Judging only the cover*: Broken (review)

Broken
Lisa Jones
Scribner (2009)

As I drove through New Mexico on my trip this summer, I was struck by the signs–Leaving Nambe Pueblo; Entering Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo–and those ubiquitous green historical markers–Aqua Fria: a traditional historical community; Bandelier National Monument: home of the Cochiti; Captive Women and Children of Taos County.

This is very clearly a land proud of its heritage and its people.

But as my car slowed to wind through reservation land, I was struck (as many are) by the poverty. It seemed to me that we talked out of both sides of our mouth. “We honor the heritage of these Native peoples, but we really screwed them over … so we’ll honor the heritage of these Native peoples.” I visited the famous Taos Pueblo and saw the love our college-student guide had for his traditional way of life–but I felt like an intruder, traipsing through someone’s living room and gawking at their kitchen. Add to all this the fact that I know many in the New Age movement who have (in my mind at least) co-opted religious traditions and practices that don’t belong to them–and it seems like a kind of spiritual colonization.

Writer Lisa Jones wrote about one Native American, Stanford Addison, in her memoir titled Broken: A Love Story. And while she didn’t lay to rest any of the conflict I felt in New Mexico, she did speak eloquently to the incredible spirit that can transform even the most desperate circumstances–and in that very transformation come to heal others, including her. Through her eyes, I came to see New Mexico in a different light.

As a young man, Stan Addison lived life at full tilt. He boozed it up, used women shamelessly, and didn’t shy away from a good fight. That is until a truck accident left him first, near death, and finally, a quadriplegic. But even while he recovered in the hospital–even when he hadn’t yet accepted his fate–the spirits came to his side and made it clear: he could stay or he could go. But if he stayed, he had some compelling business to attend to. Stan wasn’t ready to leave quite yet, and he gradually came to understand that he was given some powerful medicine. And he was to share those gifts. He held sweat lodges and took on the pain of others so they could heal. Shared his visions. Warned off bad spirits. Gentled horses. Took in young men who needed the anchor he provided.

But that’s Stan Addison’s story.

And, yes, the story in Broken seems at first to be Stan’s–but it is, in the end, the story of Lisa Jones. Lisa grew up in a less-than-functional home. (This, despite the fact that her father was a psychiatrist.) When her parents divorced, meeting the emotional needs of three children wasn’t high on their list of priorities. But Lisa was smart, driven, and independent. A survivor. She became a successful journalist and lived a life of adventure. It was the Good Life. Except when it wasn’t. There were those nagging doubts. Feeling lost. The draw of commitment and its companion, the fear of being tied down. Uncertainty.

Like most 20th century educated professionals, Lisa disguised her fears quite well. Except Stan saw through her and her heart felt the pull of the man with incredible gifts. Lisa became the supplicant to Stan’s sage. So she returned to the sweat lodge over and over again. She listened to Stan’s stories. She argued. Questioned him for hours on end. She washed his hair, lit his cigarettes, and drove into town for his sodas. Cooked meals. Stan waited and Lisa learned–but not without unraveling even more emotional pain.

And that’s what I failed to keep in mind as I drove through New Mexico–I was outside looking in. My eyes saw what might have been material poverty, but they failed to see the richness of spirit.  I wasn’t privy to the private lives of Native peoples or their spiritual practices–but Lisa Jones was when one very extraordinary human being welcomed her into his circle, and I am grateful she shared her story with us in Broken. 

 


* When I looked over the art on the both the hardcover  and paperback of Broken I so. totally. misjudged the book, actually passing it over a few times. (Isn’t there some saying about that … ?) The cover art was rather … romantic … and then there was the subtitle “a love story”. I convinced myself I wouldn’t like the book (I was thinking shades of Horse Whisperer) until I actually read the back cover blurb. I finished the book in just under two days. ‘Nuff said about that whole ‘book by its cover’ thing. How fitting that my first drive through New Mexico left me feeling similar.

A Fan Favorite: Catherine Ryan Hyde (review)

Heaven Adjacent
Catherine Ryan Hyde
Lake Union Publishing
June 2018

Heaven AdjacentWith over thirty books, Catherine Ryan Hyde’s fan base is deep. There are probably few who don’t remember the movie Pay It Forward which is based on her book by the same title; her novel Take Me With You is a favorite of mine. Hyde is a story-teller, plain and simple–her novels may not be high art, but the stories are compelling. Heaven Adjacent is no different.

Manhattan lawyer Roseanna Chaldecott has walked away from everything: her established law firm, apartment in the city, friends, and family. With the clothes on her back and a few things thrown in the back of her Maserati, she heads for the hills (literally) and runs out of gas next to a piece of property with a FOR SALE sign posted in the yard. The house (if you can call it that) is barely two rooms, unheated save for a wood stove. There’s an even smaller out-building and an unoccupied barn. Perfect for someone who wants to escape from the stress of modern life–for someone who wants quiet. Peace. Freedom. And little, if any, human interaction.

Except that’s hardly how it played out for Roseanna.

Before she knew it, Roseanna has a young veteran camping in the woods by the creek, a mother and her five-year-old daughter squatting in the out-building, and an elderly man living on her Adirondack retreat. Her estranged son shows up on her doorstep. Add a dog and an old horse and you see how things weren’t going as she planned.

Roseanna fled New York broken-hearted and shaken: her best friend and law partner Alice died of a massive stroke at fifty-three. Alice, like Roseanna, was working full tilt, waiting for the day she could retire. And then … gone. The work? The sacrifice? All for nothing. Roseanna becomes an evangelist, of sorts, nudging others to ask themselves: am I really happy? As you can imagine, that peace and quiet suddenly becomes less and less important, and Roseanna’s relationships with Nelson and Patty and Willa and Martin and Lance become what she was seeking all along.

I had only one reservation. Hyde seems, at times, to use Roseanna as her own mouthpiece, and it comes off a bit didactic, even though fitting with the story. I want my characters to be human beings in their own right, not the writer’s proxy. But because I loved the story, I could forgive that flaw.

When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air
Paul Kalanithi
Random House

when breath becomes airSo much has been written about Paul Kalanithi’s meditation on living and dying When Breath Becomes Air–reviews in every newspaper and magazine, a Super Soul short by Oprah, NPR interviews, a TED talk. What more could I possibly add?

Not much.

Kalanithi does with words what he did as a surgeon–takes two pieces seemingly torn apart and stitches them seamlessly together. As a surgeon he removed brain tumors and fixed broken spines, then sewed muscle to muscle and skin to skin so that the patient was once again all of a piece. As a writer he took an idea that frightens many–death–and connected his past and present, bringing the reader to understand that death does not separate us from our lives, but instead merely moves us along a kind of continuum. In her Ted Talk, Kalanithi’s widow, Lucy, recites the poem “Separation” by W. S. Merwin: Your absence has gone through me/Like thread through a needle/Everything I do is stitched with its color. I can only hope that it may be so for my loved ones.

Strange that I read When Breath Becomes Air only three days into my retirement. Such an event is frought with thoughts of mortality and life’s work and self-worth. I’ve most likely lived, at best, two-thirds of my life already. And I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that some days that remaining slice of the pie seems terribly small.

I could also say that Kalanithi wasn’t so lucky.

Or I could say he was the luckiest man alive–because Paul Kalanithi experienced a marvelous grace that enabled him to live a good death.

I love fat books and I cannot lie: Dietland (review)

Diet Land
Sarai Walker
Mariner

There may not be a woman in the Western world who hasn’t, at one time or another, had an issue with her weight. I know I have. For years I was too skinny. Then just right. Finally got a little-meat-on-my-bones okay. Putting-on-some pounds-better-watch-it. Downright overweight. Plenty has been written about The Struggle.

In her first novel, Dietland, writer Sarai Walker dives head first into empowerment and body image. (For women, that is. Do men even think twice this stuff?) Before I get too far into writing about Dietland, let me say it’s not for everyone. Walker’s characters curse plenty and slang is used instead of proper anatomical terms. There are descriptions of porn and a little self-pleasuring goes on. There’s also some pretty graphic descriptions of men who have been kidnapped and murdered. So this is where you decide whether or not to bail or read on. But unfiltered though it may be, Dietland covers some important territory.

Plum Kettle has tried it all since she was sixteen. Waist Watchers.  A famous diet of frozen meals and pills supplemented with meetings of evangelical proportion, called the Baptist Plan after founder Euylayla Baptist. Nothing has worked. Now pushing thirty, Plum is awaiting bariatric surgery. She’s apprehensive, but after a life of dieting, willing to take the risk. Plum works from home answering emails for a ‘tween beauty magazine Daisy Chain, spending hours a day responding to girls’ questions about cutting, small breasts, creepy stepbrothers, and more. When editor Kitty Montgomery calls her into the office one morning, Plum falls into a rabbit hole of revolutionary feminists whose goal is to bring the system down. Some of the revolutionaries are social justice workers with a positive, albeit radical, outlook–and others, not so much. (Which is where the kidnapping, murder, and dismembering–usually with the emphasis on “member”–of those men comes into play.)

Plum’s first awakening is to let go of her obsession with food–instigated by an offer of $20,000 if she follows a transformative “diet” plan suggested by Verena Baptist, daughter of the late weight loss guru. Plum finds community at a women’s cooperative. She sleeps (and eats) a lot. She develops a fashion style. Plum, like so many women who finally come to terms with their bodies, recognizes she needs to change from the inside out.

Walker alternates the stories of the characters’ present with their past–and we discover that even the women who resort to violence are driven by our culture’s misogynist response to them. Dietland is a difficult book to read in many ways–one that tells the truth, but tells is slant, as Miss Emily Dickinson would say.

If you’d like to pair your reading of Walker’s fiction with a good memoir, be sure to read Half-Assed by Jennette Fulda. Plum and her feminist band would love Fulda’s honesty, wit, and sass–I know I did.

So there you have it. Feminism and weight loss are not mutually exclusive. I know–because when my own weight loss was an inside job it was empowering, not repressive.

You’ll look sweet upon the seat: Hello, Bicycle (review)

Hello Bicycle (Blogging For Books)
Anna Brones
Ten Speed Press

Six years ago I treated myself to a new bicycle. I read reviews, talked with biking friends, browsed online, and finally went to a local bike shop to make my purchase. It was the Real Deal: a shiny black and chrome city bike. I was in love. Twice a week I rode two miles to the Farmer’s Market, packed up my saddle baskets with goodies, and pedaled back home.  I biked to the library. To neighborhood association meetings. And sometimes up to a nearby technical high school just to delight in the winding roads of their campus.

This little gem by Anna Brones, Hello, Bicycle: an inspired guide to the two-wheeled life, makes me long for those lazy summer days when I can get pedaling once again. The book definitely isn’t for the snooty serious rider–those spandexed, be-numbered riders with calves of steel who hunch over handlebars like it’s the Tour de France. Rather, it’s for the rider who might still be a bit daunted riding in traffic and is just getting used to having helmet hair. Hello, Bicycle is like sitting down with a chatty friend who has a few good tips to share. You know, the kind of friend whose enthusiasm is so catching you can’t resist joining their latest adventure.

There are tips I’d put in the everyday advice column: wear a helmet, pack a rain jacket, use bike lanes. And then Brones turns into that chatty friend I mentioned. She oh-so-casually-like-it’s-no-big-deal writes about touring and slow rolls and S240s. Before you know it, I have the Peterson’s Official S240 Packing List” asterisked, as well as arrows drawn on the page “Pantry and Kitchen Essentials for Cyclists.” Who do I think I am?! My longest ride has been all of five miles. But that’s just it–Brones makes it seem doable for even the novice cyclist. Add James Gulliver Hancock’s cute illustrations and catchy graphics, and Hello, Bicycle is both a how-to manual and an inspirational all-in-one. (The photos on this post are from the illustrators website.)

In my own Great Lake state, we’ve put winter behind us. The robins arrived a few weeks ago, and days have lengthened. The snow is long gone (we hope!) and the littlest bit of sunshine has us swapping out our down jackets for windbreakers. I’ve a mind to take my bike out of winter storage this weekend. Hello, Bicycle would be the perfect gift for Someone Special who is thinking about getting back in the saddle seat or who has that new bicycle and is ready to roll.