Tales from Two Pockets, Karel Capek

Read Karel Capek’s stories and you’ll find the truth of the whole human race told in an intimate way with black humor to boot. Capek was a Czech intellectual writing between the wars in the unstable years of the 1920s and 30s. He is famous for inventing with his artist brother the word ‘robot.’ It comes from the Czech word ‘roboter’ meaning serf work. His book The Gardener’s Year was my first introduction to his writing. The title sounds plain and boring but it’s nothing of the sort. In the introduction Verlyn Klinkenborg says:

“What sets Capek apart as a garden writer is his willingness to look beyond the inherent estheticism of gardening, beyond the specialization and technicality that overcome what he calls the “serious maniacs” beyond even the solace of growing plants. For him, the only way to understand what gardening means is to understand the complexity of human nature.”

And it is the complexity of human nature, not gardening, that Capek sets out to study. There are 48 tales in Tales from Two Pockets. One of them, “The Blue Chrysanthemum” chronicles the hilarious search by a whole village for the growing place of a rare blue chrysanthemum that the village idiot Klara keeps turning up with. Gardeners can turn into plant-aholics when they must at all costs obtain a plant that no one else possesses.

These tales of mystery are different from the crime-writing traditions of other countries. Sometimes there is no crime, sometimes the answer is already known, but always there is a study of the bizarre things that humans do. In the blue chrysanthemum case there was a sign:

WALKING ON THE TRACKS IS FORBIDDEN

So no one went there to look for blue chrysanthemums.

                “What power there is in a warning sign, mister…Only crazy Klara went there, because she was an idiot and didn’t know how to read.”

Capek’s take on human nature was true in 1938 and just as true in 2021. He died along with his country when Nazi Germany came marching in. His death was just as much from grief as it was from bad lungs.

Sad Cypress, Agatha Christie

The title, Sad Cypress refers to a song in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. It signifies a sad casket of cypress wood, the resting place of a young woman who didn’t deserve to be poisoned to death.

Christie knows her Shakespeare and she knows her plants.  A red herring is well placed. It reveals to master sleuth, Hercule Poirot, a lie that doesn’t need to be told.

“Such a silly stupid negligible little lie, too. Nurse Hopkins said that she had scratched her wrist on a rose tree, that she had gotten a thorn in it. And I went and saw the rose tree, and it had no thorns… So clearly, Nurse Hopkins had told a lie – and the lie was so silly and so seemingly pointless that it forced my attention on her.”

So that is how a rose without thorns became the clue to who poisoned Mary Gerrard, and raised a question about her benefactor. How was it that Aunt Laura died so suddenly when her doctor, Peter Lord, thought she seemed fine only a few hours earlier?

The characters are tied up in ill-advised liaisons and unrequited romances and hidden stories and lots of lies. It takes Poirot to dig deep and sift through the morass to unscramble the alliances and the secret vengeances. As always, Christie delivers.

Miss Rumphius, Barbara Cooney

This delightful picture book is set on the coast of Maine where lupines abound along the roadsides and in the meadows. The young Alice Rumphius sits at her grandfather’s knee listening to tales of his travels to faraway places as he carves figureheads for sailing ships and paints pictures. He even lets Alice color in the sky when he is busy. She wants to travel the world and then live by the sea just as he did. He tells her that’s fine but she must also accomplish a third thing. She must make the world more beautiful.

Alice has a long and fulfilling life helping people as a librarian. When she retires she travels the world as her grandfather did. After she has seen many faraway places she hurts her back getting off a camel. She decides it is time to settle down by the sea. Always she wonders how she can make the world more beautiful. One morning resting her back in bed she admires the beautiful lupines growing outside her window. An idea comes to her. She will make the world more beautiful by scattering the seeds from her lupines everywhere she can. In her little town on the coast of Maine she becomes known as “the Lupine Lady’ and sometimes “the crazy old lady.” But she continues to sow the seeds from the lupines every fall and watch the lupines spread every spring.

People are enchanted by the beautiful flowers and children love to visit her and hear stories of faraway places from the old woman.

Miss Rumphius is narrated by Alice’s great-niece who is also named Alice. Little Alice decides she too would like to travel the world and live by the sea. The opening conversation is repeated. Miss Rumphius reminds her she must also find a way to make the world more beautiful. And so the circle of life goes on.

Cooney said in her Caldecott Medal acceptance speech for her book, Chanticleer and the Fox that children need to hear about the real stuff of life. She vowed she would never talk down to them. And that is why her charming drawings and rich historical storytelling are forever universal and relevant. Aside from two Caldecott Medals, Cooney won the National Book Award for Miss Rumphius.

Lupines are not native to Maine and did not appear in abundance until the 1950s. That was around the time the real Miss Rumphius moved full time to Christmas Cove on the coast of Maine. Her name was Hilda Hamlin and she really did sprinkle lupine seeds everywhere she went in her part of the state, for sure making the world more beautiful.

Green Mansions, W.H. Hudson

This is an achingly tragic love story for the ages. Abel is an educated Venezuelan of the ruling class who is forced to flee Caracas because of his involvement in a failed revolution. He escapes to the rain forest where he meets Rima, the lone survivor of reclusive aborigines. She’s been called a wood-nymph and a bird-girl. She lives in harmony with all the flora and fauna of the forest except the local Indian tribe members who fear her because she prevents them from hunting in her domain. She’s beautiful, speaks a lilting, unknown bird language and wears a gown that seems woven by spiders. Abel is totally captivated. He is grudgingly accepted by the Indian tribe but is always drawn back to Rima’s woods. When he finally succeeds in meeting her face to face he teaches her about the outside world of which she has no knowledge; she gradually trusts and comes to love him. He agrees to help her search for her people as that is her fondest wish.

Hudson was a naturalist and ornithologist. Much of his writing is on the birds of his native Venezuela  and later nature writing about his adopted country of England.

He beautifully describes the rain forests of South America:

“as far as I went it was nowhere dark under the trees, and the number of lovely parasites everywhere illustrated the kindly influence of light and air. Even where the trees were largest the sunshine penetrated, subdued by the foliage to exquisite greenish-golden tints, filling the wide lower spaces with tender half-lights, and faint blue-and-gray shadows. Lying on my back and gazing up, I felt reluctant to rise and renew my ramble. For what a roof was that above my head!”

In an early edition John Galsworthy wrote the forward to Green Mansions:

 “Without apparent effort he takes you with him into a rare, free, natural world, and always you are refreshed, stimulated, enlarged by going there.”

First published in 1904, the story expresses 19th century views of encounters between Western Civilization and savages. However, the enduring value of Hudson’s work is its link between 19th century Romanticism and 20th century ecology. Aside from his mystical love story, Green Mansions is a near-religious plea to not forsake our natural world, our existentially valuable wilderness.

Rappaccini’s Daughter, Nathaniel Hawthorne

 

Rappaccini's DaughterThe setting for the short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is a garden. In long ago Padua, Italy, Dr. Giacomo Rappaccini is a renowned scientist with a specialty in poisonous plants and a beautiful daughter, Beatrice. She has devotedly tended his garden all her life. But years of confinement in the walled enclosure have made her poisonous. Her breath can kill a lizard and quickly wilt normal flowers. A young medical student, Giovanni Guasconti, takes a room with a view of the garden and observes Beatrice tending it. Of course, he falls in love. His landlord, Professor Baglioni is the rival of Rappaccini.

Hawthorne is known for his allegory and symbolism. The garden recalls the Garden of Eden with a twist – all the plants are poisonous as is the caretaker. Does evil reside in the beautiful maiden or is she an innocent? Is her father falsely playing God by imprisoning her in the garden or is he keeping her safe from an evil outside world? Is Baglioni her savior or a man intent on destroying his rival’s work? Even the intentions of the handsome young medical student, Giovanni, are open to question.

Beatrice voices her interpretation of this suspenseful, twisted mystery as she lays dying:

“I would fain have been loved, not feared,” murmured Beatrice, sinking down upon the ground.–“But now it matters not; I am going, father, where the evil, which thou hast striven to mingle with my being, will pass away like a dream–like the fragrance of these poisonous flowers, which will no longer taint my breath among the flowers of Eden. Farewell, Giovanni! Thy words of hatred are like lead within my heart–but they, too, will fall away as I ascend. Oh, was there not, from the first, more poison in thy nature than in mine?”

 

“There is something truer and more real, than what we can see with the eyes, and touch with the finger.” That could be Hawthorne’s message.

Here is a link to the full text of Rappaccini’s Daughter.