Tag Archives: book club

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

One of this year’s “big reads” through the NEA is Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. I read this in college and have lugged around a copy for about two decades. I decided it was time to read it again, and I’m glad I did.

my own well worn copy of The House on Mango Street

I remember almost nothing from reading it the first time. It truly is an excellent book, and I think very original, especially given it’s publication date (1984). I noticed that it seems more dated and even historical than the first time I read it. Her childhood happened in the early 60s, and that was 60 years ago! However, some things about childhood never change.

Rereading this book made me realize that I am now old enough to reread books, which I never did before. I’ve lived long enough now to have forgotten books I read in my early 20s. I’ve lived long enough now to gain completely new and different insights from some of the books I read in my early 20s. I was also an English major, and so I read a lot of books during that time! I find myself scanning my bookshelf wondering what other old gems could be rediscovered.

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

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.

Meditations with Cows by Shreve Stockton

I’ve long been a fan of her blogs, especially Honey Rock Dawn, and read her second book about raising a coyote, but have really been looking forward to Meditations with Cows, which is about, well, cows and Shreve Stockton’s relationships with them.

The book is beautifully written. New York Times-style think pieces about the environment, the importance of grass, our relationship to food, and especially meat, and the nature of cows are interspersed with personal essays about milking cows, calving cows, and dying cows.

The book helped me think more about the importance of having personal connections to specific pieces of the land, to watch over the same path as the seasons change. There are dreary statistics: “[T]he amount of land owned by the one hundred families with the largest holdings totals forty-two million acres. And this is a 50 percent increase from 2007.” The arguments are absolutely true about our unhealthy and unsustainable relationship to the planet, but I found myself overwhelmed by the hopelessness of it all. Still, the book encouraged a “meditative” approach. One moment, one breath, one choice, and one relationship at a time.  

While reading this book, I am currently bottle feeding a little group of calves that for one reason or another could not be raised by their mothers, and so bovines have been heavily on my mind. I grew up on a cattle ranch and ate a lot of red meat growing up. As I grew up, and moved away from the ranch, a choice I made primarily because it is impossible to make a living raising cattle if you’re starting from the ground up, I naturally ate less red meat. I had less access to the good stuff, and store bought meat is just not as good. Finally, after years of work, I have a little place of my own that allows me to have livestock (though not nearly enough to making a living). I wondered if working closely with the cattle again would make me want to stop eating meat for good. Instead, the opposite has happened. I have been surprised to realize that the closer I am to the food source, the more at peace I feel about consuming beef (and chicken and eggs).

Not everyone can raise their own food, and not everyone wants to, but many of us now can have relationships with our farmers, can follow blogs and Instagram to see the life of a farm, the early lettuce sprouting, lambing season, the richness of July, and the cool autumn harvest. Connecting to the place and the food makes it all so much better in every way: spiritually, but also nutritionally, as we know now that foods produced outside of monocultures are more highly nutritious. Our taste buds can also confirm the difference.

The Secret Teachings of Plants by Stephen Harrod Buhner

I’m including The Secret Teachings of Plants by Stephen Harrod Buhner on my booklist this year, even though it got a hard skim after the first few chapters, which only occur after a lengthly “Note to Reader,” Introduction, and then Prologue. Finally, the reader gets to “Section One: Nature.”

The book promises to be split into two parts: the first half “Systole” and the second half “Diastole.” Systole promises to be the more linear, factual, mathematical half and diastole the more creative and emotional half of the book. However, the tone and approach is nearly identical in each “half.”

The approach is a rambling mix of pot smoker, metaphysical, mystical philosophy popular in the ’60s. It’s a meaningful and worthwhile philosophy, but it’s definitely a type. The writing is fragmented, made worse by constant quotes by the likes of Thoreau, which constantly disrupts the flow of the text.

My deepest disappointment is that the book promises to explore the emotional and creative teachings of plants, and that concept is completely intriguing and compelling to me. I would love to read that book! Unfortunately, this book does not deliver on it’s promise.

Idiot by Laura Clery

Ok, I have very mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, some of this author’s work is genuinely funny, and she has some genuinely crazy and frightening stories resulting from her addiction. On the other hand, there aren’t many laughs in the book, and the entire experience is somewhat cliche.

The story is one we have all heard. Attractive broken person heads off to Hollywood to make it big (in no small part because there is absolutely nothing else they could possibly succeed at). Person spirals into a chaotic and frightening world of addiction, “success” slipping in and out of grasp, until finally, after a decade or two in the business, some modicum of success is achieved and a tell-all book is written.

Clery’s comedy is more slapstick than is my taste. A lot of it is also pretty contrived. A central part of her work involves fat shaming to a degree. Her accent is imprecise. I find myself searching for her authentic voice, but it constantly oscillates between suburban Chicago housewife, valley girl, vapid model, and British.

In this book, the narrator is unreliable. She writes that her husband was divorcing when they met. But, fails to mention the wife when recapping her husband’s bio. She reveals herself making stupid choices, then she demonstrates awareness of stupid choices, but she also seem unaware of some of her toxic habits as well: borrowing money, codependency, and requiring caretakers, even in current presumably healthy state. She unselfconsciously mentions how lame it is that she can’t make a new friend group within a two month time period. Staying home alone for a few days is a rock bottom lameness that sends her spiraling. I think it would be funnier if she acknowledged her own neediness and superficiality. I want to believe that there’s a lot more complexity to this person, and maybe it was just an issue of editing.

And yet! For a book that was most definitely dictated into one of those little handheld tiny recorders, and then pieced together by a beleaguered ghostwriter, the stories are gripping, and the attitude works. Positive affirmations, eating lots of raw fruits and veggies, meditating, being tall and thin and beautiful, marrying a successful man, living in a temperate climate, attending AA, trying, and persisting actually is a recipe for inspiration and success! I’m glad I read it.

Idiot: Life Stories from the Creator of Help Helen Smash

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.

20200830_154359

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.

20200802_203306

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.