Reviewing The Artist’s Way: A Challenging Week 4

Recently, I posted a review on my first three weeks working on The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, a self-help book aimed at teaching its readers to embrace their creativity. Week 4, which I’m discussing here, proved to be challenging enough that I felt it needed its own post. Because it contains an exercise that many find difficult (something Cameron also acknowledges), I want to emphasize that there’s always something valuable to learn in such cases—but patience and perseverance are attributes you might want on hand as well.

Allow me to explain.

Getting to Know Me

The snowflake pattern of your soul is emerging.

Julia Cameron

Week 4 focuses on reflection, specifically considering how previous lessons help us become our more authentic selves. While it runs a tad long, this discussion notes how these changes may manifest and affect us before reminding us to use our affirmations to deal with these feelings as we work through our various artistic blocks. The two main exercises focus on learning more about that authentic self and its preferences. “Buried Dreams” explores past interests to provide some activities to try during the second exercise. While the connection between tasks was clear, restating how they relate to the chapter’s theme would be a useful addition.

The second and more challenging exercise is called reading deprivation (now renamed media deprivation). For one week, participants must not read, watch television, or go online—similar to digital or social media detoxes. In The Artist’s Way, Cameron argues that reading and other media distract artists from self-examination. Removing such distractions let us (1) get in touch with our feelings and thoughts (introspection); (2) connect with our inner voice (inspiration); and (3) refill the artist’s well by experiencing the sensory world. With our time freed up, Cameron first predicts we’ll become productive but eventually will shift to playing once we run of busywork. Play is important, because it lets creative grow (eg, the artist’s date). With this tool improving our understanding of ourselves, our creativity should increase as blocks dissipate.

According to Cameron, too much media negatively impacts an artist’s creativity. (Image [designed using Canva), by R. E. Gould)

Understanding the Challenges

Problems with Persuasion

This lesson unfortunately includes some elements I found counterproductive to getting onboard with media deprivation. As observed in my previous review, Cameron occasionally hints at a topic before she talks about it. Week 4’s introductory page contains one of these spoilers, as it urges readers to use the “reading deprivation” tool. Inserting this brief admonition before the lesson, detrimentally shifted my focus onto this alarming development. If preparing readers for this concept is a must, it’d be better to mention that we’ll later encounter a tool that assesses media’s impact on creativity where reading blocks are first mentioned in conjunction with filling the artist’s well (“Basic Tools,” p. 23 in the 2020 edition).

But the commentary itself also creates some barriers to reader buy-in. It’s difficult to summon enthusiasm for using this tool when the essay first characterizes words—my artistic medium—as a cross between tranquilizers and junk food. Some claims made here also seemed questionable (eg, that artists are “addicted” to reading[*]). Beyond the rhetoric lies the real problem: people eschew the hard work of examining their feelings and thoughts, using media as a shield. Starting with this point and connecting it to reflecting on our authentic selves could avoid creating more resistance to an already challenging exercise.

Creative Concerns

Turning to those challenges, there’s the matter of motivation. Usually, people who limit their media consumption (as I generally do) voluntarily do so, placing Cameron in the unenviable position of warding off her students’ displeasure[†] while encouraging them to undertake an unwanted challenge. Others understandably worry about how they’ll manage their obligations with such restrictions. These are the prime reasons some find this assignment frustrating. I also identified some other potential obstacles. The introspective among us might not need more time for self-scrutiny. Others who find media inspiring may find it puzzling/upsetting to be deprived of that inspiration. With these latter points, clearly stated goals[‡] might diffuse some resistance here, as these persons could focus instead on other goals such as exploring alternate sources of inspiration.

Getting Some (Online) Guidance

Cameron does respond to the more obvious concerns involving reading deprivation in The Artist’s Way but provides minimal instruction. Being told to procrastinate when it came to work or school struck me as unhelpful, as that’s not always possible. Because I previously found an online resource for this book, I consulted it and discovered that Cameron had been calling this tool media deprivation since at least 2012, which made me wonder why my book from 2020 didn’t reflect this. Regardless, Cameron’s website does advise her students to limit their inflow of media as much as possible without being irresponsible or getting fired. Her online description of media deprivation as a form of “conscious unplugging” also appealed to me more, convincing me that checking my media consumption couldn’t hurt.

It is a paradox that by emptying our lives of distractions we are actually filling the [artist’s] well.

Julia Cameron

Mixed Results

Less Internet, More Doing

With my plans in place and the household informed, I grumpily undertook the requisite week of media deprivation. I quickly discovered my mobile phone was a problem. For a device I spend half my life trying to find when I need it, it felt uncomfortably handy when I didn’t want it. While I couldn’t switch it off,[§] I could relocate it to a nearby room (something I plan to continue doing). With my phone out of reach and apps keeping me focused, my time on my computer was more productive. I also zipped through my to-do list efficiently and finished some projects lingering in my backlog.

Bookless and Bored

Not all my results were rosy. For example, I felt left out when my spouse and child watched television while I tidied up again (apparently, that supply IS inexhaustible). While I hardly missed games and television, losing some family time due to an undesired obligation was difficult. I also missed my reading time. Putting aside a great book (Lulu Allison’s The Salt Lick) was tough but receiving THREE more books in the mail that I also wanted to read (including Sarah Tinsley’s just released debut novel, The Shadows We Cast) felt unfair. The occasional boredom here wasn’t great, nor was having the time to dwell on it helpful. But I have to say, heading to bed instead of fuming was a good solution.

An Unexpected Twist

Ultimately, the promised boost in creativity never occurred, because my grudging efforts ended with deprivation. I could not summon any enthusiasm for hobbies, new or old. Afterwards, I struggled with understanding why I’d been so angry, given that I’ve chosen on numerous occasions to put aside books and other media for weeks with far less difficulty. The Artist’s Way, as it may surprise you, did help here.

In week 3, Cameron explains that we should pay attention to our anger, because it tells us something. My subsequent interrogation here was illuminating. I realized that this assignment unwittingly resurfaced memories of being too exhausted to read while caring for my then newborn, which was a painful instance where I briefly lost “me” in motherhood. This contributed to my resistance, as lacking sufficient reason to set aside books kept me unmotivated. Exploring the source of this reaction or looking for some way to make this exercise meaningful to me might have produced different results. Putting in a more since effort with the other activities, too, may have helped.

Conclusion

One of bigger takeaways of this week is that The Artist’s Way might benefit from an update that modernizes it in general and specifically brings it in line with Cameron’s current thinking. I found the more recent descriptions of media deprivation more appealing as they avoided hyperbole and provide more guidance. As for me, media deprivation proved to be more of trade off than a trade up, but I still learned things about myself (eg, buy-in is critical for me). Knowing what I do now, I’m seriously considering giving this another try, as I’d like to see whether I finally reap those rewards.

TLDR: Trying new things is hard, especially with a bad attitude. Staying positive and finding purpose in doing things differently might help.

Further Reading

For a more positive take on media deprivation, read Ben Kassoy’s article here. While I disagree that Cameron’s goal involves understanding our media consumption (it’s always bolstering creativity), he makes some great points on why media deprivation/detoxes aids mental health and makes us more mindful about our time online.

NOTES:


[*] I suspect that Cameron means reading blocks instead of a reading-based behavioral addiction, which apparently is a compulsion to read that negatively impacts on one’s life and mental health.

[†] Understandably, no one enjoys bad news (or tough love, as the case may be here), but some of what Cameron endures seems uncalled for.

[‡] The Artist’s Way might’ve benefited here by using tactics seen in traditional textbooks (eg, enumerating goals with bullet points, objective statements) so that main points are easy to locate and understand.

[§] It’s a must for someone with a school-aged child who seems to be an injury magnet this year.

The Artist’s Way: A Review of the First Three Weeks

Cameron doesn’t teach creativity per se, so much as she encourages her readers to allow themselves to be creative.

Towards the end of 2021, a writer friend shared that she planned to work with The Artist’s Way. I’d never heard of Julia Cameron or this book before, so I was curious about it. Since we were discussing how we both wanted to write more going forward, I decided it might be worthwhile to see if this book would help me achieve that end. When in a pandemic and dealing with another surge and some unpleasant life stuff, jumping feet first into a new endeavor sounds fun—especially if it helps your writing life. So, without further ado (that is, reading up on it), I ordered it and planned to get underway in January.

Nothing like leaping before you look, right?

What is The Artist’s Way?

It’s a self-help book based on classes that Julia Cameron teaches on creativity. Meant to be used by any artist (from the hobbyist to the professional), it does not focus on a specific art form, although writing does feature in it (more on that shortly). Cameron doesn’t teach creativity per se, so much as she encourages her readers to allow themselves to be creative. For this reason, the book works on what undermines people from embracing their creativity and provides various techniques to encourage/explore creativity.

People who study certain subjects (psychology, philosophy/religion), attend therapy, or belong to 12-step programs (the course is 12 weeks, which I doubt is coincidental) may recognize some techniques from these disciplines. The benefit here is that these various ideas are specifically aimed at living a more artistic lifestyle. Spirituality is heavily emphasized, as is the belief that all of us are meant to be creative (a central tenet). Overall, this book focuses on helping its readers to live a more artistic life.

The Good: Tools for Growing as an Artist

Morning Pages

The Artist’s Way provides two tools (meant to work together) to use throughout the 12-week course and, ideally, going forward: morning pages and the artist’s date. Morning pages, as the name suggests, should be completed every morning upon awakening.[*] Whether the reader happens to be a pianist or a sculptor, they must sit down and write three sides of paper (that is, 1.5 pages) of text by hand every morning. Generally, no one should look at them—not even their composer initially.

Caffeine is a must for morning pages.

The purpose of these pages is a more difficult to explain. Their job, much like a first draft, is to exist. They don’t have to be about anything specific or planned, just what comes to mind. By getting them done early, it allows you to express yourself less critically, regardless of your mood. They may reveal problematic patterns in your life, provide inspiration, or be an outlet for your complaints, but primarily they help you clear your mind.[†] Cameron describes them alternately as meditation or prayer.

The Artist’s Date

If morning pages are a freewheeling process designed to get your thoughts on the page, the artist’s date is about doing. Much like morning pages, the second tool should not be missed but be performed weekly (around two hours, although a specific time is not required). The artist’s date requires you to go on something like a solo playdate. The idea is to experiment with things that interest you, which don’t have to be especially artistic.

I was well-prepared with some herbal tea and warm outerwear for taking a walk on my first (chilly) artist’s date.

While what you do on the date varies (this depends on the reader’s tastes but there are exercises that provide inspiration), the goal is to help you refill your artistic well (that is, replenishing your source for creativity) by observing and experiencing. Some examples of artist’s date can include taking a walk, cooking a new dish, visiting a museum, etc. Cameron notes that artist’s dates can provide solutions to concerns that come up during morning pages.

Benefits of These Tools

Both tools have the potential to help readers working on their artistic recovery (that is, embracing their creativity). Arguably, we all have artistic blocks that prevent us from creating, whether it’s holding us back in our artistic expression or preventing us from being creative at all. Using these tools can help expose those blocks (morning pages) and work through them by allowing yourself to do fun things (artist’s dates).

Potential Challenges

In the introduction, Cameron announces that she uses the term God throughout (accurately), but the reader can interpret “God” however they choose. She is clear that she does not want or expect people to believe in God if they don’t or aren’t sure about that concept (she suggests the workaround of viewing God as short for “good orderly flow”). I would’ve preferred that she more liberally used generic terms (eg, the universe or even higher power) to be inclusive and more neutral, but the burden is really on the reader to work around the terminology if it makes them uncomfortable. Although she insists her version of God is benevolent, I doubt her assurance erases the reader’s constructs of God, religion, and spirituality that term evokes, for better or worse. Week 3, which involves a more in-depth discussion of God, may prove challenging for some.

Some Minor Difficulties

The Artist’s Way is meant to be used creatively, with readers having a lot of freedom to use Cameron’s suggestions as works best for them. As such, it was not designed to operate as a traditional textbook, but there are areas where I wished there was more guidance present. I ran into a few minor difficulties trying to find information and instructions.

What’s the fuss about paper? Cameron assures there’s “no wrong way to do morning pages”, but some tasks seemed to suggest otherwise.

Cameron states in an early chapter called “The Basic Tools” that there’s “no wrong way to do morning pages” and suggests writing on loose pages and storing them in an envelope or using a spiral notebook .[‡] With the idea that any approach would work, I initially decided to use a comparably sized composition notebook as that works better for me. However, the first two tasks in week 1—when you presumably get underway with these pages—specifically refer to loose paper stored in an envelope. Fearing I misunderstood, I went hunting for the instructions on morning pages, which took some time to find as I forgot that they were in the aforementioned chapter (the index eventually led me back). But better instructions here would have saved me the bother. If the paper choice isn’t set in stone, the associated tasks should reflect that freedom (eg, it could state the notebook cover or envelope could get a star for task 2 of week 1).

Cameron recommends using larger notebooks and paper (left), because she feels they let your thoughts be more expansive—unlike smaller journals (right).

Admittedly, this is a mild quibble, but there are other instances where more detail would be helpful. When you encounter tasks for the first time, there are no instructions provided about how to do them, because this was again discussed previously in the chapter called “Spiritual Electricity: The Basic Principles”. Here, referring to that chapter (as is done elsewhere: tasks 1 and 5 refer in week 2 refers you back to week 1’s affirmations) or just restating the instructions would be useful. With that in mind, the reader might need to be more diligent about taking notes or highlighting specific instructions.

I should also note there are some potential areas of confusion when it comes to some ideas and topics. Morning pages, as discussed above, are hard to describe, because potential use cases and benefits may vary depending on the person and their specific blocks or challenges—which is fair. However, Cameron does occasionally hint at topics that will be discussed in more depth later. Flagging such instances as future topics would be ideal, as I found myself wondering what she meant or whether this was an important practice.[§] Again, it might be best to be patient with the process or just look up items in the index if you want the description immediately.

My Own Journey with Artist’s Way Up to Week 3

Having made the plunge and purchased the book without investigating what it offered, I likely expected something more focused on writing than artistic recovery. I also missed the “spiritual path” part, which normally I would hesitate to buy. As a rule, I avoid discussing various religious or spiritual belief/disbelief systems for various reasons that include weariness with such discussions.

Since I made the commitment to try something new,[**] I decided to continue onward despite my trepidation. As soon as I began reading the prefatory chapters, this book turned up in numerous places online—and another writer friend also started working with it. It seemed like a sign I should give it a chance. As with many self-help books, it’s useful to have a read, learn from what works, and ignore what doesn’t. So far, the morning pages seem helpful when it comes to meeting my goal to write regularly, although I’m not sure I’ve had enough artist’s dates to comment on their effect.

Going forward, I will continue to skip reading ahead as it’s a bit more adventurous this way—plus it allows me fewer opportunities to avoid anything else that’s challenging but negotiable. And, having just completed week 4, this choice already proved to be a good one, as this particular lesson was sufficiently challenging (though negotiable) to merit its own post, which I’ll link to when I finish writing it.

NOTES:


[*] Acquiring caffeine first is permitted and is, in my opinion, mandatory. Under the tasks for week 1, she also suggests getting up half hour earlier to do your morning pages, which I cheerfully ignored as I’m a night owl.

[†] For writers, there is the additional benefit of establishing a daily writing practice, which potentially could extend into establishing a more regular creative writing practice. This is one reason I’m interested in continuing onward with this course.

[‡] Her website offers clearer, perhaps more prescriptive suggestions about morning pages that you can find here and here. For the artist’s date, some more information can be found here.

[§] The most intriguing instance of this (thus far) involves a task in week 4, which asks you to create an altar. Here, it states the altar reminds us creativity is a spiritual versus ego issue. Using an altar and its purpose were not mentioned let alone discussed in any detail previously, which made this task seem out of place. However, the index suggests this conversation will occur in about 100 more pages, so I assume their relevance will become clearer then.

[**] Yes, I’m familiar with the sunk cost fallacy, but I think a trial in such cases can be worthwhile before you decide whether it’s prudent to cut your losses.

The 2021 Reading Review

In which I discuss some of the amazing books I read last year.

I often think that the “new year, new me” vibe asks a lot of January. It feels unfair that, with a flick of the calendar, we switch from merriment to self-improvement (surely, a yearlong project) just when winter blasts into its stride. But given that change has been something of the new normal,[*] perhaps some introspection is warranted.

Certainly, this changeability influenced my reading last year. I read a respectable 45 books in 2021, mostly fiction (heavily leaning towards literary fiction and mysteries) mixed with a few memoirs. While I thoughtfully chose some books, I spent a lot of time reading on a whim. After the last few years, being flexible felt like the right approach. Many books I read also dwelled on serious and/or dark themes, perhaps another side effect of these difficult times. But what hasn’t changed is how reading connects us to ideas, places and people, both familiar and beyond our reach. Below, in no special order, are some of the books that made my reading year memorable.

Journeys: Traveling in Words

While travel stayed limited to nonexistent for many in 2021, books continued to let us explore worlds. Many of these journeys were physical, but they also could be spiritual. Although the characters in these books might be unsure of where they’re headed or if they’re ready to undertake the attendant trials, such trips often prove to be both worthwhile and, indeed, necessary.

Band on the Run

Black and white photo taken of Kindle showing the book cover for The Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia. Photo taken by Rita E. Gould
Kindle view of The Bellweather Rhapsody.

The Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia focuses on a single (somewhat wild) weekend where hundreds of high school musicians gather for an annual state festival, which happens to coincide with the anniversary of a murder-suicide that occurred in the hotel. The past is on a collision course in many ways in this ostensibly YA novel (there’s plenty for adults here), as old lovers meet, new affairs begin, a witness to the murder comes to confront her past, and a musical prodigy disappears from the room where the murder occurred. In addition to giving me serious high school music department nostalgia, it’s poignant to see these teens negotiating their encroaching adulthood while sorting out new friends and being snowbound in a creaky hotel that might have a murderer on the loose. The resolution comes with a few bangs but is satisfying in its messy, glorious finish.

Cats on the Go

Curling up with The Traveling Cat Chronicles

Up next is The Traveling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa (translated by Philip Gabriel).[†] This novel explores the bond of “pet” and their person as Nana and his human, Sakura, undertake a journey through Japan. Street cat Nana decides to live with the kindly Sakura after Sakura rescues this self-reliant feline from a serious injury. Several years later, Sakura decides that both should visit his closest friends from important times and places in his life. As Nana discovers, Sakura wants one of these dear friends to take in his cat, as a situation arises where he feels he can no longer live with Nana. Nana politely thwarts Sakura’s intentions, choosing to be at Sakura’s side through his challenges. Sakura, however, doesn’t leave his friends emptyhanded, as he continues to touch their lives and Nana learns about the events that shaped this remarkable man. While The Traveling Cat Chronicles leans sentimental in places, Sakura and Nana are a heartwarming pair dealing gracefully with life’s hardest moments.

Dreams for the Future

Photo (taken by Rita E. Gould) of Kindle screen showing the cover of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.
Mother of Floods offers hope, connection, and kinder Internet.

Rounding out this group is Madeleine F. White’s cli-fi speculative novel, Mother of Floods, which centers around the encroaching apocalypse. While the end of the world should be grim (and there’s certainly dark, difficult moments in this novel), here it proves to be an opportunity for hope. White draws on both spirituality and mythology across continents, weaving a multicultural cast of characters (the majority of whom are women) from different traditions, walks of life, and incomes. Set initially in present day with our world’s too familiar and seemingly intractable problems, Martha (England), Fatima, Badenan (both Iraq), Mercy, Chipo (both Zimbabwe), and Anjani (Indonesia) all struggle, whether it’s with a brutal marriage undertaken for survival, widowhood and debt, physical incapacitation, limited prospects, or lack of fulfilment. The common thread among them is spiritual awakening and connection. Meeting both online and off, in dreams and visions, these mostly ordinary women,[‡] with the aid of the newly ensouled Internet (a clever approach to a “ghost in machine” that gives a conscience to the information highway), these women help reshape the world into one of freedom and plenty. Unlike anything you’ve read and deeply fascinating, White’s novel envisions a better future where smalls acts lead to big change.

Glamor with a Side of Secrets

Wealth is not without its burdens and that includes secrets, both scandalous and terrible, they’d rather keep quiet. Whether it’s a character study of the woman with a façade designed to appeal to her adoring public or a high society affair turned thorny mystery, these novels let us peek behind the scenes and learn what they’re hiding.

Murder on the Island

Kindle view of The Guest List.

In The Guest List by Lucy Foley, power couple Will and Jules’s spare no expense on making their society wedding a perfect, private event by choosing a seemingly charming but remote island (accessible only by boat) off Ireland’s west coast as the site for their nuptials. But, as Foley reveals, both guests and the brooding island are harboring secrets as a storm threatens. Careful to conceal the murder victim’s identity for most of the book (no spoilers here), Foley weaves in the various narrators’ impressions of events from rehearsal dinner through wedding night, revealing pasts best forgotten—and the reasons that might mark them as victim or murderer. Foley scatters numerous clues through her story, many which lead to false trails that keep readers guessing. While I did guess the victim’s identity before the reveal (after a few false starts), the killer was quite the shock. The Guest List is a well-paced, tense read that reveals guilt and hidden sins, mends families while renting others, and, arguably, serves a sort of justice.

A Star with Something to Hide

In The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s portrayal of a film legend is so successful you could swear that the titular character stepped out of a magazine spread, which (as it happens) is the ruse she uses to meet with relatively unknown magazine reporter, Monique Grant. Hugo, in fact, wants Monique (who she recognizes as a talented writer) to pen her biography. With both career and love life stalled, an intrigued Monique can’t refuse what may be an opportunity of a lifetime, particularly when Hugo mentions they share some mysterious connection. And Evelyn has plenty of other secrets she’s ready to air about her time in Hollywood.

Kindle view of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

As a character, Hugo intrigues on every page, because she’s an unabashedly sexual woman who remains unashamed of her desires (however discreet she must be about them; this novel involves same sex romances) and unafraid to use that sexuality as a tool to get what she wants. Evelyn’s naked ambition is a refreshing thing to see in a female character, particularly as Jenkins Reid explores the dual nature of such ambition that both helps Evelyn escape her abusive childhood and propels her to fame but also costs her identity and even love. Hollywood often put it stars through the wringer (and on the casting couch), and Evelyn is no exception. Her resilience and path back to herself and love is extraordinary. Monique, too, grows through the novel (taking more than just notes about Evelyn’s history) and finds herself inspired to demand more from her own life and prospects. As Monique becomes increasing fond of her subject, Evelyn reveals regrets, which, of course, risks this regard. A story reflecting on the price of fame, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo manages to give us a complicated portrayal of woman living behind the glamorous mask

The Dark Side of Sisterhood

Literature has its fair share of loving sisters who persevere through hardships (eg, the March sisters from Alcott’s Little Women), some who unwaveringly support each other as they survive challenging upbringings (as Jeannette Walls recounts in her memoir, The Glass Castle).[§] However, the books I’ll be sharing do not belong to their numbers. Reminiscent of Oyinkan Braithwhite’s novel My Sister, the Serial Killer (from last year’s review), these sisters are more inclined towards mischief, malice, complicity, and some unhealthy co-dependence. Each reveals a fascinating though upsetting look at sisterly love.

The Recluses

Photo (taken by Rita E. Gould) of the Kindle book cover for We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.
Kindle view of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

In We Have Always Lived at the Castle by Shirley Jackson, we meet the reclusive Blackwood sisters, Constance and Merricat, six years after most of their wealthy family perished by poisoning that both avoided. Living with the now handicapped sole survivor of the poisoning, their Uncle Julian, the group ekes out a happy enough existence. Only the unusual Merricat (the book’s narrator and a clever young woman who seems rather immature for her age) ventures into the nearby village when she fetches books and supplies. The family, once quietly resented for their wealth, is now openly ostracized after Constance’s acquittal for their family’s murder, with Merricat often being tormented by the angry villagers.

Merricat, who lists sister Constance among her favorites despite her being the likely murderer,[**] is dismayed when her sister suddenly shows signs of wanting to rejoin society at the behest of loyal family friends. To make matters worse, their cousin Charles drops in for a visit. Merricat resents Charles’s intrusion, as he clearly wants to curb her wildness and expresses far too much interest in the family money. Without giving more away, the ending is both dramatic and near perilous for the sisters who nonetheless choose each other and their solitude, right or wrong, as Charles leaves emptyhanded, and the villagers end up repenting their misdeeds.

An Inseparable Pair

Kindle view of Sisters.

Sisters, by Daisy Johnson, is a dark, disturbing look at sisterhood. Fleeing from Oxford after some harrowing school incident involving sisters July (the primary narrator) and September, the girls and their mother, Sheela (the secondary narrator), arrive at Settle House in North Yorkshire. Located by both the moors and the sea, the aptly named Settle House adds a gothic element, as the dilapidated structure provides little respite as it reluctantly shelters the troubled family. The girls, born 10 months apart, share a suffocating, with elder sister September ruling the pair.

Throughout the novel, Johnson slowly parses out the puzzle pieces that reveal why the family left home so abruptly. Their backstory involves both violence and abandonment. September and July respectively resemble parents Peter and Sheela, both in looks and character. Peter proves to be a controlling man who was violent with both his own sister (Settle House’s owner) and wife, and who left the family long before he died. The more fragile Sheela is a single, working parent who suffers from crushing depression—a combination that often forces the children to shift for themselves (Sheela, in the throes of depression, rarely leaves her room during the novel). Johnson’s pacing allows the tension to increase in pitch, with each revelation hinting that the truth to come is worse yet. However, the revelations by no means spoil the shocking twist, as July’s devastating choices prove the ties that bind are inescapable in this novel.

Reading Resolutions

While I may not be a huge fan of January resolutions for myself, I mind them less for my yearlong reading goals. I am continuing to work on both my writing projects and my writing process, which is an ongoing process. Since November/December, I’ve been working through The Artist’s Way (first sampling the text, and now, in January, going through the lessons) to see what insights I might glean. I’ve also put together a few books that I’d like to read by the year’s end in addition to the six(!) books I already finished this year. While my list is shorter than it has been in the past (keeping last year’s flexibility in place), it includes books I’ve meant to read already (again), ones from indie authors, and even poetry. As always, I look forward to the year in reading and wish you many good reads as well!

2021 Reading List[††]
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawkes
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
Bestiary by K-Ming Chang
The String Games by Gail Aldwin
Dear Blacksmith by Beverley Ward
The Salt Lick by Lulu  Allison
Cajoncito by Elizabeth M Castillo
Photo (by Rita E. Gould) of 4 books on a grey and white striped background. The books are The Salt Lick by Lulu Allsion, Cajoncito by Elizabeth M. Castillo, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, and Bestiary by K-Ming Chang.
Some books from my 2022 reading list: Lulu Allison’s The Salt Lick, Elizabeth M. Castillo’s Cajoncito, K-Ming Chang’s Bestiary, and Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing

What are reading in the new year? Share in the comments below!

NOTES


[*] The resolve to stay safe but separate in 2020 turned into the hope of Spring vaccinations. But, as more variants emerged, we’re reminded we’re not quite through this storm.

[†] This book, written by a woman in translation, was recommended to me during #WITmonth. And…it’s about a cat.

[‡] Billionaire entrepreneur Anjani might have humble roots, but her life story is extraordinary in many ways.

[§] Walls’s memoir recounts the unusual, difficult upbringing her parents gave their children (including Jeanette, her sister, and brother) who worked as a team to make better lives for themselves and, when permitted, their beloved parents.

[**]Guests, unlike Merricat, are appalled when Constance offers her cooking.

[††] You can find previous years reading reviews from 2017, 2018, and 2019 by clicking the links.

Reading Partners: The Relationship Edition

For my spouse and I, being on different pages when it comes to our reading preferences can be an advantage.

When I’m ready to curl up on a comfy sofa with a good book, I rarely browse through my spouse’s books. Ignoring our professional tomes or old schoolbooks that survived the Konmari purge, there’s limited overlap between our bookcases. Our common ground appears to be Stephen King’s books[*] interspersed with fantasy or science fiction selections and a smattering of literary fiction. My spouse’s tastes center around the said genres and nonfiction, while I wander freely through many genres. We may read together in the same room, but we’re still reading miles apart.

But, as it happens, being on different pages when it comes to our reading preferences can be an advantage. Allow me to explain.

Reading together. Image designed in Canva by R. Gould

Unexpected Common Ground

As most bibliophiles know, there’s no greater pleasure than unexpectedly finding common reading interests with another person. Early in our relationship, my spouse and I discovered several books and authors we mutually liked, which led us to recommend books the other hadn’t yet read from our shared authors.

But even years later, we still surprise each other when we discover a reading connection that allows us to share new authors/titles with each other. When my husband recommended Good Omens co-authored by one of his favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, I knew I wanted to read it because I already was a fan of its other author, Terry Pratchett. I enjoyed it as much as he did, and we discussed it for ages afterwards. As a result, I ended up delving into a few other books by Gaiman (Coraline, The Ocean at the End of the Lane), while my spouse read Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic.

The Book Finder

Some time ago, my husband purchased Helene Tursten’s short story collection, An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good (translated by Marlaine Delargy). Initially intrigued by the cross-stitch cover and its premise, he purchased this book as he felt like it was one that I’d like (crime/detection fiction is a favorite of mine but not necessarily one of his). I loved it so much I’ve written about it here, as well as pretty much re-shelved it to my bookshelf.[†] But I wasn’t the only one who loved Maud. He’s also a huge fan, and both of us couldn’t wait to tell each other the next Maud collection would be released soon.[‡] Similarly, I’ve found several books that match his interest in science fiction (eg, Arthur C. Clarke winner Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time) or travel (eg, Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path) because I spend more time on book Twitter than he does.

In some ways, our situation is akin to having a personal book shopper who gets what you really want and isn’t afraid to suggest some more eclectic choices. Beyond this, I’ve discovered that our different interests and approaches to finding books often lead us to find authors and books for each other that we individually might not have discovered.

The Influencer

To be honest, I read more nonfiction now than I would have without my spouse’s intervention. Sometimes, his reading features how-to books, tomes on self-improvement, and deep dives into history. Over the years, he’s suggested a few books from these categories when he thought they might be mutually relevant so that we could read or listen[§] to them together (eg, Nuture Shock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman when our kiddo was young as well as Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up when we wanted to declutter).

But some books more related to his career caught his attention, and and my spouse later referred to them me as they touch upon my interests (eg, Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech corresponds with interests in feminism and science). For my part, I’ve gently nudged him to read more detective fiction (eg, anything Agatha Christie) and literary fiction than he might have otherwise considered reading (eg, Kindred by Octavia Butler, which has elements of speculative fiction).

While having someone (again) introduce you to new book is fantastic, the larger victory is that we both found ourselves more willing (albeit selectively) to read from categories that we might not otherwise given a chance. In short, we’re both a bit more openminded when we peruse books, because we now know that there are great books even in categories that don’t spark joy for us.

Here’s a sample of some of the books that my spouse and I’ve recommended to each other. (Photo by Rita E. Gould)

The Seller

Ever read a book so good that you tell everyone you know about it? My spouse and I both are susceptible to this phenomenon. We’re both well aware that a particular book might not be something the other would standardly enjoy (or even close to it), but we recommend it because it’s that good. I know literary fiction (particularly the grimmer sort) isn’t something my spouse runs toward, but Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (trans. Deborah Smith) is a masterpiece. Similarly, my limited interest in science fiction hasn’t stopped him from insisting that I also read This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. I can’t say that time traveling enemy agents is my thing, but I’ll give it a whirl because its epistolary format interests me. If nothing else, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to discuss why we didn’t like each other’s suggestions.

The Wrap Up: Reading Couple Goals

As two people who love reading and writing, we often do want to talk about the amazing books we’ve read—even if one of us will never read that book. But we’ve found that that our differences worked well to expand our individual reading horizons. While it’s great having a book buddy when it comes to chatting about favorite reads, being able to discuss any book with your reading partner is amazing.[**] And who better to do start that conversation with than your significant other?


Do you and your significant other read together or separately? Let me know in the comments section if you recommend books for each other.


NOTES:

[*] He’s his own genre by now, right?

[†] In the writing of this essay, I’ve discovered I’m something of a book thief. I promised to return…most of them.

[‡] We actually put it on our Goodreads to-read lists within 5 days of each other.

[§] As a rule, I rarely listen to audiobooks, as I read much faster than the book can be spoken. But it’s an ideal way to jointly go through a book, particularly if you’re stuck in a car for a few hours.

[**] Of course, you don’t need to be in a romantic relationship to form your own miniature book club or salon, but it is a bonus if you and your significant other can do so.

Writing Connections: DIY and Writing Part 2

Replacing a broken refrigerator kicked off a mini-makeover for my kitchen. What’s that got to do with writing? As it happens, quite a lot. (Feature image by 955169 from Pixabay.)

Although we felt like we mostly “solved” the refrigerator issue, some additional updates were necessary (primarily to the wiring[*] but we needed a plumbing line, too). Underneath the old fridge hid another mess: the old fridge leaked then cooked water onto our avocado linoleum, making it looked like fruit gone to rot.[†] Behind the fridge lurked yellowing plaster walls, gobbed with fossilized glue[‡] that abruptly gave way to the brick backsplash. There was some good news, though. With the warmer days and strict quarantine ending, we could throw open the windows and invite the contractors in to install the new floors, pipes, and wires.

Unfortunate kitchen capers: behind my old fridge lurked thick layers of wall adhesive, while below it lurked the damage to the 1970s-era avocado flooring caused by old fridge cooking off the water it leaked. Writing Connections: DIY and Writing Part 2. Text and image by R. E. Gould
Unfortunate kitchen capers: my old fridge hid both the thick layers of wall adhesive and the damage it inflicted on our 1970s-era avocado linoleum. (Photo credit: Rita E. Gould)

Another Change in Plans, or, as My Spouse Calls It, Project Creep

Realizing we had a month before the refrigerator delivery, my spouse uncharacteristically suggested that we paint the walls—meaning we would be free of (most of) the clashing wall décor.[§] Before he could change his mind, I set to work peeling off the layers of old wallpaper. Matters took a turn for the worse, however, when he pulled down the paneling. In addition to even thicker layers of old wall glue, we discovered crumbling plaster surrounding an actual hole in the wall—remnants of a past flood—and another problem for us to solve.

Kitchen wall, before demolition. Writing Connections: DIY and Writing Part 2. Text and image by Rita E. Gould
The kichen cover-up: before my spouse removed the paneling, we’d no idea what it hid. (Photo credit: Rita E. Gould)

More unfortunate kitchen capers. When my spouse pulled off the paneling, we found a literal hole in the wall, likely caused by a long ago flood. It looks like the former DIYers went with a cover up instead of repair! Writing Connections: DIY and Writing Part 2. Text by Rita E. Gould. Image by Jeremy Henderson
After my spouse pulled off the panel-ing, we found a literal hole in the wall, likely from a flood that pre-dated our residency. (Photo credit: Rita E. Gould) nstead of repair!

Drafting

When it comes to home construction in general and do-it-yourself (DIY) projects in particular, all budgets, plans and timelines are viable—that is, until you open a wall and make discoveries. Similar surprises abound during the writing process. Whether you have a detailed outline or a rough mental sketch about what you want to write, pre-writing planning represents a great beginning that’s likely to include some changes (possibly, many) during the drafting process.

Early drafts, particularly the first, exist to get the ideas on the page. For this reason, they are great places to experiment with a story, whether it’s adding or subtracting different elements. Drafting, too, is where writers find various problems in the narrative. In my latest story, I ultimately cut a driving scene when I realized the story really began when the main character arrived at their destination. Regardless of how long I spent writing it, the unnecessary exposition could lose my reader’s attention. And while no one is happy to find flaws in their home’s structure or their tales, the goal is improvement. As such, drafting is an important part of the writing process.

Filling in the Finish

In the end, we replaced the damaged drywall.[**] Between contractors, we painted the walls and cheered when the new refrigerator finally arrived.[††] My spouse also surprised me with a great solution for the empty space where a fridge no longer resided: using his pandemic-acquired carpentry skills, he and a friend would build a much-needed pantry cabinet. But, for now, we were done and could admire our handiwork.

Writing Connections: DIY and Writing Part 2. Text and image by Rita E. Gould
The new refrigerator is so shiny! (Photo credit: Rita E. Gould)
Photo of my refreshed kitchen. Writing Connections: DIY and Writing Part 2. Text by Rita E. Gould
Only a few things left to do here, but a fresh coat of paint and new floor makes a huge difference. (Photo credit: Jeremy Henderson)

What to Do with a Void

So, how does a story end? What gaps are left? For my kitchen, it was straightforward: what would we do with the area where the old fridge once lived? Another project is in the offing (yay, pantry), but we’re loving our better looking, more functional kitchen right now. For writing, drafting is usually followed by many readthroughs and edits before the work is ready to be shared with the world. My current projects aren’t quite there yet, but I’m looking forward to completing them. In the meantime, it’s back to drafting.

Happy writing, all!


TL;DR: Replacing my broken refrigerator led to changing the kitchen layout, the floors, and repainting. Parallels to writing exist. Have a read—you’ll see what I mean.

NOTES:


[*]Because celebrating Christmas needn’t involve half the house’s lights shutting off when we run the dishwasher while the oven and microwave are also in use. Since the circa 195o wiring tends to get overloaded by modern appliances, the electrician (per code) put each on their own circuit.

[†] Theoretically, that spot might’ve scrubbed off—but no one liked the floor enough to save it.

[‡] Our original walling was a laminate similar to the one seen here.  

[§] My spouse likes projects to have specific, limited goals to avoid project creep, while I prefer to get everything done. But neither of us wanted to sort out the built-in cabinetry during a pandemic, so we skipped doing anything near them to avoid more unplanned projects. Looks likes we’ll be living with that faux brick backsplash a bit longer!

[**] My asthmatic lungs nixed the sanding/patching approach, which tends to be time consuming when you’ve loads of material to sand away.

[††] And we only had to rip off the door trim to get it into the room! Pro tip: never trust the manufacturer’s dimensions and measure the actual unit—unless there’s a pandemic preventing you from doing so!

The 2020 Reading Review: the Books that Made the Pandemic More Bearable

Without a doubt, 2020 was a challenging year. For some, coping with these harrowing events meant finding solace in books and reading voraciously. Others, despite time freed up by social distancing, could barely turn a page. I found myself seesawing between both states. Although I didn’t meet my reading goals, I’m still happy to say that I read many books that expanded my horizons while remaining home. Even the more intense books (perhaps not the best choices for difficult times) continue to challenge me long after I closed their covers and shelved them. This year’s list, therefore, is not a “best of” list so much as a tribute to those memorable books that made pandemic reading a bit more bearable.

High Hopes: Inspirational Reads

Elsewhere, I discussed Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, and why I felt it was a great inspirational book to read during the pandemic. It remains among my favorites reads for 2020, because she points out the choice that we all have when it comes to viewing our circumstances. This, of course, isn’t the full extent of what Becoming brings to its audience (her life story is fascinating in its own right), but it’s something I ponder often on dark days. How does my perspective control my story? How could it be reconsidered?

But there was another book that I read in 2020 that I found quite inspirational: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s tiny tome, We Should All Be Feminists. Adichie’s book is an approachable, occasionally irreverent, and oft poignant consideration of why we, as the title states, should become feminists. Using a conversational tone (this book sprang from her 2012 TED talk), she makes the case for feminism by addressing both its baggage and the counterproductive effects of clinging to patriarchy—for both men and women. It’s difficult not to see how we’d all be happier if we strove toward gender equality.[*]

The Slowpoke Read: The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart

Disclaimer: If alcohol isn’t your thing, feel free to skip ahead. If you like the occasional tipple and/or enjoy science, read on.

Of all the books I finished this year, The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Make the World’s Great Drinks took the longest to read. But here’s the twist: I think it’s a feature that this book can be read over long periods. Using the familiar plant field guide format, most chapters focus on a single plant, making it easy to read a section, put the book aside, and return when you like. It proved to be an engaging way to absorb material through 2020, when I wanted to read just a bit or found myself unable to focus on reading for long stretches.

Photo of the book The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart. Photo taken Rita E. Gould

Format aside (the book, for the record, boasts a beautiful layout), Amy Stewart’s efforts to better educate her readers about the plants that give rise to the world’s favorite drinks are enlightening as they are entertaining, The Drunken Botanist does its best to give a broad, near encyclopedic view of the various plants (around 160, I believe) and the alcohols they produce. Often, I found myself focused more on the fascinating details involved in the research (eg, cloves are closed flower buds), not to mention the diverse disciplines she references (eg, coprolites shed information on alcohol consumption of the ancients). And did I mention the drink recipes? Stewart’s how-to, however, also extends to gardening and brewing (when feasible for folks at home), making this a rather complete approach to her topic. A careful scientist, Stewart also elucidates what’s unverifiable tales/myths, distillations best left to experts, dangerous look-alike plants, and the tragic history behind some crops and their beverages (eg, slavery, colonization). All in all, a deep, rewarding dive into botany that makes you appreciate the plants behind the bottle.

Lived up to the Hype, or Never Underestimate a Pretty Woman

I decided to read both My Sister, the Serial Killer and Mexican Gothic, because of the well-deserved buzz surrounding these novels. Both allowed me to escape the confines of my home, while I pondered their various heroine’s difficulties. They also shared a common feature: beautiful young women who people misjudge as harmless, albeit in different ways. However, both novels deftly touch on serious topics as they captivate you. I can’t recommend either enough.

Hidden Depths

In Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, the heroine, Noemí Taboada, may seem like a frivolous socialite, but this good-time girl has hidden depths. For one thing, she’s keen on earning her master’s degree in anthropology despite her family’s disapproval. The promise of furthering her studies is the carrot her father uses to persuades Noemí to travel to a remote mining town to check up on her beloved cousin, Catalina, who has sent some disturbing letters regarding her new husband, Virgil Doyle. While gothic literature isn’t traditionally set in Mexico, the transplanted Doyle family brough the requisite gloomy atmosphere from England with them. Before long, Noemí realizes something is very wrong in the Doyle’s manor and that she is becoming ensnared by it. Without giving away too much, Mexican Gothic sneaks into literary fiction as Moreno-Garcia masterfully blends serious topics (eg, racism, colonialism,) into the undercurrents of its disturbing narrative, creating an immersive, intense horror story that is difficult to stop reading.[†]

Beauty Is Only Skin Deep

After reading My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, never has the platitude about the depths of beauty seemed so true. This darkly comic novel (murder shouldn’t be a laughing matter) grabbed my attention from the title through its conclusion, as I inched closer to learning what makes a beautiful woman (Ayoola) turns murderous. It’s the second mystery (I’ll get to that), however, that made me eager to turn the pages.

Through the older and less lovely sister, Korede, we learn about Ayoola’s unconventional method for managing her man problems. Korede, long made responsible for her sister’s action and well-being, seethes as her sister’s looks let her escape Nigerian cultural expectations of women (eg, cooking[‡]) and the consequences of her actions. Ayoola, long accustomed to deference, expects her older sister to clean up her messes, murder included. Korede, of course, does just that with her usual competence. Work is nurse Korede’s only refuge, where she longs after a handsome doctor, Tade Otumu. Here, too, is her only confidant: a comatose patient in whom she confesses the truth about Ayoola’s exploits. But her sanctuary soon evaporates when Ayoola pays a visit. Before long, Tade is dating Ayoola and her patient, once expected to die, awakens. Korede, in a quandary between two loves, needs to make a choice.

Braithwhite’s searing commentary, focused on female beauty, exposes the misogynistic undercurrents of how societies value women. Korede, the more compassionate and competent sister, is often overlooked, and she can’t even criticize Ayoola without being dismissed as jealous. But Braithwhite carefully shows how beauty isn’t always a blessing. Ayoola’s enjoyment of her halo effect doesn’t hide how the emphasis placed on her looks has damaged her, as she lacks empathy, fails to grasp proper behavior on serious occasions, and holds an understandably cynical view of men (“…a pretty face. That’s all they ever want”) who value her looks but know nothing of her interests or talents. Considering the good fortune showered on Ayoola for existing while beautiful, there is some mystery behind her evolution into a literal mankiller. But the more compelling question is why Korede continues to helps her, given her resentment and horror. The answer to both questions lies in their shared history and bond as sisters.

The Reading Year Wrap Up

This year’s reading, whether disturbing (We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Perfect Nanny [alternative title, Lullaby]) or comforting (all the Rick Riordan books I read with my kiddo), often served as a connection point with the outside world, one that patiently waited for me when the current events left me too tired to read. While it might seem activities like reading should be a lower priority during troubling times, I can’t help but think how much art, music, books, television, etc., served as a balm whether I needed mindless distraction or a reminder that were bigger things besides my own cares. Art matters, particularly when life is difficult. As 2021 will continue (at least for now) where 2020 left off, I plan to stock up on few books (in addition to this year’s Christmas haul). Whether the coming year brings good news or not, I hope to have a good book on hand.

Happy reading, all!

NOTES


[*]I would be remiss to ignore Adichie’s controversial remarks about transwomen, even though they do not appear this book. While she later clarified her statement, it’s important to understand why her remarks missed the mark so that we do a better job of making feminism more intersectional.

[†] I stayed up to the early hours to finish this book, and it did not disappoint. Read here for a more in-depth analysis of the book and interview with the author, Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

[‡]And, you know, letting boyfriends live.

Writing Connections: Home Improvement and Writing Part 1

This wasn’t the year I intended to tackle my kitchen’s issues.[*] Travel was on my family’s agenda, and maybe some small home improvement projects—like giving our addition (and more importantly, my office) a long overdue refresh. Our unlovely kitchen, born in 1955 and afflicted with a bad 70s update, could continue waiting its turn for a potentially expensive redo while we pursued more affordable projects.[†] But this year, people…well, it’s not been a good one for plans. Once the pandemic hit, we had to pivot and adjust, then do it again. And this very need to reconsider and revise has a lot do with how my refrigerator’s malfunction led to both a partial kitchen upgrade and some observations about the writing process.

My kitchen (or, at least 3/4 of it). An unholy combination of the 1950s worn cabinetry, a 70s (bad) makeover (see floor), weird choices (brick/paneling), and colors that won’t coordinate. Also, the star of this story, the 1980s fridge.

Appliance Amok

Every story begins with a problem. Ours was a broken refrigerator, an elderly appliance that one day began keeping its contents at decidedly balmy temperatures for bacteria. After some investigation, we decided that it was beyond repair. Thanks to our “garage refrigerator”—a secondhand unit passed along to us by kind relatives in case we needed it—we had some time to find a new one, though we didn’t want to wait too long as this spare was also geriatric. Before the pandemic, we would have researched features and brands, purchased a replacement, and waited for it to be delivered within a week or so. Going from replacing a refrigerator to redoing half the kitchen, however, was something of a plot twist.

Prewriting

Writing, too, starts with a situation in need of resolution. Stemming from “what if” scenarios, intriguing character studies, tidbits of overheard conversations, and various other sources of inspiration teeming in the imagination, these musings coalesce into a story-shaped idea. In this nebulous stage, the story is malleable as its writer grapples with the its viability, characters, plot, and so forth. My own experience with a recent story[‡] required a character to arrive in a place where she used to live but hadn’t visited for some time. Over time, my plan to “get her there” changed from her having some sort of business meeting to GPS rerouting her around traffic. But these changes, driven by a desire to streamline the story and the character’s evolving backstory, were significant. Small details can change everything in the initial plan—such as the size of a refrigerator.

The Kitchen Conundrum

Over the years, my tiny 1950s kitchen only suffered mostly cosmetic (if unfortunate) changes.[§] Touted as an eat-in kitchen, it could just squeeze in a table for two.[**] However, that ill-used space became prime refrigerator real estate once we established that the deceased refrigerator’s alcove limited our options to smaller units—the kind people might panic buy as a spare unit for stocking up extra food for the pandemic. Many of of refrigerators this size (regardless of availability) boasted larger dimensions than our little alcove. We either needed to search more diligently, perhaps in person,[††] or we needed to buy something bigger—with better features—and move it across the room. We decided to abandon our original plan (and floor plan) and found a refrigerator that worked.

And it’s a good thing that we were up to the challenge of revising our plans, because that was just the beginning. But that’s a story for another time.


TL;DR: My refrigerator broke, leading us to change the kitchen layout and (ultimately) update half the room. There are parallels to writing. Go read the whole thing to see the connections.

Updates: On 7 November 2020, I fixed the links for the references. Theoretically, they should work now. On 4 February 2022, photos were re-insterted after they mysteriously disappeared.

NOTES:


[*]So. Many. Issues.

[†]Since we took residence in 2006, we tackled several large projects in our fixer upper, and it seemed like a good time to tackle something smaller. Apparently, we were wrong.

[‡]Currently, I’m working on short stories for this year’s NaNoWriMo.

[§]Arguably the only true improvement to the kitchen was swapping a cabinet for a dishwasher, which we replaced some time ago.

[**]It was mostly wasted space, eventually occupied by waste bins.

[††] Hahaha, no. Although we were in a less restricted phase, we weren’t that keen on going out.

Reading Women in Translation 2020: Finding Connection

More seriously, though, reading women in translation is yet another way in which we can find our common humanity and build our empathy for each other. I think this is the year we can truly use that connection.

Over the last few years, I made a point of including books by women in translation—that is, once I discovered this gap in my reading habits. As I discussed earlier, it’s a tremendous loss to be unaware of these amazing women writing excellent books—a compounded loss, when we consider how many women’s books don’t get translated in the first place. WITMonth[*] goes some ways towards changing that trend as each year passes, which is why I like to remind folks about this event. After all, it’s always a great idea to support women writers. Speaking personally, reading these works has enriched my life, and I’m glad that these books and writers are getting their deserved attention.

WITmonth 2020

This year, however, I found myself looking forward to WITMonth a bit more than I previously did.[†] On Twitter, I enjoyed conversations where people shared their recommendations for books they recently read or favorites they felt everyone should read. There was the joy of discovering people who liked books that I liked as well as the thrill that someone was going to read a book I suggested. It was a stimulating experience that made me ransack my bookshelves and download a few new books.[‡] Perhaps this represents my passion for books or the pleasure of an uncomplicated conversation in a tumultuous year, but I think there’s more to it that I may have overlooked at a different time.

Connection and Community

WITMonth is a connector, both through books and social media. I chatted with folks from England, Australia, and distant parts of my own country about books and why they or I must read them. The act of reading these books, too, forges connections. When I picked up books written by writers from distant times and places, people who speak and live differently than I do, I travel through these experiences—something for which I’m grateful as my opportunities to travel and meet people are limited at present. More seriously, though, reading women in translation is yet another way in which we can find our common humanity and build our empathy for each other. I think this is the year we can truly use that connection.[§]

WITMonth both celebrates women writers we might otherwise miss without an annual event to bring these books more attention and creates community. And it’s not limited to just one month: we can read these books and continue discussing them online throughout the year.

RESOURCES

If you’re looking for great titles to add to your reading list, check out Meytal Radzinki’s web site. As the founder of #WITmonth, her suggestions span the globe.

NOTES:


[*] Held in August each year since being founded by Meytal Radzinki in 2014, Women in Translation month (#WITmonth) celebrates books by women translated into English.

[†] Though, I confess I read less than I hoped to do. Covid-19’s effect on my reading is to allow time to read in great gulps or not at all. Also, I undertook reading The Tale of Genji, and it is massive.

[‡] My local library had The Perfect Nanny (in England, Lullaby) by Leïla Slimani (translated by Sam Taylor), a haunting, tragic novel exploring class, race, and parenting. (Warning for violence against children/death and suicide.)

[§] More on this point in an upcoming post, as 2020, also has been a time of unrest and protest for social justice.

Uplifting Reading for the Quarantine: the Inspiration in Michelle Obama’s Becoming

“For every door that’s been opened to me, I’ve tried to open my door to others.”

When I began writing this post about the books I read over the last few months, I focused on a few I wanted to highlight for Black History[*] and Women’s History Months. What I wrote, however, seemed to strike the wrong note as the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. I still will assert that it’s always a great time to read more books written by black and/or women writers, but I’m going to put the cheekier tone on hold. For now. Instead, I’m focusing on reviewing a book that I feel provides inspiration for these troubling times: Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming.

At the end of Becoming, Michelle challenges us to reconsider how we look at our circumstances. Within a week, the area where I live in Pennsylvania went from practicing social distancing to receiving stay-at-home orders.[†] Right now, it’s easy to view these restrictions as confining, but it’s also easy to reframe this effort as doing our part in limiting this disease’s spread. We might not be able to control our circumstances, but we can choose how we consider such situations. Michelle Obama’s story has many lessons, but the power of shaping your own narrative is an important one.

(TLDR: For those of you needing a quarantine read that keeps your hope afloat, check out my review of Becoming and see if it appeals to you. Stay safe, everyone.)


Becoming

Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, gives its readers an insider’s view of the First Lady’s life up to and through Barack Obama’s historic presidency. Both touching and humorous, she shares her unique perspective on career, politics, and family. Michelle’s achievements, as is often the case for first African Americans to hold a position,[‡] differ from her First Lady predecessors in many respects. But her blue-collar upbringing on Chicago’s southside (an area known for “white flight”) shaped her life profoundly, sparking both her ambition and willingness to help others. She recognizes that for her to achieve success as a student, corporate lawyer, nonprofit organizer, First Lady, mother, and wife, others first had to invest in her success. Poignantly, Michelle reflects on how various relatives abandoned their dreams to survive and how her parents sacrificed their own aspirations (eg, home ownership) to help their secure their children’s future. Both Michelle and her brother, Craig Robinson, would go onto attend Ivy League schools and embark on professional careers.

Career, Love, and Politics

During Michelle’s early career as a corporate lawyer, she met Barack Obama. This section of the book, often laced with fond spousal exasperation, shines as these opposites fall in love, find a balance that works for them, and support each other through familial losses, infertility, family life, and what now seems to be Barack’s inevitable political ascent. Aware that Barack’s ambitions could eclipse her own, Michelle credits him for helping her “swerve” from the more sensible if unfulfilling law practice into nonprofit work despite the pay cut and their student loans.

As their lives became fuller with the arrival of their daughters and Barack’s burgeoning political career, the book shifts into the more familiar history of that ascent. Michelle, wary of politics and the scrutiny it would bring their young family, was reluctant to become a politician’s wife. Despite her concerns she supported Barack’s decision to run for various political offices and, ultimately, his presidential candidacy because she believed “he was exactly the kind of smart, decent president I would chose for this country”.

White House Days

When it comes to her years in the White House, Michelle focuses on the development of her outreach programs (eg, the Let’s Move) as First Lady. She discusses the pain and discomfort associated negative and often racist publicity targeted at herself and her family as well as how she learned to put it aside. In addition to revealing her behind-the-scenes planning and her reactions to notable events as they unfolded, she also shares what it’s like living in the White House. As the presidency approaches its end, fun tidbits abound (including her early preview of a musical that would one day become Hamilton). But there’s also a strong sense, however, that those final days were a blur between campaigning for Hillary Clinton and preparing for the Trump presidency. Arguably, Becoming might be part of the process of unpacking these moments.

Final Reflections

Like many memoirs, Michelle Obama’s closes with her reflecting on what she has learned thus far. Looking back on her childhood, she realized it could be characterized however she wished, either by focusing on the negatives and positives. Perhaps for this reason she wants to both share her story and listen to those of others. As she best stated it, “For every door that’s been opened to me, I’ve tried to open my door to others. And here is what I have to say, finally: Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us.” She concludes this account at the point of her new beginning, a new chapter where she will continue becoming herself.

NOTES:


[*] In the United States.

[†] Meaning I must stay home unless I qualify as an essential worker (eg, healthcare, grocery, government, etc.) or I need to be out (eg, grocery shopping, need medical attention).

[‡] Several reviews refer to her “improbable” ascent to First Lady, given that she grew up in blue-collar, African American community. However, her family as, Barack Obama observed, was more like a black version of Leave It to Beaver.

The 2019 Reading Review

My Reading Year in Review

It’s safe to say that most book lovers hope to read more books in the new year, whether they have a specific goal in mind or long for more time to engage in this favored pastime. But reading isn’t about quantity, as readers who suffer book hangovers can attest. Certain books draw us in, make us wish to live longer within their pages. Some books entertain, while others make our hearts hurt. Some dazzle us with the beauty, the lyricism of their phrasing, while others stun us with their twists.

Whatever the case may be, reading is a powerful act, one that lets us live other lives, builds our empathy, and deepens our understanding. And while reading is often perceived as solitary, we do read books aloud or in parallel (as I did with my kiddo this year[†]), allowing this experience to become a communal one. So, yes, readers want to read more each year but not because they wish to beat some goal. It’s to experience more.

For what it’s worth, I did exceed my reading goals this year,[‡] I also read most (thought not all) of the books I planned to read. I even completed the 2019 Reading Women Challenge (more on that later!). But the true triumph was that I read stories that enriched my world, making me glad I spent time in immersed in someone else’s words. Below, I’ve listed a few books that I found particularly memorable as well as a few books I hope to read in 2020. Regardless of how many books we read, I hope this year is filled with meaningful books for all.

2019 Reading Recommendations

Older Women with Character

If eccentric but difficult elderly women amuse you, then consider reading both An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good by Helene Tursten (trans. Marlaine Dalargy) and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman (trans. Henning Koch). Unwilling to be sweet, these women will make you see older women less as “old dears” and more as the complicated human beings they are. An honorable mention in this category is Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (trans. Ginny Tapley Takemori). While protagonist Keiko is younger woman than the women in the aforementioned novels, she, very much like them, chooses to follow her own nontraditional path–much to the dismay of her family and friends.

The Twist of the Tale

In Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson, only Claudia seems disturbed by her best friend’s disappearance.

The book I read this year with the best twist was Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson. In this wrenching story of a young woman trying to determine why her best friend disappeared, the reader might work up a few good guesses as to what happened to Monday. Yet, though there were a few odd moments in the story, I don’t think much alerted me to its twist. Second place belongs to The Wife Between Us, a thriller by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen. This book advertised its twist in a “you’ll never see it coming way!”, which led me scrutinize the text quite closely for clues. And, sure enough, I picked up on a few details that partially (but not completely) revealed the twist. Nonetheless, I think the authors still surprised me in many places and I was on edge for much of the novel. As a minor aside, there was one final twist that felt a bit unnecessary. In my opinion, it gilded the lily but by no means ruined the book or its overall impact.

Brilliant Nonfiction

Science Asides: Black Faces, White Spaces—Structural Racism & Environmental Inequity. Review text by Rita E. Gould.
Black Faces, White Spaces, which I reviewed early this year, discusses how systemic racism bars African Americans from enjoying the Great Outdoors and, more importantly, the people working to change this.

This year, I read several works of nonfiction that opened my eyes to the past, often exposing past or ongoing social ills (Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans with the Great Outdoors by Carolyn Finney, Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore, Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech by Sara Wachter-Boettcher). Two other notable reads focused on a devastating library fire (The Library Book by Susan Orlean) and a rare books thief (The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett), with both sharing a thread of loss and longing. Since some of these books will feature in upcoming reviews (or already were reviewed), I won’t go into detail here. But keep these in mind if you’re interested in social justice or some fascinating tales focused on the book world.

2020 Reading List
That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina*
A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecroft *
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien *
Behind the Mask: the Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott by Louisa May Alcott
A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict
To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (trans. Royall Tyler)  
*I attempted these last year but was interrupted, necessitating a fresh start.

I’m looking forward to (hopefully!) reading these books and more! Happy new year and happy reading to you!

NOTES


[†] Indeed, my reading list received a hefty boost from reading Rick Riordan’s books about Percy Jackson and the Olympians.

[‡] I aimed to read 48 books and read 64.