Kindness Odds and Ends

Dedicating the Little Free Library

I have been following Alys’s blog, Gardening Nirvana, for a while. In every post she comes through as a thoughtful woman, one who cares about the world in which she lives. Over the last few months she has been telling us about her Little Free Library — the one she built right on her nature strip. (To be truthful, Nick built it, but Alys was the driving force.) Her inspiration came from……well, read her post about the Dedication and find out for yourself. It is a wonderful idea that deserves to be shared, just like the joy of reading deserves to be shared too. Thank you Alys, and all the others who have Little Free Libraries.

Gardening Nirvana

Warm temperatures and a cool breeze were a welcome gift Saturday during  the Little Free Library dedication.

The idea for little libraries started in Wisconsin in 2009

Todd Bol built a model of a one-room schoolhouse as a tribute to his mother, a former school teacher who loved reading.  He filled it with books and put it in his front yard.  His neighbors and friends loved it, so he built several more and gave them away. Each one had a sign that said FREE BOOKS.

Little Free is now a non-profit as well as a movement, spreading the love of reading around the world.

I dedicated The El Codo Way Little Free Library, to two of our local teachers, Debbie Hughes Judge and Carolyn Sullivan. Carolyn and Debbie (now retired) are highly regarded 2nd grade teachers at Bagby Elementary School. They were instrumental in supporting the Books at…

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Books of the Month

March Books ~ A Chinese classic, a murder mystery to absorb you and Neil Gaiman

Red Sorghum ~ Mo Yan

I am finding it very difficult to sum up this book for you.

The story covers three generations of a Chinese family, with most of the events happening in the late 1930s, during the occupation of China by Japan. As you can imagine it is brutal, with descriptions that made me hurriedly turn the page. Most of this horror takes place in the sorghum fields around the village of Northeast Gaomi Township, which Mo Yan describes with delicacy and love. On the one hand the brutality, on the other beauty.

Mo Yan has been lauded for this book. It has won awards and been made in to a film. The extracts on the blurb sing his praises, as these extracts are meant to do. He has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. So, it is my ignorance that makes me wonder what the fuss is about. It may be that I am so familiar with literature from the European tradition that the moment I step out of my comfort zone I am flummoxed.

I liked the way Mo Yan used flashbacks. Often they were not directly related to the event that had just happened, but instead built on other happenings. Some of the stories he tells are wonderful. The way that Grandma and Granddad meet is just lovely and Beauty’s ordeal in the well was heart rending.

But towards the end I found that the plot unravelled. I never did find out if Grandma was buried, but that may have been because, by this stage, I was skimming through battle scenes. The last chapters only brought us up to date on minor characters. I finished it feeling rather dissatisfied.

Also, I found that the characters were rather cartoon like ~ in the best graphic novel way, not in the Disney fashion. Again, this is probably my lack of understanding of Chinese literature. The European tradition is big on the internal dialogue of characters. There was little of that in Red Sorghum, so that often I was at a loss to know what the character was feeling beyond the broad outlines of anger, fear, love, bravery and so on.

I am glad I read it. Granddad and Grandma will stay with me for a while, as will the fields of red sorghum. However, I am glad that I finished it because now I can settle into reading something that is less challenging.

And that something was the latest Louise Penny novel, How the light gets in. I have spoken about her series before.

In January I read A Beautiful Mystery, where Armand Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvior investigated a murder in an abbey in the wilds of Quebec. The end left me gasping, and if I had had this next one I would have begun it there and then — there was the lounge room sofa and then was about 12:30 at night! Instead I had to get it from the library, all the while thinking “Jean-Guy, Jean-Guy, non, non, non”.

And I could have read this one in one sitting, leaving the dishes to pile up and losing quite a bit of sleep. But I also wanted to make it last. I am not going to tell you anything about the plot, because anything I said would be a spoiler. I will say that I was gripped from the first and loved every page-turning moment. I will also say that if you are going to read any of Penny’s books, start at the beginning, with Still life because the machinations within the Surete build on from book to book. I do hope you enjoy them.

American gods ~ Neil Gaiman

This is another sprawling book that is very difficult to sum up. However it was much more familiar than Red sorghum.

It would be a thriller, and a murder mystery, and a romance, and a road trip. It would be about the migrant experience, about what people believed in when they came to America. And about what happened to the things that they believed.

Gaiman wrote this in an essay, describing how he came to write the book. The book revolves around the gods that migrants bring to America. Over time those gods are forgotten and are left to live at the edges of society, while other gods rise — gods of electricity and other modern phenomenon. The plot is built up to a battle between the two groups.

It is a ‘long hard look into the soul of America’, as the blurb says. But it is a quirky look too. Gaiman, like Terry Pratchett, looks at the world in a different way to most of us. His stories make me look at something familiar and think “I have never thought about it like that before”. He does that within a fabulous, page-turning story.

One of the great strengths of the book are his characters. Even the minor ones are well rounded and credible. I loved Shadow’s dead wife Laura.  Mr. Nancy, Jacquel, Easter and the other gods Shadow and Wednesday recruit, add life and interest to the story.

The main character is Shadow. We follow him through the story, through his work with Wednesday, his dreams, his life in Lakeside, and at the battle at the end of the story. To want to follow him through the 600 plus pages of the book we have to believe in him and want to know how things are resolve, how he ends up. That tells me that Gaiman has created such a strong and believable character.  

What have you been reading lately. Anything that you think I might enjoy?


Books of the Month

November Books

It’s a while since I have published about the books I am reading. I have been reading, just not letting you know. 🙂

So, this month I found a new author, reread an old book and read others from two of my favourite authors.

The new author:

Kate Griffin — “The Minority Council” 

Matthew Swift has become the Midnight Mayor, the person who keeps Londoners safe ~ “the protector of the city, the guardian of the night, the keeper of the gates, the watcher on the walls.”  He does that by using magic, the magic of the city, electricity.

London, a city I love, is a major character in the story. It made me wonder about the other cities that could have so many layers, physical and metaphorical. Melbourne doesn’t have them yet, but places like London and New York certainly do. I think it is about history and diversity and literature and class, that all mix together to allow writers use these cities as such powerful, believable characters

But it is the night streets that is Swift’s world and magic is woven into the fabric of that world.

As we moved, our shadow turned and turned again, a sundial’s darkness moved by street glow, and our shadow was not our own. Sometimes we thought it had wings of black dragon-leather. Sometimes we thought its hands dripped, staining the cracks in the paving stones as it passed. I could feel the places where the bikers moved, those thin points in the architecture of the city where here became like there and it was possible to jump the gap without mucking around with the spaces in between. Ley lines crackled underfoot, following the passage of the underground tunnels, the old water pipes, the silent whirling gas, the dance of electricity. We put our head to one side and could hear the voices in the the telephones lines overhead…

It is a cruel world. Young vandals have their souls sucked out by vigilante monsters. Fairy dust is the newest drug.

“Are we talking …. like cocaine?”

“Yeah, if getting screwed out of your fucking brain by a sex goddess is like going five minutes with your grandma in the rain.”

And the fairy godmother is no fairy godmother

“You really have no idea, have you? Fairy godmother is going to take you down, chop you up and serve you as sushi.”

But then Swift is not really himself either.

I loved Griffin’s London. I loved how the magic was an integral part of it. I loved her writing. Listen to another passage, where again she describes a London just below the surface.

We walked through the subways beneath Waterloo, where the beggars huddled beneath changing light and white stalagmites that hung from the ceiling cracks, and south again, past the silent black guns of the Imperial War Museum and towards that strange place where distances started to warp and the centre of the city met inner city and had a fight that left both bleeding by the one-way signs.

This is the fourth in a series. I dislike starting a series in the middle, but it happens when you randomly pick a book from the Library shelves. So I will find the others, and begin at the beginning. I recommend that you do too.

The book from my shelf:

Diane Ackerman: The moon by whale light

It is subtitled: ‘and other adventures among bats, penguins, crocodilians and whales’. You may remember that I enjoy reading natural history books, and I enjoyed reading this for a second time. Ackerman is a journalist with a fascination for the natural world. She travelled to many places to gather the information for the book. At one point she was lying on top of alligators, holding them down while scientists took samples, measured length and teeth, and determined their sex. She describes all the creatures in her book with love, and makes you love them too — if only for the time of reading! I am not sure that her writings would foster a love of saltwater crocodiles.

As you can tell from the title, Ackerman has a beautiful, poetic way of writing. She is in Patagonia to be with the whales:

At sunset, an orange fur lay along the horizon and the sea grew blue-grey. Areas of wet sand, exposed by the withdrawing tide, shone like an array of hand mirrors. Venus appeared overhead, bright as a whistle blow, with the small pinprick light of Mercury at its side. As night fell, the shallows shimmered like ice and the frantic winds began to sound like freight trains.

And then to Antarctica to be with the penguins:

The mountains, glaciers and fjords bulged and rolled through endless displays of inter-flowing shapes. The continent kept turning its shimmery hips, and jutting up hard pinnacles of ice, in a sensuality of rolling shifting, cascading landscapes…..And yet it could be blindingly abstract, harrowing and remote, the closest thing to being on another planet, so far from human life that its desolation and iciness made you want to do impetuous, life affirming things: commit acts of love…..touch voices with a loved one by way of a satellite… passionate and daring, renew the outlines of your humanity.

I am not sure if it is in print. If you come across it, snap it up and enjoy.

Two more books from two of my favourite authors:

Terry Pratchett: Snuff

It is not as funny nor weird as many of his other Discworld stories. But it is funny and it does have weird bits. And it has many of his familiar and wonderful characters. Sam Vines goes on holiday and soon finds that the countryside is a hot bed of mayhem and murder — as well as a lot of poo.

However, as in many of his books, Pratchett makes comment on our world. This time he addresses racism. As reviewers on Goodreads have said, there is a darkness in this novel. The Goblins are the lowest of the low, vilified, on the margins of Discworld society and blamed for the ills of the world. Sam Vines investigates the murder of a young goblin girl and helps to uncover many prejudices, and worse. As well he learns much about the unexpected complexities of the Goblin culture.

Louise Penny: A rule against murder

The fourth in her series of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. I find her books very difficult to put down. At the same time I want to, because I want them to last. I was transported to her world of the French Canadian countryside, and caught up in the terrible family that Gamache has to investigate. But he investigates with such patience, he listens to what is said, and what isn’t said. If I was a policeman I would want Chief Inspector Armand Gamache to be my boss!

But once I left the world I wondered about the family. It was so unlike mine that I found myself doubting, and thinking about the inconsistencies. Would they always behave with such cruelty to each other? Why do they return to each others’ company? The mother is so awful why did the step-father love her for so long, much less marry her? Would Marianna really be able to keep that secret about her child? (Notice how this is a Spoiler Free Zone? 🙂 ) If you have read it I would love to know what you think. Am I being naive?

However, it is not enough to make me stop reading her books. Again, I really enjoy her writing. Her characters are interesting and the settings well evoked. And the food they eat ~ delicious!

What have you been reading? Any recommendations? 

Books of the Month

March Books

Some books I read this month were disappointing, and one I didn’t even bother to finish. But others are definitely worth talking about, and reading. Copies of the first three books came from my local library. Hooray for libraries!!

So what have you been reading this month? Any that I can add to my list? Let me know in the comments.

Karin Altenberg: Island of wings

What I really enjoyed about this book was the new world that Altenberg took me to — the islands of St Kilda, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. It was a place and culture that I knew nothing about, and her novel is based on historical facts. (Although I wish I had googled images for the island before I read the book. Seeing the photos would have helped my understanding of the geography.)

In 1830 and Neil and Lizzie MacKenzie arrive on the island of Hirta. Reverend MacKenzie’s evangelical mission was to bring salvation to the islanders. He was committed to bringing them away from their pagan and uncivilised ways. “He had been chosen to relieve the islanders of their backward ways and show them the rightful path as drawn out by God and paved by the Church of Scotland.”

They were a community that needed help. It was a hard life, where food and fuel supplies often didn’t last the winter. Infant tetanus was rife and many infants died before they were 8 days old. But the land was worked communally, with daily meetings to determine what needed to be done. They had a rich oral culture and crime was virtually non-existent. By the time Reverend MacKenzie left in 1843, the islanders had moved into stone houses and were beginning to divide up the land into individual plots. (Life for the islanders continued to be a struggle, until the last of them left St Kilda in 1930.)

The story is the contrast between Neil, who is driven by his religious fervor to atone for past events, and Lizzie. She doesn’t speak Gaelic, and is isolated — from friendship, from occupation beyond looking after the children, and even from Neil.  She is very aware of the beauty of the island. Altenberg’s delicate descriptions of the island and bird life are often told through her eyes.

Rebecca Stott: Darwin and the barnacle

We all know of Darwin’s fame because of  “On the Origin of the Species by Natural Selection”, published in 1859. We also know that his voyage aboard the Beagle was crucial for his theory. However, I didn’t know how important his barnacle work was — or indeed that he had worked for eight years, from 1846 to 1854, on barnacles. Stott’s book, based on many primary sources, is a fascinating insight into Darwin’s world.

The first chapters recount Darwin’s study of marine invertebrates found on the sands of Leith, as well as his journey on the Beagle. However most of Stott’s book tells of those years Darwin spent dissecting and investigating barnacles. He thought he would only be taking a couple of years away from his theory on species. However, his notes on species lay in a drawer for those eight years, while he came to grips with barnacles. There were two main things he was trying to do. He was trying to classify the species of barnacles as well as attempting to understand how these species had evolved and diversified through time. Barnacles came to him from collectors around the world. Thank heavens for the new postal system!

Darwin’s health had always been poor. While he was doing his barnacle work he was undertaking the Water Cure, which as far as I can tell seemed to be daily immersions in cold water, as well as being wrapped in wet sheets. He was not allowed to work for more than a couple of hours each day. In 1851 his beloved daughter, Annie died. She was only ten, and naturally Charles and Emma were devastated.

Stott argues that these years were very important for Darwin’s future work on The Origins, and for his reputation in the scientific world.

“The barnacle years had been no cul-de-sac in the development of Darwin’s ideas. [Barnacles] helped him fine-tune the way he used homology and embryology to think about species’ origins and relations, they provided the foundation on which he continued to build his credibility, reputation and authority as a systematist, and they had been the means by which he had established a network of correspondents that would hold together and bolster that authority.”

Patricia Ferguson: The midwife’s daughter

In the early 1900’s midwife, Violet Dimond, adopts Grace. Grace resembles Violet’s own dead daughter — except that Grace is black. She grows up in a town in Cornwall, where she faces the whole range of experiences, from overt and subtle racism through blunt curiosity to automatic acceptance. Violet has a fierce determination to protect her and give her strength. Grace certainly has strength, which she needs to get her through an especially ugly patch. The story of her childhood and adolescence unfolds as we watch her develop into an intelligent and beautiful young woman. It is told against the backdrop of a small town coping with the trauma of WW1 and all the changes that it brings.

Violet is a midwife and her story is woven around Grace’s. She has attended most of the births in the town, and has an authority because of her presence at this primeval time. However she is a causality of the professionalisation of mid-wifery, when the authorities demand papers and qualifications. Is it for the better? At the end of Grace’s story Ferguson makes us wonder whether it is.

Helen Scales: Poseidon’s steed: The story of seahorses, from myth to reality

I have mentioned this delightful, informative book before, in my posts about seahorses and seadragons.

Simon Winchester’s review, quoted on the front cover sums up this book:

“This seems to be about the perfect book: small, delicate, elegant, charming, unusual, fascinating, and uniquely memorable, a classic of its kind. Poseidon’s steed is itself a sort of seahorse of the book world.”


Books of the Month

November books

Who doesn’t like a good read? Some that I read this November were:

Autumn Laing by Alex Miller

Miller thought he was going to write a book about a famous Australian artist, Sidney Nolan, which would have included his relationship with Sunday Reed. Sunday, with her husband John, owned land on the banks of the Yarra River in Melbourne. Their home, ‘Heide’, became a centre for artists who were pushing the boundaries of Australian art. They were looking for a way to tell the Australian story and not just follow the European one.

However, the voice of Autumn Laing, who is loosely based on Sunday Reed, dominated Miller’s mind and then his story. At the beginning of the novel Autumn is a feisty, farting old lady, who is furious to find that she feels the need for redemption. She begins to write the story of her affair with emerging, powerful artist, Pat Donlon (again, loosely based on Nolan), and the impact it has on her husband Arthur and Donlon’s wife Edith, as well as their friends.

I think Miller has two strengths. Firstly his ability to create characters. I enjoyed the way he wove his descriptions through the book and even the minor characters, such as Stony, have solidity and interest.

The second strength is the way he has the philosophical discussion about Australian art through the book. There is no polemic, but Miller looks at the issue from a range of different view points, from Edith’s to Louis’, and especially Donlon’s — don’t talk about it, just do it. And then there is Autumn’s realisation as she flies above inland Queensland

“Scrawled lines of green and gold and deep brown, random silver foil meanders, broken and uncertain in their courses, and white sky windows through to the world on the other side of this world. Australia was revealed to me as an elaborate, multicoloured etching; the vision of an unknown artists’s eye. A portrait of my country, unfamiliar to me, wrinkled and crumpled, scratched and scoured. Broken with abrupt shifts of tone and form, stains and inexplicable runs of colour one into the other, purple and rose madder, vast swathes of grey and fierce angry dragon spots of emerald green.” (p389-90)

It was our Book Club book for the month and our discussion was lively as we tried to come to grips with creativity, Australian art and truth  — accompanied, of course, by glasses of champagne, a cheese platter and a yummy orange cake. Thanks for suggesting the book Marie!

A castle in Spain by Matthew Parris

There are many books about Englishmen and women buying and renovating derelict houses in Mediterranean countries. Parris’ book is different because it is largely about the house, l’Avenc and the surrounding  Catalan countryside, rather than the trials and tribulations of builders and red tape.

L’Avenc is high on a cliff in the Collsacabra area in Catalunya (Catalonia), the hinterland of Barcelona. The house was partly Gothic and then added on to in the Renaissance. When it was bought by Parris, his sister and brother-in-law it had been deserted for decades. Rebuilding it took time and money, and skilled labour from local craftsmen.

I have become fascinated by the Pyrenees after a trip to south-west France earlier this year. This book fueled my interest in this area south of these magnificent mountains. He describes a landscape of rugged beauty and villages carved from stone, of walking tracks that take you along cliff tops and through gorges. An area to wander through and enjoy. And all of this just a short drive from the Costa Brava coast.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

Just when I thought I had read all the Prachett books in my library, another one jumps out at me from the shelf. This continues the fabulous Discworld series. Like the others, it kept me amused!