Book Review: “Difficult Women” by Roxane Gay

Book Review: “Difficult Women” by Roxane Gay

If you asked me to name my top three favorite writers, Roxane Gay would be one of them. Probably number one. Actually, she would be number one. There is such an honesty in her writing that shines through no matter the style: fiction, essay, Twitter. So when I saw that Women and Children First bookstore would be hosting Gay in mid-March as part of her Difficult Women book tour, I bought the book (my ticket in) the moment it went on sale.

The week leading up to the event (on March 15) I read the entire short story collection. And I’ve got to say, it’s the best short story collection I’ve read. There was such a variety between the women Gay wrote about it, and so much depth. The women were written with depth, the kind that writers reserve for writing male characters. Gay said this at the beginning of the event to a large round of applause.

2017-02-17 15.03.54There are twenty-one short stories in this collection, and my favorites were “The Sacrifice of Darkness” and “Noble Things.” Both were toward the end of the collection, and when I finished both of them, I had to stop for a few moments to let them sink in.

“The Sacrifice of Darkness” is about what happened after Hiram Hightower flew an air machine into the sun and his darkness swallowed up the sun. His daughter-in-law is the narrator of the story, and she tells of what led to him flying into the sun, how she became friends and later married his son Joshua, and the hope their little family has for the sun eventually returning to the sky. It was a beautifully written story, and was more fantasy sci fi leaning than the previous pieces. The story reminded me of “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury, how the sun is only visible for one hour every seven years on Venus and how Margot didn’t get to see the sun because she was locked in the closet. “The Sacrifice of Darkness” showed how people can show animosity and place blame on one person. I began to wonder what life would be like without the sun. Would we survive?

The other piece I loved was “Noble Things,” which is set in an unknown year after the New Civil War. The South seceded once more, and this time, it was successful. There have been many times when this possibility has crossed my mind, but only for a second before I go about what I was doing before. And lately I’ve been wondering more and more, not necessarily about an impending Civil War but of what will come of the United States. This story held quite a few passages that sat with me for a time after I finished reading it, such as: “He had learned to live with the pain but lately, in a cold bed without a warm woman, the pain was too much, too fresh, a burden he was forced to carry because of the decisions of other men.” (223)

But none more striking than the final sentence:

“They tried to remember the before, when they were children and there was only one place to call home, one country, the flag billowing on windy days in front of homes up and down every street—bands of red and white, fifty stars, one nation, indivisible until it wasn’t, how quickly it all came apart.” (234)

At the event, Gay read “Open Marriage” and from “Difficult Women.” Both were short stories that I also enjoyed; they are toward the top if I were to order the short stories from favorite to “least” favorite. And when Britt Julious asked about the second short story—“Water, All Its Weight,” which is about a woman who is followed by water and decay—and how Gay came up with the idea, she told the audience about how all her stories are grounded in literal things, and then something more comes from that. For the second story, she was living in what used to be a laundromat and had noticed mold forming on one of the ceiling panels. “Water, All Its Weight” is rife with clues and meanings for reader to pull, meanings that Gay didn’t intend to write when she first noticed the mold on her ceiling: ”Sometimes as a writer, you nail it. And I nailed it.”

Seeing Gay for the second time (the first was with Gloria Steinem back in October 2015) was the bright spot in my week and quite possibly my month. The honesty that is in her writing is also something that comes through when she speaks. I wish the event could’ve been longer, or maybe a longer Q&A session. But she herself addressed honesty during that portion of the evening, and it is advice that I will keep with me:

“Honesty goes a long way. You never have to remember your lies. … Your truth is all that is needed. That is enough.”

Rating: 5/5


Book Review: “The Blind Assassin” by Margaret Atwood

Book Review: “The Blind Assassin” by Margaret Atwood

I’ve read a lot of books in the past twenty years or so. I’ve lost count. I’ve enjoyed narratives, characters, plot twists—you name it. But there are few times where I will read sentences, pause and reread sentences because I wonder just where the writer pulled that brilliance from. These passages, dare I say, amaze me, and make me think back over the pieces I’ve written knowing that I could never top the passages I just read.

I lost count how many times I did this while reading The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. This early twenty-first century novel combines elements of gothic drama, romantic suspense, and science fiction fantasy while using different narrative forms: novel within a novel, newspaper clippings, and a memoir-esque narrative. These alternate, blend together, to tell the story of the Chase family, particularly the two sisters, Iris and Laura.

Going into this book club pick, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew it would be good; Margaret Atwood wrote it, and it won the Booker Prize. And I loved this novel. My library copy has so many sticky notes marking passages that made me wonder, made me nod my head at its truthfulness, and made me rethink how to write descriptions. Some examples:

“But some people can’t tell where it hurts. They can’t calm down. They can’t ever stop howling.” (2)

“‘Underneath it all, your father loves you.’ … Now I think it was more complicated than that. It may have been a warning. It may also have been a burden. Even if love was underneath it all, there was a great deal piled on top, and what would you find when you dug down? Not a simple gift, pure gold and shining; instead something ancient and possibly baneful, like an iron charm rusting among old bones. A talisman of sorts, this love, but a heavy one; a heavy thing for me to carry around with me, slung on its iron chain around my neck.” (107)

“Not much of a nightmare, you’d say. Wait till you try it. I woke up desolate.
Why does the mind do such things? Turn on us, rend us, dig the claws in. If you get hungry enough, they say, you start eating your own heart.
Maybe it’s much the same. Nonsense. It’s all chemicals. I need to take steps, about these dreams. There must be a pill.” (329)

“The summer heat has come in earnest, settling down over the town like cream soup. Malarial weather, it would’ve been once; cholera weather. The trees I walk beneath are wilting umbrellas, the paper is damp under my fingers, the words I write feather at the edges like lipstick on an aging mouth. Just climbing the stairs I sprout a thin moustache of sweat.” (48)

As with “The Hundred Secret Senses,” I couldn’t tell which narrative I enjoyed reading more: the novel within a novel called The Blind Assassin, written by Laura Chase, or Iris’s narrative about her family history and her relationship with Laura. The first part of the book—which begins with Iris’s narrative and goes into a newspaper clipping about Laura’s death and then into the prologue of The Blind Assassin—is set up to put assumptions into the reader’s head. As you read through the novel, those assumptions (whatever they were) are broken down as more and more truths are revealed within the various forms. Though I wasn’t much interested in the newspaper clippings at parts, I realized that they left clues about either the narrative preceding it or the narrative that was to follow.

And you need to pay attention to the chapters from The Blind Assassin and the newspaper clippings because Iris would inevitably leave things out of her memoir narratives. She would tell you perhaps eight or nine-tenths of her story, and you had to assume the information that she was leaving out. It made me wonder why she was picking and choosing which information to share. If she was writing this down for her estranged granddaughter or even Reenie, shouldn’t she provide more context, and perhaps all of the answers since they wouldn’t be reading this until after she had died?

One of my biggest queries as I read through the book, and well after I finished, was how Atwood went about writing The Blind Assassin. Which narrative came to her first? Did the science fiction novel within a novel come first? Or did she write Iris’s chapters first, leaving the newspaper clipping for last?

There are so, so many things I wish to air out in this review but I don’t want to give away any spoilers. (Though one of the “plot twists” revealed toward the end of the book I managed to piece together well enough to not be surprised; sometimes I miss the clues and I get to be surprised, but not this time.) You’ll just have to take my word for it when I say put this on your to-read list.

Rating: 5/5

Book Review: “In Search of Islamic Feminism” by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea

Book Review: “In Search of Islamic Feminism” by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea

From the moment I pulled In Search of Islamic Feminism by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea from our bookshelf, I was hesitant. The title interested me the most when I was scanning the book spines for my next read. But the book was written by a white Christian American woman—not inherently bad but not quite the right perspective for writing about Islamic feminism. Fernea, or B.J. as she is known in the book, has written several books on Middle East (i.e., Guests of the Sheik), filmed several documentaries, was a professor of English and Middle Eastern Studies, and lived in Morocco, Egypt, and Iraq for periods of time. She was not going into this book project blind in any sense; I still hesitated before I continued reading the book anyway.

This was my longest read of 2017 so far, beating out Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse back in January. There was a lot of information packed into each chapter, which focused on a single country. Eight countries were represented—Uzbekistan, Morocco, Kuwait, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Israel/Palestine—nine if you count the United States, which was the final chapter. Many of the countries featured in the book I had a base knowledge of but not much more.

Most of the chapters were formatted as conversations she had with her friends and various people she interviewed in each country. I enjoyed hearing her interview subjects’ experiences from their own mouth; it made the information that Fernea was collecting feel more authentic, more personal. While the chapters featured these interviews, the narrative flow of the chapters could have used a lot of editing help. There wasn’t much narrative to begin with; it felt very scattered and would jump from one place to the next, and I couldn’t tell if she was retelling her visits and interviews chronologically or by most important. The chapters on Saudi Arabia and Israel/Palestine were the most succinct in how she presented the information. This is most likely because these were shorter visits, but the way these chapters were written could have informed the other country chapters.

There were many times when Fernea’s biases and assumptions would appear. What I did appreciate is that she addressed these biases a majority of the time. This happened most often when she was recounting interviews with certain subjects, when they would say something that contradicted what she had believed to be true. Fernea also acknowledged her shortcomings, especially in the Iraq chapter. It had been forty years since she had been in the country and much had changed, something she had to reconcile again and again.

Criticisms aside, I’m glad I read the book. It provided snapshots of women’s issues in those eight countries in the mid-1990s, and I would be interested in finding a similar book that was published more recently. A lot has changed since this book was published in 1998.

One thing I took away from this book is that there isn’t necessarily an Islamic feminism. Using that term, at least in my point of view, is akin to saying Christian feminism or Jewish feminism. One of the women Fernea interviewed in Kuwait, Lubna Abbas Muhammed, said it best: “I’m a Muslim. But I’m a feminist. Islamic feminist sounds like a made-up name, to pin labels on us again in the West. Why not just say I’m a feminist and I’m a Muslim. Is there some special brand of feminism that were supposed to have, according to Muslim rules, or something?” (192)

Many of the women Fernea interviewed said that “feminist” was heavily Westernized and thus many women avoided using that term to describe what they believed. I wonder if, twenty years later, there is still that feeling.

If you’re thinking of reading In Search of Islamic Feminism, I would recommend going one chapter/country at a time and don’t feel like you have to read the book from start to finish. This is definitely a book I would like to keep on hand as a reference.

Rating: 3/5

Book Review: “The Hundred Secret Senses” by Amy Tan

Book Review: “The Hundred Secret Senses” by Amy Tan

“Secret sense not really secret. We just call secret because everyone has, only forgotten . . . Memory, seeing, hearing, feeling, all come together, then you know something in your heart. Like one sense, I don’t know how to say, maybe sense of tingle. You know this: Tingly bones mean rain coming, refreshen mind. Tingly skin on arms, something scaring you, close you up, still pop out lots of goose bump. Tingly skin on top a you brain, oh-oh- now you know something true, leak into your heart, still you don’t want to believe it.” (102)

During my first Goodreads book challenge in 2015, I read Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. Ever since, I wanted to read more of her books. The Bonesetter’s Daughter, for example, but I never added it to my library wish list and never scanned the shelves for Tan’s books when I did drop by the library.

When I was browsing the shelves at the Wicker Park branch, waiting for the bus, I wandered over to the T’s and searched for Tan’s books. Sure enough, there they were. Except no Bonesetter’s Daughter; only The Hundred Secret Senses. I pulled the copy from the shelf and hurried down to the checkout desk so I wouldn’t miss the bus.

The Hundred Secret Senses is about two half-sisters: Olivia Laguni and Kwan Li. Olivia is half-Chinese, and uneasy with her patchwork family. Her half-sister Kwan, who came over from China when Olivia was young, speaks mangled English and embarrasses Olivia. Oh, and Kwan has “yin eyes,” which means she can see and communicate with the dead. The novel is split into two narratives. Olivia tells of her grudge against her sister, and Kwan tells a story of her past life in Manchu China.

Much like The Joy Luck Club, I loved reading Tan’s narratives. Luckily, there were only two to keep track of in The Hundred Secret Senses. Much of the time, I found myself wondering which narrative I enjoyed reading more: Kwan’s or Olivia’s. I wanted to know about Miss Banner (even if Olivia didn’t) and China in the mid to late 1800s. I also wanted to know why Olivia disliked her sister, why she was leaving her husband Simon, and if she would never not have a grudge against Kwan. Both narratives drove me to read to the next narrative to pick up where it had left off, and eventually, both blended together near the end of the novel.

“The Hakkas there didn’t admire my eye that a ghost horse had knocked out. They pitied me. They put an old rice ball into my palm and tried to make me a half-blind beggar. But I refused to become what people thought I should be.” (68)

As I was reading Kwan’s narrative, I realized how little I knew of Chinese history. I have a faint knowledge of China in the early 1900s, and I remember learning about the different dynasties in my AP World History class in tenth grade. But other than that? Nothing. There were times during Kwan’s story of Miss Banner where it was difficult for me to put into context what was happening around the world at that time. Knowing more about Manchu China definitely would’ve provided more context, but readers don’t need to know everything about Chinese history to follow Miss Banner’s story.

I don’t read books that feature two or more narratives that often. As I was reading The Hundred Secret Senses (and again when I was reading The Blind Assassin a couple weeks later), I wondered how Tan wrote the book. Did she write Kwan’s narrative first? Or Olivia’s? When the story idea appeared in her head, was it of Kwan’s or Olivia’s? Or did she write the narratives as she went along? It’s always interesting to see what writing process authors might have gone through.

I’m hoping I can add Amy Tan’s other books to my reading list this year. Because it’s been two years since I’ve read Joy Luck Club, I don’t know which book I enjoyed more. As with Joy Luck Club, The Hundred Secret Senses should be on your reading list as well.

Rating: 4/5


Book Review: “I Am Malala” by Malala Yousafzai

Book Review: “I Am Malala” by Malala Yousafzai

“Education is our right, I said. Just as it is our right to sing. Islam has given us this right and says that every girl and boy should go to school. The Quran says we should seek knowledge, study hard and learn the mysteries of our world.”

Much like many books that I’ll read this year, I Am Malala has been on my to read list since I heard about it. I just never got around to reading it until this year.

One of the reasons I made sure to read it was because I had just started reading In Search of Islamic Feminism by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea. Though I had made a commitment to read the book, I was hesitant because it was written by a white Christian woman; why should I read her findings on Islamic feminism when I could read about it by a Muslim author. Then I remembered that I Am Malala was on my ebook wish list. So I opened up the Chicago Public Library Overdrive website, and lo and behold, it was available.

When I opened the first chapter, I wasn’t sure what all the book would encompass. I knew the book was a memoir, and that was about it. But throughout the chapters, Malala not only wrote about her life, but about her father’s, her mother’s, and Pakistan’s. She provided glimpses of the Pakistan she knew and what Pakistan had become while she was living there.

I didn’t know much about Pakistan before I opened her memoir. I hadn’t read many fiction novels set in Pakistan either; just mostly Afghanistan (Khaled Hosseini’s books and The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis are the first that I think of). She provided beautiful descriptions of Swat and its history, none of which I remembered to copy down before I had to return the ebook.

There was a lot of wisdom in this memoir, wisdom that isn’t expected of teenage girls. I don’t know that I would’ve expected myself to have that sort of wisdom in my mid-teens. Then again, I didn’t experience what she experienced. I’ve always believed that education is the key, and that everyone should have access to it. But I found myself asking nearly every chapter: would I have done what Malala did? Would I have written an anonymous, daily journal about my experiences getting an education with the Taliban threatening to shut down my school? Would I have given interviews affirming the importance of girls education? I don’t know if I would’ve at Malala’s age.

“When someone takes away your pens, you realize quite how important education is.”

I Am Malala is a memoir that should be on everyone’s to read list, no matter what age. This would be a good reading group option for junior high English classes. This book not only offers a view of a Pakistan but also is written by someone their age. That should be a determining factor, especially for teen girls.

Rating: 5/5

Book Review: “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer

Book Review: “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer

“But food is not rational. Food is culture, habit, and identity. For some, that irrationality leads to a kind of resignation. Food choices are likened to fashion choices or life-style preferences—they do not respond to judgments about how we should live. And I would agree that the messiness of food, the almost infinite meanings it proliferates, does make the question of eating—and eating animals especially—surprisingly fraught.”

—Jonathan Safran Foer, page 263

Disclaimer: I am a vegetarian. I have been since September 2014. And I promise not to turn this book review into a passionate case (like many others out there) for being vegetarian/vegan. If it does turn into that, I apologize.

Lately, my mind has been turning to the topic of food. I suppose it started when I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Chicago Public Library’s One Book One Chicago pick) late last year. That transitioned into reading William Sitwell’s The History of Food in 100 Recipes. Both books are excellent and fascinating reads, and I recommend that you seek them out this year. In reading both books—and perusing the food sections of all bookstores I walk into—my mind drifted back to why I am a vegetarian. And, most importantly, that small voice in the back of my head that says, Maybe you should just go back to eating meat eventually. Hit that five-year mark just to say to made it, and then make yourself some fried chicken.

Then, as I was wandering among the bookshelves at the West Town branch after grabbing Percy Jackson from the hold shelf, I spotted Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. I knew this was the book I needed to read. Maybe it would have answers that would help me determine whether I should stay vegetarian. I had never sought out animal rights documentaries, and never researched in-depth about why vegetarianism and/or veganism. I just let people assume what they wanted about me being vegetarian—you know, PETA, animal rights, save the environment, hippie—when all I knew was that I felt better when I wasn’t scarfing down meat nearly every day.

Eating Animals is the best comprehensive book I have come across. After his son was born, Foer began researching what meat is. Many people assumed the book was a case for vegetarianism, which I admit I also thought when I first gravitated to the bright green cover on the shelf. But it is not. This is a book that makes you more aware of where your food, specifically meat, comes from. Yes, it talks about factory farms and the treatment of animals in such facilities (I’ll spare you the details because I’m sure you know about the basics). It also talks about family farms, farmers who are doing everything they can to treat their farm animals well. Foer has essays, some anonymous, from people he talked to for the book. One is a vegetarian rancher. Another is a vegan who builds slaughterhouses. There is, of course, a short essay from a PETA advocate. Another essay from someone who sneaks into factory farms to rescue any animals. One voice that is missing is from of the bigger factory farms, such as Tyson, because they never responded to Foer’s requests. I would be surprised if they did respond.

I learned new things about eating animals. Factory farming wasn’t a thing until a Delmarva (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) housewife Celia Steele started the modern poultry industry after she allegedly received an order of five hundred chicks instead of fifty and decided to experiment with keeping the birds indoors during the winter. I panicked during the section about the Spanish influenza, and how there hasn’t been a pandemic since the 1968 Hong Kong flu so we’re probably due for one. Plus, the book is broken down into easy-to-read sections. It’s not a dry read, and the pages are not dense with text. There are typographic illustrations that lead into every major section of the book, accompanied by a food fact.

When I finished reading Eating Animals, I felt confident in my decision to be vegetarian. (I’ll save the nuances to my thoughts on the matter for a separate blog post, if I ever get around to writing it.) Food is complicated for everyone for various reasons—especially when it comes to eating meat. It is important to be informed on many issues, and I believe food and where it comes from is near the top of that list of issues. Reading Eating Animals is a good place to start.

Rating: 4/5

Book Review: “The Lightning Thief” by Rick Riordan

Book Review: “The Lightning Thief” by Rick Riordan

My quickest read so far this year is Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief, the first book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. I made the mistake of starting the book the same night I picked it up from the library. If it hadn’t been a Tuesday night, and I didn’t have to work the next day, I probably would’ve stayed up until I finished the book.

I had seen both movies a few years ago (which were adaptations along the lines of Eragon and The Last Airbender aka Bad), so I didn’t remember much about the narrative. Only that Logan Lerman was Percy, and the forgotten Winchester brother from Supernatural played the eventual “bad guy” in the first movie. I first heard of the series itself on Tumblr (where else), and thus became a Percabeth (Percy + Annabeth) fan before I even knew what the books were about. Tumblr will do that to you.

After many years of learning about the series through Tumblr posts that appeared here and there, I finally picked it up from the West Town branch this year and was not disappointed. I found myself wishing that I had picked up the first three books if not the entire series. It’s been awhile since I’ve read a children’s fantasy fiction series, and I haven’t really looked at that genre in years.

I loved the twist on Greek mythology. There was a time in sixth grade and early junior high where I sought out Greek mythology books and finding series featuring new ways of writing the myths (i.e., this one book series that had Hades as the main character and I cannot for the life of me remember the name or the author). By the time The Lightning Thief was published, I had moved on to other genres for the most part. Rediscovering this former reading interest left me feeling nostalgic once I finished the book.

Speaking of nostalgia, there was one moment early on in the book where Percy was talking about the two songs that Grover knows how to play on his reed pipes. One was Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 12. The other was Hilary Duff’s “So Yesterday.” I nearly threw the book to the other end of the couch. Then I sat there and felt so old; I remembered when that song came out the summer before sixth grade. I hadn’t even thought of that song in ages, and I may or may not be listening to it as I write this paragraph. Does Hilary Duff know about this reference? Was this referenced in the movie? Also, I’m not sure why I’m focusing so much on this small detail, but it’s killing me.

A part of me wishes I knew about this series when it first came out, even though tearing me away from my Harry Potter books and fan fiction would’ve be tough. But I think that this series would have helped fill the void once Deathly Hallows published.

Rating: 4/5

Book Review: “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf

Book Review: “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf

The first book that my book club chose for the year was Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I had never read any of Woolf’s works prior to this year, so I was excited to dive into her writing.

My excitement was tempered after I started reading the first chapter. As I struggled to read through the pages, I told myself that this was a good thing. I should take my time reading each sentence, paragraph, chapter. But as I got to the second chapter, then the third chapter, I realized that I was wholly unprepared for Woolf’s writing style.

2017-01-01-11-04-24-1Her writing style is described as stream of conscious, and the narrative flowed between charters seamlessly. Almost too seamlessly, for me. I had difficulty determining which character’s POV was which, even keeping track of some of the characters. I would go back a page or two to try and pick up where the view switched. The further I read into the book, the easier it was to determine who was who, but I still had difficulties.

Despite being unable to easily track the characters, there were beautiful descriptions. Many of them I went back to reread not because I missed it the first time but to immerse myself in the description one more time. The first one that jumped out at me was on page 20:

“It was as if the water floated off and set sailing thoughts which had grown stagnant on dry land, and gave to their bodies even some sort of physical relief. First, the pulse of colour flooded the bay with blue, and the heart expanded with it and the body swam, only the next instant to be checked and chilled by the prickly blackness on the ruffled waves. Then, up behind the great black rock, almost every evening spurted irregularly, so that one had to watch for it and it was a delight when it came, a fountain of white water; and then, while one waited for that, one watched, on the pale semicircular beach, wave after wave shedding again and again smoothly, a film of mother of pearl.”

Another section that didn’t make me halt while reading but was mentioned at the book club meeting was this on page 33:

“He was safe, he was restored to his privacy. He stopped to light his pipe, looked at his wife and son in the window, and as one raises one’s eyes from a page in an express train and sees a farm, a tree, a cluster of cottages as an illustration, a confirmation of something on the printed page to which one returns, fortified, and satisfied, so without his distinguishing either his son or his wife, the sight of them fortified him and satisfied him and consecrated his effort to arrive at a perfectly clear understanding of the problem which now engage the energies of his splendid mind.”

There are many, many more beautifully worded passages, particularly in the second part, titled “Time Passes.” The sentences, as you can tell from the above passages are long and winding. This made it difficult at times to catch the meaning in the passage, and that might have been why I missed the accurate description of looking up from one’s reading, as seen in the latter of the passages.

I finished the book three weeks ago. I’m still not sure of everything that I read. The more I read about the book and think about the characterizations, the more I realize that this is a book that I will need to read one, maybe two more times before I fully understand what I have read. Some people might see that as a bad thing, reading a book over and over to fully absorb the text. But I don’t.

I mentioned at my book club that I might prefer reading Woolf’s short stories, as I bought one collection at Myopic Books a couple weekends ago. Maybe reading more of Woolf’s work and becoming more acclimated to her writing style will allow me to return to reading To the Lighthouse with more perspective.

On the back of the paperback copy that I borrowed from the library, the description ends with this: “There are very few exceptional and miraculous novels that have the power to change their readers forever. To the Lighthouse is one of them.” For me, that was not the case, but perhaps I’m not in the right place to be changed by this narrative. Maybe in a few years.

Rating: 3/5


Review: ‘Big Magic’ by Elizabeth Gilbert

“Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?” (8)

Big Magic book coverI’ve been avoiding my passion for writing for a while. It was always easy to pin the blame on classes, on the paper, on internships — you name it. I was writing, but it was never me seeking out writing when I had I had the time. And I never made the time; not really. So what better way to round off my book challenge than to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.”

In her latest book, which was published in September, Gilbert digs into her creative process to share her wisdom and perspective on creativity. She writes about embracing curiosity, letting go of suffering, tackling what we love and facing our fears. The book doesn’t address only writers — Gilbert wrote it for anyone looking to make art, find new ways to address challenges in work, embark on a dream long deferred or infuse our lives with more passion.

After reading “Big Magic,” I realized that I do want to get back to writing, particularly creative writing. I’d been avoiding it for so long that I didn’t think I had it in me. For so long, I had it in my head that I needed to live a tortured life (you know, your basic writer stereotypes) to be a writer. But Gilbert’s positive outlook for pursuing a creative life gave me the kick I needed.

“The arrogance of belonging is not about egotism or self-absorption. In a strange way, it’s the opposite; it is a divine force that will actually take you out of yourself and allow you to engage more fully with life. because often what keeps you from creative living is your self-absorption (your self-doubt, your self-disgust, your self-judgement, your crushing sense of self-protection). The arrogance of belonging pulls you out of the darkest depths of self-hatred — not by saying ‘I am the greatest!’ but merely by saying ‘I am here!’ ” (93)

What I loved about reading “Big Magic” was seeing what Gilbert’s creative process looks like, or how she sees creativity and inspiration. I’ve read three of her books, and the positivity and spirituality that Gilbert has for living a creative life came as no surprise. The book is called “Big Magic” after all. One thing that I noticed among all of her stories was that she never gave up on being a writer. Sure, there were ideas that didn’t come to fruition, rejection letter after rejection letter came, etc. But she stuck with it. It’s inspiring to read about her tenacity and her decision to be a writer and eat the “shit sandwich that comes with it” (150).

For anyone seeking to live a more creative life or needing a little magic to get back in the swing of things, “Big Magic” is a great place to start. I can’t wait to buy my own copy to add to my collection of books so I can pull it out and seek out comfort and inspiration.

“The essential ingredients for creativity remain exactly the same for everybody: courage, enchantment, permission, persistence, trust — and those elements are universally accessible. Which does not mean that creative living is always easy; it merely means that creative living is always possible.” (158)

Review: ‘Those Who Save Us’ by Jenna Blum

those who save us_book coverWhen I finished my second book of Thanksgiving weekend — “Brooklyn” — I silently cursed myself for not bringing my Kindle with a couple more reading options. Then I rolled my eyes — I was in a house full of reading options. I got my love of books somewhere, right? I scoured my parents’ (really my mom’s) bookshelves for reading options. One of those was “The Children’s Blizzard” and right next to it on the shelf was “Those Who Save Us.” Pulling the book out, I saw the old photo of a girl in a pink coat and flipped the book over to read the back:

“For fifty years, Anna Schlemmer has refused to talk about her life in Germany during World War II. Her daughter, Trudy, was only three when she and her mother were liberated by an American soldier and went to live with him in Minnesota. Trudy’s sole evidence of the past is an old photograph: a family portrait showing Anna, Trudy, and a Nazi officer. Trudy, now a professor of German history, begins investigating the past and finally unearths the heartbreaking truth of her mother’s life. Those Who Save Us is a profound exploration of what we endure to survive and the legacy of shame.”

A historical fiction book about Germans during World War II and part of the book is set in Minnesota? I was sold. So on the early early (like, 5 a.m.) flight back to Chicago, I cracked open the book and barely put it down until I took at nap later that morning (3 hours of sleep only gives me so much energy). Four days later finishing the last page, I’m sitting in my living room trying to write this review. There’s so much I want to say about this book, but for some reason my mind isn’t putting words in the right order.

As I read this book about a mother protecting and caring for her daughter, I remembered a film I watched in my final semester of German in college. It was called “Deutschland bleiche Mutter (Germany Pale Mother),” and it told the story of a couple who marry just before the outbreak of World War II. While her husband fights on the Eastern front, Anna must care for their daughter, moving to Berlin to live with family after their home is destroyed in the bombing. Reading this “Those Who Save Us” reminded me of that movie and just how much mothers went to protect their children during the war. Anna Schlemmer in “Those Who Save Us” was no different.

The book opens at the funeral of Anna’s husband and Trudy’s stepdad, Jack, in 1993. You can feel the distance between mother and daughter throughout the chapter as Trudy brings her mother back to the farmhouse to prepare for the wake, which no one comes to. Then the book begins with Anna’s story, jumping back in time to 1939. As the story progresses, the book jumps forward in time to Trudy in 1996. Because of Anna’s silence about the past and Trudy’s growing curiosity, this is the only way to tell this tale. By the end of the book, the reader knows Anna’s entire story and Trudy is only beginning to see just how much her mother did for her and for the Resistance in Weimar, Germany.

Blum’s writing is beautiful and carries the reader effortlessly through each woman’s tale. Though the entire book is written in third person, you can easily tell when you’re reading Trudy’s section and when you’re reading Anna’s section. Blum’s use of German words is not overwhelming and can be easily understood within the text. Though I did study German for nearly eight years, it was a little bit rusty and I was able understand the words without having to stop and search for a definition within the narrative. My only qualm is the lack of quote marks with the dialogue. By the end of the book, I had gotten used to it, but it was difficult to differentiate the dialogue from the narrative.

I haven’t read many adult fiction books about Germany during World War II, so I can’t say this book is the best of all of them. The fact that I read the entire book in less than a day says something, though. “Those Who Save Us” is a book I would recommend to those who might not know much about German history and/or enjoy reading World War II historical fiction.