Category Archives: life

What Remains by Carole Radziwill

What a beautiful book! What Remains by Carole Radziwill is a completely unique book, taking the reader locations you’ve never been—could never go—but also to fully human and universally recognizable places.

It’s no secret that the Real Housewives series are a guilty pleasure, and I always found Carole to be a fun, tell-it-like-it-is, type of “character,” so I thought this book might be decent, but it’s better than that!

A Memoir of Fate, Friendship, and Love

The book takes the reader to the poor gravel roads and streams of New York state, to the haphazard suburbs, to a chaotic, but close family life, to the rush of a bold new career in a city, to war zones, to falling in love (without cliché), and forging deep friendships with “America’s royalty.” Readers see that we all ache, love, suffer, and feel the joy of the sun on our skin and the wind in our hair universally. The life she lives once she’s seriously dating and married to her husband Anthony is (emotionally) much like other everyday relationships, except with better food, clothing, apartments, travel, and lovely places to stay. The reader might be surprised to find that this group of “elites” are thoughtful, frugal, playful, stressed, sometimes uncertain. Aren’t we all?

Radziwill has lived an extraordinary life, and so while this is a memoir, and a genre with which readers might be familiar, it’s is so completely unique in the extraordinary events and circumstances she’s survived. She loses her three closest people in the span of three weeks. Maybe she has survivor’s guilt, but I hope she doesn’t. I hope she is exploring what to do with this big, bold, beautiful life she gets to live. While there is a tight and lovely metaphor about fortune threaded throughout, which works on several levels, the reader leaves the book thinking, “Anything is possible. Anything can happen. Now, what am I going to do with this big bold, beautiful life?”

I read every word and, almost to prove a point, she thanks her bff and sister-in-law, Teresa, who–get this–is from my very own La Grande, Oregon! I am reminded that it truly is a very teeny tiny microscopic world, and anything is possible.

A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo

I am blown away by the slow burn called A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo. The first and majority of the book is a quiet, steady dialogue between the main character and her “lover.” As you know, I am not a theory hound, but this book was one of few that has made me want to turn steadily back to some of the theories presented in this book, and in grad programs across the world, including my own, and see if I can now find a different way in to them, more my own, perhaps feminine, a more first gen, working-class, creative, put two ideas next to each other to see the new, true, and also beautifully enigmatic knowing that emerges.

I love some of her snarky responses to the rote theories her partner espouses. I found the book to be an incredibly bold and feminist and completely empowering that she takes on subjects that are often, almost always (always?), interpreted through a male lens. She even uses Barthes’ exact same title. So bold! How might I do more of this myself? The book ends with both the theory and physicality of reproduction.

Often I find modern literature to be too cold and unemotional. This book had some of those qualities, but I still felt deeply and identified with many of the main character’s experiences. New motherhood is depicted in almost entirely negative terms, but much of the book is.

In new motherhood, I, too, started to think of mothers in response to every act of killing I heard on the news. These mothers have worked so hard to raise of their children, up until the very moment that their lives are taken. Guo has this exact same insight. We are all one, I suppose.

Finally, the relationship–I’ve felt nearly every one of the feelings or loneliness, isolation, desire, and confusion. I have yelled for him to “Bring wipes” as the baby’s mess grows, only to have him emerge too late, confused and groggy. “When have you had time to listen to music?” The changing home, the changing dynamic, described so uniquely and so true, perhaps especially for the creative woman.

Through it we are two people, changed, and in discourse with each other—lovers.

Dog Flowers by Danielle Geller

For whatever reason, I’ve been reading a disproportionate number of memoirs by Native American women. I’ve also been loving them. The most recent is Dog Flowers by Danielle Geller. The book is troubling and straightforward. It seemed to be divided into two distinct sections, although it’s not formatted as such. I found myself wanting to read two separate books: one about childhood through the death of her mother and another about life after that death. (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to mention the death here because the reader knows about it from early on.)

Most children with parents who are addicts and homeless don’t go on to write beautiful books, so in that regard this novel is unique and offers a perspective that’s rarely told.

One of the main takeaways for me is the way that dysfunctional families impact their members constantly. The always immediate need for housing, medical help, mental health support, food, emotional support, and on and on, just never seems to end, and it impacts every aspect of one’s life. It’s something I’ll understand in a new way in my interactions with others who may be experiencing this same constant and continual drain from their own dysfunctional families.

This book is heavy and hard, but important. Oh, and there’s weaving! I hope the next book has more weaving.

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

In the precious time between when the term begins and when the grading comes flooding in, I read Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi. It’s an interesting and heavy book. I was really interested in the unique relationship that is depicted between daughter and mother. The lines of reality are blurred throughout, making the point that reality is fragile and based on a corroborated story shared by people.

I was interested in the setting, which felt foreign to me, but also familiar as so much of the daily tasks of living, eating, and interacting with others are shared across borders.

This book was heavier than what I need right now, but the reading was good, and I need that even more.

Here are some lines that I liked:

“My mother knew marriages were generally unhappy, but she was young and had not fully metabolized the idea that this would be her reality. She still believed she was special, exceptional and had thoughts that no one else did” (44).

“I tell her I am not sure what to do, that maybe I’ve lost my imagination./ She says she never thought my work required much imagination, that it was copying an image over and over again./ I explain that I mean another kind of imagination, the kind that invents a world where my work matters” (174).

“Is the sensation of receiving a kiss less pleasurable than that of giving it?” (212).

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May was recommended by some well-read and well respected people, so perhaps my expectations were a bit too high. Still, I love the premise, which is about enduring difficult times, even leaning into them, moving through them, and eventually coming back to the light. So much of grief, sorrow, and depression is about stopping it, fixing it, and getting over it. This book is really the antithesis of that, which I find intriguing.

The intro is quite gripping, and this is where the strength of the book lies–when May is sharing her own personal story and experiences. However, there were also so many questions left unanswered. Like, did her husband’s health fully return? Why did she dislike her job? How did her husband and child feel about the author’s “wintering”? How did it impact her closest relationships?

There is also a trend in this kind of journalistic genre, where the author flip flops back and forth between personal writing and inquiry and an informative, lecture style. I am fully engaged by the personal story, but the lecture is always less interesting. First of all, while reading these sections, I often have an overwhelming reaction of “I already know this already.” It seems as though the insights in the lecture are not very insightful after all. Secondly, the transitions between the sections often seem awkward or unconvincing. Lastly, the lectures often feel forced. I can imaging an editor insisting that the author make the reader “eat their vegetables,” instead of just eating the cheesecake (cheesecake being the insights and personal journey).

There were even moments that rang false within the more journalistic sections. The section on wolves seemed particularly fraught. She claims that wolves don’t kill people. (They do.) That they kill more than they need and that’s reasonable. (How is that more reasonable than wasteful? murderous?). Finally, she claims that wolves are irrationally trapped, poisoned, shot, *beaten*, and killed, and that’s when I knew she was going a little overboard. I just highly doubt that these wild animals are tortured (beaten), though I’m not disputing that they are killed regularly by people. Also, I wanted to hear more about the bees.

Despite my complaints, this is a good book worth reading. I myself love restful times for quiet, recovery, reading, and introspection, and this book is really a celebration of that. While how the depression (she avoids this word) started is very developed, I would have loved to see that same development in the middle and then again at the end of her wintering. As I write in the beginning, this is a novel approach to sorrow and difficult times, and I think it’s a healthy approach, one that would be/will be helpful for me to return to in my own difficult times.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

One of this year’s “big reads” through the NEA is Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. I read this in college and have lugged around a copy for about two decades. I decided it was time to read it again, and I’m glad I did.

my own well worn copy of The House on Mango Street

I remember almost nothing from reading it the first time. It truly is an excellent book, and I think very original, especially given it’s publication date (1984). I noticed that it seems more dated and even historical than the first time I read it. Her childhood happened in the early 60s, and that was 60 years ago! However, some things about childhood never change.

Rereading this book made me realize that I am now old enough to reread books, which I never did before. I’ve lived long enough now to have forgotten books I read in my early 20s. I’ve lived long enough now to gain completely new and different insights from some of the books I read in my early 20s. I was also an English major, and so I read a lot of books during that time! I find myself scanning my bookshelf wondering what other old gems could be rediscovered.

The Lais of Marie de France

The Lais of Marie de France are real bodice rippers, so to speak. You can see how these stories of ancient romance have influenced everything from Shakespeare to Rom Coms since. There is a strong sense of love and loyalty in each story. The same intensity of life and death love stories, like Romeo and Juliet, are played out repeatedly throughout the lais.

the library’s copy

I read through these relatively quickly, after learning about them from a dear one’s scholarship. First, I was looking for significance in fabrics and cloth. I also frequently thought about the fabrics having just read A Short History of the World According to Sheep and learning more about the wool and processes (and abuses) that went in to making these fabrics.

Eventually, I just got caught up in each story–the excitement and intensity of the love, the suffering, and the joy. (Though, as with most romance, the “ever after” is short changed, and I think most of us are left wondering how that part’s supposed to work.)

The lais capture an intensity that is unique to human love and courtship, and honestly, I think it’s a really intense thing worthy of our focus. The main characters aren’t being cool or dealing with their baggage. They’re just strong and perfect knights, who win all of their tournaments, and fair and beautiful women, who are kind and loving and good, so much so that a knight would sacrifice his life to her, a life that many other knights had tried taking many times before. That they are already married to someone else or in some way betraying someone else is a liner note.

These lais are over the top, sometimes to the point of being ridiculous, but they are entertaining. And, they have literary merit too, not only because of their rich history and staying power, but because, as I read them, I was also inspired, for the first time in a long time, to write a few poems myself!

2021 reading list

I read twice as many books this year as the year before, and although this year still felt very hectic, wrapped up entirely with child care, farm prep, and work work, I feel like somehow I hit my stride and was able to read a few books during key breaks throughout the year. Here’s hoping I can continue this pattern into the year ahead.

Idiot by Laura Clery

The Secret Teachings of Plants by Stephen Harrod Buhner

Meditations with Cows by Shreve Stockton

The Beadworkers by Beth Piatote

Iep Jāltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter by Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner

Not Your Happy Dance by Ryan Scariano

Raising Sheep the Modern Way by Paula Simmons

2021 year in review

When I reflect on 2021, I think of the losses from covid, both my cousin and my friend and daycare provider, and the sudden and tragic losses of my “online” friends, Lauren and Kamel. I think of the vaccine! But, then I also think of the conspiracies surrounding the vaccine and the ongoing political strife.

I also think of my beautiful babies, and watching them grow and getting livestock for the first time in my adult life, starting with the bottle calves and ending with the Icelandic and Shetland sheep.

I planted seeds and watched them grow and wilt and die, and I built fence with my own two hands, and sheared sheep, and applied for tenure, fed sourdough starter, and fed my babies, and put them down for naps, and felt overwhelmed and over extended, and also, sometimes, I carved out time for myself, and I made a little time for creativity and joy, and I’m hoping for more of that in the coming year.

The favorites from Instagram this year were a photo of lichen on an old wooden fence, bringing home my Shetland ewe, Lavender, Melody, looking very dark out in the pasture, a blue stripped flower from my great grandma’s garden, which I lost access too this year, unearthing my decades old chore coat to bottle feed calves, orchids reblooming, a new year’s day landscape taken from my home, grape hyacinth in springtime, and a light blue chicory flower that grows like a weed here on my little farm.

Cheers to a happy new year, everyone!

2021 “top nine”

Not Your Happy Dance by Ryan Scariano

Not Your Happy Dance: Scariano, Ryan: 9781646624362: Amazon.com: Books

The author is a friend and colleague, and I’ve enjoyed reading his individual poems here and there and so was pleased to finally sit down and read his latest book, Not Your Happy Dance. And what a delight it was. Each poem was full of beautiful imagery and the kinds of thoughts and feelings that are difficult to name, but true and recognizable in the poems.

Once again, this is a short reading year for me, and so I was grateful for the reprieve that this book delivered. Now, having been read, it sits happily on my campus bookshelf. That’s where I’m keeping most of my books these days, the bulk of my collection having spent the two previous winters in my garage, neglected and still boxed up from my last move.