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Book Review: The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin

All of that stuff is true. All the other worlds that human beings believe in, via group myths or spiritual visitations or even imaginations if they’re vivid enough, they exist. Imagining a world creates it, if it isn’t already there. That’s the great secret of existence: it’s supersensitive to thought. Decisions, wishes, lies—that’s all you need to create a new universe. Every human being on this planet spins off thousands between birth and death, although there’s something about the way our minds work that keeps us from noticing. In every moment, we’re constantly moving in multiple dimensions—we think we’re sitting still, but we’re actually falling from one universe to the next to the next, so fast that it all blends together, like… like animation. Except there’s a lot more than just images flipping past.

The older I get, and the more books I read, the pickier I become about what I actually want to spend time reading. While I firmly believe there is a book for everyone and thus no genre or writing style is “better” than another (by “better” I mean…proof of some sort of superior intelligence being inherent within the reading of it), that doesn’t mean that I have to, or even want to (yes! Even as a librarian!), read all the books or all the genres. I like specific things, and I also like to be challenged in specific ways by books—I like a book that has something that resonates with part of my identity, but also has other things that make me question my ideas, beliefs, and/or worldview.

In my twenties I loved fantasy that was set within a medieval European world view. I still love that kind of fantasy, but only if it has some new edge to it; I don’t want to reread the same old story by a different author. Same with Tolkien-esque tales…there’s got to be some kind of twist. And the cool thing with fantasy is that it has endless possibilities. This is one reason N. K. Jemisin is one of my favorite writers. Her novels are fantasy…but like nothing else. In fact, even putting them in the “fantasy” genre is kind of limiting, as there is often science involved in her world. Speculative fiction might be better. She also explores racism, gender issues, cultures, the influence of prejudice, art, dogma and belief within a society. All while building believable, living worlds. (Maybe because they include racism et al.)  At any rate, she is a trope maker rather than an adherent, and I have loved the places she’s taken me.

City we becameHer newest book, The City We Became, is an urban fantasy about New York City. It is based on the concept of parallel universes, or the multiverse. This is a concept I am fascinated with, as I often think “who would I be if I had made a different choice?” about different turning points in my life. Not really with regret, but curiosity. In the multiverse concept, there is another universe where I did choose differently and so I exist there as still myself but in a different kind of life. Some books explore those possibilities, but in The City We Became, the multiverse goes in a different direction. What if cities become living entities within the larger realm of the multiverse? And what if other entities don’t want the cities to exist? And what would happen if New York became such a living city?

I’ve only been to New York City twice, so I can hardly call myself a person who knows the city. Not at all. But I did love my experiences in New York. I’ve also had a tiny little taste of other cities—London, Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, Florence, Venice, San Francisco. Even with those small experiences, I can recognize how each city has its own spirit, its own identity, even within the similar characteristics cities have. So I was absolutely willing to go along with where the story took me. Recognizing some of the places the characters experience in New York was the thing that resonated with me.

In the book, each borough of New York City has its own avatar, a person who becomes the larger entity of the borough, able to protect it and also see parts of the multiverse. There is also a New York City avatar, another person who is the whole of the city, and he is the avatar who IS the city. (Obviously once you are reading the book, this is explained in less clunky ways than I am explaining.) Each avatar embodies its borough’s qualities in different ways. The NYC avatar must, as with all living cities, battle against the other forces that don’t want the city to live (in New Orleans, for example, the avatar lost the battle and the city didn’t become alive). He wins, but only barely, and falls into a sort of coma. Then, as each borough avatar begins to realize what is happening to him/her, their conflict is to come together so they can wake him.

All while battling the invasive force that wants to kill New York City, so it isn’t a living city.

Reading this book as the end of trump’s presidency finally came about was an interesting experience. The destructive force moves throughout the city as a sort of vegetative mass, tendrils growing both in the structures of the city and within the people themselves. When, for example, the Manhattan avatar manages to destroy the enormous tendril he finds on the FDR, the remnants are squished on tires and then driven throughout the city. It spreads partly by the decisions and actions of people, which to me felt deeply representative of what is happening in the United States right now…this strange creeping dogma spreading, and almost everyone is oblivious of the damage it is doing.

One thing that frustrated me is Aislyn, the Staten Island avatar. She is the only white avatar, and she resists joining the others. Part of me thought…wait a second. Why are we making the white character the narrow-minded, blinded-by-fear character? But…I pushed back against that thought. Why can’t the white character be the weak one? Just because *I* am also white? And then I thought…see, this is why I love Jemisin. She pushes me to think outside of my own comfortable world view. Aislynn annoyed me because she acted in ways that white people DO act but in ways I wish they (we?) wouldn't. But I am also looking forward to seeing how she changes. Hoping she least thinking she has the capacity to change.

(Mostly unrelated side note: If I had ever had another daughter, her name would’ve been Aislynne Hannah.)

The book ends not with a cliffhanger, but also clearly the story isn’t finished. I didn’t realize this is a planned trilogy until after I had bought it, but it doesn’t matter. I will happily break my “no unfinished series” reading rule for N. K. Jemisin. Also, I cannot wait to go back to NYC, because there are so many places this book introduced to me that I want to see.

***WARNING*** I’m going to make a list below of what is happening with each of the characters at the end of this book, so that when the second one comes out I can remember what seems necessary. So, don’t read any further if you don’t want spoilers.


Aislyn is still in Staten Island with the Woman in White, basically allowing her to overtake that borough.

The other avatars made it through waking up NYC.

Sao Paolo is going home.

Hong made it back to Hong Kong.

Veneza became the fifth avatar.

Madison drives the white Checker cab.

The enemy is the city of R’lyeh, which comes from Lovecraft’s stories. Maybe actually read some Lovecraft before the second book comes out?

Remember: Brooklyn’s house is about to be taken from her by the “Better New York” foundation; Bel Nguyen is Manny’s roommate (I hope we see him again); Connell is the guy that Aislynn’s dad brings home but is also the name of the baby her mother aborted.

Patchwork Forest, or How My Crafty Ambitions Spiraled Out of Control Once Again

Ever since I saw Amy Smart’s Christmas quilt called Patchwork Forest a couple of years ago, I have wanted to make one. (Seriously…look at her blog post and then search the hashtag on Instagram and tell me you don’t want to make one too?) But I’ve talked myself out of it because seriously, I don’t need another Christmas quilt. And because sometimes if I start a quilting project in December I let it consume me and I know my family hates it when that happens.

But I never stopped wanting it.

This November I was admiring some Christmas fabric at the fabric store, thinking about that pine forest quilt. And how, to make it scrappy enough, I would have to buy a lot more Christmas fabric. And how I didn’t need to spend a whole bunch of money on Christmas fabric.

But also how gorgeous that fabric was. It’s called Naughty or Nice and it’s designed by Basic Grey, a designer I’ve loved since they made scrapbooking product (wish they still did!):

Moda naughty or nice

(I mean…could YOU resist that? Especially that floral???)

I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about low volume fabrics. About making a quilt with low volume fabrics. (Because I totally need another quilt, yes!)

And somehow, right there in the fabric store, my thoughts, ambitions, desires, and fiscal responsibility combined into an idea.

What if I just made a few trees, with the scraps I have saved from previous Christmas projects?

And what if I just made a few more trees, with the fabric I love this year?

Then next year, when certainly there will be more Christmas fabric I love, I could make a few more squares.

And it could be my thing I do in December, just make a few squares, until I have enough for a whole quilt.

Perfect, right!?! I could just make a few, without spending all of this December making a quilt.

And this year I could make some low volume ones, because certainly by next Christmas my creative itch will be different.

It was a perfect, perfect plan.


When you make the pine tree squares, you make two reversed images (or four, depending on how many you cut at once). So one square has fabric A as the background and fabric B as the tree, and the second square is the opposite.  And there was something in my scrappy-makes-me-happy nature that rebelled against that. I wanted all the trees to be different.

And, yeah.

It spiraled out of control from there.

Because I had the reversed squares, I thought well, I’ll just make a few little gifts with the extras. And that turned in to five Christmas potholders

Patchwork forest hot pads

(the one on the left is mine; I made that one first, before everything spiraled out of control, and decided I didn't love how big it was, so I made the others all slightly different so they're not quite as large)

and more than 20 Christmas mug rugs:

Patchwork forest mug rugs

(Not all of them are pictured because I left some in the dryer and didn't notice until I'd packaged the rest up.)

And then Becky sent me some of her scraps so I made a few more squares (what will I do with the reverse duplicates? Because I am 100% sure my current friends and family have enough potholders and/or mug rugs. Should I try to make more friends so I can have more people to make stuff for???)

I totally did NOT make my goal to not get consumed by a quilting project.

At all.

Most of December my crafty space was covered with bits & pieces of patchwork trees in various forms of "finished." But I learned how to make them pretty quickly, and also how to cut them so they all look a bit different, and even what to do if I didn't have a big enough scrap to make two squares. Also I discovered, right at the end, that making them drastically different heights is fun. I'll use all that knowledge next year!

Before my surgery, I made sure that all of my Christmas sewing projects were cleaned up—extra fabric boxed up and the squares packaged carefully. I have 22 squares that will eventually go into a quilt—and, ironically enough, none of them made with that original floral I love so much! (It's OK. I noticed that when I was putting them away, and I still have some left.) I'll square them all up when I'm ready to sew them all together.

Patchwork forest 2020 squares

And, I confess…I’m a little bit excited to see what fabric I can get next year to make more trees!

Book Review: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (edited at the bottom)

"Ideas are so much wilder than memories."

Invisible life of addie larueThe Invisible Life of Addie Larue begins near the end of seventeenth-century in the small village of Villon, France, when young Adeline LaRue convinces her father to take her into the city with him, to sell his wooden carvings. In Le Mans, Adeline sees and experiences many new things, and as she travels there with her father she hears his stories, and she is forever changed by her travels. Even as young as she is, she knows she doesn’t want the small life Villon would give her. Her friendship with Estelle, an old woman who lives on the edges of the village and teaches her about the Old Gods, provides her with a sort of escape for her energy; as she learns about leaving offerings and praying to the Old Gods, she seemingly manages to avoid marriage. But on the day she cannot, she breaks the rule Estelle has taught her: never pray to the Gods who answer in the dark, and in doing so makes a sort of Faustian bargain: her freedom for her soul.

Of course, as with all such bargains, she doesn’t understand the transaction until it is too late: her freedom comes at the price of memory. She remembers everything, but people forget her as soon as they leave her presence. Thus, she begins a new life, where she must figure out how to live without being able to really exist for anyone else, for longer than a day at most. As she lives, we get to experience three hundred years of history, from Le Mans to Paris to America, with a few trips to Italy and Germany along the way. She becomes adept at thievery and at getting by on her own, and then one day in 21st century New York, she meets someone who remembers her.

I’ve been really excited to read this book, but have been saving it for this time after my surgery when I knew I would have a lot of reading time (I have). It’s the first book I’ve read in I don’t even know how long which I’ve finished in two days. And I think my anticipation was worth the wait: I thoroughly enjoyed the story. I loved seeing how Addie manipulates the world so that she can get along within the context of having to start every single day anew. (It also, though, I confess, reminded me of the feeling I deeply don’t enjoy when traveling, that time between getting off the airplane and actually being inside your hotel room, when you feel lost and unconnected with no familiar places around you.) I liked experiencing her experiencing the change in society as time passes. I adored the thread of art running through the story, what that little glint says about where creativity even comes from.  The addition of the character Luc, who is the God she made her bargain with, made the book into something else…not just a wandering through history but an exploration of what it means to be human. And her relationship with Henry, the first person to remember her in 300 years, was the kind of romance I appreciate—intense and sharp, but not too perfect.

But I did wish some things were different. I actually wanted more of Addie’s story; I wanted to explore Florence with her, for example, rather than just being there for one night. See what her impressions of New York were as it changed during the twentieth century. Come to interact more deeply with the artists she influenced. I found it improbable that she could teach herself to read, because without context how can you even begin to know what sound each letter on a page makes?

What I didn’t like the most is the light that the book places on “everyday lives.” Especially women’s lives. Addie’s friend in Villon, Isabelle, who she grew up with, is a character I will remember, because her life is portrayed with such bleakness: early marriage, several babies close together, and then death before she reaches middle age, every moment of her life consumed by work instead of joy. This is what Addie makes her bargain to escape, a short life of drudgery and death, and then she goes out into the world to experience it as most women cannot. And while that character—the girl who doesn’t fit in because she’s too free-thinking, too forward thinking, too “not-normal-girl” enough—is a trope that’s inherent to feminist fiction and is, in fact, one of my preferred tropes…even while I enjoy the character, it still does a disservice to everyday lives like Isabelle’s. Yes…Addie gets to experience extraordinary things. Just like many people in the world, even without Faustian bargains, do. And yes, there is a part of me that is bitter about my life being small and average like Isabelle’s. But there is also beauty here, too, and by totally discrediting that, Addie loses some of her own humanity, somehow, for me. Later, she tells Luc that "nothing is all good or bad," that human lives are messier than that, and it is true of this circumstance, too...that just kind of bites at me some. 

Still, though, this is a book I thoroughly enjoyed and would love to hear your thoughts on.

EDITED. I have received several comments and emails about what I wrote about "everyday lives," and I wanted to clarify. It's not that I think that marriage and motherhood are choices every woman should make. I don't. This is what feminism is, in fact: that you choose what fits well for you, rather than automatically doing what is prescribed based on the traditions of your gender. I'm not saying that Addie is less-than for not wanting any part of what Isabelle chose. Rather, it is the light Isabelle's choices are cast in. Women in most of the history of people have suffered and not been given the freedom to explore their identities outside of being wives and mothers. It must've been hard to be in Isabelle's shoes. But there is also goodness, light, and happiness there as well. The fact that Addie never thought about Isabelle's life with anything other than sadness or a touch of revulsion grates at me a little bit. And maybe that is because of my own weaknesses and the fact that I sometimes feel a sort of...shame, almost, about the choices I have made, and then I'm projecting them onto a book.

One of the things that books like this—books that present an image of what it might be like to live more than one lifetime—do to me is create a sense of tension. How devastating it is that we only get one life, one experience, one group of people to know and love. But how devastating would it be to live and watch everyone you love grow old and die? (Eternal Life by Dara Horn also raised these feelings for me.) But here we are, in this reality. No one gets to do everything. And I guess I just wanted to give space for the Isabelles of the world and point out that while their lives are average, they aren't only darkness and drudgery and sorrow.

Book Review: Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

“She grows up feeling wrong, out of place, too dark, too tall, too unruly, too opinionated, too silent, too strange. She grows up with the awareness that she is merely tolerated, an irritant, useless, that she does not deserve love, that she will need to change herself substantially, crush herself down if she is to be married.”

Maggie O’Farrell is one of my favorite writers. I love her writing style—it is “literary” without being snooty or unnecessarily difficult. She tells stories in parts, through two or three different perspectives, and often explores a sort of puzzle…not really a mystery, but there is often something to figure out.

So when I started to hear about her book Hamnet, I was so excited to read it. I bought my copy from Book Depository, because they have the British copies, and the British cover is absolutely beautiful. I waited until December to read it, though, because somehow it felt like a winter book to me.

Hamnet is a historical novel about the Shakespeare family. You get to see some things through the point of view of William Shakespeare, but most of the story is told through the eyes of Agnes, his wife, and their three children, Susannah and twins Hamnet and Judith. It is a story about the bubonic plague, but it is also about marriage, loss, faith, love, family. And, to me, it is deeply entwined with Agnes and the way she figures out her place in the world.

This is a book I don’t want to say a lot about because anything I would say would lessen its impact. It is beautifully written and it made me weep; I also found bits of myself in Agnes and in Judith. My favorite parts were the fairy-tale-esque telling of Agnes’s childhood, the birth of Susannah, and the tale of how the illness makes its way across the world to Stratford. That said, it is a book to just experience, from the texture of the cover all the way to the last words on the page.

Have you read Hamnet? What did you think? Let me know!

Thoughts on Glue and Fairy Wings: 2020 in Review

My Facebook memories reminded me of THIS POST I wrote last year, a summary of the previous decade. I had totally forgotten I wrote it, but rereading it made me stop and think. I have a selfie I took last year when I was taking down the tree, and I meant to make a layout about a note I wrote to myself that day for this December: remember to buy glue for the fairy wings. Glue for the fairy wings (some broken Christmas-tree ornaments) seemed hopeful…I can fix broken things, even if they are ephemeral, even if the will forever be repaired now.

A year later, I’m not so sure.

This year. This year. 2020 was pretty damn awful, wasn’t it? Here’s my personal list of what felt the most awful to me:

  • A super dry January and February. Maybe that sounds ridiculous but the dry, brown winters make me feel nervous and sad. They set a tone right from the start of the year, of unfulfilled hope and of fear of devastation.
  • The pandemic. In Utah, things shut down in the middle of March. For me, at first this was mostly just strange—everyone working from home, the library shut down. I had to cancel a trip to St. Louis that I very much wanted to take. As it went on, I grew more fearful, especially as we started to realize the effects the virus can have on hearts. My brain started planning various people’s funerals and I, for the first time in my life, had regular sleepless nights.
  • I injured my toe. This happened on the day we hiked to Silver Glance lake in the snow; I’m not really sure why, but when I took my boots off after that hike, my second toe on my right foot was swollen and throbbing. I cut back on running, then took a three-week break. I had cortisone shots. I stretched, I strengthened my feet, I murmured encouraging thoughts to my toe. Every time it would start to feel a little better, it would flare up if I tried to run (or, you know…even if I tried to walk around my house in bare feet). Then, the day before we left for California, I was running and something popped. Turns out, after an MRI (that took SIX WEEKS for my insurance to approve) that I tore my plantar plate. Solution? Surgery. Which I’ve had to wait for until next week, so basically I’ve been walking around with a toe that slips in and out of joint since August. And NOT RUNNING. I haven’t run since July.
  • I had several painful and ugly confrontations with people in public. The first one happened at the post office when another customer yelled at me for wearing a mask. There were several “discussions” with library patrons. A lady at WalMart got in my face. I stood my ground but it felt…those experiences chipped away at my confidence in humanity.
  • I had several painful and ugly—but more subtle—confrontations with friends, families, and neighbors about my decision to stay at home as much as possible, to wear a mask, and to expect others to wear a mask. I have been called a coward and weak because I am “living in fear.” I’ve been told I am brainwashed by the liberal media. I have been told if I had enough faith I wouldn’t worry, because God’s gonna do what God does regardless of whether or not I wear a mask.
  • The trump trains. Again…this might seem like a small thing, in the scope of such an awful year. But seeing miles of big trucks waving that flag along with the American flag broke something in me. My body had a physical reaction, as if my heart were circulating thumbtacks instead of blood. I still get a little bit jittery at the sight of a US flag. Such blind, thoughtless admiration of a horrible man whose decisions have cost so many lives…I can’t understand it.
  • Family drama. Actually, “drama” isn’t even the right word for it. None of it is my story to tell, but it still affected me and I don’t know how to figure out a new normal.
  • Kendell had to start a new medication for his heart. He hates it and it makes him grumpy. But his heart will slowly fail without it. This is why I get so hurt by people telling me I am a coward for taking the corona virus seriously. I’m not a coward. I just know the very real results of living with a repaired body, and as I worry about my husband I also feel sorrow for all the people who didn’t die from COVID but will bear its scars in their bodies for the rest of their lives.
  • Over and over, our nation’s “leaders” disappointed me.
  • The wildfire that burned through some of my favorite hiking areas. The wildfires in California and Colorado, too. I don’t know those mountains as intimately as I know my own, but so much burning of beautiful places just ripped my guts out.
  • Watching the way the pandemic affected my kids. Each and every one of them has had their lives impacted by it. Again…not really my stories to tell anymore, but damn if I don’t wish I could fix it all for them even as I know just how much I can’t.

So many broken wings. Maybe there isn’t enough glue in the universe to fix what is broken.

But at the same time, there is also this:

  • We all kept our jobs. Mine even let me work from home so as to minimize Kendell’s risk of exposure. Financially, the pandemic hasn’t hurt us yet, and I am so, so grateful.
  • We all stayed healthy. Not only did we not catch the corona virus, no one even had a cold or the stomach flu all year long.
  • Working from home gave me a more flexible schedule, which translated into more hiking time, which meant even with my injury and taking time off from all exercise, I still got in 51 hiked this year, 48 of them with Kendell. One with Jake too!
  • I got the opportunity to learn how to use my new sewing machine by making face masks for others. I also made a lot of baby quilts and celebrated several of my friends becoming grandparents.
  • While many of my friends and extended family members got sick, no one I know closely was deathly ill or killed by it. I say that with the utmost sense of gratitude and sorrow for those who DID lose loved ones.
  • We remodeled our bathrooms.
  • Haley got vaccinated. So did my sister-in-law who is a nurse.
  • Haley got accepted to med school and moved to Pittsburg, where she is kicking butt at her classes, even while having to take them mostly online and without the benefit of a cadaver lab.
  • Nathan survived one the most difficult Army training programs, taking most of his classes via a laptop in his tiny barracks. He passed his tests and graduated and he is home for a while!
  • Elliot finished his PhD and got a job at MIT.
  • Jake and I had some important conversations and understand each other much better. He is SO ready for the restrictions to be lifted so he can move forward in his life.
  • Kaleb finished jr. high, made the basketball team for his sophomore year, and got two 4.0s. AND is learning to drive.
  • I grew closer to several of my friends via texting, even though we couldn’t see each other in person. And I had several opportunities to help other people while they were quarantined.

So…many good things this year, too. What is broken? What is too fragile or too torn to repair?

If I think of myself at the start of 2020 and here at the beginning of 2021, I feel like I am a different person. I feel, honestly, more than a little bit jaded and even more bitter than normal. Not because I don’t recognize and see the blessings in my life—I do. But the thing that makes a fairy is its wings. The things that made me who I am, or at least some of those qualities, have been severely challenged this year. What I am not sure I can repair is my belief that logic and kindness will always win out in the end. There has been so much ugliness this year and I feel…I feel like my wings are tattered. (And even as I write that I remember the memes about how the dufus wasn’t elected to tiptoe around my feelings.)

So as I start 2021, I am not sure. I want to glue my wings back—I want to figure out who I am now, and not let what is unique to me be discarded. But honestly? Honestly, I am not sure how. I don’t know where to get that glue.