Reviewing The Artist’s Way: Weeks 5 & 6

Ready f

After the tribulations of week 4, weeks 5 and 6 moves into less difficult though still thought-provoking material as Cameron continues to unpack our negative conditioning when it comes to art. With week 4 being something of a turning point, Cameron digs deeper into her subject, making connections among her themes in a way that brings greater depth to the original material while relating it to topics under review.

Week 5: Recovering a Sense of Possibility

Limits and Possibilities

“What dream are you discounting as impossible given your resources?”

Week 5 investigates how our own thinking (the product of “negative patterning”) interferes with our creative life. In the Limits and Find the River, Cameron aims to change how we view our so-called limitations. She notes that we serve as gatekeepers to our artistic possibilities, because we assume there are limits to what we can accomplish. These beliefs may manifest as dismissing inspiration as overly impractical/ambitious or feelings guilty for the bounty we possess or receive.

Cameron indicates such beliefs may be shaped by scarcity thinking (more commonly called scarcity mindset or mentality). The Artist’s Way doesn’t explore this concept further, but I feel it is worth reviewing given the associated negatives. Scarcity mentality results from an excessive focus on what an individual lacks (typically, time, money or connection), which absorbs too much of their “mental bandwidth” and makes it difficult for them to make good choices (eg, eating healthier, exercise, and, here, delving into artistic interests). In Cameron’s eyes, however scarcity thinking causes blocked artists to view God/the universe as a “capricious parent figure”, effectively making the divine the scapegoat for our artistic underachieving.

Cameron observes that we often reject our dreams by dismissing them as impractical. Listening to our internal creative guide instead can help us finding our path and achieve our artistic visions. (Image by jiao tang from Pixabay.)

Rejecting this notion, she suggests that we listen to our internal creative guide/intuition to find our path instead. Morning pages may be helpful here: Cameron recommends asking questions in the evening and listening for answers while writing on the following morning. However, we first need to believe that we can make progress towards our vision. Such progress occurs by continuing to work through artistic blocks, taking meaningful steps to achieve these goals (“doing the footwork”), and being open to opportunities from diverse sources.

Problematic “Virtue”

“The urge toward respectability and maturity can be stultifying, even fatal.”

Seemingly switching topics abruptly halfway through the chapter, Cameron revisits a theme first mentioned in week 2 (recovering a sense of identity). Week 2 largely focused on how others (fellow blocked creatives, crazymakers[*]) may fuel our self-doubt or otherwise sabotage our creative recovery and lead us into self-destructive behavior.[†] Reexamining this theme from the opposite viewpoint, this section looks at how “obligations” to others block artists creatively. The perhaps understated connection here is that this form of self-sabotage serves to limit to our artistic possibilities when we get caught up in “virtuous production”.

Cameron begins with observing that artists require both time and space alone to create and heal/recharge. After sharing some longish if relatable scenarios, she reveals that many of us prioritize the needs of others, giving up our time and/or money to satisfy their wants at tremendous personal and artistic cost. Dubbing this the virtue trap, Cameron claims we’re afraid to decline requests or prioritize our needs and desires because we enjoy our positive reputation.[‡] Referring back to week 2 reveals some likely reasons (eg, guilt at disappointing loved ones seemed to be spot on for me) as to why artists continue “making nice” instead of “nurturing” a “sense of self”. Also similar to week 2, Cameron’s “telling it as it is” approach here can seem harsh (she equivocates this behavior with embracing a “martyr’s cross”), but her concerns are valid ones. An important takeaway is that we need to consider whether our generous impulses are genuine or are rooted in feeling obliged.

We might appear to be angels to those benefitting from our generosity, but are we actually suffering from the strain of unwanted obligations? (Image by Pexels from Pixabay.)

Cameron doesn’t offer suggestions for negotiating with the people in our lives, although I imagine “the footwork” here may entail require some honesty about our needs, establishing boundaries and counselling for some. However, she recommends that we embrace our creativity, continue to discover who we truly are, and trust in God/the universe. The tasks for this week are designed to assess whether we’re caught in the virtue trap as well as help us suss out our personal desires, something Cameron believes will help remove barriers to investigating these interests. I would also add that embracing an abundance mindset, which dovetails with Cameron’s advice, might be useful as there are instances where real scarcity requires tradeoffs.

Week 6: Recovering a Sense of Abundance

Faith and Finances

Creativity is not and never has been sensible.

Week 6 builds off week 5’s examination of limitations, as it launches into a related (though meandering) conversation on issues surrounding finances. In The Great Creator, Cameron points out a panoply of negative ideas we have about the divine/higher power, money, work, virtue, and art. For example, money can be viewed as the only “true” source of security, the proverbial root of all evil, and a necessity that must be amassed in sufficient quantities before one can safely (if ever) practice art. By these standards, artistic pursuits seem foolish and likely to make our lives unpleasant as though we might be defying either God’s will or acting recklessly. Attributing such beliefs (much like week 5) to toxic ideas about God, Cameron recommends revising one’s concept of the divine in morning pages, an exercise that likely won’t appeal to some nonbelievers.

According to Cameron, our beliefs that we should be sensible (garnered from what others’ think “is sensible for us”) spurs us to be a “cheapskate” to ourselves while blaming the divine because we dismissed our opportunities. From her perspective, there’s little evidence that God/the universe or creativity is particularly sensible. Therefore, we should expect support from our higher power. Art, too, should involve enjoyment and generosity to ourselves in the form of breaks and treats, which in turn will helps us accept gifts from the God/the universe (as first suggested in week 3). Finally, we should pursue our interests as they are what we’re meant to do and doing what we’re intended to do will lead to us opportunities, money, and relationships. Here, Cameron seems to be making the case that abandoning our artistic dreams is the less practical choice.

Luxury

“Art requires us to empower ourselves with choice.”

Completing the week is Cameron’s discussion on luxury, which loosely continues her thoughts on artistic needs from week 5 (The Virtue Trap). Explaining that our ideas about money affect our ideas about creativity, she observes that we might blame our financial limitations when we feel blocked instead of realizing that we’re actually feeling powerless or constrained. Art, she explains, requires expansion and the belief that we have sufficient supply[§] from God/the creative force.

Authentic luxury is more about the joy it brings than its price point. (Image by Aline Ponce from Pixabay.)

To experience this abundance, we should practice self-care (at a minimum) and pamper our inner artist child by indulging in what Cameron labels as authentic luxury. What constitutes self-care or luxury, of course, varies among individuals. But it’s less about lavish spending (as her case of the famous artist illustrates) and more about enjoying things that bring us joy. Cameron’s examples center on small, typically inexpensive luxuries like watercolors sets, fresh fruit, or a flower. Luxury, too, may represent time to relax and recharge or spend time with loved ones.

These examples also illustrate several ways in which we deny ourselves creative joys, such as undervaluing ourselves (one artist tellingly indicated her reasonably priced luxury was “more than I thought I was worth”), perfectionism, or feeling obliged to work when they have a moment to relax (a recipe for burnout, creative or otherwise). As “serious adults”, we’re likely to deliver “wet blanket messages” about how we “should be working” or how we should deny ourselves simple pleasures as they’re unnecessary or “silly”. But, as Cameron indicates, this is the entire point: “serious art is born from serious play”. The chapter closes with an accounting task, which should reveal whether our spending on ourselves matches our priorities.

Some Final Thoughts

“Pray to catch the bus, then run as fast as you can.”

Weeks 5 and 6 cover similar ground[**] in their discussions about our (often unconsciously held) beliefs that interfere with our creative lives. Strikingly though, I found it more helpful to embrace being more openminded about my artistic prospects when Cameron exposed how contradictory and conflicting (not to mention miserable) these so-called sensible beliefs can be than to lean more into spiritual dependence. Perhaps the reason why The Artist’s Way works for people regardless of their stance on spiritual matters relates to its ability to plainly show us what we need to consider (and reconsider) in our lives.

I found Cameron’s firm push towards some personal accountability in weeks 5 and 6 to be particularly vital, as we should be aware that we (not our circumstance or higher powers) get in our own way when we “responsibly” say no to ourselves and yes to obligations and hardship that we resent undertaking. Such accountability also necessitates voicing our needs to the people in our lives, as it’s unlikely that anyone else will say carve out free time for our artistic practice or notice we’re struggling if we say nothing.

Cameron’s more practical suggestions also provide solid advice. For example, she effectively recommends utilizing project management tactics (ie, breaking our artistic projects into manageable chunks) to work around our more immediate difficulties or limitations. With this approach, it seems less reasonable to dismiss a potentially intimidating project, because we genuinely don’t know what might be capable of achieving without giving it a trial. And, frankly, Cameron’s ideas that we should enjoy a creative life (sprinkled with rewards and rest) sounds far more appealing than the alternatives. Given that many of her ideas about adding enjoyment to our lives seem fairly attainable, one might argue that giving them a try would be the sensible thing to do.

The flowers I bought today were by no means necessary, but they do make me happy.

NOTES:


[*] In week 2, Cameron states that our ongoing involvement with crazymakers occurs as an attempt to avoid a creative life (thusly using their abuser to block their creativity, the veracity of which depends on the situation) and claims that such blocked artists may be codependent. Codependency represents an unhealthy relationship dynamic in which one party is a giver and the other a taker, with varying causes. Since Cameron terms this abuse and mentions potentially abusive situations, it’s important to understand that some mental health professionals would not consider an abused individual to be codependent. The concept of codependency has evolved much since this book’s publication, which means Cameron’s discussion and advice may not be current. For those experiencing abuse (US), you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline (https://www.thehotline.org/) for assistance.

[†] This term, first used week 2, likely should have been defined there, as I took it to mean some more obvious forms of self-destruction (eg, self-harm, substance abuse) versus the subtler ones (eg, clinging to relationships with a disinterested partner, maladaptive behaviors like avoidance and procrastination) eluded to here in week 5.

[‡] For anyone interested in nuance here, “positive reputation” applies both to situations where an individual is praised for their (reluctant) deeds and to situations where their actions let them escape criticism because they choose to meet others’/societal expectations. In the latter scenario, praise tends to be in short supply (people assume your generosity constitutes a duty or feel entitled to your assistance) but criticism is quick to follow should you buck conventions.

[§] This term is not specifically explained, but in the context of week 5 it refers to artistic inspiration, friends, lovers, homes, etc.

[**] Understandably, there’s some overlap as week 6 is a more in-depth discussion of a specific limit (finances). In fairness, though, Cameron’s discursive presentation may bear some responsibility, too.

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 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.

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.

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.

Writing Inspiration: a NaNoWriMo Prompt

Meeting another Rita, let alone another bookish one, is a rare pleasure for me.

My friends and I went to the Baltimore Book Festival last Sunday (November 3rd). While there, I met another Rita. Meeting another Rita, let alone another bookish one, is a rare pleasure for me. As is often the case, though, the other Rita happened to be older than me by several years. One of my friends joked that it was future me (I apparently shrunk several inches). As we walked to a restaurant later in the afternoon, we happened to be discussing writing prompts, which led my suggestion we should all write about how we meet our future selves. I’ve decided to use this prompt for the NaNoWriMo story I’m composing today. In the spirit of sharing with the writing community and inspiring folks to get words on the page, here’s the full (expanded) prompt.

TL;DR: I met another Rita, which inspired the “write about meeting your future self” prompt.

Prompt

How does current day you meet your future self? What have they (you) been doing before they traveled back in time? Will your older self reveal that they’re you? Whether or not they identify, what words of wisdom do they share? Finally, do they live out their life in the past or do they, having completed some arbitrary goal, return to their lives?

The Other Side of the Circulation Desk

For me, volunteering at my child’s school library felt like coming full circle.

When my child returned to elementary school this past year, so did I.

Quite literally.

However, I stopped just short of joining the third grade with him and instead popped into the library, ready to begin my stint as a volunteer there.

Full Circle

For me, volunteering at my child’s school library felt like coming full circle. My mother brought me along when she volunteered at the parochial school where my older siblings attended.[*] Already a reader, I loved the library, its scent of books, the vast shelves of stories.[†] I remember the school librarian being a kind woman who drew the difficult number eights my hands couldn’t yet manage. Becoming a librarian’s assistant in turn seemed like an ideal way to pay forward the generosity I received at the many libraries I visited in my youth.

Tricky Customers

It also proved to be an eye-opening experience. I knew beforehand that my duties would include shelving, locating, and checking out books, not to mention helping the younger students select what they wanted to read. But I forgot about the crushing indecision children suffer when given so many choices, regardless of whether they wanted to read more books than allotted[‡] or whether they didn’t know what they wanted to read at all. Keeping in mind popular choices for their age levels, their specific reading levels, and age-appropriate material while trying to guess their interests made me long for telepathy. But every child we helped left with a book.

There’s More to Libraries than Books

Makerspace also surprised me. Alternating with “book week”, makerspace ranges from puzzle solving with plastic cups to stop-motion animation with leaves. My son previously mentioned some projects he worked on, but his limited explanation failed to convey their interdisciplinary nature or the labor behind their success. Even at the elementary school level, librarians’ responsibilities extend far beyond their being benevolent bestowers of books (see “Read More”).[§] But, it paid off. While I handed out supplies in the background so that the librarian could instruct the students, the kids learned how to do an impressive array of activities, like program robots wearing costumes the kids created. I often left amazed (if tired) at what the kids could do with some direction and patience. Well, a lot of patience and glue. And wouldn’t you know, some kids were inspired to read more about the projects they worked on the previous week.

After my year at the library, I realized I had even more reasons to appreciate my son’s librarians as well as the ones who shaped my own childhood. And I’m looking forward to discovering more next year.

READ MORE

Curious about what librarians do besides hoarding books? Check out these articles to learn more:

What Librarians Really Do All Day at Work by Romeo Rosales

What Exactly Does a Librarian Do? Everything by Kristin Arnett

5 Things That People Don’t Realize their Librarians Do by Rebecca Tischler

NOTES:


[*]And where I went to school…a few years later.

[†]From my then tiny perspective. Like most things that loomed larger than life in my memory, they seem shrunk now that I’m grown.

[‡]These kids are my people. When I take my child to the public library, he’s allowed to take out as many books as he can carry.

[§]For example, I learned about the schwa when school librarian discussed how to use the dictionary, instead of in a Reading or English class.