Thursday, February 22, 2024

Wrapping Up Winter...Please

I've been busy in January and February.

I'm doing a Master Gardener short course through CSU (Colorado State University) extension and have completed the modules on Soils and Amendments, Science of Tree Planting, Tree Care, and Colorado Gardening. I just started Entomology and then after that will do Irrigation and then get my certificate. I have had a garden all my life, but until I retired it was on autopilot for much of the time--I planted, I weeded, I watered, I harvested, but I didn't have time to really dig in, so to speak.

My first big project is to convert an area that used to house our kids' play structure and is now a pea-gravel wasteland into a native (CO native) flower garden. I've been winter sowing Goldenrod, Bee Balm, False Indigo, Anise Hyssop, Rocky Mt Blue Penstemon, Butterfly Weed, Black-Eyed Susan and Little Bluestem Grass seeds. If you're interested in what winter sowing is all about: Starting Seeds in Winter (

Here are the flowers I chose for my native garden from my spreadsheet.
And this is the area that I will be planting.
I also plan to have my usual veggie garden and add natives to my perennial beds. I have some hard work and exciting times ahead!

In addition to the course and some gardening books, magazines, and videos, I have been doing other reading as well. 

Night Watch, by Jayne Anne Phillips - set in the aftermath of the Civil War in West Virginia, this was an outstanding novel and actually a perfect follow up to Demon Copperhead, which takes place in the same region but 150 years later. Still the roots of the issues in Demon are clearly visible in Night Watch. There are definitely some parts of Night Watch that are difficult to read and the villain, Papa, is truly horrible, but I found the history to be fascinating--much of the story takes place in a lunatic asylum, and the author includes notes from the Quaker doctor (a real person) who founded the asylum, which really added to the overall story. At first, I was hesitant to read about an insane asylum because I thought it would be very disturbing, but this story showed how the approach of this institution, at least, helped people actually recover from the PTSD they developed during the war years and afterwards. Despite the subject matter, I found it satisfying and uplifting.

Here is a wonderful interview with Phillips, and this quote is a good summation of the novel: “Night Watch is about the post-apocalyptic world of the Civil War years, the tribal divisions, the search for scarce resources, a specific family fallen apart and struggling to survive.” She goes on to describe how this post-apocalyptic world is not unlike our modern world and the issues so many face.

Better Living Through Birding, by Christian Cooper - yep, this is the book by the African American Central Park birder whose request that a woman leash her dogset her off on a tirade that cost her her job and so much more. While the CP incident is what brought this birder notoriety, I really enjoyed reading about his life beyond the incident--how this nerdy kid found his niche in the world and applied the skills he learned as a birder to life in general--be respectful, be observant, be interested, listen, and learn.

The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn - I absolutely loved Quinn's The Rose Code, and I absolutely loved this earlier novel as well. Set in 1947 and 1915, this is the story of the intersecting threads of an American socialite trying to find out the truth about her French cousin's disappearance during WWII and an English woman who was a spy during WWI. I loved traveling around France with Charlie (the socialite), Eve (the ex-spy), and her hunky driver who has his own post-war demons to contend with. Not quite as good as The Rose Code but still a darn good yarn.

Have a great end-of-winter (or summer if you're down under) and happy reading, writing, working, and playing!

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Learning Company Great Courses

I am a long-time fan of the Great Courses and have listened to many courses over the past 20+ years. I first discovered them in my local library when I was commuting 40 miles to work and couldn't find an audio book on the shelves that I hadn't listened to already. Those were the days of CDs, and I have many fond memories of mostly history and literature courses that I listened to.

Most recently, I listened to a marvelous course on How to Listen to and Understand Opera, taught by the funny, enthusiastic, and insightful Robert Greenberg, music historian and so much more. Thirty lectures and 24 hours later, I feel like I have just skimmed the surface but also know that I have a richer understanding and appreciation for opera. I grew up listening to it as both parents were fans, but I never had the context for understanding the development of this art form. My favorite section was, of course, Mozart and the in-depth discussion of The Marriage of Figaro, followed closely by Rossini and The Barber of Seville

If you want a taste of Greenberg's style, this YouTube short video provides the first part of the introductory lecture.

My current course is Gary Gallagher's The American Civil War--we're talking 48 lectures and 19 hours, but Gallagher is a leading expert on the Civil War and is a first-class instructor.

I am taking a bit of a break from audio novels while I wait for the current ones I have on hold at the library to become available, so this is a wonderful way to dive into topics that are particularly interesting to me.

Final note - many Great Courses (including the two I just plugged) are free to active Audible listeners, which is just incredible, imo.

Any other fans of the Great Courses out there? Any courses you can recommend?

Saturday, February 03, 2024

Bruno's Cookbook: Recipes and Traditions from a French Country Kitchen

As I have shared in more than one post, I am a big fan of Martin Walker's crime series featuring Bruno Courrèges, policeman of fictional St. Denis, a small village in the Dordorgne in France. More than a policeman, Bruno is completely comfortable in the kitchen, and every book features several occasions in which Bruno prepares wonderful meals for his friends and colleagues. The mysteries themselves are usually pretty interesting, but honestly, it's the food and the cooking, gardening, harvesting, canning, and foraging that are the real reasons I love these books.

For Xmas, my husband gave me a copy of Bruno's Cookbook: Recipes and Traditions from a French Country Kitchen, written by Martin Walker and Julia Watson. I am slowly reading the cookbook, not only for the recipes but for the anecdotes, excerpts from the books, and insights into life in the French countryside.

The book is organized differently from most cookbooks--each section focuses on the source of the type of food featured, so the first section is on the vegetable plot and market, so there are recipes for haricots verts (green beans), Sarlat-style fried potatoes, leek/potato/sorrel soup, and a red onion tarte tatin, which I am dying to make, among lots of other tasty veggie dishes. 

There are also sections for the fisherman (Walker and his fictional Bruno live along a river and just a couple of hours from the Atlantic), the hunter (featuring duck, goose, pigeon, boar, etc.), the butcher, the cheesemaker and dairy man, the baker, the forager (truffles, anyone?), and the all-important winemaker, which has wines, liqueurs, as well as entrees and desserts cooked in wine.

It's a very snowy day in Colorado today, and I am thinking that I need to jump ahead and read about Pot Roast Chicken Henri IV-Style. That just might be what's for dinner tonight.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Demon Copperhead - Barbara Kingsolver

My last book of 2023, and it was another solid gold 5-star read.

So what did I love about it? I loved how Barbara Kingsolver was both true to her source material, David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, and true to herself as a writer with Southern roots and something to say.

Since David Copperfield is one of my favorite Dickens's novels, it was fun to see how she adapted the characters and plot points to fit modern-day rural Virginia. It's a little weird to say the book was fun to read because there is so much tragedy and heartbreak in both stories, but Demon is such a fabulous first-person narrator who has a strong voice, deep survivor instincts, and a big heart that in the end the book was satisfying and left me with a bit broader perspective.

I started this post weeks ago but then felt bogged down because I didn't know what I really wanted to say other than Demon Copperhead is Kingsolver's tour de force

Oh yeah, I just remembered something I did want to share--because I know David Copperfield so well, I did stop reading Demon for about a week in the middle because I knew the arc of Emmy (Little Em'ly from David) and didn't want to read this sad part right before Christmas. I ended up finishing it just after Christmas, and this part wasn't as horrific as I anticipated (still rough, but it could've been a lot worse).

One more thing--if you ever have any doubts about how opoid addiction became a major destructive force in our society, read Demon. Even if you don't have doubts, Demon Copperhead is a fabulous book that pays tribute to a fabulous book and shows how great literature gives us stories that transcend time and place.

Thursday, January 04, 2024

First Roundup of 2024

A beautiful visitor to our neighborhood on a December afternoon.

Happy New Year! I did a fair amount of reading in November and December, so here's a roundup of how I closed out my reading year. One notable exception is Demon Copperfield, which I finished on December 31. Demon deserves his own post, so I didn't include him here.

Nature's Best Hope, by Douglas W. Tallamy - another life-changing book. The basic idea is that everyone, from apartment dwellers in big cities to suburban neighborhood  types, can take positive, small steps that can have a big impact in terms of recreating the local ecosystems that have been paved over, plowed under, or simply overrun by non-native plants that do not provide the right food for the insects and microorganisms at the bottom of the food chain, which affects everything else (including us) in the food chain. While many of Tallamy's followers insist on everyone ripping out their lawn and rewilding their yards, Tallamy would be happy if you just learned about a couple of keystone plants (i.e., those that feed/house a wide variety of insects and birds) like goldenrod and planted them. Baby steps lead to life changes!

If you are interested in learning what plants are native to your area, you can enter your zip code here: Native Plants | Audubon

The Thursday Murder Club
, by Richard Osman - really enjoyed this, especially the setting (a retirement village in England) and the 70-something characters who keep sharp by solving cold (and not so cold) cases. This is a series, so I am looking forward to getting to know all of the characters better, especially Elizabeth, who seems to have had a very Cold War career if I am reading rightly between the lines.

Murder at an Irish Christmas, by Carlene O'Connor - I wanted to do some holiday reading this year, and this popped up. It was a decent 3-star read--it is part of a series, which could be fun. Loved the Irish setting and a good set of characters, although I confess there were a lot of them and most with unpronounceable names, which sadly made it hard for me to remember who was who.

The Shortest Day, by Colm Tóibín - a super short story that takes place in New Grange outside of Dublin. New Grange is a prehistoric site, and the story links the ghosts of the past with an archeology professor. It was okay--Tóibín's work never seems to live up to the hype surrounding him as an author. I didn't come away with a deeper insight in the connections between past and present. I think I would have liked it better without the ghosts actually.  The part about the professor and how he relates to the site was more interesting than the dynamics of the ghost society. I just am not into fantasy, I guess.  

A Christmas Secret, by Anne Perry - another 3-star holiday read, this time set in a Victorian (or maybe Edwardian) English village. Fun to read but fairly light in terms of mystery and characterization. It also felt very contrived as opposed to an organic story, if that makes sense. I believe that the Vicar and his wife who are the main characters were minor characters in other Perry mysteries.

The Road to Dalton, by Shannon Bowring - set in the 1990's Maine small town where the inhabitants struggle with poverty, boredom, prying eyes, and judging hearts but manage to find sparks of hope and moments of joy and love and purpose that keep them moving forward. This is Bowring's debut novel, and I am looking forward to seeing what she does next, especially if she continues to set her stories in Maine.

The Late Show, by Michael Connelly - the first in the Renee Ballard series. Very promising beginning to the series, with a good main character with lots of quirks that make for interesting reading--I like the fact that she is from Hawaii, paddleboards for exercise, works the night shift, and has a dog and a grandmother. I swear, I am learning my way around LA just from reading Connelly's mysteries! 

Here is an interesting LA Times article about the woman that Connelly based Renee on: There’s a real-life Michael Connelly character in the LAPD, and she’s gunning for Harry Bosch’s job - Los Angeles Times (

Saturday, December 23, 2023

My Year in Books for 2023

Thanks to the GoodReads stats, I am happy to report the following:

23,346 pages read = 67 books (so far--I have a couple more in the works--my goal was 65).

The shortest was The Shortest Day (31 pages) by Colm Tóibín, and the longest was Herman Wouk's The Winds of War (1047 pages. Average length was 347 pages.

My average rating was 4.2. I think most books were 4, with quite a few 5s and a couple of 3s. I didn't hate anything--if I was not enjoying a book, I simply stopped reading it! I usually reserve 1s and 2s for books I think are truly problematic and are promoting hate, etc.

Braiding Sweetgrass was the highest rated book on GoodReads that I read, and it was a 5-star book for me.

I read a lot of mysteries this year, trying to get caught up with Martin Walker's Bruno series (I still have a few books left to get caught up), discovering how much I like Ann Cleeves, and staying current with Armand Gamache in Louise Penny's wonderful series. I also listened to a fair amount of Michael Connelly on road trips. I also added some Christmas mysteries to the mix, which was fun.

I reread a couple of classics: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and Moby Dick by Herman Melville, and I finally finished the W. Somerset Maugham short story collection that I started two years ago.

Here are this year's 5-star books, in no particular order:

Here's the link to my GoodReads visual: Jane’s Year in Books | Goodreads

I hope everyone also had a wonderful reading year, full of 5-star books!

Happy Holidays to all my bookish friends around the world.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants
, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, is one of those life-changing and life-affirming books whose themes and messages I predict will percolate through my subconscious until they become part of me and guide my actions. Kimmerer, a botanist, is a member of the Potawatomi Nation and skillfully and lovingly weaves these two key aspects of herself into a wonderful book that is as inspirational as it is informative.

Kimmerer is a storyteller, and the book is a collection of essays that show the symbiotic relationship between the animate and inanimate, between plants and animals, including humans, and how these relationships are scientific as well as magical, dynamic as well as pre-determined. Kimmerer's basic idea is that American society is based on a colonial mindset in which humans dominate, control, and exploit the natural world without considering that regeneration and sustainability depends on reciprocity and gratitude to the plants, animals, rivers and oceans, minerals, soil, and basically everything in the world that gives their gifts of life to us. 

Kimmerer tells stories and legends of the indigenous peoples of North America, demonstrating that their relationship with the world was healthy and sustainable and was based on recognizing and nurturing the symbiosis that makes an Eden of Earth.

I learned so much from reading this book--not just about accepting the gifts of the natural world and trying to reciprocate--but also just about plants in general, especially why working to maintain and restore native plants is so important to the entire ecosystem. 

I am retiring from my day job on January 2 after 42 years of working in high-tech marketing. Act II for me is all about learning to be a better steward of the little plot of land I call home. Reading this book while winding up Act I really provided focus to what had been a somewhat amorphous desire to become a better gardener. 

One of the coolest ideas I got from this book was that we can all learn to become indigenous--that is, we can learn how to be part of a healthy ecosystem and in so doing we can learn how to braid whatever passes for sweetgrass in our neighborhood. Now, when I think about my goals for my retirement and how I want to be in Act II, I think the answer is...I want to be able to braid sweetgrass. I want to take the time to do things well, to nurture and nourish, and to gratefully accept the gifts nature offers.

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett

Like most of the reading public, I really enjoyed Tom Lake, Ann Patchett's latest novel, easily giving it a 5-star rating on GoodReads.

The problem with not reading this when it first came out is...what else is there to say? I loved learning the mom Lara's backstory--how she came to be a one-role actress, her relationship with Peter Duke, the aspiring actor who became a megastar in Hollywood, and how his presence continued in the life of her family after their relationship seemingly ended. While the story jumped from the present to the past, the story within a story framework kept me grounded. I liked how the daughters propelled the narrative with their questions. This made the entire story very realistic.

I haven't read much Covid-set fiction, but I think Patchett worked this into the narrative in a meaningful way--using it to explain the tightness and isolation of the family during the time in which she told her story. Thematically, it reinforced the nuclear family premise--all you need is each other and the land. Very Laura Ingalls Wilder, that is.

I really enjoyed how Patchett integrated Thornton Wilder's Our Town into the novel. I have never seen the play or a movie version of it, nor have I read it. Nevertheless, it is such a part of our 20th century American culture that I knew a bit about it. Lara's identification with the character she plays, Emily, provided a deeper insight into Lara as a character herself. I found it interesting that I learned the plot points of the play as the novel progressed--interesting how Lara's story and Our Town progressed in parallel.

What else did I love? Definitely Peter's brother Sebastian; the swimming in Tom Lake; the life of an actor in summer stock; the work on the cherry orchard (and the references to Chekov's The Cherry Orchard); the three daughters and how alike and different they were from each other; Lara's husband Joe and their relationship; Lara's relationship to her grandmother. I loved learning about Michigan, a state I confess to never having a hanker to visit. Shame on me. Sounds lovely.

I really loved that while Lara was okay in telling her daughters the story of her relationship with Peter, there were some things that she kept to herself. We, the readers, got to know the whole story, but there were some things Lara choose to keep private. I respect privacy and being able to tell one's own story.

I found it poignant and very sad to read about the arc of Peter Duke's life while learning about the death of Matthew Perry. I think this book will always remind me of Perry's passing, and I do expect to reread it at some point.

I did listen to the novel, as read by Meryl Streep, and am so glad I did. Throughout, I kept on thinking that Streep was having a ball, reliving her own days as an up-and-coming actor who probably spent time herself in summer stock, etc. 

Final thought--it's interesting how authors are really using classic works as creative springboards. I know this has been going on forever, but it seems to be on the upswing these days. Not only does Tom Lake riff on Our Town and The Cherry Orchard, but John Irving's The Last Chairlift does similar stuff with Moby Dick, and then, of course, there is Barbara Kingsolver's Demon Copperfield.

A thoroughly enjoyable, satisfying novel by one of my favorite authors.

Isn't the Tom Lake pie on the left gorgeous?

Bonus: I follow @Parnassusbooks (Ann Pachett's bookstore) on Instagram and so was pretty jazzed to see a pie decorated like the cover of Tom Lake, made by @pieladybooks, who I now follow as well. What a terrific idea for decorating pies! Here is the link to the Tom Lake pie post when the pielady delivered it to Ann earlier in November.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Cloud Cuckoo Land

I absolutely loved All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, so when Cloud Cuckoo Land by the same author was published in September 2021, I was so excited to read it. Then I started reading reviews and the sci-fi, futuristic thread turned me off the book. Years pass. I am looking for something to listen to and my library has an audio of Cloud Cuckoo Land available with no wait. I take the plunge. I fall in love with this book. Why didn't I trust that Doerr would not let me down?

Cloud Cuckoo Land is an ambitious book. There are five distinct story threads, some of which converge, spanning centuries, not including the ancient novel attributed to Antonius Diogenes (a 2nd century Greek author) but actually written by Doerr that connects all five stories and characters.

It is creative, historical, fanciful, mythic, and poignant. My favorite characters were those from the 15th century who witnessed the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire--Anna is a reluctant seamstress who learns to read Greek and unearths the Diogenes manuscript whose story of a shepherd who ultimately makes it to the utopia of Cloud Cuckoo Land. It is this story that provides an arc for each of the other characters--Omeir, a peasant boy in the Ottoman Army; Zeno a Korean War vet who learns Greek and translates the story into English; Seymour, an autistic boy who loves owls and just wants to protect them; and Konstance, a young girl on a spaceship in which she is immigrating to another Earth lightyears away.

I know it sounds crazy, but it was crazy good. It was lovely and thought-provoking. I particularly loved how Doerr connected these various characters together, showing the connection between people, their commonality. Despite their profound differences in time and space and culture, he showed how we are all connected to each other and our world. It was a beautiful message for our troubled times. It lightened my heart, and that is a very good thing.

Tuesday, November 07, 2023

November Bits and Bobs

I've been out of commission for a while, working on the JASNA 2023 AGM in Denver, which was November 3-5, but with tours going out on November 2 and 6 as well. Since I was the regional tour coordinator this year, I've been a bit busy.

The AGM itself was terrific, with my favorite plenary speaker being Janet Todd, who talked about Pemberley and place, Gilpin and fishing, and Austen's ability to be succinct where Fielding and Richardson could not. After the lecture, I promptly went to the Emporium and bought Todd's novel, Jane Austen and Shelley in the Garden, which I hope to read early in 2024.

Other talks of note were Inger Brody's lecture "West of Austen," in which she talked about Owen Wister's incorporation of Austen into his novel, The Virginian, and Rebecca Dickson's discussion of cognitive dissonance and other aspects of the psychology of belief that are a major part of Pride and Prejudice. I also really enjoyed Melanie Hayden's discussion of the various ways Elizabeth Bennet has been adapted in the many retellings of P&P.

Despite all the AGM work, I am happy to report that I did not neglect my reading. 

What Have I Been Reading?

A Gentleman in Moscow
, by Amor Towles - I finally got around to reading this and kept asking the question, what took me so long? It was absolutely terrific. Clearly a 5-star book, not only for the gorgeous writing but for the craft involved in telling such a sweeping story in such a confined space. The ending is so incredibly satisfying that I was moved to tears of joy. 

The Whalebone Theatre, by Joanna Quinn - this is one of those rare books that I bought based on its cover. I was in a bookstore in Blue Hill, ME on vacation in September and was intrigued by the title and cover. I loved it--another 5-star book that has fantastic characters and a riveting story. I loved Cristabel, her half-sister Flossie, and her cousin Digby. I loved watching them grow up, and I loved the people they became. Set in Devon, full of theatrics during the time between the wars, and then focused on WWII and the resistance in France. So good!

That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo - another super interesting, poignant novel with great writing, complex characters, and marvelous setting, this time Cape Cod, hence the title. A novel about marriage and how one's parents can affect and influence you even when you think you've left them far behind. Lots to think about in this story.

The Indigo Girl, by Natasha Boyd - a novel about a real woman who almost single-handedly introduced the cultivation of indigo to the American colonies. On the one hand, this was a difficult topic because the economy of the South became so dependent on slavery and so it was hard to cheer for a woman whose work magnified that dependence and the subsequent suffering and inhumanity of slavery. And, like with Gone With the Wind, slavery was softened so that its brutality was not really portrayed. That said, I did like reading about how Eliza Lukas experimented with the indigo seeds she obtained as she, with the help of some of the slaves, figured out how to turn it into a cash crop.