Breaking My Silence About the Library, Or: I Will No Longer Be Shushed

One year ago today I was working on a project at work: pulling books and making a sign for a Black History display.  20220202_204354
I wrote an Instagram post about it: why I thought the display was important, how bothered I was that almost every book I wanted to put on the display was checked in, how important I felt it was to have displays like this. How important it is, in a community like the one I live in, where the majority of people are white and the city government is run only by white people. (One of my followers called me racist for calling this out.)

When I wrote that post, and my follow-up blog post, my imaginary audience was any library patron who might have been offended by a tableful of books by and about Black people. I wanted to help that imaginary patron understand that people of all races and identities deserve representation in books in visible ways and that having access to a wide variety of books is important for everyone, even (especially) the majority in power.

“Reading,” I wrote one year ago, “should expose us to the experiences, beliefs, ideas, sufferings, joys, &  lifestyles of people who are not like us.”

I believed that then, I believed it ten and fifteen and twenty years ago. I believe it to the very second I am writing this post.

I never imagined that one year after writing that and after making that display, I would be working for a library that isn’t allowed to put up a Black History month display. (Or women’s history, or Pride, or Hispanic heritage or Native American heritage) but here I am, doing just that.

In November of 2021, the city where I lived elected two new city council members and a new mayor. These three people, combined with a third council member who was elected a few years ago, have formed an alliance. A voting block. They pushed for and managed to achieve getting a ballot initiative to have the schools in our city pull out of the school district, using questionable practices and a feasibility study conducted by a company that was created just weeks before it was chosen (by the same council members) to carry out the study.

Luckily, that initiative was voted down.

But that was not the only issue this city council has undertaken.

Since June, it has carried out a subtle but troubling process of censorship at the library.

This has not been done with transparency, but with behind-the-scenes conversations that I did not witness. I can only write what I have experienced, and that is this:

Despite the fact that every librarian I work with believes in the basic principles of librarianship, which include the freedom to read, access to books on every topic, and diverse displays, programs, and collections, we are working at a library where we are not allowed to carry out those basic principles.

We did not have a Hispanic-American heritage display in September. We did not have a Native American heritage display in November. On February 1, the library will open and there will not be a Black History month display.

I also can write that my experience has been that we have been encouraged to remain silent about these issues. The suggestion was that if we did discuss on our social media platforms the things that are happening at the library, we could be fired.

So why am I writing now?

One of my braver colleagues has inspired me. After she left the position she was excellent at, she spoke. The result has been a series of newspaper articles.  

Newspaper articles that have infuriated me. They are not cutting-edge reporting. They barely expose any of the manipulative tactics that this city council has used to limit access to library materials.

If you’d like to read them, here is the first one and here is the second

In the second article, the interim city manager states that my colleague’s statements are “contrary” to the truth. To which I say: Why, then, have we not had any heritage month displays? He also states that “the complaints from a former library employee have identified a lack of clarity in our library policies.”

The problem is not a lack of clarity in library policies.

The librarians are perfectly clear on the policy the city council is pushing: books about people of color and LGBTQIA+ people are not to be put on display.

That is the policy. We are clear on it.

The problem is not clarity. The problem is the policy itself.

It goes against every component of ethical librarianship ideals I know.

It is censorship.

It is a form of book banning.

This policy has had a damaging impact upon me and upon all of my coworkers.

Likely librarians exist for whom this doesn’t apply, but the vast majority of us are people who are passionate about our work. Librarianship is often wrapped up in “vocational awe”; we see libraries and our work there as a type of sacredness that is inherently valuable to society (which actually leads to a myriad of problems, including accepting pay that is not commensurate to our levels of education and knowledge). We love our work. We love our library patrons. We want to provide them with programs and books that improve their lives.

So to go to work every day with that dedication and knowledge and then to not be allowed to do the work?

It is painful.

And the policy also impacts us in personal ways. Not all of us are cis white males. Not all of us have traditional families. Not all of us are members of the majority religion. We all know someone who is now no longer represented in our library’s displays; some of us are ourselves no longer represented. This policy causes fear, resentment, anxiety, and anger. It does not create a functional working environment where we all feel safe to do our jobs, let alone feel valued by our community or its elected officials.

This morning, when I read the second article, I grew so angry. They had the potential to educate the public as to what is actually happening in the library without fear of career reprisals. They took a soft, unresisting approach. For example, today’s article discusses the fact that Junie B. Jones is the 71st most-banned book series in the United States.

What about the fact that the most-banned book, Gender Queer, is not available on any Utah public library’s shelves?

As I thought about this issue today, as I saw the mayor’s self-congratulatory recorded message being played over and over on the city building’s TV displays, as I did my work under these new restrictions, I came to a conclusion:

I can’t stay silent anymore.

During my almost-15 years of working at the library, I have shared many library stories. I have shared how patrons have made me laugh, frustrated me, insulted me, delighted me. The stories of sharing commonalities despite our differences; the sweet things kids say (“the liberry is my favorite berry”) and the crazy things adults assume (no, it’s no OK to tell me about your husband’s fantasy involving me and my Dr. Martens). Sharing my library experiences has been a fundamental part of my job satisfaction, because I want everyone to know: libraries are necessary places. Libraries are good places. They are full of books but they are really about stories, human stories, living stories. They are—they should be—places where everyone can find knowledge, and it has been a privilege to work here.

I hope I don’t lose my job.

But in a sense, this city council has already taken my job away from me.

Their actions, supported by their voters, have told me that transparency, representation, access, education, literacy, understanding, and empathy are not qualities my community values, and that has broken part of me.

And none of that, none of that matters. My small story is just one part of the library, and the library is the community that uses it.

But by staying silent, I am being complicit.

And as I listen to the news, I cannot do that any longer. It isn’t just about my smalltown library’s problems. It’s a bigger, national issue. It’s the fact that in two counties in Florida, teachers can no longer have books in their classrooms and the governor is proud of this. It’s libraries losing their funding because a few community members don’t think they should have books about queer people on their shelves. It’s about making our society less literate and thus less compassionate.

Censorship is happening right now because the communities using libraries stay silent and thus allow it.

And I cannot abide being silenced any longer.

My Year in Books: the 2022 Edition

I read 37 books in 2022. This is about my average amount of books for the year, somewhere between 30-40. Is that an abnormally low average for a lifelong book nerd who's also a librarian? Probably (when I see people's year-in-review book posts and they've read 149 that year I feel a bit like a failure). But I chalk it up to the fact that I have several hobbies, so when I have time to do something it's not always reading.

Plus there's no shame allowed in reading!

2022 book collage

Some insights I've gotten as I've put together my list:

My blog has mostly become book reviews. I used to blog about all sorts of topics but this year it was almost all books. I'm not sure how I feel about that, as I still have many opinions to share, but I also know that no one reads blogs anymore. Maybe that is the nudge I need to submit more of my work.

I have a hard time writing about poetryI did read some poetry this year. Warsan Shire's Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head is the book I mention most often as my favorite read this year—but I wrote not a single word about it. (Well, that's not entirely true. The book sparked a dream and the dream sparked a half-written poem.) I am going to rectify that this year.

My relationship with YA fiction is changing. Or maybe it's that YA itself is changing, I don't know. I checked out many; I did read the first ten pages or so of The Epic Story of Every Living Thing by Deb Caletti, an author I have loved in the past, but I just couldn't get interested. Ditto A Year to The Day by Robin Benway. I only finished three YA books this year. Instructions for Dancing, which I read last winter, made me furious. The Carnival at Bray, which was a reread, reminded me of what I DO love about YA, which is when it connects to some part or other of my own adolescence.

Maybe it's that so many other hard things have happened during the past three or four years that my adolescent traumas at last feel distant enough that I don't have to keep rubbing my thumb on them via books.

Or that there's a YA trend of books that feel like romance novels, in the sense of you know it's going to turn out happy in the end, and I need a bit more grittiness in my life.

Or maybe I just haven't paid enough attention to find the right ones. 

My favorite reading experience was shared. Because it has apparently been banned throughout the entire state of Utah (not a single public library has this on its shelves, nor is it available in digital format), I bought a copy of Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe. I read it and then passed it along to many of my reading friends. (If you're local and want to read it I'll be happy to share it with you too!) This sparked a whole bunch of really interesting conversations. I learned more about trans people and the issues they face, learned more about my friends, and recognized some of my own issues with the construct of gender.

Shame on Utah for being so close-minded and afraid.

My three favorite books this year:

Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head by Warsan Shire

Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell

And with that, here's my index of the 37 books I read in 2022 (with links to my reviews):

Historical Fiction

Babel: An Arcane History by R. F. Kuang

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell

Outlawed by Anna North

Still Life by Sarah Winman



Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Braver Than You Think by Maggie Downs

Happening by Annie Ernaux

The Storyteller by Dave Grohl

Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert McFarland


Speculative Fiction

Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd Jones

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

How to Be Eaten by Maria Adelman

The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik

Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher

Spear by Nicola Griffith

A Spindle Splintered by Alix Harrow

Thistlefoot by GennaRose Nethercott

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

When Women were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill

World War Z by Max Brooks


General Fiction

Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn

The Last Confession of Sylvia P. by Lee Kravetz

Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt


Middle Grade & Young Adult

The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley

Ellen Tebbits by Beverly Cleary

Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling

Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo


Graphic Novels

Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home by Nora Krug

Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe 



Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head by Warsan Shire

How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems by Joy Harjo

The Hurting Kind: Poems by Ada Limon

How was your year in books?

Book Review: Babel: An Arcane History by R. F. Kuang

If only one could engrave entire memories in silver, though Robin, to be manifested again and again for years to come—not the cruel distortion of the daguerreotype, but a pure and impossible distillation of emotions and sensations. For simple ink on paper was not enough to describe this golden afternoon; the warmth of un complicated friendship, all fights forgotten, all sins forgiven; the sunlight melting away the memory of the classroom chill; the sticky taste of lemon on their tongues and their startled, delighted relief.

BabelSome books make my thoughts go in strange directions, and Babel: An Arcane History by R. F. Kuang is one of those. It opens in Canton with a young, ill boy whose mother has just died from cholera. He is the last person living in his home after this epidemic has swept through it, and he expects his own death will happen very soon. But he is saved by an Englishman, who takes him out of his home, heals him with a bar of magical silver, and asks if he would like to go to England with him.

Thus begin the adventures of Robin Swift—we never learn his Chinese name—as he works to become a Babel translator. Babel is a school in Oxford, where gifted linguists fluent in several languages learn to make the magic that makes the silver bars work. The magic involves the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) differences between the meaning of words in different languages. Along with the industrial revolution, this silver-and-words wrought magic has made England the most powerful nation in the world. But Robin comes to understand that the British people will never be able to see him as something other than a foreigner and that, even with his university stipend and world-class education, he is actually enslaved, eternally in debt to the people who “saved” him and the machinations of colonialism. When a war with China over opium begins to brew, he has to decide if he will uphold the status quo or fight against it.

This is a dense book. It is written as a linguistics sort of text, with explanations of etymology and footnotes scattered throughout. This isn’t a negative for me, but I can see it dissuading many readers; you have to be dedicated to the reading experience to get through this one, and the middle quarter of it felt a bit slow to me. It’s as much about friendship and forming strong relationships as it is about magic systems or linguistics, but at its heart it is a book that explores the real impacts of colonialism. When I finished it, in fact, I just had to put my head down and wonder if white people have ever done anything other than damage, manipulate, and steal from other cultures. It is a story that made me feel despair and the weight of how no one can escape the impacts of powerful government, something that’s just as true now as it was in Victorian England.

It’s not a happy, light, fun read, in other words.

It works both with and against the tropes of “dark academia” novels; there’s a little bit of Harry Potter resonance (which might be inevitable in any book set at an English boarding school I suppose) and some A Secret History but the writing style also lets it stand on its own.

I found it fascinating, enthralling, sad, and a bit frustrating.

And it’s the frustration that makes my brain go in unexpected directions, as this book made me thing about the difference in quality (for lack of a better word) between how a book is and how I want it to be.

I think the middle part felt slow to me because it felt very…distanced, I guess. That old “show, don’t tell” chestnut; I felt very told about Babel Tower and Robin’s experiences in Oxford, rather than being immersed in it. I wanted it to be immersive but because it isn’t does that lessen the book’s literary merit? Or is it just how it is, and it can still be a “good” book in all the senses of that word?

And I had some questions. Mostly, what was the story of Robin’s and Griffin’s mothers? How did the interact with Professor Lowell? Were they fortuitous accidents or were they conceived on purpose and either way, how did it happen? Maybe that seems extraneous to a nearly-600-page novel (with a small font!) but it felt like a gap to me.

So I sat Babel down when I finished it was a sort of literary confusion. It was successful: it made me feel things and it taught me things and it changed my perspective. I loved reading it, loved the characters and the ways they change. I was devasted by the choices they had to make and the reality they finally faced.

But I also left it a bit unsatisfied, even as I know some of the images will stick with me. It didn’t give me what I wanted it to give, which is only a measure of my own needs, not the book itself.

I am glad I read it and for what I learned, even if It also left me frustrated.

Book Review: The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley

But then, she thought, looking up at the tiled ceiling to stop herself from crying, wasn’t that what growing up meant? Wasn’t it just a succession of actions and incidents where you break your childhood promises to yourself and do the very things you always said you wouldn’t do? And how many more promises would she have to break before she came out on the other side?

One of my clearest reading memories is the book Tilla by Ilse Koehn. Published in 1981, it’s out of print now (and I just checked: my library also doesn’t have it on the shelf anymore, although they did at some point while I was working there because I checked it out and reread it, maybe in 2010 or 2011); it is a love story about two teenagers in Berlin during the war.

It doesn’t stand out in my memory because of the love story, particularly, or because of the writing. It’s lodged there because it has a sexual scene with an experience I had never imagined happening between two people. But when it happened to me, after I’d read the book, I knew what to expect because I had read that scene. (I’m only not writing the name of the act because I don’t want weirdos landing on my page after googling it, not out of prudishness.)

Carnival at bray
I thought a lot about that reading experience while I reread the book The Carnival at Bray this week. I read this book in 2015 when I spotted it on the Printz Award list, and as I love books set in Ireland and is about how the music of a generation impacts one teenager’s life, I couldn’t not read it then. I enjoyed it and thought about it every once in awhile and put it on my staff recommendation shelf (when I still had one) (and while my library still had a copy).

But I decided I needed to buy a copy and reread it when I realized it’s on a list of banned books. But not just any list, a list of books that Alpine School District has. The books on this list, which you can see here, are not allowed to be in any school library in the district. This is pretty personal to me, not only because I am deeply opposed to book bans. Alpine is the district my kids have attended, the district I fought for during this year’s local election, and the district I worked for.

If you look at the list, you’ll spot many books that are currently being banned in many places. Gender Queer of course. A Court of Thorns and Roses, which does have a lot of sex. Ellen Hopkins’ and Lauren Myracle’s books, which also have sex in them.

But my brain makes that screeching sound of a needle drug across a record when I get to The Carnival at Bray.

I have to add a caveat: I tend to not really pay attention to sex scenes in books. They don’t offend me and I read them, but I don’t pay them any more attention than the rest of the story. Sex is, after all, part of being human. That means that (with exceptions like Tilla) I have gotten myself in trouble sometimes as a librarian in a conservative community, because I will heartily recommend a book and then the patron will be annoyed because it has a sex scene (or swearing) that I didn’t prepare them for.

But The Library at Bray seemed like such a random inclusion for this banned book list. All of the other books are currently being discussed as “bad” for teenagers. And then there’s this book that’s now out of print (I bought a used copy) and was published eight years ago. A book that’s literally had no negative press, until some Utah County mom got ahold of it. And for the life of me, I couldn’t remember one bit of sex in the story. It’s about Maggie, whose mom marries a man from Ireland and so they move to the small town of Bray, a suburb of Dublin. She struggles with fitting in and misses her uncle Kevin, a drug-addicted musician who had introduced her to grunge music (and changed her life, as music does in your adolescence). She runs away from Bray to attend the Nirvana concert in Rome with tickets Kevin sent her.

Rome, Ireland, a bit of romance, an adolescent girl struggling to fit in, to not hate her mother, to understand the ways adults can betray you and love you all at once, and a Ferris wheel: those were my memories of this book. (Alas, I did not write a book review about it when I read it in 2014.)

WHY would it be on a banned book list?

After rereading it I know. It’s ridiculous, of course, but someone banned it because sex happens in the story. Nothing is described in detail; one of the scenes is troubling and the other is sweet, but it is more her impression of the experiences rather than a sweat-and-blood description. But yes: Maggie has sex. She has a bunch of experiences that teenagers have: makes a tenuous friendship and then it gets destroyed; argues with her mother; listens to music her family hates; and has sex.

And here’s the thing.

Book banning is always driven by fear. It is driven by the compulsion to hide what is troublesome to some people.

But hiding it doesn’t make it go away.

The truth is, sex scenes in novels don’t cause teenagers to have sex. Teenagers are curious about it and may eventually have sex because they have bodies that are confusing networks of hormones and change and developing brains, because they fall in love or because someone makes them or because they just want to experience it.

Because they are human.

Adolescence is a wild ride. It is so full of everything that’s new and maybe dangerous and brimming with adulthood, right on the edge of it. And sex—wondering about it, flirting on its edge, sometimes actually experiencing it, is one of those experiences. Is it always the right experience at the right time? Of course not. Maybe not ever.

But pretending that teenagers don’t think about it makes it more dangerous.

Reading that scene in Tilla helped me understand. It didn’t make that experience much less weird or uncomfortable or just too vulnerable, but a bit. Enough that I was OK. And that is what books do, sometimes, if we’re lucky. Teach us something we need to know about the world before the world teaches it in harsher ways. I know whatever Mormon mom put The Carnival at Bray on that banned book would disagree with me, but I don’t really care. Her job is to raise her children, and she can do that. But thinking that she can also raise everyone’s children?

That’s not her responsibility.  

Book Review: One Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

But this is a women’s war, just as much as it is the men’s, and the poet will look upon their pain – the pain of the women who have always been relegated to the edges of the story, victims of men, survivors of men, slaves of men – and he will tell it, or he will tell nothing at all. They have waited long enough for their turn.

Last year, when I read The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, I decided that while I love books about the Greek epics, I don’t want to read them anymore. In the end they are stories of suffering and death. Troy is always destroyed. Cassandra always dies. Boastful, greedy, destructive men always fail to learn anything.

The gods always let someone down.

Thousand shipsBut one night this month I needed an audiobook to listen to while I struggled through a treadmill run, and Natalie Haynes’s novel A Thousand Ships was available on Libby, so I decided to try yet another Greek retelling.

This one tells the story in fragments. The overarching narrator is The Muse, Calliope. When the poet (whoever he is) begs her for inspiration, she tells the story of the Trojan war with the women’s voices. Some perspectives we return to, some we only hear from once.

Hecuba, Penthesilea (I must go back and look at her chapter in print, as it made me weep the hardest), Helen, Briseis,  Laodamia, the goddesses fighting over the golden apple, Penelope, Creusa, Polyxena, Chryseis, Iphigenia, Clytemnestra, Thetis, Chryseis, Oenone, Cassandra.

In putting all of these voices together into one narrative, an image begins to emerge. Men make war and some of them die, but it is the women who bear the losses. This is true of all wars, of course. These women’s voices, though, harvested out of the most liminal historical spaces…who am I kidding. I don’t ever want to read a Trojan-war story from the male perspective, but those that examine it from off of the battlefield (save Penthesilea of course) are stories that resonate with me.

What I loved best about this book was how she told the story of Cassandra. Out of any character I’ve ever discovered in all of the books I’ve read throughout my life, Cassandra is the one I relate to the most. In this telling, she is absolutely unintelligible to her family; Hecuba no longer even tries to understand her, nor do her sisters and sisters-in-law. On top of being tortured by her visions, she is utterly lonely. But when she arrives in Mycenae, Clytemnestra not only listens to her visions, she believes them. And when she kills Cassandra, she does it gently and swiftly, only because the gods demand it and not because she hates her.

Cassandra still dies. An entire culture is destroyed because of men’s pride and bloodlust. Everyone suffers. It’s still the same story.

But I am glad to have read it to see it in a different light.

(Plus the writer’s notes at the end are fascinating.)

Killers of A Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn: A Book Review

I’m a woman. Guilt is our birthright. Guilt if we want to be mothers, guilt if we take the Pill instead or choose to abort. Guilt if we stay home with our kids or guilt if we work. Guilt if we sleep with a man, guilt if we say no. Guilt if were lucky enough to survive for no good reason.

Killers of a certain ageOne day this week I had a meltdown.

It had been coming for awhile, and was sparked by several different experiences, but it all built up until I just needed a day to myself.

So I did a bit of work at home and then I spent the rest of the day not talking to anyone. Reading a book.

I don’t know how long it’s been since I read for longer than an hour at a time. And Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn was the exact book I needed.

Intelligent, but not too serious.

It’s the story of four women who were recruited in the 70s to be a part of a super-secret organization that had formed after WWII to find and execute Nazis. They were trained to become the organization’s first group of women assassins, and now, forty-ish years later, they are ready to retire.

Except the organization has put a hit on them. So they have to work together one last time to figure out who is trying to kill them and how to stop them. 

Is it weird to say that a book with a lot of dead people in it was just really fun?

Well, weird or not, it was. Fun. Not the kind of thing I usually read. I’m usually about dark & twisty, despair & depression. But while this book addresses real issues—namely, how the world discounts people, especially women, as we get older—it wasn’t too dark. The women’s friendship feels real, they travel to a few different spots in their adventures, they help each other but also aren’t afraid to call out each other’s weaknesses if necessary.

And there’s a satisfying ending.

(Plus, just this oddity: It’s the second book in a row I’ve read that was set partly in New Orleans, which I have never wanted to visit but now I kind of want to, even though I probably would be very uncomfortable and out-of-place, but I want to try a muffaletta and some beignets.)

It was exactly the reset I needed to check out of the real world for a bit.

Thistlefoot by GennaRose Nethercott: A Book Review

If a story does its job, it doesn't ever end. Not really. But it can change. This is the nature of folktales. They shift to fit each teller. Take whatever form suits the bearer best. What begins as a story of sorrow can be acknowledged, held like a sweetheart to the chest, rocked and sung to. And then it can be set down to sleep. It can become an offering. A lantern. An ember to lead you through the dark.

ThistlefootThe day I opened the speculative-fiction, kind-of-a-fairy-tale/legend-retelling, magical-realistic, puppet-themed novel Thistlefoot—which I had anticipated for months—I almost shut it again, because: the opening chapter is in New Orleans, and, I don’t know. It’s not a place of the world that appeals to me, probably because I am too uptight. But I persevered because one of my bookstagram friends had loved it and because of that anticipation I’d felt.

And I am so glad I did.

Thistlefoot is a reworking of the Baba Yaga legend from Russia. Bellatine and Isaac Yaga are siblings who have been estranged for years, but they reconnect when they receive an inheritance from their great great grandmother, who had kept the item in storage for almost a century. When they open the enormous crate they discover they’ve inherited an old house.

A house on chicken legs.

Isaac has spent most of the past decade as a wanderer, moving around the country like a tumbleweed. Bellatine is a woodworker living a very controlled and careful life in the northeast.

Each of the siblings has a unique skill. Isaac can impersonate anyone—not just sort-of, but change his body so he absorbs the person’s body shape and personality. Bellatine is deeply ashamed of her skill and tries to keep it hidden: if she touches an inanimate object she can bring it to life for a few minutes. As they grew up in a family that had a traveling puppet show, these skills have been useful, but Bellatine especially rejects hers, because it can go deeper than just giving a puppet a voice (a literal voice, along with a temporary heartbeat) for a few minutes; she can also reanimate the dead.

The siblings decide they will take their family’s old puppet show on the road, making the traveling house into their stage. But their plans begun to unwind in the draft of a menace that seems to be chasing them, which they eventually learn—via the world’s weirdest musicians—is an entity called the Longshadow Man.

Part of the story is told in Bellatine’s voice, part in Isaac’s, part in the house’s (I loved these chapters).

And that is mostly all I will say about the plot and characters, as it is best left to discover the story while you read it, but I do want to write about why I loved the book. It might, in fact, be my most favorite book I’ve read this year, even with that rough start in The Big Easy. The reasons I loved it are not universal; I think many readers could read this and just think "yeah, that was amazing!" but for me it went deeper than just liking the story, the character, or the writing (and the writing is amazing).

It held a bit of knowledge I needed to learn in order to keep moving forward.

The book is partly about generational trauma, and how when we don’t know our ancestor’s stories, we don’t understand why we react in the ways we do. As I have been going through my recent extended-family struggles, I have thought a lot about the disappointment my ancestors might feel in us, our connections broken. But the book healed a bit of that. It made me think that who I am, the weird “skills” I have inherited from the struggles my ancestors went through (and I absolutely believe this is a thing; not, of course, in magical hands that can bring a gravestone statue to life, but in real ways), and then the things I am struggling with now (or have throughout my life) are about ME. From my perspective, for my way of being in the world, who I am is just me. That is also true of my sisters. I thought what mattered was connection, and that it mattered (partly) because of the ancestry we share. I found my value, in other words, from being a part of the group. But just as the skills the Yaga siblings have manifest differently in their bodies—uniquely—I also get to have value simply because I exist.

(It is hard to write that in a way that makes sense without telling the whole story, but it isn’t a story I can tell online, for a variety of reasons.)

When I put the book down, finished, my body was literally shaking. As if I had done some really difficult exercise, which maybe I had. It was a sort of knowledge that had to work its way through my body. Like my ancestors nudging their way through my DNA to tell me a few things, to tell me they value me for myself but also to remind me that they wish they could tell me their stories.

I thought about a conversation I had once with an old neighbor, who told me she never reads fiction because she doesn’t have time to read anything that doesn’t teach her something. But what I learned from Thistlefoot—while it is personal and kind of nebulous and very hard to put into words—is of more value and has a bigger impact that anything I might learn from a self-help book.

That’s the magic of books and reading, really. At least for me. GennaRose Nethercott doesn’t know me and didn’t write her story to give me this little piece of healing. But nevertheless, she wrote it and I read it and I did heal. And it is why I will always be a reader, because truth is scattered, because stories change us, because knowledge is everywhere but you have to seek it out.

Book Review: Spear by Nicola Griffith

“He will find you,” Elen said. “Beyond this cave and this valley he will scent you on the wind. And when he does he will come to claim what is his. I will never see you again. I loved you, child, loved you so much I did not name you, for naming calls. But now you are leaving, and I will give you your name. The four treasures of the Tuath are the word, which is given, the stone, which is hidden, the cup, which I have, and the spear. You are that spear. You are my Berhyddur, my spear enduring. You are Peretur. Know that I do not remove my ward, and under my geas will remain hidden, even from you. Know, too: you have broken my heart.”

SpearI have a long history of affection for the Arthurian myth (as, I imagine, many readers do), beginning with the random discovery of Mary Stewart’s Arthurian Legend series at my public library when I was thirteen or fourteen. My favorite retelling is Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, and I loved The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro quite a bit. I love the legend’s scope; there are so many different perspectives to the tale, so many characters to follow and stories to experience.

Adding Spear to my list of  “Arthurian Legend Retellings I Love” immediately.

This short novel is a reworking of the Percival portion of the legend, with its ties to the quest for the grail. It starts with an unnamed girl who lives hidden in the forest with her mother, Elen. Elen tells her stories of the Tuath; she teaches her about the forest, too, but she is often unsettled and wild, caught in memories she doesn’t share with her daughter. Eventually the girl must leave this situation; she wants to figure out who she is and she is drawn to find a lake her mother mentions often in her stories.

Peretur, disguised as a boy, leaves her mother and heads out into the countryside, where she has many adventures that teach her about the society she lives in and draw her ever closer to Arthur’s court.

I’ve read two other novels by Nicola Griffith, Hild and Ammonite. They are each very different (historical fiction and science fiction) but one constant is how she is able to draw the reader into the story. The setting comes to life but more importantly, the characters do. Spear proves true to this characteristic. Even though it is a short book (only 167 pages) I read it slowly, savoring the way that Peretur changes and how she discovers who she is.

For me, the story resonates with other books I’ve read. Familiar, but not repetitive. I think I like Alex Harrow’s idea about it best: “If Le Guin wrote a Camelot story, I imagine it would feel like Spear: humane, intelligent, and deeply beautiful. It is a new story with very old bones, a strange place that feels like home.”

If you like the Arthurian legend, strong female characters finding their own way, magic, the queering of an old story, and exploration of the mother/daughter relationship, you’ll likely adore this one too.

Book Review: The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones

The tragedy of death was distance. Death cleaved the world in two, leaving the living and the dead standing on either side of some impassable chasm. 

Drowned woodsSet in a fantastical version of ancient Wales, The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones tells the story of Mererid, the last water diviner. She is living on the run, having escaped from the prince who branded her, after she realized he was using her as a weapon: he had her find the sources of the wells in a community, and then he would poison them.

When Renfrew, the spymaster from the prince’s court who trained her, finds her working at a tavern, he offers her a chance to gain some of the prince’s power by stealing some of his treasure. Along the way, they meet Fane, who is an iron fetch in the control of the fey, Ivanna who is the princess of the guild of thieves, and several other characters. The story weaves into the old Welsh legends but doesn’t feel like a retelling, per se. 

I listened to this during the week of Thanksgiving and it was the perfect companion during trail runs, gardening, and all of my cooking. The narrator has a European accent that went perfectly with the story. I haven’t read any of Emily Lloyd-Jones’s other books but I am glad to have discovered her work. The Bone Houses is set in the same world as this one, so I will try it next.

Book Review: Happening by Annie Ernaux

(If I had to choose on painting to symbolize that episode in my life, it would be a small table with a formica top pushed up against a wall and an enamel basin with a probe glowing on the surface. Slightly to the right—a hairbrush. I don’t believe there is a single museum in the world whose collections feature a work called The Abortionist’s Studio.)

HappeningWhen I read about the French writer Annie Ernaux winning the Nobel Peace Prize for literature, I didn’t know anything about her work. She received the award “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements, and collective restraints of personal memory,” which resonates with me. I decided I needed to read something by her immediately, and chose Happening.

This book is a short memoir that details the back-alley abortion the author had in Paris in the 1960s, when abortion was still illegal. It relates the details of the abortion very clearly (which was hard to read) and in doing so brings to vivid understanding the reasoning for why abortion needs to remain safe and legal.

Ursula K. Le Guin (another of my favorite writers) has an essay about the abortion she had when she was at college. (It is called "What it Was Like" and is in her collection Words are My Matter.) She writes about how that abortion made it possible for the rest of her life to happen; without it, she would’ve had to leave school and abandon her ambitions. She never would have written the works that she did, nor met her husband—and thus never had the children she did have.

I thought about that a lot as I read this book. Ernaux doesn’t say the same thing, but the concept is hinted at. My mind crowded with the arguments of the pro-birth movement, which would say that the consequences of unprotected sex are the woman’s fault; she shouldn’t have had sex, she should have been more careful. The altering of her life matters less, they would argue, than the survival of the fetus’s life. (Except they would say “baby,” not fetus.)

Or, of course, the suggestion: “She should just place the baby for adoption.” So much hinges on that word, just. The simplicity it suggests. The lack of difficulty, the allusion to an easy way out. Adoption is easy and simple for literally no one. 

What this book reminded me of, over and over, was just this fact: there is no easy solution to an unplanned pregnancy. Every choice is difficult. And a woman who has decided that an abortion is the choice she needs to make? That woman should be able to have that procedure. Her life—her real, breathing, existing life—matters, and if she does not want or is not able to alter it by becoming a mother, that is a valid choice. 

But, as the book details, it is not an easy one. Ernaux, like many other women, nearly died because she didn’t have access to the medical care she needed. It was horrible and bloody and painful. 

And, as the Nobel Prize committee suggests, Ernaux writes it with such stripped-down language. She writes this story not as a quest for pity or as a dramatization of a horrible experience. She writes it, instead, as a sort of experiment with memory and with language itself. How can you write about the complicated experiences you had years ago, make them feel real to the reader in the sense of how it actually felt to her, what she saw and smelled and experienced, without manipulating the reader’s emotions? She revisits the places she went to; she rereads her journals and appointment books from that time. 

I walked along the city streets, she writes, my body harboring the secret of that night of January 20-21 as something sacred. I couldn’t decide whether I had reached the outer fringes of horror or beauty. I felt proud. A feeling not unlike that experienced by lone sailors, drug addicts or thieves, who have ventured where others fear to tread. A feeling that may partly have contributed to my writing this book.

And the ending:

I have finished putting into words what I consider to be an extreme human experience, bearing on life and death, time, law, ethics and taboo—an experience that sweeps through the body.

I have rid myself of the only feeling of guilt in connection with this event: the fact that it had happened to me and I had done nothing about it. A sort of discarded present. Among all the social and psychological reasons that may account for my past, of one I am certain: these things happened to me so that I might recount them. Maybe the true purpose of my life is for my body, my sensations and my thoughts to become writing, in other words, something intelligible and universal, causing my existence to merge into the lives and heads of other people. 

I learned as much about writing, in other words, from reading this book as I did about abortions in Paris in the 1960s. 

And I begin to understand why she won, and to think I will seek out more of her work.