Category Archives: books

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

After finishing Idaho by Emily Ruskovich, I read a few of her interviews and found that Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson also takes place in the Inland Northwest and that Robinson had been an important influence.

I tried reading Robinson’s Lila not long ago, but couldn’t get into it. Housekeeping, on the other hand, was immediately absorbing and recognizable. It helps that I am homesick and desperate to be in the Inland Northwest, even if just through reading. It also helps that I recently finished Ruskovich’s book and the two follow similar plot structures, themes, and tones.

Like Idaho, Housekeeping lends shatteringly brilliant insights into the human condition. In another life, I continue the path of creative writing, and get to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, not on my merits necessarily yet, but on my potential and because Robinson chooses to mentor me as a fellow Inland Northwesterner, and I join them and live in this world too. Maybe I can still find my way on my own, with their words.

Here are some lines I liked:

“When they were reunited, she hoped he would be changed, substantially changed” (10).

“…because the seahorses themselves were so arch, so antic and heraldic, and armored in the husks of insects” (12).

“She never taught them to be kind to her” (19).

“She tended us with a gentle indifference that made me feel she would have liked to have been more alone…” (109).

“It is better to have nothing” (159).

“I hated waiting. If I had one particular complaint, it was that my life seemed composed entirely of expectation” (166).

“Now truly we were cast out to wander, and there was an end to housekeeping” (209).

On conception at the top between pages 214 and 215.

“The only mystery is that we expect it to be otherwise” (215).

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich is an absolutely fantastic novel. And that’s coming from someone who’s had a hard time reading fiction for several years now. I’ve been the most critical reader, scouring the first 10, 15, 20 pages for a piece of dialogue to fall flat, for text that tries too hard, or for a lie. Normally, I’ll find a reason to set the book aside within the first few pages. Often in the first paragraph. (I hope my own readers are more generous.) I’ll admit that the first 50 pages of this book were slow for me, but I love Idaho, and I found myself wanting to spend more time in the state and, therefore, more time with the book. Every line, every description, every detail served a purpose. Nothing was wasted. There were endless revelations about the human spirit.

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reading Idaho in Idaho

My struggled with fiction has had to do with plots lines that are too predictable (or intentionally unpredictable for no good reason), common tropes are overused, and characters are flat. As a result, if I do read fiction, it tends to be stuff with no discernible plot line. Idaho has a plot line. Very much so. But it is as artful as the text.

If you grew up in the Inland Northwest, if there are old pictures of you as a child standing in the back of a old Ford, a photo taken when you are covered in tamarack dust, stuck to you from the can of Coke you drank, while you are waiting while your parents stacked firewood into the back of the pickup, and smell of honeysuckle and chainsaw oil thick in the air, and then if you went to school in the Palouse, and spent summers high up in the Idaho mountains, a little worried about getting lost among the old Forest Service road, but thankful from the break of intellectual work, while you marked and hauled old logs to the truck to burn through the winter in a fireplace that would melt and permanently scar the skin on your forearm, and if you take every opportunity, every summer and spring break, to drive back to those empty Blue Mountains, and if you knew the boredom and insight of an isolated childhood in the rural Northwest, and if you think you’ve actually met Emily Ruskovich, been introduced in passing by a friend, an acquaintance, in Moscow, Idaho, while you were practicing yoga across the state line, or at the farmer’s market, or in the little shop, where you ate a coffee and bagel after having ridden your bike eight miles along the Chipman Trail. Perhaps she was a student, or maybe you two were alone in a used bookstore and shared a knowing glance, seeing that you are the same, both with freckles, red hair, and dark eyes, but you think you are different, but you are not so different, and you should read this beautiful, beautiful book that she has written.

Transit by Rachel Cusk

I continue to enjoy Rachel Cusk’s work–a constant good amid chaos. I read Outline a few years ago and The Last Supper just this winter. Transit makes sense of The Last Supper.  Her observations on the human condition are unique and accurate. Her characters are honest, and sometimes they tell the truth.

image from amazon.com

Here are some lines I liked:

  • “[S]he was too obviously based on a human type to be, herself, human” (3).
  • “It was an interesting thought, that stability might be seen as the product of risk; it was perhaps when people tried to keep things the same that the process of decline began” (27).
  • “[S]omeone who cared about him once wrote that it was impossible not to reject him, that the friend himself has rejected him, that something about him just made people do it” (138).
  • “Fate, he said, is only truth in its natural state” (256).
  • “I felt something change far beneath me, moving deep beneath the surface of things, like plates of the earth blindly moving in their black traces” (260).

I’ve felt these subtle moments, sometimes after years, and it’s such a relief.

Walk Through Walls by Marina Abramović

Walk Through Walls is Marina Abramović’s extraordinary story. I mean, of course it’s extraordinary–it warranted a book. And it did. Abramović gives the account of her tumultuous and abusive (my word, not hers) upbringing, replete with political upheaval and familial strife–inexcusable even given the PTSD and OCD that pervades the family dynamic.

Image result for Abramović walk through walls

image from amazon.com

I continue to be interested in reading about powerful women, women who live lives that are very different than the ones they grew up in, women who were able to imagine and create a way for themselves with the degree of freedom and autonomy that their art requires.

Recently, in an interview, I heard Patti Smith say that the artists path is a spiritual path, that pursuing it and making art is a spiritual experience. In that the making of art puts me in a meditative state, which is a spiritual experience, I agree.

Abramović writes honestly, even self critically, about the spiritual and emotional experiences of her life, and the relationships in which she engaged, and even contributed analysis on her painful patterns and what they might suggest. It was all very honest and real and shed some light into my own painful patterns and what can be done about them (hint: probably not a lot).

So many of the artists I’ve been reading about have traveled extensively and have sought esoteric (at least to a Westerners view) spiritual rituals for self growth and healing, engaging in shamanic treatments in Brazil, learning telepathy from Aboriginals in Australia, and completing months-long meditations in India.

Lately, I’ve wanted to have more meaningful interactions in my work. Abramović’s work empowers me to do so. Her art is really weird, and many might view it as sensationalistic, existing only for the sake of shock and awe, but in reading the book, I was quickly and easily persuaded that performance art is very much art. It’s complex and provocative and does all of the important things that more traditional art does.

For as much as her most intimate relationships brought her pain and betrayal, Abramović heals these wounds for herself and others (her audience and her students), time and time again. Perhaps I can find ways to do more of the same in the work that I do. At least I can try.

After reading the book and being inspired by her story, I felt more emboldened to live my life in a way that was more fully authentic to who I am. So currently I am working hard to change a few things about my life, bringing it more into accord with my essential self, trying to set things up in ways that are more conducive to my well being, and wearing these big sunglasses that fully protect my eyes on the top bottom and the sides. (I wore them yesterday while browsing a plant nursery, and it felt great, and zeros effs were given.)

I thought I marked more passages (I know it did!), but in the end, this is all I could find:

“Because in the end you are really alone, whatever you do” (182).

“If animals live a long time together, they start loving each other. But people start hating each other” (290).

Why I Am Not a Feminist by Jessa Crispin

I read Why I Am Not a Feminist by Jessa Crispin when it was recommended by a colleague and when just hearing the title made my blood boil as I recalled countless bad Jezebel articles and dead end arguments on social media about feminism over the past few years. So, I read it.

Image result for Why I Am Not a Feminist

image from amazon.com

As expected, Crispin makes some good points, but also made my blood boil. It reads like being in an argument with the most gaslighting, narcissistic lover or family member you can’t escape. You bring up a problem. They put words in your mouth. They turn it around and accuse you of doing the thing that they were doing. Everything gets spun around. They deny saying the thing they just said. You feel like you’re taking crazy pills. Actually, that’s exactly what it’s like to read this book if you are me–a college-educated woman who has identified as a feminist since the halcyon days of undergraduate school.

The good aspects are that there are some smart and critical observations about social justice, and embracing an ideology like feminism, and life in general. She brings up important points and social events that we could probably all benefit from thinking about more critically and understanding in new ways. The bad points are that it is full of soundbites that lack real depth, and in that way it is also not very literary. It reads more like a Ted Talk, and she is constantly essentializing–to the degree that her insights are often inaccurate and/or misleading. There are straw man arguments throughout.

If you think the Crispin has miscategorized the term, and that feminism is still useful, then Crispin’s book will fall short as a manifesto.

Here are some lines that stood out to me (and a response):

  • “In order to make feminism palatable to everyone, they have to make sure no one is made uncomfortable by feminism’s goals” (8). I agree that this is a problem. Not all feminisms will be “palatable” to the masses and that’s ok/inevitable.

  • “If the goal is universality, then these feminists need to simplify the message to such a degree that the only people who would disagree with their pitch are religious freaks and hardcore misogynists” (10). This seemed to be the case with the Women’s March. The voices were so varied that everyone could easily feel good about participating. I didn’t (and don’t) think that’s a bad thing. There will be easy things and there will be hard things. The Women’s March was an easy thing.

  • “If you are surrounded by people who agree with you, you do not have to do much thinking…you do not have to work at constructing a unique identity. If you are surrounded by people who behave the same way you do, you do not have to question your own choices” (15). This is just a great reminder.

  • “What needs to be restored, and can be restored, is a feminist philosophy” (22). There never was a central “feminist philosophy.” Crispin does this throughout–essentializes or argues for or against things that were never “things” to begin with.

  • “There is a way a woman can deflect the worst effects of patriarchal control, and that is through money” (55). As a “Marxian feminist” this just stood out to me. This is a thing.

  • “Outrage culture” (106). I liked this phrasing. Social media and an “easy share” culture facilitates outrages culture, and there’s really no evidence that any of it is helpful.

  • “If you want to create a better world and a better existence for your people, you must participate in the imperfect world that exists now” (143). The whole “better world” narrative isn’t very convincing to me, but the participating part? That’s something with which I can agree. 

A Lotus Grows in the Mud by Goldie Hawn

I can’t remember where exactly, but Goldie Hawn’s book, A Lotus Grows in the Mud was recommended to me while I was reading some respectable piece of literature, and so I ordered it and set it aside for a month or so. I finally got the chance to read it over spring break, and it was surprisingly delightful–thanks in no small part, I’m sure, to “co-author” Wendy Holden.

Lotus Grows In The Mud

image from powells.com

Hawn has led a fascinating life, and her book really tries to get at some of the wisdom she’s gained in this life. And, you know what? Some of that wisdom was pretty darn inspiring and insightful.

Here’s what impressed me–Hawn follows her purpose, even when it is not obvious, even when she has doubt, even when others criticize her and roadblocks threaten her faith.

When I think about my purpose in life, I often have doubt and uncertainty. However, the predominant narrative one hears about one’s path is that it is easy and clear. But, that hasn’t been the case for me. I was an English major because I liked reading, but that seemed incidental. Now, I’ve made an entire career out this. I love practicing yoga because it is good for me, but a lot of times I phone it in, or have to talk myself into going, and sometimes I don’t go at all. I’m never the most flexible, most enlightened, or coolest person in the class. Still, I trained to teach yoga, and I’ve been teaching it since 2008. Most days when I enter into that classroom to teach, it feels really, really *right*. Same goes for the garden, for writing, for my friendships, for My Love.

So, I loved the message of her book. She was brave. She did hard things. It made me feel like I could be brave. I could do hard things–all while making a living and having Kurt Russell unexpectedly waltz in and save me in the final hour and then stay for the remainder of my decades. Yeah, I’ll have what she’s having.

In perfect timing, just as I finish this book, I see that Hawn is teaming up with Amy Schumer in a new film called Snatched. It looks lovely and hilarious, and I can’t wait to see it. I love seeing mother/daughter duos (that’s in the book too).

The Sea and Sardinia by D.H. Lawrence

I read The Sea and Sardinia by D.H. Lawrence because Rachel Cusk mentions it in The Last Supper, and I hadn’t read anything by D.H. Lawrence, or any  literature from the “old white male canon,” in a very long time.

Image result for Sea and Sardinia

image from amazon.com

If you were to go on an extended trip through a long country or several small ones, and if you were to keep a daily journal filled with every detail that reminds you of every exquisite thing you encountered, details that also functioned to take you to a time, a place, a feeling, a current obsession, the food you ate, the drink, and then if you published that book because the whole trip had been funded by a publisher who had been promised a book, I presume you would have The Sea and Sardinia by D.H. Lawrence.

I’ve made long trips, and kept detailed journals, and I recorded every exquisite thing I encountered that reminded me of a time, a place, a feeling, an obsession, the food I ate, the drink, and I cherish those journals. Rereading them, I can feel the sun on my skin and the free way of moving through the world, urgent to find food or hotel, but not to meet a work deadline. I can remember my interests, my obsessions, the ways other people live, the look of other places, how I was different then than I am now, and for the inevitable better.

I don’t think those journal entries probably have much merit beyond my own memories, just as the Sea and Sardinia is undoubtedly more important to Lawrence and the “q-b” than anyone else. The book is an early modern travel guide. It perfectly captures the difficulties, and the luggage handles cutting into your hands, and the filth of the public, the beauty, and the enduring, the transcending that occurs with travel. Of course it’s also artfully written. Not only does Lawrence have the decency to avoid boring us with a plot, but the reader must look no further than the first line for something lovely: “Comes over one an absolute necessity to move” (7). And on the “other,” he writes, “Their naturalness seems unnatural to us. Yet I am sure it is best” (21). There is more of this throughout, which is, of course, what sets him apart as one of the very best. I can say I read it.

Bluets by Maggie Nelson

I needed to read something artistic, and so I finally read Bluets by Maggie Nelson. I read it quickly. (It did not need to be read slowly.) It seemed like I’d read this book before. It reminded me of Coeur de Lion by Ariana Reines, but not as beautiful as that in terms of the sentence. It was beautiful, though, and smart–one of the best books I’ve read in the genre. I had little patience for the sexual aspects of the book. That’s me though. Lately, those inclusions seem cheap. I used to “get it.” Adding the sexual gave writing that perfect blend of raw and mystery. Anymore I only want to think about birds and botany.

Bluets - Maggie Nelson

image from wavepoetry.com

 

Lines I liked:

“My Thought has though itself through and reached a Pure Idea. What the rest of me has suffered during the at long agony, is in describable” (Mallarmé 2-3).

“Now I like to remember the question alone, as it reminds me that my mind is essentially a sieve, that I am mortal” (62).

“…the blue of the sky depends on the darkness of empty space behind it” (62).

“For some, the emptiness itself is God; for others, the space must stay empty” (86).

“…ask not what has been real and what has been false, but what has been bitter, and what has been sweet” (86).

“As a rule we find pleasure much less pleasurable, pain much more more painful that we expected” (87).

“She is too busy asking, in this changed form, what makes a livable life, and how she can live it” (88).

“Imagine someone saying, “Our fundamental situation is joyful.” Now imagine believing it…Or forget belief: imagine feeling, even if for a moment, that it were true” (89).

“When I was alive, I aimed to be a student not of longing, but of light” (95).

Words/concepts that inspired further study:

  • the male satin bowerbird
  • International Klein Blue
  • samsara
  • the jacaranda tree
  • the Tuareg
  • The Oblivion Seekers

The Doulas: Radical Care for Pregnant People by Mary Mahoney and Lauren Mitchell

Awhile back, a colleague in the field of feminist medical rhetorics recommended The Doulas: Radical Care for Pregnant People by Mary Mahoney and Lauren Mitchell (though it must not’ve been too long ago because this book was just published in 2016). I finally got around to read it in preparation for a presentation I am giving on rhetorics of consent and advocacy in childbirth at a conference in March.

First, notice that the title is “pregnant people,” not “pregnant *women*.” We know now that it isn’t just women who get pregnant and/or give birth. I emphasize pregnant and/or give birth because this books also acknowledges that pregnancy ends in many different ways–some more socially acceptable than others.

For the most part, this book is politically sensitive to  the wide range of experiences people have as it relates to pregnancy and caring for the pregnancy and/or childbirth experience (aka doula work). Doulas provide people with support, especially in situations that are less socially acceptable. Of course, there are also doulas who hold intense, open biases. Some won’t work with gay couples (the legalities of which I question), and some are vehemently pro-life. It’s been my experience, though, that, in general, the doula community tends to be quite open to, and advocates for, variations of the pregnancy experience. (Still, the doula interview is crucial because pregnancy and birth work is incredibly political and contentious.) Unfortunately, the current cultural climate is one that is still obsessed with policing women’s bodies. Anything from choosing abortion to opting out of an epidural can be, and is, met with resistance.

Another approach I liked from this book is one of narrative medicine. Ina May Gaskin is notorious for writing childbirth guides that are full of childbirth stories. These stories work to help teach the reader about the many different healthy and normal experiences people can have in childbirth. This is important because when there is a very narrow definition of “normal,” and variations are treated as “abnormal,” interventions become the norm, and interventions too often mean trauma, surgery, injury, delayed bonding–the list goes on.

Back to the book: for my own purposes, I didn’t need or want to read most of the content. I wanted this to be a more theoretical work, but it mostly wasn’t. I also had a hard time understanding the relevance of some of the content.

Here are a few lines I liked (from the intro and forward because that’s where the book was most theoretical):

-“These doulas call it “story-based care” because they hear many stories of people for whom some choices are straightforward, while others offer extreme complexity” (x).

Since becoming a doula, I have been shocked by the number of *high stakes* choices that people have during pregnancy and childbirth. Navigating those choices and feeling empowered in through the process has been one of the most important aspects of my job as a doula.

-“Racism can distort a birthing or adoption experience. Transphobia can lead to the denial of vital healthcare. Prejudice against immigrants can divide families through deportation. Misogyny can reduce pregnant women to walking wombs without rights” (xv).

-“[Doulas] don’t sky away from naming oppressions–white supremacy, colonialism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia–yet they are not there to preach, but to serve” (xv).

Sure, some doulas might preach, but one unique aspect of this type of work is that, for doulas, activism is in the work–making political statements through actions, through work within the institutions and with the people most affected.

-“While much feminist and social justice activism was taking place online, the doula movement allowed activists to connect face-to-face with people confronting the realities of what the “spectrum of choice” really means” (xxi).

-On people during pregnancy and childbirth: “Worse still, they suffer the loss of personal agency as decisions that should be private become politically and bureaucratically charged” (xxi).

-On doulas: “People frequently refer to us as “advocates.” While we would not argue that point, we hope this book will show you how advocacy as a doula looks different from advocacy in other realms. Often it simply means this: we are “holders.” We hold space by creating safe, comfortable environments where our clients can be heard” (xxii).

-“Our practice as doulas is a daily expression of the union between compassion and advocacy” (xxii).

-“Though understanding systemic oppression is crucial to the way we approach doula care, we believe that individual stories have the ability to pierce the veil covering systems that affect millions of people; they are unique but universal” (xxiv).

-“So much of doula work is that transference of story and the transference of emotional burden that goes with it” (xxvi).

The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy by Rachel Cusk

Since I read Outline by Rachel Cusk, I’ve wanted to read her earlier book The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy. I finally got the chance to finish it this winter. Cusk’s genius is in her observations. She has some of the most shockingly astute and artfully articulated insights on the human condition that I have ever read. She also has a vast vocabulary, which she integrates beautifully into her writing: inchoate, lachrymose, acolyte, obeisance, balustrades.

Image result for The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy by Rachel Cusk

image from goodreads.com

The book comments on foreign travel, staying, getting sick of a place, hating and loving a place, connecting, awkwardness, presence, living in the experience, and art, and an eye, and the moments between people that capture the feeling or meaning in art.

Two thirds of the way through, I’ll admit that I wanted a bit less description of some of the art (though I can see that it was necessary). I wanted more of the human interactions, the mistakes, the moving, the descriptions of the land, the houses, the people. This wasn’t a joyful read, but it was quiet and thoughtful, which is what I needed.

Just a few lines:
“In this it is the artist who is God. And it is a strange kind of proof we seek from him, we who are so troubled by our own morality, who know we will all eat a last supper of our own” (53).

“Now our violence is diffuse, generalized: it has been broken down until it covers everything in a fine film, like dust” (148).