What serendipity that the inaugural Bay Area Book Festival takes place in my home turf of Berkeley. You would suspect the first of anything to be a humble endeavor, a mere glimpse of bigger things to come, but the organizers seemingly skipped that custom, and all signs indicate an extravaganza. 300 authors will descend upon a 10-block radius of downtown Berkeley, where the streets will be charmingly renamed the likes of Literary Lane and Radical Row. I am particularly excited to spend an evening with Judy Blume (festival prep involves re-reading Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret), to hear Edan Lepucki’s talk on “Futurism, Fatalism and Climate Change,” and of course to meander and discover the yet unknown. The Festival takes place during the first weekend of June, the kick off of those invaluable summers weekends, and is sure to inspire the summer reading list and beyond. Updates to come!
I purchased Field Book of Insects at the San Francisco Botanical Garden’s annual plant sale. There was a corner dedicated to used books of the nature variety, and I saw and reached for this small red volume almost immediately. The idea of collecting field books came to mind while reading Tell the Wolves I’m Home, in which the brilliant Finn Weiss keeps a bookshelf filled with them: seashells, gemstones, wildflowers, and trees. I saw this particular dedication to insects and could not resist.
It is written by Frank E. Lutz, Late Curator of the Department of Insect Life of the American Museum of Natural History. The original was published in 1918, and this is a revised version from 1948. Dr. Lutz explains that by doing this and that, this edition squeezes far more information into the same number of pages as prior editions. He beautifully adds, “It reminds me of a telegraphic night-letter with space left for ‘Love,’ which in this case means ‘I hope that you will find this book helpful.'”
Though much of the book is intended for those who are particularly enthusiastic about insects, which I am not, there are surprise gems. On human intervention in the wild: “Perhaps it would be better for us to confine our control measures to our orchards and let Nature take care of wild cherries” (p. 190). I like to keep this field book on my bookshelf within easy grasp; something instructive and beautiful to flip through during those moments when I could be swiping this way or that way on my iPhone, realizing once I look up that I’ve accomplished very little. I have no intention of becoming well-versed in entomology, as I am often found simply studying the illustrations, but paging through them leaves me in awe, and it is a feeling I hope to replicate as I keep an eye out for more of these field books.
Having been on a classics streak for quite some time, I knew that I wanted to return to the 21st century for my next read, though I had no idea who, what, or where. I spent the first Saturday of May in Golden Gate Park, and within the first hour I had ventured outside its perimeter on the hunt for coffee. After successful completion, I breezed past and then turned back around into Green Apple Books, encountered the “Staff Picks” shelf, and was startled by this note:
In case you have trouble catching every word, this is the promise: “On average, I recommend this book to someone at least once a day. It is hands-down one of my favorite books of 2014 (and maybe in my life). I am offering as close to a money-back guarantee as you can get without actually using currency…Please, do yourself a favor and read All My Puny Sorrows.”
I do not remember the last time I read such an effusive book review, and I was quickly made vulnerable to its influence, as anything that anyone considers their favorite intrigues me (especially books and songs). I think of it as a shortcut education, or at least enrichment, to expose myself to something that someone else has already studied and determined to be exceptional. You learn a lot about someone by learning their favorites, and if you accumulate enough of that information from enough individuals, you start to learn a lot about people in general.
In Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows, Elfreida and Yolandi Von Reisen are sisters who mean the world to each other but also suffer the ultimate conflicting interest: Elfreida wants to kill herself and Yolandi wants her to live. I am only 50 pages into the book, but those pages have jumped back and forth between their childhood growing up in a Mennonite household and their adulthood, Elfreida as a world renowned pianist and Yolandi as a divorced mother of two. Elfrida, especially in childhood, is mesmerizing. She is the kind of talented, independent, brilliant, and miserable character that I love.
There is a scene early in the book when the elders of the Mennonite community visit the Von Reisen home to reprimand them for one thing or another. Elfreida goes into the spare bedroom next to the front door and begins to play the piano, which is not allowed in the community. She plays her obsession, Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G Minor, Opus 23, a piece she praises for “its total respect for the importance of the chaotic ramblings of an interior monologue” (p. 18). I immediately searched for the piece online and listened to it as I continued to read. I am very eager to dive further into this book, and to discover whether someone else’s favorite will also become mine.
Virginia Woolf weaves together the minds of countless characters to portray life in post-WWI England. Though the book is often described as a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, the characters and their life stories are so varied and numerous that together, a much larger story involving feminism, class, suicide, and friendship is told.
Mrs. Dalloway proves that you learn far more about someone through their random and unfiltered thoughts, no matter how brief, than you do learning details like where they were born or what their hobbies are or who they keep company with. While the story spans only one day, and relatively little information is offered of any given character, I was left with such vivid impressions of each of them simply because I heard snippets of their innermost thoughts. It is often not he said, she said, but rather he thought, she thought. The emphasis on each character’s own stream of consciousness gives vibrancy, almost legitimacy, to one’s inner life; it is as real as what goes on outside of one’s self.
There are characters whom I do want to learn more about, and their stories feel incomplete only because of the sheer interest they raise. One of these characters is Sally Seton, the woman that inspires Clarissa to quote Shakespeare: “If it were now to die ‘twere now to be most happy.” Woolf magically pins down that feeling of infatuation when she has Clarissa exclaim to herself, “She is beneath this roof…she is beneath this roof!” It is the most appropriate expression in the fewest words, like poetry.
The most tragic of characters is Septimus Warren Smith, a young WWI veteran who is suicidal and unknowingly suffering from severe PTSD. He is going mad, hearing things, seeing things, and the way Woolf depicts his mind is brilliant. As you read through passages of his thoughts, you become convinced that writing with sense and purpose is almost easy, while conveying the unpredictable and broken, Septimus’ mind, serves the challenge. Two lines summarize the story of Septimus and perhaps many others due to the war:
“Septimus was one of the first to volunteer. He went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square” (p. 130).
Then after the war, the look in his eyes: “The world has raised its whip; where will it descend?” (p. 20).
St. Mary’s Square sounds far grander than it is, which is a patch of grass and a few trees on top of a parking structure in San Francisco. It is a self-described “petite urban haven,” a rhetorical flourish that reminds us of the deceiving power of words. Admittedly, it did offer a space to quickly enjoy a sushirrito (a sushi+burrito concoction) before resuming the day’s adventures, which suggests the entire point. I love that we plant ourselves in the city only to crave nature, so that even a hint of green satisfies.
I am amazed that April has passed and we are one week into May; does time pick up speed as the year progresses? Will I feel summer before the feeling is gone? I have this suspicion that I will wake up to September in what will feel like tomorrow and think, I missed it. Does acknowledging this prevent it from happening? I promise to report back.