Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Reading Update

The image above was posted on Facebook this week by Pascal Antoine, Founder and President at Haitixchange. I loved the sentiment it expresses. The Kreyol text says: "A locked-down country doesn't mean a locked-down mind. Take advantage of the opportunity to learn something new and make yourself better." (Peyi lock is what people are calling the current situation in Haiti, when we all stay home due to streets blocked with burning barricades.)

This is the Haitian way; make the best of things. I've seen it again and again during my time here. People don't sit around and mope; they get up and hustle and provide and try and keep trying. After the earthquake, I read this post about a new phrase, "Haitian up." "Hospital workers," reports the article, "say they've rarely seen patients so stoic in the face of horrific loss and adversity. 'We've created the phrase "Haitian up," says Dr. Justine Crowley, meaning, 'toughen up or buck up.'"

I have been trying to follow the advice to Haitian up and learn something new, and one way I do that is by reading books. I am very aware of the layers of privilege that have allowed me to spend large chunks of my extra time in these days reading. I have an education; I have access to books in my first language; I have enough to eat and drink to provide me with energy I need; I am healthy.

Here are some books I've been reading lately.

Book #93 of 2019 was Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry. My friend Janet, who wrote and published her dissertation on Wendell Berry, recommended this book in an email exchange about our daughters going to college and ways to navigate this enormous life change. This was my first Wendell Berry novel, and it won't be my last. "I began to know my story then," says Hannah when she loses her first husband. "Like everybody's it was going to be the story of living in the absence of the dead. What is the thread that holds it all together? Grief, I thought for a while. And grief is there sure enough, just about all the way through. From the time I was a girl I have never been far from it. But grief is not a force and has no power to hold. You only bear it. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery. Sometimes too I could see that love is a great room with a lot of doors, where we are invited to knock and come in. Though it contains all the world, the sun, the moon, and stars, it is so small as to be also in our hearts. It is in the hearts of those who choose to come in. Some do not come in. Some may stay out forever, some come in together and leave separately. Some come in and stay, until they die, and after....I am there with all the others, most of them gone but some who are still here, who gave me love and called forth love from me. When I number them over, I am surprised how many there are. And so I have to say that another of the golden threads is gratitude."

Books #94, #95, and #96 were the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, by Laini Taylor. (I read these on my Kindle, but the only link I can find to the trilogy is a boxed paperback set). I read these several years ago, and enjoyed them again the second time through. I really appreciate Laini Taylor's storytelling skill. Her characters are so believable, which is an odd thing to say about monsters and angels and people of other worlds, but a true thing. The story is absorbing and as such, a perfect series to read during my current life situation.

Book #97 was The Horse and his Boy, by C. S. Lewis. I've been reading this series since I was seven years old. These are the books I turn to when I need a comfort read.

(Quotes from the illustrations, in case you can't read them: "Don't speak to me, don't speak to me," said Tumnus. "I'm thinking. I'm thinking so that I can hardly breathe.Wait, wait, do wait." And then later, this perfect description: "One of the drawbacks about adventures is that when you come to the most beautiful places you are often too anxious and hurried to appreciate them; so that Aravis (though she remembered them years later) had only a vague impression of grey lawns, quietly bubbling fountains, and the long black shadows of cypress trees.")

Book #98 was A Better Man, by Louise Penny, the latest Chief Inspector Gamache novel. I like but don't love this series. I'm sure I'll read the next one, too.

Book #99 was Reckless in Red, by Rachael Miles. The author of this series, the Muses' Salon Series, is a friend from graduate school. I enjoy her knowledge of the period; a favorite scene in this book was the gathering of women discussing the recent revision Coleridge has put out of Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Other things I loved: the way the main character imagines everyone she meets as part of a painting, the plot twist involving grave robbery, the shop called The African's Daughter, run by Constance Equiano (I hope she'll be writing a book where this character is the protagonist).

Book #100 was John James Audubon: The Making of an American, by Richard Rhodes.
It took me a long time to read this book, not because I wasn't enjoying it, but because I so often reach for my Kindle instead of a giant book. My Kindle easily goes with me from place to place; it's lightweight and doesn't take up a lot of space. I can read it when I wake up in the night without turning on a light and waking my husband because it's backlit. In principle I prefer real books, but in practice I am afraid I am very much a convert to reading on the Kindle.

I liked this book so much, and learned so much from it. I am interested in Audubon for obvious reasons: he was born in Haiti and he loved birds so much that most people know his name today as the name of a bird conservation organization. My favorite quote from the book is from a letter to his wife, from whom he was separated for years by his work on his masterpiece Birds of America. "'For God's sake, my Lucy,' he added passionately, 'do not be troubled with curious ideas such as my liking the birds better than thee, &c., &c., &c. Come and be mine.'" The subtitle, "The Making of an American," refers to Audubon's life-long efforts to make himself part of his adopted country. (Another way to put that would be his life-long efforts to hide his origins. More on that fascinating topic can be found in this article, "Audubon's Haiti.") Audubon was forced by the prevailing culture of the day to be ashamed of his mixed race heritage and lived in fear of someone finding out.

One of the main reasons I read biographies is to learn about the struggles the subjects had. We all know what people are famous for, but a biography can show you more about what people worried about, what their financial issues were, how they failed, whom they loved. Audubon was a remarkable, one of a kind man, but he also had many problems. That he succeeded with his amazing achievement, Birds of America, is a testament to his perseverance and hard work. He had such a vision for what he wanted to do, and he just kept at it, even when those closest to him didn't really get it. He kept improving his artistic technique and knowledge. And he did like the birds. I don't know if he liked them more than Lucy, but it was at any rate close. It's so inspiring to read about someone motivated by a genuine passion for a scientific subject.

The other thing that I will remember from this book is Audubon's descriptions of the enormous bounty of wildlife when he was discovering America for himself. Again and again he tells of scenes where there were thousands of birds. Some of these birds are now extinct; the survivors exist in far smaller numbers today. Audubon saw it happening in his own lifetime. It's just heartbreaking to see what our ancestors did to slaughter everything they found. Audubon killed too, but at least he did it to preserve. We owe so much of what we know about birds to him.

I'm so thankful that these books are helping me get through this time of peyi lock. I'm going to keep reading! Send me suggestions for books you think I'd like!


Shannon said...

I just finished The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. It was beautiful--I love all her books.

Karen Edmisten said...

Oh, C.S. Lewis, and Wendell Berry. Speaking of healing balms, these are two of my favorites.