mini-review · stuff I read

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
Called the work of “a mesmerizing storyteller with deep compassion and memorable prose” (Publishers Weekly) and the book that, “anyone interested in natural history, botany, protecting nature, or Native American culture will love,” by Library Journal, Braiding Sweetgrass is poised to be a classic of nature writing. As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer asks questions of nature with the tools of science. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces indigenous teachings that consider plants and animals to be our oldest teachers. Kimmerer brings these two lenses of knowledge together to take “us on a journey that is every bit as mythic as it is scientific, as sacred as it is historical, as clever as it is wise” (Elizabeth Gilbert). Drawing on her life as an indigenous scientist, a mother, and a woman, Kimmerer shows how other living beings offer us gifts and lessons, even if we’ve forgotten how to hear their voices.

Braiding Sweetgrass is one of the most profound, moving books I have ever read. I read it twice through cover-to-cover. Kimmerer seamlessly twines together the scientific rigor of botany and ecology and the spiritual beliefs and practices of the Potawatomi to make the case that humanity should work in concert with the natural world to be good caretakers of the earth and work to reverse some of the scars we’ve left behind us. Some essays are more fluidly narrative, telling of creation stories or of memories from when her daughters were small (the maple syrup story is a favorite). Others take a more businesslike tone, with Kimmerer as teacher.

If you’ve read Terry Tempest Williams or Annie Dillard, or even Rachel Carson though Kimmerer doesn’t go in for the shock value, then Braiding Sweetgrass is a step along the same path, but with a different way of walking.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

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stuff I read

There There by Tommy Orange

36692478Summary from Goodreads:
Fierce, angry, funny, heartbreaking—Tommy Orange’s first novel is a wondrous and shattering portrait of an America few of us have ever seen, and it introduces a brilliant new author at the start of a major career.

There There is a relentlessly paced multigenerational story about violence and recovery, memory and identity, and the beauty and despair woven into the history of a nation and its people. It tells the story of twelve characters, each of whom have private reasons for traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind in shame. Dene Oxendene is pulling his life back together after his uncle’s death and has come to work at the powwow to honor his uncle’s memory. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield has come to watch her nephew Orvil, who has taught himself traditional Indian dance through YouTube videos and has come to the powwow to dance in public for the very first time. There will be glorious communion, and a spectacle of sacred tradition and pageantry. And there will be sacrifice, and heroism, and unspeakable loss.

Here is a voice we have never heard—a voice full of poetry and rage, exploding onto the page with stunning urgency and force. Tommy Orange writes of the urban Native American, the Native American in the city, in a stunning novel that grapples with a complex and painful history, with an inheritance of beauty and profound spirituality, and with a plague of addiction, abuse, and suicide. An unforgettable debut, destined to become required reading in schools and universities across the country.

There There leapt out of the computer screen at me when I pulled up the new list of Barnes and Noble Discover picks for Summer 2018. The cover is striking and is a good play with Orange’s last name. But it was the above blurb that had me looking for a galley of this novel immediately.

There There is an amazing debut novel. Orange’s writing very quietly devastated me over the course of 300 pages; relentless, yes, but quiet. I don’t want to say his style is plain, because it’s not, but it doesn’t beat around the bush. It reminds me a lot of Toni Morrison at times. Orange has created a beautiful non-linear novel told through a cast of characters struggling with identity, what it means to “be” Indian, what it means to be an urban Indian, family, legacy, faith, and substance abuse. How does “community” work when everyone else like you is spread out around a city like Oakland, California? How are traditions kept alive, particularly in the face of apathy or active suppression? The book culminates in an act of violence foreshadowed over the course of the narrative.

An instant, necessary classic of 21st century literature.

There There is available today, wherever books are sold.

Dear FTC: I almost tackled the manager when we got a galley in the mail at the store.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · Reading Women · stuff I read

Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot

35840657Summary from Goodreads:

Selected by Emma Watson as the Our Shared Shelf Book Club Pick for March/April 2018

“Heart Berries by Terese Mailhot is an astounding memoir in essays. Here is a wound. Here is need, naked and unapologetic. Here is a mountain woman, towering in words great and small… What Mailhot has accomplished in this exquisite book is brilliance both raw and refined.” ―Roxane Gay, author of Hunger

Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder and bipolar II disorder; Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma. The triumphant result is Heart Berries, a memorial for Mailhot’s mother, a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners; a story of reconciliation with her father―an abusive drunk and a brilliant artist―who was murdered under mysterious circumstances; and an elegy on how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.

Mailhot trusts the reader to understand that memory isn’t exact, but melded to imagination, pain, and what we can bring ourselves to accept. Her unique and at times unsettling voice graphically illustrates her mental state. As she writes, she discovers her own true voice, seizes control of her story, and, in so doing, reestablishes her connection to her family, to her people, and to her place in the world.

“A sledgehammer. . . . Her experiments with structure and language . . . are in the service of trying to find new ways to think about the past, trauma, repetition and reconciliation, which might be a way of saying a new model for the memoir.” ―Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

“I am quietly reveling in the profundity of Mailhot’s deliberate transgression in Heart Berries and its perfect results. I love her suspicion of words. I have always been terrified and in awe of the power of words – but Mailhot does not let them silence her in Heart Berries. She finds the purest way to say what she needs to say… [T]he writing is so good it’s hard not to temporarily be distracted from the content or narrative by its brilliance…Perhaps, because this author so generously allows us to be her witness, we are somehow able to see ourselves more clearly and become better witnesses to ourselves.” ―Emma Watson, Official March/April selection for Our Shared Shelf

I don’t know what got into Spring 2018 publishing, but Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot is another knock-it-out-of-the-park book. I cannot even begin to tell you how beautiful and heartbreaking this slim memoir actually is (and I mean slim – barely 150 pages). Mailhot’s use of contrasting style and tone is perfection. Her critique of how Native women’s language is taken from them and twisted is breathtaking. An early forerunner for best memoir of the year.

My only critique is that the extra-textual information contained in the flap copy above really does not figure directly into the narrative that Mailhot is working through in this book.  Details flit around the periphery. The reader has to work to piece everything together, right along with Mailhot. And I don’t think the extra-textuals are needed because then we spend the whole book searching for the matching details.

If you are following #metoo, Sherman Alexie did provide an Introduction to this book (not sure if it will stay for future editions/printings). But it really adds nothing to the book. If he bothers you, you can safely skip it, read Mailhot’s writing, and then read the Afterword by Joan Naviyuk Kane, which is a Q&A with Mailhot and amazing.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book because YES.

mini-review · stuff I read

Whereas by Layli Long Soldier

29875897Summary from Goodreads:
The astonishing, powerful debut by the winner of a 2016 Whiting Writers’ Award

WHEREAS her birth signaled the responsibility as mother to teach what it is to be Lakota therein the question: What did I know about being Lakota? Signaled panic, blood rush my embarrassment. What did I know of our language but pieces? Would I teach her to be pieces? Until a friend comforted, Don’t worry, you and your daughter will learn together. Today she stood sunlight on her shoulders lean and straight to share a song in Diné, her father’s language. To sing she motions simultaneously with her hands; I watch her be in multiple musics.

—from “WHEREAS Statements”

WHEREAS confronts the coercive language of the United States government in its responses, treaties, and apologies to Native American peoples and tribes, and reflects that language in its officiousness and duplicity back on its perpetrators. Through a virtuosic array of short lyrics, prose poems, longer narrative sequences, resolutions, and disclaimers, Layli Long Soldier has created a brilliantly innovative text to examine histories, landscapes, her own writing, and her predicament inside national affiliations. “I am,” she writes, “a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, meaning I am a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation—and in this dual citizenship I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.” This strident, plaintive book introduces a major new voice in contemporary literature.

WHEREAS poetry should not only exist as easily digestible sound bites there exists Layli Long Soldier’s collection Whereas – which is beautiful, and heartbreaking, and absolutely one of the best books of 2017. Long Soldier takes the language of the official “apology” to Native Americans from the US government and proceeds to shred the complacency and racism of that same document as well as all previous treaties and “apologies” made to Native American and other indigenous tribes over time. The poem “38”, which ends the first section, is a masterwork and destroyed me for days after reading it.

I’m pulling for this one at the National Book Awards this month.

Dear FTC: I read My Own Damn copy of this book.