Book Review: Brave the Wild River by Melissa L. Sevigny

They brought knowledge, energy, and passion to their botanical work, but also a new perspective. Before them, men had gone down the Colorado to sketch dams, plot railroads, dig gold, and daydream little Swiss chalets stuck up on the cliffs. They saw the river for what it could be, harnessed for human use. Clover and Jotter saw it as it was, a living system made up of flower, leaf, and thorn, lovely in its fierceness, worthy of study for its own sake. They knew every saltbush twig and stickery cactus was, in its own way, as much a marvel as Boulder Dam—shaped to survive against all the odds.

Brave the wild riverEvery summer when I was a kid, we went to Lake Powell. There was some age I had to achieve before I could go—I think I had to be six and know how to wear a life jacket without freaking out, and I learned how to waterski on Utah Lake the summer before I went, on tiny, kid-sized skis—but I don’t think there was a summer we missed going until I was 15 or 16.

Between those Lake Powell summers and my seventh-grade geology adventures, even before I ever hiked a single inch of Utah’s red rock desert, I have loved the Colorado River Plateau. So Melissa L. Sevigny’s book Brave the Wild River: The Untold Story of Two Women Who Mapped the Botany of the Grand Canyon was a must-read for me.

It tells the story of two botanists, Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter, who, in the 1930s, manage to put together a group of rafting boats and guides so that they can map the botany of the Colorado, from its convergence with the Green River to the newly-built Boulder Dam.

At that point, the Colorado only had one dam, Boulder. It was a wild and mostly-uncharted place that had claimed almost all the lives of anyone who had tried to raft it. For two women to undertake such a thing was basically unimaginable to most of American society.

And yet, they felt it was important and then they made it happen.

It’s hard for me to explain how much I loved this book. It touches on so many things I feel passionate about: women doing what they want to do in the world, unfettered by society’s inability to imagine their possibilities. The preservation of the wild places. Understanding the way that men’s thought processes are so often destructive and women’s are more preservative. The beauty of the desert. People who persevere despite setbacks. Wildflowers and cactus and trees and plants. Adventures in the great outdoors. Scientific knowledge. And yes: the Colorado River.

It even brought me to an ugly cry. At the end of the book, the author writes about one of the scientists, who was still alive at the time, being invited to raft the river again. The layer of her memories—the way the river was, the way it is now—highlighted how much damage we have done and will continue to insist on doing to the world. (Yes, even my beloved Lake Powell. It shouldn’t exist and we can’t undo what it’s done.) It is infuriating and maddening and so sad to me, and I continue to be unable to understand humanity’s blind destruction of the only place we have to live.

I haven’t been back to Lake Powell since 1998, when I went with some other adult friends. And while I would desperately love to visit Rainbow Bridge again (perhaps one day I will hike there), I don’t think I will ever seek it out. It is too painful to be there without my dad, or to face my own layer of memories, how we used to be with how it all turned out.

But I loved seeing the river through Clover and Jotter’s experiences.


Book Review: In the Upper Country by Kai Thomas

"The old woman was a teller indeed; she spoke with motion in her hands. Her voice rose like a sudden gust of wind, and fell quiet like the shuffle of leaves. She lingered in silence between words."

In the upper countryIn the Upper Country by Kai Thomas is a book about storytelling. It starts with Lesinda, a young woman living in a Canadian town called Dunmore, which was settled entirely by free black people. The main story is set in the years between British Emancipation and the US Civil War, and Dunmore is one of the last destinations for the Underground Railroad.

Lesinda, who was educated by one of the wealthy white people in the town where she grew up, writes articles for the Dunmore paper as well as keeping house for the family she lives with. She is called, one afternoon, to come to the home of a farmer who lives close to her, where she discovers a group of runaway slaves and a slave catcher who has been shot in the cornfield.

Why the farmer calls Lesinda first, rather than a policeman (who he does eventually also call) becomes clearer as the narrative progresses: the town will need a story for what happened, and Lesinda is a person who can tell stories in powerful ways.

She reluctantly takes up the task of talking with the old woman who shot the slave catcher, and they strike a sort of bargain: A tale for a tale. And thus the narrative builds, weaving backward and forward through time and families that intertwine in and out of each other’s lives.

This is an amazing book. It taught me many things I had never imagined about that time of the world. I didn’t know (or had learned and forgotten) the details about how Tecumsah and his involvement in the War of 1812 nor the plan to create a third nation for Native Americans. I never even thought to consider, in fact, that Native Americans and enslaved people would have interacted.

But more than the history, what I loved was the way the story was told. The exchanging of stories and the different formats (some are the voices of other enslaved people told by a “text" of written slave narratives that Sinda’s old neighbor had), the way the stories covered both time and landscape and yet, in the end, tell the same thing—I loved it.

I listened to this as an audio book, and while the narration was beautifully done, I often had a hard time remembering whose story I was inhabiting. I wonder if the print version has some kind of family tree to help readers keep the ancestry lines straight? I’d actually really like to revisit this one in print, even if I didn’t reread the whole thing, just to straighten things out in my mind.

Honestly, though, I loved it right up to the ending, which was disappointing to me. There isn’t really a resolution for what the town of Dunmore will do if the old woman is hung for her crime and we don’t know what actually happens to her.

But the rest of the story continues to stick with me.


Book Review: Arch-Conspirator by Veronica Roth

Then at least we would be responsible for our own doom, instead of someone else deciding it for us. And really, isn't that the most any of us can hope for?

One of my most frustrating university discussions happened over a reading of Antigone. I don’t even remember now what literature class it was, who the professor was, or even what year I was in, but I still remember the other student’s face, her pale-red hair and floral dress.

 

Antigone by felix resurreccion hidalgo
Antigone by Felix Resureccion Hidalgo


I hadn’t read Sophocles before that class, but Antigone blew me away. We also read Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Thebes but it was Antigone that hit me the hardest. Her loyalty to her brother and her determination to do what she felt was right; I even dreamed about her burial.

(Twenty-five years later it is still my favorite classic piece of literature.)

In a classroom conversation, we were asked who the hero of the story is. I think it is obvious: Antigone, of course. She is the hero because she doesn’t allow fear to determine her choices. She remains true to her ideals.

But the other student insisted I was wrong. Ismene is the hero, in her mind, because Ismene survives. Doesn’t she, in the end, try to stand up for her sister? Even if it’s too late, she does try. And by staying alive she makes sure someone exists to carry on Oedipus’s family line.

I didn’t know enough about so many things back then to explain why I thought she was wrong. I could have an excellent discussion of it now, from many perspectives (literary, religious, women’s rights…) And I certainly couldn’t, back then, have framed the story within a concept of sisters actually betraying each other, as I can now, so I couldn’t imagine, actually, how Ismene’s lack of courage hurt her sister, and in ways that had nothing to do with her horrific death. 

AntigoneAt any rate, I absolutely had to read Veronica Roth’s novella, Arch Conspirator, when I found out it is a futuristic, dystopian retelling of Antigone. I was so excited to read it that I put it off for a few months, because I worried I’d be disappointed.

But I was not disappointed.

The way that Roth takes the main points of Sophocles’ tales and reimagines them on the last city on a dying earth is just—well, the only word for it is “clever.” She builds a fully-imagined world with very few words, then sets her characters to interact inside of it, playing out their parts. THe story is told from several perspectives, Antigone (who is called “Tig” by her siblings, a little tidbit that sums up exactly what I mean by “clever”), Ismene, Haemon, Eurydice. 

I loved it so much.

I couldn’t help contrasting the Amy who read Antigone all of those years ago with myself reading this retelling of it. I’m almost not the same person at all. I am no longer afraid to use my voice as I was during those days at BYU, when I intrinsically knew I did not fit in or agree with the ways many of my classmates viewed the world, but I didn’t know how to put it into words yet. But we share our strong opinions about books, still, and are both still moved by Antigone.

***SPOILER**

In Arch Conspirator, the ending is different: Ismene still goes to her sister too late, but she goes anyway, and asks Antigone if she can go with her. (Instead of being buried alive, Antigone is to be sent to space on the last functional spaceship on earth, which is kind of the same thing.) 

And Antigone says yes. 

Ismene realizes that her relationship with her sister is the thing that gives meaning to her life, and she takes action on that decision.

I honestly would likely not have read this book if I had realized that, at its core, Antigone is a story about sisters. I don’t think it hit me in that light when I read it at 27, but now? After all that has happened, I can’t see it any other way: the beating heart of the story is sisterhood.

That Antigone relents and doesn’t go into darkness alone as a defense mechanism, and that Ismene realizes her mistake before it’s too late, and then ACTS on that knowledge?

I don’t know that that is a thing that could happen in real life. But it both broke my heart and gave me…what? Not hope, actually. Not that my own Ismene would ever again act on our relationship mattering to her. But just…a little glimmer that maybe I don’t know the ending of this story yet.


Book Review: Good Night, Irene by Luis Alberto Urrea

It had not taken them long after arrive in Glatton to understand that their service was not truly about the donuts and coffee. They had seen enough boys fail to return from a morning flight. The real service was that their faces, their voices, their sendoff might be the final blessing from home for some of these young pilots. The enormity of this trivial-seeming job became clearer every day.

Good night ireneThere is so much historical fiction written about World War II that I have grown resistant to it. The sheer volume is overwhelming, and it can become repetitive: just another somebody’s interpretation of the impact a war can have. (Do I sound jaded? They just all can’t be full of excellent writing, strong character development, and meaningful interaction.) Sometimes it feels like WWII fiction is written simply because it will sell, but in a sense it almost starts to become a sort of…exploitation, somehow.

But I was strongly drawn to reading Luis Alberto Urrea’s novel, Good Night, Irene, when I read an early review that discussed how the book is based on his mother’s experiences during the war. The American Red Cross had a little-known program called Clubmobiles, which were large trucks outfitted with kitchens. Women managed these on bases and on the front lines of the war in the European theater, making donuts and coffee for the soldiers. As with most of women’s contributions to the wars of the twentieth century, most of the stories of the Clubmobiles haven’t been shared. I certainly had never heard of them, but the author’s mother managed one. Urrea worked for two decades, travelled many miles, and interviewed other “Donut Dollies,” as the women who ran the Clubmobiles were called, to write this novel.

I am so glad I set aside my no-WWII-fiction resistance to read this book, as it is amazing. At the center of the story are Irene and Dorothy, two women who are very different but form a strong, supportive, and honest friendship. There are romances, family relationships, experiences with soldiers and other Dollies, but this friendship is the core of the story. It felt authentic to me; the two women don’t always agree, and sometimes, during their long, slow drives through war-damaged country, they get on each other’s nerves. They don’t always understand each other’s choices, actions, or perspectives. But they always lean on and support each other.

 Since there were not women soldiers in WWII, we rarely see women in battle. But since the Clubmobiles were literally on the front lines, Irene and Dorothy are often right in the thick of it. They experience many of the crucial battles of the last year of the war, including the Battle of the Bulge. They are in the middle of a small French town when it comes under the Germans’ war plan and have to fight to keep themselves alive. They help with liberating Buchenwald (a brutal chapter). The war is not something happening miles away, but only feet, and that makes it immediate both for the characters and the readers. (I had to take a break a few times, to gather my composure.) And through it all, they are there for each other.

Good Night, Irene is one of the best historical novels about World War II that I have ever read.

 

*****SPOILER WARNING*****

 

Because the novel is based on the author’s mother, I never doubted that Irene would make it through the war. I did not think Hans would (because Urrea is a Mexican-American and Hans was from Oregon), and I was iffy on Dorothy surviving.

So the way the novel ended, with Dot & Irene finding out, near the end of their lives, that the other had not, in fact, died in the crash of their Clubmobile?

At first it confused me. When I realized the chapter was talking about Dot taking a cross-country trip with her granddaughter, not Irene, I was at first the tiniest bit annoyed. I thought it might be something like Kate Atkinson did in A God in Ruins (another WWII novel I love), an alternative-universe thing, and I was a bit bugged. But when I realized that, no, they just really didn’t know the other was alive—I don’t know. It wasn’t the brutal ending I was expecting, and it was maybe a bit too coincidental (like, why would Dot want to visit Irene’s grave in New Jersey? Would she have a grave there if she was burned to death in the Clubmobile?) but I decided to let it be OK. It made me trust the author and want to read more of his work.


Book Review: The God of Endings by Jacqueline Holland

“That’s true for adults, too; after all we’re just the warped remains of imperfectly loved children. None of us gets the perfect love we ought, but maybe that’s what life is for, to give us time to collect it in bits and pieces, a little here, a little there. Maybe we’re supposed to put it together ourselves slowly.”

God of endings
The God of Endings
by Jacqueline Holland is a story about vampires, centered on the character of Anna, a child in 1830s New York whose small village is convinced that the recent spate of illness is caused by the prince of darkness and his minions. When her father, a stoneworker who carves the gravestones of the village’s citizens, succumbs to the illness, she is rescued by her step-grandfather—who turns her into a vampire.

Anna isn’t a traditional vampire, however. Not deeply sensual or extraordinary violent, but a person who is seemingly impossible to kill and survives on blood (usually, as time passes, cat blood. Which kind of grossed me out, honestly). She is sent away from America to continue growing up—her body stops aging once she is no longer a child—to live in a small cottage in the forests of Eastern Europe. This section reads like a bit of a fairy tale, with a wise old woman woman, Piroska,  with some witch-like qualities and the two other boys she has also adopted, Vano, who is kind and filled with a different sort of wisdom, and Ehru, who is also a vampire.

It is here that Anya (her name changes several times throughout the novel) learns of  Czernobog, the god of endings, who pursues her throughout her many years.

As we read Anya’s story through time, we also read her contemporary story (if the 1980s counts as contemporary? Yes. Yes, of course it does.), wherein she has returned to the United States and is running a preschool for very small artistic children. One of them, Leo, begins to tug at her heart, and she becomes more and more involved in his family’s drama—but meanwhile her usually well-controlled hunger is becoming insatiable.

I really enjoyed much of this novel. I especially loved the historical sections of the book, and wished I knew more of Piroshka’s story (that could, I imagine, be its very own novel). I loved the writing style and the way the story was told.

There were some plot holes that ate at me a bit. How did she feed herself when she was living in the village near Mont Blanc during the war, or in Alexandria after? And the way the loss of one character’s baby felt medically incorrect really jumped out at me. 

The main point of the novel was Anna/Anya/Colette trying to figure out what it means to live the life that has been created for her. In a sense she lives on the margins of her own life, and it is the tug with Leo that reminds her of another child, Halla, which forces her to at last examine what she wants out of this world. She has struggled for her entire vampiric existence with the concept of living for eternity; it is a gift she wants to reject but she cannot figure out how to die. A memory of Halla reminds her that there are two types of eternity: that of nothing, and that of everything. Colette’s work to figure out this tension is the main thread of the contemporary part of the story. 

When I finished it, I really had to stop and wonder how I felt about The God of Endings. I really did love the reading experience, but the main conflict of Colette’s life felt…well, remarkably similar to the main conflict in the other vampire novel I read this year, Vampire Weekend. Eternal beings working through their conflict over being eternal. What can I, a mortal, take from that?

I pondered for a bit before writing this review, but I think what I am taking from it is that the shortness of mortal life is what makes it sweet. And that I still have things to do in whatever time I have left. (For example, now I really want to hike Mont Blanc!)

This novel was a bit The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, a bit The Bear and The Nightingale, a whole lot of good writing…but the tiniest bit empty, too. Glad I read it!


The Texture of This Grief: Sisterhood as Flower or Weed

Last week at work I wrote a blog post about friendships in literature for National Best Friends Day. (You can read it HERE if you want.)

I had some ideas of books I wanted to highlight but needed a few more, so I did a bit of internet research. Something came up quite often in the other lists I found that has been bugging me ever since:

The authors of some lists group books about friendship with books about sisterhood.

This suggests a couple of untrue things. One is that men don’t have friendships. None of the lists included books about brotherhood grouped in with friendship, only female friendships. And, while, yes: The literary world is a bit bereft of fiction about male friendships (tell me one if you can! I thought of a couple but really not many), men still have friendships. Are they less influential or impactful than women’s friendships? I’m not sure I’m qualified to say. Maybe the dearth is because of men’s homophobia; writing about male friendship might teeter into “are these dudes gay?” territory, whereas women don’t have as many of those fears. (In general.) We do form intense friendships that are intimate (without being sexual) and we rely on our friends in emotional ways.

The second is that all female relationships are the same. By suggesting that friendships are the domain of women (because sisterhood is also about women), the creators of those lists group make women’s relationships with other women into an amalgamous mass. Like, you know, forming strong relationships with other women is just, waves fingers, one of those things women do, like baking bread and having babies.

But they are not the same.

If you had asked me two years ago how I thought friendship and sisterhood were different from each other, I would have said that friendships are more precarious. They are more easily lost or damaged and can sometimes just fade away. Some friendships exist in your life for a season, some last for decades, but the potential for them ending is always there. But sisterhood, I thought, was different. You might argue or disagree with your sister, but there is something in the relationship that requires you to always be emotionally invested and involved with each other. Genetics? Shared history? The fact that, in fiction about sisters, the relationship is always stronger than the trauma and, in the end, never goes away?

I thought sisterhood was a flower that blossomed your entire life. Even if it was sometimes complicated or painful, it would always exist with its fragrance a steady thread of beauty running through all of your days.

I believed that despite the fact that I don’t have a close relationship with my oldest sister. Her struggles with addiction and alcoholism have been too much for me to incorporate into my life, so I have distanced myself from her. I forgave myself for this by acknowledging that, in truth, my own life is complicated, messy, and sometimes overwhelming. But I always felt like a bad person for this, deep down. That my handling of that relationship was one of the things that would make my heart heavier than a feather at its weighing. (Even though I still, even with that feeling, even with the persistent what would Jesus do refrain in my head, don’t know how I could change how I handled it.)

But in the past 18 months I have learned in deeply painful ways that the enduring nature of sisterhood I assumed was an absolutely certainty is not, in fact, a feature. If sisterhood is a flower, it can be uprooted and tossed into the compost bin. There is so much deep shame in knowing that what I thought was a flower was, to the other person, a noxious weed.

This loss of sisterhood has impacted every other relationship I have now. I have pulled away from many people I love because I do not trust them to not pull away first. When there is any hint of conflict I get deep-down terrified, certain that this person, too, is about to discover why they don’t want me in their life. Coworkers, neighbors, friends, family members, husband, even my own children: I don’t really know how to trust any relationship now.

Because if your sister can reject you, who can’t?

So those lists mingling sisterhood with friendship—not the lists themselves but the concept that they are similar enough to be interchangeable—were an unexpected detour in my healing process. (If one can “heal” from this, which I don’t believe; it might hurt less but I don’t think it will ever stop.) It has led me to a bit of understanding of why this has been so painful.

A friend is different than a sister.

A sister might remember changing your diaper. She knows the conflicts you were raised with and the memories of joyfulness that inform your present. She knows some of your secrets that even your best friend might not. If she loves you it might grow out of true affection or it might grow out of family obligation and shared history, nothing more. You grew up in the same soil (or, at least, the same field) but you are not the same flower and maybe that’s where the tension is. Or at least some of it, because no family is perfect. I can’t really explain or understand why my sister uprooted our relationship but it has to do somewhat with that same soil, with the fact that I was mean to her when we were little, or that she competed with me for our mom’s attention and love, or that she saw our adult reliance on each other as an unhealthy, codependent malignant outgrowth of her painful childhood. You can share experiences and hobbies and running socks in a pinch; your relationship can have some of the markers of friendship but at its core it is based on that shared soil. And I guess in our case the soil was too contaminated to grow anything healthy. (Even if I loved the illusion of the thing I thought we had cultivated together, it wasn’t beautiful or valuable for her but just a constant reminder of the traumas of our childhood.)

A friend is different. She has seen you at your worst in different ways, she’s probably listened as you dissected your childhood traumas (as you have for her) but she doesn’t share them. (She has her own.) The intertwining of lives comes, in a friendship, because of experiences you choose to have, not ones you were forced into because of the accident of birth. You aren’t forced by circumstance to share intimate things but choose to. Your shared interests form the core of the relationship even as the traumatic experiences strengthen it. This isn’t to say that friends don’t go through trauma together. We absolutely do, but because we were together in the difficult experience because we decided to be friends in the first place—rather than just being together because you are in a family—the outcome of the trauma feels, somehow, a bit less painful.

A friend chooses to stay while a sister has to.

Until, I’ve learned, you are old enough to understand you don’t have to. You can be a sister and still choose to leave. Our shared genetics and history don’t preclude my sister’s choice. She can (and did) choose to remove herself from our relationship. Her choice doesn’t take away the shared genetics so in that sense, yes, I am still her sister. It does change my relationship with our shared history, as it meant something entirely different to me than it did to her so I can no longer trust my relationship with my memories, either. She is now not only a person who I shared a childhood with, both the happinesses and the traumas, but a person who has chosen to cause me trauma. (Is that payback or karma for the fact that I was a mean sister when we were kids? I can accept that. Except—we are not children now, and the choices I made when I was six or twelve or even 15 were less cognizant and purposeful than those one makes in middle age adulthood.)

Is the difference, then, choice? Why would anyone choose to cultivate a friendship with a person who was toxic in some way, or stay in a friendship that caused them pain? They wouldn’t. But, generally, people do stick with their sisterhoods, even if a sister is toxic. They find a way to make some sort of connection, even if it’s just liking each other’s social media posts or sending a happy birthday and Merry Christmas text. Not absolute silence.

Unless the sister’s toxicity is just too overwhelming. This would be easier if I had a clear understanding of my toxicity to her, but I can’t explain it even to myself because she didn’t tell me, just said we don’t align anymore. The pain, then, is based partly on the fact that by choosing to reject our sisterhood she negated its specialness. Sisterhood is not enduring, my sister has taught me. It’s just like every other relationship, even if all the books and movies and other actual families say something different.

Would I be any less devastated if my closest and longest friendship suddenly ended? If that friend chose to end our relationship?

No. Not in amount of grief.

But the texture of it would be different. Just as the textures of friendship and sisterhood are different (despite my sister’s insistence). Because there are examples everywhere of friendships ending, but who else has an example of a sister breaking up with her sister? (I ask that with sincerity. I feel like I am the only person in the history of people who has been rejected by her sister.)

None of this changes anything that has happened. The understanding hardly ruffles the texture of this specific grief. But somehow it also helps. Knowing that this hurts this way BECAUSE we were sisters, not because our sisterhood had friendship-like qualities.

And I wrote this so I could acknowledge that losing a sister in this way is uniquely painful. I never wanted to learn that sisterhood can end, but it is what life has taught me.

What my sister has taught me.


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.