New Release Review: Unearthed

Alexandra Risen, Unearthed (2016)

unearthedSubtitled “Love, Acceptance, and Other Lessons from an Abandoned Garden,” Unearthed is a gardening memoir that will appeal even to non-gardeners (like me). To start with, there’s the chance to vicariously experience taking an unloved, abandoned place and turning it into a magical place of refuge and healing — without having to actually get our hands dirty. When Alexandra and her family buy a house that backs up onto a ravine with traces of earlier gardening efforts, she can’t resist the project. Years later, after countless hours of toil and not a few misadventures, her dream comes to completion, and as readers we can experience her satisfaction.

Intertwined with that of the plants and animals is also a human story, of Alexandra’s growing up with her mysteriously distant Ukrainian refugee parents. Though her silent father is now dead and her mother sliding into dementia, as Alexandra works on her garden refuge she starts to find some measure of acceptance and understanding of her difficult memories. Her oasis in the middle of Toronto becomes a place to honor and remember them, with nature’s gift of peace.

Then there’s the way each chapter, named for a plant or element in the garden, ends with a recipe or project that can be taken up even if you have no land of your own. Often made from foraged or overlooked materials, they represent another way to create something of beauty and pleasure out of what might otherwise be considered worthless.

I enjoyed Alexandra’s voice in this book, as in spite of her painful early experiences she shared her story with honesty and also a quirky sense of humor. I felt that I was really working alongside her in a way, getting to know her personality along with the garden and its inhabitants. I loved her sense of wonder at the natural world, even at things to which we non-urban dwellers have become jaded — a single deer is no longer such a breathtaking sight when your garden is overrun with them, but Alexandra’s joy in the deer’s presence is infectious nevertheless.

So thanks to Alexandra Risen, her family, and all the trees, flowers, leaves, roots, raccoons, ducks, deer, and other creatures for sharing their garden with us. I’ll definitely be dreaming of my own “secret garden” now.


In Brief: New and Noteworthy

It’s time again to play some catch-up, with quick reviews of recent releases that have come my way. All are heartily recommended!


Uprooted by Naomi Novik
I don’t have much to add to others’ reviews of this stellar new fantasy. If you like immersive, otherworld fantasy, you will want to read it; if you think you don’t, give it a try and you might change your mind. Note that it’s on the dark and mature side, but while I’m usually not a fan of that genre, here I found it worked beautifully in service of a complex and humanly rich story.
May 19, 2015 from Del Rey

Sophie and the Sibyl by Patricia Duncker
George Eliot seems to be a hot author right now. I enjoyed Rebecca Mead’s literary memoir The Road to Middlemarch last year, which gave me a new perspective on Eliot, and was eager to read this fictional take on the same subject. I was quickly engaged by the characters, both real and invented, and absorbed by their saga of love and publishing in Berlin during the period of Eliot’s great late works, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. I found Duncker’s metafictional touches only mildly amusing, though she seemed to be having great fun with them, and the story also petered out at the end in a somewhat odd way. Still, lovers of Victorian fiction who can tolerate some postmodern posturings will find much to savor. And now I have to reread Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, and am newly inspired to try Romola again…
August 4, 2015 from Bloomsbury
Source: ARC from publisher

The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks
Written out of generations of experience of traditional Cumbrian sheep farming, this is a celebration of an ancient and endangered way of life, as well as a moving personal story of family, change, and reconnection. I’ve never been a tourist in the Lake District, but if I am lucky enough to go there someday, I will look at it with new eyes.
May 12, 2015 from Flatiron
Source: Hardcover from library

Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books by Cara Nicoletti
A young Brooklyn butcher, former pastry chef, and author of the Yummy Books blog serves up a delicious assortment of literary recipes in this memoir-cum-cookbook. Many of the recipes are quite simple (a soft-boiled egg inspired by Mr. Woodhouse in Emma, parmesan pasta for Strega Nona), but seeing them in context with their literary associations gives them special interest. And then there are the elaborate and out-there choices (most notably a whole pig’s head for Lord of the Flies), which I would never actually prepare, but that are fun to read about. Nicoletti’s memories of reading, cooking, and eating throughout her life are pleasantly mixed with brief musings on the role of food in literature and life, and it all goes down as smoothly as her perfect chocolate pudding.
August 18, 2015 from Little, Brown
Source: ARC from publisher

Aside from ARCs, no other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.