Bog Cotton and Other Book Encounters

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted a real book review. I read, but never feel that I can do justice to any book. If it’s bad, just what makes it bad? If it’s at all good, how do I assess it thoroughly and convey the worth of it? I don’t, obviously, do any of that lately.

Still, it is no fun keeping all the books to myself. So I’m going to try brief mentions of a stack of them, and tell only a little bit of what got my attention. So as to Get Something Done.

Bog cotton by Loch Glenbrittle
A Shine of Rainbows is one of many enjoyable books by Lillian Beckwith. Everything I’ve read by her has been set in the Hebrides Islands of Scotland, and most of her writing is light and humorous. This one was more serious, about an orphan who finds a good home, and the unwilling adoptive father who is eventually greatly helped by having a son. The thing I liked best about the story, which was fairly predictable and mostly an aid to falling asleep at night, was the mention of “bog cotton.”

When I read that name immediately a picture came to my mind of the plant that Pippin and I saw in Scotland years ago. I scribbled the name on a post-it note next to my bed and months later got around to looking it up; indeed, it is the very plant, a fairytale sort we encountered on the Isle of Skye as we began to hike up from Loch Glenbrittle into the Cuillin Mountains.

It’s also called Common Cottongrass: Eriophorum angustifolium. This plant is in the sedge family and is said to grow all over North America, but I’ve never encountered it before or since. These photos are by Pippin, from way back then.

Nothing to Do But Stay: My Pioneer Mother is by Carrie Young, the author of a book possibly more famous, The Wedding Dress. It’s a small book about growing up in a community of Norwegian immigrants in the Dakotas. The pioneer mother, Carrine Berg, grew up in the last decades of the 19th Century; the author graduated from college in 1944. Carrine was a plucky lady who homesteaded on the plains as a single woman, then married another homesteader in her mid-30’s and managed to bear six children, of whom the author was the last.

All the stories of these hardworking people were well-told, but perhaps my favorite, that made me laugh out loud, was about when Carrine decided to raise turkeys as a moneymaking enterprise, in spite of the fact that her husband did not like the meat. The author and her sister were to “keep track of the turkeys” all summer long for four years, until their mother quit the business. “We soon learned that turkeys are congenitally indisposed to the principle of herding. Neither are they compatible with chasing, shooing, or rounding up.”

I also enjoyed reading about the way this extended family celebrated July 4th, as a children’s holiday focused on churning and eating as much ice cream as they could all day long. The vicarious experience of their family life makes me want to read The Wedding Dress, too.

Dust to Dust or Ashes to Ashes by Alvin Schmidt is a historical critique of the practice of cremation. This is likely the most poorly written book I’ve read in my life. The main points were well taken, but repeated over and over, with whole passages quoted almost verbatim from one chapter to another. The author has decent credentials, and I wonder why the publisher did not insist on some editing. Even the syntax is convoluted and confusing, and though Schmidt mentions the Orthodox view on cremation and the book is (I was ashamed to see) published by an Orthodox publishing company, he is not Orthodox himself and fails to convey the Orthodox understanding of burial.

Since I read that book, I bought another, newer book that promises to be a better treatment of the important subject: A Christian Ending: A Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition, by J. Mark and Elizabeth J. Barna. I also attended a lecture and discussion of the subject at a nearby monastery, which included the reading of many Bible passages that lament the breaking and grinding of human bones. One of the unchristian things about modern cremation is that it includes the grinding up of the bones. I still hope that some day I will find the time to organize all my thoughts on this subject.

Mrs. Mike by Benedict and Nancy Freedman I had read about 20 years ago, a public library copy. This time I ordered my own book online and got around to reading it when my brain was too tired for anything more strenuous. “Mr. Mike” is a Canadian mountie who takes his very young city-raised bride to the northern reaches of America, where they live through a lot of adventure and suffering along with the natives whom they often serve. It seems to be based on the life of a real woman, whose story is told honestly enough to be believable and to keep me turning the pages. I was glad to read it a second time but probably won’t again.

Echoes of a Native Land by Serge Schmemann: I picked up this book because it’s written by the son of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, one of my favorite authors. Serge was able to spend a decade living in the land of his forefathers and even in the very village where his mother’s people lived before the Russian Revolution, and this is the fascinating account of the genealogical history and the current residents, against the backdrop of 200 years of Russian politics and culture. Schmemann was a journalist for the New York Times who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the reunification of Germany. He’s always very readable and fair in this very personal history, which I liked very much.

I will let myself off the hook for a while, having mentioned a handful-sized stack of recent reads. Now turn aside from these brief and dull accounts to hear George Orwell on the subject of book reviews, even if it might be hard to connect what he says to my particular assemblage:

Prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash but constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feeling whatever.

10 thoughts on “Bog Cotton and Other Book Encounters

  1. I am impressed…it took almost everything I had the other night to list in a sidebar of few of the books I have read of late. I like the George Orwell quote…it rings quite true.

    I will be interested in your further proper burial reading…I feel intuitively in agreement…or maybe Scripture has already lined me up with no cremation.

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  2. I loved reading about your reading! I read “Nothing to Do But Stay” and thoroughly enjoyed it. I'm a fan of pioneer type books. I have Mrs. Mike on the shelf and hope to read it this winter. Your other books sound very intriguing too. I never think much about my body or my old bones in the end. Should I?

    Jody

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  3. What an interesting list! Mrs. Mike was my first Alaskan book which lead to reading more Alaskan adventures. Not sure why I love them so much because I am NOT a fan of cold. But that is the beauty of reading, right? You can mentally go places and learn without having to actually go there if you don't want to.

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  4. I did read The Wedding Dress while at your house, and it was really fun. As was Nothing to Do but Stay. And also two more you mentioned…we must be related! Now I am wanting to try the Russian book in this post. Sounds fascinating. Did you read My Father's Paradise — about the author's Iranian Jewish Aramaic-speaking father? It was really interesting, I thought.

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  5. I enjoy reading your book reviews. I am familiar with “Mrs. Mike” and the books by Carrie Young. “A Shine of Rainbows” sounds like a lovely story. As a lover of history, “Echos of a Native Land” also sounds interesting.

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  6. My mind has changed from cremation to burial; Alistair Begg decided me on burial as what Christians do; pagans cremate. Scotland is on the GO list; if not this year, then next. I laughed about turkey herding; there are photos of a farmer, in our valley, who would drive his turkeys to the train station.

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