Previous month:
March 2023
Next month:
June 2023

Book Review: Tress of the Emerald Sea by Brandon Sanderson

     Whenever one does discover a moment of joy, beauty enters the world. Human beings, we can’t create energy; we can only harness it. We can’t create matter; we can only shape it. We can’t even create life; we can only nurture it.

   But we can create light. This is one of the ways. The effervescence of purpose discovered.

Tress of the emerald seaI’ve been excited to read Tress of the Emerald Sea by Brandon Sanderson for quite a while. Mostly because it seems like everyone in Utah adores Brandon Sanderson (he is a local, after all) but it’s not a conversation I can really engage in as I am usually reluctant to start very long fantasy series.

But Tress is a stand-alone. It is set in a world with oceans made of spores that fall from the moons. These spores have different colors, depending on the moon, and do different, but always destructive things when water touches them. Tress lives on an island called The Rock, in the middle of The Emerald Sea where the spores are green and turn into enormous, writhing, destructive vines when they meet moisture. She is a window washer and her best friend is a boy named Charlie—who happens to be the son of the island’s ruling nobleman. The duke is not happy when he sees Charlie and Tress growing closer, so he takes Charlie off the island to find a wife, an escapade that does not end well for Charlie. Tress decides it is up to her to rescue him, and her adventures begin.

I enjoyed this one a lot. It’s compared to The Princess Bride, but if Buttercup went and did something instead of just pining for Wesley. It has a similar wry and whimsical tone, but mostly I just think it’s a fantasy with an adventuresome main character. Something fantasy novels do that annoys me is when the main character can just…do everything somehow, and this novel does not (to my relief) do that. Tress starts out as a person who is determined, creative, and inventive, but she has to figure out how to do things without any preternatural skill or strength. Her ultimate lesson is that asking for help isn’t weakness, but just a thing people sometimes do. The kick is that you have to live your life in a way that people want to help you. As this was a mildly painful thing for me to ponder (considering recent experiences of my own), I liked that idea but it wasn’t my favorite take away.

Instead, what I really loved is that Tress learns to wrestle with fear, and just how often a fear-based decision (instead of one made with facts and knowledge) is the wrong one. Circumstances for her to face her fear of the spores (a fear that every person on the planet holds) and in doing so she discovers qualities the spores possess that others don’t know.

So my little piece of wisdom I’ll take from Tress of the Emerald Sea is that reminder. I have been making decisions for the past 18 months based on the fear that there is something wrong with me that I can’t identify. That I haven’t lived my life in the way that would encourage people to want to help me (rather than the rejection I’ve been trying to overcome), the fear that I am a horrible person. But honestly, I don’t have all of the facts or knowledge to make assumptions about what happened, and so am deciding that out of fear instead of wisdom. Real life isn’t a novel, but I’m grateful for the reminder to examine my fears instead of letting them control me, and maybe when I face them I will find something I don’t already know.

Tress of the Emerald Sea is not high literature but it is full of wisdom, humor, courage, and fun. (Yes! I did have fun reading this, which is not something I can always say about the books I read.) There are images that will stick with me (the stone spires that grow in the Crimson Sea during rain; Tress’s walk across the ocean of spores; Tress’s butterfly cup.

I’m glad I read it.  

Book Review: The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez

I thought how strange it was that I ever feared the end. That I had ever tried to escape it. And like that, it was done. My hand releasing from its fist. The battle fought. The life slipped from this old tether.

Spear cuts through waterI have been telling everyone I know who loves books about Simon Jimenez’s book The Spear Cuts Through Water.

(Well, everyone I know who won’t object to a few erotic queer love scenes.)

It’s kind of a hard book to explain. It has a framing device called the “inverted theatre,” which is an otherworldly theatre, a reflection on water, where many people are arriving to watch a play. One of the people is carrying a spear, a family relic given to her by her grandmother who used to tell her stories of the inverted theatre.

When the play begins, it is a story about the Moon Goddess, who was in love with the sea and so fell to earth to be with him—but then was trapped by the emperor. For many generations she has born the latest emperor one son, until this generation, when she has triplets. The performed play is the story of how she escapes and the battle that follows as the Triple Terrors try to put her back and regain control. Keema and Jun are the two main characters, bound in different ways to both the Moon Goddess and their pasts.

It’s hard for me to explain how much I loved this book. It’s partly that framing device, and it’s partly the adventure that Keema and Jun have. But it’s mostly the connections that are made between different generations of family. Who are we in the larger scope of the world and how do the stories of our ancestors affect us without us ever knowing? More, are the people who have died still with us in some way? What do we owe the dead, and what might they still owe us? And how are we brave, and what does bravery even look like? How are we ever absolved of our mistakes? What is death, anyway, and so what is life—the performance on the inverted theatre stage, or the theatre itself?

I don’t think everyone would love this novel. I can see the way the framing device might make it complicated to follow, and some of the story is told in second person which not everyone loves.

But for me? For me this novel is marvelous and healing and enthralling. It made me fear death less.

It’s my favorite book I’ve read so far this year.

(Keeping it short because really, it should just unfold for the reader with her knowing much other than to expect brilliance and occasional bouts of weeping.)

Book Review: The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

Kieta is just like all the rest, giving us impossibilities and calling them choices. 

I was feeling kind of blah about my 2023 reading choices as winter finally turned into spring. I had loved Demon Copperhead but also been traumatized by it. I’d been craving a really good fantasy but hadn’t found it. I’d started a dozen or so audio books that just hadn’t grabbed me. I hadn’t hated anything I’d read, and I’d had some good experiences, but I hadn’t unequivocally loved anything.

So maybe I can’t be blamed for not putting a ton of effort into finding a book to take to San Antonio at the end of March, when I flew to Texas with my life-long best friend so we could see Depeche Mode. Usually I spend at least four or five hours reading reviews and picking several possibilities for my travel reading. For this trip (which was just so…so good in ways I am still thinking about) I realized I didn’t have a book picked out just the day before we flew out, with no time at all to order anything (I’ve learned the hard way: never take a library book on a trip, as it will inevitably get damaged and you’ll have to pay for it anyway). So I went with The Gilded Ones, a book I’d purchased in February because A—it looked good and B—I always buy at least one book by an African-American writer in February, to mark Black History Month, even if I don’t get around to actually reading said book in February.

Gilded onesThe Gilded Ones is a young adult fantasy that builds out of West African mythology and the culture of Sierra Leon. Girls in Deka’s culture must undergo the blood ceremony, which proves (or doesn’t) their purity. Girls whose blood is gold become outcasts, tortured and killed if they can be—but many with gold in their veins can only be killed in one specific way, unique to her. Deka, whose mother (who recently died) came from a different part of the country, has always been on the fringes of her community anyway, and so is determined to prove her purity, but her blood is gold. Her father abandons her to the village elders, who torture her with many different attempted deaths she always survives. She escapes this torture when a woman arrives in her village to take her to be trained as a soldier.

In a sense, this book is a take on the traditional hero’s journey: Young person who doesn’t know her importance leaves her small community on a quest to find something. But it is much more than that. The blurb calls it a “darkly feminist tale” and as you continue reading you understand why. The alaki (the girls with gold blood) are detested in their community, only allowed to become soldiers to fight the ever-growing threat of the deathshrieks, terrifying monsters whose shriek can kill. They have all been taught that girls are only worth anything if they are pure---modest, quiet, unobtrusive. (Sound familiar?) Yet Deka finds a way to make friends and find her strength, and as she does so she begins to realize that the things she doesn’t know about herself might be the key to freeing the alaki.

This isn’t a gentle book. There is a lot of violence and a horrific, disturbing twist. I sort-of thought of the twist, or some version of it, at the beginning of the book, then doubted myself, then watched for clues, then was sure I was right, then sure I was wrong because surely that couldn’t happen if the twist was true. I’m not sure I agree with the conclusion the novel comes to about violence in the first place.

But. I was absolutely enthralled with the story, and conveniently enough it was a perfect travel novel for me. The plot was not so complicated that I had to struggle to get back into the flow of it with all the interruptions that happen while you’re travelling. It has many of my favorite bookish traits: a strong female character who grapples to figure out what she believes about the world in contrast with what religion has told her to believe; strong friendships between women; a fully-imagined fantasy world with intriguing goddesses; the lingering impact of a lost mother; divine statues. A mysterious catlike creature. And running---running is important in this story.

I enjoyed this book immensely. I think it will prove a turning point: I’ve found my groove and will love more of what I read from now on.

Book Review: Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

“It’s a situation, being invisible. You can get to a point of needing to make the loudest possible noise just to see if you are still alive.”

Reading Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver was a complicated experience for me.

Demon copperheadThis novel, a sort of modernized reimagining of David Copperfield (which I have never read because Dickens and I do not get along) tells the story of Demon, who’s born to a mom with a drug problem. They live in a single-wide trailer, helped out by their neighbor the Peggots, but it is not a happy existence. It gets worse when Demon’s mom gets involved with another man. He has few bits of brightness in his life—Maggot (his best friend and neighbor) and his family, a young, determined caseworker—but is mostly a struggling little kid. Then things get worse when Demon’s mom gets married to an abusive man named Stoner. From there his life is a series of more and more difficult struggles, interspersed with some upsides (like becoming a local football star). But the positive experiences and situations are always touched with a hint of menace; you never can believe he’ll get to keep anything good.

It was a complicated reading experience because on one hand, it is just so good. The writing brings the characters to life, and they are complex, many-sided individuals. Angus (“all I could think of was little Angus bearing those Hellboy eyes on her, all her life. Growing her skin of Leather”) and Ms. Annie will stay with me for a good, long while. I loved that Demon finds a sort of way out (if at least a mental escape) with art. I loved his experience with his grandmother, especially Mr. Dick and his book kites. I appreciated the way Demon’s father, who has died before the story begins, is nevertheless a character with influence. Appalachia came to life in my imagination, and I have had actual dreams about the Devil’s bathtub.

I’ve loved Barbara Kingsolver’s work since I read The Bean Trees, and The Poisonwood Bible is one of my top-ten favorite novels. Her writing skill is just so apparent in Demon Copperhead. I know some have complained that this one is too long, but for me the pacing was perfect. It told the story fully.

But on the other hand—this is a painful read. It explores the impact of the opioid epidemic in Appalachia, and that is an unrelenting nightmare itself. Toss in the poverty caused by the ending of the coal mines and the vacuum that created in the economy, and yes: It seems impossible for anyone to escape that community without scars. The people who hurt or damage Demon have themselves been hurt or damaged, and he turns that around both on others and himself. I often grew frustrated with Demon and his decisions, even while I understood why he made them. You make the loudest possible noise just to see if you are still alive. Community and drugs and economy and family and social systems all seemed set against him, and then all of his choices made the impact even worse.

(Maybe because I sometimes did that myself as a teenager made it even harder for me to read.)

So every time I picked the book up, I did it with a sort of greedy reluctance. What would happen to Demon and the characters I’d started loving? And it was often awful, but his voice just rang out so true that the reading itself was delicious.

I was—I don’t think I’ve ever thought this about a novel before—I was so grateful when I finished it. Because at last I was finished. When I was done, I set it down on the floor by my chair, turned off my lamp, and said, out loud to no one at 2:00 a.m. in February darkness, “Thank God that is over.”

And so this book review went unwritten for months. I don’t know how to put into words what Demon Copperhead made me feel. It’s always hard to quantify a book—what does “good” even mean, what does “bad” mean?—but this was one of the hardest to verbalize. I was horrified and sorrowful for all of Demon’s difficult experiences but I loved reading about them, which makes absolutely no sense, but there you go.

That’s likely exactly what makes a memorable book.

Book Review: Robot and Monk Series by Becky Chambers

They still loved performing tea service—or at least, they loved what it had been. But as they tried to connect to what had once been so captivating, they felt nothing but yawning absence. A void where they’d once been filled.

I received a copy of A Prayer for the Crown Shy by Becky Chambers for my birthday, and decided I needed to revisit A Psalm for The Wild Built, which is the first book in the series.

I read it when it was fairly new but never wrote about it!

Robot and monk 1 and 2

This fantasy series is set on a populated moon called Panga. At some point in the past, there was a human-caused environmental disaster that the ecosystems are healing from; around that time there was also the Awakening, when the robots that did the menial work of keeping humanity working gained consciousness and decided to leave society. Since then, robots have lived in the wilderness and kept to themselves; humanity has remodeled civilization, using what went wrong (it is never fully explained) to create better solutions. There isn’t the sharp difference between wealthy and poor, as there is no money but a system based on trade and doing good things for others. They’ve recycled the garbage of the old world into new buildings. Everyone does work that they love, and if you don’t love your work you can seek out something else to do. The rivers are finally clean again.

In this happy world lives Dex, who leaves his work as a monk doing work with plants in the monastery’s garden to become a tea monk. Tea monks perform tea services in towns across the moon. They bike a wagon from town to town, and people who are tired, lonely, frustrated, or stressed in some way arrive. They listen to them and prepares a cup of tea in a combination of flavors he thinks will help them. And then they just listen.

Dex might be the best tea monk on Panga, but after a few years of doing it, the same feelings that caused them to leave the garden start to rise. One day they decide to leave the civilized part of the world and head off into the wild—where they bump into Mosscap, a robot who has been tasked to check up on humanity. Mosscap is supposed to go into the civilized part of Panga and ask people “what do you need,” but before it does, it continues into the wild with Dex, in search of a monastery ruin and the song of crickets.

In the second book, Mosscap and Dex return to civilization together, where they begin Mosscap’s quest.

These books are amazing. They are kind without being gentle, in the sense that while the characters (and the setting itself) is one with noble ideals, it doesn’t look away from the remaining unhappiness that might just be an inevitable part of being human. The society humanity has managed to create is one without poverty, hunger, or want. People’s needs are met and the gods are benevolent. There is kindness here that I cannot imagine living inside of. And yet, Dex still has that same human question: What is my purpose? What do I mean? Why am I even alive?

I think this is a story that is best to just experience (maybe why I didn’t write about the first book when I read it?). Because it is built on the concept that the universe is entropic at its core, the story sparks many thoughts in the reader. For me, where I am right now in my life: fifty-something, a bit unhappy with my work, questioning if I have done good things with my life—it did not give me any answers (Dex and Mosscap would know what I mean I think) but it did make me feel less alone.

Book Review: Roses in The Mouth of a Lion by Bushra Rehman

     I hoped I hadn’t put the idea in the Aunty’s head that I was the kind of girl she was looking for. Was I a religious girl? I still read all my namaazes, even if Fagr was always late. I still read Qurab even though it was mostly on the weekends.
     But I knew “religious girl” was code for something that had nothing to do with Allah. It had to do with how a girl did whatever her husband and the community said, how a girl wouldn’t question the way things were set up.
     I knew the Aunty’s nephew was like the young uncles from my childhood. For them, us first-gen Pakistani girls were a forest of green cards. We were groomed like Christmas trees, thinking we were in the beautiful woods, thinking we were growing, but we were just being readied to be cut down.

Last fall, we had a little plumbing leak in the basement that led to several ah-ha moments for me.

In the damp closet were my boxes of stuff from before I got married. All the way from little art projects I made in kindergarten to my gymnastics medals and trophies and pins to the letters my friend sent me the year she was nannying and I was trying to finish high school. I went through all three of those boxes, discovering many things I’d forgotten about myself.

I consolidated from three boxes to one large and one small box, but I definitely kept all of my journals. Some of the notebooks I found were from my eighth-grade English class, where we had the assignment to write every day. The Amy I found in those notebooks! I was so young and innocent and yet I was still perceptive; I wrote a lot about discrepancies I saw but I also missed other contradictions. (Like how, on a Thursday I wrote about how much my sister annoyed me and then, on the following Monday, I wrote about how much I admired something she’d done.) They were both delightful and difficult to read; the difficulty was the innocence and naivete in my voice.

Roses in the mouth of a lionI thought about those journals a lot while reading Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion by Bushra Rehman. If I had to explain the book in one sentence, it would be: A 1980s-infused Pakistani-American queer revision of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

It tells the story of Razia Mirza, who is growing up in Corona, a neighborhood in Queens, in the early 80s. She is a first-generation American born to parents who immigrated from Pakistan and who raise her with many Pakistani traditions---food, dress, relationships, and perspectives. The story starts when she is in elementary school and ends near the last days of high school, so we get to experience how her friendships and relationships change as time passes.

I loved so many things about this book. I often struggle with reading about Muslim-based cultures because the demands placed on women are so jarring to me. But as Razia pushes against her parents’ and society’s expectations for her, what I discovered is that religion seems to be religion; to a large extent it exists to restrict women and keep men in power, and in that sense Razia’s culture is not much different than my own. I cheered for her as she began to figure out how what she wanted to do with her life would be different than what her parents wanted. There is one scene that made me literally weep, when her mother throws away the clothes she has been carefully gathering and curating, so she can go to school dressed in clothes she loves (rather than the acceptable but unfashionable ones her mother wants her to wear). The balance she tries to maintain between keeping her parents happy (or at least in the dark) and being true to who she is becoming---likely all adolescents have to strive for that, but I think in strict religions it is even more complicated.

I’m glad that the book discusses Razia reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; it felt like a nod from the author that yes, she was inspired by Betty Smith’s work. There are several connections but it is a story whose arc grows out of that material without copying it.

But I can’t say I loved it without reservation, because while in many places the writing was beautiful, in others it felt like the voice in my eighth-grade notebook: painfully naïve and innocent. This was most noticeable when Razia was also in middle school, so maybe it was an intentional choice by the writer and I’m just too jaded to stay happily inside that perspective.

But there were a few plot holes, such as the “spider” in her friend Saima’s bed, which is hinted at as being perhaps sexual abuse but never actually explained and Razia’s friendship with Saima. It falls apart in unexpected ways, which is OK, but I absolutely expected a confrontation of sorts. Instead, there were hints that Saima would just really turn out to be a “religious girl” but Razia never pursues any sort of closure with her former closest friend.

I could be OK with those issues, though, if the ending hadn’t completely fallen apart.



The book ends with Razia running away. She is still a high school student and a minor. She is headed for Boston to live with her girlfriend’s aunt, to escape her parents who want to send her to Pakistan to an arranged marriage (to hide the fact that she is a lesbian).

That’s it. That’s the solution. She runs away. Gets on the bus headed out of Grand Central Station.

How is that the end?

It felt very much like an ending I would have imagined when I was the girl writing in my notebook in eighth grade. No resolutions or answers. How will she survive? What life will she have without even a high school diploma? What will happen when her parents figure out where she is?

I never need a happy ending to a book. My problem wasn’t that the ending wasn’t happy. It was that it was completely unrealistic and wildly pointless. It was a resolution without a resolution, really.

But I also enjoyed the reading experience.

So! Roses in the Mouth of a Lion is continuing with the streak I’ve had all year: books I like OK but don’t absolutely adore without reservation.

Hoping to end this streak soon by reading something I can love without qualifications.

Book Review: Vampire Weekend by Mike Chen

Was I just living a depressing vampire life with a really excellent soundtrack?

Vampire weekendVampire Weekend by Mike Chen tells a different kind of vampire tale than I’ve ever read. In the book's world, vampires definitely exist, but not living that sexy, sucking-on-necks kind of lifestyle. Instead they keep their existence secret.

Louise Chao is such a vampire. She lives in San Francisco and works the night shift at a hospital; her role as a janitor gives her easy access to expired blood, which keeps her living. She’s recently started trying to find a new punk rock band she can play guitar in, but it’s not going well. And then a distant relative, Ian, kind of shows up on her doorstep, changing her quiet world. 

This book made me think about why I love the books I love, the reading prejudices I have, and why I stick with a book and finish it rather than just returning it. One of the literary tropes I avoid is what I think of as the romance-novel finish: a complication is set up and then the point of the plot is to turn the complication into a happy ending. The story doesn’t necessarily have to have romance for the trope. It’s just the sense you get as the story moves along: there’s definitely going to be a happy ending.

I avoid those books.

What does it say about me that I don’t want a happy ending? That I am a miserable person who steeps in sorrow, relishes tragedy, savors darkness? Maybe. Or maybe it’s my need to keep my shell up. If you go around hoping for happy endings for your literary characters, the next step is hoping for happy endings for yourself, and. Well. That’s just setting yourself up for disappointment.

(Which is ridiculous because my life has plenty of happiness. I just don’t trust that it will stick around.)

Anyway, at first this novel felt like it was a romance-novel-finish vampire tale with some really cool punk rock musical references thrown in. I almost didn’t stick with it. But it ended up being the only book in the car with me one day when I had to wait for an hour with nothing to do. So I bought myself a Crumbl cookie and started reading.

And I kind of fell in love with the story.

To be honest: it kind of really IS a romance-novel-finish vampire tale with some really cool punk rock musical references. But I also just really enjoyed Louise’s journey as she lets herself be more open to happiness, and to exploring the way she really wants to live, and to figure out where she fits in her community.

Plus it made me dig out my Blondie albums, so yes: I had fun reading this book. “Fun” is not something I seek out in my books, but this one hit the right balance between fun and meaningful.

I’m glad I read it.

Book Review: The Last Cuentista by Donna Barbra Higuera

The stories we tell ourselves make us who we are.

Last cuentistaI discovered The Last Cuentista from a patron review I edited on the library blog. It’s a middle grade novel that won the Newbery last year and belongs to the humans-travel-to-a-new-planet genre of science fiction. 

Petra Peña’s family is chosen to take a spaceship to a possibly-habitable planet because of her mother’s botany expertise. Earth is about to be untenably altered by Halley’s Comet, which has been shunted off course by unusual solar winds, setting it on a trajectory to hit earth. There are two groups of people on the ship: the ones who will be put into a sort of cryo sleep until the ship arrives at the new planet in more than 350 years, and the guardians, who will live, raise new generations, and die aboard the planet, taking care of the sleeping population. While they sleep, an implanted device will download skills and knowledge, so that when they wake they will be able to work efficiently, despite their age. 

When Petra wakes up once the ship reaches the new planet, she learns that she is the only human who remembers earth life; the guardians have become a collective, a group of genetically-created humanoids who have an entirely different goal: eliminate conflict by eliminating diversity. She has to try to figure out how to save her knowledge about  humanity (her implanted device taught her botany skills but also the books and stories from most of human history), save the few remaining sleepers, and meet up with the survivors of the ship that left before hers.

I decided to pick this up after reading a review submitted by a patron for our library blog. I liked the mix of concepts the book presents, the contrast between Petra’s desire to continue her grandmother’s storytelling role and the science she learns when she is sleeping. I also enjoyed the way the story is told, moving between some of Petra’s earth memories, her experiences as she wakes on the ship, and some adventures she has on the new planet. I loved the way the stories she tells to the surviving sleepers help them move forward in their new life.

While I read it, though, I felt extremely aware of how I was not the audience for this book, which is a junior novel (so, written for kids about 8-12 years old). The science in this science fiction book felt thin and a little bit vague, which I think is appropriate for the audience. It’s definitely a book I would have loved as a kid, and honestly: it’s a story I would like to read if it was written for an adult audience. 

In fact, it reminded me that middle grade novels are often the hardest ones for me to read, because I struggle to connect with the reader I was as a child who could experience stories without thinking, “yes, but, wait a second…” Which isn’t, of course, a failure of the book but a trait of mine as a reader.

This one is perfect for curious young readers who want a thoughtful, brave main character.

Book Review: Winterland by Rae Meadows

“I have dreams where I am back in the gym,” Elena said. “That feeling of control and mastery. That feeling of having a secret power. Defying the rules of the natural order.”

WinterlandI’ve been excited to read Winterland, by Rae Meadows, since I first heard about it last fall. It tells the story of Anya, who lives in Norilsk, an industrial town in Russia’s far north. Her father works at the copper mine and her mother, who was a ballerina, vanished when she was five. She goes to ballet lessons for a while, but she does not love it. Instead, Anya loves doing cartwheels and somersaults with her friend Sveta, who can also do aerials and back handsprings. When the national sports program tryouts for gymnastics come to her school, both she and Sveta try out, but only Anya makes it. 

In theory, this is a novel about gymnastics. The author is a practicing gymnast and she gets the details of the sport exactly right. The brutality of the sport and its impact on young bodies, mixed with the exhilaration of finally perfecting a new trick or move, of feeling like you are flying, come across well. Anya, as a gymnast training in the Russian of the 1970s and early 80s, goes through the pain of injuries (that the coaches never give enough time to heal), a sexually perverse doctor, and the exhaustion that the sport’s rigor demands. But she also loves her sport more and more, learning new skills, perfecting her triple twist—until, of course, she doesn’t.

(I don’t know if this is the trajectory of all sports, or even all gymnasts within gymnastics. But it is a trajectory I experienced myself, and watched many of my teammates go through. I even remember talking to my best gymnastics friend, Kristi, about how it used to be fun but now was just terrifying. Even Simone Biles got the twisties. And the fact is, it is a sport that leaves life-long scars, both the physical proof of injuries and the emotional impacts that in a sense never leave.)

In actuality, this is a novel about how a large political system impacts individual lives. Anya is one little part of this system; if she wins she brings honor to Russia—as well as proof that communism is the best way to be in this world. Her coach’s work isn’t to make her the gymnast she could be but the athlete the system needs her to be. Her father, a devout member of the communist party, pushed Anya’s mother to move and work in Norilsk (rather than continuing to dance in the Bolshoi ballet) because it was how he thought they could best serve their country, but she struggled to feel the same. Vera, one of Anya’s neighbors, survived the camp that was near Norilsk, but lost everything. And Anya, as she works to become an Olympian, is altered by the damage that work does to her in ways she will never heal from. And Elena, who is based on the real-life gymnast Elena Mukhina, who became a paraplegic after attempting the Thomas salto (a move that is now illegal): she literally sacrificed the normal use of her body in an attempt to win a gold medal for her country.  

It would be easy to say this is a condemnation of Russia or of communism, but it really isn’t. It’s more of an observation about how no one can escape (alive) any political system we humans build. None of them are perfect, however much we need one, and all of them impact us in negative ways.

I did love this book. I felt compelled back into Anya’s story. I had some quibbles with the plot construction; I wanted more character development and the end felt scattered.

But it reminded me all over again of how we only get this one chance to live, and how our lives are formed not only by the choices we make—but by how the systems around us work to influence those choices in ways that aren’t always the best for us as individuals.  

Plus, Anya and her mother are connected by a bracelet. How couldn't I love that story? 

Reread of The Last Four Harry Potter Novels: My Thoughts

“Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both influencing injury, and remedying it.”

Back in October of last year, I decided to listen to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (my favorite book in the series). I was wanting an October-esque read and it was available to check out on Libby.

Hp collageIt kind of sparked a renewed interest in Harry Potter, so this winter I decided to listen to the rest of the series.

Strangely enough, RIGHT after I started Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, I read a Facebook post by a friend, wherein she expressed her irritation with “lefties” who have cancelled J. K. Rowling. As I’m trying to avoid getting myself into Internet brawls I just scrolled on by, but I did think about that while I listened to the books.

IS it wrong to enjoy the creative efforts of someone whose politics, values, or actions don’t align with your own?

The example I always come back to with this question is Anne Sexton. Some of her poems are touchstones for my entire life. “Her Kind” and “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward” and “Truths the Dead Know,” among others, have kept me going in dark times when I didn’t think I could. And yet, after I read her daughter’s memoir, Searching for Mercy Street, I can’t look at her work without the hitch of knowing. Nor have I reread The Mists of Avalon, a book I adore, after learning about how Marion Zimmer Bradley enabled her husband’s abuse of her.

But I do still love the works they created.

And I know enough fellow “lefties” who still read and love and think about Harry Potter to understand that mostly my friend’s post was the result of right-wing media consumption.

The truth is, all art throughout all time has been created by people. Creating something amazing doesn’t absolve you of your faults, but it also doesn’t make you something other than completely human. Where one individual draws the line is that individual’s choice, and wrestling with that line is an interesting part of being involved in literary ideas.

The fact is, regardless of her opinion on trans people, J. K. Rowling’s work has impacted millions of lives. For me, it is deeply entwined with the years that my very littles were beginning to emerge into childhood. I read the first four books out loud to my Bigs, so I have a great sentimental affection for them. And there is also the truth that once a writer releases their book, they no longer get to control the responses readers have—we, as readers, separate our response to a book from the author’s intent because we bring our own interpretations to it. So the opposite can be true, we can acknowledge a writer’s faults and problematic beliefs while still being impacted by their work.

None of which is an actual review of Harry Potter, but it’s what I thought about as I listened.

I also realized something during this reread: Lily Potter is entirely overlooked. Sure, she’s held up as the reason Harry is alive and protected, but I wanted so much more of her story. How did she get past her dislike of James? What did she think of motherhood? What grief did she experience over her ruptured relationship with Petunia?

I know it’s outside of the story, but it’s what I wanted to know.