Category Archives: writing

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.

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.

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)

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

Ladies Lazarus by Piper J. Daniels

I was late in ordering Ladies Lazarus by Piper J. Daniels, so I started reading quickly when it arrived. Then, I slowed way down because it was so good, and I wanted it to last. The book is that rare blend of beautiful language, poetry, insight, feeling, and social commentary. Blending the latter with the former requires a talent that few possess. Daniels does it deftly throughout the book.

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Ladies Lazarus by Piper J. Daniels

Her explanation, experience, and insights into mental illness are unprecedented, and as I read, I thought frequently that this book should be required reading in the academic fields that deal with mental health. Her writing provides insights essential (and seemingly currently lacking) to the field.

The book adds feminist insights to the larger conversation. Her insights on being a woman, coping with assault, shaping one’s entire being around the threat and reality of violence are, again, unprecedented. Acute, accurate, informative.

The book is poetic, emotional, and beautiful. I especially found her depiction of love to be beautiful and true. Society forces an awareness, obsession even, with male to female violence from a young age, and, perhaps as a consequence, the author falls in love with the women who have been harmed, who have been murdered, and who have been taken their own lives. As a result, the reader feels the author’s love for all women–a love that functions authentically, but also as a life philosophy, a social commitment.

The reader does not get a tidy ending. The writer leaves Washington State for the dry, hot climes of Arizona. The last two chapters return more to love and poetry. The last two chapters seem like the next book. But instead, as a reader, I wanted a reconciliation with the dead souls who the reader has been holding in her heart. I also want the next book. I hope she’s doing us all a favor and writing it now.

And I Shall Have Some Peace Here by Margaret Roach

Ok, I really need to start reading baby and childbirth-related book now. But, before I do, I read And I Shall Have Some Peace Here by Margaret Roach of A Way to Garden. I’ve been a long-time listener of her gardening podcast. The podcast is weird, quirky, nerdy, and good and probably the best gardening podcasts out there. It’s a celebration of plants and gardening, and “how to.” (It’s supposed to have some woo woo, but there’s none of that, really.)

And I Shall Have Some Peace Here is the same way: weird, quirky, nerdy, and good. She’s got this style of writing that’s stream of consciousness, double consciousness. There are always several threads going through each paragraph, sometimes each line. Sometimes it’s funny and intentional. Sometimes it seems that it’s just the way her brain works, and she can’t help herself.

Over the years, I’ve been inspired by Roach to do more gardening, even in my limited and sometimes uncertain space, to propagate hostas, to fertilize my houseplants, and much more. It’s nice to find another person, and even community, who care as much as I do about plants.

However, this book is not as much about gardening as it is about taking big risks and changing one’s life–following one’s calling, even if it means (and it so often does) leaving a life of security for the life you were meant to live.

I liked that about the book. I like that, once Roach leaves the corporate world, she is sedentary and uncertain for a long time before she is able to take meaningful action. The big change might lead immediately to bliss and certainty, but it doesn’t always, and Roach’s story is evidence of that. Oftentimes, big change leads to sitting, and reading, and drinking too much, and eating too much, and staring out the window, and being very alone, but strangely, not really lonely. Your diet falls apart. Your yoga practice falls by the wayside. Until finally you realize you’re doing it. You’re doing the thing. You’re getting healthier, living better, and it all was really worth it. I found her story to be inspiring.

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).

 

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle

Peter Mayle passed away this year, and so I grabbed one of his books, A Year in Provence, from the library:


I read about one chapter at night before bed when I could (mostly in Idaho) and finally finished it. Last year, as you know, I read a lot of British gardening books last year, plus I’ve been watching The Great British Baking Show: Season 1 and now The Great Interior Design Challenge. What can I say? I’m at the stage of life where the dulcet tones of British sensibility calm me.

The book is divided by months of the year. It’s humorous and gives an accurate account of the culture in south France (as far as I could tell based on my time studying abroad there one summer). Mayle’s descriptions of rich food and wine is divine. You’ll find yourself wanting to crack open that bottle of wine, sprinkle your air popped popcorn with a tiny application of parmesan and possibly a more generous application of truffle oil. It was just the kind of reassuring novel I sought as I gestated through the middle of my pregnancy.

Though I found myself wishing for a deeper description of the property and the home they renovated (what tiles, flooring, wall color, etc. was chosen and why? What plants dotted the pool? The gardens?), I found Mayle to be doing God’s work in chilling out the anxious masses with his descriptions of good food and good wine.

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.

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

This is not my genre, but if Louise Erdrich writes an dystopic end-of-times novel, I’ll read it. While I haven’t read The Hunger Games, or even The Handmaid’s Tale, Future Home of the Living God seems to borrow from those of these themes and images. While I’m not well versed enough in the apocalypse genre to say for sure, I imagine that Erdrich’s work here does not expand the genre in terms of imagining what that world might look like, how it might function.

What I did love about the novel was that it tackled political issues and questions in ways that were artful and beautifully written. Erdrich seems to instantly and effortlessly create characters that are at once unique and familiar. She’s also just a master story teller, although there seemed to be some long scenes and plot points in the last third of the book that didn’t seem to expand the narrative. I trust Erdrich though, and perhaps on a second read, I would recognize the reasoning behind the plot in the last third of the book.

There were some great moments in the last third too though. For example, I loved how some of the characters evolved. I liked some of the surprises. I appreciated the commentary. I liked the way it ended.

Here were a few lines I liked:
The title, obviously. They don’t get much better than that: Future Home of the Living God

“An Announcement That Brought Incongruous Joy” (45).

“So do I love him at last? Child, I need him. It is hard to tell the two apart” (80).

A long section on how men smell (82).

“Where will you be, my darling, the last time it snows on earth?” (267).

Further reading:
Raids on the Unspeakable by Thomas Merton

Kateri Tekakwitha: Mohawk Maiden by Evelyn Brown

and possibly, The reason for crows : a story of Kateri Tekakwitha by Diane Glancy