Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Unearthed: How an Abandoned Garden Taught Me to Accept and Love My Parents, by Alexandra Risen. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016

Just as the author and her husband buy an acre property just outside downtown Toronto, her father dies. This doesn’t make much of a difference in Risen’s life; in her entire life he has hardly ever spoken to her. He didn’t ignore her; he would work on projects with her- silently. That was pretty much their only interaction. It wasn’t that he couldn’t speak; her parents had long, loud arguments all the time. Her mother, always working in the garden or putting food by, is now alone and getting fragile, and has always preferred Risen’s older sister; she also almost never spoke to her younger daughter. The restoration of their new house and property, a chunk of a former large estate, is narrated concurrently with Risen’s quest to understand her parents.

The reason that the author was so taken by this rundown and overgrown piece of property is that it’s on a ravine and is like a piece of forest in the urban setting. As a child, she would escape into the forested ravine behind her house, spending hours there away from her parents, who apparently didn’t care that she was never home. It’s also a challenge, I suspect; if she can make this garden beautiful and orderly, maybe her gardener mother will finally think her worthy of love and attention. Sadly, over the ten years of so it takes to renovate the acre, her mother has a stroke and then develops dementia. Despite Risen’s insistence that she get on a plane and visit, she will never see this piece of property. But when the author and her sister clean out her mother’s place as she is moved to a home, they find a cache of old papers- papers that may hold some answers to her questions about her immigrant parent’s origins.

I really felt for the author; like her, my now dead parents are a deep mystery. Unlike her, there is no folder of hints or clues, but her search for answers struck a chord with me. The urge to know where one came from is, I think, fairly universal, and to have parents who never speak of the past leaves a hole in one’s heart. I’m also an avid gardener, and would love to have a property with old oaks, a redwood, a spring fed pond, and an old falling down pagoda. I understand the amount of work it would take to bring a place like that back into orderliness, although I have no comprehension of the amount of money it took them with all that they hired to have done- had the concrete pagoda rebuilt, professional arborists, landscape designers, a pool installed- their place is the proverbial money pit.

Risen does remember her mother’s lessons on wildcrafting; each chapter ends with a recipe or craft done with plants from the land. Risen also chronicles her son growing up; he’s not very much into gardening-he’s a computer kid- but he does enjoy the paths and the pond, wildlife, and some of the crafts. The garden provides them with ways to be closer.

The story is bookended by deaths; the author’s father begins it and her mother’s ends it. Risen has not found the answers she wanted, but she has learned some of what made them who they were. And she feels they did, as my mother said she did, ‘the best they could’. I really liked the book, even though I found the author frustrating at times as she had moments of immaturity. I stayed up nights reading it, and thinking about it when I was out gardening.

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something- anything- from Amazon they will give me a few cents. 

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine program in return for an unbiased review. 

neither of these things influenced my review.  

The Bee-Friendly Garden, by Kate Frey and Gretchen LeBuhn. Ten Speed Press, 2016

Did you know that there is a bee called the polyester bee? I didn’t. Upon reading the name, I didn’t know if the little critter made poly cocoons that were unwound like some silk substitute, or if their bee dance was disco. Turns out they exude a polyester compound instead of was or honey, but it’s not used for pant suits. It just lines their homes.

While honeybees are well known and mostly loved, there are a lot of North American native bees, too. They range from very small- green sweat bees- to big and fuzzy- the bumblebee, with everything in between. Bees, by the way, are vegetarian. It’s their cousins the wasps that walk on your sandwich, searching for a bite of your salami. Bees tend to be mild mannered and only sting when threatened.

This book covers the way a variety of bees live, eat, procreate, and pollinate. The landscape designer and the bee specialist together tell us what these creatures need from us as gardeners. Their emphasis is on plants- especially native plants- that provide food for the bees over as long a period as possible. They also specify what we can do to provide homes for them- other than honeybee hives and little blocks with holes for orchard mason bees, I’d never heard of or considered what bees use for homes. I’d never heard of carpenter bees that live in old wood, and, while I knew that some were ground dwellers (I learned that lesson the hard way; see: ‘sting when threatened’), it never occurred to me to leave areas with good soil with nothing on it for them.

The first part of the book tells us about the types of bees in North America. Then the authors concentrate on plants that are useful to them, from groundcovers to perennials to trees. Not all are native plants, but many are. The next section is on plants that are food for both humans and bees (many herbs are). Then they get down to things like how big a patch of pollen plants needs to be, siting the pollen patches, nesting sites, the need for healthy soil and plants, and water. Then the design portion- how to fit bee plants into various styles of garden- hint, replace your lawn with bee plants. There is even a chapter on becoming a bee activist- this book is definitely big on taking action. Finally is the obligatory plant lists.

I actually read this book from cover to cover- something I don’t usually do with garden books- and found it all very interesting. I’ve been very interested in inviting beneficial insects into my garden for years now, and this book told me a lot of things I didn’t know. There are flaws- their plant lists are fairly small and their recommendations get repeated a lot. I see bees using all kinds of plants they don’t list, but I understand that you can’t list every plant that’s useful; the list would be enormous. I very much recommend this book for anyone interested in making their garden a little more sustainable and helping the general ecosystem.

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something - anything- from amazon, they will give me a few cents. This in no way influenced my review.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, & Other Literary Essays, by Cynthia Ozick. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016

 Ozick, novelist, essayist, and literary critic, doesn’t like ‘lay’ book reviewers, such as write reviews for Amazon, Library Thing, and book blogs, so it’s highly ironic that I, one of the unlettered masses, am reviewing her book. Not that I consider myself a literary critic; I haven’t the education. I do not (usually) read to pick out the symbolism or themes; once in a while those things throw themselves in my face. But citizen reviewers and literary critics are two different things and serve different purposes. Literary criticism is for those who wish to go deep into books and dissect them finely. Reviews are for people looking for something interesting to read. We can coexist, our realms never really touching. At any rate, that is the essay that opens the book, like a blast over the bow.

The rest of the pieces are essays on various authors from the past and present, subjects such as how the terms ‘Kafkaesque’ and ‘Orwellian’ have become degraded, and why we need true critics to preserve literary fiction. It’s really rather brilliantly written and interesting, even for someone without any college classes in literature. One essay is about some Americans who wrote in Hebrew- they weren’t affiliated in any way, they just happened to do it during the same period of time. I’d never heard of them, and will almost certainly never read them even if I could find translations, but it’s fascinating to know about them. Ozick positions Harold Bloom as the pinnacle of literary criticism; I probably agree, even though I feel that he looks down on the common reader.

The writing itself is actually fun to read; I loved her complicated sentences and her broad vocabulary. She is not going to write down in quest of a wider audience. I suspect this book may become a text for some literature classes down the road. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something- anything- Amazon will give me a few cents. 

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine program in return for an unbiased review. 

Neither of these things influenced my review.