She Reads & Writes

Women • Fiction • Life

“Like swallows, like salmon, we were the helpless captives of our migratory patterns. We pretended that what we had lost was the house, not our mother, not our father. We pretended that what we had lost had been taken from us by the person who still lived inside…” – Danny in The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House was one of my favorite listens in 2019. I felt this book and it will stick with me. Ann Patchett‘s lyrical writing and Tom Hanks’ confident narration is a powerful duo. I could see the characters and the house clearly. I could feel what the characters were going through. If you’ve considered giving audiobooks a try, this may be a good one to start with since the skill of the narrator makes a huge difference in your listening experience.

In the novel, two siblings named Maeve and Danny, are incredibly close due to their mother leaving home when they are 10 and 3, respectively. Maeve does her best to fill in as a mother and take care of her little brother Danny, while the father is more focused on his work than his children.

Their mother’s abandonment is felt more by Maeve than Danny, since Danny was so young when his mother left he doesn’t even remember the woman.

“I had a mother who left when I was a child. I didn’t miss her. Maeve was there, with her red coat and her black hair, standing at the bottom of the stairs, the white marble floor with the little black squares, the snow coming down in glittering sheets in the windows behind her, the windows as wide as a movie screen, the ship in the waves of the grandfather clock rocking the minutes away.” – Danny in The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

There comes a point when the father remarries and in classic wicked stepmother fashion, the father’s new wife is trouble and kicks Maeve and Danny out of their home after their father dies unexpectedly.

The two characters spend years wallowing in their hatred of their stepmother, regularly parking outside of the Dutch House and putting salt in their own wounds as they rehash the past and despise the woman.

“Like swallows, like salmon, we were the helpless captives of our migratory patterns. We pretended that what we had lost was the house, not our mother, not our father. We pretended that what we had lost had been taken from us by the person who still lived inside…” – Danny in The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

It’s a classic case of psychological projection, where the two are putting all of their unhappy feelings onto one woman, their stepmother, rather than processing their real pain. Sure, she wasn’t the best, but she truly wasn’t the worst either.

The novel asks if we can ever see the past clearly.

The novel asks if we can ever see the past clearly. If it’s even possible to see the past as it actually was. At one point Maeve claims she does, but Danny knows better:

“We overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.” – Danny in The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

I’m always fascinated with the passing of time and our memories. How we build things up in our minds, make our own mythologies that suit us best. Two people can go through the exact same thing and remember it so, so differently. We can even remember the same memory wildly differently throughout the stages of our lives.

This book had me thinking a lot on how important it is to process our pain and learn from our past, but to not make an idol of it either. There’s simply no point in dwelling on things, but to ignore our own experiences causes trouble as well. Like most parts of being human, it’s tricky business and calls for balance. Easier said than done, but a worthwhile goal.

This book had me thinking a lot on how important it is to process our pain and learn from our past, but to not make an idol of it either.

Have you read this or any other novel by Ann Patchett? Thoughts? I read Bel Canto years ago and definitely plan to read more of her works now!


Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Dracula by Bram Stoker on a Kindle Paperwhite.

“All three [women] had brilliant white teeth that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips. There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips.” – Jonathan Harker in Dracula by Bram Stoker

In the spirit of Halloween and Victober (search #victober on Instagram!), I finally read Dracula by Bram Stoker. It was forever on my TBR list and I’m glad I finally got to it. Vampires, wolves, castles, and tombs – the novel did not disappoint and was the perfect October read.

One thing that did get on my nerves while reading was the character Professor Abraham Van Helsing going on and on about how perfect the character Mina Harker was. This also annoyed a cousin of mine who was reading it at the same time. When she sent me a text venting her frustrations, I had to give it some more thought.

In a lot of ways, through the never-ending praise of Van Helsing, Stoker presents Mina as “the angel in the house,” a very Victorian notion of a woman being perfectly pure and saintly. Even if married, they are presented, among many qualities, as chaste, or at most, only sexual beings for reproductive needs. Definitely not for pleasure.

The thing is, Victorian England was very prim and proper, even prudish, about sex. Some say they even covered up table legs so as not to cause offence! However, prostitution was a very real problem at the time…so they weren’t as squeaky clean as their customs and literature claimed to be.

The thing is, Victorian England was very prim and proper, even prudish, about sex…However, prostitution was a very real problem at the time…

There are three vampire sisters who show up in Chapter Three of the novel who are very sexually aggressive and enticing. Since they are vampires, they are unarguably meant to be read as bad (Dracula is NOT Twilight). Therefore, it can be read that women with sexual desires are monstrous, like the three sisters, and women like Mina are to be admired.

It can be read that women with sexual desires are monstrous…

It would be very easy to say that this thinking perfectly captures the Victorian period and leave it at that. In some ways, we’ve become much, much more enlightened in the 21st century when it comes to female sexuality. Yet, in other ways, our culture still finds a way to shame any woman who isn’t “the angel of the house.”

Our culture still finds a way to shame any woman who isn’t “the angel of the house.”

Have you read Dracula? Did you ever consider what the novel has to say about women and their sexuality? Now that you have, do you agree with the reading? Or see it differently? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!


Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

“Spider Woman, the Holy Person who taught the Navajo to weave and gave the Hero Twins the weapons they needed to begin their quest to find their father the Sun and to rid the world of monsters.” – Bernie in Spider Woman’s Daughter by Anne Hillerman

October’s read for the book club I’m in was Anne Hillerman’s Spider Woman’s Daughter. What I enjoyed about this book was Hillerman’s descriptions of Navajo country and culture. It reminded me of some road trips I’ve taken between Michigan and California, and taught me some new information about Navajo folklore, weaving, and pottery. I’ve always thought Navajo rugs were impressive, so it was interesting to learn about Spider Woman, who traditionally taught the Navajo to weave.

My smart and lovely mother, Natalie (in the picture above), was the hostess. She had fun with the theme and with help from my brother provided a tasty Navajo meal for us, including homemade fry bread and beef stew. It was a delicious meal!

October’s meeting was also special because it was my daughter’s first book club meeting – at six weeks old! Gotta get them started reading young. 🙂

What do you know about Navajo culture? Have you ever visited Navajo Nation? Or taken cross country road trips at all?


Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

My six aunties threw the most wonderful baby shower for me when I was pregnant with my husband and I’s first child. That was two years ago at this point, but I didn’t have this blog then – so sharing now. It was an absolutely adorable shower that made my bookish heart very happy. Such a fun and creative theme!

Bookish food!

Bookish table settings!

And of course, lots of books! Any of your favorite children’s books in the photo above?


Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

The novel The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter by Hazel Gaynor on a Kindle laying on top of a blanket with the state of Michigan on it in black and white.

“Is there in the whole field of history, or of fiction even, one instance of female heroism to compare for one moment with this?” – The Times, September 19, 1838

In a tired haze, I downloaded the ebook of The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter by Hazel Gaynor from my public library. I was about half way into a 2am nursing session with my newborn daughter and I wanted to start reading something I hadn’t heard of. The cover and title of this book caught my eye – and I’m glad it did.

It caught my eye because as a Michigander who also resided in California for a couple of years, I’ve always lived five to 30 minutes from a large body of water: Lake Michigan or the Pacific Ocean. As long as I can remember I’ve had an interest in water, the beach, coastal towns, marine biology, and all things maritime, including lighthouses. I honestly don’t think I could live further from a large body of water. It would feel wrong.

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter is a work of historical fiction. It introduced me to Grace Darling and a few other women lighthouse keepers from the past, such as “the American Grace Darling,” Ida Lewis. Grace helped her parents keep the Longstone Lighthouse on one of the Farne Islands (a group of islands off the coast of England) in the 1800s.

While women were not allowed to be lighthouse keeper’s in England at the time, Grace helped her father regularly in his official duties. Not surprising to the 21st century reader, Grace was quite capable of keeping the lighthouse despite her gender. To the 19th century citizen, this simple fact was hard to comprehend.

So when a 23-year-old Grace spotted the Forfarshire wreck and helped her father rescue nine survivors amidst a raging storm, the world was astonished. Almost overnight Grace became famous. Her heroism inspired poems, ballads, and plays, as well as many grandiose news stories and statements about Grace, such as this from The Times:

“Is there in the whole field of history, or of fiction even, one instance of female heroism to compare for one moment with this?”

The public’s response shows how little it expected from women, and possibly an underlying hope that women could do and be more than society was currently prescribing. For while Grace’s act truly was heroic, she certainly was not, nor would remain, the only woman to do a heroic deed.

In the novel, an American character named Matilda is reading through some literature found in an old chest about brave women lighthouse keeper’s of the past.

“For women whose lives were expected to remain as rigid and tightly laced as the corsets that stole their breath from their lungs, I’m surprised to learn how readily they stepped beyond the conventions of society and took on the jobs their fathers and husbands had once done.” – Matilda in The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter by Hazel Gaynor

This, and the entire novel, inspired me to do some of my own research on women lighthouse keeper’s of the Great Lakes. Happily, I found the Coast Guard blog post Illuminating the Way: Women Lighthouse Keepers of the Great Lakes.

“[In 1832] women started making history on the Great Lakes by becoming federal-employed lighthouse keepers…Many years before women had the ability to vote in the United States, these female lighthouse keepers not only had federally appointed jobs, but they received equal pay.” – Illuminating the Way post by by PA3 L. Laughlin

The post also has some photos, log book entries, and a list of women’s names who served as lighthouse keeper’s on the Great Lakes in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Check it out!

I find it fascinating and inspiring to learn about women doing what was once the unexpected. Historical fiction is such a fun way to be introduced to these stories.

I find it fascinating and inspiring to learn about women doing what was once the unexpected.

Are you inspired to learn more about women lighthouse keepers? Have you been inspired by women in another historical fiction novel? Let me know in the comments below!


Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Kindle Paperwhite showing the cover of the novel Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery

“It was very dark. The rain was beating down over the shivering fields. The Haunted Woods was full of the growns of mighty trees wrung in the tempest, and the air throbbed with the thunderous crash of billows on the distant shore. And Gilbert was dying!” – In Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Spoiler alert: Anne with an “E” and Gilbert Blythe are made for each other – just in case anyone out there hasn’t read the books, seen the 1985 drama, or watched the current series on Netflix.

While it’s obvious to readers and everyone in Avonlea alike, it takes our beloved Anne quite some time to realize she is in love with Gilbert. In fact, it takes until Chapter 40 of the third book in the Anne series, Anne of the Island. She finds out that Gilbert is dying of typhoid fever and is devastated to realize it may be too late to confess her love to him.

It struck me while reading that this fortieth chapter is a great example of the pathetic fallacy at work. What do I mean by pathetic fallacy? It’s a device where an author or director attributes human emotions to inanimate objects or nature. For instance, weather is often used to portray or reflect the mood of a human character.

What do I mean by pathetic fallacy? It’s a device where an author or director attributes human emotions to inanimate objects or nature.

When Anne first learns Gilbert is dying, she spends the night in despair and the weather matches her turmoil and sorrow:

“It was very dark. The rain was beating down over the shivering fields. The Haunted Woods was full of the growns of mighty trees wrung in the tempest, and the air throbbed with the thunderous crash of billows on the distant shore. And Gilbert was dying!” – In Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Then in the morning, Anne wakes with hope and anticipation of news about Gilbert and the weather again matches her mood:

“The storm raged all night, but when the dawn came it was spent. Anne saw a fairy fringe of light on the skirts of darkness. Soon the eastern hilltops had a fire-shot ruby rim. The clouds rolled themselves away into great, soft, white masses on the horizon; the sky gleamed blue and silvery. A hush fell over the world.” – In Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery

And finally, when Anne hears that Gilbert will live after all, the weather and all of nature rejoices along with her:

“Anne stood under the willows, tasting the poignant sweetness of life when some great dread has been removed from it. The morning was a cup filled with mist and glamor. In the corner near her was a rich surprise of new-blown, crystal-dewed roses. The trills and trickles of song from the birds in the big tree above her seemed in perfect accord with her mood.” – In Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery

This device works especially well in the Anne series because Anne is so melodramatic; it’s part of why the world has fallen in love with the character since Lucy Maud Montgomery published Anne of Green Gables in 1908.

This device works especially well in the Anne series because Anne is so melodramatic.

Anne is so melodramatic and full of romance that when she is going through a rough patch she, humorously, finds romance in a world seemingly lacking romance:

“‘I’ve tried the world – it wears no more / The coloring of romance it wore,’ sighed Anne – and was straightaway much comforted by the romance in the idea of the world being denuded of romance!” – In Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery

With a passionate soul like that, no wonder the weather meets her moods!

Have you ever noticed the pathetic fallacy being used in books and movies? Do you think this device works well? Can it be overdone? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Kindle Paperwhite showing cover of Kate Morton's novel The Lake House

“The key to the perfect novel, Alice had decided, was to revolve the story around a crime’s solution, all the while tricking the reader by making it seem she was doing one thing when in fact she was merrily doing another.” – The Lake House by Kate Morton

It’s safe to say that Kate Morton is my favorite author. I first read her book The Distant Hours a few years ago for my long-running book club (15 years!) and have now read all of her novels save one. I have The Clockmaker’s Daughter left to read only because I’ve somehow had the self-control to spread reading her six novels out. They have never disappointed and I dread the day when I have to just wait, who knows for how long, for another one of her books to be published!

Why do I love Kate Morton’s work so much? Because I’m a big fan of the Romantic and Gothic genres that she writes in. What do I mean? In the smallest of nutshells:

  • Romanticism = A response to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. It hit the scene around 1800 and focused on heightened emotion; such as passion, awe, sensibility, and horror; as well as nature’s sublime landscape.
  • Gothic Literature = An emergence from Romanticism. It focused on horror, the uncanny, death, mystery, fear, the supernatural, and the occult.

Why do I love Kate Morton’s work so much? Because I’m a big fan of the Romantic and Gothic genres that she writes in.

There are lots of similarities and crossovers between the two genres, but I don’t want to dive that deep into them here. Some of their commonalities that I appreciate the most are:

  • A preoccupation with literacy (books, journals, letters, poems!)
  • A reverence, even fear, for nature (dark and magical woodlands or garden landscapes to explore!)
  • An investigation and celebration of the self (a hero’s quest, a soul searching adventure!)
  • Unnerving man-made atmospheres (old castles and abandoned homes with secret passageways!)

And Morton’s The Lake House has all of the above! PLUS, (as the discussion questions in the back of the book pointed out to me) it has the added twist of working in common elements of crime fiction. Morton accomplishes this by having two of her main characters work in fields relating to crime: Sadie Sparrow is a detective and Alice Edevane is a crime novelist.

The mixing of these genres worked out incredibly well in The Lake House. I was completely pulled into the criminal cases Morton laid before her reader and was terribly disappointed when the book was over, although more than satisfied with the cases’ conclusions. There’s an abandoned house, overgrown gardens, journals, letters, and two unsolved mysteries and I was intrigued by them all from the beginning of the story.

There’s an abandoned house, overgrown gardens, journals, letters, and two unsolved mysteries and I was intrigued by them all from the beginning of the story.

Have you read any of Kate Morton’s works? Or any contemporary works that could fall into the Gothic or Romantic categories? I’d love to hear your thoughts and get some reading recommendations in the comments below!


Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite audiobook from the Grand Rapids Public Library on an iPhone.

“It’s because she is beautiful, you know. That’s all it is. They don’t really care about the rest of it. She gets a pass at life.” – Korede about her sister Ayoola in My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Nigeria, West Africa. A little sister who, literally, gets away with murder. That’s Ayoola. An older sister that complains about her little sister’s behavior, but enables it. That’s Korede.

Ayoola doesn’t have a job. She has no idea how to cook or bake, not even at the basics-you-should-know-just-to-keep-yourself-alive-level of cooking. She never considers the thoughts or feelings of those around her. And she repeatedly has to kill her boyfriends in proclaimed self-defense, acts she begs her older sister to help her clean and cover up.

“Maybe she is reaching out because she has sent another man to his grave prematurely. Or maybe she wants to know if I can buy eggs on the way home. Either way, I’m not picking up.” – Korede about Ayoola in My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Except Korede always, in one way or another, does “pick up” and help her sister. She complains and worries over Ayoola’s psychopathic behavior, but she never does much to prevent it from happening again. Why? Because blood is thicker than water? That certainly plays a role in the story, especially when considering some instances of abuse that happened to the sisters when they were children. There seems to be more to it than that, though.

Korede repeatedly comments on Ayoola’s good looks, fashion sense, and alluring ways. She also often bemoans how these things allow Ayoola to be irresponsible.

“It’s because she is beautiful, you know. That’s all it is. They don’t really care about the rest of it. She gets a pass at life.” – Korede about Ayoola in My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Yet, Korede gives her sister “a pass at life,” too. Always defending her and staying by her side, even when it is madness to do so.

Which leaves me to think Oyinkan Braithwaite‘s My Sister, the Serial Killer is a satire using dark humor and exaggeration to point out society’s obsession with outward appearances. Sure, most of us wouldn’t go along with murder because someone is attractive, BUT we’ve certainly gone along with something we shouldn’t have. None of us are innocent.

Sure, most of us wouldn’t go along with murder because someone is attractive, BUT we’ve certainly gone along with something we shouldn’t have. None of us are innocent.

If we’re honest with ourselves, what have we done or not done because we were impressed by someone else’s outward appearance? Let them get away with cruel words? Assigned them extra value as a human being? Took their opinion more seriously than we should have? I could go on and on with possibilities.

These actions make no logical sense as a response to someone’s good looks, but the human heart isn’t always logical. We’re all guilty of these or similar transgressions at some point in our lives, and as we see in this novel, these misdeeds are absurd.

Our goal then should not be to deny and hide the ugly behavior like Korede and Ayoola, but to acknowledge our mistakes and to learn from them. We should strive to always be less influenced by the external and more influenced by the internal – no matter how hard our beauty obsessed society may make that to be.

We should strive to always be less influenced by the external and more influenced by the internal – no matter how hard our beauty obsessed society may make that to be.

Thoughts? About the satirical nature of this book or otherwise? Let me know in the comments below!


Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

piles of books in shallow focus

“No one should ever finish a book they’re not enjoying, no matter how popular or well reviewed the book is.” – Nancy Pearl: Best-selling author, librarian, literary critic, and reader

I used to have the hardest time not finishing a book. I could be thoroughly disliking the novel, but still carry on until the last page.

On the one hand was a sense of guilt: Toward the author who poured themselves into writing it, toward the friend who recommended it, or the book club that would be gathering to discuss it. On the other hand was a sense of obligation: “Finish what you started” is a mantra we’ve all had spoken at or to us growing up.

And while certainly we need the strength of character it takes to see unpleasant tasks to the end (otherwise being a responsible adult will prove impossible), reading fiction should not be an unpleasant task.

Reading fiction should not be an unpleasant task.

Unless you’re reading a work of fiction as part of a class assignment or job responsibility, there is no reason whatsoever to finish a book that you don’t care to finish. Life is too short for that and the free time to read is too scarce.

Motherhood changed my perspective on reading and gave me the freedom to put a book I dislike down. Pulled in more directions than ever, with still only 24 hours in a day, I simply refuse to carry on with a book that feels like a chore. I have enough chores. Reading is one of my greatest joys in life and I plan to keep it that way.

I simply refuse to carry on with a book that feels like a chore. I have enough chores. Reading is one of my greatest joys in life and I plan to keep it that way.

Sometimes this even means putting down a good book. Case in point: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell. This is a good book that I was so excited to read and am about half way through. The writing is incredible and I want to read it, BUT I just don’t seem to have the brain power for the epic length and nature of the novel right now. This just might have something to do with me being 37 weeks pregnant.

No matter how good The Old Drift is, the book has started to feel like a chore. So I’m putting it down. Maybe I’ll tackle it again later – I truly hope so – but now is not the time. And that’s okay.

Have you, or do you still, struggle with putting a book down once you’ve started it? Or have you always been able to move on if a book doesn’t work for you? Let us know in the comments!

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.


Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng Hardcover Book on glass tabletop with red journal and blue pen outside

“I think you can’t imagine. Why anyone would choose a different life from the one you’ve got. Why anyone might want something other than a big house with a big lawn, a fancy car, a job in an office. Why anyone would choose anything different than what you’d choose.” – Mia to Elena in Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

I LOVE this book! The characters are rich and believable, the story line is thought-provoking, and the writing isn’t too dense to read before bed.

Also, as a pregnant woman with an almost two year old son, the novel’s investigation of motherhood was poignant as I’ve transitioned into being a mother myself. Almost two years into my motherhood journey, I’m still processing what this beautiful, yet difficult, new role means to me.

But it is the two characters Mia and Elena that I’d like to dig into a bit. Mia: The struggling artist, single-mother, who is always on the move. Elena: The local journalist, married mother, who is born-raised-and-residing in the same town.

Elena has it all based on mainstream society’s standards: “A big house with a big lawn, a fancy car, a job in an office.” She has an altruistic streak that could be genuinely helpful to others, but too often is simply patronizing. She struggles to understand Mia’s almost gypsy lifestyle because it is so different from her own.

“It terrifies you. That you missed out on something. That you gave up something you didn’t know you wanted.” A sharp, pitying smile pinched the corners of her lips. “What was it? Was it a boy? Was it a vocation? Or was it a whole life?” – Mia to Elena in Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Yet, Mia’s transient lifestyle isn’t as glamorous as it might seem to some at first, nor is it as stable as her teenage daughter needs it to be. Born from an initial need to be on the run, Mia could have settled herself and her daughter down years ago. Ironically, because of her refusal to stay in one place for long, she too has given up “a whole life” she may have wanted, one with deep connection to other people. You cannot fly and plant roots at the same time.

You cannot fly and plant roots at the same time.

But isn’t that a conflicting desire so many of us struggle with at some point in our lives? In our 20s, wanting to party, but wanting a soulmate, too. In our 30s, wanting a family, but also wanting the once-taken-for-granted freedom to sleep in, fly solo, and so on. In our 40s or 50s, when that mid-life crisis hits so many people.

I see myself in both Mia and Elena and I suspect I am not alone in that. I want stability and community for myself and my family. Yet, I battle wanderlust and fear being swallowed by the priorities of suburbia.

I want stability and community for myself and my family. Yet, I battle wanderlust and fear being swallowed by the priorities of suburbia.

What do I mean by that? Well, that I fear not having enough time to play with my children, read, go for walks, write, travel, volunteer, dance, visit with friends and family, attend church, and LIVE because I am working more hours to pay for some house or car or credit card that was so “important” to have.

Or because I “need” to weed or go get some new plants for the front porch or whatever goofy thing seems like a priority that day because the neighbor recently has, or the magazine I glanced through said it’s that time of year for X, Y, and Z.

Maybe part of being an adjusted adult is finding that tricky balance between the longing to fly and plant roots, between creating stability and allowing the freedom to truly live.

Maybe part of being an adjusted adult is finding that tricky balance between the longing to fly and to plant roots, between creating stability and allowing the freedom to truly live.

Do you also struggle with this? Have any advice on finding balance? I’d be grateful for your comments below – and I’m sure some other readers will be, too!

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.