A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Ok, wow, this book might be a little too on the nose. I definitely identified with certain aspects of it. Overall, A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley is a good book, written by a objectively talented writer.

I read some short stories by Smiley in undergrad, but I hadn’t ever returned, until now. This book is about a farming family and the challenges they face as they try to navigate what to do with the land as the patriarch ages, an incredibly complicated and tough challenge. Smiley does an amazing job of navigating people’s natural fears, jealousies, ambitions, trauma, heartache, and more, with nuance. In fact, I found myself reading her bio, wondering if she had a rural background. Her understanding of, for example, how women cook food just felt so very rural midwestern and real. However, it appears that she grew up in the suburbs, which is baffling because she knows this world so well. According to her bibliography, she’s written other rural texts too. Maybe she has grandparents who were farmers.

I do have a critique of the book, and it’s one I would like to ask her about. [Spoiler ahead] In the book, a pretty shocking level of abuse is revealed. While I think this is valid subject matter, the abuse is so stunning that it reaches the point of distraction, from the narrative, from some other purposes, etc. I believe it was Hemingway who advised that an author should start the story after the beloved character dies, and I wondered what this book might be like, better perhaps, if this abuse remained an undercurrent that the author never fully revealed. The sexism and mind games alone were enough to warrant the characters’ complex emotional landscape. I just think it might’ve been more interesting to leave out the more overt stories of abuse, letting it subtly infuse the scene, without letting it completely taking over, and letting the more nuanced, but no less interesting dramas, have more emphasis throughout.


Olivia: A Novel by Dorothy Strachey

In one of her books, Elena Ferrante references Olivia, a novel published anonymously by Dorothy Strachey in 1949, and so I read it next. It is a slow short novel that burns brightly at the very end. I wondered why it’s not a more well-known book, but I think the subject matter and age difference between “Olivia” and her teacher are key reasons. At times it felt like somewhat of a reverse Lolita. Interestingly, this novel was written several years prior.

In the end, while I don’t necessarily recommend it as your typical light read, I do think the book has literary merit on the grounds that it seems to capture a Freudian influence and understanding of the world. Many books and authors were doing something similar at the time, and it, no doubt, had an impact on art today.

Spare by Prince Harry

After watching some of the recent interviews with Harry and Meghan, my curiosity was piqued to read Spare by Prince Harry. For those who have been following along, this is a great book. Fans of Princess Diana will appreciate it too. The book effectively captures his tone. It offers the kind of inside look that audiences never get access to. Prince Harry bravely takes up vulnerable and taboo topics in the book. He openly admits to his bad behavior. He openly admits to his anxiety and depression.

Where this book is a triumph is in its ability to show the royals as real, fallible, human people. Of course logically we know this, but due to tabloids, celebrities often get distilled down to products for consumption rather than treated as real people. I appreciated that about the book.

Strangely, I sort of identified with some aspects of Prince Harry’s experience. He writes about visiting the site of his mother’s death years later and mentions that its the first time he’d been to Paris, but I assumed he would have traveled to all of the world’s major cities frequently. His visit was in close proximity to my own first visit to Paris. But for me, it was more understandable. I was raised in a rural location without a lot of firsthand experience with the outside world. I could read about it, but I’d never actually, for example, walked the streets of Paris. It’s great, but it’s also a somewhat isolated experience. Prince Harry’s experience seems somewhat similar. While school and studies take up a big part of his life, another big part of his life seems to have been safely sitting alone in castles.

It’s clear that Prince Harry is traumatized by the loss of his mother at the hands of paparazzi. It’s clear that the trauma informs his own reaction to the paparazzi today, and that’s made even more evident in his drive to protect his new family. While others may say that he should ignore it, or that by recounting these baseless stories in his book, he’s just giving them more air time. There’s no accounting for a broken heart and how it will make you feel and what it will make you do.

I am sympathetic to Prince Harry, but I don’t see eye to eye with him on everything. I don’t need to. In fact, challenging the audience in these areas is probably part of what makes him so compelling. I am more sympathetic to the circumstances of the other members of the royal family. I think they’re in both a really privileged situation and a really limiting one as well. As is made clear in Spare, the royals are, again, real people with all of their own strengths and challenges, living within a limited, but also very privileged world.

My Body by Emily Ratajkowski

My Body by Emily Ratajkowski is a unique book–part expose on the seedy world of modeling, fashion, Hollywood, and fame, and part memoir, with deep personal introspection. In the book, Ratajkowski, whom I was vaguely aware of as a model, but now a fan and follower on Instagram, shares the story of her rise to fame, known for her perfect body. But, she’s also critic of the abuse she suffers at the hands of both the industry and the larger culture. She’s a critic of herself too, acknowledging stories when she was too naive, too confused, too scared, or too complacent to do better. It’s a complicated book that sends readers on a trajectory of introspection about women’s bodies, while also offering a look into an elite (and also surprisingly not glamorous in so many ways) world that few get to experience. I hope she’ll write more, especially about motherhood. This book is worth the read!

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson

What can I say about Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson? She has an incredible life story to draw from and she does so in writing that understands all of the conventions of good writing. She writes about the horrors and abuse that kids face with little to no place to go to escape and how severely this is amplified for queer kids, and I think she started telling this story before many narratives like this existed. That’s important.

In many ways this book felt like the same book she’s written before. This one is about her mother “Mrs. Winterson,” and about herself. I found myself wanting it to be more about her biological mother, whom she journey’s to find in this book. However, I suppose it makes sense that it’s more about her adoptive mother, about whom she’s spent a lifetime thinking, and much less time processing a biological mother.

It’s a book worth reading. Just like the title, the book is shocking, profound, makes no sense, and is kind of funny.

All of This: A Memoir of Death and Desire by Rebecca Woolf

First, here are my unsolicited blurbs for this book:
“Please option this for a film asap.”
“Woolf is a modern day Nora Ephron.” (Possibly influenced by the fact that I just finished Heartburn, but still!)
“This book is the true LA Story.”

After following her work online for years (as one of the thousands of people whose fingers hold her up in this cosmic game of light as a feather, stiff as a board), I have been eagerly awaiting my chance to read All of This: A Memoir of Death and Desire by Rebecca Woolf.

The first half+ of this book is a gripping narrative. Later, the book becomes less plot driven and slows, and I think that’s because the “after” is not/could not be a linear trajectory.

Woolf wrestles with what it means to be a feminist, or to become a feminist, and puts a magnifying glass to some of the common dynamics of life, relationships, particularly heterosexual relationships that are, to say the least, problematic. I was with her for these points because I also wrestle with many of the same questions. I differ though. Unlike Woolf, I was less tied down in my early adult life, and more so now, even though still not very “tied down” by comparison, and that is by design. I had my children later, but a decade ago, I was also reading about her life online. To be reading this book now, as I have little ones of my own feels very full circle, which she would enjoy.

Here are some lines I loved or identified with and/or that gave me pause:

First, as a fan of her writing, I loved seeing her include her numbered lists with numbers that get longer and insaner each time.

“I will not shrink myself nor prioritize people’s pleasure over my own.” Simple, true. It can be hard to recognize when it’s happening.

“Then the 2016 election happened.” This changed me forever too, and I am still not over it.

“WHAT IF IT DID NOT TURN OUT TO BE CHILL?” Just, lol, yes, this is what it is like to be a parent, mother, woman in life.

“I soon realize that it’s a lot faster for me to pack four lunches on my own.” This is just simply true and a lot of people don’t know it.

“My daughters. They are only mine now.”

“The bravest women I know are not widows. They are divorced.”

“And there is nothing I can do but let it go and drive him home. This is the moment I became a single mother.”

Heartburn by Nora Ephron

I had to set aside Heartburn by Nora Ephron shortly after I started because, after reading some of the other seemingly deeper, more “artful” books, I found the content to be a little too silly or irreverent. When I returned to it though, I was ready, and it is an excellent book.

Published in 1983, it really captures an interesting period of time (aren’t they all?) for women. The book is simultaneously feminist and sexist. There is truly some insightful feminist though. There’s also some internalized, unselfconscious sexism too though. There are definitely some dated jokes that would not fly today. The book perfectly captures the culture of the 1980s, especially When Harry Met Sally, which I should watch again (have I ever seen it in it’s entirety?), which is a film that was also written by Ephron. For example, I could easily image Diane Keaton playing the read role.

I loved the portrayal of motherhood in this novel. Probably due in no small part to the amount of wealth and therefore help that these characters have, motherhood in the early ’80s seems lovely, enriching, rewarding, sometimes hard. These women have time to also be themselves and explore their interests (frivolous though they may seem). I think this is next to impossible in motherhood today, where women are expected to/have few other options than to do so much, everything, constantly, every second, for their children.

Still, though it may at times seem frivolous, Ephron packs a surprising amount of insights about the human condition into every single sentence. It’s a good book. There is some really good humor in it too, and I don’t say that lightly.

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante

I read Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter immediately after finishing My Brilliant Friend. This is another excellent, although perhaps more literary, piece than the first book of the Neopalitan Quartet series.

The Lost Daughter, also referenced in the Mother’s book, is about the darker side of motherhood, in a way that I found entirely relatable. Too often, critical books on motherhood are too critical, too negative–children are too exhausting, it’s not worth it, end of story. However, I truly appreciate Ferrante’s more nuanced approach. In The Lost Daughter, she turns a magnifying glass on the difficulties, violences, and burden of motherhood, the complete selfless turning over of the self that is required of the job, an ask that is far too demanding and made worse by societal constructs around motherhood and a general lack of support.

However, instead of dismissing the mothering journey altogether, as too exhausting, too violent, Ferrante acknowledges the duality of the role, the positive life changing aspects of it–the more complicated relationship it can foster in the self in regards to love, compassion, nurturance, service, and ambition. The little girl in The Lost Daughter is depicted as both angelic and beautiful from a distance, but up close is whiny, snot-nosed, crusty-eyed, and clawing, swatting, and pinching at adults around her. This is the reality of living with and loving a child. They are, each and every one of them all at once both transcendently perfect and also demanding, selfish, and incidentally cruel. To be a mother is to live within this duality constantly throughout the day. It’s complicated and beautiful and ugly too.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I discovered Elena Ferrante from Mothers by Jacqueline Rose, which I read recently. I started with Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first in a long series, and I loved it! The writing is excellent. The content is thought-provoking, and it also has the long sense of story found in easier, longer reads–not a common combination. Although it is long, I flew through it.

While I highly recommend the book, I will warn that I found the conclusion to be somewhat disappointing. I wanted a strong wrap up for this particular book, but instead found myself needing to read more of the series in order to get that. It will probably require reading all four books.

I ended the book somewhat exhausted and unwilling to continue with the series. Maybe I’ll return to them someday. They’re certainly worth it, but, and I can’t believe I’m writing this, I really don’t have the energy to give them at this point in my life.

I’m glad these books are out there. Sometimes I just need a good book, a good story, and I now know I can turn to Ferrante to get that.

I am also inexplicably obsessed with the cover art:

2022 year in review

My 2022 year in review, I want to summon the poet and philosopher Snoop Dogg, who said, “I want to thank me. I want to thank me for believing in me. I want to thank me for doing all this hard work. I want to thank me for having no days off.” In 2022, there were no days off. Part of this is just the nature of being a mom. I am constantly on call and often in active service of someone else’s needs. Part of this is my job. There is no end in sight. There is always scholarship to do. During the term, there is always more grading to do after the regular work day is over. Part of it is just my unique circumstance regarding my support network.

In 2022, I lost my aunt. We had tried to stay away from her for the previous few years to protect her fragile health during the pandemic. I anticipated being able to spend more normal time with her since moving back to the area, but that was not to be.

Perhaps that was a catalyst, but there were several otherworldly connections throughout the year. I had a few interesting experiences with a spirit medium. She charges an hourly rate, and maybe I should schedule something. I saw huge droves of yellow butterflies while driving, I wore my lipstick daily, and I felt a professional push like never before. I was able to see possible pathways that were previously out of view. It’s possible that nothing will change. In many ways, that would be fine because there are many things to love about my current situation. However, it’s nice to not feel limited.

Maybe it was just the stunning inflation, but I also found myself more interested in material things and motivated by money. I’m not sure what I believe, but this year it felt like my ancestors were there and pushing me, encouraging me, and giving me signs along the way.

In spring of 2022, my first lambs were born on the farm! They were born in April, and lambing in milder months was by far more convenient than December or January lambs. It’s less conventional and means a lower weight at weaning, and while I would like the sheep to be profitable, that margin will be narrow either way.

I was able to read more than in previous years since having children. Most of that reading happened in winter and in summer, with months on end passing without any reading for fun.

When I look back at my many photos, it looks like we did a lot. I’m glad for the photographic reminders because in many ways, it felt like most days were similar, full of meal prep, diaper changes, and caring for my children.

2022 Top Nine