Friday, May 5, 2023

Book Stack ~ April 2023

  A monthly post about what I've been reading.

In April I applied myself to reading books actually in my actual Book Stack--ones that I didn't buy recently and that I haven't read before. I have hopes of finally clearing my bedroom floor of books this year!

I usually read everything by Terry Tempest Williams as soon as it comes out, but Finding Beauty in a Broken World was published in 2008, when I was elbow-deep in mothering little kids and not in the right frame of mind for a book that I knew was largely about the aftermath Rwandan genocide. I picked up a copy at a used bookstore sometime in the last year or two (one that had been signed by the author!), and when I started getting delving into mosaics I decided to pick it up at last. The book begins with Williams taking a traditional mosaic workshop in Ravenna, Italy. From there it travels to a prairie dog colony in Utah and then to a survivors' village in Rwanda. I won't be able to explain well how these disparate elements are connected, but there's the metaphor of creating beautiful art from shattered pieces runs through the book, and in the village in Rwanda, Williams participates in a project of building a memorial that is covered in mosaic designs. There's also the ecological concept of a mosaic landscape, where different natural communities are patched together, creating varied and heterogenous habitats. There's also the basic inhumanity and barbarism required to both extirpate an entire species (or several species), like the prairie dog out of irrational animus, and how that is amplified in the extermination of a whole class of people (as in genocide). It is a heavy book, I'm not going to lie, but it's a beautiful one, as all of Williams' books are.

In a totally different vein, The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks was a required read for the book coaching training that I've been dragging out to a ridiculous degree. I really resonated with the initial idea that Hendricks puts forth, that we humans are uncomfortable with good feelings (out of a history of waiting for the next shoe to drop, or the next saber-toothed tiger to eat us), and so we sabotage ourselves with worry, deflecting, picking fights, etc. This gets in the way of our leveling up to our best selves (which Hendricks hyperbolically calls our Zone of Genius). So I've been working on letting myself feel good when things are going well. The rest of the book kind of proves the point put forth by the If Books Could Kill podcast, that most self-help books are mostly filler and fluff. There's a section on "Einstein time," which has something to do with thinking of time as elastic by not worrying or complaining about it anymore, and suddenly you'll have all the time you need...or something. He then contradicts this whole perspective with an anecdote about firing an employee who was late for picking him up at the airport (I mean, she was just on Einstein time, right? Also, why wouldn't you call a cab instead of expecting an employee to pick you up?). But still I'd say the book was worth the short time it took to read it for the change of mindset it engendered around allowing myself to feel good about things going well.

Finally, I finished reading a book I started about two or three years ago, having borrowed it from a friend, and stopped about 2/3 of the way through: When Women Ruled the World by Kara Cooney. It's about six women "rulers" of Egypt, over its whole long history. I'd thought, from the title, that it would be an empowering read, but as it turns out, these women who rose to prominence, either as regents for their sons or other young relatives or as women pharaohs (like Hatshepsut), were only able to obtain their power through strictures established by men and their personal power did not translate to more power for women generally. Also, there were only six of them over nearly 3,000 years. I realize it's kind of a "well, duh" to note that women who rise to heights of power are as vested in and obligated to uphold the patriarchy as the men who precede and succeed them. But reading about one after another of these women was a little discouraging (like watching an episode of The Crown, where, yeah, sure Elizabeth is queen, but everything she does is tightly controlled by a roomful of old white men with gray hair). So I got discouraged and quit, but I finally picked it up and was a little bolstered at the end by Cleopatra's story, which I didn't know much about. Yeah, sure she and her children died tragically in the end, but she was a bad*ss, and she managed to insinuate herself into the head of Egypt and manipulated both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony to hold Rome at bay (and it was those men's hubris, and their rivalry with other Roman leaders that brought them, and eventually her, down). And, of course, she was maligned by everyone ever since for daring to be a powerful woman (does anything every change?).

For fiction I read two books I picked up last time I visited my MFA alma mater, both written by faculty of the program. 

First up, Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand, a mystery that takes place on an island in Maine, with the heroine, Cass Neary, a former photographer who's hit rock bottom and is sent to Maine to interview a recluse photographer, where she runs into all kinds of trouble--missing children, weird artwork, suspicious locals. It's a lot darker than the mysteries I usually read, but it was fun and entertaining and creepy.

Second, I read Make a Wish But Not for Money by one of my favorite mentors, Suzanne Strempek Shea. It's about a woman who loses her job in a bank during one of our recent recessions and takes up palm reading in a burnt-out mall, discovering she has a special--metaphysical--talent for it. Her palm readings begin to bring the mall back to life, which in turn causes its own cascade of problems. It's a fun, humorous, and heart-ful take on love, friendship, and the socio-economics of the mall effect on Main Street.

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