Review: Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass, the latest from plant biologist and professor Robin Wall Kimmerer, has been on bestseller lists (and my personal TBR pile) for quite some time. And now I understand why: this book really has something for everyone.

Not since “Boys in a Boat” have I read a book where, each time I talk to someone about it, I end up talking about something different. My nerdy cousin loved Kimmerer’s descriptions of plant biology. My friend loved the relatable, simple anecdotes from Kimmerer’s life that she uses to communicate critical messages. Environmentalists and activists are using this book to spread awareness about the history of land abuse that Kimmerer outlines in the later chapters. And me? Well I loved all of that, but was especially drawn to Kimmerer’s detailing of traditional Native American cultural beliefs and practices.

And what’s really great about this book is that, even if all those things aren’t for you, Kimmerer’s writing makes it easy and interesting to learn about all these things (and more). Most importantly, I think she has written a book that simultaneously provides a dire warning and a hopeful how-to guide for getting back to a healthy relationship between humans and nature, which is something we desperately need.

Did you read it? Let me know what YOU loved about the book in the comments below!

Ready to read it? Get the book from an independent publisher by going to my affiliate bookstore at bookshop.org!

Review: The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion’s National Book Award-winning memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, is a book about loss, grief, and Didion’s slow return to a new “normal” after the death of her husband. It is not a book about gratitude.

But a state of deep gratitude is exactly the “magical thinking” that this book led me to. Because I have simply never experienced the kind of loss or grief that Didion is dealing with in these pages, and I have never been more aware or grateful for that. I can’t pretend to understand or identify, but I can certainly appreciate the vulnerability that Didion shares, and the comfort her story has brought to thousands of readers.

Because of my , I must admit that parts of this book failed to truly resonate with me. At times, even, I felt like Didion was bordering on repetitive or off-topic. But Didion makes it clear that this is part of the point. That is, Didion’s “year of magical thinking” is really a year of not being able to think clearly – at least not in the way that she did prior to her husband’s death. And, Didion seems to say, that’s okay. Grieving, she explains, is nothing like what we’re taught to expect.

I hope it is a very long, long time before I need to read these memoirs again, before I need the comfort and solidarity that they offer. But I am filled with gratitude, knowing that this book will be there when I do, because I know I’ll turn to it then and find Didion’s wisdom as timeless and perceptive as so many others have.

A Truly Poetic Memoir: The Magical Language of Others, by E.J. Koh

I typically try to focus my reviews in on a particular component of a given book that stood out to me. But with E.J. Koh’s The Magical Language of Others, I don’t even know where to start. I want to talk about the portrayal of motherhood between generations. I want to talk about the poetic voice Koh creates even in her prose. I want to talk about the significance of place and space in these memoirs, the treatment of time, and the exploration of language and translation. And so much more. So I guess you could say that this book, for me, was complex and intriguing and, I might add, all-around brilliant.

But this post would be much too long (and probably spoil most of the book) if I touched on all those things, so I’ll focus on the topic that has been on my mind most, and that is the way Koh structured this book. I couldn’t help but wonder if her background in both poetry and translation influenced the narrative’s organization. And what I mean is that, while much of the memoir follows a linear progression in which we follow along with Koh’s coming-of-age story, she intersperses scenes or stories from her own life with scenes or stories from her mother’s life, her grandmothers’ lives, and even earlier or later scenes from her (Koh’s) own life. At times, these breaks are clean and stories from different lives are separated into separate chapters. But other times there is no preface to the sudden appearance of an adjacent, non-linear scene. For example, midway through a chapter about Koh’s summer abroad in Japan, she pauses to meditate on the similarities between her face and her mother’s. She then returns to her narrative about Japan, only to pause once again to describe a fight she and her brother once had in Davis, California. But while one might expect these changes to be jarring, they are executed so gracefully that the impact is, for lack of a less-cheesy term: poetic.

Wherever Koh breaks the linearity of her narrative, she juxtaposes two scenes in such a way that they complicate and/or illuminate the meaning of both. More than that, they complicate and illuminate the threads that weave throughout all the lives touched on through her memoir. Threads of family, love, and motherhood. Of distance, silence, and language. There is really so much to love about this book, that I think every reader is likely to take away something unique and relevant for them.

If you’ve read Koh’s memoir, leave me a comment to let me know what you liked (or didn’t!) and why. Let’s talk books!

Links to more about The Magical Language of Others:
Tin House: The Magical Language Of Others
For a synopsis, visit Kirkus Reviews
Get the book.

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