Tag Archives: book review

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.

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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

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson is my first book of 2018! I was slogging through another book for several weeks, before picking this up around the New Year and not really putting it down until I was finished.

I thought I’d read Winterson before, but I don’t think I have. I think I had her confused with Jean Rhys or something. Anyway, it’s a great book. It’s obvious, funny, and smart in ways that were accessible to me.

Here were just a few lines I liked:
“[S]he’d got rid of more smells than she’s eaten hot dinners” (33).

Needlepoint: “THE SUMMER IS ENDED AND WE ARE NOT YET SAVED” (40).

“I was not a selfish child and, understanding the nature of genius, would have happily bowed to another’s talent…” (50).

“…no emotion is the final one” (52).

“Time is a great deadener; people forget, get bored, grow old, go away” (176).

Further reading:
Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti:
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44996/goblin-market

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

After finishing Idaho by Emily Ruskovich, I read a few of her interviews and found that Housekeeping: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson also takes place in the Inland Northwest and that Robinson had been an important influence.

I tried reading Robinson’s Lila not long ago, but couldn’t get into it. Housekeeping, on the other hand, was immediately absorbing and recognizable. It helps that I am homesick and desperate to be in the Inland Northwest, even if just through reading. It also helps that I recently finished Ruskovich’s book and the two follow similar plot structures, themes, and tones.

Like Idaho, Housekeeping lends shatteringly brilliant insights into the human condition. In another life, I continue the path of creative writing, and get to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, not on my merits necessarily yet, but on my potential and because Robinson chooses to mentor me as a fellow Inland Northwesterner, and I join them and live in this world too. Maybe I can still find my way on my own, with their words.

Here are some lines I liked:

“When they were reunited, she hoped he would be changed, substantially changed” (10).

“…because the seahorses themselves were so arch, so antic and heraldic, and armored in the husks of insects” (12).

“She never taught them to be kind to her” (19).

“She tended us with a gentle indifference that made me feel she would have liked to have been more alone…” (109).

“It is better to have nothing” (159).

“I hated waiting. If I had one particular complaint, it was that my life seemed composed entirely of expectation” (166).

“Now truly we were cast out to wander, and there was an end to housekeeping” (209).

On conception at the top between pages 214 and 215.

“The only mystery is that we expect it to be otherwise” (215).

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

Idaho: A Novel by Emily Ruskovich is an absolutely fantastic novel. And that’s coming from someone who’s had a hard time reading fiction for several years now. I’ve been the most critical reader, scouring the first 10, 15, 20 pages for a piece of dialogue to fall flat, for text that tries too hard, or for a lie. Normally, I’ll find a reason to set the book aside within the first few pages. Often in the first paragraph. (I hope my own readers are more generous.) I’ll admit that the first 50 pages of this book were slow for me, but I love Idaho, and I found myself wanting to spend more time in the state and, therefore, more time with the book. Every line, every description, every detail served a purpose. Nothing was wasted. There were endless revelations about the human spirit.

My struggled with fiction has had to do with plots lines that are too predictable (or intentionally unpredictable for no good reason), common tropes are overused, and characters are flat. As a result, if I do read fiction, it tends to be stuff with no discernible plot line. Idaho has a plot line. Very much so. But it is as artful as the text.

If you grew up in the Inland Northwest, if there are old pictures of you as a child standing in the back of a old Ford, a photo taken when you are covered in tamarack dust, stuck to you from the can of Coke you drank, while you are waiting while your parents stacked firewood into the back of the pickup, and smell of honeysuckle and chainsaw oil thick in the air, and then if you went to school in the Palouse, and spent summers high up in the Idaho mountains, a little worried about getting lost among the old Forest Service road, but thankful from the break of intellectual work, while you marked and hauled old logs to the truck to burn through the winter in a fireplace that would melt and permanently scar the skin on your forearm, and if you take every opportunity, every summer and spring break, to drive back to those empty Blue Mountains, and if you knew the boredom and insight of an isolated childhood in the rural Northwest, and if you think you’ve actually met Emily Ruskovich, been introduced in passing by a friend, an acquaintance, in Moscow, Idaho, while you were practicing yoga across the state line, or at the farmer’s market, or in the little shop, where you ate a coffee and bagel after having ridden your bike eight miles along the Chipman Trail. Perhaps she was a student, or maybe you two were alone in a used bookstore and shared a knowing glance, seeing that you are the same, both with freckles, red hair, and dark eyes, but you think you are different, but you are not so different, and you should read this beautiful, beautiful book that she has written.