Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country: Traveling Through the Land of My Ancestors
by Louise Erdrich
(Harper Perennial, 2014, 160 pages)
“I can’t imagine home without an overflow of books. The point of books is to have way too many but to always feel you never have enough…” (7)
Louise Erdrich is one of my favorite writers and I don’t know how I hadn’t heard of this book. I’m pretty sure I put in a request for it as soon as I learned it existed. This memoir focuses on a road trip that Erdrich takes with her youngest daughter, Kiizhikok, into Ojibwe Country in northern Minnesota and Canada. A big part of the Ojibwe lands are islands interspersed throughout the region. These islands are sacred to the Ojibwe people for a number of reasons, one of which is the rock paintings contained on many of them.
As Erdrich takes us along on this journey we see how important her heritage is to her and also the value she places on books and the role they play in her life. There were so many good quotes that I pulled from this text because I related to so many of the things that she said. Like John Irving, Erdrich is one of those writers I just want to sit and talk with for hours… or just sit and read next to her. Either way, I’d be happy.
Anyway, if you’re an Erdrich fan I certainly recommend this. If you’re a bibliophile, I also recommend this – you’ll be reading along with a kindred spirit.
Garth Williams, American Illustrator: A Life
by Elizabeth K. Wallace and James D. Wallace
(Beaufort Books, 2016, 250 pages)
Garth Williams, American Illustrator: A Life written by Elizabeth K. Wallace and James D. Wallace is a biography of the famous children’s book illustrator, Garth Williams. Garth Williams was born in New York City in 1912, but moved to England with his mother during his school years. His father was an artist, but was not around during most of his younger years. Garth Williams is an interesting man. Over the course of his life he had 4 wives, 6 children, and moved several times with his final stop being Guanajuato, Mexico.
At the beginning of his career, Garth Williams thought that he would illustrate children’s books to earn enough income to become a serious artist. Those children’s book illustrations not only provided an income, but made him internationally famous. Williams illustrated such famous classics as Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, The Cricket in Times Square, and The Little House on the Prairie series.
At the beginning of the book, the authors explain that it would be difficult to cover Williams’ life in chronological order. The book does some jumping back and forth and is a little repetitious. I found it a little distracting. However, the life and works of Garth Williams is interesting and worth a read.
Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love by James Booth
(Bloomsbury Press, 2014, 532 pages)
I love Philip Larkin’s poetry, and I’ve been anxious to read Booth’s biography. Larkin is a profound but accessible poet. Many of his poems deal with failure, disappointment, and death, so he has the reputation of being something of a pessimist and a grump. However, his humor and his emotional articulacy have made him one of England’s most beloved poets.
Larkin’s reputation has suffered since the publication of his selected letters and of Andrew Motion’s major biography in the 1990s. These painted an unflattering portrait of Larkin that included significant doses of casual racism and misogyny. However, Booth, who is the literary advisor to the Philip Larkin Society and was a colleague of Larkin’s at the University of Hull, seeks to correct this impression. He does not shy away from the uglier statements found in Larkin’s correspondence, but neither does he offer a very convincing apology for them. Booth refers to Larkin’s “flashes of performative racism,” suggesting that these comments are more satire than conviction. He tries to counter Larkin’s reputation for right wing nationalism with a younger Larkin’s expressions of his liberal political leanings. Despite Booth’s attempts at portraying a more sympathetic Larkin, the picture that actually emerges is one of a writer whose prejudices grew and became entrenched as he aged.
Despite this particular failure, the book is still immensely valuable. Booth strikes a good balance of biographical detail and literary analysis. He thoroughly details the manuscript history of Larkin’s poems, using these details to give a picture of the poet’s writing habits and emotional life. As the title suggests, Larkin’s love life is a major subject of the book. Larkin never married, and many of his poems and letters deal with the indecision and potential selfishness surrounding this topic. However, Larkin’s broken engagement with Ruth Bowman, his long term relationship with Monica Jones, and several affairs with colleagues and employees at Hull University’s library (where Larkin served as the University Librarian for thirty years) provide plenty of biographical interest.
Booth’s deep understanding and analysis of Larkin’s poetry is the strength of the book, but his interviews with people who knew Larkin also contribute to the portrait. Though he doesn’t succeed in reversing the perception of Larkin’s more objectionable statements, Booth does show that his poetry – skeptical and gloomy as it often is – is inspired by and infused with a sense of the beauty of life in the world. Sometimes these contradictions must just be left alone.
Miss Jane by Brad Watson
(W. W. Norton & Company, 2016, 288 pages)
Miss Jane is a novel that tells the story of Jane Chisholm, a woman inspired by the author’s great aunt, who was born with a birth defect that changed the course of her life. Set in the early 20th century on a rural farm in Alabama the reader learns that Jane is born with incompletely formed genitalia. This means a number of things including the fact that she has to deal with incontinence and the fact that she’ll never have the type of romantic relationship most other people are privy to.
We see how Jane traverses life with this “burden.” With the help of her family and her family doctor she is able to live as normal a life as is possible in her condition. Even though it seems awkward to say given the subject matter, this was a really pleasurable read. Watson did an amazing job conveying a sense of time and place in his book while also really capturing the characters. I can’t quite put my finger on what books it reminded me of, but I couldn’t wait to get back to this book after any period when I put it down. It was an immersive reading experience.
I look forward to checking out more of Watson’s work.
Something New: Tales from a Makeshift Bride by Lucy Knisley
(First Second, 2016, 304 pages)
I’m definitely a fan of Knisley and her artistic style. I’ve read most of her other graphic memoirs so when I saw that this title was finally available at the library I grabbed it. This title is all about how Knisley went about planning her wedding – an experience that can be all-consuming. Given that she’s obviously a creative mind (and so is her now husband) she decided that she wanted to personally create as many elements of her wedding as she possibly could. A task that is anything but small.
One thing that Knisley kept coming back to was her reflection on what a wedding is actually supposed to be. Every time she felt herself getting frazzled or overwhelmed she tried to make herself remember what the point of her wedding was and that helped to re-center her. Having family and friends who were eager to chip in helped too.
I wish I’d read something like this before my wedding. I actually plan on gifting this to my sister-in-law who will be getting married next year! It’s an easy read that helps you keep in mind what your wedding day is all about without getting bogged down in what society tries to tell you is important.
Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening by Marjorie Liu; art by Sana Takeda
(Image Comics, 2015, 72 pages)
Monstress collects the first six issues of the story of Maika Halfwolf, a young Arcanic who has just survived a war with humans as she tries to understand her past and the death of her mother. She is accompanied on her journey by a fox-like child (with whom she had been imprisoned) and a talking cat with two tails.
Inside Maika is a powerful monster she can’t control. This dangerous girl becomes hunted after she escapes captivity, steals, and kills. In my opinion, the best part of this book is all the talking cats. At the end of each issue, feline Professor Tam Tam explains the origins of the different races of people and the history of the relationships among them, which is helpful in following the story. Along with a captivating story, this graphic novel is beautifully drawn. Although it features a teenage protaganist, it is extremely violent and contains mature language, so it would be more appropriate for an adult audience. I highly recommend it, but it’s not for the squeamish!