It’s been a delightful summer of reading. Novels, non-fiction, thrillers (Daniel Silva’s latest; not his best but still very good), and a Gamache mystery or two by the utterly inimitable Louise Penny. I am parceling them out now because I’ve nearly read them all and she publishes one a year. But here, I’ll give short impressions of the Bookshelf’s three most recent reads.
Horse by Geraldine Brooks
In 2010, seated across from the director of Smithsonian Affiliations, Geraldine Brooks learned of the skeleton of the country’s most celebrated racehorse. Long neglected, the skeleton had just been tranferred from the Smithsonian’s attic to become the central exhibit at Kentucky’s International Museum of the Horse. A horse lover herself, Brooks’ antennae went up. Learning a bit more about Lexington, once the country’s most famous racehorse, she was hooked. Research led Brooks to the career of painter Thomas J. Scott, the life of enslaved horse trainer Harry Lewis and his son Jarrett. Drawing on history, Brooks placed her fictional characters alongside the actual ones who fought on both sides of the Civil War. Until now, A Year of Wonders been my fave Geraldine Brooks novel. Horse just might have nosed Wonders to second place.
Kantika by Elizabeth Graver
I found Elizabeth Graver’s novel about a Jewish family’s journey across centuries and continents in a wonderful bookstore in Kingston, New York. Rough Draft Bar and Books is every reader’s dream of such a haven: old, old building, comfy couches, wooden floor planks that groan every so slightly as you walk slowly between the rows, a wine bar and fellow readers of every age and presentation.
Based on her own family’s history, Graver’s novel is a gentler story of Jewish displacement and reclamation. In Kantika the author traces the life of Rebecca Cohen who is modeled after her own maternal grandmother Rebecca (Cohen) Baruch Levy. Undaunted by every twist and tragedy life serves up Rebecca perseveres: the loss of her childhood home and its attendant wealth, an arranged marriage to a somewhat deranged husband, a second arranged marriage that brings her to America, her children temporarily left behind. Rebecca never falters. Neither does the author as she brings to [somewhat imagined] life her family’s experiences as they pursued life and freedom across four countries and nearly thrice as many decades. She and we are fortunate that many of her relatives were still alive and able to share with her their stories.
A kantika is the Ladino word for song. Spoken by the descendants of the Spanish Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492, Ladino is a pastiche of classical Spanish with hefty helpings of Hebrew, Arabic, French among others. In the author’s able hands and loving heart, Elizabeth Graver has written a kantika to and of her family: orchestrating family bonds, courage, and the immigrants’ eternal quest for a better, safer life for themselves and their descendants.
A Short Philosophy of Birds by Philippe J. Dubois and Elise Rousseau
Were my mother still alive, she would tell you that bird was my first spoken word. Whether this is true or not, I do have an affinity for birds. I would say I collect them,but they have found their way into my home in various forms — mosaic tiles, feathers, small fallen nests, blown glass. Even a branch shaped like a bird. Spring isn’t complete until I find my first robin’s egg shell.
So when I found Dubois and Rousseau’s delightful book, its cover a beautiful robin’s egg blue, I had to have it. It’s the kind of book you peck at, enjoying one tasty bite of a chapter at a time. Bird by bird, the authors write of avian habits and eccentricities. Birds teach us the importance of letting go. Sometimes we needto eclipse ourselves. Like a moulting bird we need to shed what doesn’t serve us and leave ourselves coverless and vulnerable as we await new growth. Doves divide their parenting duties while male ducks, after their initial participation, leave behind the whole nurturing thing. The robin is a more courageous figher than an eagle.
Please read this book. It is delightful. The information is well researched and enjoyably presented. The woodcut illustrations preceding each chapter are beautiful. If you’re in search for your next book, give this one a tern.