LaRose by Louise Erdrich

3.0 Stars

I love Louise Erdrich and I enjoyed reading LaRose. I’m giving it three stars because there was something that seemed incomplete to me. In previous novels, sorrow and power are such strong forces in Erdrich’s storytelling. There are usually multiple points in her novels that wind me up and send me crashing through so many emotions and conflicts, leading me to dwell on a certain scene for weeks after I have finished the novel.
This novel seemed lacking in that aspect. If I had to speculate, I would assert that it’s because, Processed with VSCO with a5 presetdespite Erdrich selling this novel as a story of retribution, it reads more like a story of healing. It’s as though, these characters, whose predecessors were filled with magic and power, are slowly fading into “normal” Indians. They’re forgetting the language, forgetting how to use their power; but they’ve still got their stories. If I were to analyze this book in a hyper-critical sense, I would say that the story seems almost complacent and maybe that is where Erdrich, as a storyteller, was when she wrote this book. I’d argue that maybe this moment of healing and safety is just a prelude to greater things to come.

I’m pairing LaRose with a draft of Chimay Blue. The yeasty fragrance and roasted malt flavor set the mood for the reader as the story progresses. While I feel that the story of LaRose was borderline complacent, this beer certainly is not.

Quotes:

“She had been lying in her room – cooling off after another hot, hot shower. She had started to cry, alone. It was okay alone. But she still cut off the crying as quickly as she could, to toughen herself. She was a wolf, a wounded wolf. She’d sink her teeth in those boys’ throats.”

 

Format: Paperback.

Advertisements

Amy Stewart’s Girl Waits With Gun

3.0 Stars

Girl Waits With Gun is a historical fiction novel about one of the first female deputy sheriffs, Constance Kopp. The title of the book is taken from an actual headline in the early 1900s. Stewart’s prose is charming and steady. 

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

I devoured this book easily enough. The Kopp sisters are fun, in a conservative 1920s kind of way. They are unmarried and living alone when they become the target of attack from a local businessman. The eldest Kopp sister, Constance, goes to extreme length (at the time) to protect her sisters and bring about justice. 

I would recommend this book as a great vacation read. It’s perfect for the plane or the boat. It’s a light, fun story that will have you engrossed cover to cover. 

I chose to pair this novel with a Hefeweizen since the Kopp sisters are part German. The Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier is a flawless beer with a smooth yeast taste that makes for perfect drinkability. 

Quotes:

“My sisters and I have no one but each other, and if anyone should take up a handgun in their defense, I will be the one to do it. “

“If I could give something to Fleurette-if I could give her one silent gift from a mother she didn’t know she had – it would be this: the realization that we have to be a part of the world in which we live. We don’t scurry away when we’re in trouble, or when someone else is. We don’t run and hide. “

Format: Paperback.

Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers

Processed with VSCO with c7 preset

4.0 Stars

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter is a strange little collection on loss that will leave you with a few tears by the end. 

The narrative is dissected into fragments based on perspective. The dad, the boys and the crow all have a viewpoint to share. The story starts after the death of a wife and a mother. Her husband and two young boys are left to grieve. Helping them grieve is Crow. Crow is all parts protector, comforter, and trickster. He watches over the family and offers his incites and anecdotes to help them cope. 

I greatly enjoyed this book. Edmund Burke describes grief as a pain we cling to and make the focus of our lives. Porter expresses this through the father when he is told he should move on: “Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us lets no man slow or speed or fix.”

A particularly heartbreaking part of the narrative was how the boys talked about being deliberately mean to their dad so that they wouldn’t feel bad if they forgot their mom. One of my favorite lines in the novel comes from the boys’ perspective: 

“We used to think she would turn up one day and say it had all been a test. 

We used to think we would both die at the same age she had. 

We used to think she could see us through mirrors.”

The vivid expression of grief is intermingled with the absurd, yet for anyone who has experienced grief, you know this is how it is. Grief will stalk you throughout your day, and just when you think you can keep it together; you break down. A memory or a thought will suddenly connect and there is no subduing your reaction to it. Perhaps, the single greatest line to sum up all that grief encompasses is from the dad as he remembers all the memories he shared with his wife:

“Again. I beg everything again.”

Feelings of sadness are always best soothed with a glass of dry, red wine. I recommend Domaine Paul Autard Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Rhone, France. The 2012 vintage was given a 91 rating by Wine Spectator. This red blend consists of 70% Grenache, 15% Syrah, 15% Counoise. It has a full mouth feel and deep flavor. At $39 for a 350ml bottle, it’s on the expensive side, but totally worth it.

Format: Paperback.

Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air

Processed with VSCO with c8 preset

5.0 Stars

When Breath Becomes Air is heartbreakingly beautiful. A young neurosurgeon with a love for literature is diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer and in his attempt to understand morality and death, he teaches us how to live.

Kalanithi’s identity in this book is as both doctor and patient or as he puts it, as subject and then direct object. He gives readers an insight into his experiences and opinions as a doctor. Then, once diagnosed, he struggles with the idea of how to live. He says, “The future I had imagined, the one just about to be realized, the culmination of decades of striving, evaporated.” Always eloquent, Kalanithi recounts his struggles and his decisions. A great example, and one that I believe bears witness to the depth of his character and his capacity to live, is when he and his wife discuss if they should have a child:

” ‘Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?’ She asked. ‘Don’t you think that goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?’

‘Wouldn’t it be great if it did?’ I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.”

The hard choices that he had to face and the love and grief that are intermingled will bring you to tears many times throughout his book, but still, read on. Philosophical, raw, eloquent and powerful, this book’s premise is about facing death and about leaving something behind; yet what we really learn is how to live: ceaselessly striving.

Favorite quotes:

“When there’s no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool.”

“I don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life – and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another soul – was obvious in its sacredness.”

“I searched for a question to bring understanding. None was forthcoming. I could only imagine the overwhelming guilt, like a tidal wave, but had lifted him up and off that building.” – describing how he felt when he found out a friend and colleague had committed suicide by jumping off the roof of the hospital.

“The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”

“What happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy. I expected to feel only empty and heartbroken after Paul died. It never occurred to me that you could love someone the same way after he was gone, that I could continue to feel such love and gratitude alongside the terrible sorrow, the grief so heavy that in times I shiver and moan under the weight of it.” – Lucy, Paul’s wife

I’m pairing this book with Boulevard Brewing‘s Tell-Tale Tart, a slightly sour ale. I chose this brew because even though not everyone enjoys a sour ale, the tartness seemed to fit this sorrowful yet powerfully inspirational book. Add that the name of the brew is a play on words regarding literature, Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart, and it seemed like the perfect pairing for Kalanithi since he was a lover of literature. He majored in English literature before turning to neurosurgery and always struggled with what to do first – medicine or writing. It’s clear that he was accomplished at both. As we see from this book, he was a brave and brilliant man. It was only time that was against him.

Format: Hardcover.

Crazy Brave: A Memoir by Joy Harjo

Processed with VSCO with a5 preset

4.0 Stars

Joy Harjo is a Mvskoke poet, musician and activist. She is a strong defender of women’s equality and is an active member of the Muscogee tribe. She uses her poetry as a “voice of the indigenous people.” I first encountered Harjo through her poetry and I’ve been hooked ever since. Harjo’s works blend the physical world with the spiritual world. She is almost a mystic, a shaman, a seer. In both her memoir and her poetry she speaks of visions and stories as though they are a part of her life and the spirits of her ancestors.

Harjo’s memoir chronicles her life from before she was born, to when she was fighting in the womb and had to be pulled into this world, to how she finally was able to envision herself above panic and poverty and eventually follow the spirit of poetry. Her storytelling in enchanting and brutally honest. The lesson that Harjo lived and relived is that through the casual abuse, rape, negligence, and fear there is still the ability to transcend beyond that, to let yourself be healed, and to bring healing to others.

While most Native literature is suffused with magical realism (for lack of a better term), Harjo is one of the few who actively sees visions. While other authors create characters like the wise grandmother or the magical elder in their works, Harjo is that character. She is the one who sees into the past of her ancestors. She’s the one who relives the life of her great-grandfather through a vision. As a reader, it is not hard to suspend my disbelief; because I want to believe. I am fascinated by the idea of being able to dream the life of your great-grandmother. I am enthralled at the thought of having sickness being eaten away by an alligator in a dream. I find it mystical and wonderful. Can I honestly say that I believe it without a doubt? Probably not. However, I want to believe; and I think it is the believing that makes it beautiful.

I’ve chosen to pair this with Black Grouse, a smokey-sweet whiskey that finishes with hints of peat and a gentle smokiness. Throughout her childhood, Harjo lived in Oklahoma and everybody seemed to have smoked. She also believed that “all of these plant medicines, like whiskey, tequila, and tobacco, are potential healers. There’s a reason they’re called spirits. You must use them carefully. They open you up. If you abuse them, they can tear holes in your protective, spiritual covering.” So pour yourself a finger of whiskey, light a cigarette and enjoy this memoir.

Memorable quotes:

“In the end, we must each tend to our own gulfs of sadness, the others can assist us with kindness, food, good words, and music.”

“I felt the presence of the sacred, a force as real and apparent as anything else in the world, present and alive, as if it were breathing. I wanted to catch hold, to remember and never forget. But the current hard reality reasserted itself. I had to have the house cleaned just right or my stepfather would punish me. So I continued on my path to forgetfulness.”

Format: Paperback.

André Brink’s A Dry White Season

IMG_20160826_180728

2.5 Stars

While I enjoyed reading this book, I find myself highly judgmental of the protagonist. He is a white male living in South Africa who has never really understood the racial injustices faced by his black acquaintances until a series of events happens to a black man he knows. He has been content to enjoy his privilege and status as a white man in South Africa.

Now, to be fair, this book and the voice of the character in this book are directed to white people in South Africa who do nothing about the injustices that were going on. As a woman of color, I have had to accept the role of whites “leading the way.” I’ve had to accept how because of white feminists, we are able to have colored feminists. Somebody has to pave that road. Granted, it would’ve been great to be included from the beginning. This is a more complex issue that I won’t delve too deeply into with this review. I feel as though it is the same situation in this novel. I, personally, would prefer to hear the story from the black perspective. I would like the agency and the authority to be coming from the person who the racist injustice is acted upon, instead of that of the white savior. However, that is not the purpose of this novel. And that’s OK (I guess). It is still a very interesting read. It makes a statement for justice. It denounces the acts of violence and corruption that went on in South Africa; and it did it in a white voice for a white audience, to give them perspective and to hold them accountable.

Perhaps my biggest pet peeve with this novel was the “Affair.” The protagonist – a good, honest, church-going, exemplary white man – cheats on his wife at the end of the novel, but we knew that was coming. What really annoyed the shit out of me, was how the affair went down. The day before he fucked the new, younger chick, he fucked his old wife. And he was struck by how he was so shocked to see how old she had become. How after 30 years of marriage, her skin with wrinkled, her breasts were sagging, there with a mixture of revulsion and arousal…ugh… I’m sure his hairy balls weren’t dragging between his thighs. I was so glad that I already knew that this motherfucker dies at the end. (FYI, I’m the type of girl who still hates Robert Lowell for The Dolphin).

My judgmental critique on the protagonist aside, this novel does bring to light racial injustice. It highlights one of the most important relationships, that between a parent and their child. A child represents hope for the future. What happens in the black community when children are shot and killed and jailed? These are questions that in our modern, American society we are still facing. We have seen it in Ferguson, and Baltimore, and Milwaukee, and all over the United States. The questions and the struggle for racial equality and racial justice are real and relevant to not only our American society but a global society. The Impact in the black community in regards to over-policing and racial profiling and racial stereotypes are disregarded by the more privileged of our society. A Dry White Season does an excellent job of highlighting this and showing how it’s not just a problem of a few racists in power. What we fight against when we fight against racial injustice is something far greater. For the protagonist, he comes to this conclusion toward the end of the novel:

“today I realize that this is the worst of all: that I can no longer single out my enemy and give him a name. I can’t challenge him to a duel. What is set up against me is not a man, not even a group of people, but a thing, something, a vague amorphous something, an invisible ubiquitous power that inspects my mail and taps my telephone and indoctrinates my colleagues and incited the pupils against me and cuts up the tires of my car and paints signs on my door and fires shots into my home and sends me bombs in the mail, a power that follows me wherever I go, day and night, day and night, frustrating me, intimidating me, playing with me according to rules devised and whimsically changed by itself.”

We face almost the same enemy in American culture, except that instead of wiretapping phones and slashed tires; we have indoctrination through white pride, racial stereotyping, inadequate representation, redlining and an eschewing of history to favor the white male.

Memorable Quotes:

“My time and your time is passing…but the time of our children is still coming. And if they start killing our children, then what was it that we lived for?”

” ‘One always reads about this sort of thing,’ he said absently. ‘One hears so many things. But it remains apart of a totally different world really. One never expects it to happen to someone you actually know.’ ”

“But if you were given a choice, Colonel: wouldn’t you rather be a white child in this country than a black one?”

“You’re white. ” as if that summarized everything. “Hope comes easy to you”.

I’m pairing this book with Einstok‘s Icelandic Toasted Porter. This is one of my favorite beers. It has a nice toasted malt taste and a medium-bodied mouthfeel. It balances the caramel and coffee flavors well, making it a pleasant brew for almost any book.

Format: Paperback.

Joani Blank’s Femalia

IMG_20160821_114648

3.5 Stars

I came across Femalia by Joani Blank while reading CUNT by Musico. Feminists have been advocating this book for men and women for years to help shape people’s perspectives about their own bodies and the bodies of their partners. Femalia consists of 50 photographs of the female vulva. The purpose of this book is to show males and females that the vulva comes in many different variations and they are each perfectly formed. Sadly, some women are uncomfortable with their ladybits and worry that it doesn’t “look right.” But where do we get our expectations of what a vulva should look like? Porn? Male-dominated conversations and opinions? Women body-shaming each other? I’m sure there’s another book out there that discusses these points. However, Femalia‘s only goal lies in the photographs. There is no denying that each woman is unique and it is the hope of Blank that when men and women view these photographs they will be more comfortable with their own bodies and the bodies of their partners.

I decided to purchase this book solely on the recommendations I came across while reading feminist texts. Truthfully, the only vulva I’m intimately acquainted with is my own. There are also depictions in pornography, but we know some of those women get labiaplasty surgery to make their vulva more “acceptable.” Hearing all of this is disconcerting, especially when (as far as being a straight woman is concerned) I consider my own to be “normal” but it’s also all I know. Taking that into consideration, I decided to purchase this book and I have to agree with my fellow feminists and concur that all women should know the many different shapes and colors and variations of other women’s bodies. This way, when we hear people shaming or criticizing their own bodies or the bodies of others, we can present them with the facts. After all, if all female bodies have it, how can it be “unfeminine,” or “ugly,” or “not right looking.” We live in a society where a mom tweets a picture of sandwiches to compare her daughters “vaginas” to that of Taylor Swift. Someone never told that woman that vaginas (and by vaginas, I mean vulvas) don’t work that way. Hopefully, someone will inform her daughters. (Check out the tweet HERE and read the comments for a good laugh.)

If this review teaches you anything, it’s that the outside ladybits is the vulva; and the inside is the vagina. I never cared enough to make the distinction since “vagina” is our society’s default word for lady parts, but Blank’s book has made me change my mind, and I hope to change all of your minds! If we cannot correctly name and label our bodies, how do we protect and love ourselves, thus teaching our partners to do the same? Language holds power over us. It gives us agency and allows us to empower ourselves. Let’s not take for granted that empowered women empower women.

I’m pairing this book with Good JuJu by Left Hand Brewery because all vulvas are good juju. This beer has a crisp, fresh hint of ginger that is refreshing and light.

Format: Paperback.