Tag Archives: book club

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.

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.

Beneath the Apple Leaves by Harmony Verna

Despite my fears that after having a baby it would be years before I could read again, I was actually able to read a book before the semester started! Beneath the Apples Leaves was my first foray into “genre fiction” in I don’t know how long. Years and years. It was a gift. It was there. And so, during one of the baby’s long naps, I picked it up and started reading.

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image from Amazon

The characters fulfilled the strictest and most obvious gender expectations. The plot lines and their resolutions could be spotted from a mile away. I found myself skimming through the first quarter of the book, getting through the basic (and, again, predictable) background information as quickly as possible.

After that, though, I was surprised at myself when I started to slow down, the details engaging me a bit more. In fact, toward the end, I’d even refer to this book as an enjoyable “page turner”!

So, despite it’s obvious shortcomings as a piece of Literature, it was worth reading for me for the following reasons:

-It took me back to my high school days when I read so many Victoria Holt books, an experience which, I swear, has allowed me to understand, predict, and analyze plot lines like no other. While reading this book, I had a tinge of nostalgia for the time when I was reading Holt’s novels and being immersed in place, a house, a setting.

-Similarly, Beneath the Apple Leaves creates a setting–a quaint, if dilapidated, Pennsylvania farm. Even when the characters fell short, I enjoyed “being” at the farm.

-It’s entertaining. While much of the plot is predictable, there are many twists and turns that kept me reading. It’s similar to watching a romantic comedy in that way. I don’t watch them often, but sometimes they’re entertaining.

-I like to keep my finger on the pulse. I’m not sure why, or if this is necessary, but sometimes it’s seems important to read what the majority of the public is consuming.

I’m not sure what I’ll read next, or when, but this book gave me confidence that some regular easy reading could be possible for me again soon, and that’s just the kind of hope I need right now.

 

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.

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.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (link below) is just a lovely book. When I first heard about it, I knew I wanted to read it. (If you follow me on Instagram, you know this too.) An immersion into plants, poetry, and botany? Yes please!

The second section is my favorite: “Tending Sweetgrass.” This section is more about plants as they relate to humans, relationships, parenting, and home. In this section, she delves into her sense of belonging (or lack thereof) in the different regions she’s lived in. I identified with this section deeply as someone who hasn’t always been able to live in regions that feel like “home” to me.

The author uses metaphor and parable, and it’s beautifully done, but these sections were less powerful to me. Instead, I gained the most from the sections that seem most connected to her own lived experience. I also loved some of the deep descriptions of the kind of spiritual nature of sitting alone in a patch of wild strawberries, harvesting wild nuts, and the life cycle of the salamander (an animal that I’ve encountered in life and in dreams recently).

Parts of this book are dense, and I found myself skipping through. The end is a beautiful, poetic, and urgent , warning, plea, defense against the rampant destruction of Mother Earth. Sometimes I have a hard time reading this kind of difficult material, but she does it so artfully that I was able to understand it in a new way.

If you love plants, animals, people, and Mother Earth, you’ll want to read this book.

Lines I loved:

“[B]ecoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depend on it (9).

“Plants know how to make food and medicine from light and water, and then they give it away” (10).

“[R]estoring habitat, no matter how well intentioned, produces casualties” (92).

“Being a good mother includes the caretaking of water” (94).

“You can smell it before you see it, a sweetgrass meadow on a summer day” (156).

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.

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