Category Archives: work

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.

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.

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”

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?

The Beadworkers by Beth Piatote

The Beadworkers by Beth Piatote brought back memories of gingham table clothes and picnics near Clark Creek with Grandma, trips to Omak, where I learned about suicide races, and the smell of tender beef stew from the crock pot, sliding in Grandma’s passenger seat as she accelerated over the railroad tracks, the proper way to make a flowerbed, the importance of reading, assimilation because your life depended on it, adoption.

Piatote knows the inland northwest well, and reading her work is like learning that someone else has the same secret you do. I have a similar feeling when reading authors like Sherman Alexie and Raymond Carver. They know these places and these people too, and it’s so nice to feel seen by them.

Reading is one thing that renews me and gives me a stronger sense of who I am. That sense of who I am has changed in wonderful ways in the past few years as I’ve become a mother, but also in worrisome ways. There is a daily grind, a constant sense of work to be done, no rest for the weary. Reading Piatote’s bio, I saw that she is also a mother, and I felt even more reaffirmed. She is able to remember. So can I.

The book made me feel creative and curious and revitalized, and in reading it, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for my job, my colleagues, and my students and the life I get to live that puts me in the way of this literature.

The Nez Percé language throughout
the book was powerful to see and sound out.

Severance by Ling Ma

While Covid19 was gaining momentum in China and just barely on my radar, I read Severance by Ling Ma. This is normally not my genre. Not by a mile. But, it’s well written and was gifted to me through an academic mamas holiday book exchange. I was in my first weeks after having a baby, and it was in between semesters. So, found myself with time to read while my baby took those nice, long newborn naps.

Character development: I did not identify with the main character whatsoever until near the end, when she was built up enough that I could see her suffering was human and shared by us all.

Plot: The premise is that a fever, originating in China, steadily makes it’s way through the human race. The “fever” is always deadly, taking 1-3 weeks to kill it’s host. It renders people into a zombie-like state, where they repeat seemingly mundane tasks until they perish by wasting away. The few who remain exist in a strange new world.

It’s a metaphor. It’s all a metaphor. That we’re all zombies going through the motions. That we are our parents’ memories. That existence is a memory. That knowing is memory. Something like that–I’m sure there’s more to it.

***spoiler alert*** below (mild)

severance1

 

Anyway, if you read it, tell me who you think was fevered in the end.

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).