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Book Review: The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

“Neither myths nor mysteries can hold a candle to the most infinitesimal spark of hope.”

Back in 2017 when we were planning a family trip to Hawaii, I knew I needed to find THE BOOK. Long and compelling and well-written but not TOO literary (“beach read” means something different to me than most people, I have learned!), thoughtful but not too dense. After much thought and book perusal, I chose The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, even though they broke my rule of “no unfinished trilogies” because A. It’s N. K. Jemisin and B. The third book was being released just a few months after our trip.

Fifth seasonI picked correctly: The books were perfect for a trip to Hawaii. (Yes, I did bring both!) The world of the books is brutal, vicious, and stony, hard and unrelenting, which somehow connected a bit to the Big Island landscapes, but the story is not of this world. Or, at least…not of this version of the earth where we live. It is set on a planet that seems to be made of just one enormous continent (although no one is sure as this is not a true seafaring age) that is constantly rumbling and erupting and quaking. The “fifth” seasons are the times when something huge happens in the world’s geology, causing a shift in the environment that will drastically challenge humanity’s ability to survive on the planet at all. Communities prepare for fifth seasons, and keep records of the past ones with rules that helped people make it through the fifth seasons, so that humanity can survive.

Within this world, there are different “use castes,” the roles that people taken on within their communities. And then there are orogenes, who have the ability to “sess” the earth. When trained, they can stop earthquakes, maintain harbors, settle volcanoes. They can also use their orogeny to draw power from the earth and living things in order to kill. This ability to kill overrides their ability to calm the earth; the societies fear orogenes and when their abilities (which are genetic) become known as children, they are often killed. Those who aren’t are gathered by Guardians, people who have an ability to control orogenes, and taken to the Fulcrum where their abilities are honed until they can control them.

Essun, the main character, is a woman orogene who is passing as a teacher in a small community. She has a husband and two children, both of whom are also orogenes, but she is keeping that a secret. When her husband discovers the children’s abilities, he kills the younger son and kidnaps the older daughter. At the same time, a huge event has happened, an enormous earthquake that has literally broken the continent in two, setting off a fifth season that might not be survivable. When Essun discovers her dead son, she sets out across the continent, trying to catch up with her husband so she can kill him and get her daughter back.

One of the things I love about Jemisin’s work is that it is unlike anyone else’s. Is this science fiction? Yes, as is it’s based on geology and plate tectonics. Does the “magic” of orogeny make it fantasy? Maybe, except it’s not really magic because there is a biological source for the ability. It is, I suppose, post-apocalyptic. And apocalyptic as the world as they know it is ending. It has qualities of dystopian fiction but it is not a dystopia, really. There is a school for extraordinary children. It has governmental and societal controls. It touches on history. It is also deeply connected to humanity’s penchant for environmental destruction. I guess it’s science fiction, but not like anything else you’ve read.

I loved the first two books in this series. I didn’t quite finish the second one until after our trip to Hawaii, and then I bought myself the third one as a Christmas gift. But I never actually read it, because…who knows. Sometimes other books get in the way. Also, I think the story felt so connected to beach and sun and wind and volcanoes that reading it in Utah just didn’t feel right. So The Stone Sky, the final book in the trilogy, sat in my TBR stack.

And then I read The City We Became and I wanted more of N. K. Jemisin. Her style and her creativity and her…something. Her flare.

But starting up with a third book after finishing the second more than three years ago seemed intimidating. So I decided to listen to the first two books.

Last night I finished The Fifth Season. I was trying to explain to Kendell just how good it was, and I honestly just couldn’t. Partly because understanding why I like it so much requires an understanding of books, genre, writing approaches, gender studies and the history of racism and literary theory and all of that is knowledge he doesn’t care about (as a person who doesn’t really love reading. Which is fine.)  So I’ve been thinking to myself: Why do I like this story so much? This writer, yes, but specifically this series?

And I think it’s this: nothing is wrong in the world except what is always wrong. Racism. Being a part of a community but only if you perform the ways you fit in and hide the ways you don’t. The loss of history and thus the loss of the ability to learn from our history. The unyielding way humanity breaks the world that made us. People controlling others out of fear.  How belief in religion or myth or tradition can cause us to make blind, illogical decisions that hurt us in the end. The way we create civilizations and cities and towns, which are really fairly amazing creations, but then we always somehow set about destroying them at the same time. People being cruel to other people. The compromise that some groups of people have to make in order for others to thrive. This is the way the world with humans is.

In a sense, it is unrelentingly bleak. But she manages to balance this with other things. The communities Essun becomes a part of during her life. The ways she learns to stand up for herself. The endlessly creative ways that people create living spaces—there is one community, mostly women, that lives within an enormous geode, for example.

It isn’t really a hopeful book, but it isn't full of gloom either. I don’t think every reader will love it, as the writing style is not thoroughly mainstream and the story isn’t fluffy. But those qualities are part of why it is so good to me. It doesn’t drown you with despair (a la GOT) but it also doesn’t lift you up with false optimism. For me, good science fiction is less about the “realness” of the science (several reviewers complained that this is fantasy, not science fiction, because the sessing ability is like magic) than about the way that people live within the science, and that is what N. K. Jemisin does here. She creates a world controlled by implacable scientific forces, many of which are the result of human meddling, and then sets her characters lose to live there.

It is real and vibrant and yes: so good.

Book Review: The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

Mattie said all the things that looked dead were just dormant. As soon as the rains came they would sprout leaves and grow. It happened so fast, she said, you could practically watch it.

I think if you are a lifelong reader you’ll share this characteristic: images from books stay stuck in your head, even when the details of the story or the characters get lost. Sometimes they get jumbled up so you’re not even 100% sure which book that image came from. And then you decide to reread something and are sometimes surprised: Ah, that image goes here!

Bean treesI first read The Bean Trees in about 1990 or 1991, and Taylor’s adventurous spirit was inspiring to me. (I still want to take a cross-country road trip on my own one day, but hopefully with a more reliable car.) She leaves the small town in Kentucky where she has spent the first twenty or so years of her life, having managed to avoid the fate of many of her high-school classmates (pregnancy and early marriage), wanting to create some new version of herself. (She also changed her name; in Kentucky, she was Marietta.) She’s planning on settling wherever her car gives out and she makes it all the way to Tucson, with a little wrinkle along the way: in Oklahoma, at a small diner along the highway, someone gives her a baby. In Tucson her tires give out, and so she starts making her life there.

To read this story when I was also young and trying to create a new version of myself was one of those happy bookish coincidences, when a book comes into your life at exactly the right time. I didn’t do anything brave like Taylor, but her adventures gave me the idea that people along the way, whatever way I went, would help me. An idea that didn’t exactly come to fruition, but it still gave me courage. And every once in a while, an image from the story would filter into my head: Taylor giving Turtle a bath for the first time and discovering both that the baby was a girl and that she had been abused. The park in the desert city with its bower of wisteria. The canyon where Taylor and her growing tribe picnic and the cold stream she jumps into. The desperate and unknown fates of the immigrants helped by Mattie. Lou Ann’s salsa and Poppy’s red outfits.

This year, for my turn at hosting the library’s book club, I chose The Bean Trees. Considering our current issues, I thought that reading a book that explores the problems of immigrants would be timely. It was—part of the discussion turned to this topic, and the members had many good things to say, even if we arrived at a consensus that we haven’t solved this problem yet because it is so complicated.

What I didn’t expect was to find the book home of one of those floating images.

I’d carried it in my head for all those years: some characters admiring a flower that only bloomed once a year, at night. In my head they were like fuchsia flowers, except larger and made out of silver the texture of gold flake, and they had a lemony scent. That image would sometimes just float into my head, usually when I was at a nursery or working in my flower garden. Of course I could have researched it, the kind of flower, the book it came from, but those things didn’t really matter. It was just that image, a silver flower blooming in the dark. I just kept it and thought about it when it came to me.

It’s in The Bean Trees. In the book, when Taylor is trying to figure out how she will be able to keep Turtle legally, one night the neighbors knock on their door and ask them to bring Turtle over for a surprise. It is the night blooming cereus, a plant that looks big and kind of ugly and very dry for almost the entire year. It only blooms once, and they manage to know when it will bloom when Poppy, who is blind, smells it. “The flowers themselves were not spiny, but made of some nearly transparent material that looked as though it would shrivel and bruise if you touched it. The petals stood out in starry rays, and in the center of each flower there was a complicated construction of silvery threads shaped like a pair of cupped hands catching moonlight.”

I’m glad to have the context of this image, even if I didn’t need it, because it helped me understand why it has stayed with me (aside from the beauty of the actual image of the flowers). It’s a little heavy-handed (this is, after all, Kingsolver’s first novel), but the meaning resonates: sometimes you get to find light in darkness. Sometimes someone who loves you brings you beauty when you need it. Peace, which is fleeting, still blossoms when you least expect it. Watch for the signs. Stop and be fully inside the beautiful moments.

There is always a bit of danger to rereading something you once loved. You bring a different self to a story that hasn’t changed. You know other things that you didn’t know when you first read it, and those things can make it so you despise the story now. I’m grateful that didn’t happen with The Bean Trees. I’m glad I reread it so I can remember to watch for the signs of a flower about to blossom.

I Touch Glitter Every Day: On Preemptive Apologies and Loving My Scrapbooking Self

Last week, after someone asked a question in one of the scrapbook groups I’m in on Facebook, I found myself reading my own blog. Specifically, some of my posts about scrapbooking. I went in search of a post I thought I’d written about how to fit in a lot of journaling on a layout (turns out, I didn’t write a blog post about it; instead, it was one of the lessons from my Big Picture Scrapbooking classes), but as I scrolled and read, I noticed a couple of things:

  1. I’ve written a lot of posts that could be helpful for other scrapbookers. (Please note it took me about five minutes to write that sentence because I don’t want to be all tooting-my-own-horn, you know?)
  2. Almost every single post I’ve written about scrapbooking either starts with or includes some sort of preemptive apology.

What’s a preemptive apology? It’s where I purposefully cut off the mockery of my internal voices by acknowledging their objections up front. IE: yes, I know scrapbooking is dumb, yes I know it’s silly for a grown-ass woman to be playing with colored pencils like a kindergartener high on new school supplies, yes I know I’m not an artist, yes I know this is terribly self-indulgent, yes I know my effort in writing this is pointless because I’m not now nor will I ever be sitting at the Cool Scrapbooking Ladies table.

If I say it out loud then there’s no point in the critics saying it, right?

(I have some pretty deep connections to the preemptive apology, going all the way back to…the beginning of my life, probably.)

These two realizations made me feel sort of despondent, but also sort of annoyed at myself. To clarify my realization, I looked at my Instagram posts about scrapbooking and, yes, they hold true there, too. Decent content, preemptive apologies.

And then, same week, I saw this meme:

Zooey d meme

I had to look up what TV show it’s from, as I didn’t watch it (it’s called New Girl). I don’t even know if I would like the character saying those things. I actually don’t rock polka dots (too trypy for me) and I can’t stand glitter. (I do brake for birds.)

But that stupid meme was an ah-ha for me.

Because, yep: I have touched glitter today. And by "glitter" I mean puffy stickers & pretty paper & alphabet stamps & watercolor paint. Probably somewhere on my hands there’s an ink stain, and probably it is aqua or purple. I have 8 million different script fonts installed on my computer. I have more scrapbooking supplies than I could use in a lifetime and last night I added more to an online shopping cart. I know how to blend markers and which inks are the best for longevity and how to use Photoshop and which photo printing service makes the best prints. I have two bowls full of washi tape, and yes, thanks for asking, they ARE precious to me. (The washi tape rolls and the bowls.) I like being crafty and I like that some of my family photos have meaning because I’ve told their stories.

And none of that makes me weak, lame, silly, pathetic, stupid, or pointless.

Even though in my head I feel weak, lame, silly, etc.

This ah-ha made me ask myself: Who am I preemptively apologizing to? The Queen Bees from high school (who don’t actually follow my social media anyway). The cool guy in my head, an amalgam of mountain biker & motorcycle rider and all the qualities those two identities entail. The bad-ass trail runner girls who are tiny and strong and can knock out twenty miles without even breathing hard. My husband, who tries to be supportive but just really doesn’t understand this aspect of me at all. The alternate version of myself who made different choices and ended up successful in meaningful ways. The friends I used to scrapbook with who don’t scrapbook anymore. And yes, all the ladies at the Cool Scrapbookers table.

I’m sick of preemptive apologies.

I’m sick of feeling embarrassed over the things I love.

I’m almost fifty years old. If now is not the time to exorcise the critical voices in my head, that time will never come at all.

The fact that I try to touch glitter every day doesn’t mean I’m not strong or smart.

It just means that making stuff makes me happy.

And while the truth is that yes: people have, in real life and with their actual voices, said negative things to me about my hobby (some sly and passive-aggressive, some abrupt and openly ridiculing), a good portion of the shame comes from the chorus in my head.

So I have set myself a goal. I actually have been working on this for most of my forties anyway: be who I am. Be instead of perform. I am trying to do this in all aspects of my life, but I haven’t really embraced my crafty self. My scrapbooking self, who has nurtured me through many things.

I’m not going to apologize anymore. I’m not going to feel embarrassed.

I’m going to scrapbook, and I’m going to sometimes share what I make, and I’m not going to say I’m sorry.

And those voices in my head?

They can feel free to unfollow me.

Book Review: The Grace Year (WITH SPOILERS)

Isn’t that the biggest sin of all for a woman? Not to be of use?

Grace yearThe novel The Grace Year by Kim Liggett is set in a society, The County, where sons are valued and men hold all of the roles within the society, but women exist only for the capabilities as a mother (who will hopefully produce man sons) and a wife. Women who are not chosen as wives work in the fields or markets, without any social status or wealth. Enjoying sex is not a concept for women; they are expected to lie “legs spread, eyes to God.” In the County, men believe that women come into a type of magic during their sixteenth year. As the magic will do damage to men, these teenage girls are exiled into the woods for an entire year, their “grace year,” where they find their magic, let it work through their bodies, and come home (if they survive) pure and ready for marriage. Aside from being away from civilization and such things as food, clean water, shelter, medicine, or social structures, the girls are threatened by poachers. If a poacher manages to capture a grace year girl outside of the encampment where they live, he kills her and her body is cut into pieces, which are then eaten by the men in the County as a way for them to “consume” the women’s magic and keep it for themselves.

The main character is Tierney, who, as the novel begins, is preparing for her grace year. She is unlikely to receive a veil before she leaves—no one will choose to marry her, because she is “Tierney the Terrible” who likes to be outside in the woods or the fields rather than being in the proper places for women. She is OK with this; she just wants to survive her grace year and then come home to work in the fields, where she will not have to be beholden to a husband or a family but can at least be outside moving her body. Things at the veiling ceremony do not go as expected, and then her grace year begins.

This is a hard book to discuss without giving away any spoilers. If you haven’t read it but want to, just read this paragraph but no further, as the plot twists are worth discovering within the story rather on someone’s blog. I listened to this book and the reader, Emily Shaffer, was excellent. I almost gave up on it, though. The characters weren’t grabbing me and I felt frustrated by the mean-girl aspects, even though they are important to the plot. I stuck with it, though (mainly because the next book I wanted to listen to wasn’t available yet!) and about one-third the way through I started loving it. The writing style is fluid and moving; the pacing is a bit uneven but not terribly so. Many reviews I’ve read have compared the book to The Handmaid’s Tale, probably because of the highly restrictive community, but for me it was more of a dystopia+religious-cult+nature-adventure blend. I had a few issues with the story but overall I am glad I read it.


Spoilers follow!

Once the girls are at their grace year encampment—which is on an island off the coast of a large lake, and is surrounded by cedar trees made into a fence (I could never envision this fence, as it is sometimes described as tree-like and sometimes smooth and not-of-nature)—the tribalism The County nurtures in the women comes to a full manifestation. Someone has to be in charge, and Kiersten, a girl who was popular and beautiful at home, takes that role, even though Tierney knows many of the skills they will need to survive for a year in the woods with very little. Kiersten thinks that things like clean water in rain barrels (instead of the water from the well, which is coated with a green moss) is pointless, as their magic—figuring out what it is and then how to get rid of it—is the point. This section was the height of my frustration, as Tierney is clearly a better leader and yet all of the girls in her alliance slip, one by one, onto Kiersten’s side. Even though that might be what really would happen in such a situation (the dynamics of girl-on-girl cruelty are fascinating and myriad), the girls’ inability to see how they are damaging themselves by aligning with her power made me crazy. And Tierney doesn’t stand up for herself much, but lets Kiersten bully her in a way that doesn’t seem authentic to her.

The girls think their magic will be some sort of supernatural power. Kiersten, of course, “finds” hers first: she declares her magic is that she can make anyone do whatever she wants, just with her power, and when girls do something unexpected, she takes credit for their actions. Since in The County what happens in the grace year stays in the grace year—literally no one talks about their experiences, not even mothers to help their daughters—there is a sort of mythology that has built up around the types of magic. Flight, invisibility, the strength to make the sun set or rise, for example. Tierney is having none of it; as a person who has spent time in the woods and with an observant and scientific nature, she doesn’t know exactly what the “magic” is but doesn’t, deep down, believe it is real.

I found the concepts that the story builds on to be fascinating. What is the power or magic that women hold? If men fear it and try to subdue it, what happens? Could they remain in power if women didn’t allow men to take their magic away? If you are a woman living in a society that is constructed to keep you powerless, how do you find power? These are topics I love exploring through fiction (The Power, Gather the Daughters, All the Truth That’s In Me for example) and so some of my…dissatisfaction, I guess, in this book was that it played it safe.

I think the men in this story are afraid of women’s sexual power. Thus the “eyes to God” rule and the non-existence of women’s pleasure. That is one of the forms of magic that the grace year is supposed to strip away from them. Tierney, as a character who is starting to see the strings the men use to control them, is in a unique position to figure this out, and then, when she runs out of the encampment to escape Kiersten’s violence, she has a bigger chance. She is rescued by a poacher named Ryker, who doesn’t skin and then kill her, but instead takes her to his blind and tries to heal her. He does this because her father, who takes care of The County’s medical needs, also secretly helps the poachers. Tierney’s father saved Ryker’s friend from an illness, but only on the condition that Ryker would make sure Tierney survived her grace year.

And herein lies my deepest struggle with this book: they fall in love. Even though Ryker has detailed drawings of her naked body, marking all the scars and her father’s brand, so if he does decide to kill her she can be identified by The County. Even though that is his entire existence and identity: killing grace year girls and cutting their bodies apart. I mean, he’s new at this and has never actually killed a grace girl yet, but it’s his career path. Falling in love with your captor, finding out he’s really a captor with a heart of gold and is only doing it for some noble reason (here, to save his mother, who has taken six of the County’s banished girls under her wing) is one of my least-favorite tropes in a book. And it’s especially disturbing to find it in an avowed “feminist” novel.

But I also think a romance is essential to the point of the story, which is that one of the women’s powers is their sexuality. I just deeply, deeply disagree with the shape the relationship takes. Plus, their “love” is built on so little: him taking care of her. At one point he starts explaining his plan to his friend, that he and Tierney are going to escape, go west, find another settlement where they can be together, and she doesn’t even know she has feelings for him yet. Plus, if sexuality is one of the magics, I think it was necessary to actually witness the sex, rather than the fade-to-black sex.

The other very real magic that women hold is their relationship with other women. Kiersten knows this and uses it to her advantage, and honestly it is the magic I think the men want the women to keep. Or at least, keep it in the way it develops during the grace year, the Lord-of-the-Flies brutality that women wield against each other. If they keep that tool and use it against other women, it makes it easier for me to remain in power, because in essence women do much of the work for them. (The opposite form of this power is women standing up for women, which is just barely explored in the story. Perhaps there will be a sequel.) When she goes back to The County after her grace year, Tierney finds that women are starting a very quiet and careful rebellion away from that type of magic.

Anyway. Here I am at almost 1700 words about one book. Clearly it struck many nerves for me. It is far from a perfect book, but I am glad I read it. I would love to discuss more with you if you’ve read it too.

At The Intersection of Cuomo and Seuss

“I know. You believe all women, no matter what.” Those words were flung at me in an argument I had with an acquaintance, not too long after Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to Congress. They were intended as a weapon and they left a mark. Do I “believe all women” blindly? Am I very easily duped by all the women running around claiming they’ve been assaulted when really they’re just in it for the money? Do I lose my sense of objectivity in the face of women being sexually harassed, assaulted, or abused? Am I so overwhelmed by emotion that my critical thinking skills suffer?

I’ve thought about that barb quite often since that discussion. The acquaintance is still only a person I know, not someone I would call a friend, but he made me push against my own ideals in a way that brought me to a better understanding, so even though he was being a jerk I’m glad he said that to me. The process of thinking and observing has helped me to solidify my beliefs.

Because here’s the thing with me. This might sound uptight or ridiculous, pedantic or overbearing. I might even be a logic bully, I don’t know. But I have a firm interest in critical thinking. I think I already had this tendency, but it was a concept I explored quite a bit while I was working on my English degree. I would sit in class and listen to students interpret literature through their religious lens (I was at Brigham Young University)—this is a “bad” book because bad things happen—and get frustrated and annoyed. I never said anything, though, because I felt so out of place, swamped by the weird culture of the university (all the classes start with a prayer) and unsure of where I even stood on what I knew about my religion in the first place. Then, one of my favorite professors (who actually changed my life in this process) wrote a comment on the essay I had written about the novel Possession.

“You have some wise insights in your essays and you think about things in different ways from your peers but I never hear your voice in class. SPEAK UP.”

That was the first week of my last semester, but I took his challenge and I started speaking up. Many students disagreed with my ideas, in that tone of voice that Mormons are good at, the one that suggests that not only is what I said wrong, but that I was evil for even having the thought. But a few students agreed with me, and that was enough. I also talked with him after class a few times, and he gave me some resources to help further my interest in critical thinking. I’ve been striving for such thought—which starts as an emotional reaction but then seeks rational understanding— since then.

That is why those words found their mark, because they are an accusation of non-critical thinking.

That memory has been bubbling around in my brain this week, because of two seemingly-unrelated news stories: the sexual harassment complaints against Governor Cuomo and the decision by Dr. Seuss Enterprises to stop publishing six Dr. Seuss books for their racist images.

Last year, when COVID was at its height in New York City, one of the things that brought me a sense of peace was listening to Cuomo. He seemed calm, rational, intelligent, and, most importantly, in charge. Like someone was managing the situation (as obviously the president was not). I would listen to his daily briefing and my panic and frustration would settle for a little while, so his voice and face became associated, in my mind, with calmness. With a sense of hope, even, that eventually we would figure out how to find a new normal.

So when those allegations started to surface, my deepest, deepest hope was that the women were lying.

And then I thought of that argument: You always believe women.

My gut response—my emotional response—this time was not to believe them. Or not to want to believe them. Not because their narratives are not believable, but because I didn’t want them to be true. Because I have this positive association with a person, because in my mind Cuomo is a source of calmness in a storm.

So maybe that acquaintance was totally wrong. Maybe I only believe women when it is easy to believe them.

I think this is one of the keys of critical thinking: being able to see your own weakness and then straightening up your shoulders to hold it out and examine it, instead of ignoring or burying it. Being willing to analyze your own prejudices and to find a way to change them.

If I “believe all women” because it is easy—because clearly the man who harassed or assaulted them was malicious—then am I really doing any actual work? Did I believe the accusations about Kavannaugh because I know his type and thus recognize those actions as something that kind of man is capable of? That is easy belief. (To be fair, the answer to those questions is “no.” I believe Christine Blasey Ford for many reasons, not just because she happened to accuse a vile, wealthy dudebro. And I forced myself to listen to his side of the story as well as hers.)

But when it is hard, when the accused is someone I admire, can I still believe the woman?

I am learning that I can. The Cuomo thing is not the first time I have come across this conundrum in the past six months, in fact. What do you do with people you admire or love when you find out they also did horrible things?

This is hard. And it is painful. Every time a news piece comes on about Cuomo, I want to change the channel. But what keeps me listening and trying to understand the women’s stories is, strangely enough, Dr. Seuss.

Or, more specifically, the illogical way many people are responding over the company that owns the copyright of Seuss’s work stopping the publication of those six books that have racist images in them.

And it isn’t exactly the same, but it is the same: Dr. Seuss is associated with good things in people’s memories (like Cuomo is in mine), so how dare those “others” suggest he did anything problematic?

To be completely upfront: I have a clear childhood memory of looking at that illustration of the black people in If I Ran The Zoo and thinking “I wonder where in the world black people look like that, I didn’t think that’s how they looked.” I wasn’t precociously anti-racist as a six-year-old but I remember feeling that the picture was wrong somehow. So maybe I am not using critical thinking by not having a problem with this, because of my childhood emotional response.

But as an adult who, as both a bibliophile and a librarian, has a vested interest in not only reading books but understanding as much as I can about books as an industry, as a force for social change, and as a tool for enlightening individual minds, I am annoyed with the pushback. With the lack of critical thinking. This isn’t leftie culture erasing literary history. This isn’t “cancel culture.” Dr. Seuss isn’t canceled. (He is, in fact, the second-richest dead person, behind only Michael Jackson.) It’s just that the company that prints the books has realized the racist issues and decided to do something about it.

Someone actually told me that he couldn’t believe I wasn’t upset about it. “I’ve read your blog posts and Facebook threads about book banning, so how can you be OK with this?”

This isn’t book banning. Libraries aren’t pulling the books from their shelves. No one is piling them up and burning them. They are just being allowed to die a natural death. (Something that happens to books all the time. Books go out of print.)

But I understand. It forces you to grapple with something hard: Dr. Seuss was both “good” and “bad.” He has some amazing books that I have spent countless hours reading and laughing over with my kids. He also drew some racist illustrations. Were they based on the social mores of the time? Maybe. Did Cuomo talk about how big of an age difference is too big with his pretty, young assistant because he’s a powerful politician who didn’t know any better? Probably not. I don’t want to admit that, but there it is: Cuomo knew better but he did it anyway.

It’s painful to deal with the reality of people. People can be amazing and horrible all in the same body.  People change, and not always for the best. But to me, Dr. Seuss Enterprises is trying to change for the better. They are doing what Maya Angelou said we should do: “When you know better, do better.”

This, to me, is part of being a functional adult human being in the world we’ve constructed. It is a necessary skill, to be able to understand that nothing is ever really black and white. No one is all good or all bad. It is hard and sometimes (often) painful, to have that person you admire be brought down.

But we still get to have new copies of the non-racist Dr. Seuss books.

And Cuomo’s actions toward women? I cannot condone them, I cannot excuse them. I do believe the women. I think far less of him and I am disappointed in him.

But it doesn’t change the fact that he helped me through a difficult time in my life. The comfort that happened during that time still, actually, happened, whatever is happening now. It helped me in real ways at that time, no matter what is happening now.

Just like I learned to love books by way of some stories with racist ideas.

I could follow the example of the conservatives shouting “UNFAIR” about Dr. Seuss. I could say “I think those women are lying,” but I would be doing that not with my critical thinking self, but with my emotional self. And that is not the sort of person I want to be. Whether or not it’s painful doesn’t matter.

It’s part of being human, and being human is messy and confusing and sometimes it’s ugly. Sometimes you have to wrestle really, really hard with the bad things done by people you loved or admired. But your feeling for them doesn’t change the truth of their actions.

Racism exists. Men sexually harass women. Looking away or pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t change those facts.

So call me uptight or pedantic. Say I am blinded by my liberal idealism. But I’m going to continue trying to be objective, even if I fail and have to try again, because critical thinking is, I believe, necessary for a society to function within its good and bad qualities.

Book Review: How Much of These Hills is Gold by C. Pam Zhang

Because this land they live in is a land of missing things. A land stripped of its gold, its rivers, its buffalo, its Indians, its tigers, its jackals, its birds and its green and its living. To move through this land and believe Ba’s tales is to see each hill as a burial mound with its own crown of bones. Who could believe that and survive?

One of my clearest memories from childhood: we were driving home from Salt Lake City, winter evening, fresh snow, full moon. I looked out the window and saw a long, tall mountain, glowing the way mountains glow in those conditions, even in the dark. Especially in the dark. I said, “Mom! What is that mountain called?” because I wanted its name, wanted its identity. Wanted to know it. She said “ummmm, I don’t know!” in an exasperated tone and kept driving.

Another, this one a palimpsest, a layering of doing the same thing on different days in different seasons. I loved to sit in our backyard and look up at the mountains. There was a specific slope, green in spring, red for a few days in October, that I especially loved. I would look up to that slope and think I want to be right there and then I would imagine what it might be like, the softness of the grass, the brilliance of the leaves. This looking and imagining was a thing I did all through my childhood and then even after, when I came home as an adult, married and with kids.

How much of these hillsThose two memories kept coming back to me as I read C. Pam Zhang’s novel How Much of These Hills is Gold. Not because the landscape in the book is the same as mine; the book is set in the hills of California during the Gold Rush. Rolling hills with creeks and rivers polluted from mining. But because of the characters’ connection to the land: “If I had a ba,” Lucy’s father says, “then he as the sun that warmed me most days and be me sweaty-sore on others; if I had a ma, then she was the grass that held me when I lay down and slept.” My connection is different from theirs, less physical and more emotional, less immediate and more romantic. But just like Lucy, I am tied to this landscape; the mountains shaped me in ways I might not even fully understand.

How Much of These Hills is Gold is a brutal novel, which is fitting as it tells a brutal story. Lucy and her sister Sam (who is a boy for most of the story) are Asian-Americans, living with their parents Ba and Ma in a chicken coop converted to a tiny house on land owned by the coal mine. Sometimes Lucy gets to go to school, others she works in the mine (for far less pay because she is a girl). They don’t have enough food and their living conditions are squalid no matter how they work to keep the place clean; their only richness is in that desolate land and in stories. Ba tells them stories about how the land used to be and Ma about the far-away place she came from, which they can catch the scent of in the rare times Ma opens the trunk she brought from there.

After a particularly rainy, difficult season, Ma loses the baby she was pregnant with and dies, sending Ba back to drinking. When he, too, dies, Lucy and Sam start on a quest of sorts, carrying the trunk that Sam put Ba’s body in on the horse they stole from Lucy’s erstwhile teacher, looking for the perfect place to bury him.

This book. I go back to that word: brutal. // harsh, severe. // unpleasantly accurate and incisive. // grossly ruthless or unfeeling.

No. The book itself is none of those things. It is so beautifully written that the prose itself makes me think of gold. The act of telling Lucy’s brutal story in such a way helps underscores the harshness of it. The ruthlessness, not only of the land but of the society. The unfeeling way that people turn away from their poverty because of their race. There is no real reprieve for any of the characters, because even as it seems like things might be improving, the atmosphere grows ominous with some future disaster.

This isn’t a novel that everyone will love. Its structure is untraditional and the ending will be deeply frustrating to readers who like everything neatly tied up. It isn’t mainstream fiction and it is difficult to read. (I had to take a break in the middle, put it down and read something fluffy just to give my strung-out heart a break.) But the world is so compelling, the writing so beautiful, the characters so real. It makes you consider: what is gold? In the sense of: what has value, and there are no simple answers to that question. And that connection to the land—for me, that was the thing that made this book resonate for me.