and grandmothers. Stradal has noted in interviews that he was not reading characters who were strong Midwestern women like those who raised him. So he wrote those characters himself. Big thanks to him.

Stradal and his book, honoring strong Midwestern women.

And just in case you are wondering, yup, there are multiple examples of ‘Minnesota nice’ in the book.

From deep inside my house on this rainy Friday night, I wish you all health and good reading with a bunch of entertaining characters. We’ll get through this together.

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The Dreamers – another excellent book of doom

Judy says, The Dreamers  is another excellent book of doom by Karen Thompson Walker.

Remember The Age of Miracles  by Karen Thompson Walker? It was published a while back. It was about a girl coming of age in an apocalyptic world. It wasn’t just her teen years that made everything seem apocalyptic, though the main character was an awkward outsider with boy trouble whose parents’ marriage was unraveling. In the story, the world was actually ending. The sun was burning up the earth and destroying habitats. First the birds died off. And the mammals, including humans, were sure to follow. Despite such despair, it was a good book. Beautifully written. Walker’s sweet words and phrases made it impossible to put down.

Well, Karen Thompson Walker has written another excellent book of doom.  This one is called The Dreamers. It begins on one floor of a college dorm room in a small California college town. A young college student passes out after a night of drinking. She doesn’t wake up hungover though…. She just never wakes up. She sleeps on. And then another student falls asleep. And another. And then more of them. And then a college janitor. And then a healthcare worker. And the count rises.

Epidemic.

The college is quarantined. Next the hospital. Followed by the city. The illness spreads.  People are falling asleep (for good) while driving, making tea, standing in grocery checkout lines. Children are left unattended by parents who succumb to the illness. Stray dogs are running around still leashed.  The ill are clearly not the only victims. Casualties abound.  That’s Walker’s style. She writes with an old testament hand. If you are born a character in a Walker book, your future, if you have one, is not bright. Several times while reading, I just closed the book to shake my head in wonder over the cruel fate of a character I had been rooting for. But it could also be a metaphor for other ills that spread, as though airborne, and have the potential to ruin humans and take down humanity –  like uncivility, hatred, intolerance, racism. The name of the book alone, The Dreamers, connotes the spread of hatred toward our Mexican neighbors thati s perpetuated by our own government.  Is Walker suggesting that hatred such as this is invisible at first, like a germ, and can spread to even healthy-minded individuals?

If you’re a Walker character…better watch your back! She’ll use you and abuse you.

Too, The Dreamers could be a take on the age-old stoner quest for truth: What if I’m just dreaming and you’re all part of my dream. Whoaa, freaky.

As depressing and scary as this story seems, it is compelling and thought provoking. It’s a gripping page-turner. It goes on my list of recommendations. I can’t wait for you all to read it so we can talk it over.

As the epidemic rages on, resources run thin. Civilians outside the city cannot get in to help with supplies, childcare, or any type of respite. Many begin to doubt the validity of the mushrooming illness. Paranoia and rumors of conspiracy spread like their own type of malignancy.

Walker gives us many angles to consider.  I read The Dreamers at the same time the Coronavirus began spreading through China and leaking into other countries. Supplies such as masks and hand sanitizer are running out in major cities. The Dreamers could be a straightforward story about a deadly epidemic that takes over the world.

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Judy’s 2019 wrap-up

J writes…

I was somewhat of a light leisure reader this year, and a lighter, yet, blogger. So, I thought I’d write an end-of-year list of some of the books I read in 2019 to catch you up. It’s not an exhaustive list. I did not include the ones I already wrote to you about. And I didn’t include ones I read because I read about them here. (Circe was helluva enjoyable read, though, wasn’t it!).  And I also didn’t include the very few that I didn’t like but finished anyway. What would be the point? So, here’s a partial list of the meager dent I made in the lists and lists of books I wish to read some day

Not bad:

Good Riddance by Eleanor Lipman was a nice light read. Daphne’s mother, a teacher, held dear a yearbook that was dedicated to her in her early years of teaching. She attended every class reunion for that class following graduation and made updated notations in the yearbook. The yearbook is such a treasured possession that her mom bequeaths it to Daphne after her death. However, Daphne holds no ties to the yearbook or people in it, so she heaves it in the trash bin. She does not expect her documentary film-making neighbor to dumpster dive it and use it as material for her next project. This ignites a new interest in the old annual and creates a series of plot events that kept me turning the pages.

 

Ready player One, by Ernest Cline, is not a typical doomsday apocalyptic tale. It is a story about virtual reality taking over real life in an inventive sci-fi/buddy thriller. If the 80s were part of your formative years, this book is for you. The me-decade references are endless and span the media continuum from TV, video, books, music, movies, magazines, advertising, sports, politics …etc. It’s a fun read, and also one to follow-up with a not great, but totally watchable movie.

 

I listened to The Fishermen by Chigozie Obiama. It made a literary splash back in 2015 and was a big deal here because Obiama is a writing professor at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. The book is about a family in a small town in Nigeria. Two working parents and three smart and rambunctious boys. It has all the epic literary themes – father/son, mother/son, brother/brother relationships; good versus evil; crime and punishment; religion and demons and mental illness.  This is a big work. It’s good. Meaty. If you are in the mood for a literary novel to chew on, consider this one.

Readable recommendations:

Eric Buchanan recommended Hondo to me. I had never read it or any of the other 100 novels written by Louis Lamour. Nor I had never seen the John Wayne version of the movie. I gotta say, this was one good Western. Published in 1953, this book has a female character that will make today’s “nasty women” swell with pride. A follow-up with the movie after the book, will only enhance your enjoyment. I’ll set Hondo in my top westerns list.

Eric also gave me a copy of The Cuban Affair – a Nelson DeMille. I read it one weekend during the summer, when it was hot as could be outside. I wasn’t on a summer vacation, but this book made me feel like I was. Suave, witty, dry-humored detective, reluctantly getting into a dangerous adventure with a beautiful lady. Page-turning fun.

Speaking of reading on vacation:

 

We were getting an early start in August, on the way to a Missouri, for a get-away at The Elms Hotel and Spa right outside of Kansas City (recommended, by the way). So, we decided to stop at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Trails and Visitor Center in Nebraska City. L&CIT&VC is one of those interactive centers with installations (e.g. a replica of the L&C keelboat, lists and samples of all the specimens they brought back to Washington DC after their journey, a taxidermy buffalo…etc.). It’s well done. It will keep a kid interested, including this big kid. With the food provisions and the medical practices alone, it is a wonder they all survived (except for poor Mr. Floyd who died of appendicitis, unrelated to the trip). I bought a version of the Lewis and Clark Journals before we left the center, and read it on our long weekend get-away. Looking at this exploration from the perspective of the time in which it took place (setting current-day politics aside), it really was an extraordinary expedition.  And it makes a pretty exciting read.

Seaman and his crew

Long ones:

Killing the Commentadore is a fan’s Haruki Murakami story. It includes all the Murakami themes and elements – solitude, journeys both geographical and of the mind, color and design, music, and  of course, alternate worlds. In this case, the alternate world is a painting, or perhaps the painting is just the conduit to another time and place. Regardless, a bossy tiny soldier – the Commentadore –  is set free from a painting and serves as a link between what might be simply the past, an evil universe, or the tormented memories of the painting’s creator. I liked this book. It is slow and you can feel the give and take, ease and tension, between every character. Each chapter brings a new plot twist and it kept me reading. But I’m not sure it would keep everyone reading. It’s 700+ pages – a tome. And honestly, there is not a huge pay-off at the end. If you’ve never read a Haruki Murakami book, I’ll suggest Kafka on the Shore. If you have, then you know his style, and be warned, this one is a slow mover.

So many words

Years ago, I loved a book by Elizabeth McCracken. I haven’t kept up on her writing much. So, this year I was excited to lean that Bowlaway was coming out. A story about a town, its people, and the bowling alley that was a part of all their lives. Sounded like just the unconventional type of story I remember in The Giant’s House. And much of it was lovable. But also…as Dr. Dan would say… it had a lot of words.  I read them, and there were a lot.

So many words

More Books from 2019:

Women Rowing North by, Mary Pipher, is about women approaching, in, and beyond their 60s. Non-fiction is not usually my cup of tea.  I liked this book though. Mary, from Lincoln NE, follows a few women and their unique stories and how they unfold over a period of time. She focuses on how they adapt and change as each woman’s life moves from one stage to another. It was a nice read, humorous at times, and very positive.

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides was a best seller this year. Intriguing and mysterious. I kept turning pages and didn’t guess the end until I was supposed to, I think.  Good one.

In West Mills by DeShawn Charles Winslow, was one of this year’s literary dears. It’s about a community of friends in North Carolina from the 1940s through the 80s. They revolve around one character, Azalea “Knot” Centre.  Even her name indicates she is the center of all the action and ties them all together.  Family, chosen or inherited, is the main theme throughout. It’s a well written good read.

I always look forward to the next book by Anne Patchett. The Dutch House came out this year and did not disappoint. It’s the story of a brother and sister, Maeve and Danny, and their house. The Dutch House is a stately mansion in a suburb of Philadelphia. Their father bought the house as a symbol of his prestige. Their mother could not square the house with her socialist tendencies. And without saying more, readers,  the House becomes a character throughout the course of Maeve and Danny’s lives. All the characters read true as we see them at each stage of their lives. I really liked

I picked up another book that came out this year simply based on its name and cover. The Grammarians. I didn’t know until I read the inside pages that the author, Cathleen Schine, wrote a book I gushed about in these pages a couple of years back called Fin and Lady. I should be paying more attention. Schine, is a big deal.  The Grammarians is wonderful. Two twins who start out alienating (and charming) their parents with their own language, grow up to be two equally famous writers. And as much as their words tie them together when they are young, words  and language come between them as adults, as the writers publicly and famously feud. This book is charming, and smart and witty. You’ll stop to appreciate Schine’s words and sentences and to read them over and again. It’s a lovely book. Put this one on your to-read pile.

I’ve never written here about Rainbow Rowell. I should. She’s a Nebraskan. She wrote for the Daily Nebraskan (the DN) in the late 80s when going to college here. Then she was a columnist for the Omaha World Herald.  And then she started publishing YA books. She’s a good writer, both critics and teenagers agree. But so do lots of adult readers who appreciate good stories. Her stories move along, her characters are likeable and real (even her fantasy fiction characters). Out this year, I read Carry On, which is about a vampire and a wizard she created as fan fiction for another story called Fan Girl. I would recommend starting with Eleanor and Park or Fan Girl if you’re new to her books. If you don’t move on from there, fine, but you won’t have wasted your time.  If you’re from Nebraska, especially Lincoln or Omaha, you will enjoy when Love Library, East Campus, Highway Diner, the Old Market, and other landmarks make the scene.

Local Hero – Rainbow has a strong message for young women – Education is everything.

Famous People by Justin Kuritzkes is written first person as if it is the voice-journal of a Justin Bieber-like celebrity, who became famous at 12 and is now a 19 or 20-year-old multi-billionaire. He writes in the language of the day throwing in “LOLs” “bro” “dope. “ as if is one of today’s teenage YouTube Stars giving a shout-out to his fans. But the message and content are far deeper than the words. Kuritzkes’ narrator clearly has a grasp on how fame and fortune has changed him and those around him, and has a sense of his global outreach. He registers some responsibility for his brand. This book makes you consider the notion that not all of the 20-year-olds are idiots, though there are some of those characters in this tory too.  LOL. A little over a couple hundred pages, I read this on a work-trip, and it was refreshing and entertaining.

That’s it.

Happy New Year Scramblers.

 

 

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Reading Alaska

I have a dear cousin who grew up in Cordova, Alaska which is a land-locked fishing village on Prince William Sound. Her father kidnapped her and her two sisters from their mother in Florida when she was just two and then he stashed all three sisters in an apartment in Cordova while he moved in with his girlfriend up the road. The oldest sister, who was then just 8 years old, was put in charge of caring for the two younger ones. The girls had an open account at the grocery store, bought and made their own food, kept up the apartment, and walked to school on their own, even during the treacherous winter months. Everyone in the village knew about their living situation but it was never questioned, even as the girls entertained themselves by firing guns from their deck, aiming at seagulls in flight.

Looking down on the Cordova Harbor from Ski Hill.

Over the years my cousin has enchanted me with ‘My Life in Alaska’ stories and I came to understand that Alaska had a culture like no other state. My desire to visit the modern frontier was always on a low-level burn but I never got around to learning much about the state other than what I gathered from my cousin’s stories. That is, not until I landed in the Anchorage airport in August. And it took just one look at the Chugach mountains looming through the gate windows to make me feel small and realize how unprepared I was for a visit.

“You can only make one mistake in Alaska”, my cousin had warned me. (The ‘otherwise’ part of that sentence hangs in the air and is unspoken, which makes a person imagine the worst, and that of course turns out to be the right way to think about it.)

I bought books about Alaska in the airport about 10 minutes after landing and several more in Anchorage at a well-stocked local bookstore named Title Wave.

Here are a few of the Alaska books I read this summer:

Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A true story about innocence and madness on the Alaskan Frontier by Tom Izzia.

One review summarized this book as, Into the Wild meets Helter Skelter. And I probably shouldn’t write more than that, because it is a perfect summary.

This true story takes place in a remote outpost called McCarthy. It’s difficult to travel to McCarthy and there are only about 29 people to greet visitors when/if visitors finally get there. But if you want to understand how the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act impacted the local homesteaders’ mental state -which was likely, for many, already fairly disturbed- this is a good book to pick up.

Pilgrim’s Wilderness is about Papa Pilgrim, his wife, and their fifteen children who came to McCarthy to squat on land the government had recently brought under their control. Initially the 20 or so McCarthy residents felt that the Pilgrims were a shining example of homespun Christian life and welcomed the family into their community. The McCarthy community held other internal conversations about continued community support as long as the clan could show they were able to fend for themselves through long winters. The citizens were true to their word, they supported the Pilgrim’s illegal behavior and squared off with the government for a while, backing the Pilgrim’s criminal actions, which included squatting and disturbing public land.

McCarthy, Alaska. Main Street.

But not a surprise, behind all the Pilgrim’s piety and old-timey family singing the author uncovered the Pilgrim’s backstory that was steeped in religious creepiness and criminal behavior in other states.  Izzia is a crafty story teller and slowly reveals the early years of the Pilgrim’s weird and illegal actions while interspersing the present-day story of the escalating war with the Park Service.

Papa Pilgrim’s actions not only sparked multiple confrontations with the National Park Service but also divided McCarthy on the topic of where citizens’ rights end and where the government’s powers start. It is likely a similar topic would pop up if you talk to local Alaskans on a visit. And if it does, you’ll hear words like ‘over-reach’ and ‘my gun’ more than a few times.

As events escalated in McCarthy we also read about the abuse Papa Pilgrim’s children were enduring at home. Rescue was required.

Izzia had extensive access to Papa Pilgrim as he gathered material for this book and the story is enriched because of it. This is a page-turner that captures the ways in which some Alaskans interact with and talk about their land, the government, and one another.

The Sun is a Compass by Caroline Van Hemert

When I finished reading this book, I was so inspired I wanted to take out on a real crazy adventure.

The Sun is a Compass begins as Van Hemert is finishing a graduate degree in ornithology. And as grad school can do, the day-to-day grind led her to reexamine her life choices. She wasn’t happy with lab work or her research or the prospect of living her professional life in academia.

Van Hemert grew up in Alaska with parents who were peak baggers and naturalists. So it makes sense that Van Hemert took a step back into her past idyllic environs to reflect on her future.

Van Hemert paddling part of her 4,000 mile trek.

Most of us who endured grad school had our break-down moments. Here’s what I did for mine: I stayed home and watched MTV for a week straight and smoked a lot of cigarettes. Here’s how Van Hemert handled her grad school breakdown: she and her husband Pat decided they would take a 4,000-mile trek from Washington state to northwest Alaska, traveling entirely under their own power.

Their adventure begins in sea-worthy rowboats that Pat built in the garage. The initial leg of Van Hemert’s grad school re-consideration started with a 1,200 mile row from Bellingham, Washington to Haines, Alaska. Then after the long row (and numerous close calls) they switched to skis and headed into the mountains between Alaska and the Yukon. In this leg they faced avalanches, lurking crevasses, and unstable weather. Then Van Hemert and Pat hiked and skied a few more thousand miles and used inflatable pack rafts when they needed to cross rivers and lakes.

This is an amazing story filled with close calls, life-impacting revelations, and up-close interactions with nature to a degree that few people will experience. Van Hemert is a great writer and she has a wonderful thrill-ride to share. It’s good to know she and Pat are still at it, the New York Times recently ran an article about the couple and their children who were all taking an Inside Passage sail.

Spoiler alert: Van Hemert did not pick academia.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

The Great Alone. Glacier outside of Cordova.

My cousin recommended this book as one of the few fiction books she feels accurately captures what it was like to grow up in Alaska in the late 20th century. Hannah has Alaska cred too, in the 1980’s her parents co-founded the Great Adventure Lodge in Sterling, Alaska.

The novel begins in 1974 when a Vietnam vet, Ernt Allbright, suffering from PTSD discovers he has inherited a cabin and 40 acres outside of Homer. The inheritance is good timing, Ernt is recently unemployed and not for the first time; he also can’t manage his drinking. Believing the inheritance is a good omen he moves his wife and young daughter, Leni, into the wilderness outside of Homer into a falling-down cabin. This is done with a promise to his wife and daughter that he will ‘get better’.  Sure.

This is no fairy tale and life doesn’t get better for Ernt. His drinking escalates, and he befriends Mad Earl who is the local white supremist. Mad Earl is not the influencer Ernt needed in his life but Ernt is incapable of appreciating the good people of the community. In the meantime, Ernt’s daughter, Leni, grows up in Alaska’s wild splendor – long before it was ruined by cruise ships and roads that lead to actual places- and she thrives as her father twists into alcoholic violence.

There is more to the book, like Hannah’s description of the caring and accepting community that helps the Allbrights prep for their first winter and Hannah also shows the other side of that same community, the one that stands aloof as it witnesses Ernt’s increasing violence against his family. And there are eccentric and heroic Alaskan characters throughout the book and the handsome son of the town rich guy, who can’t help but notice the bright and capable Leni. And in the end, there is that ‘one mistake’ plus one more that my cousin warned about, which ruins Leni’s dreams.

I raced through this story. It is dramatic, filled with eccentrics, heroes, and villains and loving descriptions of Alaska’s natural beauty. The books reads a little like a YA novel, but Alaska has that vibe as well. I trust my cousin on this one. If you want to get a feel for what it was like to grow up as a young girl in Alaska in the 1970’s and 80’s, this is the book to pick up.

 

 

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Braiding Sweetgrass – best book of Summer 2019

The Best Book of Summer 2019

In the midst of summer and summer chores, I read and listened to Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and then I listened to it again. I listened primarily when I worked in the garden, which fit well with the spirit of the book. And when I read the book at night, I underlined passages like an over-eager student, because the book meant that much to me. I wanted to be able to conjure up lines like an incantation and do so at will. Instead I ended up boring Andy by dully summarizing chapters. (My lesson: one person’s revelation can be another person’s long drab documentary).

Robin Kimmerer is a botanist and professor of plant ecology; she is proficient in and respects the ways of scientific analysis and research. Kimmerer is also a member of the Potawatomi nation and as a young girl she learned from tribal elders and her family about the natural world.

Braiding Sweetgrass is part memoir, part modern ecology discourse, and an anthropology lesson on Potawatomi culture.  Wrap it all together and the material becomes a well-structured argument that asserts the best way to restore the natural world is to adopt indigenous perspectives and practices. The book opens by sharing the Potawatomi creation story and Kimmerer finishes it on a point she references throughout: the Potawatomi, as well as most cultures indigenous to this land, consider plants and animals be our oldest teachers.

Kimmerer intertwines her scientific and indigenous knowledge to make the book’s central argument which asserts that to improve our ecological consciousness, humans must first understand and then honor our reciprocal relationship with the world. Kimmerer wants us to understand that when we frame natural resources as ‘gifts’ from the earth, as native cultures do, then the way we interact with the earth fundamentally changes.

This is a big book, dense with life stories, science, native cultures, and plant ecology. It’s hard for me not to go on and on, so I’ll reign it in and cover just a couple of my very favorite parts.

In her role as professor Kimmerer sets the tone of her class by starting with this question, “Many of us love the natural world. What would it mean if you knew the world loved you back?”

Students often push back on the question and argue that it veers into anthropomorphism and away from scientific objectivity. Kimmerer gently rephrases, “Okay, then hypothetically speaking, what would change if you knew the world loved you back?”

The answer is this: “Everything would change!” And then chapter after chapter Kimmerer shares stories that reveal the manner in which the world does love us back.

Kimmerer describes her effort to learn the Potawatomi language in the book. Potawatomi is difficult to learn, and at the time Kimmerer took the language class there were only nine living speakers, and the youngest was 75. Kimmerer knew the language would be very difficult to learn when she found 70% of Potawatomi words are verbs and must be conjugated – in English that percentage is just 30%.

In Potawatomi nouns and verbs are either animate or inanimate. The animate world in Potawatomi includes almost everything in nature and generally only things made by humans are given an inanimate status. This means that most of the world is given a “to-be” status, example: to be a bay, to be a long sandy beach, to be a tree. In Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, the same words to address the living world are the same used to address family, because the natural world is family.

Kimmerer recounts times when she heard elders give advice like, “You should go be among the Standing people” or “Go spend some time with those Beaver people”. She writes that traditional knowledge provides guidance on accepting the capacity of others to be teachers and guides (“others” being plants, animals, rivers).  And she imagines if we spoke her native language how our perspectives and interaction with the world would change.

You can read this gobsmacking wonderful book in chunks; it does not need to be read from front to back. And if you take time with it, I will assure you, you will think differently of the world around you.

The earth loving me back at Matsu Valley. It’s 500 miles long!

 

 

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