Category Archives: life

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.

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

Iep Jāltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter is a beautiful book of poetry by Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner. I don’t usually read a lot of poetry, but this one drew me in and held me there.

The place where I work has a relatively large population of Micronesian students. In fact, a summer program for work put this book on my radar, and I’m so glad it did. I find myself wanting to learn more about this population. From the book I read about the indigenous connection to place, language, racism, climate change, climate refugees, refugees from US nuclear testing, food, love, religion, womanhood, family, and more.

I found myself searching for plane tickets. Just how far away are the Marshall Islands?

Meditations with Cows by Shreve Stockton

I’ve long been a fan of her blogs, especially Honey Rock Dawn, and read her second book about raising a coyote, but have really been looking forward to Meditations with Cows, which is about, well, cows and Shreve Stockton’s relationships with them.

The book is beautifully written. New York Times-style think pieces about the environment, the importance of grass, our relationship to food, and especially meat, and the nature of cows are interspersed with personal essays about milking cows, calving cows, and dying cows.

The book helped me think more about the importance of having personal connections to specific pieces of the land, to watch over the same path as the seasons change. There are dreary statistics: “[T]he amount of land owned by the one hundred families with the largest holdings totals forty-two million acres. And this is a 50 percent increase from 2007.” The arguments are absolutely true about our unhealthy and unsustainable relationship to the planet, but I found myself overwhelmed by the hopelessness of it all. Still, the book encouraged a “meditative” approach. One moment, one breath, one choice, and one relationship at a time.  

While reading this book, I am currently bottle feeding a little group of calves that for one reason or another could not be raised by their mothers, and so bovines have been heavily on my mind. I grew up on a cattle ranch and ate a lot of red meat growing up. As I grew up, and moved away from the ranch, a choice I made primarily because it is impossible to make a living raising cattle if you’re starting from the ground up, I naturally ate less red meat. I had less access to the good stuff, and store bought meat is just not as good. Finally, after years of work, I have a little place of my own that allows me to have livestock (though not nearly enough to making a living). I wondered if working closely with the cattle again would make me want to stop eating meat for good. Instead, the opposite has happened. I have been surprised to realize that the closer I am to the food source, the more at peace I feel about consuming beef (and chicken and eggs).

Not everyone can raise their own food, and not everyone wants to, but many of us now can have relationships with our farmers, can follow blogs and Instagram to see the life of a farm, the early lettuce sprouting, lambing season, the richness of July, and the cool autumn harvest. Connecting to the place and the food makes it all so much better in every way: spiritually, but also nutritionally, as we know now that foods produced outside of monocultures are more highly nutritious. Our taste buds can also confirm the difference.

Idiot by Laura Clery

Ok, I have very mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, some of this author’s work is genuinely funny, and she has some genuinely crazy and frightening stories resulting from her addiction. On the other hand, there aren’t many laughs in the book, and the entire experience is somewhat cliche.

The story is one we have all heard. Attractive broken person heads off to Hollywood to make it big (in no small part because there is absolutely nothing else they could possibly succeed at). Person spirals into a chaotic and frightening world of addiction, “success” slipping in and out of grasp, until finally, after a decade or two in the business, some modicum of success is achieved and a tell-all book is written.

Clery’s comedy is more slapstick than is my taste. A lot of it is also pretty contrived. A central part of her work involves fat shaming to a degree. Her accent is imprecise. I find myself searching for her authentic voice, but it constantly oscillates between suburban Chicago housewife, valley girl, vapid model, and British.

In this book, the narrator is unreliable. She writes that her husband was divorcing when they met. But, fails to mention the wife when recapping her husband’s bio. She reveals herself making stupid choices, then she demonstrates awareness of stupid choices, but she also seem unaware of some of her toxic habits as well: borrowing money, codependency, and requiring caretakers, even in current presumably healthy state. She unselfconsciously mentions how lame it is that she can’t make a new friend group within a two month time period. Staying home alone for a few days is a rock bottom lameness that sends her spiraling. I think it would be funnier if she acknowledged her own neediness and superficiality. I want to believe that there’s a lot more complexity to this person, and maybe it was just an issue of editing.

And yet! For a book that was most definitely dictated into one of those little handheld tiny recorders, and then pieced together by a beleaguered ghostwriter, the stories are gripping, and the attitude works. Positive affirmations, eating lots of raw fruits and veggies, meditating, being tall and thin and beautiful, marrying a successful man, living in a temperate climate, attending AA, trying, and persisting actually is a recipe for inspiration and success! I’m glad I read it.

Idiot: Life Stories from the Creator of Help Helen Smash