Our fifth annual Staff Summer Reading List is here! You’ll find a collection of enthusiastic recommendations for books that are wildly different. Isn’t that what is so great about books!? There is truly something on the WHC bookshelf for everyone. Happy reading!
Jessica’s pick: My friend was deeply engrossed in a book when I came upon him sitting on a bench in the woods. I left our encounter with his sincere recommendation to read “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants,” by Robin Wall Kimmerer. The call felt urgent and I bought the book on my way home. In her commencement speech at Northland College, where she received an honorary degree, Kimmerer said, “for the world to stay in balance there is an ongoing exchange of gifts between people and the living world.” It is fitting that I was given the ‘gift’ of this book while hiking in the woods.
Kimmerer beautifully braids stories from her life as a mother, a botanist, a professor, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. The essays, or vignettes, are clustered progressively in sections called planting sweetgrass, tending sweetgrass, picking sweetgrass, braiding sweetgrass and burning sweetgrass. One of my favorites is titled “Learning the Grammar of Animacy.” It is a humorous and humble story about learning to speak a new language and all that is revealed about culture and oneself through language. For Kimmerer, the lessons come while learning Potawatomi, an Anishinaabe language. She writes, “now my house is spangled with Post-it notes in another language, as if I were studying for a trip abroad. But I’m not going away, I’m coming home.”
Language is important to Kimmerer. Her words flow, making this an easy read, though the ideas are deep and held up with solid science. Quoting the commencement speech again, Kimmerer says that gratitude reminds us “we are not alone in the world [and] that our very existence relies on the gifts of others.” So if this recommendation strikes you at the right moment, then consider it a gift and read up. Braiding Sweetgrass is a perfect story for summer.
Carmelo’s pick: I have recently begun reading the book “Craeft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts ” by the British archaeologist and medieval historian Alexander Langlands. This wonderful book grabbed my attention by the end of the first paragraph of the introduction. In “Craeft” Langlands invites the reader to reflect on the cultural meaning of more than a thousand years of art, craft, and manual labor history in the British Isles. The book describes the many techniques and traditions that went into making stuff by hands for millennia (literally everything) before the Industrial Revolution and the vocabulary associated with them. Most of this vocabulary has fallen out of use in our Modern era.
According to Langlands, the word “craeft” (not its modern iteration: Craft) is nearly untranslatable to us, since it encompassed “a form of knowledge, not just a knowledge of making but a knowledge of being.” Based on what I’ve read so far, I sense that Langlands is persuading his readers to think beyond the words and tools that have fallen into disuse since we stopped making everything with our hands, in order to rediscover what has been lost in our age of mass-produced manufactured goods. As the director of the Working Lives Project, I wholeheartedly recommend this book.
Mike’s pick: Bobby Kennedy, A Raging Spirit by Chris Mathews is an engaging, though not too heavy, biography. Matthews is the anchor of MSNBC’s Hardball and and expert on the Kennedy family. As a fan of history, I appreciated reading about the early years of Bobby’s life, his start in politics, and his role as attorney general in his brother’s administration. I recommend this summertime read for those interested in the Kennedy clan, Camelot, and the politics of 1950’s and 60’s.
Dena’s pick: There are some novels that I love better, but for none of these would I make the claim that they are better as novels than George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I belong to a very large club of admirers. Middlemarch is reasonably and widely considered the greatest of the Victorian novels. And oh, those Victorians! So if you, like me, somehow missed reading this classic, don’t put it off a moment longer. You’ll find a book full of endlessly complex characters that is rich in ideas, compassion, poetry, and sly humor. It was my most enjoyable read of the past year.
Shawn’s pick: I recommend a novel titled The Girl Before by JP Delaney. It’s a top-notch who-dun-it psychological thriller that will keep you turning the page. Although I was reading it while traveling on the Glacier Express through the stunning Swiss Alps, I couldn’t put it down.
Meg’s pick: As we were planning Wisconsin’s Water Future, our Beyond The Headlines program in Madison, I kept hearing mention of several books related to water issues that I’m very much enjoying – if you can use “enjoy” about stories with such dark themes running through them. Dan Egan’s, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, UW’s latest Big Read selection, tells a highly readable and compelling history of the Great Lakes. I’m only a few chapters in and already a theme of decision-making made based on cheapest and quickest, without much research or thought to long-term impacts, is playing out. Such decisions led to the arrival of multiple invasive species in the Great Lakes that have collapsed fisheries and imperiled ecosystems.
Hewing to the water theme, as well as the consequences-of-bad-decisions theme, I am about halfway through The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi. It’s a gritty future dystopia that examines what happens when something we all need to survive – water – becomes a commodity that most people can’t afford. One of the protagonists is a burned out Pulitzer-award winning journalist who could move away from a virtually waterless Phoenix, but she feels compelled to cover the stories of the people navigating the collapse of the Southwest. But knowing too much is dangerous. Water wars wage between states and corporate water owners over the waters of the Colorado River and other sources. Their militias create water refugees who become an exploited and oppressed underclass scrambling for ounces of recycled wastewater as the wealthy, foreign or disaster tourist classes consume water at an extravagant rate. Both books are certainly reminders that water is life.
Gail’s pick: Do yourself a favor this summer and pick up The Driftless Reader, edited by Curt Meine and Keefe Keeley. It is a wonderful selection of excerpts of literary, journalistic, and scientific writings created to present a beautiful mosaic of the region. The Driftless Area is a rugged land, reaching into four states. It has been home to an extraordinary group of people: Ho-Chunk, Sauk, Dakota, Norwegian farmers, Dominican nuns, Buddhist monks, Cornish miners, African American barn builders, Hmong and Amish farmers, Shakespearean actors and more.
There are eighty texts in the book, including the writings of Mark Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Aldo Leopold, David Rhodes, Fabu, Wallace Stegner, Patty Loew, Pedro Guerrero, John Muir, and so many more –Native people, explorers, historians, scientists, and poets. There are also maps, paintings and illustrations scattered throughout this beautiful book.
One of my all-time favorite books, The Land Remembers by Ben Logan, is excerpted and sums up, for me, why the best way to understand this region is by looking at it through different lenses. Logan wrote, “There is no neat and easy way to tell the story of a farm. A farm is a process, where everything is related, everything is happening at once. It is a circle of life; and there is no logical place to begin a perfect circle. This is an unsolved paradox for me. Part of the folly of our time is the idea that we can see the whole of something by looking at the pieces, one at a time. Yet, how else tell the story of the farm?”
That is the best way to enjoy this reader: one story at a time. It is a rich and delicious read on a summer day or anytime throughout the year!