Books in June and Beyond

Here are some (not all!) of the books I've read in recent months. This crop is so interesting and rewarding to read. Your mileage, as the saying goes, may vary.

How High We Go in the Dark, Sequoia Nagamatsu



“But my parents are telling me stories about a simpler life that I never knew, the kind where you could go to the beach and not worry about the sand or the city beyond it being swallowed by the sea, one where an earthquake never took away my father’s job and we still woke up on a tiny street in a quiet neighbourhood in a bustling metropolis where everyone grew old together.”

This book is set in the near future, when scientists researching in Siberia find the body of a young girl in melting permafrost and thaw it out, thereby unleash a virus on the world. Imagine trying to sell that novel during the pandemic, which is what Nagamatsu did. And I’m glad!


The book ranges widely, beginning with the scientists and their backgrounds and continuing through a century or so by earth time, and far into the past and future. It’s not “about” a pandemic, and it’s not “about” climate change, though it’s also about both. Climate change is the force that set off this particular part of the story of Earth, and the virus is the way the characters show who they are.


What I’m really trying to say is that this book is so recognizably about people—how we treat each other, what we want for our loved ones, how we fail our families of origin but support strangers, how we honour our best intentions, how we bend rules when it’s someone we know, and many other permutations of human frailty. What does it mean to be human? What do we do with power? There’s so much in its pages. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.


A couple more random quotes.


“I think about making wishes at the star festival and my parents trying so hard to read and understand the stories I’ve written. I think about my father telling me about opportunities in life floating in the wind like seeds.”


“And in the operating room, as he’s slowly fading from anesthesia, I tell him about Frodo’s final journey, leaving Middle Earth with the elves, before I place my hand on his heart, now beating steadily for a boy two hundred miles away, and tell him thank you.”


When I Sing, Mountains Dance, Irene Solà


“When he dries his cheeks I make some coffee. I make coffee to keep my hands busy and to get the warm coffee into us. Because as long as you can still swallow, everything’s okay.”

This novel-in-pieces (maybe stories, maybe sketches, maybe vignettes), translated from Catalan by Mare Faye Lethen, was fascinating to read. The narrative follows generations of one family living in the Pyrenees. The prose is lyrical and rhythmic, and almost everything in this mountainous region can and does serve as a narrator, including the clouds.


Here are a few more samples of the prose:


“I keep all my poems in my head as if inside a tidy drawer. I’m a vase filled with water. Simple, fresh water like the springs and runnels. I lie down and the verses just pour out. And I never write them down. That would kill them. Because paper is sweet river water that gets lost at sea. It’s the place where all things fail. Poetry has to be free like a nightingale. Like a morning. Like the thing air at dusk. On its way to France. Or not. Or wherever it wants to go. I don’t have anything to write on, anyway, and no pencil.”


“There is no grief if there is no death. There is no pain if the pain is shared. There is no pain if the pain is a memory and knowledge and life. There is no pain if you’re a mushroom!”


“After our arrival all was stillness and pressure, and we forced the thin air down to bedrock, then let loose the first thunderclap.”


You Could Make This Place Beautiful, Maggie Smith

“This isn’t a tell-all.”


I really liked this book. I haven’t read a lot of memoirs lately, and especially not the most popular ones in the past five years, so I can’t compare it to something else current.


The memoirs I do read tend to be tied up to nature somehow, from salt marshes to natural backyard gardens. But I enjoy Maggie Smith’s poetry and I assumed this would be interesting and beautifully written, and of course it was.


It’s also extremely rewarding to read, and to read carefully. The structure itself is poetic, with themes and questions that recur, sometimes to repeat insights suspected before, sometimes to share a whole new understanding. The language is precise. And somehow lush.


It’s full of heart and honesty. One of her blurb buddies calls it a “memoir in vignettes,” which is apt, if you need to have a mental box to put it in. It’s prose but poetic prose. And it’s beautiful.


The story is familiar. A man and woman weave their lives together to create a family, with two children. But somehow the woman’s work isn’t as “real” as the man’s, and so she begins to make her work, herself, and her love for her work smaller so it’s less threatening to the man. Which doesn’t work. It never works, as I well know.


But the memoir itself is anything but typical. It’s nowhere standard. One example: she’s explicit in boundaries—her children and the stories they would tell aren’t part of this book. Parts of the way she and her kids manage as a family, through the dragged-out legal machinations, though, is fair game.


I’m trying so hard to not fan-girl, but honestly, I really liked this book, even as I understand it may not speak to everyone.


The Bumblebee Flies Anyway, Kate Bradbury


“The things we push back and refuse to deal with, they all come to bite us in the end.”

I loved this book, which combines memoir with nature writing. After a difficult breakup, Kate Bradbury buys a home in Brighton and begin reclaiming the back yard from thirty years of wood decking.


It sounds simple enough. But nothing is simple, and the charm for me is her honesty—even down to wondering why she cares about bees, and insects and birds, about neighbouring yards and the choices made there, and common-enough shrubs.


And then family stuff happens. As it does. And that, too, is threaded with deep concern, growth, doing what you can even though it’s never enough, and some resolution.


Entershine Bookshop staff hand-sold me this book, and I’m glad they did. More glorious observations below:


“Despite all the lushness and the ripening apples and the huge winter squash and the prospecting queen ants and egg-laying dragonflies, I'm worried about my house sparrows. Despite everything I've achieved in my garden, it will never be enough.”


“I spread compost on the soil, release plants from pots, move things around, divide and replant, take semi-ripe (nearly ripe) cuttings, bury the first of the autumn bulbs. Why am I doing this if I don't want to stay? Habit, I suppose. For the house sparrows, I suppose. Feed the soil and everything will follow, I suppose. Feed the earth, the detritivores, the centipedes and beetles, the roots of plants that will flower and seed and fill trellis and protect birds.”


“Of all the gardens I have loved and lost, this one holds a piece of me. This, with my DNA from cut hair and skin from scabbed knees, dust of feathers collected to top mud pies, buried pet rabbits. We're in the soil and the leaves, the birds, the bees, little pieces of them and me. This garden is still mine.”


“I close my eyes and lose myself in the hum and thrum of the wood, the hum and thrum of decades and centuries past and future. The hum and thrum that soothed people who are dead now, will soothe people yet to live. Highwaymen and time-travellers, the living and the dying, the long gone, the not yet born. Ashes and dust. All around me, little unseen insects work from one bloom to the next. I want to curl into a ball and sleep here forever.”


“Far below her now the woman sits on the lawn in her little parcel of recovered land. Grass sways in the breeze, flowers nod to lure bees. There are holly blue and speckled wood butterflies, a lone red admiral soaking up the sun. Leaves hide hoppers and miners, aphids and flies. Above the pond a second generation of common darter dragonflies dances for a mate. Life. It just needs a chance. We just need to give it a chance.”


I hope you're enjoying your own summer reading!