Category Archives: reading

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.”

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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

2022 Reading List!

Once again, I read over twice as many books as I read last year. Most of this happened hurriedly during rare breaks. My absolute favorite was A Lover’s Discourse. As usual, I also read several books for work, but only included the few that were really meaningful or entertaining to me. Mom jeans are back in fashion (or at least I am still embracing them), and so I’ve also been reading and enjoying scholarship from the early 1980s as well. I’ve also included a few children’s books that I thought had literary merit, although I also read well over 2,000 children’s books this year, many of which were repeats.

A Short History of the World According to Sheep by Sally Coulthard

The Lais of Marie de France

Tales the Textiles Tell in the Lais of Marie De France: Weaving As a Signifying System by Gloria Thomas Gilmore-Hunt

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Turns of Thought: Teaching Composition as Reflexive Inquiry by Donna Qualley

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

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

Dog Flowers by Danielle Geller

A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo

What Remains by Carole Radziwill

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof

Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

Walking: One Step at a Time by Erling Kagge

The Peaceable Classroom by Mary Rose O’Reilley

Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty by Jacqueline Rose And others…

Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty by Jacqueline Rose

I started reading this book after a friend challenged me to mini book club. I thought it would be an interesting take on motherhood, perhaps essays, although the title calls itself an essay, singular, which reads, in hindsight, as pretentious as it is by no means an essay, and is, at the very least, essaysss. This books is basically theory, with some fairly dense analysis and criticism, but also some accessible hot takes and also slow burning takes mixed in.

The perks of this book are in some of the one liners, which I’ll share below. Her literary knowledge of mothers is vast and deep and fascinating. I found myself wanting to read all of the literary works she mentions, something that would take me years. I always (and will continue to) return to de Beauvoir and Rich.

The drawback of the book is only that it was more academic than I was hoping, something that might be reconciled by a more accurate title. I did not always understand the connection between mothering and immigration, although that connection is made frequently throughout the book. This was especially true for me in the first chapter. I found myself arguing—aren’t immigrant mothers the most sympathetic of all immigrants? This point felt underdeveloped to me throughout the book. Also, I felt that, based on my own experience, the dogged connection between breastfeeding and eroticism was a stretch and over-developed.

Even still, I appreciated the vulnerability and honesty throughout the entire book. It’s really like no other and tells a story of matrescence that is important, but rarely told. For me, motherhood has required me to be an almost entirely different person. Giving up such a huge sense of self is the sacrifice that seems too great and also unnecessary. Nothing could prepare me for how much I would change, would be forced to change in order to survive, and how that change felt inevitable, and necessary, and okay, and part of my life’s path and development, but also, in many ways, a jarring loss.

Overall, if you’re doing scholarship in motherhood, this is a must read. I may even be able to use some gems in my own scholarship, which is often, just adjacent, although I haven’t isolated any yet.

Here are a few lines/questions worth returning to:

“[W]hat are mothers being asked to carry, what forms of failure and injustice are they made accountable for, above all, in the modern Western world?” (37).

(Indeed, I have found the motherhood to be too demanding, asking too much, and unnecessarily so. With a better social network, motherhood could be vastly improved for (most) women.)

“We talk of a mother’s suffocating love. But the one in danger of being smothered by love might not be the infant but, under the weight of such a demand, the mother” (81).

(See above.)

“For several yars she has tried in vain to adapt to his point of view, to her mother-in-law’s exacting standards and ‘to all the unintelligible ritual with which they barricaded themselves against the alarming business of living’” (99).
(I just thought this was a profoundly accurate description of how I perceive some people to be doing life. (I have been wrong in my interpretations of this though.))

“[T]he child’s demands drive the mother to insane perfection; the inconsiderate child underscores the radical neglect of her own life” (187).
(I don’t think it can be helped.)

“‘[H]is implanting himself inside me; unreasonably and totally destroying the me I was’” (206).

Walking: One Step at a Time by Erling Kagge

I found Walking: One Step at a Time by Erling Kagge on a list of pleasant books that help readers reconnect with nature. This was, indeed, a short and pleasant book. It lacks a plot and any overt organization, which, I have to admit bothered me a little. It bothered me in that I think it would have been improved by making overt organizational themes known throughout. The lack of (overt) organization could be considered a Scandinavian-style of prose writing, which has its benefits of course. I just thought this book was an exception. There are some great tidbits and great short narratives worth reading.

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

This summer the boys and I read an abridged version of Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, written in 1864. I have to admit that this story was quite entertaining!

L is interested in the concept of Earth (as well as outer space), so I think he was interested in it because it was about the earth. A was not deeply interested, but did pick up on the fact that there was hot lava (!), which is a game we love to play.

I was interested in which aspects of the story were intentionally fantastical and which aspects were a result of changing beliefs and scientific information. What they thought about Earth 150+ years ago was dramatically different from what we now believe and understand.

The book had me asking questions like which is the deepest cave, and where is the deepest bore hole in the world. I also learned, from the Wikipedia page, that this book represents an early version of the idea of time travel, a literary concept that would be deeply expanded in the decades to follow (reaching it’s fulcrum, imho, in 1985 with the film Back to the Future). All in all it was a cool book, one that was gripping and suspenseful, but also interesting in both its literary and geological explorations.

Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit

True to form, my “breezy summer beach read” was neither breezy nor read on a beach. Instead, I read Rebecca Solnit’s 2021 book, Orwell’s Roses. Solnit is an incredibly prolific author, and I like her work, but it is heavy and deep, and I rarely feel up to the task. However, at the beginning of the summer, this copy caught my eye at the local library, so I checked it out and read it whenever grading was complete and babies were asleep.

Here’s the copy that I read.

This book is about Orwell. Politics. The roses that he grew at his cottage. His interest in gardening and the natural world, and the hope that can be found there. Writ large, the book is about labor and freedom and politics and all of the themes of Orwell’s own writing, reflecting on labor and illness in Orwell’s time and also today. Solnit draws links between political strife that Orwell wrote about and the political strife of today.

As you know from my Instagram, I am interested in plants and gardening, especially flowers. I love the idea of growing food in whatever piece of earth one might inhabit. I like my own sheep, chickens, and flowers. I love to take a close look at a plant and watch it as it changes throughout the seasons and over the years. Evidently, Orwell and I have that in common. Unlike Orwell (and Solnit), however, I am less insightful and imaginative when it comes to politics, so I appreciated Solnit’s ability to meld the two together in ways that helped me learn and see these subjects all in a new light.

When I start reading Solnit, I think “This is mostly boring and only a little interesting,” and those thoughts are interspersed with with absolutely lovely prose and engaging content, and I love that about her writing. Reading Solnit is like the good feeling I have after I eat my vegetables and get my exercise. When it comes to nonfiction, Solnit is the realest deal. She also gives me permission to go on long tangents, and take up words and space, because it is meaningful to me, and trust that it will be meaningful to others as well.