RHC 2017: Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey.

Here’s a confession. I wish I were more outdoorsy. Or, more accurately, I wish I was as outdoorsy as the fictional version of myself. I’m from a beautiful part of the world, and I did grow up within easy driving distance of the Buffalo River, which my husband and I try to float as often as we can. There were always blue green hills rising and dipping around the horizons of my childhood. I’ve hiked up and down my hills and I’ve crawled around inside them in an old tee shirt, muddy knee pads and helmet with a headlamp. Give me enough time and eventually I will get a tent pitched. So it’s not like I’m completely outdoors-illiterate, but, truthfully, I would be worthless in a survival situation, and I don’t like to spend too much time away indoor plumbing.

I do love to read about people with serious outside skills, though, and Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese delivers on that in a big way. Its taciturn protagonist Franklin Starlight can rig a night line, drop a grouse with a rock, shoo off a grizzly, and set up a shelter without even realizing he’s doing it. Wagamese can also write the hell out of a landscape. Medicine Walk is set in the mountains of British Columbia, and it’s some of the most beautiful nature writing I’ve ever read.

Franklin was adopted by a character referred to as “the old man,” though his identity in flashback sequences is pretty immediately obvious (which is fine – this isn’t a thriller) and raised on a farm out in the backcountry. His father, Eldon Starlight (known as Twinkles to the town’s bar regulars), is dying of cirrhosis, and asks Franklin to help him get to a remote ridge where he can die in peace and be buried in the traditional Ojibwe style, sitting up facing the east. Along the way, Eldon shares his life story (the surname Starlight signifies storyteller) and the three prongs of tragedy that left him drunk and alone and led to Franklin’s existence and abandonment.

Franklin, who has very little use for conversation, emotion, or any sort of social impulse, is about as opaque a character as I’ve ever met. That said, his relationship with his adopted father is illustrated through some of the most touching parts of the book. When nine-year-old Frank returns from his first solo trip into the wilderness (a four-day affair) with some small game and a deer, the old man grins, claps him on the back, and shows him how to cook it. It’s one of the sweetest scenes I’ve read in a while. But Frank is pretty understandably hostile toward his biological father. There are a number of flashbacks in which Eldon ruins important occasions with his alcoholism – the worst being a birthday fly-fishing trip, which is a train wreck in slow motion. You know exactly how it’s going to play out, but you can’t help but hope that it won’t go that direction.

What Franklin does communicate through Wagamese’s narration is a bone-deep love of the land, Franklin’s most tangible connection to his Ojibwe roots. The old man is not Native, and Eldon himself spent very little time exploring his own heritage during his peripatetic childhood spent chasing work from one logging camp to the next. Frank clearly hungers for some sort of connection to his history – personal and cultural – and his conversations on the trail with his dying father finally put some pieces of the puzzle together for him. He has a vision of a group of Ojibwe men and women traveling through the valley at the very end of the book, which I took to mean that he did ultimately gain some connection to the past by learning more about his father. For his part, Eldon is seeking forgiveness on a number of fronts before he dies. Franklin is a pretty tough customer on this front, and never verbally forgives his father. At one point, he bluntly points out that it’s not for him to absolve Eldon for a number of his past sins.

Those two parallel emotional journeys are far more fraught with tension than the physical journey. Frank knows his mountains as well as I know my Dewey ranges, and the wilderness itself doesn’t present danger. What it does present is an opportunity for some of the most lyrical writing I’ve read in a long time. I found this to be a calming, wild, and lonely read that I thoroughly enjoyed. I hope to read more of Richard Wagamese soon, and I also hope to spend more time by myself outside. This book makes a powerful case for the importance of solitude in a wild place.

RHC 2017: Cane by Jean Toomer

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book published between 1900 and 1950.

I recently rediscovered poetry as a civilian (as opposed to as an English major). There was something exhilarating about reading a poem without needing to construct an essay around it. I could just like the way something sounded or the way it made me feel. There was something a little rebelliously anti-intellectual going on, I admit, but it was/is fun to just walk up to a poem and ring its doorbell with no plan whatsoever in mind.

However, reading Cane by Jean Toomer reminded me that there is also value to studying literature and to having a knowledgeable guide to a difficult text. I could have used some help with this one. This was the only book I read for this challenge where I kept finding myself looking at words on a page without getting much meaning out of them. This isn’t a critique of the book; it’s a critique of my own lack of internal resources for really engaging with the work. I definitely looked at the whole thing, but I’m not sure that I really read it.

Cane is a collection of short sketches, poetry, and something resembling a one-act play that add up into a portrait of the Jim Crow South. Overall, There’s no unifying narrative thread beyond the imagery of Georgia’s cane fields, and the whole thing adds up to an impressionistic something that I have a hard time putting my finger on (I haven’t read Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson – I know just enough about it to know that it might be relevant here, but that’s it). The first section focuses on rural lives and landscapes, the second urban, and the third consists of one piece, “Kabnis.” “Kabnis” is written nominally as a drama, though the levels of psychological and symbolic detail in the stage descriptions would be practically impossible to stage – it’s a neat formal experiment. Its protagonist Kabnis has moved to rural Georgia from the North to teach (this is also a line from Jean Toomer’s own biography). Kabnis finds himself profoundly alienated from both white and black Southerners as a black Northerner, and the show wraps up in a hallucinatory drunken identity crisis (I think?).

But even this relatively more straightforward section of the work was tough going for me. I felt really frustrated reading this. It’s been a long time since I got the sense that I was being thoroughly outfoxed by a text. It’s good for me and builds character, I suppose, but it made me oddly homesick for academia.

I wish I had more I could write about this, but I would welcome insight from anyone else!

RHC 2017: The Sublime and Spirited Voyage of Original Sin by Colette Moody

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read an LGBTQ+ romance novel.

I used to be a jerk about romance novels. I’m not proud of this. I think romance bothered me because it was associated with almost exclusively with femininity (this isn’t to say that there aren’t male readers and writers of romance, but I don’t think it’s controversial to claim that the majority of the readership is female). There are plenty of genres out there that aren’t my thing – I don’t read many westerns, thrillers, or mysteries. But these genres never offended me quite like romance used to. In retrospect, my loud hatred for romance stemmed from exactly the same place that used to bleat about how I  just preferred having guy friends to girl friends (shout out to my friendwomen here who somehow remained my friendwomen throughout that really unfortunate Anne-era).

To be fair, romance also bothered me because I thought it reinforced toxic gender norms, the most noxious of which being the assumption that the only plot a woman would be interested in is one that involves falling in love with a hot dude.

And lastly, I flipped through a Nora Roberts book once, and a character was described as wearing her hair pulled back “with some kind of band,” which to this day absolutely enrages me. THE BAND IS IMPLIED BY HAIR PULLED BACK. IT IS NOT SIGNIFICANT TO THE PLOT AND IT’S TOO VAGUE TO OFFER ANY DESCRIPTION. “Her hair was pulled back a thin strip of her enemy’s cured skin” would be compelling and necessary information. You know? Jesus Christ.

But look, god knows I require copious copy editing (and if you’ve read any of these posts, you know that too). And so in my old age, I’ve decided to forgive Nora Roberts at long last for this one sentence-level lapse, and I’ll also stop judging the entire genre because of it.

RHC 2017: America Volume 1: The Life and Times of America Chavez

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a superhero comic with a female lead.

I love comics. I even co-wrote one! But I never really read superhero comics, excepting Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and a few Batman trades of my brother’s.  I never collected single issues of anything, and I’m mystified by all of the parallel timelines, dimensions, and reboots in the Marvel and DC Universes (and I also think that their cinematic equivalents are a pox upon the box office). It’s always made me feel as though my nerd cred is deficient.

But I truthfully don’t have anything against superhero comics. My gateway comic was The Sandman, which a friend (the same one!) introduced me to in tenth grade. I’d never thought much about comics – they were a thing that I didn’t much care about, except for Batman, because to this day I hero worship my big brother and want to be just like him. But The Sandman changed everything. Preacher was next, followed by pretty much the entire Vertigo line, and then every non-superhero comic I could get my hands on. But The Sandman itself has roots in the genre (there were a few different Sandmen before Morpheus started brooding up the joint), and Gaiman understood the mythic underpinnings of superhero-dom and spun them out to an almost impossibly large proportion with full-throated late eighties/early nineties Gothed-out flair.

So I don’t mean to sound snotty about superheroes in and of themselves. But I also remember clearly receiving the message that most superhero comics were not written for people like me. Not-boy people, I mean (X-Men was a notable exception). If I were something besides white, I’m sure I would have felt even further alienated (again, X-Men being a notable exception). Comics are grappling with issues of representation, with thrilling results (Kamala Khan! Lunella Lafayette! Doreen Green!).  And there’s stuff out there like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther, Roxane Gay’s World of Wakanda, Ice Man (an openly gay superhero), and America (America Chavez is queer and Latina [I mean, technically she’s not from a Latin American country, she’s from the Utopian Parallel, but still]).

Unfortunately, all of those books in that last sentence just got cancelled.