Victoria's Secret

Last week this video popped up over and over in my social media feeds:

It’s a recording of a flash mob outside of a Victoria’s Secret, and the singer/songwriter Jax is performing her song “Victoria’s Secret,” which is about how our perceptions of what women’s bodies are supposed to look like are manipulated by marketing. I think it’s a fantastic performance and has a great message.

I noticed, though, as I read the comments of strangers on my friends’ feeds, an overwhelming similarity: so many of the comments went along the lines of “I hope I can teach this to my daughter.” And while I am 110% behind young girls learning body positivity, and I hope I taught it to my daughter better than my mom taught me, I started to feel like maybe there’s something wrong with me? Have all the other 50-year-olds gotten over their body negativity?

One of my very strongest memories from childhood might be the last time I loved my body unequivocally. I was sitting on the lounge chair on the patio in our backyard, reading a book. It was a summer afternoon and that morning I had done my three-hour gymnastics workout. Lying there in the shade with my book, I pointed my toes, lifted my straight leg in the air, flexed my biceps, all because I had finally mastered something at the gym (I don’t remember now what skill it was). I felt strong and skilled and, most importantly, light. So small and compact the summer wind could lift me. I thought this is exactly how a body should feel.

I was ten or eleven.

After that summer afternoon, I wanted to keep the feeling of being both strong and small, so I worked harder at the gym. I don’t think I really matched up what I ate with how small I might be, but I never stopped yearning for that feeling. And for whatever reason, I never felt it again.

I mean, this girl could do fifty pull ups and then fifty dips and then one hundred sit ups in a row; she could do flips on a 4” wide balance beam and swing around the bars.

AmyGymnastics11

But she hated her body. Her boobs were too small and her butt was too flat and her thighs were too big.

In my 20s I had three magnificent pregnancies with no complications and perfectly healthy babies who I nursed without issues. But I hated my body. I wanted slimmer hips and a flatter belly and bigger boobs and smaller thighs.

In my 30s I was a strong runner with no injuries. I was busy with three, then four kids who I had plenty of energy for. But I hated my body; my belly was even bigger, my boobs saggier, my hips wider. I started to struggle with weight gain. My thighs were still too big and my running pace was too slow.

In my 40s I fought through several injuries and kept running. I began hiking on a regular basis and discovered I’m a pretty fast uphill hiker. I trained for and ran a marathon while recuperating from pertussis. But I hated my body, because losing weight became impossible and I got a good growth of back- and side-boobs and my skin began to sag and wrinkle.

And here I am, 50 years old. Still hating my body. Don’t get me wrong: I have gotten better. A huge part of me accepting my body was finding running clothes I love (which might sound like a marketing gimmick but for me it was an answer. Girls without thigh gaps are never going to be comfortable in tiny running shorts). Now if you gave me three magic wishes to use on my body, I’d wish for healthy knees, painless feet, and a better memory rather than slim thighs, big boobs, and a flat belly. I know it’s imperfect, especially by society’s standards, but my body is the only thing I have to experience this world with, so I try to cut out the negative self-talk and accept it for what it is.

But I’m not sure I will ever not have this deep-down body shame.

I don’t think my mom ever got over it. During her last illness, she told me once that she hoped, once she got better, she could keep off the weight she’d lost. The weight she’d lost suffering with intense abdominal pain, several surgeries, and a limited diet: that lost weight was her silver lining. And I don’t write that with judgement but with sadness. I’m not sure she ever thought her body was good enough.

A friend once told me that she was surprised to read (in a blog post) that I struggled with my body image. “But you run all the time! You’re strong and you’re not overweight like me.” I don’t know—do I carry around this shame out of conceit? Is there a body weight that’s too small to express your embarrassment over, like cultural appropriation except with body issues? I don’t think so. I know plenty of runners who are faster than me, who have that stereotypical “runner’s body,” chiseled muscles and a flat belly and a thigh gap, who also carry around the same shame. (And, in some ways, running makes it…not exactly worse, but adds another level. How silly of me to call my soft, slow body a runner’s body! Is a 10=minute-mile even running or is that just jogging? If I were more dedicated, I’d be faster, thinner, stronger. Can’t have carbs and a fast-run summer!)

So yes: I am here for songs and social movements that celebrate real bodies. The shapes of all the bodies. More, the concept that who we are should be determined by…who we are, how we chose to live our lives, the way we love our people and try to take care of the world, rather than what size our clothes our, how flat our bellies, how gapped our thighs. I am so much here for teaching this to our daughters and granddaughters. I long for the existence of a generation of women valued for what they contribute to the world, not for their level of sexiness.

Oh how I want that for younger generations.

But I grew up in an era where these ideas didn’t even exist, raised by a mother from a generation that was very much about how you look. (I will never not hear her saying “Amy sure is looking heavy” when I look in the mirror at my body.) For myself, all I can do is continue to fight it. To acknowledge the thoughts are there and then to take my sub-par but alive body out into the world, dressed in a skirt that might be too short for my Mary-Lou thighs and a tank-top that might show way more side-boob than is visually comfortable, and do things. Run, hike, walk. Fumble at climbing, swim poorly. Hold my husband’s hand, hug my children. It’ll never be perfect, this body. Just like I might never rid myself of the shame in order to love it completely.

But I’ll keep trying.


Book Review: Still Life by Sarah Winman

Still lifeI read the novel Still Life very slowly and over about six weeks. Not because I wasn’t enjoying it—I was, immensely—but because of the style of the plot. It is a book that tells the story of a man’s life, with the smaller, everyday conflicts interacting with larger social issues over decades. Not the kind of novel you read for the conflict or the tension, but for the beauty of a life.

It tells the story of Ulysses Temper who, while serving in Italy during WWII, meets Evelyn Skinner, an art historian who is working to save Italy’s art masterpieces from the Germans. The encounter isn’t very long, only a couple of days, but it changes both their lives. They don’t meet again for at least twenty years, but their lives kind of revolve around each other. Ulysses goes back to London after the war, eventually is drawn back to Florence (where he met Evelyn) along with his found family. He survives the 1966 flood of the Arno (an actual historic flood that I knew nothing about), creates a business making globes like his father did, raises The Kid. Eventually he and Evelyn also reunite.

That’s kind of a summary of the whole book.

Which is why I was able to dip into and out of it at will. But I also read it slowly because I absolutely fell in love with the characters, and I was afraid that Sarah Winman would do what Kate Atkinson did in A God in Ruins (SPOILER): make it all a sort of dream-life that Ulysses didn’t get to live because he actually died in the war, not his captain.

But that wasn’t what she did at all. Instead, it was just…just an excellent novel about people making their lives the best they can.

Oh, and ideas about art.

And Florence (the city I most want to return to).

And history.

And food, of course. It can’t be Italy without food.

The mysteries in a life that life finally solves, but only very slowly. The way connections eventually reveal themselves, the inauspicious ways we don’t connect, the accidental times we do.

What love actually looks like. What a family does.

A Shakespeare-quoting parrot named Claude.

I loved this book so much. I think it will be my favorite book this year. And I’m actually glad I took so long to read it, picking up and finishing other books while actively reading this one, too. Because the slowness meant I got to spend more of my time in the world with Ulysses and Evelyn and The Kid and Claude.

And the writing is just lovely.

I usually start my book reviews with a quote. I couldn’t pick a single one from this book; there were so many beautiful things written. So I’ll end instead with a few of my favorites:

All this is a response, Ulysses. It’s not more complicated than that. Of course, we can then throw in execution of the craft—how well one paints—and the history of the piece, its provenance, and we can come up with value. But always the value for me will be response. How it moves one.

Book after book after book, the written patrimony of Western civilization. And sometimes through the mud, a glimmer of gold or a glimmer of blue stilled their breath. Made them humble, that shy glimpse of ancient holy. (As characters help clean up after the flood.)

Poetry, though, was sand. Ever compared to stars in its granular infinity. Ever shifting.

It’s what we’ve always done. Left a mark on a cave, or on a page. Showing who we are, sharing our view of the world, the life we’re made to bear. Our turmoil is revealed in those painted faces—sometimes tenderly, sometimes grotesquely, but art becomes a mirror. All the paradox, ours to interpret.

The world of the domestic kitchen is a female world. It is a world of routine, of body and of bodily function. A world of blood and carcass and guts and servitude. Men may enter but they do not work there and yet work is all that women do there.

It’s always been quite hard to know—to pinpoint, let’s say—where one’s unique story really begins. Does it really start at the moment of birth, or with those who came before? Instilling, distilling, in one’s veins the lived life, the unlived life, the regrets, the joys, as effortlessly, as dubiously one might say, as they hand down a certain walk (you to me), or a frown (you to me) or limp, mousy hair (Mother to me). If this is so, then my story starts with you.

Open up. Things happen here, if you let them. Wonderful things, Miss Skinner. When you least expect it. Are you ready, my dear, for things to happen? (Evelyn’s first experience at the Uffizi)

There are moments in life so monumental and still that the memory can never be retrieved without a catch to the throat or an interruption to the beat of the heart. Can never be retrieved without the rumbling disquiet of how close that moment came to not having happened at all.

So, time heals. Mostly. Sometimes carelessly. And in unsuspecting moments, the pain catches and reminds one of all that’s been missing. The fulcrum of what might have been. But then it passes. Winter moves into spring and swallows return. Beauty does what is required. Loneliness becomes a mere Sunday.


Book Review: When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill

Am I not enough? Was I not good enough? … Because sometimes love isn’t enough.

When women were dragonsThis blog post is titled When Women were Dragons: A Book Review because of SEO and brand styling and yada yada yada. But it isn’t really a review. I mean, I could write a review of the book, which I’ve been looking forward to reading since I read about it back in March. I could write that I liked it and that my copy is full of underlining and notes. Or how it made me think about Naomi Alderman’s The Power and how desperately I want women to have some actual power that would change the world, and how without power I feel in the United States. I could write about the writing, and the character development, and how my real complaint is with the ending, which kind of fizzled for me because it was too pat. About the inclusion of Tennyson’s poem “Tithonus.” Or even about how I kept giggling over a one-star Amazon review I read, wherein the reviewer hated the book because it wasn’t really about dragons.

(Nope. It’s about feminism, and how women both lose and take back power in myriad ways, and what courage is sometimes like, and how family can both devastate and save you.)

But I had such an emotional reaction to this one that instead I’m going to write about how the story impacted my life. (Thus it is inherently spoiler-y, although I’ll do my best to  keep that at a minimum.)

In the novel, which begins in the 1950s, women sometimes just spontaneously turn into dragons. This is not a thing people in polite society talk about; like periods and breast cancer it is a “women’s issue” and, even though houses are burned down and husbands “vanish,” society just pretends like it doesn’t happen. Alex lives with her mother, who is in remission from breast cancer, and her father, who is a bank executive (and a jerk in the classical 50s sense). She loves her niece, Beatrice, and her aunt, Marla. Then, one day, America experiences the Mass Dragoning, when thousands of women become dragons; her aunt is one of them. Her mother finds Beatrice and tells Alex that she doesn’t have an aunt but has always had a sister, and then they go on, pretending that their family has always been this way. (Definitely not talking about what actually happened.)

Eventually Alex has to take care of Beatrice on her own. And that was where the book got problematic for me.

Not because the writing wasn’t good or the story didn’t make sense (it is and it does). But because I am very purposefully avoiding books about sisters these days.

This is because my relationships with my three sisters are so damaged they will never, I believe, recover. There are many stories involved in this damage, stretching back many years—my own sisters-are-difficult novel, I guess. Or memoir, but it does almost feel like fiction because when I stop and look at it, I cannot believe this is my reality. The recent experience (I don’t even know what to call it, betrayal, rejection, abandonment…there isn’t a word for “my sister broke up with me”) is the most painful, as (as far as I understand) nothing really happened, except I just became unacceptable to be involved with in ways I am too stupid to intrinsically understand. I have argued and discussed and tried to understand, but it hasn’t done any good, really; that sister simply doesn’t want me in her life in any significant ways.

So as the story in When Women were Dragons progressed, and I realized it was getting more and more sister-y, I almost stopped reading. The writing pulled me through but I confess: there were many tears on my part. Near the end, it becomes apparent that Beatrice desperately wants to dragon, but she is holding herself back from it because Alex doesn’t want to lose her. Eventually, though, Alex has to come to peace with what her sister wants. “Essentially, you have a choice,” one of the characters tells her, “you can force your sister to remain in the form you know, or you can accept her as she wishes to be.”

It’s a novel so the connection isn’t exact. But similar enough to make me grieve all over again. Because my sister dragoned, in her own way. She chose to change forms because the one she had before—the form that included me in her life—was unacceptable. In a sense, I did get a choice; not, though, about whether or not she would change. She changed regardless of me. (And, really: why would my opinion matter? The point of her choice is to NOT be influenced by me.) The choice I had was how I would respond. But the painful part is that, unlike Beatrice who still wants a relationship with Alex after she changes, my sister doesn’t.

I finished this novel feeling horrible all over again about myself. Was Alex selfish in not wanting to lose her sister? Am I selfish because I didn’t want this change, this sister-less life, because I never would have chosen it? Was Alex willfully blind in not seeing how her refusal of Beatrice’s change was damaging Beatrice? Was I blind to how my presence made my sister’s life miserable?

For Alex, although she wouldn’t have chosen it, her sister’s change gives her more freedom. She no longer has the responsibility of a child to take care of while she tries to go through school. She’s able to continue interacting with her sister and to make her own life.

For me, I just feel desolate.

I can’t say this book gave me any enlightenment in regards to my sister relationships. It might have actually made it hurt more, in fact. Even having a metaphor—“dragon” as a verb, to undergo a massive change in order to have the life you want instead of the life society gave you; fighting to be a truer version of yourself no matter how much it might impact others’ lives—doesn’t truly help. It’s just metaphor, after all. It brings a bit of understanding but it doesn’t make it hurt less.

In the book, not all of the dragons are like Beatrice. Most of them don’t stay, or they don’t come back. They simply leave: their family, their friends, their homes and occupations. Part of me understands that, as regular life can become awfully heavy sometimes. And most of those husbands were awful. But I cannot understand mothers leaving children; if that makes me a weak feminist, so be it. But maybe THAT is what makes it hard for me to understand my sister’s choices, too. Yes; love, so deeply intwined with memory, can be a burden, but it isn’t only that. Life is more complicated than leave or stay, than dragon or human. Beatrice strikes the tenuous balance, maintaining relationships while being who she really wanted to be. Love was enough to make it work.

It wasn’t for my sister.


Book Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Truth didn’t mean anything without someone to share it with; you could shout truth into the air forever, and spend your life doing it, if someone didn’t come and listen.

UprootedAfter I finished the first two Scholomance books I still wanted more Naomi Novik entertainment, so I decided to listen to Uprooted.

I didn’t go back and read what I wrote about the book when I first read it. I just went on my vague memories of the plot—a consuming, angry forest; a demanding lord called The Dragon, a seemingly-average girl becoming the lynchpin in saving the world, a tower, something to do with magic. I let the story fill in the gaps. The novel opens with Agnieszka, a teenage girl who is chosen by the Dragon. Every ten years he choses a girl to live in the tower with him; no one is sure what the girl does, but she always returns changed, unable to stay in the village any longer. The villagers are sure Agnieszka’s best friend, Kasia, will be chosen—she is beautiful and accomplished and brave—but the Dragon picks her instead.

The Dragon is a wizard, and his primary responsibility is to use his magic to keep The Wood at bay, just far enough away from the borders of the villages to let them live normal lives. The Wood is malicious; it wants to consume all of the space and kill people in horrible ways.

When Agnieska arrives (by magic) at the Dragon’s tower, they eventually discover that she, too, has magic. Only it is very different from the Dragon’s magic. And their personalities are very different, so there is a lot of conflict in their relationship.

One thing I had forgotten about this novel was The Wood’s origin story. I’m not sure why that didn’t stay with me, as it is really the heart of the narrative. And the way Agnieska’s friendship with Kasia is portrayed: loyal, true, sweet, but not without conflict and hard feelings. I loved so many things about this novel.

Reading this so soon after Novik’s other books made me realize something, though. She is definitely a fan of the Mr. Darcy syndrome, as all of the books by her I’ve read have a character who falls in love (eventually) with a man who is prickly, difficult, and misunderstood. As this is not my favorite trope (Pride and Prejudice isn’t my favorite Austen), it makes her books a bit less enjoyable for me.

Still, listening to Uprooted (while I sewed the memory quilt I made for my friend) was a great choice. I enjoyed being immersed in a vivid fantasy world and seeing Agnieska figure out how to solve her problems.


Book Review: Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay


Darkness gives way to morning's sunrise, winter ends, there are flowers, birds fly. Honour the goddess, remember the gods. We are children of earth and sky.

Children of earth and skyI’m not sure what to think of this novel, Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay. It is a fantasy-ish novel based on Renaissance Europe, with a huge cast of characters. Several of the characters’ arcs involve trying to overthrow The Grand Khalif. There is art, sailing, adventure, battles, romance. (The first time I listened to one of Kay’s works, Tigana, I was listening while I drove to Disneyland with my sons and several times found myself glad I was listening on headphones. There is some spice in his books!) There are women who manage to overthrow the restrictions society and puts upon them. A soldier who finally finds his way home. Grand cities and beautiful countryside. My favorite scene was Leonora Valeri’s takedown of her father, but Danica Gradek finally finding a peaceful place (and the narrative of her impact down through generations) comes a close second.

I loved the book.

But I am also not sure I loved it.

Because as all of the conflict gets sort-of wrapped up, the individual story lines ended (in ways that were generally positive), it felt very…I don’t know. True-to-life, I guess, which is fantastic, but I wanted more of a novel-esque ending.

I think I had to mull it over for a few weeks before I could say what I felt about it. It is, at its heart, individual stories of people involved in their society’s larger conflicts. Sometimes their stories entwine in literal meetings and interactions; sometimes the characters feel the influence of others’ choices in ways they don’t ever understand. A lot like life, yes.

So, if you delve into this one—I listened to the audio and it is almost 20 hours long; the narration is by Simon Vance and is amazing—know that the end won’t be the wrap-it-all-up kind of end that most fantasies have. Even though you do find out what happens to all of the characters, none of the social conflicts are settled by their impact.

Which is really, I think, the point.


Signature Memory Quilt: Notes, Ideas, and Thoughts on a Retirement Gift

This month, one of my favorite library coworkers is retiring. I decided I needed to make a quilt for her as a retirement gift. I wanted it to be a sort of memento to represent all of her years at the library, personalized by as many coworkers as possible. At first I thought of gathering favorite quotes from coworkers about books, reading, libraries, friendship, memories. I imagined formatting them all in Photoshop and then having them printed on cotton and…it seemed that would be lovely but overwhelming, and coupled with the fact that this coincided with me transitioning to working full time and, yeah. I abandoned that idea.

Instead I started with this sketch:

Signature memory quilt sketch

So, my basic idea was a center panel of books, with rows of book spines, some of them of printed fabric, some of them signed by coworkers.

And here's how it ended up turning out:

Signature memory quilt front

I cut a bunch of 7.5" x 2.5" strips. I was working with a vague idea of how it might all actually come together, so I estimated I would need 50 6"x7.5 squares, (2 printed strips surrounding one white one with the signature(s) of coworkers). I ended up needing way more, which I added to the sides of the center panel. I think I ended up with 75 signed strips.

I made the books in the center panel using the Book Nerd pattern from Angela Pingel.  It is a paper piecing pattern and these blocks were super fun to put together. I changed the pattern by enlarging it overall and then making the books wider. For these books, I tried to pick fabrics that both represented things my friend loves (the ocean, sewing, books, travel) and fit into the general scrappy-pastel color scheme. The fabric with images from Utah was a last-minute discovery from Joann and I was so happy to find it! (Even though I don’t, I confess, often use fabric from Joann, as the last time I did the result was a dye-bleed disaster.) I meant to make two rows of five books but the addition of the spines on the side meant I just had room for three.

When I finally got everything ready and put it together, I did have to take away some of the colored strips to have space for all of the signature strips. I was planning on the quilt being 60" wide but it ended up at 64" (ish), which is close enough. It took some scootching and some of the spines are trimmed down, but I think that’s OK because of course all book spines aren’t the same width.

One of my friends who also quilts, and who also used to work with us at the library, made the five appliqued squares: two plants, a lamp, a cup of tea, and a framed picture. That kind of square is NOT my forte so I was so happy to have her addition. I think they were the perfect finishing touch to bring everything together.

A few process tips for making a signature memory quilt:

  • Prewash the plain cotton you want people to sign. This will help the ink saturate the fabric more deeply.
  • Use a high-quality cotton. I used Kona Snow for mine. Avoid fabric that has much obvious texture as it will make the writing bumpy—the smoother the better!
  • Use NEW markers. I used Micron Pigma pens because I have two quilts my mother-in-law made for my boys, and she signed them with these markers. Dozens and dozens of washes later, her signature is still there. You might have some lying around, especially if you do other crafts, but get new ones for the quilt. They write so much easier and darker when they are new.
  • Heat set every block before you sew them all together. The heat will also help set the ink.

I backed the quilt with this fabric. Isn’t it perfect!!! (Another confession, I might’ve made the whole quilt simply because I wanted to use THAT fabric for a friend who loves books as much as I do.)

Signature memory quilt back

It’s called Book Shelves, by Caitlin Wallace Rowland/Dear Stella and of this writing it’s still available. I got mine at Hawthorne Fabrics. 

The quilting was done by Sew Shabby quilting. I was worried about this part because I thought the words people had written would be covered by the quilting. She arranged it perfectly, though, so you could still read all of the words. She has a lovely wool batting so I had her use that. It’s light and fluffy and I love it!

This was the first time I’ve made a memory quilt like this. Some things I learned:

  1. I was pretty terrified when I washed it that the signatures and notes would fade away, but most of them were OK. I had a variety of pen thicknesses, but if I do another quilt like this I will only have .5 and .8 pens. The thinner ones did get a bit harder to read when I washed it. I also learned that fine-tipped Sharpies are OK for this kind of project.
  2. I had the 6 x 7.5 squares already sewn together, so the left and right seam allowances were already taken care of. Even though I told people to write at least ¼" from the top and bottom, a few people bumped into the seam allowances. Next time I’ll draw pencil lines on all of the signature strips to help out with that. Also, I had a spare piece of the white cloth for people to practice writing with the pens, which I think helped. Writing on fabric is not like writing on paper!
  3. I wanted to collect signatures and notes from coworkers who don’t work at the library anymore, as well as current ones. This was a lot of mailing, worrying about mail, and one that didn’t get back in time. I definitely did NOT allow enough time and it was a little bit stressful in the end to make sure it was finished by the time of the retirement party. But, it was really fun to see and communicate with people who I hadn’t in awhile.
  4. I was surprised at how many people were very reluctant to write anything more than their name. I tried to just give them space so I wasn’t reading over their shoulder when they wrote. I also told them it was SO not a big deal if they messed up. That’s what seam rippers are for! I also encouraged them to not worry about their handwriting. As long as it is legible, it is great!

I got to give the quilt to my friend last Tuesday. I think she loved it and I hope it helps her remember how loved and valued she was at the library. And how much she will be missed.

(And, I have to say: I’m pretty proud of myself for getting an entire quilt finished while I was also working full time and recuperating from surgery. I can do difficult things!)


Book Review: The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik

I felt fine. No; I felt like I’d woken up after a long sleep and had a good workout in the fresh air and a really nice stretch and was now contemplating with interest the idea of a hearty lunch. Sitting on edge in a classroom for hours surrounded by fluffy peeping freshmen waiting for one mal to pop out at me: nightmarish. Summoning a river of magma to instantly vaporize twenty-seven carefully designed attacks at once: nothing to it.

Last graduateThe Last Graduate, the sequel to A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, picks up right where the first book left off. We are still in the Scholomance with El and her burgeoning friendship (minus a few seniors) and she must immediately begin working on surviving her senior year. (No summer holiday at this magical school.)

I think writing in interesting ways about second books in a trilogy is one of the hardest things to do. You don’t want to give any spoilers for the first book and you don’t yet know how the third book will end things. (Although: I have my suspicions!)

So instead of writing much about the plot and characters, what I will say about The Last Graduate is how it spoke to something I have been wrestling with in my current life.

The recent dissolution and/or alteration of one of my longest-held relationships has made me question every aspect of myself as a decent, functioning human being with value to the world.

So reading more of El’s adventures, as she discovers that some of her “evil sorceress” traits might actually be helpful? Well, that gave me a pause in my self-loathing. It made me take a little breath and ease up on berating myself; it found me some space to question whether I am the abhorrent problem or if this is something else.

And that is something I love about reading speculative fiction. Sure, it’s all a made-up, impossible world, but the good ones aren’t just about magic or fairies or doors between worlds. They are about how wherever you find yourself as a human being, you are a human being (even if you are potentially able to destroy the world with your evil-sorceress panache). And, in this case, figuring out how your true self can (or cannot) interact with people you want to trust.

Plus it was just a good story, and El’s machinations for saving other students, her process of learning how to work with other people within the scope of her own El-ness, gave me a sense of courage I didn’t have before.

And that cliffhanger!

I’m excitedly anticipating the end to this trilogy this autumn.


Book Review: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

She says it's too easy to call people evil instead of their choices and that lets people justify making evil choices. Because they convince themselves that it's okay because they're still good people overall inside their own heads. And yes, fine. But I think that after a certain number of evil choices, it's reasonable shorthand to decide that someone's an evil person who oughtn't have the chance to make any more choices. And the more power someone has, the less slack they ought to be given.

Deadly educationI’ve been anticipating Naomi Novik’s Scholomance trilogy since, oh…spring of 2020 I think. (Masks & hand sanitizer & nose swabs & terror & sweet, sweet anticipation of a favorite author’s upcoming release all combined!) I didn’t, at first, realize that it actually would be a trilogy, but once I did I reluctantly decided to wait a bit. I just get annoyed with starting unfinished trilogies and then having to wait and even eventually reread the first book so I understand the second and…

And thus I didn’t read A Deadly Education until last month, when I was lying around with stitches and an elevated foot (yes, again, sigh). Because then I could immediately start in on The Last Graduate and only have to wait until September for the third book, The Golden Enclaves.

Perfect!

This trilogy is set in a world where some people are wizards, and once they are old enough, they begin attracting the attention of evil, destructive beings, and so must be sent to school to learn how to fight the beings, control their power, and hone the use of mana, which is the energy that magic comes from.

El (short for Galadriel) has been prophesied to be a dark sorceress capable of destroying entire enclaves (the places where the wizards live). Her mother, however, is a benevolent witch who has taught her to examine things from different angles of morality, and so El is fighting hard against her own nature. She is cranky, difficult, and solitary, as she didn’t grow up in a wealthy enclave but in a small house with her mother in Wales.

At the Scholomance, the students can ask for spells from the nether that surrounds the building, and if they have enough power or energy, they receive them, but they are customized to each student’s magical strengths. So, for example, when El asks for a spell to light her room, which she receives is one for eternal flame (responsible for burning down the Library at Alexandria); everything the school (which is sentient to some extent and responsible for all of the actual teaching) does reinforces her potentially-evil nature.

The severely divided class structure complicates El’s problems, because—as  she’s not an enclaver—she doesn’t have an unlimited source of mana but must create and store it on her own.

She’s a loner just trying to survive a school full of creatures trying to kill her while she struggles to subdue her powerful nature.

When Orion Lake, the school’s hero, saves her from a Soul-Eater, the rest of the students start to think that they are dating, and slowly El gains some social capital. Friends, even. Which is good because the influx of evil creatures and terrifying monsters seems to be growing.

This book had a surprising spark for me. By principle, I avoid novels that focus on characters with wealthy families. Which maybe isn’t fair of me, but it’s just not something I enjoy, the escapes of the rich and powerful. I can relate much more to the underdog, the character who comes from a place of poverty, the unpopular one. The one who has to scrabble.

This book made me push back against that tendency. It made me wonder about myself—am I a reverse snob? Prejudiced automatically against the wealthy, unable to feel compassion or empathy for them because of my own bitterness?

El herself has to learn that the wealthy kids from enclaves, who come armed with literal vats of mana, spellbooks passed down through families, and instant allies—they aren’t completely selfish and uncaring (at least, not all of them).

She has used bitterness, meanness, and aloofness as shields, and when she starts to form relationships she has to figure out how to be more raw in the world. More vulnerable. Even with the wealthy enclave kids.

I’m not sure everyone will enjoy this book. The storytelling style is very interior, deeply within El’s perspective, and while she is so vividly drawn I feel like I’ve met her (maybe also because we share more than a few traits) she isn’t always a pleasant, fun lens to view the world through. It is heavier on description than dialogue and has a lot of inner monologues. None of which are negatives for me but I know not everyone will love that style.

Sometimes it’s easy to be disappointed by a favorite author’s newest offering, especially when you’ve prolonged for so long the turning of the first page.

But I was not disappointed. A Deadly Education was a perfect companion for a couple of recuperating-from-surgery days for me.


Ten Things I Loved about Being a Reference Librarian: A List

Today marks my last day working as a Reference Librarian. Monday will find me full-time in the library’s Programming department, where I am excited to learn new skills, interact with new coworkers, and have new experiences.

But before I leave Reference, I just want to write this list:

TEN THINGS I LOVED ABOUT REFERENCE LIBRARIANSHIP

  1. Talking to patrons about books. In more than 14 years, I never got over the thrill of a stranger asking me for a book recommendation and the feeling of helping them find just the right thing. Over the years I have had so many great conversations about books, literature, genres, poetry, the publishing industry, ebooks vs. print books, audiobook narrators, recipe books, self-help books, graphic novels. How books can change your life. If it’s OK to not finish a books. The book that made me want to throw it across the room. What kinds of books teenagers should read. Why books aren’t rated and why I don’t think that should change. Recently, book banning and censorship. Someone’s favorite book from the third grade. That I got paid to talk to people about books is just astounding.
  2. Seeing people’s reaction to the library’s art. We have an amazing collection and people respond to it. My favorite is a sculpture called “Incoming.” Some children are terrified of it,
    Incoming sculpture at the orem public library
    One view of the sculpture.

    some find it fascinating. Some just giggle because he’s naked. Children’s responses were my favorite, but I also loved talking to adults about it. Often they would say “Oh, it’s The Thinker!” No, we definitely don’t have a Rodin in our library. This piece is about war and it is a companion of mine. I do tell it hello most days I’m in the library.
    Incoming sculpture at Orem Public Library
    The view of the statue from my desk. Amazing how the color of the stone shifts!
  3. A patron who loves poetry as much as I do, or one who WANTS to learn about it. A patron who discovered Margaret Atwood because of The Handmaid’s Tale and wonders if I could tell her what to read next. One who hopes we might have quilting books? Someone in awesome Dr. Martens who notices my flower ones and then we spend twenty minutes talking about boots. Someone who just happens to ask me (I don’t work in media for a reason!) if the library has an alternative music CDs. These very personal connections are the best.
  4. Library stories. I’ve shared a bunch on my Facebook feed over the years. My favorite might be the time a little girl came into the fiction section, took a big, appreciative sniff, spun around in her dress, and said “Oh I LOVE the liberry. It is my very favorite berry.” (The child who warned her brother that librarians in basements are actually witches is another good one.) Not every shift had a story but a lot of them did and I loved getting to experience them.
  5. Favorite patrons. I don’t know if there’s a rule somewhere that states you can’t have favorite patrons, but I don’t care. I do. I got to see one of my favorites, a patron who is in her 80s but seems more like early 60s, always put together and very intelligent about books, this week. She’d been ill with COVID and I was so happy to see her back again. I think other, more loquacious and outgoing librarians than me have a bigger fan base, but I have six or seven patrons who I’ve developed a lovely library friendship with.
  6. Developing our library’s book group collection. This was something I inherited pretty quickly after I started working here. First I just managed the reservations and then I started doing the collection development (meaning I decided which books to buy). This assignment worked with my strengths so closely. It gave me an opportunity to interact with patrons in other ways (many of my favorite patrons are book group users), to use my writing skills (I also created the discussion guides), and to look at books from a unique perspective. I fought really hard to be allowed to keep this collection when I switched departments but I lost that battle, and I’m still very upset about it.
  7. Walking with books. This might seem silly. But I loved that I got to just walk up and down shelves loaded with books. To be among books. Surrounded by them. Reading isn’t just sort of a little hobby I have. It’s integral to my very identity, and so I don’t love books just as mechanisms for getting to a story, but for the books themselves. The covers, the smell, the heft, the type. The spines all lined up on a shelf.
  8. Quiet shifts at the desk. People always say “Oh, you work at the library! It must be so peaceful there.” Truth is, it is often the very opposite of peaceful. I have had patrons scream at me, tell me I’m stupid and worthless, shout across the floor to get my attention. Couples have arguments in the stacks, people talk loudly on their cell phones. They cough and sneeze, snore and, yes, fart. (I pretend not to notice.) Often there’s a phone ringing and a patron who needs help printing and another one who wants to complain about taxes or inflation or what a disappointment Joe Biden is. (Sorry, you picked the wrong librarian for that conversation.) All at the same time. So my introvert self deeply appreciates the quiet shifts when the library is slow and I can work on whatever projects I had, in peace, surrounded by books.
  9. A display shelf. This is another thing I will desperately miss, my staff favorites display. This is where I put four or five of my favorite books, making sure to rotate through everything that I loved. Not everyone wants to ask a librarian for recommendations and this was a way to connect with people who didn’t want to talk. I loved that I could influence what people decide to read without ever even talking to them. Since my tastes lean eclectic and unusual, it felt like being a champion for the books that likely wouldn’t get checked out much. A way to kind of pay it forward for my favorite authors and the work they do. Plus, a couple of times patrons in the wild recognized me: “Hey! I know you from your library shelf! I read [insert random title here] because it was on your shelf and I loved it!” (I generally do NOT love being recognized by patrons while not in the library, especially the problematic ones, but that interaction is OK.)
  10. “Always put the most important thing last” is a basic tenant of good writing, so this one is number ten: My coworkers. Not all of them have been my friend or mentor, but the majority of them have. There is just something about working with book people when you, yourself, are a book person. I mean. Two librarians talking about books together? It can get gloriously intensely booknerdy. Plus, when you love books you look at the world in a different light. Many of my coworkers have been, to borrow Anne Shirley’s words, kindred spirits. They were the best part of a job that held a lot of goodness.

Here’s to the ending of one chapter and the start of another in my career as a librarian!


Book Review: The Last Confessions of Sylvia P. by Lee Kravetz

I will tell them stories from the life of a master curator: the pilfered Bruegel Ten, the mishandled matchbook, the stolen Bible, the exploited final chapter of a famed novel, the busted typewriter, the poet’s lost note, and the stolen notebooks of The Bell Jar—disparate objects, each one solely possessing the power to absolve us of our unforgivable sins against them.

Last confessions of sylvia pI’ve written about how discovering Sylvia Plath changed the trajectory of my life more than once. Like many Plath lovers, I was and continue to be entranced as much by her life story as I am with her poetry. She will always be an interest of mine.

But if I’m totally honest, there are more poems by another confessional poet, Anne Sexton, which are touchstone poems of mine. “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward,” “Her Kind,” “The Truth the Dead Know,” “The House,” “Sylvia’s Death” and many others have given me courage, helped me feel less alone, and given me literary understanding of what feminism means.

And yet I’m not sure Anne Sexton and I could’ve ever been friends. Especially after reading her daughter’s memoir, I’m not sure she was a fantastically kind or even moral person. (This begs the question if Sylvia Plath and I could’ve been friends and I think the answer is probably not, but for different reasons.)

Can you separate the artist from her art?

Should you?

But the truth for me is that both of these writers—who both died before I could read—have had an immense impact upon me. I wouldn’t be the same person without them.

So I approached Lee Kravetz’s novel, The Last Confessions of Sylvia P., with immense caution.

This is because the story of Sylvia Plath’s life is intrinsically woven with her death, and because it is easy to sensationalize or romanticize it. Easy, and done, and I won’t engage with that, even if her suicide is what drew my attention to her in the first place.

But it is also a novel about two writers whose work I love.

So I went ahead and read it.

The book isn’t really about Sylvia Plath, but about some of the people whose lives intersected with hers: her therapist and, yes: Anne Sexton. In a sense, this is much more the last confessions of Anne Sexton, who is called Boston Rhoades in the novel. And she is not painted in a flattering light. In fact, I’d say the Anne Sexton you find here is more a caricature: obsessed with fame and with beating Sylvia Plath in popularity. While I’m certain that the real-life Anne Sexton would not be a bosom friend, I am also certain she was more well-rounded than the novel presents her as.

The book also tells the story of Estee, who is an curator for an auction house; the last object she is going to curate before retiring is a handwritten copy of Plath’s The Bell Jar.

These three women rotate around Sylvia Plath’s story in interesting ways.

It was an intriguing book: a good mystery around where the handwritten notebooks came from and how they got there, an exploration of the midcentury social experiences women writers had, a study of how mental health therapies have changed.

Despite my initial hesitation, I am glad I read it. It reminded me of how it felt when I was 19 or so, delving headfirst into the worlds of poetry and feminism. I have lost some of that enthusiasm and wonder along the way, and this book nudged me to find it again.

But I continue to remain annoyed by the title. I think the author understands that a certain demographic will read anything about Sylvia Plath, but this isn’t Plath’s story.

Instead it is a story about how Plath influenced others.

And I can absolutely relate to that.