Assorted Flora: 5 Books for Spring Reading
Well, spring has sprung (or will be springing, I guess, in ten short days) and I have some great suggestions for your spring reading list. If your weather’s anything like it is here on the east coast, I’m guessing you won’t be seeing any foliage just yet. To hold you over until the last of the car-exhaust-blackened snow has been dredged from the roadside, here are 5 books full of vibrant colors, beautiful gardens, and flowering trees to get you in the mood for spring reading.
1. Orlando, by Virginia Woolf (1928)
“For Orlando’s taste was broad; he was no lover of garden flowers only; the wild and the weeds even had always a fascination for him.”
What better symbolizes the rebirth and renewal of spring than Woolf’s Orlando magically transforming from male to female? The pronoun switch halfway through the novel is profound for us as readers, but Orlando treats the switch with nonchalance. She feels no different than she did before; in fact she enjoys it so much she cannot decide which gender she prefers. She becomes quite conscious, however, of how differently she is treated as a woman–an early commentary on gender roles as societal constructs.
The full title of the novel is Orlando: A Biography; it is a semi-biography of Virginia’s lover, Vita Sackville-West. It is also, in effect, a love letter from Virginia to Vita. I recommend this book for spring reading because it’s just teeming with poetic, floral imagery. This passage, for instance, conveys Virginia’s passion in an elegant spring image (and it’s the favorite line of one of my best friends and fellow V.Woolf enthusiast):
“we must admit that he had eyes like drenched violets, so large that the water seemed to have brimmed in them and widened them…directly we glance at eyes and forehead, thus we do rhapsodize.”
“Mary did not know if the garden was dead or alive. If she had been Ben Weatherstaff, she would’ve known that the roses were just resting for the winter.”
This was one of my favorite novels growing up. I read it over and over and over. Contrary little Mary, the only one in her family to survive the cholera outbreak, is shipped off to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, where she discovers both the locked-up invalid Colin and the secret garden. With help from Mary, the spring air and the secret garden, Colin makes a complete recovery.
Although it’s a children’s novel, it’s a classic, and I still enjoy re-reading it as an adult. It is a perfect choice for spring reading, and the garden captures the magic of childhood wonderfully.
3. Our Lady of the Flowers, by Jean Genet (1943)
“the toughest of workers is crowned all day with one or another of these garlands of flowers: mignonette, and roses which have bloomed among the rich, gilded, jewelled voices, maidens all, simple or sumptuous, shepherdesses or princesses.”
This book is perhaps a surprising choice, given that it does not really fit the symbolism of purity often associated with spring (in fact the novel’s inverted morality is exactly the opposite), but that is why it is so compelling. The novel (written as much in poetry as prose) insists on juxtaposition: gorgeous lyrical language that the narrator uses to spin stories for sexual fantasies while in prison (the novel is semi-autobiographical; Genet wrote it entirely in jail). Jean Paul Sartre, who wrote the introduction, calls it “the epic of masturbation,” a seeming oxymoron. In fact, most praise for the book was similarly contradictory; on the back of the American edition, The Boston Herald calls it “eloquent” and “violently crude.”
The world of pimps, drag queens, and murderers Divine, Darling Daintyfoot, and Our Lady is one where death is ecstatic, triumphant, and visceral. The novel was considered transgressive for its explicit homosexual scenes and celebration of criminality. In the introduction, Sartre says, “it smells of bowels and sperm and milk. If it emits at times an odor of violets, it does so in the manner of decaying meat that turns it into a preserve.” The narration manages to be haunting and beautiful in the midst of all that excrement, and to get to the heart of the hardships of the Paris underworld in the forties. It made such an impact that it has been compared to Ulysses; it was truly a groundbreaking work of art.
“‘He’s something, isn’t he?’
Bob nodded his head. Patrick then said something I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
‘He’s a wallflower.’
And Bob really nodded his head. And the whole room nodded their head.”
If there’s one thing I can relate to, it’s being a wallflower (although I haven’t found it has many perks). More often than not, if I’m in a room full of people, they are having this conversation in my head, but with a little more judgement in their voices. But, alas, the woes of the introvert, etc., etc. Anyway, this is a list of books for spring reading, and what would that list be without a good old fashioned coming-of-age novel?
This modern epistolary novel chronicles all of Charlie’s romantic and platonic relationships (although the depiction of female characters leaves something to be desired). The letters detail how he manages to deal with all the awful things he has seen or experienced thus far in his adolescence and, after his breakdown, how he finally changes the way he sees himself (the wallflower “blooming,” as it were). Read it, relate to it, and watch the movie!
“A garden is the last thing we need, says grandmother Turtle.
No, no, no says Old Coyote. A Garden is a good thing. Trust me.
Oh, Oh says First Woman. Looks like another adventure.”
This is a great book to end with. The title lends itself to spring reading with its imagery of new life in greenery and streams. It is an absolutely hilarious read with a sophisticated plot, multiple story lines, and razor sharp satire of Western historical master narratives and biblical stories. The novel’s coordination of characters from Native-Canadian oral tradition like Coyote and First Woman meeting characters from Western literary tradition like Robinson Crusoe makes for great humor that is startling effective, and the story also reveals a serious environmental commentary.
One main plot-line in the novel deals with a dam being built on a Blackfoot reservation in Alberta, the people’s land and rights being disregarded. The title, aside from signalling it as great material for spring reading, refers to old American treaties in which the government promised Native people rights to their land “as long as the grass is green and the water runs.”
Bonus: Breaker, by Sue Sinclair (2008)
“The flower lets us peer through it
into nothing. Sign of its own disappearance,
it draws everything in–
light travels enormous distances to be there”
A study of beauty through the lens of a philosopher, Breaker contrasts the enormity of life’s questions and losses with the fierce attentiveness to the soft-spoken answers and truths in the smallest details of the world around us. It’s on this list because the poems are enamored with nature and full of flowering imagery, especially in poems like “Garden,” “Fruit Trees,” and “Sunburst.” This passage is one of my favorites, from “In Spring, When The Earth”:
“When even the light is a grime,
thick on the backsides of things–the fire hydrant,
the neighbour’s hatchback, the broken
shovel leaning against the wall.”
This collection is a great choice for spring reading, for appreciating the slow blossoming of a beauty that has been hidden all winter. I’d recommend taking this book out into the sunlight on the first day that is warm enough; it is definitely best enjoyed outside.