2020 Reading–May

My list of completed books this month is a little light because I was participating in an online class–both teaching and learning, which was interesting and the subject of another post–that met three nights a week, cutting into prime reading time for me. But here are the books I did finish:

The Dictionary of Unspellable Noises by Clint McCown is a collection of new and selected poems, although the organization of the book is different from other “new and selected” volumes I’ve seen. Instead of grouping poems together by the books in which they first appeared, McCown has given us sections that draw from several different books and add new ones to the mix. It’s been a pleasure to read a couple of these every morning before I start work, enjoying the personal nature of the poems about McCown’s work on the land and his relationships with family and friends. But two poems really stood out for me. In “Uncertainty” the speaker engages in conversation with a pine forest. And in a similar vein, in “Lamentation in Tennessee,” he speaks to the wind. Both poems address serious questions in a humorous way, as does a similar poem in which he listens to Death tell jokes.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett was engaging enough, but isn’t my favorite Patchett novel. It tells the story of a house, sort of, but it’s really about the Conroy family, told from the point of view of Danny, with a focus on his relationship with his older sister, Maeve, and their parents, Cyril and Elna. Cyril has moved the family into a fancy house in a suburb of Philadelphia. Elna hates it, largely because she is more cut out for a life of serving the poor (she left a convent to marry Cyril). She leaves (running of to India to work in an orphanage) and Cyril marries Andrea, who is sort of a wicked stepmother trope. Upon Cyril’s sudden death by heart attack, she throws Danny out of the house, and he goes to live with Maeve in her tiny apartment, until they figure out that there is a trust that will pay for his education, first in prep school and then Columbia, and then medical school, which Maeve wants him to make maximum use of to spite Andrea. Life goes on and the house never really leaves their lives, through all the twists and turns that make the second half of the book somewhat engaging. This was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this year (last month’s read, The Nickel Boys, was the winner), and I’m not really sure why.

The Evolution of the Southern Back Country: A Case Study of Lunenburg County, Virginia 1746-1832 by Richard R. Beeman. A few years ago, I discovered that ancestors of mine from Scotland settled in Lunenburg County Virginia in the mid-18th Century after a brief stay in Pennsylvania. Because I was born in the Midwest but currently live in Virginia, I found that information particularly interesting and made the trip to Lunenburg (about two and a half hours away) to see what I could learn. I stayed at a very nice B&B and discovered that the host was very much into genealogy and local history. He took me to the courthouse and showed me where I could find the records I was looking for. I spent a great day looking at old deeds and such. He also recommended this book, which I was able to order and have finally gotten around to finishing. It is dry and extremely detailed and took me a long time to get through, but it’s an impressive (if incomplete) account of the area during the period that my ancestors were here. (They moved on to Tennessee around the turn of the 19th Century and then, eventually, to Iowa.)

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan was my book club’s selection for this month, and I certainly learned from it. One thing I learned is that many policy choices we make now have long-term consequences. Although I fished on small inland lakes with my family often during my youth in the Midwest—almost always in northern Minnesota—we never fished on the Great Lakes. We did cross the Mackinac Bridge once or twice, taking the long way just for kicks (and to visit relatives in the UP), but that was it. So my experience with the Lakes is pretty much limited to living on the shore of Lake Michigan when I was in college and then as a young lawyer in Chicago. Even then, except for a little sailing, the lake was something more to look at than use. In any event, it was fascinating to learn about the various invasive species that have created problems in the lakes, for which the author primarily blames the St. Lawrence Seaway traffic (the lamprey, alewives, mussels) and then the Chicago Canal (carp).

Claire, Wading into the Danube by Night by Jeffrey Condran is a fine collection of short stories with a variety of settings—England, Ireland, Bratislava, Pittsburgh. One of my favorite stories in the book is “Cupcakes” about a guy who drives a Hostess Cupcake delivery truck and brings home sugary snacks that are past their sell-by dates to eat with his girlfriend, who is a little nuts, or more than a little (and I doubt that the sugar diet helps). She’s not the only unbalanced woman in the collection either. In the title story, which concludes the book, Claire disappears and the narrator tries to track her down by going to Bratislava, where she was last heard from. In “Gepetto’s Workshop,” a story about a bookstore, the main character has returned to Pittsburgh after a long absence spurred by a woman whose alcoholism pushed him away. And so on. Very good stuff.

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