A Year In Books

photo of person readingMonth by month below

I spend a lot of my time reading, both for research and simply for pleasure. This area of my website is an experiment in recording what books I am reading and any responses to them.

As a general pattern I usually I have two fiction books ‘on the go’ as I read one aloud to my husband for a short time each night and another that I read for myself, usually more quickly. Alongside these I might be dropping in and out of reading several non-fiction books for research (as well as journal articles) and other books to support my spiritual life.

December 2022

photo of Iceland glacier

This month for fiction I am reading novels with plant themes.  First a beautifully written and inventive story by Elif Shafak The Island of Missing Trees with its central characters of a young Cypriot girl growing up in England and a fig tree that her father brought over with them.  Alternating chapters are given to the girl and the fig tree.  Then Janice Pariat’s Everything The Light TouchesThis is again inventive and one of those novels that switches to a new story and central character just as you are engrossed in the previous one, but it quickly engages you with a whole new story.  A central thread emerging is the way they all relate to plants.  This book also afforded me the peculiar experience of reading a novel and finding myself quoted in the voice of one of the characters. The third novel I hope to complete over the Christmas break is Diane Wilson’s The Seed Keeper.

For research it is all about landscape this month.  For a relief from the complexity of many academic papers on the subject I am enjoying and learning a lot from How to Read the Landscape by Patrick Whitefield (of permaculture fame).

Best audio book this month was Diane Setterfield’s Bellman and Black -a beautifully told story with a mix of practical period detail and otherworldliness that she does so well.

To engage in a ‘depths of winter’ contemplation I have chosen to return to studying Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu with the help of Louis Savary’s The Divine Milieu Explained.

November

photo of maple in autumn

This month brought an influx of books partly thanks to my reviewing a manuscript for Columbia University Press and hence their offer of 10 books from their catalogue.  I will only list these individually when I get to actually read them.  The only one I have dipped into so far is The Life of the Imagination: revealing and making the world by Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei, which looks fascinating and written in a readable style.  I did find and get to read Chauncey Maher’s book Plant Minds: a philosophical defence, which came out in 2017 but I only just came across it.  Otherwise for research it is all papers at the moment.

My current novel of choice is Richard Powers’ Bewilderment a shorter book than his usual doorstoppers and a beautiful story that includes the telling of a child’s very reasonable reaction to extinctions and environmental destruction against society’s and even one’s own buffered response to these mounting tragedies.

Household chores this month have been lightened with the addictive  audio books by Mick Herron featuring the private investigator Zoe Boehm. I think I have now either read or listened to everything by Herron so can get my life back!

October

photo of printing press

A holiday in Northern Spain plus the preceeding and following holiday mood allowed for quite a bit of fiction reading.  Ian McEwan’s Lessons is a wonderful book. It’s such a pleasure to have a long book to sink into.  A wonderfully observed trajectory of a character who has trouble taking charge of his own life set against the backdrop of the 1940s to present time in England.  Then another long book: Kate Atkinson’s Shrines of Gaiety which is taking shape very well so far. (Having finished I have to say it is well written and engaging but not amazing – certainly not on the level of Life After Life.)  Current bedtime reading aloud is Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet which I loved the first time round and it is just as enjoyable the second time.  Another wonderful submersion into fiction (via audiobook) was Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River, an interesting tale but also an insightful reflection on storytelling.

Back at my desk I have last month’s reading still in progress plus Brilliant Green: the suprising history and science of plant intellegence by Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola.  Also Life on the Edge: the coming of age of quantum biology by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden, which was in Stroud library – what a find – and a due back date to get it read by!

September

photoThis month I managed to clear my desk of other tasks and pull together the various books and papers I have been gathering on plant intelligence and behaviour.  The recently published Planta Sapiens by Paco Calvo elucidates crucial ideas in this field, such as the shift to thinking of cognition as something happening between an organism and its environment.  It is a more engaging read though not as good on the detail as Anthony Trewavas’ Plant Behaviour and Intelligence, which really begins at the beginning by starting with the evolution of organisms in order to build an explanation of plants’ problem solving skills. These plus a mountain of academic papers on the subject are taking my time.

For more spiritual work am almost through reading Thomas Moore’s The Soul’s Religion this has some beautiful chapters, but of all his books Care of the Soul is the stand out one I think.  Certainly if you only read one of his I would make it that one.  I am also working through Piero Ferrucci’s Your Inner Will.

In fiction I am reading Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red because it was so highly recommended and the themes look fascinating, although I have yet to settle in to it.

 

August

photo of door in rockface

The great find of the Summer is M.R. Carey’s Koli trilogy.  I read The Book of Koli because I had been alerted to it including content that relates to trees (thanks Amazon – those algorithms are becoming scarily precise).  It is a brilliant dystopian novel narrated by a teenger who has to navigate the problems of staying alive and understanding the world after being exiled from his community.  The world is post-apocalyptic with dangerous trees, the loss of literacy and stray bits of technology from the “before-times”.  I am currently half way through The Trials of Koli and looking forward to The Fall of Koli .  In hot summer weather a series of fat engaging books is a fine thing.  I can still recall one summer immersing myself in A.S. Byatt’s outstanding Frederika Quartet.

Thanks to a colleague I now have access to Goethe’s Botanical Writings, originally called The Author Relates the History of His Botanical Studies

July

Following a visit to the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition ‘Rooted Beings’ I am reading the related publication This Book is a Plant. Also due to a recommendation I am reading Nick Hayes’ The Book of Trespass which promises to be both inspired nature writing and politically strident as well as being illustrated by the author.  On nature writing I am also some way into Annie Dillard’s The Abundance which moves between the brilliant capturing of wonder but also mundane aspects of the everyday.

Probably the most personally exciting bit of reading occured because of writing to the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation in Pittsburgh.  I had asked if they had a copy of the school magazine article that Agnes Robinson (later Arber) had written when she was 15.  They had it and kindly sent me a digitized copy along with a digitized copy of her notebook! In the top corner of the notebook it says “Summer Holidays 1894”.  The notebook contains a careful study of the ivy-leaved toadflax.  The writing and illustrations beautifully capture Agnes as a young girl fascinated by plants and diligent in pursuit of knowledge about them.

For morning meditation I have returned to Neil Douglas-Klotz’s The Sufi Book of Life. Previously I worked with this study of 99 pathways by opening it at random, now I am working through it from 0-99.

And for escapist pleasure the next slow horses book is on hold until I  complete my own illustration of the ivy-leaved toadflax.

 

June 2022

orchids in meadow

I think June will mainly be about finishing off books started previously.  Sometimes there are so many ‘on the go’ that it seems crazy to start anything new.

I have been rereading Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants and the introductions from various editions.  I have also been frustrated by not being able to find his essay History of my Botanical Study in English – so that’s something not read.

For pleasure we have embarked on Jo Harkin’s Tell Me an Ending which has a memory theme similar to the fantastic book The Binding by Brigit Collins.  (Unfortunately Harkin’s book suffers from a problem of much contemporary literature of failing to conjour up characters that a reader can care about.  Perhaps something happened after half way through but we didn’t wait to find out).

 

May

photo of chestnut candle

Reading Agnes Arber continues including her beautiful book Monocotyledons with its simple but accurate and expressive line drawings.  Also another book on Hildegard –Hildegard of Bingen: healing and the nature of the cosmos by Heinrich Schipperges.  A very long wait at Malvern train station allowed me to get through a few chapters as well as enjoy the candles of chestnut blossom in the park outside the station.

I had to take some time out of work on my botanist heroes paper to write an abstract about rural landscape.  This meant I got around to properly reading Brady and Arntzen’s excellent Humans in the Land: the ethics and aesthetics of the cultural landscape along with dipping into many other books and papers.

Wanting to re-aquire some Carol Shields novels that have a plant theme, such as Larry’s Party and The Stone Diaries, led me to discover a few books by her that I didn’t know and I have just finished A Celibate Season. This is an epistolary novel that she wrote jointly with Blanche Howard.  (A husband and wife are separated to different provinces in Canada for work reasons and can’t afford phone calls so write letters. These letters record their changing selves and changing relationship. A classic Shields set up and themes but interestingly done.)

For psychosynthesis research I am reading John Heron’s 1990 book Subpersonalities: the people inside us. Early on in the book he gives a tour de force on definitions covering a vast number of psychologists and theories using their own terms but explaining that they all refer to subpersonalities.  Also following an inspiring ‘Wild Scribe’ weekend with Mary Reynolds Thompson I am reading her Reclaiming the Wild Soul: how earth’s landscapes restore us to wholeness.

Best audiobook this month for me is Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: how William James can save your life. John Kaag presents a really good introduction to James’ life and work but feeds this through into his own life and gives a great illustration how long term engagement with a philosopher can help guide a life.

For escapism I am getting quite gripped by the 2nd of the Slow Horses books – Dead Lions. These Mick Herron books about a disfunctional outpost of MI5 are fun to read.  Update: I finished that and went straight to the next one, Real Tigers, which I also finished and am now denying myself another one until the next section of my writing is finished. The games we play!

April

I have been enjoying an immersion into the wonderful writings of the botanist/philosopher Agnes Arber.  In particular her Natural Philosophy of Plant Form together with her last book The Manifold and the One.  Some of the botany in the former is too advanced for me to follow, but I get the gist and coupled with the more metaphysical work it forms an exciting journey.

Along with this adventure is further study of psychosynthesis through Firman and Gila’s Psychosynthesis: a psychology of the spirit. This is an excellent book for pulling together material and presenting it in a clear, but not oversimplified, form.

This month also brings me to the end of Richard Rohr’s A Spring Within Us  book of daily meditations.  This was such a rich experience and I felt beautifully guided across the year so I wondered about just starting from the beginning again.  However, the last week of the book focused on silence so I have chosen Robert Sardello’s book Silence: the mystery of wholeness to study after my meditation each morning.  It seems to bear very slow reading, e.g., going back over a paragraph just completed to let it resonate or allow it to strike a different note. Also on silence, another older book that had passed me by jumped into my hands in the oxfam bookshop.  Morton Kelsey’s The Other side of Silence: a guide to Christian meditation. It looks like an interesting blend of Christian mysticism and Jungian psychology.

Looking for an amusing novel, to lighten these difficult times, I came across Alissa Nutting’s Made for Love but am not gripped yet and might have to switch to something else.  (Update: stuck it out to the end but it lacks just about everything a good novel needs.) If only Philip Pulman would get on with the third part in the Book of Dust Trilogy!

March

photo of skunk cabbage

The texts on Hildegard still seem to be proliferating on my desk but I must get on with reading Theophrastus’s Enquiry Into Plants and other texts by him. I am also finding Morton’s History of Botanical Science very helpful and Mathew Hall’s Plants as Persons: a philosophical botany.

But March is not all heavy going as I have the joy of reading Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden for the first time! I am not sure how that one got away during both my childhood and bringing up my children, but I am making up for it now.  Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea is also on my bedside table for a reread. It won’t escape the observant reader of these notes (if there are any readers at all) that both novels have a forgrounding of vegetal life – it seems there is no escape for me.

I am also getting a lot from M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled another bestseller that passed me by until now.  Just finished it – a couple of the analogies used are dated or worse – but it is an excellent read.  Really useful for exploring the relationship between psychotherapy and spirituality.  The current audio book of choice is Richard Tarnas’s Cosmos and Psyche (more on that when I have finished it)

February

stained class windowThis month begins with a shift in focus for a new chapter I am working on called (for the moment) Plant Heroes but probably should be something like Heroes of Botany. First off I need to understand (or have some approximation of understanding) St Hildegaard of Bingen.  Hence I am reading Mathew Fox Hildegard of Bingen: a saint for our times, which brings St H into conversation with contemporary voices such as Mary Oliver and Clarissa Pinkola Estes.  Also Michael Marder Green Mass: the ecological theology of St. Hildegard of Bingen, which explores her idea of viriditas, and Wighard Strehlow Hildegard of Bingen’s Medicine.

For relaxation I have greatly enjoyed Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House, set at Yale its a kind of Secret History, Dragon Tattoo, Harry Potter mash up. I absorbed this as an audiobook.  Another audiobook finished this month was Labyrinths by Catrine Clay, it’s a biography of Emma Jung and the early days of psychoanalysis. This would be a fascinating book to read before or after Jung’s Memories, Dreams Reflections.

January 2022

phot of snowdropsSally Vickers The Librarian (I have been reading a few of Vickers’ books since finding The Gardener in my local bookshop (Stroud Books) in such a beautifully produced little hardback that I was seduced into buying it. After last year, when I read a lot of Marilynne Robinson, I find Vickers interesting and engaging but not as profound.

Amor Towles The Lincoln Highway is proving to be a great hit for reading aloud, it is a meandering tale of a road trip across the States that is delayed by lots of diversions. Chapters are voiced by different characters including an endearingly pedantic dreamer of a 9 year old boy.

Charles Lewis Green Nature Human Nature: the meaning of plants in our lives    Just been rereading this older book alongside lots of recent papers in the area. A joy to come back to and very insightful.

Richard Rohr A Spring Within Us I started using this book of Franciscan inspired daily meditations back last spring and it is still enriching every day.

Yuriko Saito Aesthetics of the Familiar: everydaylife and worldmaking a beautiful book that is currently bringing alive both aesthetics as a philosophical subject and the experience of slicing tomatoes for me.

John C. Ryan, Patricia Vieira & Monica Gagliano (eds) The Mind of Plants: narratives of vegetal intelligence a book of 36 chapters each capturing encounters, interactions and reflections on a plant.  With so many plants and so many authors included I am taking this one slowly.

Two re-reads that just make it into January are David Sedaris Naked a moving and amusing autobiographical piece and Julian Barnes The Only Story, which is a reflection on memory and narration as much as a love story.  These are re-reads after a fashion: I was driven to my kindle on recent train journeys (due to mask = steamed up glasses) and I just don’t remember what I read on kindle so it was like encountering them almost afresh.