High Cotton

Johnson, Kristie Robin. High Cotton: Essays. Clearwater, Florida: Raised Voices, 2020.

Reason read: as part of the Early Review program for LibraryThing, this was the July 2020 selection.

While Johnson’s book is categorized as a collection of essays, her crystal clear voice trills bright honesty and makes this a captivating memoir on multiple levels: what it means to be an African American woman in the volatile twenty-first century (in addition to being the sixth generation of a family who can be trace their ancestral past to slavery in Deep South Georgia). Adding to the cultural, economic, and societal battles, Johnson is a woman with personal strife: family addictions, histories of abuse, teenage pregnancy, and ever-constant poverty. How does one explain a manicure while buying food on welfare? Why does one even need to explain? There, in a succinct nutshell, is reality of millions. Other realities include the ever-constant reminder that racism and gender bias are alive and well in our country.
My only complaint? Because the essays were so autobiographical in nature I wanted more structure in the way of chronology.

Confessional: I read On Being Human by Jennifer Pastiloff at the same time and I have to admit, their stories were so similar that I would sometimes confuse the two.

Confessional two: No. More of a question: why does one have to be a rape “victim” in order to acknowledge the bravery of an accuser coming forward? Better yet, why would acknowledging the bravery of Cosby’s accusers force one to “unearth” one’s uncomfortable truth? Couldn’t Kristie stand on the side of women who allege they fell prey to a man of wealth and power (regardless of their (or her) skin color)?


Sand County Almanac

Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac: and sketches Here and There. Read by Cassandra Campbell. New York: Penguin Audio, 2020.

Reason read: Turtleback Zoo opened in the month of June. Read to honor a place that I used to love to visit. This zoo always treated their animals with such care. It has been years since I lasted visited. It could be completely different now.

There are certain books in the world you can’t help but try to read all in one sitting. They draw you in and you can’t find your way out of the pages until you reach the final words of The and End. A Sand County Almanac is one such book, especially as an audio read by Cassandra Campbell. Hour after hour would rush by as I got lost in Aldo’s world. I could hear the calling of the birds in the fields, the rattle of dried leaves in the oak trees signifying winter is on its way, and the gurgling rush of the stream as it stubbed its toes on rocks worn smooth. Leopold’s observations were so warm I couldn’t help but think if he were alive today, he and Josh Ritter would be friends.

Author fact: Leopold smoked. Okay, so it’s not the most enlightening fact, but it shocked me nonetheless. I like my naturalists without vices.

Book trivia: Barbara Kingsolver wrote the introduction to Sand County Almanac.

Nancy said: Pearl called A Sand County Almanac a “beautifully written classic.” Another interesting point. Pearl points out a section I found particularly intriguing. As Leopold saws through a fallen oak on his property he recounts historical moments the tress has lived through, ring by ring. Pearl called this section “transcendent” and I couldn’t agree more.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Dewey Deconstructed: 500s ” (p 70).


Garden of the Gods

Durrell, Gerald. Garden of the Gods. New York: Penguin books, 1978.

Reason read: to “finish” the series started in May. Finish is in quotes because there are more books in the series, but I am not reading them for the Challenge.

Durrell has again dug back into his childhood and the four year stint on the Greek island of Corfu for the next installment of his memoir series. This time sister Margo’s relationships and brother Leslie’s gun obsession take more of a center stage but don’t worry, Gerald’s “pets” still abound. He still has plenty of stories regarding the mishaps involving animals. Another constant is all of the Durrell children continue to lie to mother and she continues to eat it up, no questions asked, just like one of Gerald’s baby birds.
I have to wonder if the family was as fun loving and accepting of the practical jokes and antics as they seem to be? What kind of household welcomes perfect strangers into their home as guests? Especially ones with no intention of leaving? And speaking of guests, what mother would put up with dead birds falling at her feet while she tried to entertain a prominent guest?
All in all, exaggerated antics aside, Garden of the Gods is a charming and funny book.

Best quote, “My first fear was that my beautiful horns might be broken, my second, that my brother might be dead” (p 527).

Author fact: the internet is littered with a myriad of pictures of Durrell. He looks more comfortable with his animal friends than the humans.

Book trivia: the American version of Garden of the Gods was published as Fauna and Family in 1978.

Nancy said: Pearl wasn’t as enamored with Garden of the Gods as Durrell’s first book. The sequel is “not up to the joyful perfection of the first book” (Book Lust To Go, p 70), but she does admit that it is humorous.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the simple chapter called “Corfu” (p 70).


The Good War

Terkel, Studs. “The Good War”: an Oral History of World War Two. New York: Partheon Books, 1984

Reason read: I am taking a full two months to the “The Good War.” Victory Day is May 9th and D-Day is June 6th.

The best way to read “The Good War” is to sit down with a cup of coffee and envision a WWII vet sitting across from you. He has a faraway look in his eyes and a slight tremor in his hands as he remembers best a single event that most likely changed his life forever. But, don’t stop there. Now sitting across from you could be a businessman, a nurse, a dress maker, a dancer, a man who was just a child during the war and thought the battlefield was place of adventure. you might imagine someone who survived a prison camp, or a conscientious objector, or a young boy who thought enlisting would be a chance to prove himself…Terkel interviewed people from all walks of life. Each story is unique and yet, yet hauntingly similar. You hear of young men losing their sense of humanity in the face of unimaginable cruelty: a man remembers watching his comrade in arms throw pebbles into the open skull of a dead Japanese soldier; the smell of cooking cats. Other young men speak of hiding their sexual orientation while trying to appear manly enough for battle (Ted Allenby’s story reminded me of Ryan O’Callaghan a great deal). But, you also hear from the women: wives and girlfriends left behind, Red Cross nurses on the front lines, even singers sent to entertain the troops. It is easy to see why this stunning nonfiction won a Pulitzer.

Quotes to quote, “No matter what the official edict, for millions of American women home would never be again a Doll’s House” (p 10), and “I got on the stick and wrote the President again” (p 21), and “Must a society experience horror in order to understand horror?” (p 14).

Author fact: Studs’s real name was Louis.

Book trivia: “The Good War” won a Pulitzer for nonfiction in 1985.

Nancy said: Pearl said you could never do better than Terkel’s “The Good War” for an oral history. Agreed.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “World War Two Nonfiction” (p 254).


Little Wonder

Abramsky, Sasha. Little Wonder: the Fabulous Story of Lottie Dod, the World’s First Female Superstar. Brooklyn, New York: Akashic Books, 2020.

Reason read: as a member of LibraryThing, I was chosen to review this for the Early Review program.

Charlotte Dod. If you don’t know her name, you don’t know the history of women in sports. Don’t feel bad though. Despite being a multitalented athlete, her fame as a star burned bright in many arenas, but faded from all of them just as quickly. First known as a tennis sensation at the age of fourteen, Lottie (as she was known), only played competitively for five years. In that time she became the doyenne of tennis, winning five Wimbledons. The only years she didn’t win she didn’t even compete. Sadly, it was as if she grew tired of smashing the competition and needed new thrills. She left the sport…at twenty one years of age. After tennis, Dod set her sights on field hockey. She helped pioneer the sport for women. Then came skating. Obsessively training for hours on end, Dod was not only able to pass the rigorous women’s skating test, she passed the much more difficult men’s test as well. When she was done with ice skates and cold weather , she moved on to golf and mountaineering and archery and Voluntary Aid Detachment nursing and choral singing. She climbed mountains in support of women seeking equal rights and won a silver medal for archery at the 1908 summer Olympic games.
While Abramsky does a great job detailing Lottie’s life, he has to fill in the gaps with speculation because sadly, much of her correspondence was lost or deliberately destroyed. Expect words like “maybe” and “perhaps” and “might.” The photographs are fantastic.
Arabella Garrett Anderson, Agatha Christie, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Nelly Bly were contemporaries of Dod’s.


Perfection Salad

Shapiro, Laura. Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century. New York: North Point Press, 1986.

Reason read: June is the month we usually migrate to the CSA and our farm of choice, Mountain View. I’m also reading this as part of the Portland Public Library reading challenge.

This was a great read on so many levels. Laura Shapiro writes with an easy and often humorous style. If you are interested in the science behind cooking; the chemical process of cooking food or the biological process of digestion; how arithmetic factors into cooking. How about the study of bacteria, whether it be from the germy dishcloth or the garbage can? Domestic “scientists” were determined to improve diets through science and chemistry.
Cooking because the great equalizer at the turn of the century. the interest in learning to cook was as such that in shops cooking was done in the open so that customers could witness both ingredients and preparation (the birth of the cooking show?).
From a feminist angle, it was great to read about so many women “firsts.” For example, Ellen Richards as the first woman admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Even though she was considered a “special student” she broke the male-only barrier in 1870.
My favorite invention from this time period was the “Aladdin Oven” – a portable stove the size of a dinner pail that would cook a meal all day long. The first slow cooker!

Author fact: Shapiro has two books listed in More Book Lust. The second book, Something From the Oven is on my list to be read in a few years.

Nancy said: Pearl called Perfection Salad “entertaining and informative” and promised readers it would “change the way you look at food and its preparation” (More Book Lust p 73).

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Dewey Deconstructed 600s” (p 71).


Fine Mess

Duke, Kim. A Fine Mess. Plymouth, MI: BHC Press, 2020.

Reason read: as part of the Early Review Program for LibraryThing I was selected to read and review Duke’s book.

The first word that comes to mind when reading A Fine Mess is chameleon. Depending on your mood, this book could be seen as trivial happy horse you-know-what or,if you are in a good mood, poignant and heartwarming. The good news is Duke acknowledges that in the title by calling A Fine Mess “little” and “odd.” Okay, so it is a lot odd at times.
Depending on your mood, you could see the colorful illustrations and photography as evocative and capable of inspiring heartfelt emotion. On another day you could be annoyed by the self-help journaling pages; declaring A Fine Mess as helpful as the pseudo-psychological quizzes you find in the pages of Cosmopolitan magazine. How Happy Are You? Take This Test To Find Out!
Depending on your mood, you could question what making fun of a sculpture has to do with breast cancer. You could question why Duke doesn’t bemoan the loss of hair or appetite or secure body image. On another day you could applaud her ability to make connections to before cancer and after cancer and her courageous ability to make sense of the randomness of the disease.
Depending on your mood, A Fine Mess could be a humorous gift to give a struggling friend or your worst enemy.
Either way, one thing is for certain. It will take you all of ten minutes to read. Whether you go back and read it again is entirely dependent on your mood.

As an aside, I want to ask Duke if her statement about hope was intentionally similar to the Emily Dickinson poem. That seemed a little coy, even if it was a play on words.


June Travels

Of course I am not really traveling anywhere, but for the first time in a couple of months I have (finally) gotten back to reading. and. And! And, I did drive a car for the first time since 3/19/20. There’s that. In truth, I have been reading all along, just not with the pleasure and leisure I used to have. All of that is slowly coming back, in part due to the realization it’s okay to disappear into the pages from time to time. It is okay to read with no other agenda. I have started to think of the books as different forms of travel. Without further ado, here are the books for June:

Fiction:

  • The Second Summer of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares. Places I’ll go: Washington, D.C. & Alabama.
  • The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. Places: Pennsylvania & something like heaven.
  • Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. Places: around Sweden.
  • The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron. Places: Barcelona, Spain and thensome.
  • Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux. Places: My back yard of Western Massachusetts and Honduras.
  • Garden of the Gods by Gerald Durrell. Place: Cofu, Greece.

Nonfiction:

  • Perfection Salad by Laura Shapiro. Places: all around New England

Secrets, Lies, Betrayals

Scarf, Maggie. Secrets, Lies, Betrayals: The Mind/Body Connection. How the Body Holds the Secrets of a Life, and How to Unlock Them. New York: Random House, 2004.

Reason read: for the Portland Public Library reading challenge as a book I wish I had given myself. Here is the original reason. Everyone jokes that the root of all childhood trauma is mama. So, to blame on your mother, Mother’s Day is in May.

It is pretty fascinating to think that your physical body holds the keys to unlocking mental trauma. By paying attention to your body’s postures, tensions, aches, and pains, you could solve mysteries of the mind. Physical health could nurture mental health. Part memoir, part psychology is how I would describe Scarf’s Secrets, Lies, Betrayals. She uses stories from both sides of the couch, so to speak; both as a patient and as a therapist, to illustrate the benefits of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy.

Confessional: I actually freaked myself out a little reading Secrets, Lies, Betrayals. Scarf was describing me at one point in the book. Back in the mid 90s I dated a guy who was quick to criticize me in weird and subtle ways. I never knew what he was really trying to say. Whenever we argued he would twist everything I said into illogical pretzels. I would get increasingly more and more confused; to the point where I would end up questioning my own side of the story. He would win by sheer convolution.

Author fact: Scarf wrote a bunch of best selling psychology books. In the middle of this didactic bibliography is a biography on Benjamin Franklin for young people.

Nancy said: Pearl said she would buy Secrets for a psychologist in the family. My question is this, if the psychologist is any good, wouldn’t he or she already at least know of the book if not already have it?

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “A Holiday Shopping List” (p 117).


Birds, Beasts, and Relatives

Durrell, Gerald. Birds, Beasts, and Relatives. New York: Penguin Books, 1978

Reason read: to continue the series started in honor of Humor month in April.

Birds, Beasts, and Relatives is one of those books that keeps the party going. As the second book in the Corfu trilogy, Birds includes stories previously untold in My Family and Other Animals. While the Durrell family only spent four years on the Greek island of Corfu, Gerald was able to dig around in his memory and find always humorous, and sometimes outrageous, and obviously exaggerated situations to share…much to his family’s chagrin. These stories usually involved young Gerald coming across some wild animal and insisting it become part of the family as an honorary pet (such as an owl, given to Gerald by an eccentric Countess). Interested in his natural surroundings, Gerald was guided by biologist and fellow naturalist, Theodore. It was Gerald’s keen observations about his world that held my attention.

Author fact: Durrell was a television personality and the subject of a few documentaries.

Book trivia: Birds, Beasts, and Other Relatives was actually Durrell’s twelfth autobiographical book. It is followed by The Garden of the Gods, which is also on my list.

Nancy said: Pearl included Birds, Beasts, and Relatives in a list of books which made her laugh out loud. Laughing is very good these days. In Book Lust To Go Pearl says Birds, Beasts, and Relatives is not up to “the joyful perfection of [My Family and Other Animals], but is no slouch” (Book Lust To Go p 70).

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Tickle Your Funny Bone” (p 220); and from Book Lust To Go in the chapter simply called “Corfu” (p 70).


I Leap Over the Wall

Baldwin, Monica. I Leap Over the Wall: Contrasts and Impressions After Twenty-Eight Years in a Convent. New York: Rinehart & Company, 1950.

Reason read: Easter is one of the most religious holidays I know. During this pandemic crisis my family had a zoom meeting in order to be together. Read Baldwin in recognition of Easter.

Like the title implies, Monica Baldwin spent twenty-eight years of her life in a Roman Catholic convent. She had thought she wanted to give her life to God until one day…she didn’t. So after twenty-eight years, she left. Just like that. The first order of business “on the outside” was for Baldwin to find suitable clothes for the outside world. The second critical task was to secure suitable employment. The first was easier than the second considering England was in the midst of World War II. Baldwin struggled as a gardener, a matron at a camp for female munitions workers, a canteen cook, and a librarian. At heart she was always a writer. I Leap Over the Wall was meant to be a journalistic memoir, contrasting and comparing the structured life of being a nun to the haphazardness of the outside. Readers get a sense of how structured Baldwin’s life had been on the inside: the day to day duties of a novice and even the caste-like division of the monastic houses. Despite this structure, something she thought she needed, Baldwin knew from the very beginning that entering the convent was a mistake. It took her twenty-eight years to seek rescript from the Vatican.

Author fact: I find it really interesting that Baldwin entered the convent soon after the start of World War I and emerged during World War II.

Book trivia: My copy of I Leap Over the Wall was inscribed “Elinor E. Parker February 1, 1950 Brooklyn, N.Y.” I have no idea who Elinor was or how her book ended up in the attic of my parents.

Nancy said: Pearl said she was entranced with Baldwin’s book because it was a world she would never know.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Fathers, Mothers, Sisters, Brothers: the Family of the Clergy” (p 86).


In Search of Safety

Kuklin, Susan. In Search of Safety: Voices of Refugees. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2020.

Reason read: this is an Early Review from LibraryThing. Although I am hardly reading anything these days, this was too important to ignore.

In Search of Safety is comprised of five refugee stories from five different parts of the world yet all have two common threads. All five stories are of individuals seeking safety despite varying circumstances. They all end up in the United States in, of all places, Nebraska.
Fraidoon from Afghanistan, Nathan from Myanmar, Nyarout from South Sudan, Shireen from Northern Iraq, and Dieudonne from Burundi. Each refugee demonstrates remarkable courage, strength and, above all, trust to journey to America. In Search of Safety is compassionate and Kuklin is respectful in telling each harrowing story. The book’s hidden strength is the amount of information in Part VI: Notes and Resources.

Book trivia: there is a great number of touching photographs and (in the published edition) maps.


Openhearted Audience

Haviland, Virginia, ed. The Openhearted Audience: Washington D.C.: Library of Congress, 1980.

Reason read: Pearl included this in the chapter called “Your Tax Dollars at Work” and tax filing time is normally April. Read in memory of normalcy.

Openhearted Audience is a collection of essays (actually lectures given in observance of National Children’s Book Week, (in November) at the Library of Congress) by authors who primarily write books for children:

  • Pamela Travers who wrote the Mary Poppins series (which is not on my list).
  • Maurice Sendak who wrote so many good books (everyone knows Where the Wild Things Are). None are on my challenge list, though. I liked what he had to say about New York, “Now, the point of going to New York was that you ate in New York” (p 32). Amen.
  • Joan Didion who wrote Miami, which I finished for the challenge and Play It as It Lies which will be read later. she wanted to know what it means to write for children as opposed to adults. Is there stigma attached to writing for a less developed intelligence?
  • Erik Haugaard who made the point about sharing art. I have often wondered why it is important to us that people first agree, then like, our recommendations where art is concerned. the fact we can find ourselves offended when one doesn’t share our opinions, or worse, dislike the recommendation mystifies me. Even though we didn’t produce the art, write the book, or make the movie, we feel rejected somehow; as if the art we presented were our own.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin who wrote The Wizard of Earthsea (her first book for children).
  • Ivan Southall who said “Life is more than blunt reaction” (p 87).
  • Virginia Hamilton who won the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1969.
  • Jill Paton Walsh who won the Whitbread Literary Award in 1974.
  • Eleanor Cameron who talks of dreams.
  • John Rowe Townsend who was both a critic and a children’s writer.

Author Editor fact: Haviland interviewed Sendak. I wonder what that experience was like because he seemed like a curmudgeon.

Book trivia: Openhearted Audience is full of great illustrations.

Nancy said: Pearl didn’t say anything about this selection. In fact, she didn’t pick it. A librarian from Illinois sent Pearl a list of government documents people should read and Openhearted Audience was included.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust as mentioned before in the chapter called “You Tax Dollars at Work” (p 239).


More Than Petticoats

Kennedy, Kate. More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Maine Women. Guilford, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 2005.

Reason read: to satisfy a Portland Public Reading Challenge category: Maine history.


More Than Petticoats is a series of biographies focusing on historically significant women by location. I believe every state in the country has a book and some states, like California, have a second volume. For the Portland Public Library Reading Challenge, I read More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Maine Women. Thirteen biographies of some women you might know and others you may not recognize: Marguerite-Blanche Thibodeau Cyr, Kate Furbish, Abbie Burgess Grant, Lillian M.N. Stevens, Sarah Orne Jewett, Cornelia “Fly Rod” Crosby, Lillian “La Nordica” Norton, Josephine Diebitsch Peary, Florence Nicolar Shay, Marguerite Thompson Zorach, Florence Eastman Williams, Sister R. Mildred Barker, and Margaret Chase Smith. From 1738 – 1995. I love Maine’s rich history. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Sarah Orne Jewett, Franklin Pierce. I could go on and on.

As an aside, my sister takes pictures of a water fountain close to her library. I now know the history of the girl: the Women’s Christian Temperance Union dedicated the fountain to Lillian M.N. Stevens. Very cool.

Confessional: I want to visit Abbie Burgess Grant’s grave. According to Kennedy, Grant is buried in the Forest Hill Cemetery in South Thomaston. Her final resting place should be easy to find. Her headstone is the one with the lighthouse.
I also want to visit Sarah Orne Jewett’s house in South Brunswick. I hear it’s open to the public. I should just go on a Maine Women vacation.


The 21

Mosebach, Martin. The 21: a journey into the land of Coptic martyrs. Translated by Alta L. Price. Walden, New York: Plough Publishing, 2019.

Reason read: Early Review selection from LibraryThing.

At the very least, The 21 is a thoughtful examination of the martyrs and their humble lives before they became regarded as saints. Mosebach travels to their villages, respectfully meets with their families, and comes away with a poignant picture of stoic grief and outward pride in equal emotion. The most important element to this story is its power to move people regardless of their personal beliefs. Mosebach was compelled to tell the stories of the men in orange; martyrs compared to Jesus on the cross, exposed and seemingly calm before the facing impending execution. The aftermath was just as heart wrenching as the deaths. What those families had to go through just to bring the bodies home; how they needed to search the desert sand for the bodies first before their sons, brothers, and husbands could be buried in El-Aour as saints. Imagine: sixteen of the twenty one had been neighbors; living on the same narrow lane. Unimaginable: each home had an identical iPad so families and loved ones could watch the full, unedited version of the executions. This goes to show you how differently western culture views tragedy. The families of El-Aour proved the enemy had not won as the desired effect had not been achieved. Despite all that, The 21 was a hard book to read.

Author fact: Mosebach is also an accomplished poet.

Book trivia: The 21 was originally published in Germany in 2018 and became a best seller. The foreward was written by the Archbishop of London.

Publisher trivia: Plough is a faith publication whose mission is to find common ground with all.