Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Books, and Bookish Thoughts, in February and March

One of my favourite pastimes is reading. I read many books in a year. Not as many as some folks, more than other folks. 


I try to read some every day, although I've been known to read a lot (words and hours) in a few short days, and I've gone for longer stretches of time without reading much at all


I read in part because I like to. I also read because I write, and reading helps me learn. And I read because I enjoy stories, and people, and challenging ideas, and other peoples' expertise. 


I do talk about books on social media. Twitter's #SundaySentence is a place where I both post sentences and learn a lot from others'. What I post on Instagram is usually an expanded version of my #SundaySentence.


I don't read to award stars. I don't always like the books I post about. I love many books I don't post about. 


And no, all of this explanation isn't an allusion to any of the books below. It's more to let you know where I'm coming from. 


That said, here are some books I've enjoyed lately. 



Woman, Watching: Louise de Kiriline Lawrence and the Songbirds of Pimisi Bay

Merilyn Simonds

 “ ‘Time is filled to the brim with the greatest experience of all, the doing of something worthwhile.’"


This biography of one of the foremost naturalists in the 20th century—who lived in Northern Ontario and happened to be a woman—is engaging and stimulating. It’s also a portrait both of its subject, Louise de Kiriline Lawrence, and its author, Merilyn Simonds.


The quote above is from one of Louise’s letters to a contemporary, naturalist Doris Spiers. It encapsulates much of her work ethic. Her life is too colourful for a quick synopsis, but suffice to say she always looked for a way to be “doing something worthwhile.”

 

It’s a thoroughly researched and footnoted biography, but never dull. I came away from it with an even greater respect for both Merilyn Simonds (imaging corralling all that research!) and Louise.

 

More quotes below.

 

“Louise was not na├»ve: she knew how much she still had to learn.”

 

“I have no delusions about my artistic talent. But I know that drawing helps me see in a different way, makes me more inquisitive about what I’m looking at, a spiral into deeper understanding. Every drawing becomes an investigation, an opportunity to grasp some elusive detail.”

 

“The silence in the forest, Louise believed, represented more than the loss of avian music. Song was a form of speech—the means by which a bird declared its territory, its eligibility to mate, its objection to intruders, its intention to drive off aggressors, its willingness to fight. After a stake had been successfully defended, song was a bird’s great, lyrical sigh of relief.”

 

“I had no binoculars. I carried no notebook. I just nibbled on my sandwich, away from the prying eyes of my sisters and parents, and I watched. I listened. The chickadees came close, chattering like little buddies, and I chattered back. The blue jays squawked like my mother’s clothesline.”

 

“She never tired of listening, never grew immune to the intense beauty of the birds, the trees, the weather, the land.”



The Periodic Table 

Primo Levi


 

“Our ignorance allowed us to live, as when you are in the mountains and your rope is frayed and about to break, but you don’t know it and feel safe.”


Primo Levi was a Jewish chemist in Italy, and this book combines fiction nonfiction to fill gaps of his life as a chemist in the 20th century, before, during, and after the Holocaust. But the focus isn’t on the chemistry or the Holocaust; it’s on life.


His perspective gave me a brief window into how his mind works: he has a radically different understanding of the world than I do.

 

But some of his stories are familiar. Chemical research and even the reactions themselves can be incredibly exciting; they can also be dull. Chemistry in service to commerce can be interesting but its ultimate value depends on factors outside the chemist’s control. And often, practicing or researching chemistry in an institutional setting, whether a private company or a school or some other lab setting, is subject to the personalities of those you work with.

 

These are surface-level observations of a profound book. I recommend it if you’re interested in science, in nonfiction in general, in memoir in particular, and in how people lived through turbulent times.

 

More of his observations below.

 

“In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed, and the impurities of impurities in the soil, too, as is known, if it is to be fertile.”

 

“Yes, all mines are magical per se, and always have been.”

 

“But it appears that this is my fate (and I’m definitely not complaining about it): I am one of those people to whom many things are told.”

 

“It was a strange book: it would be hard to think of its being written and published in any other place than the Third Reich. The author was not without a certain ability, but every one of his pages gave off the arrogance of someone who knows that his statements will not be disputed.”


Field Study: Meditations on a Year at the Herbarium

Helen Humphreys


“A visit to the herbarium is an exquisite kind of time travel.”

 

In this book, organized around the seasons of the year, Helen Humphries recounts trips to the Fowler Herbarium at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, to look at plant specimens, many of them collected more than a century ago.


At a practical level, she looks at how people name specimens, the whole practice of “saving” plants by digging them up, the people who have the time and energy and drive to even find interesting plant specimens, and the process of archiving collections.


And of course, these lead to larger issues—what about the natural world provides challenges and solace to people at difficult times of loss.


It’s a beautiful book simply as a physical artifact, illustrated with photographs from the collection and a few of her own drawings.


I especially appreciated the paragraph below about the idea of a “wilderness,” whether at the herbarium or in her own life during this year.

 

“When I started this book, I had the idea that the herbarium was a kind of wilderness and I would enter it and see what I could find there, as though I were entering an actual wilderness, and the journey through the dried plants would yield some answers to my questions about humans and nature. But now at the end I realize that it turned out backwards. The herbarium was the steady thing, the constant thing, and it was my life that was the wilderness. During the year that I was looking through the plant specimens, I was, many times, in a kind of emotional wilderness—feeling the aftershocks of a decade of human deaths, and then experiencing the death of my dog while working on the book. One of the things that kept me grounded during this time was my exploration of the herbarium, the reassuring routine of looking through file after files of plant specimens. The process was comforting, reliable, at a time when I was feeling, more often than not, sad and adrift. How strange, and not strange, that things should turn out this way!”

 

“In this way the herbarium becomes a place, a landscape if you will, where the experience of people connecting with nature is revealed.”

 

“I think of Margaret Gatty, tromping up and down Britain’s southeast coast in men’s boots and women’s petticoats, taking her seaweed specimens home to draw and catalogue them. … It suddenly seems to me like a devotional exercise. And I feel joined across time to these collectors because this is also what my work in the herbarium, and my drawing practice, has been during this year—an act of devotion, the work of common prayer.”

 

“[W]hat I have realized is that life itself is an optimistic process. It is about regeneration and growth, about growth and change.”