Casaubon's Book

Remember how I said I was going to do 31 book reviews in January, and well…didn’t? On Friday, I finally got reliable internet back, just in time to shut down for the sabbath, so now I’m playing catch up. Got to get about 25 book reviews done today. That should happen, right?

Just a reminder for those participating in the Post-apocalyptic Novel Reading Club (PANRC), we’ll be finishing up _Prelude_ by Kurt Cobb this week, and moving on to _Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson next week. We’re following that up in March with Pat Frank’s _Alas Babylon_. Also, there are still spots in our garden design class starting tomorrow! If you’ve been thinking that your garden needs a new touch, an emphasis on getting along with less and supporting you through tough times, we might be able to help! Email me at jewishfarmer@gmail.com for details.

Ok, on to my main topic – what do you read when you want to do some agrarian dreaming in the fiction department? What book do you curl up with on a cold, wet day and get lost in farm dreams and storytelling? Here are just a few fictional ideas!

1. Charles Frazier’s _Cold Mountain_ – what a lovely book. Inman’s Odyssey is compelling, but in many ways secondary in appeal to the transformation of the home space into a functioning homestead. Inman returns, not to a Penelope held in stasis, unweaving every change she wrought the day before, but to a world transformed by the work of women. It doesn’t have the happy ending that the movie does (which is good), but is a vastly better work. And what homesteading reader could fail to appreciate a chapter about all the things that need to be done before winter entitled “Verbs, all of them tiring.”

2. Barbara Kingsolver’s _Prodigal Summer_ – _The Poisonwood Bible_ is certainly the greater book about agriculture, but not nearly as much fun. _Prodigal Summer_ is one of those light, delightful novels that you can simply disappear into. A three-way narrative between Lusa, who married a farmer and after a short, turbulent marriage, inherited the farm and the farm family she never wanted; Deanna, who roams and preserves the woods and the wild; and Garrett who tries to reconstitute the lost Chestnut and himself after the loss of his wife and his son, the most compelling part is Garrett’s love story with the heretical aged hippie organic farmer Nannie Rawley. Although Lusa’s salvation seems a little convenient to me (nah, no other farmer ever thought of eating a goat!) the book is a lot of fun.

3. _The Known World_ by Edward P. Jones – Jones’s book takes you to the world of a Black farmer in the south right after slavery in amazing and wonderful ways, and is incredibly attentive to the agrarian details of time and place. The central story is the people, but the story of the land behind it is never lost. A wonderful book.

4. When making this list, I was forced to ask “which of many depressing books by Thomas Hardy should I include?” Hardy is a gorgeous writer, but his Wessex is a bleak, unpleasant place to go, and no one reads Hardy novels to be uplifted that I know of. Despite the fact that he’s not someone to escape into, but sometimes from, he’s a brilliant and wonderful writer and there are passages in Hardy’s view of rural British Victorian life that are worth millions. Rather than plunge into _Tess_ or _Jude_, however, I’d suggest that if you haven’t read Hardy before, you begin with the light and comic (although with a thread of darkness underneath) _The Trumpet Major_. Festus the farmer is an idiot, but other Hardy books will show that Hardy never thought stupidity, selfishness and venality were limited by profession or locality, and the book is both funny and moving.

5. Georgette Heyer’s _A Civil Contract_ is the perfect contrast to Hardy. I’m a bit Heyer obsessed, since she’s one of the funniest writers I know and the most gifted with language, but generally she’s pure triviality, whisking you away to past worlds of wealth that have nothing to do with any reality. This book, probably her best, is less a frothing confection than most, but the story of an arranged marriage that doesn’t entirely meet the needs of either. What emerges is that Adam and Jenny come to suit each other in large part by the virtue of their ties to a place, the exercise of restoring their damaged home. Her superb housekeeping, his desire to restore his acres and the land come together to make a very un-Heyer-like love story – which is its great virtue.

5. _Jayber Crow_ by Wendell Berry. I love Berry’s poetry and essays – I’m a bit more ambivalent about him as a novelist – some of his novels of Port Royal fascinate me, others don’t. By my lights, Jayber Crow is by far the best, and the most epic, tracing the narrative of the decline of a family farm over generations. Tiny cracks turn into vast fissures before your eyes, and Berry is spectacularly brillliant as an observer of human and physical nature – as are his characters. One wishes one saw as Berry’s characters see.

6. Sigrid Undset’s _Kristin Lavransdatter_ trilogy. You sort of have to be in the right mood for a thousand-plus page trilogy from the 1920s about life in 14th century Norway, but if you are, the wealth of detail that emerges here, and the exquisite painting of daily medieval life is really delightful. What I find so wonderful about the books are the ways that place and people are fully integrated, and women’s lives are portrayed in careful, attentive detail. One could imagine taking to sheep shearing or weaving or nail making following Undset’s descriptions.

7. Speaking of long series, Diana Gabaldon’s _Outlander_ have a special place in my heart. I discovered them while nursing Isaiah, when long novels were a necessary thing for a woman who spent an awful lot of time sitting with a baby. And for all their ridiculousness, I find them delightful – and one of the reasons I adore them is that Gabaldon is astonishingly attentive to all things physical and bodily. Not for her the convention of heroes and heroines who never have to pee or eat when it is inconvenient – Gabaldon’s characters have bodies, and they work hard at their agricultural exercises, and she’s as fascinated by these are by the heroic adventures she narrates, first in Scotland and then in America. She’s funny and smart and earthy, in the best farmgirl style.

Ok, only 18 books to go by the end of the day! Happy reading!

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 risa b
    January 31, 2011

    Agreement on Prodigal Summer. I liked it as much as Animal Dreams, maybe more. She works into it much knowledge gained growing up among tobacco farmers, that many environmentalists lack — resulting in a divide they will have trouble crossing if they mean to convince the world to give up the agribusiness model.

  2. #2 stillwaggon
    January 31, 2011

    I would like to recommend two series of books.

    First, the ‘Old Squire’s Farm’ series, several volumes of stories about children growing up on a Maine farm just after the Civil War. The author, C.A. [Charles] Stephens, M.D., 1844 – 1931, was very prolific and estimated his short story output at 3,000, so you won’t run out of his stories very soon. (In fact, I feel a session coming on.) He was so successful as an author that one of his publishers sponsored his medical education at Boston University so that they would have someone who could write knowledgeably about medical topics. Suitable for all ages.

    Second, Maggie Anton’s trilogy, Rashi’s Daughters: Joheved, Miriam, Rachel. Rashi was a renowned medieval French rabbi, 1040–1105, who is known to have had ‘learned daughters’. Ms. Anton writes in great detail about the lives of this family, their personal lives and their agricultural enterprises — from vineyard to wine sales, from sheep raising to wool-making and trade — as well as cultural issues.

    I look forward to trying those you and your other readers recommended.

  3. #3 JRB
    January 31, 2011

    And here I thought I was the only person around that loved Kristin Lavransdatter. The movie isn’t bad, either.

  4. #4 Teresa/safira
    January 31, 2011

    What a delightful list. If I didn’t already love the way your mind works, the fact that you have Hardy and Heyer back to back would win me over. Well-written just-for-fun books like Heyer and Gabaldon are important for maintaining sanity in difficult times–and if you can glean a little information from the fun reading, all the better.

  5. #5 Don
    January 31, 2011

    I’ll definitely have to read Cold Mountain now. It’s been on my ‘when I get around to it’ list for a while. But I’m only halfway through Carol Deppe’s The Resilient Gardner. I’m reading in my spare time, of which I have very little right now.

    Given that you recommend Barbara Kingsolver I’m a bit surprised you didn’t mention her Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It fun as well as informative. I feel off the chair laughing with her description of the love-starved turkey who was hitting on her husband! And one whole chapter is set here in Ohio’s Amish country–that ought to count for something, since we Buckeyes hardly ever get any national attention. :)

    We became fans of some of the recipes in there, particularly ‘eggs in a nest’, which is great to bring out when you have an abundance of Swiss chard to pick. And her essay “A Fist in the Eye of G_d” is far and away the best critique of genetically modified crops I’ve ever read. It’s in the collection Small Wonder.

  6. #6 Don
    January 31, 2011

    Well, I guess I ought to read the titles of the posts before posting a comment, since the Kingsolver titles I referenced are not fiction! But they’re still worth reading. One of our sons read Prodigal Summer and really liked it. He liked Jayber Crow, too.

    Too much to read; not enough time!

  7. #7 Lisa Z
    February 1, 2011

    Since the first two on your list are two of my very favoritest books ever, i’ll definitely check out the rest of them. Great list!

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