Book Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

“It was always a cruelty to promise them equality,” he said, “since by their nature they can never achieve it. We have already begun the merciful task of lowering their expectations."

TestamentsI have answered “The Handmaid’s Tale” to the question “what’s your favorite novel?” since the late 1990s. (It’s not really a true answer; in my heart of hearts I can’t pick just one favorite, but clarifying with “my favorite feminist/dystopia mashup is The Handmaid’s Tale” gets clunky.) I first read it in the summer of 1990, after I had discovered Margaret Atwood via Cat’s Eye. It was one of the first books I bought with my own money (I still own that copy, in fact; it is a BOTM edition that also includes Surfacing and Life before Man, which I haven’t ever actually read). “Nolite tes bastardes carborundorum” has been my motto ever since. In a sense, those two Atwood books I read in 1990 shaped the outcome of my life; in a way, they saved me. They gave me literature, gave me really good writing, as a reason to stay in this world when darkness had almost overcome me.

I don’t think I could claim The Handmaid’s Tale as my favorite novel, though, until I had read more widely and understood more clearly what the book does, how clearly it illustrates the ease of a society taking away women’s rights and how deeply ingrained sexism is. And then the way the ending sets the entire story on a different track.

I’ve read it seven or eight times. I wrote an essay about it while working on my undergrad and talked about it with some of my more widely-thinking English students when I was teaching. (One student came into my room once during my prep period and said “Mrs. Sorensen! I just finished a book I think you would love!” and it was The Handmaid’s Tale and yes…that was a good teaching day.) I lead a book group discussion about it at the library. And never once did I think “I really wish I knew what happened to Offred.”

What happened to Offred is so not the point of The Handmaid’s Tale. It isn’t a novel that works because of the plot, or only because of it. It is a novel that pushes you to ask yourself difficult questions, about yourself, about the people you have relationships with, and about society.

But apparently, that is just me, and Margaret Atwood has been getting requests like “what happened to Offred?” and “how does Gilead fall?” from readers ever since.

Hence, The Testaments.

I was fairly disappointed that Atwood, one of my favorite writers, would write a sequel. But, here it is, along with a TV show (which, nope: I’ve never watched. Yes, it’s my favorite novel. No, I don’t need someone else interpreting it visually for me.) I did buy the book—I actually pre-ordered it—because it’s kind of a personal rule that I must buy every book she writes. But I didn’t even flip through it. Just stuck it on my shelf. Really: I didn’t need to know what happened to Offred (or June, as we’ve now learned her name is.)

But a few weeks ago, The Testaments was on the “available now” screen when I needed something to listen to at the start of a long walk. So I downloaded it and gave it a try. I went into it with zero expectations, without any of my usual Atwood fangirl emotion. Not even sure I would finish it.

I ended up finishing it.

I ended up liking it, even. (But not loving.) Did it change my life like The Handmaid’s Tale did? No. Do I think it is Atwood’s best novel? Absolutely not. Am I glad I read it? Yes.

I wrote before that The Handmaid’s Tale pushes you to ask difficult questions, and one of them for me is “why do women so easily turn on each other?” The regime of Gilead would not work without women’s complicity, especially the Aunts’. There is also that mean-girl structure we can so easily settle in to, with the Commander’s wives wielding whatever small powers they might have over the Marthas and especially over the handmaids. This isn’t just a thing that happens in novels, either; in my adult lifetime I have experienced several relationships with adult women who, in the end, I could only understand as Queen Bees protecting their regime. Women go to anti-abortion rallies. Women declare that we don’t need feminism. And I could write many pieces about how women hold themselves down by embracing the patriarchy within religion.

That is a question that The Testaments seeks to answer, as we get to read Aunt Lydia’s story. We come to understand how she got to be in the place of (relative) power she holds in Gilead and the machinations she undertakes to keep it. Her motivations aren’t mean-girl based. Instead, they are simply her doing what she needs to do to stay alive within a social structure that would be very happy to kill her. “What good is it,” Aunt Lydia thinks, “to throw yourself in front of a steamroller out of moral principles and then be crushed flat like a sock emptied of its foot?” Is it better, morally speaking, to be killed by refusing to conform or to say alive by shoving other women under the steamroller?

The story is told in three voices: Aunt Lydia, who is writing her experiences down in secret, as women obviously shouldn’t be writing anything, and the “witness testimonies” of two girls, Agnes and Daisy. Agnes is the daughter of a Commander, being raised in the tenants of the Gilead regime. Daisy is a young teenager living in Canada. These three stories eventually converge. Some of the questions from The Handmaid’s Tale are answered. You even get to read an ending that is similar, another conference discussing the study of Gilead.

In the end, I am glad I read The Testaments. I didn’t hate it. But it lacked that edge that Atwood’s other books have had. I wasn’t terrified within the society, as I was when I read Offred’s story. Maybe Gilead seen through the eyes of a teenage girl who doesn’t remember living a different way is less terrifying. At the same time, I was still full of anger and resentment over the usurpation of women’s rights. That narrow, self-righteous way of thinking, dressed in the guise of “preserving women’s virtue,” is not something I’ve only found in books, and it is my least-favorite way of being treated. So the book definitely made me feel something, and it does an excellent job reminding readers, all over again, that yes: we still need feminism. (Say it louder for the women in the back of the room.)

And we continue to need the kind of book that reminds of that. As Aunt Lydia says, “history does not repeat itself, it rhymes.” The Testaments is a rhyme of a book that didn’t need a repletion, really. But if she had to write it to fling more story to the clamoring masses, this one was OK. At least they got their answers.

And I am left asking myself if I can still say The Handmaid’s Tale is my favorite [feminist dystopian] novel. It is, but now I feel like I have to clarify: I felt that way before it was cool.

[This is book #5 in my 2021 summer reading challenge.]


Book Review: Burning Roses by S. L. Huang

Some sort of emotion welled within Rosa, flowing out with her tears like an unchecked mountain spring—not gladness, exactly, and not unlike a heart-stopping fear, but also something very much like hope.

I have been thinking about my mom a lot over the past week, likely because it was recently her birthday. Trying to make sense of things, of how our relationship changed over time, of what I could have done differently, of what I wish she would’ve been able to do differently. And also just snippets of good memories. I saw one of her closest friends at Costco and I learned a truth about my family that continues to gnaw at me (in a sardonic sort of way…I could only respond to this by thinking of course. Of course.) I dreamed about her once (but since her death my dreams of her have never been peaceful or good; instead, she is somehow alive and furious at me for thinking she could ever die, let alone sending her body to the morgue, and for getting rid of all of her stuff and selling her house) and I made one of the cakes she made a lot during the summers when I was a kid. My heart felt both heavy and buoyed: conflict mixed with the good memories.

(I feel guilty that even though she is gone I am still hampered by the negative thoughts. Shouldn’t I be able to just let it all go and only remember the good things, now that she isn’t here to defend herself or to explain?)

Burning rosesSo perhaps the timing of the novelette Burning Roses by S. L. Huang arriving on my hold shelf was not coincidental.

It tells the story of two characters out of legend, Little Red Riding Hood and Hou Yi the Archer. Both women have grown larger than they began in their respective fairy tales, their stories more intricate and fully lived, dark, and troubled. Now they are each middle-aged, living together and using their respective strengths (gun, bow and arrow) to protect the villagers from whatever monsters come their way. When fire birds arrive, scorching an entire village, they set off on a quest to find the source of the birds so as to stop more from coming.

But this isn’t a book of fairy tales or of quests, even though it contains those. Instead, it is about each character dealing with the mistakes she’s made in her life and figuring out a way to try to atone for them. It is, in fact, a story about beginning to understand, when you are at the end of your usefulness as a mother, the wrong choices you made when you were actively mothering your kids.

(Which is not what I expected at all.)

This is a novelette, so very short (153 pages), and if I summed it up I might just ruin it. So instead I will say how it made me feel.

It is a book that brought me a sense of relief—peace, nearly—about both my relationship with my mom and my relationship with my own mothering.

Because isn’t it so deeply entwined, the way your mom mothered you, the way you mother your own children. You learn how to be a mom, in part, by the woman who mothered you. And I believe we all have things that we think “I’m going to do this differently than my mom did.” When I first had Haley, I knew I would be a fantastic mom. I would give her exactly what I had needed but not received as a child. And of course, as the years went by and I did my best, I made mistake after mistake anyway. I was an imperfect mother raised by an imperfect mother. “She’d regretted every toxic part of herself and her past with vicious self-loathing,” Rosa realizes, which is a realization I have had about myself as well. I didn’t want to be toxic, to make mistakes, to cause any damage, but I still did.

Maybe my own mom also had that regret.

“Love, even more than hate, could always sharpen anger to the keenest of points.” If I didn’t love my mom, I wouldn’t have this anger still with me. Actual love must be about the whole person, not just the good parts; it has to be about knowing—seeing—the flaws, too, but carrying on anyway, and that is complicated and messy. Anger follows. Even after they are gone, or at least for me.

When I finished the book, as I was closing it, I felt…I felt a lifting. A sense of forgiveness, or maybe just the first step towards it, for my mom. Like Rosa and Hou Yi—like myself—she made mistakes. Considering her biggest mistake, Rosa realizes it was “only a clumsy, flawed decision, like so many others along the twisting path that had brought her here.” Not every choice was wrong, not everything was bad, and nothing was truly horrible. My mom, and Rosa, and Hou Yi, loved her children but also wounded them.

I did, too.

There isn’t ever a moment in the book when this is explicitly spelled out, but what it left me thinking was this: mothers always make mistakes, but trying to hide from them or to keep them hidden is impossible. This is because mothering is difficult, and it is difficult because we love our children. And so while we can’t hide our mistakes—while we have to look at them and process them—we can keep working. We can keep trying. We can never give up on loving.

Near the end of the story, Rosa realizes that she “only had the tail end of a single lifetime, but she thought it might be just enough.” I don’t have that tail end left with my own mom, but I do with my children. I know that despite my good intentions I will continue making mistakes, but I will also keep trying.

So maybe this book also brought me a bit of self-forgiveness as well.

Book #4 of my Summer Reading Challenge.


Book Review: The Great Godden

I think that when he said those words he meant them, though perhaps not in the deeper sense of actually meaning them. I racked my brain to figure it out. Was this just what relationships were like these days? Whatever you felt like with whoever was there? I didn't want to look as if I didn't understand the rules.

Great goddenMeg Rosoff's first novel, How I Live Now, is one of my top-ten favorite young adult books. Her writing is edgy and surprising and a bit risky in the YA market (hence it was perfect when it won the Printz). Plus many of her books are set in England, which I appreciate, so I watch when she has a new book released.

I was excited to read her newest, The Great Godden, which tells the story of the—well, we're never given the family's surname, but —a family's annual summer trip to their beach house on the British coast. Their adult cousin, who also has a beach house, surprises them when they arrive: she's getting married, and this summer she is hosting Kit and Hugo Godden, the sons of one of her friends, who is a famous actress. The narrator—also unnamed, unless I just somehow missed it—tells the story of the impact of Kit (the golden, sexy, confident brother) and Hugo (the dark and moody one) on her family.

This is a coming-of-age novel, I suppose. A lyrical summer read. I enjoyed the characterization and the atmosphere.

But, I must confess: it was just kind of meh for me. OK, but not memorable like several of her other books. The big twist just felt ridiculous to me, and never knowing the narrator's name just made me think why? I did think she nailed the confusion of adolescent first love (as in the quote above) but there just didn't seem to be any sparkle here.

It was OK. And I can check it off my summer reading list. But not, alas, amazing like some of her other works.

Book #3 of my Summer Reading Challenge.


Book Review: Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawaii Strong Washburn

If a God is a thing that has absolute power over us, then in this world there are many. There are gods that we choose and gods that we can’t avoid; there are gods that we pray to and gods that prey on us; there are dreams that become gods and pasts that become gods and nightmares that do, as well. As I age I learn that there are more gods than I’ll ever know, and yet I have to watch for all of them, or else they can use me or I can lose them without even realizing it.

I’ve been to Hawaii twice. The first time I went was in 1997, when Kendell and I went to Oahu with some friends. We did all the tourist things, the Arizona Memorial (my favorite day), snorkeled in Hanauma Bay, explored Waikiki, went to Turtle Beach (although we didn’t see any turtles), spent a day at the PCC, suffered from sunburns, hiked the short trail to Diamond Head, ate brunch on the beach. I enjoyed that trip, but Hawaii didn’t get into my blood until 2017, when we took our whole family to the Big Island.

Something about that trip made me fall in love with Hawaii. Maybe it was that I went out running almost every morning. The hike out to Papakōlea or the afternoon I spent wandering Pu'uhonua O Hōnaunau (which connected me to my childhood self reading about Queen Liliuokalani) or the morning we went snorkeling together and I looked out through the blue water and could see my whole family in ocean dotted with dolphins. It wasn’t really about the beach, as I don’t love the beach and actually had two of my life’s most terrifying beach experiences on that trip. More, it was about a connection, completely unearned due to my status as a haole, to the island itself. I remember standing on a rocky beach during one of my morning runs, watching the waves and smelling that Hawaii smell and feeling how the island ran deep into the ocean floor and stood by itself in the water, an entity that didn’t form me but that somehow, in that moment, acknowledged my existence. A land of different gods than any other place I’ve touched, gods whose stories happened without people like me but are deep and strong as the root of the island.

Sharks in the time of saviorsI thought of that feeling a lot as I read Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn. It tells the story of the Flores family, Malia and Augie and their children Dean, Nainoa, and Kaui. Nainoa, who was conceived in the Waipio Valley on a night when the old gods seemed to walk, is a sort of a miracle: as a child, he fell off a boat off the coast of Kona, but the sharks that swam in didn’t eat him, but saved him. Supernatural events start happening, continue happening as the family grows and tries to survive as the sugar industry collapses. The story is told through each of the family members’ perspectives. And, honestly: that is all I want to tell about the book. Partly because it is a hard one to describe, mostly because it is one you just need to read in order to experience: magic realism set in Hawaii, gorgeously and movingly written.              

I loved this book. I did set it down for a good two weeks, when I got entirely too frustrated with Dean and his choices. But it wasn’t a book that would let me let go, so I picked it back up and finished it in two fast gulps of reading. I loved it because I had been to some of the places in the book, and because of the writing. Because half the time I had to set it aside for a few minutes because it made me cry so often—it is a raw and painful story, but it hit some of my sore spots in restorative ways. I don’t think it is a book that everyone will love; it’s not particularly approachable and as far as plot goes not a lot happens, and the ending isn’t really tidy.

But I am so glad I read it, because it made me feel a part of Hawaii again, like I did on that trip. Not in a cultural-appropriation way. But just connected to the islands as they are part of the world and I am part of the world, and the gods only barely glanced at me but I kept them with me somehow. Or maybe they kept a part of me with them, in the flowers and the waves and the stone and the volcano.

Some fragments I loved:

Whole nights after the sharks, your father and I had been wondering what would happen,  what you would be. I believe that graveyard day was the first time we truly understood the scale of you. . . My time as a mother was the same as those last gasping breaths of the owl, and soon enough you’d have to gently set down my love, fold it up into the soil of your childhood, and move beyond. (Malia)

You can talk about a thing over and over.  Or see movies or listen to songs that you think say something about it, right? But still it’s nothing compared to the whirling jump of blood in your chest when you find, at last and at least for a moment, someone that wants you as much as you want them. (Kaui)

How many nights did we make like that? How long was I stupid enough to believe we were indestructible? But that’s the problem with the present, it’s never the thing you’re holding, only the thing you’re watching, later, from a distance so great the memory might as well be a spill of stars outside a window at twilight. (Noa)

               It’s an impossible thing to explain, motherhood. What is lost, the blood and muscle and bone that are drawn from your body to feed and breathe a new life into the world. The bulldozer of exhaustion that hits in the first trimester, the nauseous clamps of the mornings, the warping and swelling and splitting open of everything previously taut or delicate, until your body is no longer yours but something you must survive. But those are only the physical. It’s what comes after that takes more.
               Whatever part of me flowed into you from my body, it turned us tight into two people that shared a soul. I believe that of all my children. Fathers will never understand the way you get deep in us, so deep that there’s a part of me that remains, always, a part of you, no matter where you go…You’d wake in the crook of my arms with the whites of your eyes alive with brightness and wonder, drinking in every hew thing as your impossibly smooth skin pawed at my cheek. Windowsills we rocked by. The fuzz of your first hairs under my nose as I nuzzled you in your sleep. . . The whole world was there, in your face, beaming out of your perfect brown skin. Everything was made new, over and over. It shook me with something so holy and complete I didn’t need a prayer to know there were gods with us, in us. (Malia)

Book #1 of my Summer Reading Challenge


Book Review: Burn by Patrick Ness

“I'm just a girl."

"It is tragic how well you have been taught to say that with sadness rather than triumph.”

About a week ago I was casting around for an audio book to listen to during a long walk I wanted to take. Burn by Patrick Ness was available on Overdrive, and since I’ve enjoyed many of his other books I decided to give this one a try. I’m glad I did! Ness's books are always beautifully written. They break your heart a bit, and make you feel things intensely, and look at the world in slightly different ways. This one was no exception. 

BurnBurn is a young adult novel set in Washington state during the 1950s. There are several people who tell the story, but the main character (for me) is Sarah Dewhurst, who lives with her father on his farm outside of a small town. Since she is of mixed heritage, she doesn’t have many friends—none, actually, except for her neighbor Jason, who is similarly outcast. Being poor, Sarah’s father has to hire a dragon to clear a new field for him, and this is when Sarah’s world starts to change. There is also Malcom, a boy from a cult called The Believers, which wants to clear the world of people for the dragons, and an FBI investigator, Agent Woolf, who is trying to track down Malcolm with her partner, as she’s figured out he’s going to kill someone. And Kazimir, the dragon himself, who, as a Russian Blue, evokes even more suspicion than the usual red dragons do, what with the Cold War and Russia planning on launching a satellite soon.

I enjoyed much of this story. I had no idea where it would go, as what seemed to be the likely climax happened only halfway through the book. But I loved where it went. The story offers much to think about regarding concepts like race, prejudice, religiosity, and choice.

My complaint is that it really felt too short. I think it needed about 20% more story, especially at the end. It also has quite a bit of violence, which seemed gratuitous for a young adult novel.

But it was a fun companion on several runs and walks.

Book #2 of my Summer Reading Challenge.


Book Review (of a sort): The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin

It is surprising how refreshing this feels. Being judged by what you do, and not what you are.

Fifth seasonBack in 2017, I took the first two books of N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy (The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate) with me when we went to Hawaii. It was a perfect vacation read for me, engaging and substantial and enthralling. Totally unlike the other series I’d read by her, The Inheritance trilogy, but alike in the quality of writing and the way the writer is aware that even in speculative fiction there are all types of people. (This isn’t white, European-fable-based fantasy, in other words.) The setting—an earth-like planet, called The Stillness, that has undergone global transformation so that sometimes there are “seasons,” a span of years where the environment becomes inhospitable to human life in different ways—was completely unlike Hawaii (one of my requirements for a vacation read is that it is not set in the same or similar place as where I am going), but also a little bit connected via volcanoes and basalt.

The series tells the story of Essun, who is an orogene. Orogenes are people on this earth who can control various geological processes. They are highly despised and so, when a child is discovered to be one, they are either killed by their comm (the communities people live within) or, if they are lucky (or unfortunate, depending on perspective) they are taken to be trained at The Fulcrum, where they learn to control their powers. As the series starts, a massive earthquake has caused a continent-wide rift volcano to form, setting off a season that might be too long for humanity to survive. On the same day, Essun (who has hidden the fact of her orogeny from her family and community) discovers that her husband has murdered their son and abducted her daughter, Nassun, presumably because he discovered their powers of orogeny.

Obelisk gateTo me, this is the best kind of science fiction. It is based in science—geology, which is my favorite scientific branch anyway—but the way the story progresses makes you think about humanity and our society. It explores the mother/daughter relationship, gender, women's roles, race, racism, prejudice, community, education, friendship, all while telling a damn fine story. Am I gushing? Well, let me ooze a little more:

This is a series I am in awe of. What I mean by that is this:

When I read some books I find myself thinking this is the kind of book I might be able to write. Those books resonate because the author and I have some sort of the same way of thinking. Sometimes this even frustrates me: why can that person write this book but I can’t, or I haven’t yet?

Other books create the opposite reaction. They resonate because they are nothing that I would ever be able to even imagine, let alone put into words. They come from ways of thinking that are entirely different than mine, and I love that we can live in a world so full of so much brilliance and diversity of imagination.

The Broken Earth trilogy causes the second kind of reaction in me. I think so many things in it are brilliant and my writerly self just soaks it all in with awe. I couldn’t ever do what she does and I am just grateful I found her work so I can be exposed to such ways of thinking.

At any rate: I read the first two books in the trilogy in Hawaii. (I finished the second book on our drive home.) I had every intention of reading the third book, The Stone Sky, right when it came out, which was only a couple of months after our trip. I even bought it on pre-order so I could start it as soon as it was released.

But…I didn’t read it! I think it was because it was so closely connected to Hawaii for me, and I wanted to have that same feeling. Or maybe I was afraid that I loved the first two books so much, the last one might not measure up. The ending might disappoint me. I don’t know.

This spring, Kendell and I tried to plan a trip to Hawaii. I thought perfect! I’ll crack open The Stone Sky as soon as we get there! But since it’s been four years since I read the other two, I decided to listen to the audio books, so as to refresh my memory.

So throughout April and May, these books were part of my thoughts again. I listened while I exercised, quilted, cooked, and worked in the garden. Rereading them made me love them even more. I had forgotten quite a few details, and there were others that I somehow completely missed during my first read.

And now I am ready to read my print copy of The Stone Sky. We aren’t going to Hawaii—it was impossible to get a rental car, and everything was so expensive, we will save it for next year. But next week I am having another surgery, and that is the book I’m going to read first while I’m lying around recuperating (again). I can’t wait to see how the trilogy ends.


Book Review: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

I realized that the words most often used to define us were words that described our function in relation to others. Even the most benign words—maiden, wife, mother—told the world whether we were virgins or not. What was the male equivalent of maiden? I could not think of it. What was the male equivalent of Mrs., of whore, of common scold?... Which words would define me? Which would be used to judge or contain?

Last week when I was at a physical therapy appointment, one of the techs asked me for some book recommendations. I told her I always like to talk about the book I’ve most recently finished, and as I had just stayed up past midnight the night before to finish The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams, I talked Dictionary of lost wordsabout it first. It is a historical fiction novel based in the time that the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was being compiled, a huge undertaking that ended up lasting roughly forty years. Our protagonist Esme lives with her father, who is working on the OED at the Scriptorium in Oxford, one of several different places where editors and writers worked to research the history and meaning of words. She grows up as the dictionary gets longer, her entire world revolving around it.

I told the PT tech that what the book explores is how the OED is, for all its lofty goals of creating a complete examination of all the words in English since Saxon times, a record of the time it was created. Namely, it was written by white Victorian men, who had a specific worldview. Esme, being a female, brings another perspective to the dictionary. After sneaking out the annotation for the word bondmaid, She starts collecting words on her own, gathered from women, words that the OED editors would never include because they were “obscene” or because they didn’t come from an established print source. “It is a novel that reminded me that we still need feminism” is how I wrapped up my explanation to the PT tech, and then I drove home and thought about it some more, especially since I have been thinking a lot, lately, about what draws me to certain books. For me, feminism in some form is always a part of my favorite books, which is one reason I loved The Dictionary of Lost Words.

The book was different than what I had expected. The reviews I read made me think it would be more of a literary mystery of sorts, a la Possession: A Romance. It isn’t that, really. Instead, it is a book that tells most of the story of a character’s life, covering many years. (I’m a librarian, but I don’t know if there is a name for that genre.) What makes it work—without giving away much of the story—is that as she is exploring “women’s words,” Esme is experiencing many of the things a woman could experience in those years, including some time spent with the suffragettes trying to get the women’s vote in England. In one of my favorite chapters, she’s sent to Scotland to spend a fortnight hiking in order to help her move past a depression she is experiencing, and her gradual return to a happier spirit resonated with me. She takes this trip with her friend Lizzie, who has been a sort of—ironically—bondmaid to her all of her life, and on their last day as they are talking, Lizzie says “God is in this place…I feel him more here than I ever have in church. Out here it’s like we’re stripped of all our clothes, of the callouses on our hands that tell our place, of our accents and words. He cares for none of it. All that matters is who you are in your heart. I’ve never loved him as much as I should, but here I do.” And that so exactly encompasses why I love my Sundays spent in nature church that just on that basis I will love this book forever.

I’m not sure this is exactly what that PT tech was looking for in her quest for books to help her get excited about reading fiction again. It is a slowly moving story, not an adventure, not full of mystery or anticipation. Just the story of a life and how it connects to the larger world. Which is one of my favorite types of books. I’m glad I read it!


Book Review: Oona Out of Order

Oona stopped trusting the mirror years ago. After all it told only a sliver of the story. The mirror exposed time’s passage, yes, but eclipsed her heart’s true mileage. Each year the body was hers but her mind was out of sync with her reflection.

I’m going to say this upfront: this review is all over the place AND it includes spoilers. But as “all over the place” seems to go with a book that’s about a woman who leaps into different years each New Year’s Eve, I guess that works. I’ll warn about the spoilers!

Oona out of orderOona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore tells the story of Oona, who for unknown reasons begins a sort of time traveling at midnight on her 19th birthday (which is on New Year’s Day). As the clock flips over, she faints and then awakens to discover her 19-year-old psyche in her 51-year-old body. She’s gone from the 80s to the 2010s and everything is different culturally and physically, but her self is still 19. Each section of the book is about a different year, as she continues “leaping” at the end of each one into random years.

I liked many things about this book and am glad I read it. I listened to the audio version, which was read by Brittany Pressley. I worried that the time-traveling aspect of the story would make the audio confusing, but each section begins by telling you Oona’s chronological age and the year she is leaping in to, so aside from the general confusion after the first leap, it wasn’t hard to follow at all. (I was confused, on the first leap, at why Oona didn’t know what was going on and then kind of dreaded her having to figure it out each leap but then I realized that’s not how it worked. She didn’t know what was going on because it was the first leap, duh!) Before her first leap, Oona is in a band with her boyfriend, and there are TONS of musical references scattered throughout the story, and I LOVED that aspect of it. There is also traveling, and a good amount of time spent in New York City, and Oona herself is a character I liked spending time with.

As I got closer to the end I started wondering how it might be wrapped up. The ah-ha for Oona is that she can’t really change what happens in her life (aside from making sure she buys and sells stocks at the right time) and instead she needs to embrace each year as it comes. Which is true for all of us, I think. And honestly, much as I enjoyed the book, the ending let me down just a little bit. It felt a little bit too…pat, I guess.

Still, the book made me think a lot, and that is what makes the best books for me! Some of my random thoughts:

What if I could have my 20-something body back, even just for a year? Would it change how I feel about my almost-50 body? I think 20-something Amy would feel the same abject horror over the softness and the wrinkles and the aches of this 50-year-old body as Oona does. As I am grappling with accepting this body, that first leap made me cry a bit. Aging is hard. What would 80-something Amy tell me to appreciate about my current body?

If I could experience time travel (it is the super power I would choose if they were being handed out!), what would I want to make sure I experienced? (Specifically…not changing big decisions but doing things I didn’t do, just for the experience of them.) I would go to Lilith Fair. I would start hiking earlier. (I would visit Big Springs before they capped it over.) I would spend my time with my newborn babies in entirely different ways. Care less about things that didn’t really matter, even though they seemed important then. Go on that last Lake Powell trip with my parents, even though Kendell didn’t want to go (go without him, even). I find myself adding to this list, a sort of mental tally of missed happy moments. This thought process has made me think OK, but what can I experience NOW anyway?

LITTLE SPOILER:
There is a scene near the end of the book when Oona’s mother, who is ill with cancer, has a good death-is-coming-soon conversation with her. (I wrote more about my response to this scene HERE.)  After I got up off the floor and stopped crying, I started thinking about what it is like to be the mom of adult children. What I can do to make our relationship stronger and more meaningful? One of the painful things for me about my kids growing up was that I had to learn I was no longer the most important person in their lives. This is natural and how it is supposed to go but it was still a loss I had to grieve over. And since I have a hard time feeling like I matter anyway, right now I feel very superfluous to all of my kids. (Less so with Kaleb, of course.) I think I need to find a better balance with this: not being the person who helps them the most in their lives doesn’t mean I don’t matter at all. (They haven’t made me feel this way, for the record.)

BIG SPOILER:

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I began to suspect who Kenzie was during the first leap. Then I doubted because of the time they went to the Suzanne Vega concert together, but I didn’t put it away altogether. I wasn’t sure how it would work, and honestly I wish the book would’ve included one of the years Oona was pregnant with him. BUT. It pissed me off how often she castigated herself for putting him up for adoption. She uses the word “abandoned” several times as she processes the experience and I just: NO. Birthmothers and adoption are so misunderstood in our culture, and having yet one more voice of negativity about it in the ether just made me mad. I mean, sure, eventually she gets to a place of peace with it, but she never really stops feeling like she was a bad mom. Birthmothers aren’t bad moms.

END OF SPOILER!

Have you read Oona Out of Order? What did you think?


Book Review: Thirst by Amelie Nothomb

If you reproach your departed loved ones with not appearing before you, do not forget that you are the one who needs them and not the other way around. When we truly love someone, do we require that they sacrifice themselves for us? Isn't allowing those we love a bit of selfish tranquility the finest proof of our devotion? That takes less effort than you might think, merely trust.

In truth, if your departed loved ones remain silent, be glad. It means they have died in the best way. That they are having a good experience of death. Do not infer that they do not love you. They love you in the most wonderful way: by not forcing themselves to go into unpleasant contortions for your sake.

"What is your favorite kind of book to read?" is a question I am asked often, as a librarian and a life-long reader and a person who tends to bring up books a lot in conversation.  This is actually a difficult question for me to answer because my real preference— "anything well-written"—sounds snobby and also sort of vague but incredibly precise all at the same time. I can't bring myself to just say something like "fantasy" or "historical fiction" or whatever. 

So I try to turn the question around on the questioner. "What do you love to read?" And while it is totally unfair of me, seeing as it is difficult for me to answer that question, I have a very-very-much unfavorite answer:

"The scriptures." (Or, "The Bible." Or, if we're in Utah, "The Book of Mormon.")

Probably this says a lot about me, and perhaps it is horrible of me to even confess, but, I confess: I don't enjoy reading the scriptures. I get caught up in small details that don't make sense to me. (Like, if the sun was created on the fourth day, why are the time periods before that also called "days"?) I get annoyed by the things that happen and the choices people must make, by the violence and, most of all, by the patriarchal view of the world. I cannot relate.

Don't get me wrong. I understand the reason for reading scripture. I even understand figuring out how understanding those ancient stories might make me a better person. There are scripture passages I love and I even have a favorite scripture (Isaiah 12:3). There are many stories in the scriptures that I love as well.

But I don't love reading the scriptures.

What I do love, however, is a good retelling of a scriptural story. (I also love retellings of mythologies and of Homer's and Virgil's epics and of Shakespeare and even of Austen under the right circumstances.) The Red Tent by Anita Diamant is one of my all-time favorite novels; Mark Twain's The Diary of Adam and Eve gave me a profoundly altered understanding of my relationship to God, and I still sometimes wake up from dreams about Noah's wife inspired by NaamahI have favorite poems about Mary and Eve and Sarah and Bathsheba.

ThirstLast week at the library, I was going through a pile of new books, sorting them into groups depending on which display shelf I would put them on, I came across a thin, blood-red book called Thirst, by Amelie Nothomb. I read the inside cover: "In a first-person voice as entertaining and irreverent as it is wise, Northomb narrates Jesus's final days, from his trial to his crucifixion to the resurrection." And I read the first page, which describes the trial of Jesus. The first witness is the couple from the marriage at Cana, who complain that Jesus's miracle humiliated them by its timing, forcing them to serve the better wine after the inferior and making them a laughingstock. Other recipients of his miracles also testify, complaining about how they were unfair or changed something else other than what was intended.

I read the first two pages in one rapid gulp and then I decided the book would not go on a display shelf yet, but come home with me for a few days.

This is a short book, only 92 pages. But it changed me irrevocably.

It fits my requirement—"well written." Christ's voice in this book is unique, both sardonic and sincere. He reminds me a little bit of the Adam in Twain's book, except there is no silliness, just wisdom in his type of innocence. 

But it also fulfilled the thing that my absolute favorite books do: they put into words—by way of story, character, plot—ideas I have considered but not been able to put into words of my own. They answer a question I have been struggling to form. They help me see the flaw in my thought, or give a clue to understanding. Truth, I believe, is like the broken mirror in the fairy tale, scattered around the world, sharp and perhaps dangerous but always worth seeking, and sometimes a book is a piece of the truth.

Lately I have been thinking of the scripture Matthew 7:13, considering what "narrow" means. I haven't found the exact way to explain my thoughts yet, and Thirst does not reference that scripture, but it still helped me understand the impulse behind this question, which is really the question that has guided me for the past five or six years: What does it mean to be a good person? What is "good" anyway? The Christ in this novel has ideas on that, and he shares them, and these ideas helped widen my path of thought.

There are many quotes and ideas I could share from this slim novel—Christ's interaction with Simon of Cyrene is such an amazing moment, for example—but the one that first shook me hard was this. Christ is thinking about the couple's testimony, because the miracle at Cana is his favorite, and about the miracles he performed in his life. He tell us: "Later on, I gave it some thought, and I did not approve of my wondrous feats. They gave the wrong impression, this was not what I had come to deliver; love was no longer free, it had to serve a purpose." Christ's love—in the novel but also in the sense that I am just beginning to understand it—doesn't exist for miracles or even for saving us, but just as what it is. Love. Love. That is the reason the way is narrow, because it is simple.

I read the library's copy of this book, but I will be buying my own. I will reread it and underline all of my favorite parts. And then I will get obnoxious with it, I think. I think I will loan it to my friends. I will ask them to read it, too. My copy, I mean. And underline what they love. And tell me how (or even if) it changed them. 

Some books come into your life at exactly the right time. For many people, this happens with scriptures. For me, it happens with literature. In this sense, some books are a sort of scripture for me, sacred writings that help me understand how to be in the world. Not all—not even many—books are sacred like this. So I am always grateful when I find one. 


Book Tag: Reading Habits

I found this book tag on a blog I also recently discovered, Read by Court  and thought it looked like a fun list of questions to answer. If you are new to my blog allow me to warn you: “brevity is the soul of wit” is a bit of wisdom I have a hard time actually using, but I’ll try to keep my answers short!

Do you have a special place at home for reading?

Dare I confess: I do a LOT of reading in the bath tub. Not really because it’s my special place to read but because in a house full of boys, I am most likely to be left alone in the bathroom. But tub reading is a life-long habit for me. When we built our house my mom suggested putting a light over the tub because she knew of my proclivity and I’m grateful for that bit of advice all the time! I also read in bed, in the front room, or at the kitchen table. In the summer I like to read outside on the lawn chair.

Bookmark or random piece of paper?

Yes! In theory I love bookmarks and I actually own many, but I will use whatever is near. Often it is little bits of scrapbooking something-or-other acting as a bookmark. I also have piles of images I’ve cut out of Folio book catalogs that I use for bookmarks.

Can you just stop reading or do you have to stop at a chapter/or certain amount of pages?

I can just stop reading. I learned this skill when I became a mom.

Do you eat or drink whilst reading?

Is it even reading if you don’t start with a snack? One of my favorite things when I was pregnant is that my belly allowed me to combine three things I love: I’d get in the tub with a bowl of ice cream and a book. I’d nestle the bowl between breasts & belly, hold my book with one hand and the spoon with the other. Eating, bathing, reading all at once!

Multitasking: music or tv whilst reading?

I don’t require silence when I’m reading, so if someone’s watching TV or listening to music it doesn’t bother me at all. But if I’m alone I would turn it all off.

One book at a time or several at once?

I usually have one novel I’m reading in physical form and one I’m listening to on audio. And I am always working on a poetry book or essay collection.

Reading at home or everywhere?

I wish I felt comfortable reading anywhere. Like, wouldn’t it be great if I were at a party and feeling my usual awkward-and-unskilled-at-mingling self, and I could just find a corner somewhere and read? But I think that is generally socially unacceptable. I did sometimes bring my book to family parties at my in-laws’ house, and since they were both readers I don’t think it bothered them, but it did bug Kendell. I do always bring a book (or three) with me on trips.

Reading out loud or silently in your head?

One of the things I loved when I was a teacher was reading out loud to my classes. And I loved reading to my kids. But if I’m reading for myself, I read silently.

Do you read ahead or skip pages?

If I start to read ahead it’s usually a sign that I’m not enjoying the book. The only book I’ve actively skipped pages in was The Martian, where I mostly skimmed the science-y stuff. Also I have been known to read the last pages of books.

Breaking the spine or keeping it like new?

I’m not really OBSESSIVE about keeping the books I own in perfect condition, but I also try to not purposefully damage them either. Is a book simply a story-delivery mechanism, or does it hold value as an object? It depends, for me, on many things. Like, if I’m reading a hardback book I’ll generally take off the slipcover. But I also feel like the books I own are records unto themselves, meaning the process of reading it is part of the book itself, and incidental “damage” is proof of that book’s existence inside of my life, so I actually LIKE if it looks like a book’s been read.

 

Do you write in your books?

Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. I annotate and underline. When I finish a book I often write the date on the back flyleaf and my thoughts. Or if it’s a book in a series I make a list of what I think is important to remember for the next one. If there’s a story about where I got the book I’ll write that somewhere (“I bought this at a used bookshop on Charing Cross Road” for example). Many of my books also have random notes in them, like “eye doctor, 9:30a.m.” and if the book in question went on a trip with me, I write that too and also try to leave some trip-related memento in its pages. And, yes, to answer the unspoken question: I do dog ear my books. (But not the library’s!) Not to mark my page, but to identify pages I want to return to.

When do you find yourself reading?

I don’t have a set reading time, so just whenever I have some free moments. If I’m eating alone for whatever reason I will usually read then.

What is your best setting to read in?

Just somewhere comfy. I believe that books and quilts, like books and snacks, go together, so I like a quilt around if it’s possible.

What do you do first, read or watch?

I have actually grown more and more reluctant to watch movie adaptations of books I LOVE. (Like, people who know me assume I must adore the TV adaption of The Handmaid’s Tale, as it is my favorite novel, but, no. I don’t need more story than was included in the book and I’m actually kind of irritated it became a TV show.) It just so rarely happens that the movie version actually jives with the images I have created in my own head that I have started avoiding them. But if it is a book I am only sort-of interested in, I will see that movie only after I read the book.

What format do you prefer: e-book, audiobook, or physical book?

I really don’t like e-books. I like the book in my hand if I’m using my eyes. I have read a few e-books on my phone but I don’t own a Kindle. I do have a growing affection for audio books though. I listen to them while I am quilting, cooking dinner, cleaning around the house, or working in the garden. Also on long runs when I am training for races. I mostly listen to fantasy novels. Also, if I want to read a sequel to a book I don’t remember as well as I would like, I will listen to the audio of the earlier book before starting the new one.

Do you have a unique habit when you read?

I don’t know if it is unique, but I tend to find myself twirling my hair while I’m reading.

Do book series have to match?

If I’m buying the series then yes, I would prefer they match. If I’m reading the library copy I don’t care. Honestly, though, I rarely buy series. I do have my own copies of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and The Time Quartet, and I bought a lot of YA series when my Bigs were teenagers, but generally I don’t have enough shelf space for all the series.

How do you decide if you’ll read the library copy or buy your own? (I added this question because the previous questions made me think along these lines.)

If I think I’ll read a book more than once, I will buy it. I tend to buy more poetry, essay, and short story collections than fiction. I will always buy Margaret Atwood’s newest books. If I want to have a relationship with the book itself, rather than only reading the story, I buy it. I also really like it when a friend borrows a book I own.

If you read this far, now you know all about my reading habits!