Two Movies Based on Books: Why You Should See A Wrinkle in Time and Skip Ready Player One

April 2nd, 2018

I wish I had time to do a detailed reasoning of why I think you should see Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and not bother with Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. But alas, life, and thus, I will make this quick and to the point. Also, spoilers.

I’ve read both books, multiple times, most recently reading Ready Player One aloud to my boys. Wrinkle in Time was one of my earliest favorite books. I strongly identified with auburn-haired, glasses-wearing, braces-sporting awkward angry Meg Murry. Only when I read the book as an adult and a friend of mine read it for the first time and commented on how annoying Meg was could I acknowledge that she’s not a well-developed character, and the plot is kind of wander-y. But the book Wrinkle in Time is still a solid one, for me. It’s an action adventure story with three kids helped by three mystical adults to save Meg’s father, themselves, and ultimately the universe. The book shoots for the stars, doesn’t reach them, but is fun in the trying.

Ready Player One, though, is a confection of a book. It’s boy wish fulfillment, about a geek boy named Wade who wants to live life in the virtual Oasis that’s been designed by his dead hero, who littered it with geeky Easter eggs from the 80’s and who after his death has Willy Wonka’d up a contest to win the candy factory. Oasis. Along the way Wade falls in love with a gamer girl whose tough woman warrior avatar is named Art3mis, but who is ashamed of her real life appearance because she has a large birthmark covering half of her face and she thinks she’s fat–at 165. Yes, I know it depends on how tall she is, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the book doesn’t have a progressive take on women’s body acceptance. In the end, she convinces Wade that he should care about what’s in the real world, and not just buying a mansion.

My family and I saw the movie for Ready Player One on the day it opened, at a matinee so not at full price. The movie makes a lot of departures from the book, which my 12yo, a literalist, took issue with. I didn’t. I was glad to swap the D & D module for the classic horror film for example. But it took out some of the horror of the book that would have grounded the story more, like a violent murder and the extent of the environmental damage. It gave Art3mis only a faint, small birthmark and she did not weigh anything like 165 pounds. Her avatar was girly, with big eyes that I don’t think a tough gamer chick would pick for herself. Glen Weldon, in his NPR review notes

She’s no Manic Pixie Dream Girl, thankfully, but she is only the latest of a growing number of similarly broad, similarly idealized female characters — the Flinty Badass Dream Girl? — to turn up in recent movies. That’s … akin to progress, I suppose. Progress-adjacent.

Sorry, but I don’t think it’s progress adjacent, though that phrase is hilarious and awesome. She’s a simplistic male fantasy, shown most obviously when she tells Wade he’s the superior egg hunter, and throws her support behind him without giving any reason.

The best part of the movie, to me, was the inclusion of Lena Waithe at Aech, with a hyper masculine avatar put forth by queer black woman. The queerness was only hinted at, which was a drag, and s/he was not in nearly enough of the movie, but Aech stood out as the most charismatic gunter of them all, and I would have loved to see more.

The whole movie is a nod to geek game culture, and while that’s fun, as with the character of Aech, I wanted more. I didn’t want just a boy fantasy where he gets the prize and the girl in the end. I wanted it to critique interacting online versus IRL, and how environmental collapse is leading us to scary places. So the movie adapts a flawed book, replicates its over-reliance on virtual reality, doesn’t critique gamer boy culture, got middling reviews, and yet won the box office.

Compare that to the movie A Wrinkle in Time, which also got middling reviews, but was savaged as a failure in more than one publication. This piece at Insider laid out why it was a failure, but I’m irritated that it was called a failure, when it made over $33 million and was second only to the juggernaut that is Black Panther. NOT A FAILURE.

Wrinkle in Time, as most of the reviews note (I like this one by A.O. Scott at the New York Times) all acknowledge that it was ambitious. But as Scott notes, there were great things about it, not just the diversity of the cast:

the diversity of its cast is both a welcome innovation and the declaration of a new norm. This is how movies should look from now on, which is to say how they should have looked all along.

Wrinkle in Time, unlike Ready Player One, handily passed the Bechdel test, and its variations with non-white players. But like Ready Player One, it took a flawed book, adapted it, made some good calls in the changes (the diverse cast, no IT as a pulsing brain) and some not so good ones (no Aunt Beast, Reese Witherspoon as a flying cabbage). Calvin was reduced to a Meg cheering section, which would have been unacceptable if their genders were reversed, and the plot had some big gaps.

Nonetheless, in the end, I felt more love and affection for Wrinkle than I did for Player. Wrinkle, the book and movie, shot BIG: it was about the struggle for good and evil in the world, and how each person can join and fight in it.

Player, was a boy adventure, set in the non-real world. Wrinkle went big, Player went small, and in the end, though they both were ambitious and expensive and missed the target, I recommend one and not the other.

Please, go see Wrinkle in Time. Lift up that box office. See Ready Player One if you must but I wouldn’t pay full price; it’s only OK. You can wait to rent it. But I’ll be buying the blu-ray of Wrinkle in Time when it comes out. We need more movies like Wrinkle in Time, and fewer Ready Player Ones. It’s that simple to me.


September 18th, 2017

Great news! My friend Samantha Bohrman, the author of the hilarious Ruby’s Misadventures in Reality, has a new book out. Breaking the Rules of Revenge is a young-adult romance set at a summer camp. “Like a parent trap for teenagers!” says one reviewer. If you’re looking for a last blast of summer before the leaves fall, take a look at this fast fun read, which is just $2.99 on Kindle.

Mallory Jones is tired of being the girl who stays home and practices French horn while her identical twin, Blake, is crowned homecoming queen. So when she has the opportunity to pretend to be Blake, she takes it. At Camp Pine Ridge, she will spread her wings and emerge a butterfly. Or at least someone who finally gets kissed by a cute guy. That is, until bad boy Ben Iron Cloud shows up, ready to get revenge on Blake—aka Mallory.

If it weren’t for that infuriating girl, Ben wouldn’t even be at camp. Luckily, he now has six weeks to soak up some rays and get even with his nemesis. But the more time he spends with Blake, the more he realizes she’s nothing like the girl he thought she was—she’s kind and innocent and suddenly way too tempting. And soon enough, revenge is the last thing on his mind. Unfortunately, the girl he’s falling for is keeping a major secret…

Disclaimer: This book contains a super-hot bad boy out for revenge, all sorts of camp hijinks, and a girl who realized she’s been a butterfly all along.

RIVER OF GODS by Ian McDonald

September 11th, 2017

I’ve written before about how thorny the issue of “you should read this book” recommendations is, especially those from my husband. He recommended Ian McDonald’s River of Gods to me in 2007, after he read it, and after it had won many major international science-fiction awards. I finally took it off its dusty shelf where it’s been patiently waiting, since I just finished Salman Rushdie’s classic Midnight’s Children, which also is set in August on an anniversary of India’s independence and partition. So it’s ten years later (also ten years from when I wrote that post on recommended books–I’ve been blogging for a LONG time) that I’m finally getting around to it. That’s a shame, because it’s a book that begs to be talked about, and I waited so long to read it that he is now foggy on the details, which are exactly what I’d like to discuss with him.

Instead, I read as many online reviews as I could find, which is a decent substitute for a back and forth conversation, especially since one of the links, this one at Coalescent, WAS a back and forth conversation.

River of Gods is a huge book, both in scope and size, at 599 pages in my paperback edition, which is curiously only available at amazon from 3rd party sellers, but does not seem to be out of print? The adjectives that litter the books reviews are telling: sprawling, major, huge, vast, ambitious, staggering, etc. The book is bigger on the inside, like the Tardis, and a myth of nesting dolls that one of its characters references in the book, each of which contains a universe bigger that the one that contained it. And the book’s bigness seems to have resulted in a divided response. Most reviews praise the epic sweep and the ambition, while many reviewers complain that it doesn’t (didn’t, given how long ago it was published) break new ground, and that it was bloated and overlong. I’m going to side with those that praise the book.

It’s set in 2047, on the hundredth anniversary of India’s independence and partition. Further partition has occurred, and India is split into three major segments, Bharat, Awadh, and Bengal. I would dearly have loved a map to the fictional divisions, though part of this desire is probably from my typical American lack of geographical awareness. Religion and politics are still sites of contention and unrest. The narrative switches between many characters (the number changes depending on which review you read. The back of the book says nine, but really it’s more like a dozen, with a few locations getting their own segment as well.

India is suffering a drought, with the monsoon three years gone. The territories are clashing over a lack of water, as well as over religious and social difference. Meanwhile the Americans have found a weird artifact in space that somehow ties a handful of the characters together in India, which has become a haven for unauthorized AI activities after certain levels have been outlawed by puritanical legislation globalized from the US.

Non-fans of the book argue that there are too many voices and perspectives, and that they detract and distract from the plot. But to my reading, the panoply of voices and locations and ideas is central to the plot, which concerns itself with how simplistic either/or dichotomies just can’t contain the messy, beautiful, horrifying mess that is life on this planet. This idea is embodied in the character of Tal, a “nute” who has been genetically re-engineered to have neither sex nor gender, and whose pronoun is “yt” and who has a spectacular character arc throughout the book, one that is interesting to contrast with that of Mr. Nandha, the “Krishna cop” who, like Deckard in Blade Runner, is tasked with identifying and eliminating rogue “aeais”.

Like the soap opera Town and Country that’s a key feature of its plot, River of Gods moves in and out of lives and locations to tell a story that’s big, about aeais advancing, while also telling the everyday stories, like that of the Krishna cop’s wife who longs for attention and babies from her husband, who becomes ever more obsessed with tracking and killing aeais even while his own real life is unraveling.

While it was hard to keep track of all the characters as well as the liberal use of Hindu terms and slang (there is a glossary at the end, but I found it was only spottily helpful and eventually gave up, just guessing from context and getting along just fine), I got swept up in the plot as it picked up elements from each of the many characters’ stories. Christopher Priest in his Guardian review says “It is not a page-turner book; it is a turn-page-back book.” By the end section, which is titled Ensemble and features all the storylines and characters coming together in a fast and furious climax and denouement that was vivid and visual in its description, I was hooked and loathe to put the book down.

I’m a sometime reader of sci-fi and speculative fiction. This book reminds me of the work of William Gibson–it’s cyberpunk set in India rather than China. In scope it reminds me of the books of Neal Stephenson, though I think this has a more satisfying ending than Stephenson’s earlier books, like Snow Crash and Diamond Age. In spite of the length and details, I found it accessible and engaging, often even enthralling, and enjoyed the reading experience much more than I did with Midnight’s Children. I wouldn’t recommend it for those unfamiliar or averse to reading sci-fi, but for those with at least a passing familiarity with the genre, this is a grand mash up of India culture, a varied cast of characters, and speculative ideas. Whether the setting is integral to the story, or perhaps a romanticized Western, colonial perspective, is questioned in this piece from the Mithila review, which reminds me to get going on another recommendation of my husband’s, Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road.

If anyone comes here that’s read River of Gods, I’d love to know: what did you think? And specifically, what did you think about the revelations about Najia’s childhood, and how they fit into the plot. Also, what did you think about the character of Krishan?

“The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Bronte Wrote Her Masterpiece” by John Pfordresher

September 7th, 2017

I wanted to love The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Bronte Wrote Her Masterpiece by John Pfordresher very much. Jane Eyre is perhaps my favorite book. I’ve read it several times and done a fair amount of research into Bronteiana. Further, I studied with Dr. Pfordresher when I was an undergrad at Georgetown. I was a business student and only had to take one English class. I took Dr. Pfordresher’s class, and we only read three texts that semester: The Iliad, War and Peace, and Hemingway’s In Our Time. We dove deep into each book and the class was one of my favorite college experiences.

When I saw that Pfordresher had written a book on Jane Eyre and that it was well reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly and The Washington Times, I was pleased to see two pieces of my life overlap and eager to read the book. My zeal dissipated quickly. The subtitle should have warned me. Jane Eyre, while one of my favorite books, is not necessarily regarded by most scholars as Charlotte’s masterpiece. That honor goes more often to her final book, Villette. As Pfordresher goes to some lengths in his book to demonstrate, Jane Eyre is the work of a well read and imaginative but unworldly young woman. Much of Jane’s fictional story comes from the fanciful stories Charlotte and her siblings wrote growing up, drawn from the inner life of the imagination, not from real, lived experience. Villette, on the other hand, was written after Charlotte had earned fame for Jane Eyre and suffered the deaths of her three closest siblings, Anne, Branwell, and Emily. Villette is a darker, more complex and mature work that reflects how life changed for Charlotte after Jane Eyre was published.

My discomfort at the simplification of referring to Jane as Charlotte’s masterpiece was not eased as I began the book. Pfordresher presented the Bronte’s early life as simple and sequestered, buying into the romantic portrait that modern biographers have done much to dispel, as Lucasta Miller details in her metabiography The Bronte Myth. Further, he presents excerpts from Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte and presents them without question or qualification, while recent scholarship has called Gaskell’s reliability as a narrator into question. Was Patrick Bronte a loving supportive father, or a demanding tyrant? Gaskell, and Pfordresher based on her, choose the latter portrayal, but couldn’t the answer be both?

A more uncomfortable interpretation that Pfordresher presents is about Patrick Bronte’s influence on the character of Rochester. In noting the influence of Charlotte’s former teacher Constantin Heger on Rochester, Pfordresher notes:

In many ways [Constantin] resembled Patrick Bronte and anticipated Charlotte’s projection of him in Mr. Rochester. Constantin, like Patrick, was strong-willed and courageous, a man with a considerable sex drive who knew how to handle a gun, and yet also a tender and thoughtful teacher and father.(133)

That both Heger and Bronte have strong sex drives because they fathered several children, and that they were then the models for Rochester’s sex drive, is a reach to me, and one that smacks of a simplistic Freudian reading. Because Pfordresher’s premise is that Jane Eyre was based on details from Charlotte’s real life, he uses this as evidence, where others have more convincingly argued that Charlotte’s reading of Byron and stories from Blackwood’s Magazine are more fitting predecessors to Rochester.

Though Pfordresher doesn’t reference Freud specifically in the analogy he draws between Patrick and Rochester, he does quote Freud later on the subject of the uncanny, arguing that Charlotte had both rage and passion in her real life that she concealed but that yet come to light. He offers Bertha’s unearthly laugh that Jane overhears on her tour of Thornfield as an echo of Charlotte’s suppressed rage and passion in real life. I’m perplexed why Pfordresher would reference Freud, though, whose scholarship and influence has fallen out of favor, when there is a more recent and better respected reference, which is Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic, a comprehensive work with an entire segment devoted to Bertha as a shadow side to Jane.

I was also vexed with small errors throughout the text. Typos are inevitable, but I found it puzzling that Pfordresher refers to Rochester as Fairfax Rochester, as if his first name is Fairfax, where it’s Edward, or as if the last name is compound, which I don’t believe it is. When the characters of the Rivers sisters are named, Mary is often referred to incorrectly as Maria, which is confusing given that Maria was the name of Bronte’s mother, a sister, and the first name of the character of Miss Temple in Jane Eyre. Mary versus Maria seems like an easy mistake to make, yet it is an important distinction, yet it’s missed more than once. Also, while the biographers Juliet Barker and Claire Harman are mentioned in the acknowledgements and included in the bibliography, Barker is misidentified as Julia in the bibliography, Harman is spelled Harmon in the acknowledgements, and Claire is misspelled Clare in the bibliography. For a work of scholarship, this does not give me confidence in either the author or his editors.

This book works best as a close reading of Jane Eyre, and ties details to many from Charlotte’s Angrian tales that she wrote with Branwell in her youth. This was the aspect that interested me most, since I’m not very familiar with details from the juvenilia. There is also an intriguing analysis of Jane’s paintings as she shows them to Rochester (147-148). I also appreciated Pfordresher’s identification of the moon as a recurring symbol in the novel for the feminine as a guardian figure, which I have previously interpreted as Bronte putting a feminine face on God.

But by trying to forge such direct connections between Charlotte’s life and details in Jane Eyre, I felt Pfordresher was often shoehorning complex realities (like the temperament of Patrick Bronte) into tidy boxes in service of a theory that few would contest: that Charlotte based her book on reality and embellished from imagination.

A more interesting question, to my mind, would be the contrast between Jane Eyre’s more conventional Cinderella story written in anonymity, and that of Lucy Snowe of Villette, written after Charlotte’s authorship was revealed, she’d endured the deaths of her siblings, and she’d received acclaim.

LOVE MEDICINE by Louise Erdrich

March 6th, 2017

I first read Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine for my first ever book group, the one of sainted memory in Philadelphia in the 90’s. When we discussed the book, one person commented on a rape scene, someone else said, “what rape scene?” and we compared editions, finding subtle changes that made for different interpretations.

When I went to lead a book group on Love Medicine last fall, I discovered there were now 3 different versions of the book in print. It took me a fair bit of googling and book shopping to ferret out the differences, which I’ll share, but I’ll start by comparing the passage that started the conversation all these years ago.

…when I take my hand away she speaks.

“I’ve had better.”

I know this isn’t true, that I was just now the first, and I can even hear the shake in her voice, but that makes no difference. (p61, Love Medicine 1984)

The later version:

…when I take my hand away she growls.

“I’ve had better.”

I know that isn’t true because we haven’t done anything yet. She just doesn’t know what comes next. I can hear the shake in her voice, but that makes no difference. (p65, Love Medicine 2009, based on the 1993 revision).

While there are many different editions of the book, there are three versions I have found. The first is the original, published in 1984.

Then in 1993 came the New and expanded edition. It added four chapters to the original: The Island, Resurrection, The Tomahawk Factory, and Lyman’s Luck. Then, in 2009 came the Newly Revised Edition, which keeps The Island and Resurrection, drops Lyman’s Luck altogether, and puts The Tomahawk factory in the back with interviews and information. In the notes, Erdrich says The Tomaawk Factory was one of the first stories she wrote in what would become Love Medicine, but it didn’t make the cut of the first draft, and when it was included in the expanded edition, she realized it dragged the pacing down toward the end of the book.

So, which should you get? Ideally, the one you buy at the bookstore she owns, Birchbark, in Minneapolis, where they have two versions of the Newly Revised Edition. Also, as you shop the store, there are handwritten recommendations by the staff and by her, so it’s like you’re going book shopping with a really smart friend.

If you’re a completist, then go for owning all three, or for the New and Expanded edition, because that has the most stories.

Having researched this, I’d opt for the most recent, which has good back matter, and is missing only Lyman’s Luck, a four-page chapter. But if you haven’t yet read Erdrich, Love Medicine is a great place to start.

IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE by Sinclair Lewis

March 6th, 2017

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis has too may excellent quotes for me to leave it to Goodreads and Facebook, which is where most of what I used to post here on the blog goes, nowadays. But sometimes I want a little more space, and so, here I am.

It Can’t Happen Here, about a Vermont newspaperman who is moved to political action for the first time in his life, is both terrific, and not so great. Terrific, because it’s timely after the 2016 election, and the election of a charismatic but ethically weak man who is a puppet for a more militaristic and grim advisor. Buzz Windrip is not exactly Donald Trump, but Lee Sarason is scarily like Steve Bannon.

One of the things that’s interesting about the book is that it predicted the rise of a popular leader like Trump based on Huey Long, who was assassinated, and didn’t rise to power. So Lewis’ era missed out, but here we are, 80 or so years later with so very much of this book that could be ripped from the headlines. And while it’s satire, it’s often not funny, because right now, it’s too close, too soon.

For example, his description of how many voters

“had turned to Windrip & Co., not as perfect, but as the most probable saviors of the country from, on the one hand, domination by Moscow, and, on the other hand, the slack indolence, the lack of decent pride of half the American youth whose world (these idealists asserted) was composed of shiftless distaste for work and refusal to learn anything thoroughly, of blatting dance music on the radio, maniac automobiles, slobbering sexuality…(350)

The paragraph is ironic given the current regime’s entanglement with Russia, and with how the description of youth could be taken from any piece on Millennials in the past several years.

I had to laugh at the following, about a group of states who later try to take things into their own control:

There were bubbles from an almost boiling rebellion in the Middle West and Northwest, especially in Minnesota and the Dakotas, where agitators, some of them formerly of political influence, were demanding that their states secede from the [Union] and form a cooperative (indeed almost socialistic) commonwealth of their own. (346)

Forming a co-op is SO Minnesotan.

The book is quite uneven. It’s long, it drags in the middle, some of the characters are flat or caricatures, and yet, I am glad I read it, and I recommend it, because otherwise I wouldn’t have read this, which rings deep and true for me:

More and more, as I think about history,…I am convinced that everything that is worth while in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit, and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system whatsoever. But the men of ritual and the men of barbarism are capable of shutting up the men of science and of silencing them forever. (359)

It’s an imperfect novel, but it’s a nearly perfect political snapshot. Now if only it was been less descriptive of the problem, and more prescriptive of what we might do about it. I guess we’ll find out, since it did in fact happen here.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys Part 3

January 23rd, 2017

The idea of this read was to read Wide Sargasso Sea before Jane Eyre to put it in the proper perspective, and to strip away the layers of romance that Bronte drapes over Rochester, revealing him as a bitter, controlling, vengeful man.

Why, why does he take Antoinette back to England? Why not just abandon her, and pretend as if she hadn’t existed? Some of that is out of guilt, to punish himself for making bad decisions, but it also punishes her, who is not nearly as culpable as he would like to make her out to be.

In this third section, what I love is that Rhys not only continues her construction of poor, mad, imprisoned Antoinette, but also Grace Poole, one of the more maligned characters in Jane Eyre. No longer is Grace simply a mean, crude drunk, but instead is a woman who has endured hardship in the world and at the hands of men. She recognizes that same damage in Antoinette, the anger that has resulted, and respects it.

The third section is the most intertextual, weaving in and out of Bronte’s Jane Eyre and drawing attention to the absurdity of Rochester inviting a slew of people to his house when he has a prisoner in the attic.

The color red, of Antoinette’s dress, of the fire, in her memories of home, is throughout this section. It is the dress she wore with Sandi when she said goodbye to him: Sandi often came to see me when that man was away.

Does this mean that she was having an affair with Sandi before her marriage fell apart, or did that happen between sections two and three.

The section ends with a dream, Antoinette’s third of the book. Intriguingly and skillfully, Rhys has her dream of escape:

And the sky so red. Someone screamed and I thought, Why did I scream? I called Tia! and jumped and woke.

Out of the dream, then, she proceeds out of her prison with the candle to guide her.

It is a mercy, I think, that Rhys allowed her this freedom, at the end. She is not jumping to her death, but into wakefulness.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, part 2

January 16th, 2017

Part One of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea ended with Antoinette having a dream she was in hell, and being comforted with hot chocolate, which reminded her of the tragic life and death of her mother.

Part Two is the famous “narrated by Mr. Rochester” section, yet Mr. R is never mentioned by name.

The section begins with him under a tree in the rain, already questioning his marriage to Antoinette, and expressing doubt and fear of his surroundings. He describes the girl Amelie, the one he will later in the section bed as revenge against Antoinette:

A lovely little creature but sly, spiteful, malignant perhaps, like much else in this place.

Over the course of the section Rochester notes how he was disliked and disregarded by his father and older brother, and had been shipped off to get married to an heiress as a way to get off their hands. He notes how he learned how to cut off his emotions when he was a child, and dislikes Antoinette for not being able to do so, though in comparison, her childhood was at least as brutal and damaging as his. As he attempts to exert his control he begins to call her Bertha, his mother’s name, a name she rejects.

There is a part in the middle of section 2 in which Antoinette’s narration resumes, or disrupts, his. She seeks out Christophine’s help, asking for obeah cures to make her husband love her again. Christophine warns her again and again, and gives her good advice to run away, which she ignores.

While Antoinette is getting this “medicine” Mr. R finally sees Daniel Cosway, who has been trying to tell him the “truth” about Antoinette and her family. With this in his mind, Mr. R is drugged by Antoinette, sleeps with her, wakes disoriented, wanders the island, then comes back to sleep with Amelie, as revenge for being taken advantage of, and deliberately cruelly, knowing that Antoinette can hear. She deteriorates mentally, while he seems to rush the process along with his hate and cruelty, rushing to get off the island, and for some reasons taking her with him, punishment for believing that she duped him, perhaps.

There is plenty here to despise, but also, plenty here to show how things lead inevitably to the action of section three. Rhys showed how Rochester’s own upbringing was cold and distant, and gives insight into why he acts the way he does.

There is also plenty to show how Antoinette makes her own bad decisions, and is treated as an object by the men in her life, but disregards the sage advice of Christophine, the only woman in the book who seems to have figured out how to buck the patriarchy. But even she flinches from the threat of English law when Mr. R threatens her with it.

What do you think?

2016 in books

January 5th, 2017

For the past several years, I’ve kept a list of every book I read and every movie I saw. I take the little address-book thingie in the pocket sized Moleskine calendar, and use that, starting at one end for books, and upside down from the other end for movies. I watch WAY fewer movies than I used to. For whatever reason, perhaps that I started a new job at the end of the year, I read fully a third fewer books this year than in the previous two years. So, I only read 89 books. I’ll take it, and be glad for the good life that comes with it.

A straight-out list of books would be boring, wouldn’t it? So I’ll start with the funnest stuff: the books I absolutely loved. These are the books I didn’t want to put down, that stayed with me, that I recommended not only to friends but to strangers.

These books that made me resent whatever or whoever made me put them down:

Origin by Diana Abu-Jaber, a moody, wintry mystery with great writing.

Ancillary Justice, a mind- and gender-bending space opera with a terrific main character.

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins, about a world of literary demi-gods who rebel against their adoptive father.

Company Town by Madeline Ashby, set in a world where physical abnormalities have been effaced, one woman chooses to wear hers like a badge. Or a defense.

The Girl with All the Gifts by MR Carey. Just loved this take on a tired trope of monsters.

Vacationland by Sarah Stonich. These interconnected stories set in northern Minnesota drew me in and made me love this set of characters.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. I didn’t care for State of Wonder, and never liked Bel Canto as much as others did (I prefer The Magician’s Assistant) but I was enthralled by this history of two twined families. I didn’t have time to read it, and I read it anyway.

The Trespasser by Tana French. I skipped her past couple books after being disappointed in Faithful Place, but I flat out flew through this, and was THRILLED at the how it played out. Plotted like a mothercusser. So impressive.

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork, about a teen with Asperger-y tendencies, whose father urges him to get out into “the real world” with unexpected results. I really loved getting inside the head of this unique character.

These books made me laugh, a lot:

Locally Laid by Lucie Amundsen, about a clueless family who decide to start a chicken farm. In Duluth.

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess.

Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe. So good I’m not consigning it to a comic-book category.

This not only made me laugh, but made me think and was in general way better than it needed to be, taking on gun control, body issues, consent, and more:

Amy Schumer’s Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo.

There were also a lot of solid, entertaining reads:

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle.
A Man Called Ove by Frederick Bachman, should have irritated me but didn’t.
Station Eleven (again) by Emily St. John Mandel.
The Golem and the Jinni (again) by Helene Wecker.
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.
The Nest by Cynthia d’Aprix Sweeney.
Tenth of December by George Saunders.
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson.
Boys of My Youth by JoAnn Beard.

These books were good, with maybe some great bits, but didn’t take me to the next level:

You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein.
The Turner House by Angela Fluornoy. Driftless by David Rhodes.
Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple (no, not as good as Where’d You Go Bernadette)
You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J Ryan Stradel.
It’s OK to Cry by Nora McInerny Purmort.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

These made me think about how I am, and want to be, in the world:

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota, ed. by Sun Yung Shin

There were fun read-alouds with my boys, who are now 10 and 13 years old:

The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt by Patricia MacLachlan.
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.
The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul by Douglas Adams.
Charmed Life, The Lives of Christopher Chant, and Conrad’s Fate by Diana Wynne Jones.

Helped me with my writing:

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr.

They’re classics for a reason:

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.
The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston.
Dubliners by James Joyce.
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich.
Villette by Charlotte Bronte.
The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde.
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.

These books just didn’t work for me:

Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.
Blindness by Jose Saramago.
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.

Finally, the booby prizes. The Girls by Emma Cline. Started it, gave up about 30 pages in. Wasn’t hooked, and the style of writing clashed with the subject for me.

Worst of the year: Jane Steele by Lyndsey Faye, a cheeky murder-y retelling of Jane Eyre that seemed to be on track to modernize the tale and remove some of its ugly racism, but then stabs itself in the foot by making a non-white woman the villain and other ghastly racist bits. Wish I hadn’t read it.

WIDE SARGASSO SEA by Jean Rhys: Part One

January 3rd, 2017

Hello, hello, is anyone out there? I’ve let this blog lie fallow for some time, and I miss it terribly. If you read this, let me know you’re out there.

What with Facebook and Goodreads, it feels as if some of the purpose of the blog has become obsolete or at least redundant, since I do brief, timely posts elsewhere. But some things cry out for a longer form, and right now that’s my reading of Jean Rhys’ postcolonial classic revisioning of Jane Eyre’s madwoman in the attic, Wide Sargasso Sea.

I last read Wide Sargasso Sea for the first time in 2008, and again in November 2013. The first time I read itin 2008, I was baffled. I didn’t understand the Jamaican dialect, such as the opening, or the many details, which Rhys drops like tantalizing breadcrumbs through the short novel, often explaining things later, like family relations.

They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks. The Jamaican ladies had never approved of my mother, ‘because she pretty like pretty self’ Christophine said.

She was my father’s second wife, far too young for him they thought, and worse still, a Martinique girl. When I asked her why so few people came to see us, she told me that the road from Spanish Town to Coulibri Estate where we lived was very bad, and that road repairing was now a thing of the past. (My father, visitors, horses, feeling safe in bed–all belonged to the past.)

WSS has grown on me with each reading. I found the Norton edition with its footnotes and critical material helpful to understand the details so I could focus on the beauty of the prose and the power of the story, however short. I’m not sure I’d feel right about re-reading Jane without also re-reading Antoinette’s story.

Antoinette is one of the many authorial choices Rhys made as she crafted the book over a period of 20 years. In Bronte’s book, she is called Bertha Antoinetta Mason. Rhys changes this to Antoinette (more properly French), after her mother Annette. Bertha, we learn, is what the Mr. Rochester character (though he is never named) calls her, after his own mother, who is not mentioned in WSS otherwise. Rhys also changed the time period of her novel, placing it just after the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies, which took place in 1834 so that slavery, race, and class more firmly underlie the story. Jane Eyre was published in 1847, and the story was set earlier in the century.

Additionally, Rhys adds a layer of family beyond what Bronte invented. Antoinette is the daughter of Mr. Cosway. Mason is the man who marries Annette after Cosway has died. He is the father of Richard, the man who claims to be “Bertha’s” brother in Jane Eyre. I don’t know if their is significance in the names: a causeway is a raised road over low or wet ground where a mason is a worker. I wonder if this is mean to signify a fall in status.

In Part One, narrated by Antoinette, we see the unrest in the aftermath of emancipation, and the family’s precarious situation, tolerated only out of pity because they were poor. When Mason marries Annette and begins to repair Coulibri, there is a revolt, and a group sets fire to the house. The family is driven out, Antoinette’s younger brother dies, her mother goes mad and refuses to see Mr. Mason, and Antoinette languishes in a coma after being struck with a rock thrown by a former playmate. When she finally wakes, she finds her mother refuses to see her, and is sent to a convent by Mr. Mason, who visits periodically, and tells her about some English friends he wants her to meet. The section ends with a dream:

Again I have left the house at Coulibri. It is still night and I am walking towards the forest. I am wearing a long dress and thin slippers, so I walk with difficulty, following the man who is with me and holding up the skirt of my dress. It is white and beautiful and I don’t wish to get it soiled. I follow him, sick with fear but I make no effort to save myself; if anyone were to try to save me, I would refuse. This must happen. Now we have reached the forest. We are under the tall dark trees and there is no wind. “Here?” He turns and looks at me, his face black with hatred, and when I see this I begin to cry. He smiles slyly. “Not here, not yet,” he says, and I follow him, weeping. Now I do not try to hold up my dress, it trails in the dirt, my beautiful dress. We are no longer in the forest but in an enclosed garden surrounded by a stone wall and the trees are different trees. I do not know them. There are steps leading upwards. It is too dark to see the wall or the steps, but I know they are there and I think, “It will be when I go up these steps. At the top.” I stumble over my dress and cannot get up. I touch a tree and my arms hold on to it. ‘Here, here.’ But I think I will not go any further. The tree sways and jerks as if it is trying to throw me off. Still I cling and the seconds pass and each one is a thousand years. “Here, in here,” a strange voice said, and the tree stopped swaying and jerking.

For Antoinette, fire is associated with rebellion, anger, and the loss of her mother. She, like Jane Eyre, is effectively orphaned at a young age, narrates her story from girlhood, is sent to a boarding school, put at the mercy of distant relatives, and has a a family servant who is kind to her. Like Jane, she is a poor outsider.

The next section jumps ahead in time and is narrated, but for one short part, by the man Antoinette marries.

What did you think of Part One?

SO LONG, SEE YOU TOMORROW by William Maxwell

January 3rd, 2017

I requested So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell from the library after seeing it mentioned in an online discussion between two authors I admired, Kate DiCamillo and Rebecca Stead at Number Five Bus.

At 135 pages, it was deceptively slim. I thought to read it in a few hours. Instead, I labored over it for days. I struggled to connect and “get” this book. I had to read, then re-read passages. I couldn’t keep the three families in it straight. More than once I’d see a character named, and in frustration, I’d say aloud “Who?” or, “Who the hell is ____?”

This is the longest 135 page novel I have ever read.

So why did writers I admire themselves admire it?

Barnes & Noble Celebrates Teen Books

June 9th, 2016

For you Twin City-ans and young-adult book lovers, Barnes and Noble is having a teen book fest this weekend with some great readings and events around the cities. I have copied this almost verbatim from Twin Cities Geek, which did a great job of compiling the info.

Barnes & Noble just announced its first-ever B-Fest Teen Book Festival, three days of free YA-centric events at B&N stores around the country June 10—12, including all of the locations here in Minnesota.

In addition to a set schedule of activities happening at all stores throughout the weekend–like trivia, giveaways, and a spelling bee, with advance reader’s copies of yet-to-be-released books as prizes–individual stores have been hard at work booking authors and groups to join in the festivities. Everyone I contacted was eager to talk about everything going on for the event.

“We are super excited,” said Janet Waller, who manages events for the Roseville location, which is tied with Mall of America for the largest number of author appearances scheduled. “Super excited” were the same words used by Regina Eckes at the Eden Prairie Center store, who added, “We want to be the place to go for teens, for YA literature, and celebrate everything it has to offer.”

Theodore Evans at the Ridgehaven Barnes & Noble in Minnetonka noted that not that long ago, the YA section was almost nonexistent–something that’s changed for the better in a big way over recent years. “The teen section has really blossomed, and anyone who’s anyone reads it,” he said.
B&N-Wide Events

The following programming will be going on at the same time at all Barnes & Noble locations:

Friday, June 10, 7:00 p.m.: B-In the Know

“We’re kicking off the festivities with Trivia Blast, created by Penguin Teen and Random House’s First in Line. One winner in each store will win advance reader’s copies of the most anticipated new books for teens.“

Saturday, June 11, 11:00 a.m.: B-First

“Come check out exciting giveaways, plus sneak peeks of new stories from favorite authors, including James Dashner, Ransom Riggs, and Veronica Roth.”

Saturday, June 11, 2:00 p.m.: B-Part of the Fun

“Join us for a spelling showdown, story ball, games, and activities featuring popular teen series, plus a chance to win prize packs, swag, and more!”

Sunday, June 12, 2:00 p.m.: B-Creative

“Join us to participate in a story development workshop created by Adaptive Studios and learn how to write a log line, create a spark page, and reimagine popular characters.”

Store-Specific Events

Each of the stores around the Twin Cities and beyond is doing a little something different for B-Fest, and I’ve collected everything into one big list just for you. Names marked with an asterisk (*) indicate authors who will be visiting more than one store during the course of the weekend. Note that some stores are still finalizing their event lineup, so there may be some additions between now and June 10.

This list was updated June 6, 2016.

Minneapolis–Calhoun Village
3216 West Lake St.
Minneapolis, MN 55416

June 10, 5:00 p.m.: Carrie Mesrobian* (Cut Both Ways) and Shannon Gibney* (See No Color)
June 11, 11:00 a.m.: Pete Hautman* (Godless)
June 11, 1:00 p.m.: Laurie Wetzel* (Unclaimed)
June 12, 1:00 p.m.: B-Mighty with Mighty Media–“Join us for the inside scoop on publishing and get a sneak peek at the upcoming The Peculiar Haunting of Thelma Bee by by Erin Petti!”
June 12, 3:00 p.m.: Meet Monica’s YA Writing Group–“Sneak a peek at the process with a local group of budding YA authors. Join the discussion with and work through the writing with the star of our store’s Kids section.”

RSM Plaza
801 Nicollet Mall
Minneapolis, MN 55402

June 10, 11:00 a.m.: Kelsey Sutton (The Lonely Ones)

Burnhaven Shopping Center
828 West County Road 42
Burnsville, MN 55337

June 11, 2:00 p.m.: Andrea Cremer (Nightshade)
June 11, 4:00 p.m.: Kristin D. Van Risseghem* (The Passage, a Dance, and a Little White Dress)

Duluth–Miller Hill Mall
1600 Miller Trunk Hwy. #L25
Duluth, MN 55811

June 11, 11:00 a.m.: Tom Isbell* (The Capture) and Margi Preus (Enchantment Lake)

Eagan Promenade
1291 Promenade Place
Eagan, MN 55121

June 10, 7:00 p.m.: Anne Greenwood Brown and Jacqueline West (Lies Beneath)
June 11, 2:00 p.m.: Kristin D. Van Risseghem* (The Passage, a Dance, and a Little White Dress)
June 12, 2:00 p.m.: Loretta Ellsworth (In a Heartbeat)

Eden Prairie Center
8251 Flying Cloud Dr., #3000
Eden Prairie, MN 55344

June 11, 11:00 a.m.: Kristin D. Van Risseghem* (The Passage, a Dance, and a Little White Dress)
June 11, 1:00 p.m.: “From Page to Screen” discussion with film critic and blogger Paul McGuire Grimes
June 12, 1:00 p.m.: Molly Beth Griffin (Silhouette of a Sparrow)
“Diversity in Teen Fiction” discussion
“Fun for Parents” discussion

3225 W 69th St.
Edina, MN 55435

June 11, 11:00 a.m.: Gary Bush* (Sail into Treachery: A Jamie Sharpe Adventure)
June 11, 1:00 p.m.: Kirstin Cronn-Mills and Jaqueline West* (Original Fake)
June 12, 2:00 p.m.: Teen Writing Workshop with Jane St. Anthony (Isabelle Refuses to Die of a Broken Heart)

HarMar Mall
2100 North Snelling Ave.
Roseville, MN 55113

June 10, 7:00 p.m.: Monica Ropal* (When You Leave); Kristin D. Van Risseghem* (The Passage, a Dance, and a Little White Dress); and Gary Bush* (Sailing into Treachery)
June 11, 2:00 p.m.: Carrie Mesrobian* (Cut Both Ways); Bryan Bliss* (Meet Me Here); Peter Rennebohm (Shepherd Lake); and Rachel Gold (My Year Zero)
Sunday, 2:00 p.m.: Geoff Herbach (Anything You Want)

Mall of America
118 E. Broadway, Suite 238
Bloomington, MN 55425

June 10, 6:00 p.m.: Tom Isbell* (The Capture)
June 11, 9:00 a.m.: Monica Ropal* (When You Leave)
June 11, 11:00 a.m.: Aurora Whittet (Bloodmark)
June 11, 1:00 p.m.: Tate Hallaway (Vampire Princess of Saint Paul)
June 11, 3:00 p.m.: Jacqueline West* (Dreamers Often Lie)
June 11, 5:00 p.m.: Laurie Wetzel* (Unclaimed)
June 12, 2:00 p.m.: Jenna-Lynne Duncan (Aftermath)
June 12, 4:00 p.m.: Bryan Bliss* (Meet Me Here)

Maple Grove
8040 Wedgewood Lane
Maple Grove, MN 55369

June 10, 3:00 p.m.: Roseanne Cheng (The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High)
June 11, 12:00 p.m.: Nick Hupton (Stone Ridge)
June 11, 4:00 p.m.: Shannon Gibney* (See No Color)
June 12, 1:00 p.m.: Besodiah J. Nolen
June 12, 5:00 p.m.: Nick Healy, Pete Hautman*, Melody Heide, and Kasandra Duthie (editor and some of the contributors to the collection Love & Profanity)

Maplewood Mall
3001 White Bear Ave. North, Suite 1030
Maplewood, MN 55109

June 12, 2:00 p.m.: Lea Richardson

Northtown Mall
710 County Highway 10 NE
Blaine, MN 55434

June 11, 12:00 p.m.: Sarah Ahiers (Assassin’s Heart)

Ridgehaven Mall
13131 Ridgedale Drive
Minnetonka, MN 55305

June 10, 7:00 p.m.: “Rock the Genre” writing class by English composition teacher and Loft instructor Gail Milstein, covering poetry, fiction, and nonfiction
June 11, 11:00 a.m.: Dawn Klehr (The Cutting Room Floor)
June 12, 2:00 p.m., Nora McInerny Purmort (It’s Okay to Laugh)

Apache Mall
1201 12th Street SW, Suite 425
Rochester, MN 55902

June 11, 1:00 p.m.: Jessica Stevens (Within Reach)
June 12, 2:00 p.m.: Tosca Lee (The Progeny)

Woodbury Village Shopping Center
7020 Valley Creek Plaza
Woodbury, MN 55125

June 12, 2:00 p.m.: David Oppegaard (The Firebug of Balrog County) and Pete Hautman* (Godless)

BLINDNESS by Jose Saramago

March 18th, 2016

Blindness by Jose Saramago was on my TBR pile, (to-be-read, but you knew that, right?) for a long time, one of those big-themed books others deemed a classic. I remember when the movie came out and people complained that it wasn’t as good as the book, and somehow this book got built up in my mind that it was a masterpiece that I SHOULD read, and was somehow deficient for not having read it. So, I finally read it.

And while maybe when it came out, it was big and important, I’m willing to go out on a limb and call it “Not a lasting classic.” Like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it’s an ambitious book about what happens when things in the world go off the rails. And I wonder if book like this are like American presidents–they get elected, hang out for four or eight years as the dystopic fear story, then get slowly forgotten. I mean, how many people still read Neville Shute’s On the Shore? Or: Lucifer’s Hammer, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Stand, Blindness, The Road, or your apoca-fic choice.

In Blindness, people start going blind, it’s catching, and eventually everyone is blind and things are violent, chaotic, and literally shitty. What is interesting and unique about this book as opposed to the zombies, nuclear apocalypse, sun going out, what have you, is that a virus of blindness is more easy to imagine than zombies, yet how completely it did, and likely would really, shut the world down. That one thing, sight, would bring the world to a half if it were gone. How would we feed ourselves? Like the sun in The Road, if vision is gone, if food stops being produced, then how can things continue?

If, before every action, we were to begin by weighing up the consequences, thinking about them in earnest, first the immediate consequences, then the probable, then the possible, then the imaginable ones, we should never move beyond the point where our first thought brought us to a halt. The good and evil resulting from our words and deeds go on apportioning themselves, one assumes in a reasonably uniform and balanced way, throughout all the days to follow, including those endless days, when we shall not be here to find out, to congratulate ourselves or ask for pardon, indeed there are those who claim that this is the much talked of immortality.

Like The Road, Blindness is bleak and horrible, and has very little hope. While it has moments of loveliness, like a ritual cleansing in the rain of several characters, they weren’t enough for me to want to stay with this book. I read it, I thought about it, saw what it was saying, decided it spent too much time on ugliness, and I’ve moved on.


March 16th, 2016


As soon as I heard about Mary Karr’s book The Art of Memoir from this interview at NPR, I wanted it, wanted it RIGHT NOW in the way that I often crave books by authors whose work I both like and admire. First with The Liar’s Club and most recently with Lit, Karr has won me over with her ability to tell a good story in a strong voice. If you haven’t read Karr, did you like Jeannette Wall’s The Glass Castle? That book probably couldn’t have found an audience if Karr hadn’t paved the way with Liar’s Club.

Art of Memoir hit a sweet spot for me in that it’s both a memoir plus a book about writing memoirs. I’m attempting, and more often lately failing, to put together a memoir of my own about specific times in life, and rather than sitting down to the do the hard work of writing about hard things, I’m often flitting about the internet on Facebook, Twitter, or hey, even taking time to blog here! So her book is a good reminder for me to stop cussing around and get to work, already:

After a lifetime of hounding authors for advice, I’ve heard three truths from every mouth: (1) Writing is painful — it’s ‘fun’ only for novices, the very young, and hacks; (2) other than a few instances of luck, good work only comes through revision; (3) the best revisers often have reading habits that stretch back before the current age, which lends them a sense of history and raises their standards for quality.

(Distracted aside: I don’t care if the blog is dead. I’ve been doing this for 14 years, and I love it and while I don’t do it as regularly as I did in the years prior to social media, I’m still not gonna quit.)

If you read and liked (enjoyed, loved, admired, what have you) any of Karr’s other books, I think you’ll like this one too. She gives gritty behind-the-scenes insight about what went into the writing of those books. When she does go into details about writing, she sets those sections off for those who are more interested in the memoir part than in the writing craft part. But for those of us nerds who love both? This is like the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of books: two great things that go great together.

If you haven’t read Karr, go check out Liar’s Club and Lit first; I wouldn’t recommend this one to start with. Unless you’re a writer, and then this is as good a place as any.

LOCALLY LAID: How We Built a Plucky, Industry-Changing Egg Farm–From Scratch by Lucie B. Amundsen

March 15th, 2016

Locally Laid by Lucie B. Amundsen

Locally Laid by Lucie B. Amundsen

The cover is an answer to that old joke. Guess what?

Chicken Butt!

Lucie is a friend–our kids went to preschool together. I would say nice things about Locally Laid: How We Built a Plucky, Industry-Changing Egg Farm–From Scratch no matter what, but since it is charming, sweet, sad, funny, well-written, and educational I won’t need to euphemize. (That’s a word, right?)

I hope you’ve heard of Locally Laid, the farm. They’re located in North Minnesota, which is not an ideal place to start a farm. When Lucie’s husband Jason lost his job, he thought it was a good idea to start a chicken farm. They’d had good luck with back yard chickens, and there weren’t many locally sourced, ethically farmed eggs in near Duluth. How hard could it be?

Lucie did not think this was a good idea, but she and their two kids went along with it. While Jason started the farm, she took various writing jobs, pursued an MFA in the Twin Cities, washed eggs and became Locally Laid’s “marketing chick.”

My favorite chick was the tawny-colored Buff Orpington. She promised to one day be a bodacious plus-sized model of a chicken, wearing fluffy pantaloons under full feathery skirts and with as charming a personality as her appearance suggested. Predictably named Buffy, she didn’t mind being handled and rather seemed to enjoy the company, clucking softly with a closed beak as I picked her up and stroked her silky feathers.

While the farm’s name has a cheeky double entendre, it is meant first to be taken literally–these eggs are from local chickens raised on pasture and allowed to roam outdoors.

Reading the details of how this farm came to be, with the numerous obstacles, setbacks, and reality checks along the way, is an emotional roller coaster. I wanted the farm to succeed. I wanted Jason to sleep. I wanted Locally Laid to win the Super Bowl contest. I wanted to hear more from Lucie’s son Milo, because he stole the scenes he was in. Some of these things happened, some didn’t, and some sorta kinda did.

Locally Laid is a lovely mix of memoir and education on the state of agriculture in general, and chicken farming in particular. I was reminded more than once that I’m one of many people who has thoughts, opinions, and feelings about chickens, yet has never actually wrangled one. If you’ve read and enjoyed Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, or Mark Bittman’s Food Matters, then belongs next to them on the shelf.

Support a writer and farmer; buy this book, read this book. It will make you smile and you’ll learn stuff.


March 6th, 2016

I keep trying to put an image of the journal here, but the blog displays it wonkily.

I will try one more time:


I’ve been writing regularly in a journal since January of 1994. I was 25, about to be 26, and seeing a therapist because of difficulties with my then boyfriend. Because I’m lately trying to write about that ex-boyfriend, I spent some time this morning putting my shelf of journals in chronological order.

There are 37 of them.

I am 48 years old. I have been writing in these 37 books for just over 23 years. Will I get to the point where my number of journals matches my age? Probably not–I have gotten better over the years at picking good journals, ones that have enough pages for a year or more, rather than a month or two.

I’m reading Harriet the Spy aloud to my boys right now. Drake is now 12, Guppy 10. Like Harriet, I’d be in a lot of trouble if people were to read my journals. I put my ugliest self in there, in the attempt to not say that stuff aloud. I also try to write out my bad moods, which are many. Best that they’re burnt without reading when I’m gone, I think.

I flipped through some of them. They don’t make good reading. They’re boring, repetitive, maddeningly vague if I’m looking for something specific, and mostly just me trying to figure things out. Story of my life, right?

HOW TO BUILD A GIRL by Caitlin Moran

February 27th, 2016


I feel about Caitlin (pronounced CAT-lin) Moran’s novel like I do about the writer in general–she says some amazing, provocative, hilarious things. But her enthusiasm could often use some judicious editing, as well as increased awareness.

The novel is a barely disguised autobiographical novel about Johanna Morrigan, who grew up poor in Wolverhampton in public housing and went on to brazen out a career as a music journalist starting in her teens.

I read and mostly enjoyed Moran’s How to Be a Woman, though I think it would more accurately be titled How to Be a White Woman. So the details of teen life in this book are familiar. Johanna is smart, does embarrassing things, is obsessed with sex and music.

Where this book shines is in the frank, realistic talk of teen sexuality, and in the unvarnished portrayal of living in a poor family. Johanna is both funny and heartbreaking. Where it falters, though is in the loosey-goosey time and tense switches and frequent adult voice flashbacks, e.g., “Currently she has post-natal depression –but we don’t know this yet.” (18) My friend Amy was really bothered by the utter lack of birth control/STD protection. And while it makes sense that a teen in the 90’s would have been cavalier about it, Moran might have even mentioned it, even to insert something like, “I know know how utterly irresponsible it was, and how ridiculous coming from a family where my mum cried for years after having unexpected twins.”

Here, go read these quotes, because they are too numerous and good to choose from, and include ones both funny, sad, and insightful.

The Guardian’s Digested Read does a good job of showing the good/bad.

And yet, it’s funny and charming. Johanna makes terrible mistakes, but as she tries out her new personal, Dolly Wilde, the titular built girl of the title, she often amazed and impressed me with her humor, her smarts, her moxie. Ultimately, I found this winning, but I wish this had gone through another round of strict edits so Moran’s exuberance, insight, and humor would shine more brightly.

ORIGIN by Diana Abu-Jaber

February 22nd, 2016


Let’s talk about shelf-sitting books. Origin by Diana Abu-Jaber was one of my shelf sitters. I bought it at a book festival in October of 2011, having heard her speak on a panel with some other authors, whose books I also bought. Abu-Jaber’s novel Birds of Paradise had just been released in hardcover. While she talked, she mentioned that a book group in Minnesota had recently read her previous novel, Origin and really liked it as a winter group read. I bought other books that day at the festival, ones that I purged in last year’s Marie Kondo-inspired book clearing, because when I picked them up, I felt guilt, but when I picked up Origin, I still wanted to read it. That one small endorsement, about it being an atmospheric book for winter, had stuck with me.

I selected Origin for one of my book groups to read this month. I’m happy to report that I found it fabulous, I tore through it, I’m so glad I kept it around, sorry only that I didn’t read it earlier, and I’m recommending it highly.

What I’m not happy to report is that my library system and the ones around it have just a tiny number of copies of it. I picked the book for the group before checking the library (rookie mistake). I’m sad because it appears that this book is a fading gem, one that got great reviews when it came out, but not the attention that other similar books have. Before I write about the book, then I’m going to say that if you’re a fan of Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories, or Ann Patchett’s Sense of Wonder, Smilla’s Sense of Snow, or other literary,psychological thrillers, I think you’ll like Origin, too.

In Syracuse New York’s winter, crime-lab tech Lena Dawson is approached by a grieving mother whose baby’s death has been ruled as SIDS. The mother insists this is a mistake, and has contacted Lena because of rumors that Lena has special insight into children’s cases. Lena is disturbed by the encounter, not only because it’s emotionally jarring, but also because it shakes loose painfully vague memories Lena has of her own past.

The two mysteries–of the crib death and of Lena’s past–unfold in gorgeous prose, stunning imagery, and great psychological layering. Lena struggles to navigate her work and relationships, and the clues are dropped like delicious breadcrumbs, which drew me quickly through the book.

In the end, one of the mysteries was less compelling than the other, but the sum of the book, its mysteries, its many shocking reveals, the satisfying “click” as pieces fall into place, all make it one of my favorite reads in recent memory. I loved it, and can’t wait to talk about it with my book group.

MY YEAR ZERO by Rachel Gold

February 20th, 2016


I was given an advance e-copy of Rachel Gold’s teen romance My Year Zero in exchange for an honest review.

When I met Blake, I had no idea that she would destroy my life. She was this small person, darkly incandescent, vibrating with nervous energy. Eyes blue-gray like a kingfisher’s wing (moving as fast). I should have known by the way she went on about infinities and zero. Who falls in love with zero?

But I’m ahead of myself. The story doesn’t start with Blake. As with most great stories, it starts with sex. Excerpt From: Rachel Gold My Year Zero (advance review copy).

Lauren is a sixteen-year-old artist who lives in Duluth. More than just about anything, she wants a girlfriend, but candidates are pretty rare in northern Minnesota. Then she meets Sierra, a first-year student at the University of Minnesota. Sierra invites Lauren to the Twin Cities and introduces her to a group writing an online space opera. Lauren’s a fan of manga and anime, so her storytelling abilities, both written and artistic, make her an immediate darling of the creative group.

As Lauren becomes more involved with the story group, her already difficult relationship with her lawyer father becomes further strained when she tries to assert herself and spend more time in the cities. Lauren and Sierra begin to date, but rather than the fairy-tale romance Lauren envisioned, the reality is emotionally neglectful and abusive. Lauren grows closer to Sierra’s friend Blake, whose struggles with bipolar syndrome help Lauren see how her own emotional issues might be exacerbating things with her father and Sierra.

Lauren and the group of storytellers are a varied and interesting bunch, even when they behave immaturely and unlike-ably, which they all do–they’re in their late teens, after all. The story they’re spinning is a book-within-a-book, so really My Year Zero is two books in one.

Lauren is an appealing character. Her relationships with her father and Sierra are upsetting and all too believable. They make the book complicated and intriguing. There were many great details about the Twin Cities, though I wished for a bit more about Duluth and Lauren’s life there outside of her relationship with her dad. The pace slowed a bit in the middle, but was strong toward the end. I enjoyed going on the journey with Lauren as she fell in and out of love, tried to figure out who she was, and tackled the challenges in her life rather than hiding from them.

Middle School Band Concert

February 8th, 2016

Or, my personal version of hell.

Both my boys are in the school band, Guppy in 4th (the first year kids can take it) and Drake in 6th. We recently had the winter concert for grades 5-8 (the boys attend a K-8 school), and when I dropped off Drake at the 6:15 call time for the 7:00 concert of the 5th, 6th, and 7/8 bands, I asked the band director if I could help in any way.

He asked if I would simply stay with the 6th graders in the band room, as they were the last to perform and wouldn’t be going on until about 7:45. I said sure, thinking that it might be nice to not have to sit through the others grades’ performances.

I wasn’t really doing the math, though. Because what I agreed to was staying in the small band room with an ebbing and flowing group of kids with instruments who were alternately tuning, practicing, running around, shrieking, gossiping, and more. Worse, there’s a back room to the main room, where some students would go to escape the cacophony, yet other students would join them and incite chaos and I’d have to shoo them all out of the back.

I was not the only responsible adult during that time. The computer teacher was also there to herd kids back and forth from their performance times, and I was in the room with another mother whom I didn’t recognize. Then she came up, introduced herself, said her kids had only recently started at the school, and began making small talk. After a bit, I told her, “I’m an introvert, and this whole experience is really overwhelming to me. I’m happy to meet you and talk but all the noise makes me feel anxious.” She said she was feeling the same way, and went outside the room to read on her phone, which freed me from the small talk but left me alone in the room to say things like: “Liam, does your sax belong on the floor?” or “Hey you, stop poking Ellen with your flute,” or “Adam, please stop choking David,” or “Keith, stop banging that bongo with a water bottle.”

So by 7:45, when it was finally time for the very restless 6th grade band to go on, I felt justified in leaving the room with them, and watching their performance from the wings.

When my husband G. Grod found me after the concert, he asked where I’d been. He and Guppy had watched the whole thing. I told him what I’d done.

“Why on earth would you agree to THAT?” he asked. “Do you not KNOW you? You are the worst person for that task?”

And thus I add middle school band concert to the pile of What Was I Thinking. Or, Mistakes Were Made; Lessons Were Learned. Or, “Wasn’t Sure It Was a Good Idea; Did It Anyway.”

In any case, I did learn a lesson, one that I hope sticks: be careful what I volunteer for. Middle school band is for those with iron constitutions and placid dispositions.