Day 1052: A Farm Dies Once a Year

Cover for A Farm Dies Once a YearA Farm Dies Once a Year is Arlo Crawford’s memoir of growing up on his parents’ organic vegetable farm in Pennsylvania. It focuses particularly on a summer and fall when Crawford returned to the farm as an adult.

Crawford had been living in New York and then Cambridge, Massachusetts, for years before he decided to return home to the farm for a few months before relocating with his girlfriend, Sarah, to San Francisco. Although he was never interested in farming, he found himself at a loss for what he wanted to do with his life.

In between descriptions of hard work and uncertainty on the farm and his father’s worry and fits of anger, Crawford tells the story of his parents’ decision to become farmers. He talks about the first years of difficult life in Appalachian Pennsylvania, his boyhood on the farm, and significant episodes, particularly the senseless murder of a family friend and neighbor when Arlo was 12.

This is a well-written account, evoking both the beauty of the countryside and the sheer hard work of farming a large operation and marketing the produce. It reflects Crawford’s ambivalent attitude toward his home and his parents’ legacy. I enjoyed it very much.

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Day 660: Straight Man

Cover for Straight ManSo far, I have enjoyed Empire Falls the most of Richard Russo’s novels, and Straight Man is at least also set in the rust belt, which he depicts so well. However, rather than being a depiction of small-town life, it is a rich spoof of academia. My husband, formerly the spouse of an academic, tells a joke, probably an old one, that the reason politics in academia is so vicious is that the stakes are so low. That these battles are being fought not on the campus of a great university but of an obscure college in a small Pennsylvania industrial town makes it more ironic.

William Henry Devereux, Jr., (Hank) sees himself as a bit of a rebel, although his rebelliousness mostly confines itself to snarky comments in faculty meetings and satiric opinion pieces on academic life in the local paper. He was once the author of a decently reviewed novel, but now he finds himself the interim head of the English department at a small Pennsylvania college.

Hank has been ignoring rumors that the college is to undergo stringent cuts on the grounds that the same rumors make the rounds every April. The faculty members in his department are constantly embattled, most recently over the job search for a new department head. Hank is better at enraging them than smoothing things over, and at the beginning of the novel suffers a wound to his nose when a professor hits him with her spiral notebook.

Maybe Hank wouldn’t have gotten himself into quite so much trouble, but his wife Lily is out of town on a job interview, and he is preoccupied by a possible kidney stone when he begins taking the rumors seriously. One of the reasons he has discounted them is that the college is breaking ground on an expensive new technology center and he can hardly believe they could claim financial problems requiring layoffs at the same time.

Such is the case, he finds, and with his department members all worried about their jobs, he chooses the groundbreaking ceremony to stage a protest, claiming he will kill a duck (which is in reality a goose) from the campus pond for every day he doesn’t get his budget. Soon he finds himself a minor media celebrity and a suspect of campus security when someone actually does kill a goose. In the meantime, his daughter’s marriage is imploding, he keeps imagining his wife is having an affair with the dean, his scholar father who years before deserted him and his mother for a graduate student is returning, and an attractive daughter of a colleague might be trying to seduce him. The events of this week force him to examine his relationship to his own life.

I found this novel both a bit over the top and amusing, as well as true. If I have a criticism, it is to wonder about some modern male authors’ fascination with bodily functions, and why they seem to think they’re funny. But I guess I can’t constrain this complaint to just novelists, because I’ve been staying away from comic movies for years for the same reason.

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Day 449: The Signature of All Things

Cover for The Signature of All ThingsBest Book of the Week!

I was not really eager to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love a few years ago for my book club, especially the pray part. But I discovered writing that was comic and intelligent and a story that was much more interesting than I expected.

In The Signature of All Things, Gilbert turns to fiction to tell the story of the life of a remarkable woman. Alma Whittaker is the daughter of a man born in poverty, the son of a frutier for Kew Gardens. Determined to become a wealthy gentleman, Henry Whittaker as a boy steals cuttings from the gardens to sell, and after he is caught, is dispatched by Sir Joseph Banks to gather plants on several voyages of discovery, including Captain Cook’s last.

Eventually, Henry breaks from Banks to start a pharmaceutical industry in Philadelphia. He marries a Dutch wife from a family of botanists and builds a series of greenhouses filled with plants from around the world.

Alma spends her childhood roaming the woods around her house and becomes a brilliant botanist but an unattractive girl and woman, tall and ungainly. She is much better with plants than with people, and when her mother Beatrix decides to adopt the beautiful orphaned daughter of a local prostitute, Alma is never able to develop a sisterly feeling for Prudence.

Although Alma spends much of her life there on her father’s estate, it is nonetheless an exceptional one, as she develops her own professional reputation, and eventually she ends up traveling farther than she ever expected she might. Gilbert takes time with her—time to develop her into a complex personality.

The course of her life takes a fateful turn when she encounters Ambrose Pike, an artist who has been living in South America and has painted the most beautiful pictures of orchids she has ever seen. Ambrose is of a spiritual turn of mind. He believes in the “signature of all things,” an old idea that god has left his imprint on everything on earth so that man will know its use. Although Alma, as a scientist, understands the fallacies in this notion, she finds she loves the man. But he has ideas about the pursuit of human perfection that she doesn’t comprehend.

This novel is beautifully written, completely different from Gilbert’s first book except for being a voyage through a human heart. I became fully engaged with Alma’s story. I grieved with her over her romantic disappointments and was impressed by how she snapped herself back into a productive life. This novel is an enthralling and satisfying story of an early woman scientist, about how a lonely but determined woman makes her own place in the world. Although Alma is not really a lovable person, Gilbert is able to make readers understand and care about her.

Day 413: Doll Bones

doll-bonesI just realized I had inadvertently reviewed a slew of historical novels in a row, so here’s something contemporary.

I really appreciate a children’s book that has as much to offer an adult as a child. I’m thinking of those books of Frances Hodgson Burnett, Philip Pullman, J. K. Rowling, or Robert Louis Stevenson as examples. Doll Bones doesn’t actually fit into that category, but I’m sure that tweens and younger kids will enjoy it.

Zach Barlow is growing up. He’s put on enough height this year to join the middle school basketball team. What he still enjoys most, though, are the games he plays with his best friends Alice Magnaye and Poppy Bell, where they use dolls and action figures to act out elaborate stories. However, they never touch one doll belonging to Poppy’s mom that they call the Queen, an old porcelain doll that seems very creepy.

Zach’s dad left him and his mother for a few years, but now he has returned to them and is still trying to figure out how to be with them. One afternoon Zach comes home thinking about what will happen next to Pirate William, only to find his dad has thrown away all his toys and dolls. Zach is too upset even to explain to Alice and Poppy why he won’t play anymore. The two girls are devastated.

One night the girls come to see him. Poppy explains she’s had a ghost visitor who says her ashes are inside the Queen. The ghost girl has asked them to bury her ashes in her grave in East Liverpool, Ohio. Poppy believes the ghost and wants to go on a quest to return the bones, which are in the bag that makes the doll’s body. So, despite their fears of getting into major trouble, the kids get on a bus in the middle of the night to travel from Pennsylvania to Ohio.

Of course, on this trip they run into difficulties, including getting scared off the bus part way and having to make their way on foot or any other way they can find through a landscape of urban blight. On the way, some adults creepily seem to believe there are four of them. Eventually, they solve the mystery of who the girl is and what happened to her. As they meet these difficulties they grow up a little and figure out better how to handle their changing relationships.

I think kids will relate to the problems of Zach, Alice, and Poppy. I also think they’ll like the spookiness of the story. Doll Bones falls among the more innocent of contemporary books for tweens and younger teens, with a few chills but no violence or bad language. It would make a good story for any kid from ages eight or nine to, say, twelve or thirteen.

Day 406: Annals of the Former World: In Suspect Terrain

Cover for Annals of the Former WorldIn the second book of Annals of the Former World, John McPhee returns east to examine the geology of the Appalachians along I-80. Beginning with the Delaware Water Gap, he travels along the highway with geologist Anita Harris exploring the road cuts to see what can be determined about how the landscape developed. The two continue on this route through Pennsylvania and into Ohio, where they explore Kelley’s Island, travel along the Cuyahoga River for a spell, and end at the Indiana Dunes.

Having explained the basics of plate tectonics in Basin and Range, McPhee now travels with a geologist who is skeptical of the broad application the theory has found, particularly in relation to the Appalachians. Harris takes issue with the idea that the mountains were formed by the ramming of the African coast up against North America. She believes that a study of the rocks does not support this concept.

In Suspect Terrain is deeply concerned with glaciation. As well as explaining how glaciers could have formed this area of folded and complex geology, McPhee breaks off to expatiate on how the theory of the Ice Age came about, among other geological ideas. He also tells how Harris herself figured out how to use the color of conodonts, a kind of fossil, to make it easier to find the conditions for oil.

I find it fascinating to try to imagine the pictures of the earth that McPhee describes, how different they are from the continent as it is today. McPhee tells us how rivers ran to the west instead of to the east, huge tropical seas took up the middle of the continent, the glaciers shoved rock down from Canada to create places like Staten Island.

McPhee is an extremely interesting writer. To be sure, the subject matter, the ideas it evokes, and the language he uses demand full attention, but this series of books is involving.

Day 93: The Johnstown Flood

Cover for The Johnstown FloodOn May 31, 1889, the dam above Johnstown, Pennsylvania, broke, sending a wall of water and debris down the mountain to the bustling steel town. It wiped away small towns on the way down and smashed into Johnstown, destroying the town and killing more than 2,000 people. It was the biggest tragedy in America to that time and became a national scandal.

The Johnstown Flood is David McCullough’s enthralling account of the tragedy, its causes and outcomes. Although the dam was originally well built, it was repaired when the property above Johnstown was purchased by a group of wealthy industrialists, among them Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon, to create a private resort. The repair work was not done by qualified people and several warnings about the state of the dam and the danger for the communities downstream had been ignored by resort managers.

The book related the events leading up to the disaster and tells the personal stories of many of the survivors. It discusses the relief efforts and lawsuits that followed and explains the outcomes for the survivors. The book is extremely well written and guaranteed to keep you riveted.