Review: The Wisconsin author’s book an appreciation of what we all have in common

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LAC LÉMAN — My favorite stories are those that seem trivial at first glance.

Black

But wrapped within reveal the fascinating rhythms of our daily lives, and better yet, clues on how to live it richer, with more empathy and understanding of the world around us.

Jim Black’s new book is a collection of those stories.

Titled “Just Call Me a Gardener – and Other Wonders Along the Way,” the book is a collection of 32 engaging essays that first appeared in Walworth County Week and Walworth County Sunday newspapers.

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The book reads like a Saturday morning conversation over the fence with your most approachable neighbor.

Sometimes the discussion revolves around issues down the street in Fontana or Lake Geneva. Other times it’s the news of the day or the outlook on national headlines.

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Topics are the things we talk about every day – our neighborhood, the passage of time, our own personal space, and our place in the world.

I first met Black when I was editor of The week when he came into the newsroom to show me one of his essays.

This began a years long publication of his columns in the newspaper.

His background is varied, which certainly informs his writing. After spending his early years in Walworth County, he traveled extensively.

He lived eight years in New York and another eight years in Nicaragua at the height of that country’s civil war, where he worked in the presidential press office of the Sandinista government.

He stayed after the war and worked for the bilingual newspaper Barricada International.

But then he moved back to Walworth County as a single father with his then 6-year-old son. He is now married to his wife, Eileen.

Some of my favorites in the collection are also ones that will resonate with readers here in Walworth County.

In “The Lake by Any Other Name…is Still Lake Geneva,” he tackles the endless debate over the proper name for Walworth County’s crown jewel.

(My understanding has always been that the official name is Lake Geneva, but locals are grandfathered and still allowed to call the lake “Lac Geneva”.)

“Right or wrong, right or wrong, the name ‘Lac Léman’ has become generic as surely as Kleenex has replaced the word ’tissue’,” Black writes. “It’s more than a lake and more than a town on its eastern shore. In my humble opinion, when we talk about Lake Geneva, we are talking about a geographical region. Yet it is more than that.

Again, “The treasure of Lake Geneva”, reads like a love letter.

“Maybe it’s because the lake is the soul of this area,” Black writes. “It is the physical center of a population that surrounds it. The area we inhabit is defined by the lake.

Both a genealogical detective and a historian, Black opens and reads a series of letters between his Irish grandparents written from 1899 to 1902 in his essay “The Letters”.

“Reading his letters is like listening to someone talk on the phone,” Black writes, “you only hear one side of conservation, but it paints a specific picture.”

Black warns that the essay from which the book takes its title, “Just Call Me a Gardener,” won’t teach you how to raise plants.

Although it was written for another era, it is particularly poignant today as Russian troops have launched their attack on their Ukrainian neighbors.

Black shows how we can manage so far from the front lines.

“The world of politics is complicated. Gardening is simple,” Black writes.

“We live in dangerous times, but it’s always been that way. Politicians come and go. The world is adapting.

“In the meantime, just call me a gardener.

“I’ll leave it at that.”


Read excerpts from the book HERE.

Email Black at [email protected]

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