So—just for funsies—I’m reviewing books again. The bad news is that I have quite a backlog. For many years I barely read at all, but during the last two years, I’ve become a fan of Audible.
Most of what I read is plant-related writing, but you’ll notice there are literary additions. Writers from the South have long held my interest, and as I continue to foster my own relationship with that region, I still savor the graphic and dramatic writing of the region’s best writers as I did when I was young.
As for what’s going to make this fun, I’m going to be honest—brutally honest! I could look up and read long summaries and analyses of each book, rehashing them to sound clever as I would have in a literature class, but this is a blog post. I hope to share more with you about the impressions I’m left with long after listening.
1-The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd (written during the 1940s, published in 1977)
This is some of the best writing I’ve read in years. It’s written in a poetic prose by a woman who can be considered a modernist writing about nature in the Highlands of Scotland. When pressed to compare it to another, the first name that popped into my head (one I have not uttered in decades since I included it on my surrealist literature syllabus) is: Djuna Barnes. Most readers tend to dislike modernism and often refer to it as not being accessible—but I’m not one of those people.
Modernists didn’t always want to leave you with a narrative story. Frequently, there’s no instructive lesson, or clever twist. Through words, through literary devices, they left readers with feelings, experiences, showing us that words matter and can be used in novel ways. This book does that with hiking in the mountains. I’m left with beautiful impressions more than anything else. It literally felt like I was there too. My skin felt the wind, my eyes saw as she did.
It has inspired a cult of Nan, and I recommend listening to the version of it I heard, as read by Tilda Swinton. Who doesn’t want Tilda reading to them and she of all people can mouth the names of Scottish places much better than I.
2-The Violent Bare it Away by Flannery O’Connor (1960)
Writing sometimes needs to be dramatic. Or at least for me, sometimes I enjoy drama and action in a story. If there needs to be a moral twist, and something real to fill you with disgust and rage, then Flannery O’Connor might be the writer for you. She reminded me of Truman Capote when I was younger, but less so now. For this reason, to see how her work felt to me as an older woman, I wanted to return to her novels decades later to better understand her realism. She has deeply influenced my own interest in writing for years, but I’ve never been able to explain exactly how or why. (I’m still working on that.)
I first read her famous short story “A Good Man in Hard to Find” as a student around 1995. To this day, it is still one of the best short stories I think I’ve ever read. This story, as well at the work of Capote, led me deeper into the connection I’ve long had to the Southern Gothic genre. Don’t get me wrong though, O’Conner was a devout Catholic, and her writing is religious, but NOT AT ALL in the way that you’d think. That’s kind of the twisted bit.
For me, as I’m returning to being a reader (and more of a writer) after two decades, I’m seeing both activities completely differently than I did beforehand. I don’t want to give too many details of this story away. I only want to say that it goes awry, showing the worst ways in which religious beliefs can change the lives of ignorant people, infecting them, leading them to violent acts, ruining everything that could have been good about them, while destroying the lives of others.
Like her short story that I love so much—with one of the best lines in American literature that to this day has left me haunted since it concerns gun violence—this novel too will leave you with questions for a long time to come, and for me, it’s a window not only into the culture of the American South, but into who we are as animals with speech, memory, and opposable thumbs.
3-Second Nature by Michael Pollan (1991)
My mind is nearly always in contrarian mode so when a large number of people like anything or anyone, I question why. I always begin with the same question, “What is it about this writer’s voice, or this style of thought (or design) that’s made it so popular right now?” While this may sound like a dull way to spend one’s time, I’ve found that it’s created conversations worth listening to, and still, to this day, I’ve learned a lot by thinking about this, and bringing it up as a discussion with others.
There is likely no need for me to introduce any of you to Michael Pollan. He’s written many successful books, on a wide range of topics. I didn’t want to like him. I didn’t automatically enjoy his own narration of his book. His assured tone bothered me at first, it felt very cocky and privileged, but as I continued listening, I very much enjoyed the way in which it was crafted and the stories about himself that he’d chosen to tell. He’s good at this game.
His studio in the woods of the NE was sort of a sensitive and yet manly version of Thoreau. What he tied into this though was an introduction to some basic practices (and frustrations) in gardening that he’d learned over the years, combined with chunks of memories, tied up with facts, a lot of cultural history, and honestly, some amusing anecdotes about his family and childhood.
He is a contemporary voice and his garden writing is interesting when he does it. I hope his work inspires others, and I hope it can encourage new voices.
4-The Well-Gardened Mind by Sue Stuart-Smith (2020)
My first purchase on Audible was this title so I read it not long after it came out. I immediately identified with the author on several points. Having also had a member of my family damaged by war who spent his life dealing with his PTSD by gardening, combined with the fact that I worked in social work, helping many people in crisis, always trying to encourage anyone I saw suffering to be in the green world, to spend time quietly engaging in fostering life, this book spoke to me and I remember thinking if I’d held it in hand, I would’ve been underlining lots of ideas.
Sometimes the book was a bit choppy though, and it felt a bit like reading case studies. Passages felt more like summaries in scientific papers—but so it goes when the author is more of a physician. The medicalization was sometimes difficult for me, but that’s only because at the time I read this book, I was still in the midst of my own seemingly never-ending illness narrative that went on for decades. It just wasn’t a great time for me to listen to it.
I don’t blame anyone (including myself) for not having the patience at times to empathize well with the suffering of others. The pandemic has really given us all thin skin in this department. Recently I learned about compassion fatigue and while this book was wonderful, I felt a bit drained by the end of it. As I continue to walk away from the medicalization of my own life experience now, I think this book might feel a bit less heavy to me.
So maybe this little review is not completely fair, but I do think that you need to be in the right frame of mind to really enjoy this one. There is a lot to value in it, and I very much agree with what the author has to share.