American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee

unknownAmerican Wolf

by Nate Blakeslee

I love a good non-fiction, especially one that reads like a novel, and this one fits the bill.  I chose it for my book club on the recommendation of PBS Newshour-NY Times Book Club, and it ended up being one of those somewhat rare books that touched me deeply and has stayed with me in the weeks since I finished it.

American Wolf chronicles the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park after virtually all wolves were eliminated from the park and the United States through hunting and trapping, sanctioned by state and federal initiatives.  Realizing over time, however, how the absence of wolves from Yellowstone negatively impacted the park’s ecosystem, a handful of wolves were brought to the park from Canada to repopulate the park, and the lower 48.  While the book follows several Yellowstone wolf packs, its focus is on a female wolf named O-Six (for the year of her birth, 2006).

I somehow missed all the news stories when O-Six and the wolves of Yellowstone were the subject of not only news stories, but of litigation concerning the battle between hunters and conservationists, but this book gave me a great education on those topics.  It also forced me to examine my own thoughts and feelings about hunting and conservation.  What I can say after reading American Wolf is that I find myself deeply conflicted.  Intellectually, I see humans as predators, no different than wolves themselves; we are hunters, and we have a biological place in the food chain.  However, I would prefer to believe that my meat grows on trees; the thought of actually killing animals is deeply disturbing to me.  The book talks quite a bit about “fair chase,” a tenet that hunters hold, which I assume implies some sort of equality in the positions of animals being hunted and humans doing the hunting, and I find this notion ludicrously disingenuous.  How can any chase be fair when the hunter is using weapons designed and created with technology that no animal has a chance against?  In any case, I do find trophy hunting absolutely immoral – and wolves are largely the target of trophy hunters.

O-Six’s story, and the story of the Yellowstone wolves as told by Blakeslee, is majestic and heartbreaking.  It is an education on wolves, Yellowstone Park, and the people who love them.  I really loved this book.

Educated by Tara Westover


by Tara Westover

I hadn’t planned on reading this book, mainly because I have a weird aversion sometimes to anything that gets a lot of hype, and this one has been sweeping best seller lists and social media for a while.  I also read enough about the book to know that it had to do with a woman who was “homeschooled,” and not in a good way, and being a homeschooling parent myself, I’m a little weary of all the stories out there about bad things that happen in homeschooling families that are misguidedly blamed on homeschooling itself.  In any case, I ended up reading it because it was chosen by my book club for this month.

So, if you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard about Educated, it’s a memoir about the author’s experience growing up in rural Idaho with parents who are fundamentalist Mormons, survivalists waiting for what they believe are the End Days, and not a little off their rockers.  Westover believes that her father is bi-polar, and perhaps even paranoid schizophrenic, though, because he is utterly anti-medical establishment, he’s never been diagnosed as anything.  Either of those diagnoses seem plausible, and it’s hard to say about Westover’s mother, who seems more manipulative than anything else.

Westover grew up the youngest of seven children, and she didn’t set foot in a classroom until she was 17 years old, when she decided she wanted to go to college despite her complete lack of even a hint of formal education.  To say that she was homeschooled is misstating the reality that she was mostly neglected (and abused, both physically and emotionally).  She did know how to read, but the only books she was exposed to growing up were the bible, the Book of Mormon, and an old history book her father had in the house that described slavery as a terrible institution – for the slave owners.

Her father owned a junkyard and made his living selling scrap from the junkyard, and doing construction.  His goal was for his family to become completely self-sufficient for when The End came; the family stockpiled home canned food, ammunition, and even had massive amounts of gasoline buried on their property.  The kids had “head for the hills bags” which were at the ready for when The End came, which would be prefaced with an attack by government officials (this vision had to do with the real life events at Ruby Ridge, which Westover’s father somehow twisted in his mind in a way that somehow had to do with them).  Westover’s mother worked as a midwife/healer.  She made her own salves, tinctures, oils, and homeopathic medicines that the family relied on for income and for their own medical needs – including terrible injuries that resulted from car accidents, junkyard accidents, fires, and explosions.  The children were expected – no, forced – to help with the junkyard and construction businesses, as well as making medicines.

Westover’s upbringing was filled with violence.  Her father repeatedly exposed the family to horribly dangerous situations which he justified with his faith in the Lord, and Westover’s older brother was especially violent and physically and emotionally abusive.

When Westover was 16, she decided she wanted to go to college so she could learn about music – perhaps be a church music director at some point.  Her desire to get a formal education created a wedge between her and her parents who were adamantly against formal education and believed school to be a favorite haunt of the devil, but Westover made up her mind to teach herself enough algebra and grammar to pass a college entrance exam and be accepted to BYU when she was 17.  From there, she ultimately won a scholarship to Cambridge and attended Harvard where she earned a Ph.D.  It was during her time at Harvard that she became estranged from her parents and most of her siblings – not because she pursued formal education (which ultimately led to her examination and rejection of the religious beliefs she had been raised with), but because she reached out to her parents about the abuse she had suffered at the hands of her older brother, and her parents rejected her version of events.  In interviews, Westover has referred to it as being gaslighted by her parents.

Purely as a piece of writing, Educated is very well written.  It’s thoughtful and articulate and deep.  It’s a good book, and a good story.  At times I felt that it was a bit repetitive and long, but still, a very good book.

I relate to the author quite a bit.  While I didn’t grow up with fanatical religious parents, I did grow up in a very toxic environment that ultimately led to my estrangement from my family, which has gone on for almost 20 years now.  So I very much relate to the damage one suffers as a result of being a vulnerable child at the mercy of violent, abusive bigger people, and I very much relate to the feelings of loss one carries around because of family estrangement.

I did find myself feeling a little frustrated, and even disdainful, at Westover’s willingness to keep going back for more abuse from her family, and also her generosity towards her parents in expressing her belief that they are good people, that they loved their children and did their best.  I have a hard time seeing it that way.  Her father was reckless, abusive, and even sadistic at times, and her mother neglectful, disingenuous, and manipulative.

I also felt frustrated at the portrayal – intentional or not – of both homeschooling and homebirth/midwifery as “fringe” institutions.  As someone who has engaged in both, it bothers me that both of those things are still widely seen as “crazy,” dangerous, etc.  They’re both valid and safe options when approached with knowledge and care, but no doubt many people will read this book and have their worst suspicions about homeschooling and homebirth confirmed.

I went with a friend to a literary lecture last night and Tara Westover was the speaker.  It was fascinating seeing her in the flesh and listening to her talk about some of her experiences and about the writing of her book.  For everything she has experienced and accomplished, she’s actually very young: 32.  One thing she talked about that struck me was that she doesn’t want her story to be seen as one of triumph over adversity, that she’s averse to narratives of people overcoming and achieving through pure grit, because the reality is that it always takes help in one form or another in order for anyone to accomplish goals and overcome hurdles.  So true.

Something else she talked about that resonated with me was how the first version of ourselves given to us by our families does not have to be the final version of ourselves.  This may seem simplistic on its face, but there is a deep truth to this, and isn’t it liberating to know that we can always continue to learn and grow and evolve?

Westover poses a profound question, which really is at the heart of her memoir: What is one to do when one’s obligations to family come into conflict with one’s obligations to oneself?

Educated is an extremely thought-provoking book.

The Dry by Jane Harper

UnknownThe Dry

by Jane Harper

One of the latest in the current slew of thriller/who-done-its, The Dry opens with a grisly scene told from the perspective of a swarm of blowflies feasting on a freshly murdered family on a farm in Australia.  It appears to be a murder-suicide carried about by longtime resident of the small town of Kiewarra, Luke Hadler.  His wife and 6-year-old son are found brutally shot to death in their home, and Luke himself is found shot to death in the head, gun in hand, in the bed of his pickup truck.  Only the Hadlers’ baby daughter was spared, and she’s too young to provide an account of what happened.Luke’s boyhood best friend, Aaron Falk, now a federal agent

Luke’s boyhood best friend, Aaron Falk, now a federal agent living and working in Melbourne, is summoned to the funeral by Luke Hadler’s father.  Aaron has been gone from Kiewarra for twenty years, having fled town with his own father in the wake of another death which cast suspicion on Aaron and Luke.  Now Falk is brought face to face with old secrets and the mistrust of the town in which he grew up.  When Luke’s parents beg him to look into their son’s family’s deaths which is so easily being written off as a murder-suicide by the town, strange revelations begin coming to light, and suddenly nothing seems clear-cut.

Set against the backdrop of a severe drought which is causing the ruination of the farming community of Kiewarra, it’s a tinderbox of the literal variety, as well as the figurative.

I enjoyed this novel for what it was: a fast-paced, cleverly constructed story that keeps you guessing.  It’s an impressive debut, though I’ve certainly read better thrillers.  A little on the forgettable side, but engaging enough to keep you turning pages.

Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser

91vThlwB-sLPrairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

by Caroline Fraser

I was first introduced to the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder when I was in grade school, and the books immediately became my favorite books, dearly loved.  I read the series over and over (and still have that original boxed set I got when I was eight years old), and like many girls at that time, dreamed of being Laura Ingalls.  I had intricate fantasies of growing up and leaving civilization and escaping to the frontier (believing it still existed), wearing old-fashioned long skirts, and living blissfully in a log cabin on the prairie.  I would change my identity and be Laura Ingalls.  That was my idea, at my tender, naive age, of the perfect, happy life.  IMG_2089

Laura Ingalls Wilder the author was conflated in my mind for many years with the Laura of the Little House books, and so the author became a hero to me not only for being an author (because most authors were always heroes to me) but for having lived this wonderful pioneer-girl life.  It wasn’t until many, many years later – well into adulthood – that I began to discover that although the real Laura Ingalls’s life had provided the framework for those Little House books, the stories in the books were embellished and fictionalized.

Still, Laura Ingalls Wilder has remained larger than life to me.  My fascination and even reverence for her hasn’t diminished.  I read a biography about her several years ago which opened my eyes to many facts I never knew, like the fact that she had a baby boy that died, that she had an often contentious relationship with her daughter, Rose, and that the authorship of the Little House books has long been held in question.  Although some of this news was a bit deflating, it all made Laura seem even more human and real to me, and so my fascination has not abated.

So when Prairie Fires was published, I was eager to read it.

At 640 pages, Prairie Fires is a hefty read, but it’s never boring or dry.  Exhaustively researched, the book covers the entire chronology of Laura’s life, beginning before she was born, with her parents’ backgrounds and marriage.  Always on the move chasing prosperity that was always out of his grasp, Charles Ingalls never succeeded as a farmer or a businessman, and often could not provide for his family.  The family skipped town to escape debt, took in boarders (some of them shady), and sent their young daughter to work to help support the family.  They often went hungry.

The book also delves into the social impact of the Homesteader’s Act, which allowed (white) people to claim land at the tragic expense of Native Americans.  The Ingalls family was a part of this and Charles Ingalls, in fact, was a squatter.

Despite this, the family was close and loving and found contentment in their humble existence.  Laura idolized her parents – especially her father.  The scene depicting the young married Laura saying goodbye to her family as she and Almanzo prepare to leave South Dakota for Missouri is heartwrenching.

Laura and Almanzo’s marriage endured for over sixty years, through the accumulation of debt that put them on the edge of ruin, through the death of their second child and only son, through severe illness, failed crops, house fires, and multiple moves.  Through all of it, they retained a genuine affection and loyalty to one another.

As much as this book is a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, it’s also a biography of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane – a volatile, unstable, and frankly, unlikeable woman.  She reminded me of my own mother – a toxic personality, jealous, self-centered, and manipulative.  She and Laura seem to have had a very unhealthy, co-dependent relationship, and their working relationship with regard to the writing, editing, and publishing of the Little House books is covered in detail.

As it turns out, Laura Ingalls Wilder was very human and very flawed.  She was a woman of contradictions, openly criticizing federal social safety programs and portraying her family as models of self-sufficiency and independence while failing to acknowledge the federal help both Charles Ingalls and she and Almanzo received by way of the Homestead Act and federal loan programs.  She had a hot temper and could have a sharp tongue, and her role as a mother seems to be the one role that she never filled confidently, despite her own loving upbringing.

When all was said and done, I still cried when Laura’s life reached its end.  I don’t really know why she retains this hold on me – whether it’s some pull of nostalgia for my own innocence as a child, or whether on some level I still see her life as portrayed in the Little House books as an ideal – but she hasn’t fallen from her pedestal in my mind.

Prairie Fires is an excellent book, and a must-read for any Laura Ingalls Wilder fan.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

51kgOTJWNXL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Little Fires Everywhere

by Celeste Ng

Shaker Heights, the setting of Celeste Ng’s latest novel, is a neighborhood in Cleveland.  It’s one of those planned neighborhoods in which everything is ordered and uniform, from the style and colors of the houses to lawn maintenance, to the seemingly perfect, successful, high achieving families that occupy them.  The fact that garbage cans are hidden out of sight down hidden driveways and retrieved by special trucks on trash day is symbolic of the perfect appearance that belies the unsavory truths of reality.

Central in the story are the Richardson family, long-time residents of Shaker Heights, and Mia Warren, a single mother, and her teenage daughter, Pearl, newly arrived and renting one-half of a duplex in Shaker Heights from the Richardsons.  The Richardsons embody everything Shaker Heights believes it collectively stands for: progressive values and living by the rules.  Mia’s and Pearl’s arrival upends everything.

Having lived a bohemian existence up to this point, Mia, a photographer whose artistic whims have kept her and her daughter constantly on the move, is finally ready to settle down and give Pearl some permanence.  The four Richardson children quickly absorb Pearl into their family, while also being drawn to Mia – she’s like nobody they’ve ever known.  Mia takes a part-time job cooking and cleaning house for the Richardson family and becomes privy to the family’s chaos hiding just below the veneer of their perfection.

When long-time friends of the Richardsons begin the adoption process of a Chinese infant abandoned at the local fire station, Mia takes steps that sets off a custody battle that divides the seemingly idyllic town, and suddenly the veneer of perfection and progressiveness begins to crumble.  While Elena Richardson (who is always referred to in the novel as Mrs. Richardson, while Mia is always referred to by her first name, a tactic used by the author that underscores class differences as well as establishing which character is more relatable) is consumed by her righteous indignation over the injustice her friend is being subjected to because of the custody dispute, and busy going to great lengths to uncover Mia’s mysterious past, her four teenage children are involved in all kinds of unsavory high drama, to which she is oblivious.

And it all culminates in the opening scene of the book: the Richardson’s beautiful, perfect home engulfed in flames.  The title of the book refers not only to the manner in which the Richardson home was set aflame (the fire department found multiple points of origin, “little fires everywhere”), but the drama, trauma, and imperfection of reality that playing by the rules cannot prevent.

I liked this book a lot, although I found some of it to be a little far-fetched (like, for instance, the fact that when you get right down to it, Mia, this somewhat free-spirited, well-traveled single mother in her mid-thirties, is a virgin; and that when Pearl is asked to give up the friendships she has nurtured in Shaker Heights and the first experience of stability she’s ever had, she puts up very little fight).  In spite of the unlikeliness of some aspects of the story, it’s a fast-paced, engrossing rumination on motherhood, class, race, and the fact that perfection is always an illusion.

Still Reading

Have you ever read a book that affected you so profoundly that you just couldn’t shake it for days and days and weeks, even?  Have you ever read a book that transported you so completely that when you were done, you felt sorrow at the realization that the story wasn’t real?  Have you ever read a book whose characters you became so emotionally invested in and attached to that finishing the book felt almost like a death (and if any of those characters died before the story was over, it shook you to your core?)?

That book for me is Lonesome Dove.  I recently finished it for the third time (however, this time I listened to the audio version, which wasn’t quite as good as reading it myself), and immediately after finishing it, I spent the next several days watching the 1989 miniseries.  Although the miniseries left quite a bit of the book out, and changed numerous things, it’s still, in my view, one of the best miniseries ever made, and one of the best film adaptations of a book ever produced.  I fell in love with Robert Duvall as Gus McCrae, and watching him in this movie still makes me weak in the knees, and his death still leaves me ugly crying.

So, although it’s been two months since I last wrote here, I have still been reading (or listening, as the case may be), but writing has gone on the back burner because, well, life.  I hope to come back here and share my thoughts about a couple of other books soon.

In the meantime, tell me what books you’ve read that have affected you deeply.

The Girl Who Loved Dorothy the Most by Andrew Scott Turner

51EFnmcrWeL._SY400_The Girl Who Loved Dorothy the Most

by Andrew Scott Turner

I will confess, first that I “know” Andrew Turner – at least on Facebook.  I don’t even remember how we connected, but for a couple of years now I’ve been continually moved by what he writes, both on Facebook and on his blog, Six Theories.

I will also confess that I’m not a huge fan of poetry.  I can appreciate the artistry of it, but it’s not typically a genre I’m drawn to.

So, what did I think of a collection of poems written by a guy whose writing I love?  In a word (or three): I loved it.

Deeply personal and contemplative, Andrew Turner taps into his own experiences and observations, and puts them into words that resonate with the human condition.  The sparse prose of this gorgeous little book touches on grief and longing, love, hope, and melancholy.  What comes through most of all is his devotion to his family.  This man has a way with words.

I hope he writes more, because I’ll read anything he writes.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

51pfzg0xtsl-_sx367_bo1204203200_News of the World

by Paulette Jiles

Whew!  I’m finishing up January with my seventh book read.  I’m on a roll!

News of the World tells the story of Captain Jefferson Kidd, a veteran of the Civil War.  Captain Kidd is somewhat of a loner, a grouchy old widower who is still plagued by memories of war, who prefers solitude to the company of people.  However, to make a living, he travels from town to town reading from newspapers to paying audiences.

During his travels, he crosses paths with a representative of the U.S. army who has in his custody a ten-year-old white girl recently recovered from the Kiowa Indian band that killed her family and captured her.  Captain Kidd is offered $50 to take the girl and return her to her relatives in Texas, an offer he grudgingly accepts.

Young Johanna has been so completely assimilated into her Kiowa family that she believes herself to be Kiowa.  She has forgotten her biological family, her native language, and all of the white people customs she was ripped away from as a young child.

Over their 400-mile trek to Texas, Joanna gradually learns to trust Captain Kidd, whom she begins to address as “Grandfather” in Kiowa.  For his part, Captain Kidd grows attached to and protective of this wild orphan girl.

When Johanna is finally reunited with her aunt and uncle in Texas, she is bewildered at being left by Captain Kidd, and her aunt and uncle are not exactly thrilled to have her thrust upon them.  With many reservations, Captain Kidd does leave Johanna with them; what choice does he have?  He was paid to carry out a task, and the duty must be fulfilled.  Besides, the cold, stern German couple are Johanna’s next of kin.

What follows, you will have to read the book and find out for yourself.

I really enjoyed this novel.  By turns tender and harrowing, it’s a fascinating portrait of a child captured by Indians who became completely assimilated into the tribe and forever considered herself Indian.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

1jlegv-so-9The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

by Gabrielle Zevin

A.J. Fikry is trying to drink himself to death – or at least drink himself comfortably numb.  His beloved wife died in a car accident not too long ago, and the bookstore they opened together in a small east coast island town is failing.  When things seem like they can’t possibly get any worse, an extremely rare and valuable collection of poems by Edgar Allen Poe that served as A.J.’s nest egg is stolen.

Soon after, A.J. makes a strange and wholly unexpected discovery: a baby has been left in his bookstore.  Accompanying the two-year-old girl, Maya, is a diaper bag and a note from her mother imploring A.J. to care for her, as she is unable to care for the babe any longer.  A.J. knows nothing about babies, nor is he particularly fond of babies or children, or even people for that matter (he’s kind of an asshole, but we forgive him because who wouldn’t be an asshole having been through what he’s been through?).  A search for the child’s mother is undertaken, but it’s short-lived, as she is soon found dead of an apparent suicide.  When it is time to turn Maya over to the authorities so that she can enter the foster system, A.J. can’t bring himself to turn her loose; he has quickly become attached and feels responsible for the girl.

As you would imagine, A.J.’s life begins to turn around when Maya enters his life, and what ensues is the sweet evolution of a deep father-daughter bond.  A.J. also pursues Amy, a sales rep for a small publishing company who once arrived at the bookstore, before Maya’s appearance, to pitch the winter book releases to him and was insulted and driven out by a rude and curmudgeonly A.J. in short order.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a very enjoyable book about loss, starting over, and the love of books.  I think it tries to be profound at times but doesn’t quite get there, but all in all a good read.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

28815371The Mothers

by Brit Bennett

This debut novel really got under my skin, and for days I’ve been trying to formulate a review that does it justice, and I’m still not sure I can.

Set in a black community in San Diego, California, the central character is Nadia Turner, who, at the beginning of the story is a seventeen-year-old high school senior whose life has recently been shattered by her mother’s violent suicide – which nobody saw coming.  Nadia’s father, a retired Marine, has retreated into quiet grief, and Nadia, in her own grief, becomes a wild girl who the rest of the parishioners at Upper Room Chapel whisper about.  Nadia enters a brief relationship with the reverend’s son, twenty-one-year old Luke Sheppard, whose ambitions to play pro football were dashed by a serious injury.  An unplanned pregnancy results, and the choice that is made, and how exactly that choice is handled by both Luke and Nadia, reverberates out into their close-knit community, and into their adult lives.  That summer – the summer Nadia quietly has an abortion, the summer before she is set to head off to college in Chicago on an academic scholarship – she finds unexpected solace in her blossoming friendship with Aubrey, a quiet, pious girl her age.  The two girls are opposite in almost every way, but they both throw themselves into a friendship that will bind them for many years.

The book’s title refers to a small group of elderly women, also from the Upper Room Chapel congregation, who collect all the prayer requests and meet regularly to pray together.  These women are the eyes and ears of this little community, and the story is narrated by them.  But more than them, the title refers to mothers who leave, mothers who stay, mothers who choose not to be mothers, and all the ways community members mother one another.

Bennett has created a vivid community, and Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are complex, none of them all good or all bad. I will say that I deeply hope that nobody reads this book and takes it as a cautionary tale about abortion, because I don’t think that’s the intent at all.  It’s neither a condemnation nor an endorsement of abortion, but rather an extremely intelligent and deeply felt story about loss, grief, family ties, community ties, ambition, and how the choices we make when we’re young can follow us in good and bad ways.

I really enjoyed this book; I think I’ll be thinking about it for a long time to come.