New England! These books made me miss New England, especially since it’s so hot outside right now. I was happy to immerse myself in winter pages of Vermont, and cozy up in the cottages in New England towns there.
Novel: The Secret History
Author: Donna Tartt, attended Bennington College in VT
Setting: 1990s in a private New England college in Vermont
I ♥️ Donna Tartt. The Secret History, set in the 90s on the campus of an exclusive private school in Vermont and at the “country house” of one of the students, is a story I am still reeling from, and still trying to piece together.
The idea of losing control is one that fascinates controlled people such as ourselves more than almost anything. All truly civilized people — the ancients no less than us — have civilized themselves through the willful repression of the old, animal self.
It wouldn’t be a true New England college book if it weren’t set on the campus of an elite — or at least expensive — campus, now would it? Told from the point of view of a Californian, Richard, who applied to the school because he liked the pamphlet, The Secret History follows his entry into an exclusive group of five other students who study ancient Greek under the tutelage of Julian, a teacher who does not take new students, and who takes near sole responsibility for the instruction of the students he has collected: they take classes from no other.
Richard earns their respect in the library one day and slowly makes his way into their inner circle. He soon finds they are deeply rooted in high intellectual thought, rich carnal pleasures, and the exploration of ancient mysteries. They live what they study, from speaking ancient Greek, to Bacchanalian rites, to murder and the vivid feeling of being alive after such acts. Richard, a bystander but not a player, goes along with it all: out of a sense of pride, of finding a group he wants to belong to, or simply because of his “own fatal tendency to make interesting people good.”
I loved this book. It is both beautiful and terrible. It is full of the brutal pain of cold and sorrow, and the euphoria of feeling: of being susceptible to beauty, to the colors of life, to the sense of understanding, and to the sense of belonging.
Author: Chris Bohjalian, lives in Vermont
Setting: rural Vermont in winter
During a winter storm that turns roads to black ice, a woman’s labor fails to progress during a home birth. Weakened by ill health and unproductive pushing, she appears to have a stroke after hours of pushing. The woman is dead, and the midwife, Sibyl Danforth performs a C-section with a kitchen knife to save the baby. Only, her novice assistant doesn’t believe the laboring mother was dead when the C-section was performed, and so Sibyl, the midwife, is put on trial.
Having birthed both of our children in birth centers attended by midwives rather than at hospitals attended by ob-gyns, I was impressed by how well the author presented the choice to give birth outside of a hospital (thought he didn’t go much into why many women choose against the hospital), and how the medical establishment treats women and families who make that choice. This was a fascinating look at both perspectives, though I wished it would have covered more of why families choose to birth at home or birthing centers rather than at hospitals.
Book: My Garden
Author: Jamaica Kincaid
Setting: Jamaica Kincaid’s garden in Vermont
Set in Vermont in the author’s garden primarily, but also in flashbacks to her home country of Antigua and a plant-collecting trip to China, My Garden is Jamaica Kincaid’s thoughts, opinions, and meanderings on plants. Some chapters contain interesting insights about how plants raised for gardens and human pleasure have made their way around the world, and how botany and botanists have played into the history of the society and culture. Other chapters are simply Kincaid writing about plants she adores.
I didn’t love this book. It didn’t seem to care about the reader. However, there were several gardening related passages that I could absolutely relate to, like the wonder and delight that anything I should plant might actually grow:
Even after many years of gardening, I never believe a live plant will emerge from the seed I have put in the ground; I am always surprised, as if it had never happened to me before, as if every time were the first time.
That gardener, any gardener, is not a stable being; that gardener, any gardener, is not a model of consistency.
That second line resonated with me and made me feel like a real gardener. Before reading it, I felt amateur and fickle for not being able to get things right the first time. I’m constantly examining to see how things grow, whether they work where I put them, and then move stuff. Not getting it right the first time used to make me feel like a failure, and now I realize it’s just part of being a gardener.