Book Review: Last Night at The Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Perhaps one day she’d get used to the way it made her feel: dislocated and dazed, never quite certain if the other half of her would stay offstage as directed. But tonight she felt as if she were constantly on the edge of saying or doing something wrong, and the effort of keeping that unwelcome half silent was making her sick.

Last night at the telegraph clubI am trying to pin down why I didn’t love Malinda Lo’s YA novel, Last Night at The Telegraph Club.

I loved so many things about it! It tells the story of Lily Hu, an Asian-American girl in 1950s San Francisco who is slowly realizing she is a lesbian. She doesn’t, as the story starts, even really have a concept of what that is, or even how it might be expressed through her, but as she has experiences—seeing an advertisement for a cross-dressing singer who performs at a bar, bumping into a queer pulp novel in a drugstore display—she begins to question, explore, and act. With the aid of her new friend Kath, she sneaks away at night sometimes, to see Tommy Andrews sing. This is where is is exposed to the underground world of lesbians that is hiding in plain sight in San Francisco. There is also tension at home, as her father is under investigation for perhaps being a communist.

This book had so many things that resonated with me. Lily’s discovery of who she is coincides with her discovery of allies. The romance that develops is sweet and authentic. The way her relationships change with her other friends is, too. It brings to life how terrifying it was to be gay, pre Stonewall. (It is really hard to even imagine, honestly, although some current politicians seem bent on pushing us back that way.) San Francisco (a city I’ve admired since I visited when I was 12 or 13 and loved since I ran the marathon there) comes to life, as does the Asian-American culture of the time.

Taken in parts, there is everything to love.

But I can’t say I loved it. 

To be fair, it might just be because of the place I was in all winter—down in it and not even trying to fight it. And it also could be that it just doesn’t matter...I just don’t love romance novels, even when they are well-written like this one is. 

Part of it, though, is the ending. I never need a happy ending, or even one that isn’t ambiguous. But so many stories are left hanging that the ending felt abrupt. The more I think about it, the more it is also that I didn’t love it because it didn’t really all come together and I had many unanswered questions.

But! I am glad I read this. Lily is one of my favorite YA characters. She makes mistakes but she isn’t flippant or ditzy about it. She is brave and honest. And she reminded me that we must keep fighting for human rights, even in our contemporary society, because life in the years before gay rights and civil rights and the feminist movement was rough. No one should have to live with such fear and loneliness. 


Why We Need Black History Month

A kind-of fuzzy, surprisingly clear-in-spots library memory from my childhood:

I’m holding a book that is about Black children. I don’t remember the title or what the story was or what happened that lead to this conversation. Just my hand holding the book and me saying to a librarian “I don’t think I’m supposed to read this” and her telling me (after maybe some questions on her part about why I didn’t think I could check it out? That’s also fuzzy and incomplete) “No, white people can absolutely read books about Black people. You check that out and read it.”

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I grew up in a small town in Utah County that was on the outskirts of the bigger towns that were still pretty small; my community was very, very white. I didn’t have a Black student in the same grade as me until I was a sophomore in high school, and when he transferred in everyone buzzed about how great our basketball team would be now. As I was not in the same social circles as athletes I never met him. (Honestly, I don’t even know if he actually played basketball.) At the grocery store, at school, at gymnastics and dance classes, at church, just walking down the street: I never saw a Black person except on TV.

I remember that my parents watched the TV mini series Roots but wouldn’t let me in the room while it was on (I was four).

I remember learning about slavery and the Civil War, that slavery was bad and the 14th Amendment was good and Abraham Lincoln was a hero.

Maybe I learned about the Civil Rights Movement in high school, but I don’t remember it specifically.

I remember many of the reading assignments I had as I grew up. I remember reading and discussing “Design” by Robert Frost and “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson and Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck and Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury.

I was never assigned to read a book by a Black writer.

Even in my own personal reading (which was prolific) I read books about white people doing white-people things.

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It wasn’t until college that I began reading books by Black writers, and that seems accidental. I discovered Toni Morrison because her novel Sula was assigned in one of my Women’s Lit classes. Phillis Wheatley in an early American Lit course. Zora Neal Hurston because I took a couple of folklore classes; Maya Angelou in Contemporary Lit (although she wasn’t in the assigned anthology but mentioned as a sort of throw-away, fluffy writer). I found Audre Lorde through Critical Theory and James Baldwin in a course on essay writing, Langston Hughes in poetry writing. The Harlem Renaissance was briefly mentioned in some class or other.

Did I ever take an entire course that focused on Black writers?

I did not. I highly doubt that at BYU in the 1990s such a course even existed.

And yet: I loved all of these writers. Their work taught me, in ways that seemed elemental and gut-deep, how narrow my understanding about the world was. I knew my tiny little bit of Utah white culture and there were a billion other ways that people lived and experienced the world that I had never imagined. The horrors and struggles of it, but also the joy.  

Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “The Mothers”

Audre Lorde’s poem “Never to Dream of Spiders”
and “Stations”
and “From the House of Yemanja”

Lucille Clifton’s poem “wishes for sons”

June Jordan’s poem “Poem about My Rights”

But there was so much to learn in those years of studying, and so many white male professors. I learned about feminism because that was what I wanted to know best, but intersectionality? Kimberle Crenshaw wasn’t a person I discovered on my own, or bell hooks. My literary theory textbooks didn’t contain any Black writers’ ideas, on feminism or anything else.

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I was in my late twenties before I met and made friends with African American women online.

In my 30s before I even knew an African American person in real life.

In my 40s before I became actual, tell-you-my-secrets friends with an African American person who lived and worked in my community.

This isn’t because I didn’t want to know Black people. It is because my life is small, and my social circle even smaller. I moved into my house in 1993 and never left, and I mostly keep to myself so I just have very few friends in general. And it’s because I live in Utah County still, which: yes, OK, it is far more diverse now. (I dare say many people here do not see this as a positive, but I do.) But it’s still mostly white, and I remain bad at making friends.

(I am deeply ashamed at all of this.)

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These have been my thoughts as I have worked on a display for the library of books for Black History Month. As I put it together, I had an imaginary interaction with a patron, one that is based on interactions that I have actually had, and might actually have again, and surely will be had by someone. The patron sees the display and, instead of picking up a book, reading the cover copy, and maybe checking it out, he stops whatever librarian is close to say something like “isn’t this discrimination against white people?” or “shouldn’t you just feature the best books instead of only books by Black people?” or (always in a joking tone) “Hey! When is white history month?”

One of my librarian truths is that I value diversity. I try to make sure my collections have the best books by writers from everywhere, not just America. When I put books on my staff display shelf, they aren’t all about white people doing white things. This doesn’t make me better than anyone else. It’s just my individual approach. It’s important to me not because I want to be politically correct but because that is also my reading philosophy: I read so I can be exposed to experiences and perspectives other than my own.

Since I can remember, I have prided myself for being “not racist.” For me, the realization that Black writing (and art and music and sculpture and all of it) exists and is worth my attention was so slow in coming. So gradual. I didn’t learn these stories, these perspectives, in my earliest formative years, and yet I have never understood treating people different because they aren’t white. It also took me a long time to understand that saying “I’m not racist” because I don’t think people of color  are less than me doesn’t absolve me from the impacts of racism.

I thought that reading books by Black people, trying to understand their experiences through their words, was enough.

Of course, it isn’t.

The truth is, my grandmother, who I loved with all of my heart, said some pretty racist things.

The truth is my family line includes planation owners and thus slavery. My ancestors owned other people.

The truth is, my fumbling attempts to “not be racist” make no difference to the world at large.

The truth is I have received benefits in my life because I am a white person.

The fact that I love some Black writers’ work changes none of this.

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But it is also one of the tools I have. I will continue this work: reading authors whose lives are different from mine. Trying to understand their real struggles. Trying to vote in ways that help them. Sharing their work. Protesting book banning. Listening.

And I confess: I do find a little bit of hope in this. Are there still small white bibliophiles like I was as a child, who think that only Black people read books about Black people? Well, probably. But there are fewer at least.

And there are so many books published now. Black writers win awards (far fewer than white men, of course, but at least it does happen now) and have successful writing careers and are guests on Trevor Noah.

They aren’t a shadowy group of “Black writers” but individuals whose work has impacted my life: Claudia Rankine, Roxanne Gay, Jesmyn West, Jacqueline Woodson, N. K. Jemisin, Octavia Butler, Tracy K. Smith, Aja Monet.

We have so far to go. So far. But we are more aware and at least, at least there is discussion.

At least there are lists of books. You can use one as a book mark to remind yourself that Black people’s stories are just as important as white people’s. Just as worthy of your time.

There are posters in school libraries.

There is Black History Month.

There are librarians like that long-ago one who told me I could read a book about someone who looked different from me.

There are librarians like me, who continue today to say the same thing to as many people as we can.

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And thus I return, over and over, to one of my core beliefs, surprised again by how myriad its truth is:

It is with books we change the world.


2022 Reading Goals

In 2021, I created two different reading challenges for myself, one for the summer and one for the fall. I think that doing them quarterly instead of yearly helped me to stay more focused because I knew I had three months to meet some of my goals. (I made the goals larger than I would complete on purpose, giving myself some necessary wiggle room.) Even though no one else really paid attention to my little challenges, posting them online (both here and on my Instagram)

I didn’t ever write down my progress on my autumn reading challenge—I probably still will, though it will be out of order chronologically.

And December was just not a good month for me, emotionally, so I didn’t create a winter reading challenge.

But! Since the quarterly challenges did help me to read more, I will pick it back up in March by creating a spring reading challenge.

And until then, here is my list of year-long reading goals for 2022.

  • Read one poetry book every month. I didn’t finish any entire poetry books in 2021, although I read several halfway through.
  • Read one book of essays in each even month (like February, April, June…). Poetry and essays are something I love but have turned away from for reasons I only partly understand. It’s time to change that!
  • Write a blog post about every book I read. (I did pretty well with this last year.)
  • Heroine with 1001 Faces. Greek Myths: New Retellings. And the chapter in The Understory about Scandinavian burials. Read these three as I work on my story. (Keeping this nebulous because it is far too tiny of an idea to share yet.)
  • Advocate for books more vocally. I’m not sure what this will look like, other than posting more on Facebook about controversial books, book banning, and reading in general. I would like to find a political group to become a part of that helps to advocate for freedom of thought, libraries, and reading but not sure if that even exists in Utah. More research required!
  • Reread Beloved and Never Let Me Go.
  • Keep a list of books I get at least one-quarter the way through but don’t finish.

Here’s to a 2022 filled with amazing, gorgeous books and lots of peaceful reading time!


My Year in Books: the 2021 Edition

As I’ve looked at various friends’ 2021 reading summaries, favorites list, best-of photo collages…I’ve found myself thinking about what makes a book outstanding for me. For me, my favorite books have a mix of literary quality that resonates, good writing, strong characters, and a story that explores something more than simply plot. But the absolutely best ones—the outstanding, the ones that will stay with me for as long as I have a brain and memory and conscious thought—do something even more personal.

2021 favorite books
I read 49 books in 2021, which is a really good reading year for me. (I usually read about 30-35.) I loved most of them; some were just OK and a few were dismal. I also read, but didn’t finish, about ten others. Obviously I read books. I work with books. I have books all over my house. I blog about books and write about them on Instagram. I talk to my friends and family members—even complete strangers sometimes—about books.

Clearly books matter to me, but all books don’t have the same impact. For me, the most outstanding books are the ones that help me understand something better about myself. People who don’t read a lot of fiction tend to think that you can only find such knowledge in nonfiction, especially self-help, but that doesn’t hold true for me. (I don’t really love self-help at all, even, yes, such popular gurus as Brene Brown; they leave me feeling like I watched a one-sided conversation rather than engaged in a dialogue.) In fiction, in a story written by someone who doesn’t know me at all, I often find the little pieces of knowledge, understanding, or insight that I need to keep going.

I was lucky to have three books this year that did that for me.

  • The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente gave me hope that even though it will be unrecognizable and difficult, when I get through the current apocalypse in my life there will also be some beauty and hope on the other side.
  • The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin helped me understand myself as a mother better; it relieved some of the ache and swell of regret for my mistakes.
  • Thirst by Amelie Nothomb illuminated some of the choices I am making as I continue on my faith journey.

I had other favorites: Matrix by Lauren Groff, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, Burning Roses by S. L. Huang. And many others that I loved and am glad to have read for different reasons.

But those three—if they were the only books I read this year, I would still count it as a great reading year. They helped me feel seen during a year I felt largely invisible.

And I just want to throw out into the universe how grateful I am for writers. Writing is hard. I am grateful to the people who invest their time in writing books because they make my life so much better. Sometimes they even save me.

Anyway.

Enough sap. Here’s my list of the books I read in 2021, organized by genre. The hyperlinks go to the reviews I wrote.

SPECULATIVE FICTION

Burn by Patrick Ness (YA)  

Burning Roses by S. L. Huang  

The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin   

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (YA)   (audio)

Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor (YA)   (audio)

Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor  (YA)  (audio)

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin   (audio)

The Grace Year by Kim Liggett     (audio)

The House in the Cerulean Sea by T. J. Klune  

In the Quick by Kate Hope Day   

The Inheritance of Orquidea Divina by Zoraida Cordova   

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab   

Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor (YA)  (audio)

The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin   (audio)

Of Salt and Shore by Annet Schaap   (YA)   

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow  

Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore  

The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente     

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman  (audio)

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir 

The Restless Girls by Jessie Burton (YA)  

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman  

The Sisters Grimm by Meena van Praag   

The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin  

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor  (YA)  (audio)

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood     (audio)

Thorn by Intisar Khanani   

 

HISTORICAL FICTION

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams 

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell   

How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang    

Matrix by Lauren Groff   

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker  

Sisters of the Wolf by Patricia Miller-Schroeder (YA) 

The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany by Lori Nielson Spielman  

The World that We Knew by Alice Hoffman  

 

GENERAL FICTION

Be Not Far from Me by Mindy Mcginnis  (YA)  audio

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver  

Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman  

One Great Lie by Deb Caletti  (YA)  

The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margo by Marianne Cronin   

The Quarry by Damon Galgut   

They’ll Never Catch Us by Jessica Goodman   

Thirst by Amelie Nothomb 

Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawaii Strong Washburn   

The Great Godden by Meg Rosoff (YA)  

 

ROMANCE

The Book Shop of Second Chances by Jackie Fraser  

Summer Days and Summer Nights edited by Stephanie Perkins   

You Have a Match by Emma Lord (YA)  

 

NONFICTION

The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs by Tristan Gooely   

 

How was your reading year?


Scrapbooking: Some Backward Glances, Some Looking Forward

2021 favorite layouts
some of my favorite layouts from 2021

A couple of days ago, I spent some time organizing my piles of scrapbooking layouts. I hadn’t put layouts into albums for a couple of years and had a pretty good stack. In theory, this shouldn’t take too much time, putting away about 100 layouts, but it took me about eight hours. Because you can’t just flip through an album to find a spot for the layout. You have to look and read and remember making different layouts and smile and maybe get a little bit teary over how cute the kids were when they were little and how much they have grown and how amazing they are.

I love this hobby so much.

Kendell asks me sometimes what’s going to happen with all of the scrapbooks when I’m gone. “The kids aren’t going to want to take all of those big, fat books,” he warns me. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll wonder why I also made layouts about myself. Will they think “wow, Mom was conceited!”? Will they want to take the time to read any of the stories? Or will it just be a bunch of papery junk to them?

I’m not sure, honestly.

I started scrapbooking in January of 1996, when Haley was still a baby. My work friend Teresa introduced me to Creative Memories albums, and then my sister-in-law started making them too, and many of her friends. Sometimes they’d invite me to their crops. I decided to start going to the crops and making layouts, too, because I had this gorgeous baby and I wanted to write down the stories of the things we did and how she was. There was a huge amount of attention paid on how it’s important for future generations for people to preserve their photographs right now (it fits in nicely with the Mormon way of looking at life), and that clicked well with my intentions. My scrapbooking goal has always been about telling stories—when I made my first layout, at a scrapbooking class at the Pebbles in My Pocket store, I put it together and found myself frustrated because I wasn’t sure I’d have enough room to write the whole story once I got the photos, title, and embellishments on it. (I actually asked the lady who was teaching the class, who was a well-known person in the industry then, if it was acceptable if I didn’t finish it then, but went home and wrote the journaling on my computer and then printed it. She made a shocked face but then thought for a second and said “I don’t know why you couldn’t do it that way, I just hadn’t ever thought of it,” a memory that still makes me laugh a bit because did I invent printed journaling?)

More than twenty years later I’m still in it for the stories.

As I flipped through layouts, organized layouts, slid them in and out of page protectors, I thought about how scrapbooking has morphed over the years. I confess to missing the heyday, when there were four print magazines and I subscribed to all of them, when books were being published and there were three or four stores within easy driving distance and a huge online community. It’s not quite so vibrant and active anymore. No more magazines (and no more “write for the magazines” possibilities), no more yearly contests for the best scrapbookers (kind of glad that is over, honestly), no more scrapbooking message boards. All of the friends I had who used to scrapbook don’t anymore. (I’m not sure they don’t all think it’s weird that I still do!)

But it’s OK, because I still love it. Even without the perks of scrapbooking’s heydays. I love having a venue for all of my family’s stories and I love that I have told so many.

If, when I die, my kids don’t want the albums cluttering up their bookshelves, that’s OK. It’s their choice. (And all of the layouts are scanned so they could just keep the digital copies if they wanted.) If they aren’t interested in reading my life stories, it’s also OK. Because I had so much pleasure in the experience of making the layouts. If I died tomorrow and had to make a recounting of my life, I think “scrapbooking” would be one of the things I was grateful for. It has made my life richer.

Before I share my scrapbooking goals for 2022, a recap of 2021’s stats:

I made a total of 49 layouts, 35 single page and 14 double page. On average, my single page layouts had 2.5 photos; most common is one-photo (10) and three-photo (also 10) layouts, but the majority of the single page layouts (25) had more than one photo. For double page layouts, the average was 10 photos per layout, with the fewest being six and the most being 12. I try to make about the same amount of layouts for each of my kids; this year I made 7 for Haley, 8 for Jake, 9 for Nathan, and 6 for Kaleb, so pretty close. I made 5 layouts for my family stories album. And I made 13 layouts about myself.

Some scrapbooking goals for 2022:

  • Make more family stories layouts. These are monthly layouts with a lot of notes about the stuff my family did that month. I started working on this style of story telling in 2017, because I realized that as my kids get older, I will have fewer of their stories to tell for their individual albums, but I still want to document them. I have notes written for months and months and months and months, but I have only made about 15 actual layouts. These come together quickly because I print the title with the journaling and then it’s mostly photos and a few embellishments. Specifically, my goal is to scrap the previous month of 2022 and that same month from a previous year. So, in January 2022 I would make the December 2021 family layout and a December layout from a previous year. I’d still not be caught up but so much closer!
    Family 2018 09 September
    an example of the Family Stories layouts


  • Explore scrapbooking as therapy. When I was organizing my stack of layouts (the ones about me), I came across this one that I made in 2020 about the election. 2020 11 07 Amy thoughts on the election
    I remembered how, when I made it, it felt so cathartic. I have had a couple of other experiences that I want to process through scrapbooking as a way of feeling the trauma.
  • Share more layouts online. This makes me feel super uncomfortable for many reasons, and I don’t feel like I can share many of my kids’ layouts, but there is also an element I enjoy, which is interacting with other scrapbookers. So many scrapbookers inspire and influence me and maybe by sharing I can give some of that back.
  • Spend WAY LESS. I bought far too much stuff this year. (A function of lying around recuperating from two surgeries and having lots of time for internet shopping.) This month I am cancelling my two subscriptions (Cocoa Daisy and Elle’s Studio), much as it will make me sad to not get a box every month. I just need to use what I have for awhile, because I have a lot.
  • Tell more of my childhood stories. I have access to more photos from that time period now, so I really want to just get down some of my (I will also still scrapbook about my kids, too!)
  • Make at least half of the layouts I have planned in my page kit binder.
  • Finish up all of my birthday layouts from my 40s before I turn 50 in April (I have photos and notes for the ones I haven't made yet) and make a layout that is a summary of my 40s. 

Here’s to more stories told, more great experiences lived, and more scrapbooking!


Book Review: Of Salt and Shore

The girl knows, though, that remembering can be difficult. She always has so much inside her head: songs, stories, things she has to learn, things she wants to forget but that keep coming back. When she needs to remember something, she often forgets it, but she always remembers whatever she wants to forget.

Of salt and shoreI picked up Of Salt and Shore by Annet Schaap on the recommendation of my friend Holly. I hadn’t heard of it before she posted about it on her year-in-review Facebook post in late December, and although I had 18 or 19 other books checked out, I decided I needed to read it in the few days before 2021 ended.

It tells the story of Lampie (whose real name is Emelia), who lives on a little island in a bay, taking care of a lighthouse with her father. “With” in a lose sense; basically he drinks and mourns for his wife while she keeps things going. When she runs out of matches on the night of a storm and can’t light the lamp, disaster ensues. She and her father are blamed for it, and her punishment is to be sent to work at the Black House, the estate of the Admiral, which is dank and dirty and dark—and also rumored to hold a monster.

I loved many things about this book. It blends several familiar stories to make a different whole: Beauty and the Beast, The Secret Garden, The Little Mermaid. Lampie is imaginative and smart but not very confident, and her interactions with Fish, the rumored monster, help her find her voice. He teaches her to read and write, which is a great gift for her, but it is when she stands up to him—in a very Mary Lennox-ish way) that she comes into herself. One of my favorite parts of the story is when she goes to the fair and meets the Freaks from the circus tent; especially since this is a book for younger readers (9-12ish), I loved the message of accepting people for who they are, even if it’s a bit startling. I loved the way most of the stories get tied up in the end.

Plus it has some beautiful illustrations at the start of each chapter.

But, one thing bothered me enough that it took away from my enjoyment of the book. One of the reasons that Lampie is taken away from her father is that he hits her with a stick in front of a teacher. We do see his remorse after this happens, but that isn’t the only way he abused her. Putting the responsibility of the lighthouse onto her little shoulders, neglecting her, taking her out of school so she could take care of him: these are also forms of abuse. In the end, Lampie goes back to her father. He gives her a half-assed apology and she—she just says “It’s OK, Daddy.”

No.

Again, thinking about the audience for this book, I think this interaction needed to be much more detailed. Many of the threads in the book work towards forgiveness, but it is the parents and adults who need it, and none of them really work for it. Fish’s father doesn’t. The citizens of the town don’t. And Lampie’s father definitely doesn’t. I think that a book written for younger readers should highlight an adult taking responsibility for their actions rather than the child having to just get over the impact of those actions.

That said, I did really love this book. It was a good way to end my 2021 reading year. (Although I'm posting it in 2022, I finished it in 2021.)


Book Review: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Looking back, it seemed to me I’d been trying to escape not just from the camp, but from Achilles’s story; and I’d failed. Because, make no mistake, this was his story—his anger, his grief, his story. I was angry, was grieving, but somehow that didn’t matter. Here I was, again, waiting for Achilles to decide when it was time for bed, still trapped, still stuck inside his story, and yet with no real part to play in it.

Silence of the girlsIt is a long-established fact that I am a fan of retellings of the stories of Homer and Virgil. I actually read a retelling—Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley—years before the originals. I didn’t read The Iliad, the Odyssey, or The Aeneid until my twenties, when I took one of several mythology courses while working on my English degree. (It is one of my greatest regrets that I cannot find the translations we read in that class—meaning, I don’t know who wrote the translations and I either lost or sold the actual book I read—because they were excellent.) I picked up this one, The Silence of the Girls, one day at work when I spotted it on a discard cart; I’ve been meaning to read it but somehow hadn’t yet. I read a bit of it at the desk and it immediately grabbed me, so I took it home and it was a great companion for the last days of 2021.

This retelling of The Iliad is told mostly through the perspective of Briseis, a princess in a kingdom near Troy who was captured when the Greeks sacked her city. She is given to Achilles as a war prize, and then taken back by Agamemnon when he quarrels with Achilles, leading him to stop fighting until the Trojans have almost beaten back the Greeks. When he kills Hector in a rage after his life-long friend, Patroclus, is killed fighting in his armor, Achilles receives Briseis back as a gift (again).

As I read this book, I found myself questioning myself. Why DO I want to revisit this story? It is a horrible one. An entire community destroyed, a decade of war; betrayal and deceit by the Gods they all believed in. Illness and death and, running through it all, the way that the lives of women are without meaning or value except in relation to men. “Men carve meaning into women’s faces,” Briseis comes to understand, “messages addressed to other men.” Ostensibly they go to war to bring back Helen, but it isn’t about Helen herself. Helen is just an excuse for men to kill each other, to plunder, to rape and murder and enslave women, and Helen is just the beginning. Iphigenia, Chryseis, Cassandra, Clytemnestra, Andromache, Hecuba, Penelope, Penthesilea, Lavinia, Circe, Calypso, Dido. Female characters are vastly outnumbered by male ones but their stories are consistent throughout, even when they are not murdered: objects to men.

Why do I come back to these stories?

“But it’s the girls I remember the most,” Breseis muses near the end of the story.

Me too. I’m not sure I’ve read any retellings that aren’t focused on the women’s stories. Even though their stories break my heart. Or maybe especially because they do. My reading changes nothing except it means they (and by “they” I mean the multitude of faceless, nameless women not in epic stories whose lives were used in the same or similar ways) are still at least thought of in contemporary times.

There is a section in this book where Briseis makes a list of the men and boys that Achilles kills in his furor over Patroclus’s death. I read this section with tears streaming down my face, because those boys also died for the same reason the women suffered: because men in power decided it was necessary. 

And none of that has changed, really. Yes, the details look different. But even now, millennia since whatever real-life war that these writings are based on actually happened (if it even did), men in power continue making decisions that illustrate they value only themselves. 

When I compare the person I was all those decades ago reading Cassandra’s story to who I am now, reading Briseis’s, I am certain the story is the same. What has changed is me, my outrage, my frustration, my continuing-to-develop sense that until women have actual, true equality, none of this will ever change. Which is maybe a bleak realization and perhaps not a hearty recommendation for Pat Barker’s novel, but in reality—no. It means she gets to the root of what these stories mean and why they continue to impact readers.

(Although I'm posting this in 2022, I read this in 2021.)


Book Review: The Restless Girls by Jessie Burton

Although some things exist in places out of reach, that doesn’t mean they cannot be.

Restless girlsThe Restless Girls by Jessie Burton is a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses fairy tale, with gorgeous illustrations by Angela Barrett. In my library it is shelved with the other junior novels, for readers about 9-12, but I think it is an ageless story that anyone could love. And certainly if you pay attention at all to women’s rights, this will resonate.

As I read the story about Frida and her eleven sisters, who are locked in a single room by their father, the king, in order to keep them safe, I thought about all the ways that society continues to damage girls, and the ways that damage influences the women we become. The concept of “protect women because they are precious and easily hurt” is a different form of damage than outright violence, but still damaging. Putting women on a pedestal like that damages them because it limits (severely, in many cases) the choices they can make. For me, the pedestal my religion puts women on has impacted my entire adult life, as even as I recognized the fancy cage they put me in (for my safety, of course) and made my little efforts to knock it down, I still also embraced it. I still made choices that then allowed them to limit my other choices. The sisters in the story do their very best to not uphold the cage, and the end is satisfying, but still. Still.

I am so tired of stories about women being damaged by men.

Not tired of reading them, but tired of the fact that they continue to be told because they continue to happen. In one sense, the twelve princesses’ story is a story of brave women overthrowing their captors. But in another sense it is the continued story of what it means to be a woman in a society controlled by men. And yes, I hear that choir of voices starting up, the one that says things have changed, women have rights, feminism’s work is done here. But the truth is—and you only need to look at Texas for confirmation—that it is not and it never will be, because even if we do ever manage to gain actual equality, we will always continue to need to fight for it. Men will always want to hold all the power.

And thus we need these stories of brave women who overcome.

(Although I'm posting this in 2022, I read it in 2021.)


Book Review: The Inheritance of Orquidea Divina

I shouldn't have left, but I did. It's my own fault. We don't talk. None of us. Why don't we ever talk? Silence is a language of its own in this family. A curse of our own making.
 
Inheritance of orquideaA novel about a family influenced by its powerful grandmother, who clearly possesses some sort of supernatural power (is she a bruja maybe?), familial inheritance of not just possessions but traits and strengths, and the way one decision can influence many generations. A novel compared to Alice Hoffman's and Isabel Allende's work. A novel with a traveling circus, a river monster, a mysterious sapphire ring, magic to cause the dead to speak with their bones, flowers growing out of human bodies. A novel with such a beautiful cover!
 
It seems like a novel I would absolutely love.
 
And I did love several things about this book. The concept of the story itself, which is that Marimar and Rey Montoya, cousins living in Manhattan, one day receive an invitation to come home to Four Rivers, where their grandmother Oquidea is dying. They and the rest of their aunts, uncles, and cousins have stayed away from Orquidea's home for many years, even though they all grew up there, and when they arrive they try to figure out what is happening, as Orquidea appears to be turning into a tree. From here were learn about Orquidea's history and more of Marimar's and Rey's stories. I always appreciate a book that moves skillfully between different time periods, and this one does that. I love that Orquidea's inheritance to her family members is potential. I loved the exploration of family stories, South American myth, and individual persistence.
 
It had so much potential, this one.
 
But I struggled with it. The story was intriguing but the writing style knocked me out of the story, over and over. Some of it was editorial, such as when Marimar plants a garden of seeds and daffodils are included in the list (daffodils grow from bulbs, not seeds), or the two times the text said "signing" when it meant "singing." But more, it was...slippery. I could imagine the places—Guayaquil, Ecuador; New York City; the home in Four Rivers—but the conflict and impetus seemed so vague. I couldn't understand why the cousins held such resentment of Orquidea and the process of her dying, the family members' outrage, was something I couldn't picture because of that lack of understanding. The small shifts in perspective into different cousin's point-of-view also threw me out of the story. Some of it was what happened in the story, such as Marimar's long solo stay at Four Rivers, which felt cloudy and vague in its purpose, and the mystery of who her father is (he "briefly escaped for a time" but that is a HUGE detail that is just not ever explained). It is hard for me to explain why I couldn't stay inside the book, and the reasons feel the same as why I didn't actually love it.
 
I can't say for sure if I am glad I read this book, even though I think some of the images will stay with me. I am glad I finished it, though, because I felt like it taught me something about writing.
 
(Although I am posting this in 2022, I finished it in 2021.)
 

Trinket: My New Autumn Quilt

This September when I got out my autumn quilt from the top shelf of the linen closet, I got the itch to make a new one.

_MG_7647 5x7
my first autumn quilt

I’d been reading quilting books about paper piecing, and a technique I read about in Sarah Sharp’s book, Adventures in Paper Piecing and Design, . She calls it “graffiti,” and it means making the solid places on your quilt out of different pieces instead of one piece of fabric. She’s referring to paper piecing, but I loved the idea.

Somehow that little spark grew into an idea: what if I made a graffiti autumn leaf as a sort of center medallion and then surrounded it with log cabins?

Especially since I realized that while I’ve made several baby quilts out of log cabins, I’ve never made a quilt for myself with them. And I love log cabin squares. They are magical to me, that mix of dark and light and the way that how you arrange them entirely changes the quilt that you’re making.

So one morning after physical therapy, I popped in to one of my local fabric stores. I found some gorgeous autumnal pieces. Then I visited another store and found some more. I went through all of my stash, looking for extra pieces to add. I wanted the quilt to feel like a walk in the autumn woods does, when the mountain is scattered with all different colors of leaves and light filters through the thinning trees and it is all entirely magical.

It didn’t quite feel right yet, though. I kept looking at the fabrics I’d assembled and it was close but not yet exactly right.

Then, a few days after the autumn equinox, Kendell and I went for a long drive in the canyon so we could go on a short walk. (All I was up for at that stage in my surgery recovery.) As I scuffed through leaves, that’s when I noticed: there are bits of purple here and there mixed in with the golds, browns, reds, and oranges.

Purple was the bit I needed to bring the quilt to life. (I also mixed in a very few brownish pinks.)

I love how it turned out!

Trinket Autumn quilt

To make the center leaf, I started with the “Fall Leaves” pattern by Cluck Cluck Sew. I increased the measurements of the block by 1.5 because I only wanted one big leaf in the middle.

To create the “graffiti” for the leaf, I drew out how tall and wide the pieces would be, and then I drew lines to help me map out the horizontal seams. (The seams on the pattern, not the strips, if that makes sense.) I didn’t want a strip to coincide with a seam but wanted the color to cover both sides.

Trinket graffiti leaf

Then I sewed all the strips together, wide and long enough to then cut the pattern out. I arranged the colors of the strip into an ombre pattern. (Not technically a rainbow because there isn’t any green or blue.) And I used an autumn print I absolutely loved for the background.

I blocked out the rest of the leaf with background strips and what I think of as photo corners so that the leaf square was 19.5” squares.

For the log cabins, I used 1.5” strips for the low volumes and whites, and 1.75” for the colors. This is the first time I’ve made log cabins with strips the same width! (On other quilts I’ve just made wonky squares.) The uneven sides make a slightly curve in the resulting squares on the quilt. (This would be more dramatic if the difference was bigger.) There are four strips on each side (8 light, 8 dark). I wanted this to be a fall quilt, and since Halloween is in the fall, I put in a few Halloween fabrics, but none that scream ghouls and ghosts. (Although one literally does say “Witch’s Brew”!)

I made 60 log cabins (because it’s 8x8) so it’s about 75” square.

For the back, I used a panel I bought last year on clearance (it’d be hard to track down by now I think) and some Woolies flannel.

I worked on this throughout October and finished it a bit after Halloween. The quilting was done by Melissa at Sew Shabby Quilting and I have to say: HOLY COW. Her quilting just took this over the top. I wanted something swoopy and beautiful, and the wave pattern she used was perfect. I wanted the quilting to stand out so I had her quilt it with pumpkin-orange thread.

Finally, for the binding, I made a flange and then sewed the front of the binding on with chunky quilting. This was my first time doing that and I’m not sure I did a great job (and my thumb and forefinger are so sore!), but I enjoyed doing it. And I ordered several different colors of thread for it, so I think I see more chunky quilting in my future!

One thing I love about quilting is that it gives me time to my thoughts. Some of that time I spend listening to audio books, but some of it is just thinking. Part of my thoughts while I made this quilt was about creativity and personal style. In essence, this quilt grew out of one of my oldest quilts, the rag quilt I made in 2009. When I made that quilt, Kaleb was only three and Haley 13. So much has changed during the time between that quilt and this one. My family…my outlook on life…my faith…my body. I have learned so much about many things, including quilting. I am a better quilter and have more skills. But my basic design aesthetic is the same. I like scrappy quilts and I think I am pretty good at figuring out how to put a  bunch of seemingly-disparate colors together.

And all these years later, I still just love this hobby. The colors, the textures, the techniques. The making of things that might last longer than I do. Items to wrap around people, to sleep and read and snuggle under. Hopefully it will be something to love for the next decade. A bright thing to love during my favorite bright season.  

PS. I like to name my quilts. This one is called Trinket from an Emily Dickinson poem about fall. If you zoom in you might spot one of the strips also has an Emily D. quote.