Category Archives: reading

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

If you’ll recall, in December 2019, I was part of a book gift exchange with a group of women who also had babies that year. I was gifted two books by one woman. The first I read and wrote about here: https://sherewin.com/2020/03/09/severance-by-ling-ma/. The second was Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams. Both were shockingly timely to 2020. Severance was about a global pandemic and Queenie is about, in part, race and racial injustice.

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So, here’s my take on the book. The story immediately drew me in. It starts with some relationship drama, and I am always happy to be a fly on the wall to any and all relationship drama.

But, as the book progressed, I grew weary of Queenie’s antics, and I didn’t always have enough emotional connection to the story to be patient with her as she navigated her failed relationship, her abusive/borderline abusive sexual escapades, and sabotaged her career. Certainly there were reasons, and certainly we would grow to understand them, but I sometimes grew weary in the waiting. (This happens more and more with me when reading works of fiction.)

While her relationships with friends didn’t always resonate with me (which probably says more about my relationship to “friends” than about her depiction), her relationship with her family became the most interesting aspect of the book to me. Fortunately, that narrative builds and builds throughout the story to a nice conclusion. (Not nice as in happy or resolved per se, but nice as in well done.)

Overall, this piece has literary merit, is well done, if a bit too long. I hate to make the comparison, but it really does allude to the Bridget Jones’s Diary story. It’s a workplace romance starring woman who is a mess. It’s a hallmark of British Literature, and Carty-Williams carries it on and makes it her own in Queenie. The author artfully integrates trauma and politics, specifically the #BLM movement. I am glad I read it, and I think you will be too.

Stuart Little by E. B. White

Since my ability to read for pleasure has been severely diminished since 2018, I’ve decided I’ll also keep a tally of children’s books that I read that I think are also worth reading in adulthood. For the most part, we read many, many baby books, but I’m also able to read a page or two of capital “L” children’s literature, and so I try to do that as I can.

First up is Stuart Little by E. B. White. I had never read this children’s classics, and so I snagged it from a “Little Free Library” when I had the chance. It is the first “real” book I’ve read to my child. I read it page by page over the first two years of being a mother, with several months-long breaks in between. There were little images on every other page or so, and it, along with the text, was just enough to sustain my child’s attention for short periods of time.

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our copy

This is a delightful book. It’s about a mouse named Stuart Little who takes himself far too seriously. He lives in New York City, but a few discomforts and experiences compel him on an adventure. He is both honorable and seriously lacking in accurate self-reflection.

It’s E. B. White, so the writing is perfection. Every bit of dialogue enriches the characters. The plot is simple. It’s a child’s book, but somehow the journey seems very authentic to real human experience. It’s a quick read (unless you’re reading it like I did) and well worth the time.

A bonus is that it also reminded me of my grandpa, whom I miss tremendously, who also wrote and told delightfully absurd stories of characters who took themselves too seriously.

How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones

I read How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones because it was sitting there, and I’m glad I did. It’s a quick (but not necessarily easy) read. I was immediately drawn into the narrative. He shares what feels like a really authentic account of what it’s like to grow up Black and gay and how and why that felt like a death sentence to him.how we fight for our lives

The confusion, innocence, curiosity, and angst of childhood felt really authentic to me—though his experience seemed even more exacerbated by his firm knowledge that he was *different*. Later, the sex is explicit, and there’s a lot of it, and at times I wondered if it was gratuitous, but in the big pictures, it really did serve an important purpose in the story. And anyway, it’s about a young gay man, so yeah, there’s going to be some sex.

About two thirds or three quarters of the way through the book, when many authors lose their steam, attention to detail, and sentence-level care, this book picks up, ending powerfully as the author’s relationship with his mother contextualizes and heals and, although imperfect, a clear love story emerges that feels true and healing and heartwarming.

The ending is surprisingly, as it becomes clear that this author has achieved the sense of self that he’d been searching for—in some unlikely ways and places that simultaneously feel familiar. I too have suddenly and unexpectedly wept with strangers.

The book made me much more reflective of my own education, especially my undergraduate degree, an experience that, for me, has inexplicably evaded much analysis or meaning making from me. This book also made my world much smaller. I identified with this man in that I too went to a state school on a scholarship, and although it wasn’t the fancy private school to which I had received a partial scholarship, it offered an important education still the same.

Because the book was not too demanding of my time, I googled some of people listed in the acknowledgements section. I read Sarah Schulman as an undergrad! I didn’t realize Roxanne Gay has a PhD in Rhet/Comp like I do! I didn’t realize it was from Michigan Tech, a sister school with my own PhD program that often exchanges “talent.” Not only did the book’s journey resonate with me, I also had the sudden sense that these people were actually my people. This felt like…my circle.

This is a story of a gay black man, but the journey to reconcile the love and harm inflicted by one’s family, the journey of navigating the first years of adulthood (college) and settling into one’s authentic identity amid wildly conflicting pressures, the community we find, the family we choose is the stuff of life and something with which every reader can identify.

Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams

I’ve lived in Utah for nearly a decade combined, and it has always felt “unnatural” to me. First, it seems to me to be a very delicate desert landscape that is being ravaged to sustain far too many people. In my opinion, deserts should be sparsely populated, while lusher, coastal regions should house the majority of the population. Not only did living in Utah feel wrong in an ecological sense, I struggled to belong, to fit in, etc. I had a great job there and loved the beautiful mountains, but something always felt off to me, and I was certain, even as the years passed by, that this place would never truly be home to me.

That feeling of not belonging began to change only in the past few years. My future began to unfold with new love, new direction, new possibility. Of course, those feelings also coincided with spending more time in the nearby state of Idaho, but I began to feel more at ease in Utah. I got pregnant. I finally bought a house. I felt that I could finally put down roots.

Little did I know, a little over a year after this “settling,” I would finally have the opportunity to pack up and leave Utah. The time has come–soon, I will be jetting off to Oregon, back to the Northwest that I love so much, closer to family, and to a job that (from this vantage point) feels very much right for me.

When I began reading Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams, I was a homeowner in Utah. I had recently left city living for a quiet suburb next to Lake Utah. The house was big and lovely and comfortable, with sweeping views of Mount Timpanogos and Lake Utah. I took daily walks along a paved path that skirted the water of the lake. I saw birds I’d never seen before. Cattle grazed in the nearby fields. I grew my son in my belly, and I felt a deep peace and contentedness that I’d hadn’t felt in years–maybe ever. Finally, I could feel at home.

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white ibis in the field behind my house ushering in the birth of my son

Because I am now a mother, reading is slow. So when I began the book, my baby was not sleeping through the night. I read whenever I had a chance, whenever I could keep my eyes open. The short chapters were perfect for this.

It’s a beautiful book. As the author describes the birds of Utah with care and love, my love for the birds I encountered near the shoreline grew. My appreciation for Utah grew. It’s also about her mother’s life and death from cancer, which conjured emotions and experiences I knew too well. I began to savor the book and read it slowly.

Now the book has come to an end, and so has my time in Utah. The book has, perhaps, made it even more bittersweet to leave. She ends with her essay, “The Clan of the One-Breasted Women,” which I’ve read before. It’s precise, powerful, and effective. The book is a blend of Utah’s beauty and of it’s destruction, and it leaves me leaving Utah with gratitude for the time spent here, but also a certainty that this land is meant for visiting, for passing through, and that I (and maybe about a million other people) am not meant to live so permanently in this land.

The Reason for Crows: A Story of Kateri Tekakwitha by Diane Glancy

I first heard about Kateri Tekakwitha while reading about her sainthood in Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living Gods. I waded through a few books that reference her in  Erdrich’s latest, but Diane Glancy’s The Reason for Crows: A Story of Kateri Tekakwithawas the only one that held my attention.

This is a weird book, and, honestly, even after I’ve finished, I’m not sure if Glancy is being incredibly critical, cynical, or accurate in her depiction of Kateri. It’s a weird fever dream of a book and captivating and poetic on the sentence-level.

Here’s the thing: Kateri almost dies of smallpox. She survives, but is nearly blinded. After that, her life is a series of traumas–constant starvation, constant war, constant torture, murder, and freezing. Her life is a living hell, and then she dies at the young age of 24.

During her short, extremely traumatic life, she converts to Catholicism, following the lead of a few female family members. Christianity is met with skepticism by many members of her tribe, but it is also somewhat tolerated.

As she learns more about the religion, she becomes more zealous. She self flagellates and physically tortures herself in various other ways. She has strange dreams day and night, waking and in sleep. The author, Glancy, paints such a horrific picture of Kateri’s life that the reader can’t help but wonder if Kateri is having a genuine religious experience, or if she is quite predictably experiencing a kind of PTSD-induced psychosis. The latter seems quite reasonable. But, the author doesn’t dismiss Kateri’s experience of God and spirituality either. Religion and Kateri’s mystic experience is at the forefront of the text to the same extent as the torture and trauma.

Like in life, I suppose, the reader is left to wonder what’s real, and what’s spiritual, and what’s an apparition, and which ones are worth believing in.

Misconceptions by Naomi Wolf

For whatever reason, I haven’t been able to bring myself to read much about pregnancy since I got pregnant, which is a surprise because in the past I’ve enjoyed reading and pregnancy and reading about pregnancy. It might have to do with the fact that I’ve been working on an article that *to a degree* has to do with rhetoric and pregnancy. So, most of my reading in the past few months has been toward that end.

I read Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood by Naomi Wolf, and I loved it! It’s a hefty tome, and I pretty much just sat down one day and read it. I read it for the article, yes, but I’m including it here because it became joy reading as well.

I’ll admit that, throughout the entire reading, I had her confused with Naomi Klein, who’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, which I read in 2008, at the beginning of my doctoral program, deeply informed my thinking about political economy. I thought Wolf’s work was more accessible, but I read it voraciously, thinking it would provide the deep intellectual analysis that Klein’s work is known for. I’ll admit that Wolf’s work was far more accessible, less hard hitting, but a nice blend of journalistic blend of smart analysis and storytelling. Wolf’s book is stark and honest, but not so dark that it doesn’t also include the bright side (which I need at this point in my pregnancy).

Wolf’s book is about mourning the previous identity as women change irreversibly to become mothers. The deep estrogenic surge in my body now is physically changing me. I’m aware that I’ll never look the same again. Those hormones are also making more compassionate toward people, toward their stories. I’m aware that this is a biological imperative that will help me have compassion and provide good care for my new infant, even when it is hard. And Wolf says it will be hard. She outright states what I already knew, and what few people can bring themselves to say aloud: that my body will be different, that the hormones will take me to the lowest low, that my love for the baby will be more like an addict’s obsession that any kind of consensual love, that I’ll have less power in my relationship with my partner, that I’ll be less respected as a professional, and that I will spend many sleep deprived months deeply mourning these loses. That sounds about right. And yet, I chose this still. And I’ve enjoyed a beautiful, healthy adult woman’s body for several decades. I’ve earned the highest degree available. I’ve had a professional career that is fulfilling and well-respected. And while I hope I am still able to have a fulfilling professional life, and I hope my body is fit and healthy, I am so ready for something else. For me, the timing feels absolutely perfect. I’ve checked a lot of boxes on my life’s “to do” list. This one’s next.

Here were some lines from the book that I liked:

  • “The medical establishment too often produces a birth experience that is unnecessarily physically and psychologically harmful to the women involved” (6).
  • “[W]omen carrying babies must be nurtured and supported intensively” (114).
  • “I heard comparable ordinary traumas among many women I talked to–what I have come to call “ordinary bad births” (145).
  • A typical sentiment from a woman who recently gave birth: “Nothing happened according to what we had wanted or planned. And we had absolutely no say; the institution just took over” (147).
  • “A number of women who had given birth described a moment at which they felt the medical institution simply took over; oblivious to the mother’s wishes, experience, or concerns” (149).
  • “Midwives working on their own terms do not try to guide births along a path determined by unnecessary medical interventions. Rather, midwives wait, encourage, and prepare the way, successfully keeping medical intervention to a minimum” (151).
  • “I have never yet seen a physician show the respect of informing a woman of waht is required–‘I need to do this procedure’; instead they just cut, often without even telling the woman–sometimes when the baby is just about born; sometimes the husband is shouting for the doctor to stop. Many women find this cut the most traumatic part of the birth. Yet episiotomy is seen in the same light as taking a temperature–it’s that routine,” remarked midwife Elissa March” (193).
  • From Wolf’s doctor during her second pregnancy: “You had to be sectioned last time. You probably have an unusually narrow birth canal. Maybe your body just is not made to have babies.” And, “[M]y doctor wanted to be right about my being in need of his surgical help more than he wanted to heal” (278).

 

The First Forty Days by Heng Ou

When I first found out I was pregnant (yes, pregnant!), The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother by Heng Ou was the first book I ordered. Over the years, as part of my doula training, I’ve read many books about childbirth (my favorite probably being Ina May Gaskin’s Ina May’s Guide to Breastfeeding: From the Nation’s Leading Midwife).

So much is written about the pregnancy and childbirth, and rightly so, but relatively little has been written about the postpartum period, now sometimes referred to as the “fourth trimester.” So, I read this book to learn more about that period, and I’m glad I did.

My only criticism of the book is that it is quite repetitive and the content is better than the writing. Through the first half, and then again at the very end, it reads more like a book proposal, like she’s still trying to sell the reader on the idea, than like reading the body of a book.

However, it’s absolutely still worth reading. In fact, I highly recommend it for pregnant people, new parents, and their caretakers. The highlights of the book are in the information provided about the postpartum period in different cultures, how to care for a new mother in the first 40 days or 6 weeks after a baby is born. The novel recipes are inspiring, and I found the thoughtful commentary that goes along with each recipe to be  interesting. The images of the meals and ingredients are also gorgeous. I’ve been craving so much junk food that seeing lovely pictures of “real” food has helped me out a bit.

Even if I don’t end up making or eating any of the meals from this book, I think just reading about this postpartum philosophy would help new mothers recover, heal, and adjust. At the very least, I think I’ll probably drink broths and soups and try to stay cozy and warm during this time. I’m always cold, and so I loved the emphasis on prioritizing warmth. I felt like the book gave me permission to do so in general, and I appreciated that.

My doula just recommended Mindful Birthing: Training the Mind, Body, and Heart for Childbirth and Beyond, which is another one I haven’t read yet. I think I’ll try it next.

If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name by Heather Lende

This is basically Alaska’s version of A Prairie Home Companion (the Garrison Keillor version, not this new stuff). More specifically, it’s like the “News from Lake Wobegon” section of the show, which also happens to be my favorite part. (P.S. I thought Sara Watkins was going to take over the show. I love her speaking voice. I think the replacement needed to be a woman who sounds sort of like a church lady.)

Anyway, If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: News from Small-Town by Heather Lende is full of that same kind of down homey, good timey accounts of a few births, a lot of deaths (Alaska is a dangerous place, and there many of untimely deaths), and some other stories in between.

For whatever reason, this was a slow read for me, even though the short chapters should make it very readable. I also found some of reflection to be cheesy. There are religious overtones, and, in my opinion, those are always difficult to pull off, and this was no exception. By the end, even though these townspeople are clearly beloved, I had a hard time differentiating one old, dying, charismatic local from the next.

That said, it’s still worth the read, but maybe only if you’re a fan (secretly or otherwise, of A Prairie Home Companion), if you’re from Alaska (I’m not), if you’ve visited Alaska (I have), or if you crave to be immersed in an idyllic, close-knit community that has the kind of face-to-face social interactions that some of us may still remember from before the days of social media (I do).

Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel García Márquez

Honestly, I’ve just about had it with violations, sexual or otherwise, and the powerful perpetrators of those violences. In the past year, there’s been so much more awareness raised around this issue, and I think as a collective conscious we’re just over it. Time’s up, as they say. Full stop.

So, although Gabriel García Márquez is a favorite of mine (at least One Hundred Years of Solitude is a favorite book), when I read Memories of My Melancholy Whores I was not very patient with the premise. Even so, the author shined like he always does. The main character is a skillfully executed antihero, who helps the reader see the delusional, selfish, and, yes, even sometimes beautiful side of the human experience. I can’t say for sure if the aspect of violation was praised (not overtly, no), or criticized (probably, but subtly). Even still, to me it was worth reading.

Gabriel García Márquez is one of the best writers of all time, so the thing was perfectly written. Still, here are just a few lines I liked:

“Then who was it? She shrugged: It could be from somebody who died in the room” (69).

“Sex is the consolation you have when you can’t have love” (69 (What can I say? It was a good page)).

“…his…glasses of a hopeless myopic” (112).

Talking As Fast As I Can by Lauren Graham

In a development that surprises me as much as it does you, last year, I watched the entire series of The Gilmore Girls. When I was done, I watched the new Netflix reboot. I’m not exactly sure why I did this. Some of the plot lines were infuriating. Some of the characters were inconsistent (Lorelai was such a powerful outspoken person when it came to raising her daughter, but a complete push over when it comes to the men in her life??).

But, I liked the relationship between mother and daughter, and I liked what the show was *trying* to do (and sometimes succeeded in doing), and I liked that I could see a quaint little town, with happy, supportive people, who always felt welcome and at home. Cheesy as it sometimes was, I needed it.

Lauren Graham plays Lorelai Gilmore, and Lauren Graham is also an English major in real life, who evidently wrote some successful, thinly disguised fiction awhile back, and so I thought I would read her memoir, Talking as Fast as I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls (and Everything in Between).

It wasn’t half bad. Unlike all of these famous actor memoirs I’ve been reading over the past few years, this book did not appear to be ghost written. I was struck by how much the tone was very much like Lorelai Gilmore’s. It’s hard to tell where the actor/person Lauren ends and the character Lorelai begins. Perhaps that’s because it’s the truth of who Graham is, and that influenced her portrayal of the character, or perhaps it’s because she wrote the book, in part, during the Netflix reboot.

It’s mostly amusing and insightful, particularly if you’re interested in any aspect of the show. I did find myself tiring of some of the schtick, much like I tired of some of the long jabbering she did as Lorelai in the show. But, I’m still a fan. It reads up quickly, and if you’re a fan, you’ll read it. In fact, I’m sure you already have.