Fleeting as the Clouds

A Sideways Look at Clouds
By Maria Mudd Ruth
206 pp. Mountaineers Books. $25.

Back in 2012, I traveled to Finland and then down through the Baltics. One clear day that May, I stepped inside a curious-looking shop in Riga, Latvia, and came away with a coffee mug with an inscription of the Latvian myth of the “Cloud Pusher.” This fascinated me, so much so that it spawned two loves — one for mug collecting, and another for clouds.

As for clouds, my fascination is less to do with their science and more to do with the ways different cultures have, over time, interpreted their meaning.

I came upon “A Sideways Look at Clouds” at Browser’s Bookshop in Olympia, Washington this past July. Seeing it there on the table and drawn in by the lovely cover, I was filled with that curious cloud intrigue once again.

The author is herself from Olympia, which likely explains why this book was at that bookshop in the first place. Olympia and Washington State, more generally, are well known to be particularly overcast places, so it makes sense that a book about the clouds would come from there. All well and good.

Unfortunately, what I didn’t care for so much about this book — and why it took me three long months to finish it — is that I found it to be somewhat too personal.

In between what were often quite technical explanations of clouds that I found occasionally difficult to parse, the author has overly long sections in which she talks about her own fascination with clouds. These include several pages where the author drives up to a hill that overlooks Olympia in order to catch a glimpse of a fog enveloping the city, and then drives down to a lake so she can take a swim while totally submerged in this fog.

I just wasn’t very interested in these sections, they didn’t shed any light for me on the clouds but only on the author’s fascination with them — a fascination that readers of this book are already likely to share to the point that these bits come off as obvious and uninteresting. This only added to the tedium that I often experienced while reading this book, which is unfortunate since clouds most definitely do not bore me.

There is some insight to glean here, I particularly liked learning about how meteorologists name the clouds, but there’s far too little of it for my liking in light of the page length.

Over the course of the three months it took me to finish, sections of this book passed in and out of my mind without ever really settling. Even now, several days after finishing it, I find it difficult to recall much of it at all.

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