Tag Archives: book review

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

After finishing Idaho by Emily Ruskovich, I read a few of her interviews and found that Housekeeping 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 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.

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reading Idaho in Idaho

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.

Transit by Rachel Cusk

I continue to enjoy Rachel Cusk’s work–a constant good amid chaos. I read Outline a few years ago and The Last Supper just this winter. Transit makes sense of The Last Supper.  Her observations on the human condition are unique and accurate. Her characters are honest, and sometimes they tell the truth.

image from amazon.com

Here are some lines I liked:

  • “[S]he was too obviously based on a human type to be, herself, human” (3).
  • “It was an interesting thought, that stability might be seen as the product of risk; it was perhaps when people tried to keep things the same that the process of decline began” (27).
  • “[S]omeone who cared about him once wrote that it was impossible not to reject him, that the friend himself has rejected him, that something about him just made people do it” (138).
  • “Fate, he said, is only truth in its natural state” (256).
  • “I felt something change far beneath me, moving deep beneath the surface of things, like plates of the earth blindly moving in their black traces” (260).

I’ve felt these subtle moments, sometimes after years, and it’s such a relief.

Walk Through Walls by Marina Abramović

Walk Through Walls is Marina Abramović’s extraordinary story. I mean, of course it’s extraordinary–it warranted a book. And it did. Abramović gives the account of her tumultuous and abusive (my word, not hers) upbringing, replete with political upheaval and familial strife–inexcusable even given the PTSD and OCD that pervades the family dynamic.

Image result for Abramović walk through walls

image from amazon.com

I continue to be interested in reading about powerful women, women who live lives that are very different than the ones they grew up in, women who were able to imagine and create a way for themselves with the degree of freedom and autonomy that their art requires.

Recently, in an interview, I heard Patti Smith say that the artists path is a spiritual path, that pursuing it and making art is a spiritual experience. In that the making of art puts me in a meditative state, which is a spiritual experience, I agree.

Abramović writes honestly, even self critically, about the spiritual and emotional experiences of her life, and the relationships in which she engaged, and even contributed analysis on her painful patterns and what they might suggest. It was all very honest and real and shed some light into my own painful patterns and what can be done about them (hint: probably not a lot).

So many of the artists I’ve been reading about have traveled extensively and have sought esoteric (at least to a Westerners view) spiritual rituals for self growth and healing, engaging in shamanic treatments in Brazil, learning telepathy from Aboriginals in Australia, and completing months-long meditations in India.

Lately, I’ve wanted to have more meaningful interactions in my work. Abramović’s work empowers me to do so. Her art is really weird, and many might view it as sensationalistic, existing only for the sake of shock and awe, but in reading the book, I was quickly and easily persuaded that performance art is very much art. It’s complex and provocative and does all of the important things that more traditional art does.

For as much as her most intimate relationships brought her pain and betrayal, Abramović heals these wounds for herself and others (her audience and her students), time and time again. Perhaps I can find ways to do more of the same in the work that I do. At least I can try.

After reading the book and being inspired by her story, I felt more emboldened to live my life in a way that was more fully authentic to who I am. So currently I am working hard to change a few things about my life, bringing it more into accord with my essential self, trying to set things up in ways that are more conducive to my well being, and wearing these big sunglasses that fully protect my eyes on the top bottom and the sides. (I wore them yesterday while browsing a plant nursery, and it felt great, and zeros effs were given.)

I thought I marked more passages (I know it did!), but in the end, this is all I could find:

“Because in the end you are really alone, whatever you do” (182).

“If animals live a long time together, they start loving each other. But people start hating each other” (290).

Why I Am Not a Feminist by Jessa Crispin

I read Why I Am Not a Feminist by Jessa Crispin when it was recommended by a colleague and when just hearing the title made my blood boil as I recalled countless bad Jezebel articles and dead end arguments on social media about feminism over the past few years. So, I read it.

Image result for Why I Am Not a Feminist

image from amazon.com

As expected, Crispin makes some good points, but also made my blood boil. It reads like being in an argument with the most gaslighting, narcissistic lover or family member you can’t escape. You bring up a problem. They put words in your mouth. They turn it around and accuse you of doing the thing that they were doing. Everything gets spun around. They deny saying the thing they just said. You feel like you’re taking crazy pills. Actually, that’s exactly what it’s like to read this book if you are me–a college-educated woman who has identified as a feminist since the halcyon days of undergraduate school.

The good aspects are that there are some smart and critical observations about social justice, and embracing an ideology like feminism, and life in general. She brings up important points and social events that we could probably all benefit from thinking about more critically and understanding in new ways. The bad points are that it is full of soundbites that lack real depth, and in that way it is also not very literary. It reads more like a Ted Talk, and she is constantly essentializing–to the degree that her insights are often inaccurate and/or misleading. There are straw man arguments throughout.

If you think the Crispin has miscategorized the term, and that feminism is still useful, then Crispin’s book will fall short as a manifesto.

Here are some lines that stood out to me (and a response):

  • “In order to make feminism palatable to everyone, they have to make sure no one is made uncomfortable by feminism’s goals” (8). I agree that this is a problem. Not all feminisms will be “palatable” to the masses and that’s ok/inevitable.

  • “If the goal is universality, then these feminists need to simplify the message to such a degree that the only people who would disagree with their pitch are religious freaks and hardcore misogynists” (10). This seemed to be the case with the Women’s March. The voices were so varied that everyone could easily feel good about participating. I didn’t (and don’t) think that’s a bad thing. There will be easy things and there will be hard things. The Women’s March was an easy thing.

  • “If you are surrounded by people who agree with you, you do not have to do much thinking…you do not have to work at constructing a unique identity. If you are surrounded by people who behave the same way you do, you do not have to question your own choices” (15). This is just a great reminder.

  • “What needs to be restored, and can be restored, is a feminist philosophy” (22). There never was a central “feminist philosophy.” Crispin does this throughout–essentializes or argues for or against things that were never “things” to begin with.

  • “There is a way a woman can deflect the worst effects of patriarchal control, and that is through money” (55). As a “Marxian feminist” this just stood out to me. This is a thing.

  • “Outrage culture” (106). I liked this phrasing. Social media and an “easy share” culture facilitates outrages culture, and there’s really no evidence that any of it is helpful.

  • “If you want to create a better world and a better existence for your people, you must participate in the imperfect world that exists now” (143). The whole “better world” narrative isn’t very convincing to me, but the participating part? That’s something with which I can agree. 

The Sea and Sardinia by D.H. Lawrence

I read The Sea and Sardinia by D.H. Lawrence because Rachel Cusk mentions it in The Last Supper, and I hadn’t read anything by D.H. Lawrence, or any  literature from the “old white male canon,” in a very long time.

Image result for Sea and Sardinia

image from amazon.com

If you were to go on an extended trip through a long country or several small ones, and if you were to keep a daily journal filled with every detail that reminds you of every exquisite thing you encountered, details that also functioned to take you to a time, a place, a feeling, a current obsession, the food you ate, the drink, and then if you published that book because the whole trip had been funded by a publisher who had been promised a book, I presume you would have The Sea and Sardinia by D.H. Lawrence.

I’ve made long trips, and kept detailed journals, and I recorded every exquisite thing I encountered that reminded me of a time, a place, a feeling, an obsession, the food I ate, the drink, and I cherish those journals. Rereading them, I can feel the sun on my skin and the free way of moving through the world, urgent to find food or hotel, but not to meet a work deadline. I can remember my interests, my obsessions, the ways other people live, the look of other places, how I was different then than I am now, and for the inevitable better.

I don’t think those journal entries probably have much merit beyond my own memories, just as the Sea and Sardinia is undoubtedly more important to Lawrence and the “q-b” than anyone else. The book is an early modern travel guide. It perfectly captures the difficulties, and the luggage handles cutting into your hands, and the filth of the public, the beauty, and the enduring, the transcending that occurs with travel. Of course it’s also artfully written. Not only does Lawrence have the decency to avoid boring us with a plot, but the reader must look no further than the first line for something lovely: “Comes over one an absolute necessity to move” (7). And on the “other,” he writes, “Their naturalness seems unnatural to us. Yet I am sure it is best” (21). There is more of this throughout, which is, of course, what sets him apart as one of the very best. I can say I read it.

Bluets by Maggie Nelson

I needed to read something artistic, and so I finally read Bluets by Maggie Nelson. I read it quickly. (It did not need to be read slowly.) It seemed like I’d read this book before. It reminded me of Coeur de Lion by Ariana Reines, but not as beautiful as that in terms of the sentence. It was beautiful, though, and smart–one of the best books I’ve read in the genre. I had little patience for the sexual aspects of the book. That’s me though. Lately, those inclusions seem cheap. I used to “get it.” Adding the sexual gave writing that perfect blend of raw and mystery. Anymore I only want to think about birds and botany.

Bluets - Maggie Nelson

image from wavepoetry.com

 

Lines I liked:

“My Thought has though itself through and reached a Pure Idea. What the rest of me has suffered during the at long agony, is in describable” (Mallarmé 2-3).

“Now I like to remember the question alone, as it reminds me that my mind is essentially a sieve, that I am mortal” (62).

“…the blue of the sky depends on the darkness of empty space behind it” (62).

“For some, the emptiness itself is God; for others, the space must stay empty” (86).

“…ask not what has been real and what has been false, but what has been bitter, and what has been sweet” (86).

“As a rule we find pleasure much less pleasurable, pain much more more painful that we expected” (87).

“She is too busy asking, in this changed form, what makes a livable life, and how she can live it” (88).

“Imagine someone saying, “Our fundamental situation is joyful.” Now imagine believing it…Or forget belief: imagine feeling, even if for a moment, that it were true” (89).

“When I was alive, I aimed to be a student not of longing, but of light” (95).

Words/concepts that inspired further study:

  • the male satin bowerbird
  • International Klein Blue
  • samsara
  • the jacaranda tree
  • the Tuareg
  • The Oblivion Seekers

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem has been in my peripheral for years now. She’s lovely. She’s a feminist journalist. We both have a penchant for large sunglasses. She did waitressed for Playboy to write an exposé. She’s an iconic feminist figure. Sometimes her politics and approach seemed too bland for me to really deeply identify with her. Other times she seemed too out there.

I read her latest book, My Life on the Road, and here’s what stood out to me. Because of her known beauty and brains, she could have chosen a conventional path: marrying for love and money, children, soccer games, and charities–all meaningful work, but too often requires the sacrificing of the self for the good of the others (family). That she chose not to pursue a more conventional path, one that so many women value and judge themselves against, is powerful. Steinem had a choice, and she chose feminism. (I’m fully aware the this observation might seem less than feminist, but I think her beauty is part of her particular feminism, and I’m treating it as such.)

image from amazon.com

The book itself if full of important feminist history. I tend to be exposed to more “high theory,” academic feminism. Steinem’s history is a political one, a public one. She’s a journalist after all, with a wide readership.

First–and this blew my mind–she began the book by dedicating it to her abortionist. Her abortionist. I found this to be completely provocative and outrageous and wonderful and true. And for that I loved it.

Here are some quotes from the book that I thought were of interest (with page number):

On violence against women and a healthy society: “We might have known sooner that the most reliable predictor of whether a country is violent within itself—or will use military violence against another country—is not poverty, natural resources, religion, or even degree of democracy; it’s violence against females. It normalizes all other violence” 43.

On the economy and the environment: “pressuring women to have too many children is the biggest cause of environmental distress, and economic courses should start with reproduction, not just production” 100.

On our Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton: “she was potentially, as one said, “a great girlfriend” who had their backs” 160.

Cultural problems: “Women are always better liked if we sacrifice ourselves for something bigger—and something bigger always means including men, even though something bigger for men doesn’t usually mean including women” 165.

This one’s just a good line: “Laughter is an orgasm of the mind” 181.

These song lyrics:

It’s a rainy night in Georgia
and it looks like
it’s rainin’
all over the world

Just another great line: “Surrealism is the triumph of form over content” 189.

This is going to take forever: “According to the wisdom of Indian Country on my own continent, it takes four generations to heal one act of violence” 202.

Here’s why it’s so important to me that Hillary Clinton received the presidential nomination: “…when God is depicted only as a white man, only white men seem godly” 205.

A great chapter title that has me thinking about my relationship to Truth: “What Was Once Can be Again” 211.

Truth: “YOU CANNOT THINK YOURSELF INTO RIGHT LIVING. YOU LIVE YOURSELF INTO RIGHT THINKING. –Native  Elders 234.

On women: “Women elders were keeping the rhythm of life” 241.

Something to remember in regards to politics: “Anybody who is experiencing something is more expert in it than the experts” 245.

Parting wisdom to remember: “My father did not have to trade dying alone for the jobs of the road. My mother did not have to give up a journey of her own to have a home.

Neither do I. Neither do you” 251.

Be well, my loves.

M Train by Patti Smith

It’s so hard to find a good new book these days. So when I find one, I tend to spend as much time in it as possible. That’s what happened with Patti Smith’s new book, M Train.

image from amazon.com

I read Just Kids a few years ago and loved it. In her rock and roll heyday (which is still now for many of us), Smith was known for brilliantly blending poetry with rock and roll. So it makes sense that she is a writer and also a fan of writing, which, in part, is what this book is about. It’s also about coffee. It’s about strange rituals and missions dreamed up by an amalgamation of literature, dreams, conversations and her own notions, which has her leaving stones at gravesites of people she knew or didn’t know, caring deeply about a small idea, about a small token, a small memory, a spirit.

I’ve always identified deeply with Smith. Her dreamy, creative way of moving through the world is similar to me at my best self. On some existential level, I know the deep love she knew with Fred, and the deep loss, and the new existing in this strange world, but hers is deeper, more, and a guidepost for us all.

I don’t know that I would like her. The day in/day out of her life seems sometimes boring, and dusty, and littered with cat hair, but there’s something about what she produces as an artist that opens me up, reminds me, shows me something new. So I stay in her books for as long as I can, and then hold on to them again afterward.

Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon

I read Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon on the heals of reading Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl and Patti Smith’s Just Kids a few years earlier. Gordon’s book pales in comparison to Brownstein, who is a genius–capable of exposing those real and unflattering (and flattering!) human emotions and experiences by showing instead of telling, and to Smith, who’s skill with language has always been a huge part of her success as a musician and artist. It makes sense that Smith and Brownstein would both write books that are both informative to fans, but that also hold up as literary works as well. Gordon’s book doesn’t do that.

Gordon portrays herself as a frustrated artist, and she accurately conveys that frustration in her lifelong relationship with visual art and music. At many times, she says she felt vulnerable, but the reader doesn’t see or feel the vulnerability. Sometimes Gordon seems to confuse vulnerability with victimhood, which also comes off as somewhat confused.

Here’s what I think: I think she is tough, and numb, and this is part of her personality, but it’s also exacerbated by her heartbreak and divorce from Thurston Moore. The pain is still too fresh for her to have any useful insight. One imagines that her heartache still weighs her every day, and without the clarity of some of that pain having lifted, she is not yet in a position to write about her experience in a useful way. She comes off as guarded–the opposite of vulnerable. She pulls back, and the reader pulls back too.

If you are a fan of Sonic Youth, it’s worth reading for the history. If you are a fan of that musical movement, it serves up a fine history. Otherwise, this is one you can skip. If she does this again in about a decade, I’d give the new one a read. Perhaps by then she’ll have deeper insight and also remind us what any of this had to do with being human in the first place.