Yesterday, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka won the coveted Booker Prize, awarded to the best work of fiction written in English and published in the United Kingdom and Ireland. From the description, it’s the story of a war photographer, gambler, and closet gay who wakes up dead during the height of the Sri Lankan civil war. He has “seven moons” to find out who killed him and lead the man and woman he loves most to photos “that will rock Sri Lanka.” Of all the Booker nominees I read, I missed this one, skipped because it had yet to be published in the U.S. (The novel will be released here November 1, published by W.W. Norton.)
Another recent announcement came from the MacArthur Foundation. It disclosed the recipients of its 2022 fellowships, what are often referred to as “genius” grants. The Foundation website describes the MacArthur Fellowship as a $800,000, no-strings-attached award given to extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential. Robin Wall Kimmerer is now one of them. She’s a plant ecologist, educator, and writer. While many fellows have published in their field of work, Kimmerer’s book is particularly noteworthy, something I learned in Ron Charles’ e-newsletter last Friday. Ron Charles is The Washington Post book critic. (You can sign up for his weekly newsletter here.) This is what he wrote:
For a couple of years, the most unlikely bestseller in America has been “Braiding Sweetgrass,” a collection of essays about nature and Native wisdom by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Released in 2013 by a small Minneapolis publisher called Milkweed Editions, “Braiding Sweetgrass” germinated slowly but put down deep roots. At the end of 2019, it showed up on the bestseller list.
And it’s still there.
Wait, what? I immediately searched for this book I’d never heard of and found, everywhere, ratings of higher than four stars: from my local library listing to Goodreads, from Amazon to indie bookshops. But it’s not the high ratings that are unusual, rather the book’s gradual, persistent rise in popularity. Charles continues:
To be clear: That’s not how the bestseller list usually works. As Calvin Trillin noted, ‘The shelf life of the average trade book is somewhere between milk and yogurt.’
In other words, the way of a book’s lifespan is that Braiding Sweetgrass should’ve dropped off the shelf and out-of-print, not “germinated” over six years into a bestseller (bestsellers don’t germinate). But then, Publishers Weekly describes Kimmerer as a mesmerizing storyteller. The book’s summary says she…
[draws] on her life as an indigenous scientist and as a woman to show how other living beings―asters and goldenrod, strawberries and squash, salamanders, algae, and sweetgrass―offer us gifts and lessons, even if we’ve forgotten how to hear their voices.
Kimmerer was awarded the MacArthur “genius” grant for “articulating an alternative vision of environmental stewardship informed by traditional ecological knowledge.” I recommend listening to Kimmerer’s two-minute MacArthur Foundation video. Listen to it here.