Tag Archives: book club

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.