Tuesday, February 16, 2016


I've decided to stop posting book reviews here and to return to my focus on gardening and food (and some other things, no doubt, from time to time). That means I'll be setting up another blog for reading and writing, and I'll post the link when that's done. But in the meantime, one last book review which, since it's for a book about gardening, is appropriate for a blog that began with that focus.

Because I live and garden in the southern Arizona desert, I was delighted to receive a review copy of The Water-Saving Garden by award-winning garden writer, designer, and blogger Pam Penick.

It's easy to take water for granted; it's also very foolish. Like it or not, between over-population and climate change, water is not an infinite resource, not something to be taken for granted. Back in the 19th century, posters encouraged settlers to go West with the pie-in-the-sky claim that "rain follows the plow." It didn't then and it doesn't now, but that doesn't mean we can't have beautiful and productive gardens. As Penick shows us, what's required is careful planning, in how we prepare our gardens (soil, irrigation, and care in what we put where), what we select to plant (native and drought-tolerant or arid-adapted plants for the most part), and how we water and otherwise care for them. Water harvesting and irrigation are key to the last point.

Penick offers solid, workable advice in this extremely readable, beautifully illustrated, and highly informative book. I recommend it to any gardener, from beginner to the most experienced. I guarantee you'll find much practical and useful information in it, including ideas and advice that may surprise you - I already have!

Thursday, January 28, 2016


Ever since reading Child of the Morning, Pauline Gedge's 1976 novel about Hatshepsut, Egypt's remarkable and mysterious eighteenth-dynasty woman pharaoh, who ruled successfully for almost twenty years and whose name and image were chiseled from many of her monuments by her successor, I've been curious about her. While I'm not consumed by ancient-Egypt-philia, I am, like many people, interested and curious (and yes, I have seen all the "Mummy" movies possible, beginning with Boris Karloff when I was about ten years old). I also read and thoroughly enjoyed Stacy Schiff's "Cleopatra: A Life," so of course I was delighted to receive a review copy of The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut's Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney, an associate professor of Egyptian art and archaeology at UCLA.

Unfortunately, in writing this book Cooney faced significant disadvantages. Unlike Pauline Gedge, she was not writing fiction, and while there is abundant resource material on Egypt in this period, it is not the sort that lends itself to illuminating Hatshepsut's actual personality. Her mummy was not even identified until 2007. As an academic who does not want to be dismissed for playing fast and loose with the historical record or making unsupported and unsupportable claims, she relies on phrases like "it is quite likely," "may have," "probably," or "we do not [or cannot] know." While I respect her honesty,  I can't say that acknowledging all these limitations makes for compelling reading, and my curiosity and interest remain unsatisfied.

While Gedge was free to imagine, for example, a romantic relationship between Hatshepsut and Senenmut, her chief advisor, Cooney must admit that no evidence for such a relationship exists. More's the pity, if the reader is looking for a compelling personal drama.  Stacy Schiff had it much easier with Cleopatra, whose life, both political and personal, was amply documented as well as full of political and sexual intrigue.

This is not to say that Cooney's book is dull; it's not, if you read it for what it is, a brave scholarly attempt to reconstruct a woman about whom very, very little is actually known. Cooney is a fine writer and she does provide information and insight on ancient Egypt that will probably be new to most readers. As a scholar, she is meticulous; the endnotes suggestions for further reading run to 52 pages. But by the end of the book, Hatshepsut remains a vague figure who, "it is quite likely" "may have" or even "probably" possessed certain traits as an individual, but "we do not [or cannot] know."