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review 2017-11-28 21:52
For readers who love inspirational stories, complex female characters, and historical fiction
Bear Medicine: A Novel - G. Elizabeth Kretchmer

I have read two of Elizabeth Kretchmer’s books before. The Damnable Legacy (you can check my review here) and Women on the Brink (check the review here) and enjoyed them. When I was informed that the author had published a new book, I had to check it out.

Once again, Kretchmer focuses on issues that relate to women’s lives and also to the environment and to human beings’ place in the world. The story is narrated by two women, Brooke and Anne, in the first-person. Although both women have a lot in common (both are married and not terribly happy in their marriages, although they are not fully aware of it or at least they haven’t acknowledged it to themselves yet, and they both love nature), they are separated by a hundred and forty years. Whilst Brooke lives in our present, Anne convinces her husband to visit Yellowstone not long after the Park is established, seriously underestimating the risks. Both women suffer because of their decisions (Brooke is mauled by a grizzly bear and is seriously injured, and Anne ends up alone and defenseless without experience on surviving in the wild) and are helped by other women. And in both cases, these seemingly terrible decisions end up totally changing their lives. The book is part contemporary women’s fiction and part historical fiction, and an inspirational read.

Both characters are sympathetic because of the terrible circumstances they find themselves in, although they are not the standard heroines that suddenly and almost magically become enlightened and proficient at everything. They sometimes show little insight into their real situations, can be naïve, do little to help themselves, moan, and take one step forward and two steps back. If anything, Anne, who married young and has little experience of the world, seems to take to the new situation and accept Meg’s teachings more easily, although it must have been a bigger shock to her and farther away from her everyday experience. The society of her time was also more prejudiced, and the fact that she becomes best friends with a Native American woman is much more of a leap of faith than Brooke’s friendship with Laila and her confused feelings about the younger woman. But Brooke has also been victimised (even though it takes her quite a while to accept that) for much longer, has two grown-up children, and therefore has much more to lose. It is understandable that she struggles more and it takes her longer to fully embrace her new reality. I think most women will recognize themselves in one of the characters, either the narrators or their friends and helpers, and feel personally involved in the novel.

The writing is beautifully descriptive and there are very touching moments, some because of the extremes of emotion and suffering, and some because of the moments of clarity and insight that the love of the women and their cooperation with each other brings them. The author has done her research (she explains her process at the end and also acknowledges her sources) and I learned much about the birth of Yellowstone and the Indian Wars by reading this book.

There are serious and current subjects discussed in the novel (abuse [mental, physical, and sexual], rape, drug abuse, mental illness, nature and environment, the protection of wild animals, politics, parent-child relationship), there are adventures and risky situations, secrets, betrayal, and plenty of love. Although most readers will figure out soon enough the connection between the two women, we care enough for both characters and their adventures to keep reading and hoping we will be right about the end. And yes, the ending is empowering and positive too.

An emotional book (yes, I did cry), an enlightened book, and also a realistic book, that shows us some women who are not the perfect heroines, all powerful and knowing, but who make mistakes, hesitate, don’t know what to do for the best, and can be annoying and irritating at times, but who become stronger and learn about themselves by joining with other women and choosing to work together.

An inspiring read and a book that I recommend to women (and men) who enjoy multi-dimensional characters. It will also delight people who love historical fiction, in particular, the Indian Wars, and readers interested in Native American tradition and mythology. Another great book by a writer I will keep my eye on.

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review 2017-11-23 19:37
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
Love Medicine - Louise Erdrich

This isn’t a terrible book, but I can’t claim to have enjoyed it. Love Medicine is a somewhat awkward merger between novel and short story collection, made up of 17 pieces about two families living on the Ojibwe/Chippewa reservation over the span of about 50 years, from the 1930s to the 1980s. I call it an awkward merger because the stories all feature the same group of characters, but there’s neither the overarching plot you want from a novel nor the neatly encapsulated plots you expect from short stories. Life happens, but it isn’t organized by much plot structure at all.

Still, my dissatisfaction stemmed less from plotting issues and more from the fact that I simply never became invested in these characters. The first chapter was promising enough, but the older generation’s love triangle provided little interest, and something about the characters’ motivations and viewpoints felt off. It certainly doesn’t help that 13 of the 17 stories are told in first person, by 6 different narrators, of both genders, various ages, and from three different generations, and they all sound alike. Which tends to destroy the illusion that we’re hearing from different people, and for that matter, that these are characters at all rather than multiple figments of the same author’s imagination. It’s always baffled me that first-time authors – those least equipped to write multiple narrators successfully – are the most likely to attempt this feat, but I think I’ve hit on the explanation, which is that almost no one, no matter how experienced, can do this well and debut authors are also the least equipped to recognize their limitations.

That said, awhile back I tried to read Erdrich’s most recent novel, LaRose, and bounced off of it, finding the plot diffuse and the characters uninteresting. So it seems most likely that I simply don’t connect with this author’s writing. Fortunately for me, after finishing this I started Anything Is Possible, which provides everything I wanted here – a constellation of linked short stories about beauty and pain in everyday life, with characters and situations that caught and held my attention – albeit featuring white Midwesterners rather than Native Americans.

An endnote about the endnote: removing “The Tomahawk Factory” from the main text because “it interrupted the flow” and then tacking it on to the end just seems to muddle the book’s ending. I read it second-to-last, which happily turns out to be its chronological placement, once I realized it was meant to be part of this book and not a preview for another one.

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review 2017-11-04 14:06
Ascension of Larks by Rachel Linden
Ascension of Larks - Rachel Linden

When globetrotting photographer Magdalena Henry loses the only man she’s ever loved, she risks her stellar career to care for his widow and young children on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest. Free-spirited and fiercely independent, Maggie adores her life of travel and adventure. But she has a secret. She can’t let go of her first and only love, renowned architect Marco Firelli, now married to her best friend Lena.

When Marco drowns in a kayaking accident, Maggie rushes to the Firelli family’s summer home on San Juan Island. Once there she discovers that Marco was hiding something that could destroy his family. As fragile, perfectionistic Lena slowly falls apart, Maggie tries to provide stability for Marco and Lena’s three young children. When Maggie is offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance to compete in the world’s most prestigious photography competition, she thinks she’s found the answer to their problems. Then Lena makes a choice with unexpected and devastating consequences, forcing Maggie to grapple with an agonizing decision. Does she sacrifice the golden opportunity of her career or abandon the Firellis just when they need her the most? Gradually the island begins to work its magic. A century-old ritual to beckon loved ones home offers hope in the midst of sorrow. And a guilt-ridden yet compelling stranger hiding on the island may offer Maggie a second chance at love, but only if she can relinquish the past and move forward to find joy in unexpected places.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

For years, globetrotting photographer Magdalena "Maggie" Henry has been in love with her first love, architect Marco Firelli, whom she met in college. Problem is, Marco is married to Maggie's best friend (and college roommate) Lena. Or at least he was, that is...Maggie just got news that Marco has been killed in a kayaking accident. Now Maggie must rush to Lena's side to offer emotional support to the fragile widow as well as help with the Firelli children. 

 

While helping Lena through this difficult time, Maggie can't help but revisit old emotions she thought she had overcome. Memories of early days with Marco come swirling back, the possessiveness she felt over him, having known him first before introducing Lena to him. Lena had tearily confessed that she was struggling to make friends at school. Thinking she was doing a good friend a favor, Maggie introduces Lena to Marco, having no idea that the two would hit it off quite so well, quietly slipping under her radar and falling in love. Though she loves (in different ways) both of them, she can't help but feel a combination of jealousy and annoyance at the turn of events. 

 

So as you can guess, it was largely an unrequited love for Maggie. Marco expresses interest, even a love of sorts, but confesses being drawn to Lena because he and Maggie are too alike in their intense, all-consuming artistic temperaments while Lena was more level-headed and easy-going in nature, more suitable for building a life & family with him. Taking into account Maggie's behavior up to the moment of this confession of Marco's --- her desperately reading into every passing glance from the guy, speaking of them as "kindred spirits", "twin souls" etc --, she likely found this revealing speech quite romantic. To me, however, it came off more as "let her down easy" spin.

 

But rather than go the crazy "he's MINE!" route, Maggie bows out of the running with a fair amount of grace, serving as main witness at Lena & Marco's wedding and then promptly starting up her work as globetrotting picture-taker extraordinaire.  Over the years, the trio is able to put the college drama behind them and become the close-knit crew they were before. Maggie even becomes "Aunt Maggie" to the Firelli children as they grow up. Now, in the wake of tragedy, Maggie doesn't hesitate to be at Lena's side. But only too late does she realize the timing could not be worse. 

 

While staying with Lena and the kids, Maggie's agent calls to notify her that she has been offered an opportunity to submit some of her work to one of the most prestigious photography competitions in the world. But how is she to find the time to prepare a presentation for submission in the mix of everything else going on? Will she have to decide between helping a friend and need and jumping at the chance of a lifetime (professionally), or will the fates allow her to have a solution to both?

 

There is also the mystery of this Daniel guy who spends most of the book hanging out creeper-style in Lena's bushes, observing the family from afar, always hesitating to reveal himself. What is his connection to Marco's death and what does he feel so guilty about? 

 

One of my favorite aspects of Ascension of Larks was the exceptional environment building author Rachel Linden offers. Whether on location with Maggie in Nicaragua, moving through her memories to past international travels, or at the Firelli summer home in the Pacific Northwest (where the bulk of the novel is set), the reader is fantastically immersed in the textures of all the various landscapes. Just as an example, check out this little snippet where Maggie recalls a distinct memory of her Puerto Rican mother:

 

The kitchen was always warm, redolent with the smell of cilantro and oregano, and in the background, playing on the crackly cassette player on the fridge, was the music of her mother's youth -- folk singers like Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary, songs of peace and protest from the sixties. Ana had especially favored Joan Baez and Linda Ronstadt because of their Hispanic heritage. She would let Maggie rifle through the shoe box of cassettes and choose one tape after another. In those moments, in the tiny kitchen with a pot bubbling on the stove and the calls for peace and love ringing out with the strains of guitar and tambourine, it felt as though nothing could touch them, as though if they could stay there in the kitchen forever, nothing bad would ever happen.

 

That being said, the plot itself had its share of tiring moments for me. I enjoyed the secondary characters such as Daniel and the charming motorcycle riding Pastor Griffin (the way Linden writes his character reminded me a bit of John Corbin's portrayal of the DJ Chris on the 90s tv show Northern Exposure). But storyline-wise, it veered on the soapy, most noticeably when it came to Lena's accident. When Lena acts all weird at breakfast that day, I immediately guessed (correctly) where Linden was headed with the plot. And that is where a good chunk of my investment in the plot checked out! 

 

Still, this novel offers up another, unexpected but important side story that serves almost as a moral lesson to readers with children -- the importance of having your final wishes regarding dependents, godparents, etc all clearly outlined on paper! What Linden illustrates here, the power of the state to come in and completely tear up a home because they don't agree with the living arrangements (regardless of how happy and well-taken care of the children seem) is seriously terrifying! I don't even have kids and I was disturbed at the thought! So, people, get your final wishes on paper! 

 

The children's lives were suddenly being decided by people who understood the letter of the law but knew nothing about them, not who they were and certainly not what was truly in their best interest. They didn't know Gabby would fall asleep only if Bun Bun's head was tucked under her chin, or that you had to keep sweet snacks hidden behind the bins of beans and flour in the cupboard so Luca couldn't sneak them. And Jonah... she winced when she thought of Jonah, those dark, somber eyes and the downward slope of his young shoulders. He was a little boy carrying a misplaced guilt so heavy it was slowly crushing him. 

 

While maybe the plot fell short for me here, as I mentioned earlier I did quite enjoy Linden's writing style in general and would be interested to check out more of her work in the future. 

 

FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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