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Catherine House

Today’s book review is of Elisabeth Thomas’s debut novel Catherine House. I read this novel as an e-book, and the cover is so lovely and I liked the story so much that I am going to be buying a physical book for my collection.

I don’t care if I there isn’t enough room on my shelves for more books! It’s still not hoarding, agreed?

Elisabeth Thomas’s website says that Catherine House will “leave readers breathless”. But I felt something better: a hunger. I had a craving to keep reading this book, not necessarily because I was on the edge of my seat, but because I was rooted in place and the words were my sustenance. The weight of imagery and Ines’s almost apathetic despair and even the artistic terminology built a story that felt just right for me.

I read some reviews that said they felt like it got too slow, or that something was missing, but I guess for me, it didn’t feel that way because it felt how I feel. It was like reading about a dream I’ve had, or a memory I can’t quite place, and it was comforting.

My one-sentence review: It is a hauntingly beautiful story.

Ines is selected to attend Catherine House, an exclusive and very mysterious three-year college. At Catherine House, Ines takes typical college classes such as Intro to Philosophy or Intro to World Religions, and eventually concentration-specific classes such as Russian and Italian Futurisms (she decides to pursue art), but the school is anything but typical.

After Baby, her roommate, is sent into the tower as punishment, Ines and their friends learn that Baby has died. Baby was obsessed with/passionate about plasm, a substance that an entire concentration had been created around. Part of the book revolves around defining plasm and how it’s used, but the way it’s described as being a part of everything and tethering everything together reminded me of the moldy house in Mexican Gothic, where the mold attaches itself to people, rendering them unable to leave the premises.

Eventually, Ines is sent to the tower, and is faced with the gruesome decision to make Catherine House her permanent home.

Catherine House explores the consequences of what it’s like to be a player in a world where people want to play god.

While the story isn’t overtly sinister, it does raise a lot of moral questions, and the passages of time where Ines is either languishing or making the best of it each have a place in revealing important information. Ines’s days meld together, and I have gone through long periods of time like that, where one day doesn’t end and another begins but rather time is meaningless and you feel like you’re just going through motions and nothing matters. Sometimes it’s hard to see life getting better when you feel like you don’t deserve it or that it doesn’t matter in the end. So it spoke to me a lot in that way.

The descriptions of the school and grounds were vivid and intriguing. There was almost a magic to Catherine House that reminds me of secluded schools in other stories. It just seems dark and grand and fun, and maybe makes me miss college a little.

(Although my undergraduate degree is in hospitality management, and if I think of a way to spice that up for a gothic novel, maybe one day I’ll write it.)

Another aspect I liked about Catherine House was the way Thomas melded art and science. Elisabeth Thomas is actually an archivist at an art museum, so it’s really cool that she was able to incorporate this part of her life into the story. I do not have a lot of knowledge in the art world, but that didn’t detract from recognizing the way art is used to add depth to the story.

Have I convinced you to read Catherine House yet? Let me know in the comments!

To learn more about Elisabeth Thomas and Catherine House, visit Thomas’s website at Elisabeth Thomas (elisabeththomasbooks.com).

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The Truth About Grief

This book discussion/review about The Truth About Grief is the second blog post in my bibliotherapy and self-development series. In this series of blog posts, I will post about some non-fiction works I’m reading and what I get out of them, as well as how I think they are helpful and useful. Fiction books are also useful, so I am going to do a separate fiction series at some point. (For example, The Last Tree Town deals not only with depression and relationships among siblings and friends, but also draws light on parents’ struggles with how best to help their children.)

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. Do not take medical advice from this post or any Oak & River Books content. I encourage you to do your own search into any topic presented on the Oak & River Books blog and to join in the discussion, but please reach out to a medical professional if you have questions, need advice, or want help. My content does not replace that of a trained professional.


The Truth About Grief by Ruth Davis Konigsberg is a book for anyone looking to learn more about grief research or the history of grief. Konigsberg turns the five phases of grief on their heads – in reality, the phases weren’t originally about grief and loss and there was no scientific study to back it up.

Ruth Davis Konigsberg explores how the five phases of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) came to be so popular and oft-referenced. Humans like to have organization and making phases or stages of things helps us make sense of the world, especially the pieces of life that we don’t fully understand.

Says Frank Lawlis, “‘What sells is simplicity, making life a little more simple, so if you can give something that’s very complex and individual and unique a simple plan, it’ll stick.'” I think this simplicity isn’t inherently negative. Sometimes it’s a starting point. In terms of grief, I wonder how our grieving process would look today if those five phases hadn’t become part of our vernacular. Has it done more good than harm, or is it unethical because the original meaning got twisted and no one seemed keen to stop it?

The discussion around treatments and models was also interesting. “If a model can’t be relied upon to predict behavior for at least the majority, what purpose does it serve? Once again, psychological reassurance.”

Konigsberg emphasizes that no two people’s grief follows the exact same cycle, and that one prescribed treatment may not work for someone else even if they are both experiencing, for example, the loss of a spouse. Sometimes, it’s more practical to have a model to make adjustments to rather than making an entirely new model.

This is a book for anyone who needs the reminder that their grief isn’t wrong just because it doesn’t look like someone else’s, or because certain grief therapies aren’t working for them even if those therapies came highly recommended. Going back and forth among the phases makes us feel like we’re losing progress or are doing something wrong, when really we may be holding ourselves to a standard that is not so cut and dry.

Eventually, grieving became a gold-mine of the self-help industry.

“Entrepreneurs seized on the commercial possibilities of this mandate and opened up grief retreats, where you can get grief massages or do grief yoga. And the self-improvement shelves of the bookstore grew heavier not just with advice on how to survive loss but also grief workbooks and journals, illustrating just how prescribed our emotional behavior after the death of a loved one had become.”

Even if it’s not a clinical diagnosis, our tendency to “prescribe” ourselves a “treatment” can be seen with other topics as well – self-help books can be found on forming habits, grieving the loss of a dog, making a meditation practice, dieting and exercising, and more.

Global Perspective

It’s important to recognize that around the world, there are multiple customs when it comes to death, loss, and mourning. (This is evident in books like mortician Caitlin Dougherty’s book From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, which is on my re-read list.)

An interesting component of grief studies is that many of those studied are widowed women, and many studies take place from a Western perspective. “As Ethan Watters pointed out in Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, ‘We are engaged in the grand project of Americanizing the world’s understanding of the human mind.'”

Another quote from professor Stanley Sue states, “Americans are the largest producers of psychological research. The overwhelming subject of the research is Americans. The United States constitutes less than 5% of the world’s population.”

That isn’t to say that other research doesn’t exist or that American research isn’t fruitful; this just emphasizes the need to not only recognize that this isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation, but also take other perspectives into account.

Differences and Social Pressures

Just as no two grief processes or customs are exactly the same, our biases about how someone should grieve can get in the way. How long before remarrying (if they choose to do so), how sad or happy they sound, how much they cry or don’t cry, etc. There also seems to be different societal expectations depending on if you are a man or a woman. (Gender fluid and nonbinary perspectives were not included, but I hope this research will one day account for all identities).

In terms of gender differences, Konigsberg shares how stereotype threat and deindividuation can have an impact.

She describes stereotype threat as a “self-fulfilling prophecy”: “In a classic example of stereotype threat, male and female college students with equivalent math backgrounds were recruited to take a math test. When participants were told that the test they were about to take had shown sex differences in the past, women scored lower compared to men. When participants were told that men and women had performed equally on the test they were about to take, there were no differences in their scores.”

Deindividuation describes someone’s sense of anonymity. “For example, in one study, men showed more aggressive tactics while playing a video game […] when they thought they were being watched. When participants thought they weren’t being watched, there were no significant sex differences, and in fact, women dropped a few more bombs.”

This kind of information relates to research, Konigsberg explains, because men who share anonymously about their grief have shown to be just as “emotive or expressive” as women.

Whether someone is a man or a woman has little predictive power about how he or she will adjust to bereavement. To view grief through a framework of gender is more likely to obscure than to clarify.”

I cannot definitively say that this book will help you in the deepest throes of grieving, but it may help you to know that your grieving is fine the way it is. It doesn’t need encouragement or to be considered proper. It is yours, and it is mine, and we are all going to do it differently.

The Truth About Grief has an index and an extensive notes section. If the topic of grief is of interest to you, a copy may be available at your local library or from your favorite indie bookseller. Here are links to the publisher’s page and Goodreads. It is also available in e-book and print from Barnes & Noble and Amazon. More information is also available at www.thetruthaboutgrief.com.

Grieving is not only for losing a loved one, but for anything you can miss, such as when you lose your job or sell your house. Sometimes we miss things we never even had because we have built an idea of how much better life would be if we had that job, that car, that house, that lover. And that’s okay.

Think about what you do when you’re sad or disappointed. Let yourself settle into those feelings. When I was in the Navy, one of our chaplains suggested we plan during the times we feel good so we’re ready for when we’re feeling bad. When you’re feeling well, maybe make a plan for what things you can do that make you feel better, or even just okay. Sometimes, feeling just okay is the best thing for me. It can be hard, but try to let your loved ones know what you need. Practice something that can become a long-term healthy coping mechanism.

If you feel like your grief is debilitating or becoming so, please reach out for help and contact a medical professional.


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My Life

Bibliotherapy and Me (and You)

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. Do not take medical advice from this post or any Oak & River Books content. Please reach out to a medical professional if you have questions, need advice, or want help. This is for entertainment purposes only. I encourage you to do your own search into any topic presented on the Oak & River Books blog.

Recently, while browsing the shelves at library, I selected a stack of nonfiction books in an effort to explore my personal relationship with bibliotherapy, self-therapy, and self-help. (It was at this time I learned there are self-help books for grieving the loss of a dog, which I should probably read but will likely cry). Stories are powerful in all mediums, but in the series of posts I’ll be doing this time around, the focus will be on non-fiction books. (More to come on video games, audiobooks, ASMR, fiction, and poetry).

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I am doing my final project for graduate school on the creation of a bibliotherapy program, and while I’ve been doing academic research for that, personally I want to explore an array of topics. The following are the books I selected and will be doing a series of blog posts about:

  • The Truth About Grief, by Ruth Davis Konigsberg
  • The Secret Power of Middle Children, by Chaterine Salmon, PhD, and Katrin Schumann
  • Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker, PhD
  • Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People
  • Happiness in a Storm, by Wendy Schlessel Harpham, MD
  • The Homing Instinct, by Bernd Heinrich
  • Learning to Listen to the Land, edited by Bill Willers

(It’s worth nothing that George Eliot has been mentioned multiple times in articles I’ve read about bibliotherapy, so I’m making a point to read her popular novels Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss as well).

These books are helping me learn a lot about myself on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level. No two people are the same, so everyone will get something different out of what they read. The beauty of clinical bibliotherapy is that someone is there to guide you for your personal needs; there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.

Have you heard the term “bespoke”? As in, a bespoke suit or bespoke pair of shoes? According to Merrian-Webster, bespoke means that something is custom-made and “made to fit a particular person”. While usually intended for clothes, the term aptly applies to therapy as well. Therapy plans are tailored for their specific participant.

For those who want to help themselves, there are lots of options and methods. The self-improvement industry is worth over $10 billion, and while the pandemic put a damper on in-person events such as conferences, where did we see an uptick? That’s right: books.

What originally started as a medical movement has grown drastically, with various libraries offering bibliotherapy resources and highlighting self-help books.

Self-help and bibliotherapy can be found in many mediums. Books, podcasts, movies, music, video games, etc. I posit that bibliotherapy has three core facets: the stories it helps us remember, the stories it helps us create, and the story itself being told through the poem, book, video game, etc. Are poems and songs stories? Yes, and even songs without lyrics evoke emotions.

And with songs such as The Stable Song by Gregoy Alan Isokov – my favorite song – you cannot convince me that lyrics aren’t poetry.

I should note that true therapy is conducted with a qualified, credentialed therapist. Therapy involves working towards a goal. Below are some examples from the American Music Therapy Association of what music therapy is and is not, and I believe this can similarly this can be applied to bibliotherapy. It’s worth noting that items in the “is not” section can still bring a sense of peace or relaxation, while the things in the next section are specific plans.

Is Not:
– A person with Alzheimer’s listening to an iPod with headphones of his/her favorite songs
– Groups such as Bedside Musicians, Musicians on Call, Music Practitioners, Sound Healers, and Music Thanatologists
– Celebrities performing at hospitals and/or schools
– Nurses playing background music for patients
– A choir singing on the pediatric floor of a hospital

Is:
– Work with Congresswoman Giffords to regain her speech after surviving a bullet wound to her brain
– Work with children and adults to reduce asthma episodes
– Work with hospitalized patients to reduce pain
– Work with children who have autism to improve communication capabilities
– Work with premature infants to improve sleep patterns and increase weight gain
– Work with people who have Parkinson’s disease to improve motor function

I read The Secret Power of Middle Children and was not surprised to learn the middle children are generally people pleasers. I got a lot out of that book, actually, and even read some with my mom which opened some great discussion (more on that in that book’s blog post), but it wasn’t therapy. What would have made it therapy? If a therapist had read those passages to me, or “assigned” them as part of a treatment plan to explore my anxieties about disappointing others, it would have been bibliotherapy. But was it self-therapy? That term sounds like an oxymoron now, but yes, I think it was.

As I go through my bookstack I am going to be thinking of how the information helps me and about how it could be useful in both clinical and non-clinical bibliotherapy settings.

If you’re interested in learning more, here are some articles I found interesting and whose info was utilized for this post:
self-therapy
does self-therapy work
19 self-help statistics
market research
PsychCentral This is an easy-to-read article about bibliotherapy. It also presents the first potential negative I’ve come across, which is that propaganda or misleading information could be detrimental to a patient. It is impossible to read every single piece of literature in the world, but as much as possible, I think it makes sense for professionals to only recommend things that they have read, or at least things that have been vetted.

Do you enjoy self-help and self-development books? What is the last one you read?

And if you have any experience with bibliotherapy, let me know in the comments!


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Meet Me in Madrid

Meet Me in Madrid by Verity Lowell is a LGBTQ+ romance full of flavor, sensuality, and tantalizing drama.

“Delectable” is the word I would use to describe Meet Me in Madrid.

Charlotte and Adrianna knew each other in college, and despite their secret attractions to one another, weren’t close enough to get to know each other better.

Fast forward many years, and Charlotte and Adrianna both find themselves in Madrid. When a storm hits and Charlotte’s flight out of Madrid is delayed a few days, she ends up staying with Adrianna.

Charlotte is a museum courier – which, despite this article, sounds kinda cool, not gonna lie – and Adrianna works in academia – which sounds extremely cool.

As their rendezvous progresses into a full-blown, long-distance relationship, they both have to make decisions about what’s best for themselves in terms of their careers and love lives.

In Meet Me in Madrid, I could relate a lot to Charlotte, who was busting her behind and hoping to go through a career change. I started grad school in 2020, and left the military in 2021, so to say “career change” is an understatement.

Adrianna’s character seemed so cool. Here she is in Madrid – her work is researching and studying and writing. Sign me up for that! It’s hard work, but so rewarding. She makes a pretty cool discovery, too. No spoilers!

Overall, I love that the plot centered around two women who were passionate about their careers and love lives. Recognizing our own values and goals greatly determines the decisions we make in regard to work and relationships.

I cannot recall reading any other books that include Madrid as a primary setting, so that was a perk for me. I liked Lowell’s writing style. Her descriptions of music and food and scenery made the story almost tangible.

With an assortment of secondary characters to round out Charlotte and Adrianna and aid in the chaos that is life, this book was a quick and engaging read.

I’m honestly surprised this book only has an average of 3.31 stars on Goodreads and 3.9 on Amazon. In another romance I recently tried to read, I couldn’t even get past the first chapter, and that book had thousands and thousands of high reviews. Meet Me in Madrid is a gem hiding in the romance genre.

To learn more about Verity Lowell, visit her website and check out this interview with BookPage.

Let me know your favorite LGBTQ+ books in the comments!

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Special Guests

Into the Abaddon and Author Q+A

Wesley Newman makes his published novel debut with science fantasy novel Into the Abaddon.

Read on for details about the book, my thoughts, and a special guest interview with author Wesley Newman!

The Book
Vincent, Sarah, Grace, and Karl are working together on a teleportation project when Vincent finally makes a breakthrough. After his work is presented as a team effort, Vincent feels flustered but debates whether speaking up is the best thing to do.

After the team is offered a job at a secret facility known as the Abaddon, events begin to take a strange turn. Vincent discovers someone is spying on him and another man named Trent shows up in his apartment uninvited to tell Vincent that he’s a fan of his work; after implying that Vincent’s current friends don’t care about him, Trent tells Vincent to give him a call if he needs new friends.

The others contributed, sure, but without you, there is no project, is there? They’re only getting this job because of you. How does that make you feel, Vincent?”

Vincent also meets a mysterious man named Leo, who we learn has suffered some severe trauma through his work in the military.

At a glance, you’d think this novel would structure around a revenge plot, but revenge isn’t part of Vincent’s modus operandi.

At the Abaddon, the crew is excited about their work and the new friends they make, but when Vincent learns that his new coworkers may not be what they seem and that Trent wasn’t the one spying on him, Vincent starts to feel confused.

When people start disappearing, the plot thickens even further.

Who can Vincent trust? Who is he really working for?

My Thoughts
Vincent is neurotypical, and the way he understands and perceives events around him can be different from what is intended. This representation is important in our media, especially for people who aren’t used to seeing someone like them as a main character.

There is also a deep cultural background developed for Dr. Smith. Newman blends the historical knowledge of how Native Americans were treated by the government with nods to sacred traditions.

The background that Wesley Newman developed for Leo is pretty intense, and being able to see that character’s perspective really enhances the story. Sprinkled throughout the novel are background stories of a few other key characters, as well.

One of the things I enjoyed was the connections between characters who are so different from each other, and how they come together either as a team or as foes.

To me, Into the Abaddon presents the ultimate question of what it means to be right or wrong, good or bad. It’s not always as simple as we think it is, and sometimes we have to make choices that can at times seem so difficult as to be impossible.

With a few surprises in store, this story is sure to please science fiction lovers and fans of Michael Crichton.

(For reader awareness, this story explores manipulation, death, PTSD, and bullying.)

Into the Abaddon is available in paperback, hardback, and Kindle e-book. Order your copy today!

Learn more about Wesley Newman and his other projects on his website. You can also find him on Facebook and Goodreads.

Q+A

Q. Congratulations on publishing your first novel! What inspired you to write Into the Abaddon?
A. Thank you! As I’m sure is the case with many people, I have always been fascinated by the concept of teleportation. Nightcrawler was always one of the coolest superheroes, but the mechanics of his powers would be way more complicated than they make it out to be in the movies. One big problem is this: Nightcrawler is moving through time and space at incredible speeds… and so is his target location. In order to show up where he wanted to show up, he’d have to make calculations to adjust for this movement through time/space. I thought it would be cool to write a story using a “magic” system that more accurately showed how much effort – and genius – would have to go into such a cool superpower. 

Q. What were your favorite and least favorite parts of the novel conception-to-completion process?
A. As a writer, my favorite part is also probably the most difficult: structuring the story. When I started writing, I considered myself a “discovery” writer. I would just start writing and let the story reveal itself without ever really taking the time to remove or rewrite parts that didn’t serve the story itself. As far as I was concerned, outlining was just homework that never served a purpose to my own process. As I continued to write, though, I realized that structure is what makes a story a story. There are a million different tools out there to help you figure out the right structure for your story, but I feel the moral obligation to give Dan Harmon a shout out for his “story circle.” I’m still learning different ways to use his Campbellian style circle to help me plot out my own stories, but I will always credit it (and Harmon himself) as the catalyst that turned writing from a hobby into a passion for me.

As an author, my least favorite aspect is definitely the book market. It’s wonderful that there is such a vast amount of content available to so many people across the world, but as a self-published author with no prior publishing experience, I had to learn everything about how the book market works from scratch. That was—and continues to be—a very painful experience.

Q. What authors do you like to read and who do you look up to?
A. Brandon Sanderson has to be toward the top of my list of authors that I look up to. That man can write hundreds of thousands of words while keeping his pacing at exactly where it needs to be to keep the reader’s attention. His YouTube series where he uploads his university lectures is incredible; not only are his lectures themselves insightful content, but the fact that he puts them up there for free shows just how much he cares for the writing community. 

Q. What kind of research did you have to do to make Into the Abaddon come to life?
A. Oh so much. So very much. The most apparent research that I had to do was surrounding the science of teleportation. Obviously, I am no scientist, so I had to study up on how supercomputers work, quantum mechanics, destructive scanning, astrophysics, and all of the sciencey things that made appearances in the book. It was really cool to learn about all of the crazy smart things that real people are doing in real life, every day. 

I would say the most meaningful research I did was actually surrounding the Wind River Reservation. One of the overarching themes I tried to write into the novel was the struggles of the powerless fighting against the powerful. The Native American community has struggled throughout US history, and I think the Wind River Reservation is a great example of this. Through my research, I learned that Wind River is the only reservation where two different tribes—Arapaho and Shoshone—have to share the same land, and this has caused major identity crises for those living on the reservation. 

Q. What do you believe makes your novel stand out?
A. While I would love to say, “it’s the best written book in the world!” it is my first novel, and I have tons of room for improvement. When I look at it from a distance, I think that the story uses an interesting blend of demographics to show the same power struggles that everybody faces when they see themselves as the little guy. The main conflict of the story stems from a neurodivergent character trying to find his social role in a neurotypical world, along with a Native American character trying to use the small amount of power he has left to fight against what seems to be an infinitely powerful authority figure. 

Q. Which characters were your favorite to write? Were there any that took more work than others to conceptualize?
A. My favorite would have to be the primary POV character – Vincent. While I myself am neurotypical, I personally relate to many of the struggles that neurodivergent characters face – like Abed from Community and Sam from Atypical. 

I had to do a ton of research to write Dr. Smith in as culturally appropriate a way as I could personally manage. He comes from a totally different socio-economic and ethnic background than I do, so putting myself in his shoes was something I had to actively engage with. I did my best to learn a small amount of the Arapaho language in order to connect with his background, and I hope this small amount will be able to travel some distance in connecting others to his culture.

Q. What are some of the true things in this story – for example, is Fort Chivington a real place?
A. Fort Chivington is actually a great example because, while the fort itself isn’t a real place, the barracks were based on real barracks that I stayed in during my time in the Navy. The Ducky Luck was also based on a pub that was a local favorite; sadly, the original pub has since gone under. 

Q. Would you want to work in a place like the Abaddon?
A. Oh man, I can’t imagine I’d ever be smart enough to help the Abaddon research anything. If they came knocking on my door, though, it’d be hard to turn down that opportunity.

Q. Describe your writing environment – what does it look like, any candles, mood lighting, inspo, etc?
A. I wish I had a more interesting answer, but my writing environment has to be super boring. When it comes to creating material, a quiet room with few things to look at helps a lot. Synth and ambient music can help to get me in the flow state, but generally, when there’s more stuff for me to look at, I write less. 

When it comes to editing, on the other hand, music and other small distractions can help with the more mindless tasks of correcting mistakes.

Q. Why did you decide to write Into the Abaddon in present tense?
A. I like this question because present tense certainly is not industry standard. I got into storytelling by way of DnD, where the dominating narrative style is second person present tense. Since present tense is what I practiced the most in my formative years as a storyteller, that’s where I felt most at home as a writer. I’ve also found that I have an overall personal preference for this tense due to its inherent ability to put the reader in the character’s shoes—and in today’s world of short attention span media consumption, I like the idea of catching the reader’s empathy quickly. It’s hard to not be in the moment when the story is telling you that the events are happening right now.

Q. What do you have planned next?
A. I’m currently working on an anthology of short stories chronicling a war set in my fantastical pirate world of Sylvamente. Every entry in the anthology is a complete, self-contained story for the featured character, but they all weave together to create a single, overarching through-line. The first entry is available on my website at: https://www.wesleynewman.com/future-projects/sylvamente

Q. What are you reading right now?
A. I’m finally getting around to The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. It’s just been sitting on my bookshelf for weeks, maliciously daring me to crack it open. The time is now!

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This cozy reading journal (available in hardback or paperback) is perfect for recording notes, quotes, and musings from your favorite books.

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Crow Planet

Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt is an exploration of wildlife in the urban setting. What happens when wildlife and humans mix in the suburbs, in the city?

Crow Planet is the 2009 Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award winner. Their website calls Crow Planet, A book that is a call to experience the wildlife in our midst, reminding us that we don’t have to head to faraway places to encounter ‘nature.’ Even in the cities and suburbs where we live we are surrounded by wildlife such as crows. Lyanda Lynn Haupt is a naturalist, eco-philosopher, and speaker whose writing is at the forefront of the movement to connect people with nature in their everyday lives.”

Maybe crows weren’t what Emily Dickinson was thinking about when she penned the now-famous “hope is the thing with feathers”, but it is what I thought towards the end of Crow Planet (and quite possibly Haupt did, too, since she references Emily later on).

I read Crow Planet as a story of hope, almost reconciliatory. In animal observation, cohabitating, and husbandry, we find countless opportunities to at once take care of nature and let it run its course.

Where my family is from, some critters are considered a nuisance (red squirrels), some are fun to watch (deer, turkeys), and others remind us of our mortality (wolves, bears).

When I returned to my hometown last year, I was surprised by the large amount of crows. Where did they all come from? I do not remember seeing crows in our rural, lake-adjacent community as a kid, but now they are prevalent. Their caws and cries even now in the dead of winter remind me that despite the 20-below-zero wind chill, their life persists. They seem to be thriving much better in winter than I do, that’s for sure.

Three crows fly over, land on their leafless branch, and ignore me. Portents of death? I try to see them as they are, as portents of nothing but themselves, swirling like all of us in our beautiful, tangled, transitory lives.”

crow planet

When people asked what Crow Planet was about before I read it, I told them that it’s a story of crows and what humans can learn from them. Now that I’ve read the book, I know that answer is true but simpler than the whole truth.

Crow Planet is not just an essay of collections put together in a format that makes sense; it is a call to action and reflection. What can we do in our every-day-lives that doesn’t just ensure our survival but also allows us to take care of the planet that takes care of us? Haupt’s work reminds us to slow down and take it all in.

It is also a reminder to notice nature, wherever you are, and redefine it. Trees in the park in the city may not be “wilderness” in the traditional sense, but their existence invites us to sit with nature – to read and walk our dogs and fly kites with our kids in it. Urban wilderness reminds us that we coexist with other creatures.

If I watch a red squirrel for long enough, what will I see? Skittering, nut gathering, etc. I usually don’t see a red squirrel unless it’s running up a tree or, alas, being eaten by my parents’ outdoor cat. (He likes to start with the heads. Ah, nature).

Last summer, a grouse became quite friendly with us down in the vegetable garden. I had never seen a grouse come around and warm up to humans the way this one did. It was a beautiful specimen, a rough necked grouse. I was told it got a little peckish, but we seemed to have an agreement. It’s not a secret. The agreement was space. I respect that you are a wild animal, and you do not peck me when I don’t feed you out of my hand.

Just like crows, it is difficult to tell the difference between male and female grouse unless it’s breeding season. Either way, this one had some *attitude*

And truthfully, despite their reputation, crows are not worse than humans. Their ability to adapt and survive is quite admirable. We go where we are not wanted and not invited but invite ourselves anyway simply by the virtue of a place existing and we want to go there. We multiply and consume and invade and agitate.

The persistence of the crow is evidence that we don’t have the kind of control we think we do. Haupt shares that the crow is one of the few birds that don’t have bag limits; a decade later, this is still true. Other limitations vary state to state.

I’ve never seen a city plagued by pollution so thick you couldn’t breathe, but I have seen a lot of crows. I know that both of these things exist simultaneously. When Haupt writes that crows will fare well upon human’s ecological demise, I agree with her.

The difference between us and crows is that they “return in whatever number the ecosystem – even if it is an urban ecosystem – can support.” Crows cannot make food or grow food, but humans can. It is much easier for human capacity to exceed the limit because know how to make and build and grow and consume – all the while knowing the damage it is doing to ourselves and the planet. In this way, are we not worse than the crow?

If the crow has managed to always find a way, perhaps we will too.

Beyond being enjoyable to read, Crow Planet shares cultural references, history, birding as leisure and recreation, Haupt’s personal anecdotes, and a suggested reading list. This book would be a beautiful edition to the book collection of any naturalist, bird lover, urban dweller, or anyone who just loves crows – and as you’ll see by reading the book, there are a lot of people who love crows.


Haupt’s latest book, Rooted, further explores the interconnectedness of life forms on earth.

Learn more about Lynda Lynn Haupt and her other works on her website.


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Things We Lost to the Water

Eric Nguyen’s debut novel Things We Lost to the Water is a breathtakingly beautiful and heartbreaking account of a family making their way in a new place, trying to hold on to the past while making room for the future.

After leaving Vietnam, Hương arrives in New Orleans and builds a new life with her two young sons. Hương’s husband is left behind – she grapples for years with her memory of him standing on the shore, watching them flee. She continues to write letters and send recorded tape cassettes to him until the day she receives a note telling her to stop contacting him.

As a mother, I understand her dilemma. We want to protect our children. In this instance, the truth was the same either way – he wasn’t coming to find them. So, she could either tell her sons that their father gave up, or that he’s dead. To preserve his memory in the minds of their children and protect them from the harsh reality, she makes the pivotal decision to tell her children that their father is dead.

She would keep from them the father who stayed behind, the family they could have been, the injustice of what they had lost. She could protect them, if only they’d forget. She would protect them, if only she’d forget. Forgetting, she was so sure, was easy, the easiest thing that could be done; we forget all the time – we forget names and addresses, the color a childhood dress, the name of a favorite song. We could forget anything and everything, if only we tried, if only we made the effort.”

Additionally, this is a coming-of-age story of the two boys – Tuấn searching for belonging and Ben (who chose to go by Ben over his Vietnamese name Bình) eventually realizing he is gay.

Tuấn and Ben grow up in New Orleans, going to school and playing with neighborhood children. When their mother is at work, a neighbor watches over them along with a few other children. In these spaces, they learn about culture, identity, and race.

After his mother tells him his father is dead, Tuấn’s disparity eventually leads him into rebellion, and he joins a local gang.

As he watched his mother and brother now – a brother Tuấn’s father didn’t even know about – Tuấn felt somehow let down. Dad wasn’t here to enjoy any of this. Dad would never be here to enjoy anything ever again. Who were they, any of them, he thought, to have fun?

Ben wasn’t old enough to remember their father when they left Vietnam, and as he grows up, he feels some resentment about the expectations put on him by a man he thinks is dead.

He died a hero. That’s the word his mother used, hero, whenever Ben asked about him. Whatever else he knew of the man were echoes of would haves, could haves. He would have thought this… he could have done this, your father… Not a real-life father but a ghost of a father, an afterimage of a father.”

The loss of their father is acute not because they knew him and miss him, but because Hương tries for so long to hold onto him.

When the truth is eventually discovered, Hương, Tuấn, and Ben must navigate the storm that is caused by the revelation.

The book itself opens with a false alarm – Hương hears a siren and thinks New Orleans, her new home, is under attack. This story does more than demonstrate Hương’s propensity to be ready in the face of an emergency, it shows – and foreshadows – her life and role as a mother.

‘Mẹ,’ he cries. Mom. The word reminds Hương of everything she needs to know. In the next moment she grabs his hand and pulls him toward her chest.”

The bulk of the story is sandwiched between two key events – Hương’s escape by boat and the torrential hurricane that dumps on New Orleans. In this way, nature’s effects on our lives are potently obvious.

Things We Lost to the Water is a novel of reconciling memories with the present, of knowing when to let go and when to hold on, and of building something new in the face of adversity. It’s a story of family and belonging, identity and what it means to be home. It is a tale of life’s choices and all their consequences, good and bad.

Lastly, here is a beautiful quote from the story:

Weeks later, after Howie left for school and the pool closed up and the August heat gave way to cool September air, he thought about how the stars, too, were once used to tell the future, like the words to a story written in dots, holding everyone’s fate. How he wanted to run his fingers across those stars and read what they said, every single word, every piece of light.”

While this is Eric Nguyen’s first novel, this is not his first piece of writing. Learn more about Eric and his other works at his website.

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Everything’s Trash, but It’s Okay

If you appreciate quippy hashtags, you’ll like this book.

If you enjoy humor mixed in with your statistics, you’ll enjoy this book.

Everything’s Trash, but It’s Okay is Phoebe Robinson’s second essay collection (of three collections). Her first, You Can’t Touch My Hair, is more focused on what it’s like to be a black woman in America, while Everything’s Trash, but It’s Okay explores the life of an adult woman in terms of money, body image, feminism, work, and more.

Through hardships such as financial struggles and workaholism, to successes like meeting Bono and Oprah and building a podcast following, Phoebe Robinson shares stories that are relatable and humorous. There are a lot of pop culture references, and I definitely did not get a lot of them, however, for me that didn’t detract from the story.

In this post, I’ll explore a few themes from Everything’s Trash, but It’s Okay, and at the end of this blog, you’ll see a links to an excerpt from Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes and to an apartment tour of Phoebe’s NYC home (because yes that is something I want to see and I think Phoebe would appreciate that).

Money and Work

In the chapters “Money Is a Trifling Heaux and Also Your BFF” and “You’re Not Curing Cancer (Unless You Are-Then Carry On, My Workaholic Son)”, Robinson talks about her financial woes and obsession with work. It’s no secret that in the United States how much money you make and what you do for a living are at the center of many conversations.

When meeting other people, one of the first things we ask is, “What do you do for a living?” Part of it is curiosity and finding something to talk about, but the other part is more subconscious – fitting your narratives together. If I’m a writer and I meet a CEO, am I supposed to feel intimidated, jealous, or awestruck? Or some other feeling altogether? Regardless of job title, many people are guilty of putting in way too many hours at work because it is part of our identity. In our system, workers contribute to society and everyone else is a burden. And things like vacations are pendulum swings – you take no vacation or one you can’t afford, no in-between. If you’re putting that vacation on a credit card, you may be hurting yourself even more. Not only do you end up working more because it’s an addiction, but you have to earn more money to pay off what you’ve spent, plus interest.

As Phoebe Robinson demonstrates, not everyone is perfect with money 100% of the time, and it made me feel better about the times I haven’t had my finances together. I never felt like I had someone I could talk to judgment-free about the things I was experiencing with money, especially after some *ish went down with my ex. It’s difficult to do, but the important part is seeking assistance and doing better in the future.

Complicity

If you read my post about What Storm, What Thunder, you may remember a section devoted to turning a blind eye to things. It comes up in Robinson’s book as well. When discussing the Women’s March, she says that those who were unable to attend could still make an impact in other ways, such as donations or being more vocal about women’s issues, “…and if you didn’t do that, then you clearly weren’t for the advancement of women. Rather you were silently complicit in keeping status quo or, worse, adamantly against women progressing.”

This notion of being silently complicit is not new. It is the same as turning a blind eye. If you aren’t actively trying to stop something, then you are okay with it happening because it’s not happening to you. We can amplify the voices of those who know what they’re talking about (instead of putting ourselves at the center of those narratives) and donate money to organizations that make an impact and live up to their claims.

Body Image

Robinson discusses her body in “I Was a Size 12 Once for Like Twenty-Seven Minutes” – a scary and taboo topic for many of us. In fact, unless we are disparaging or making jokes about our bodies, it seems like our bodies aren’t acceptable the way they are. Loving your body and showing it off is not “humble” or “proper”. Women in particular are conditioned from a young age that their bodies should be enjoyable for the male gaze. They are to be toned, tightened, curvy or small in the right places, unblemished. Basically, if you’re not always a work in progress, you’re trash.

I’m so tired of feeling like I have to tell total strangers that I just met that I’m trying to lose weight. In fact, I’m not even actively trying anymore. And it’s zero people’s business what my weight is anyway. After I separated from the military with worse body image than I joined with, I spent the last half of 2021 trying to accept my body the way it is right now regardless of what anyone wants it to, or thinks it should, look like. People disguising their hatred or disgust for someone’s body with unwanted advice or opinions to sound “helpful” is not a good disguise for said hatred and disgust.

When I was younger, I had a very slender friend who made a remark about how it’s not her fault that she can’t gain weight. And it was true – she could eat anything and it didn’t seem to matter. When Phoebe mentions how she suddenly finds herself at a size 12 after being a size 0, she recognizes that women who are usually a 12 or above may think “oh no boo hoo” – but Phoebe is totally right. It is horrifying to wake up one day and realize you don’t recognize your body. And that’s something that is not size-specific. It can strike any of us.

Robinson ends the chapter with, “Dare to do for yourself what Bridget [Jones from Bridget Jones’ Diary] couldn’t do: Look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I like myself just the way I am.'”

Life is too short to let people who want to dictate how you look or act be in your life and make decisions on your behalf. Or the people who want to take advantage of you, or the people who don’t want you to succeed.

And after reading this, I feel like I want to call her Pheebs. I would definitely give her a hug. I’d ask first, of course, but she seems like such a fun, warm person.

Phoebe Robinson’s latest book, Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes, released in September 2021.

Learn more about Phoebe Robinson at these links:
Creator Website
Instagram
– Adapted essay from her 2021 book Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes
– If you’re extra/obsessed like me, you’ll enjoy this photographic apartment tour of Phoebe’s and her S.O.’s home
– Entertainment Weekly article about Tiny Reparations Books


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Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s Coraline tells the story of a young girl named Coraline – adamantly not Caroline; people just can’t seem to get her name right!

Coraline Jones, along with her mother and father, move into an old, large house that’s been refurbished into apartments. The one next to the Jones’ apartment is empty, and the only thing connecting the two is a bricked-in doorway.

Cover of Coraline, a book by Neil Gaiman
My copy of Coraline, purchased from Thriftbooks

Discovering the doorway empty of bricks one time, Coraline goes through the passageway and enters an identical apartment on the other side – with an Other Mother with eyes of buttons waiting for her.

When the Other Mother kidnaps Coraline’s parents and Coraline finds the spirits of three children, she knows she must act, and fast.

Will Coraline be able to find the children’s souls and her parents, or will she be trapped with the Other Mother, ultimately having buttons sewn into her own eyes?

In the mist, it was a ghost-world. In danger? thought Coraline to herself. It sounded exciting. It didn’t sound like a bad thing. Not really.

The Other Mother, the beldam, is a unique and interesting beast. She craves attention and self-satisfaction – and is ruthless.

“I swear it,” said the other mother. “I swear it on my own mother’s grave.”
“Does she have a grave?” asked Coraline.
“Oh yes,” said the other mother. “I put here in there myself. And when I found her trying to crawl out, I put her back.”

As a rule, Coraline is brave not because she has no fear, but because she knows that bravery is the way to deal with fear. It doesn’t necessarily make you less afraid once you’re on the other side, but the outcome is worth the distress.

Gaiman’s descriptions of the cat throughout are also entertaining. “There was something irritatingly self-centered about the cat, Coraline decided. As if it were, in its opinion, the only thing in any world or place that could possibly be of any importance.” As a cat owner – Smokie, Kenneth, and Michael are their names – I know this to be true. But cats are always there for us when we really need them, as Gaiman deftly demonstrates.

I love the movie Coraline, as well. I have taken many naps while Coraline played in the background, and have played it at night to help me fall asleep. An unusual comfort item, perhaps, but I know I’m not alone.

Coraline resonates with a lot of people.

Neil Gaiman has mentioned in interviews that readers young and old love Coraline’s bravery. For me, more than the courage-in-face-of-fear element of the story, I love its weirdness. It makes me feel like my weirdness is okay – like that episode of Friends where Phoebe gets married and Mike, her fiancée, says that she is so “wonderfully weird”. I love anything that makes me feel like I’m loved for being wonderfully weird.

Having now read the book and seen the movie, I can say that I like the changes they made for the movie. Adding the character Wybie gave the plot an extra something, especially since they had one of the spirit kids be his grandmother’s long-lost sister.

I also loved how the secondary characters/other apartment residents – Mr. Bobo, Miss Forcible, and Miss Spink – were brought to life.

To learn more about Neil Gaiman and his works, visit his author website, and as always, check out Goodreads.

Let me know in the comments what your favorite Neil Gaiman story is!

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The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

Can you tell I’m on a Ruth Ware kick?

The first Ruth Ware novel I read was The Death of Mrs. Westaway, then In a Dark, Dark Wood, followed by The Woman in Cabin 10, and finally The Turn of the Key.

Ware’s books present just the right amount of description without being mundane, and nowhere is that as important as it is in The Turn of the Key. If too many details are revealed, the jig is up. Coupled with the dialogues, the overall feelings of helplessness yet utter determination are intoxicating.

The Turn of the Key tells the story of Rowan, new live-in nanny to three young children. Right in the beginning of her post – literally the second day she is there – the parents, Sandra and Bill, leave town for work. When Bill is pulled away to Dubai, Sandra cannot return as early as she originally planned.

Rowan befriends the maintenance man, Jack; meanwhile the housekeeper, Jean, is quite unpleasant towards her, adding to her distress in the house.

An interesting aspect of The Turn of the Key is that the entire thing is written as letters from our main character, who is in jail awaiting trial for the murder of one of the children, to someone she hopes will be her defense attorney.

She hopes that by revealing the truth to him, she will be absolved of guilt in at least the eyes of the law, for she will never be free of the blood that is on her hands.

In her letters, she reveals that previous nannies hired by the family didn’t stay long, possibly succumbing to stories of hauntings or worse. The murderer of an 11-year-old girl died at the home in the 70s had never been brought to light; it’s possible it was a genuine accident. Throughout, our letter-writer maintains her innocence even as she sympathizes with the girl’s nanny, who quit a couple months before the incident.

What future was there for a nanny whose child had died in her care, after all? A very bleak one indeed.

As the letters progress, we learn more about the inner workings of the house – which is described as an unfortunate (and not eclectic) mix of traditional architecture and modern smart home.

There was a strange feeling of split identity too – as though the house was trying hard to be one thing, while Sandra and Bill pulled it relentlessly in the other direction, chopping off limbs, performing open-heart surgery on its dignified old bones, trying to make it into something against its own will – something it was never meant to be, modern and stylish and slick, where it wanted to be solid and self-effacing.

Sandra and Bill own an architecture company together. We read a mention of vernacular architecture, which utilizes materials from the area of construction in the building. It isn’t necessarily important to the plot as far as I can tell, but the design of the house is.

While Rowan does not have access to all the features of the smart home app, her physical realm is only limited by one locked door – and it’s in her bedroom.

After a couple nights, she can no longer bear the creaking footsteps coming from above her at night. She enlists Jack to help open the door, and although they don’t discover a secret stowaway in the attic, what they do find is a burden in itself: gruesome writing on the walls, a dead bird, and old children’s toys.

There was something… not quite powerful, but at least an illusion of control in holding the key in my own hands. That door was locked. And only I had the power to unlock it.

Will the truth be enough to set her free? You’ll have to see for yourself.

While reading, I was reminded of The Haunting of Hill House (haunted house, writing on the walls) and The Haunting of Bly Manor (nanny watches over creepy children and falls for maintenance person/groundskeeper/etc). These spooky things are quickly becoming my creature comforts.

Learn more about Ruth Ware at her website!

Until next time, friends


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