Book Review — An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon was a book that challenged me for the better. I got to see through the eyes of a woman who lives in a society that treats people like objects and who is missing the knowledge of her family history. She feels like she is missing something but she doesn’t dwell on it since there are no clear and quantifiable answers.

“A part of each person lay in their past, in their parentage and grandparentage, and if that history was missing, were said people incomplete?
–Aster

As part of the lack of history that she feels, she seeks knowledge of her surroundings, she immerses herself in studying the world around her, from growing plants to synthesizing chemicals to aid her in her work as a healer. She’s a crucial part of her community, going around and healing those who don’t have access to doctors, but soon all that will change when she gets some clear information on what led to her mother’s death.

“Chemicals plus chemicals makes magic”
— Aster

Although this book is a science fiction novel, it was not what I expected, it’s not just a voyage in space. It is a novel that gives an immensely important voice to social and cultural issues that are not represented in many forms of media, from film to books and everything in between. Among these issues is gender. In Matilda, the ship that carries what’s left of humanity through space, people live in different levels depending on their social status, skin color, and gender. It is explained that humanity has developed a third gender “they”, which was a result of a hormonal condition that made it so that people of this gender didn’t fit biologically into male or female.

“…said Flick as she–he–no, they–shook the starjar. Aster regretted her error.”

The third gender uses the “they” pronoun and it’s the first time that I even read a book where this pronoun is implemented. Such a book can be very powerful for people who use this pronoun and for those who don’t know or don’t understand why or how to use it.

The world that Solomon creates in this book is slowly built up through Aster’s eyes. At first this was frustrating to me because I wanted a clear picture right away, but I learned to be patient and see things as Aster did. Aster only sees specific details that are important to her. It was frustrating to have a very meaningful and emotional encounter happening and have Aster focus on a seemingly trivial thing that leads to the sudden end of that encounter. This is actually very important because not everyone sees the world in the same way, some may only pay attention to the details and others may focus on the bigger picture. This book taught me to be open to the way that others see the world, even if at times it can be hard and frustrating to stop and see a situation from the other person’s point of view to realize that we might both want the same thing and that it will just take a bit of understanding from both parties to reach the objective.

This book really did leave me thinking, it was really well written and it gave me something that no other book has given me: a perspective that was very difficult to connect to, but which taught me how to be understanding of those who don’t express themselves the same way that I do.

What’s a book that you’ve read that had a difficult perspective but which was valuable and worth reading?

Book Review — Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich

“My prayer is a tale of burning love”–Sister Leopolda

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I’ve finished Tales of Burning Love, as part of the #HarpiesReadTheWorld challenge, and it was an excellent read! This book has plenty of layers, perspectives, and delightful bites.

Tales of Burning love is the fourth installment of Louise Erdrich‘s “multi-generational epic on the long-lasting effects of colonialism on Ojibwe peoples and communities”, as stated on Goodreads.

The plot of the book is centered around Jack Mauser and his wives. We start the novel with Jack and his first wife, June Morrisey, a relationship that lasts only a day and ends with June’s death. The novel then jumps to a few decades later when Jack is now newly married to Dot Nanapush, his accountant, who has no idea that he has been married before. As the novel goes on we meet Eleanor Schlick, Jack’s second wife, a literature professor and writer, Jack’s third wife Candace Pantamounty, a dentist, and Jack’s fourth wife Marlis Cook, a cunning woman who Jack didn’t quite like at the beginning and for good reasons. The novel jumps back and forth between his wives and what they are doing in the present, and Jack’s life with his new wife. However, the climax of this novel comes when all four wives end up trapped in a snowstorm and are forced to keep each other awake so as to stay alive. In this way we get their points of view on Jack, how they met him, and what kind of a man he was to them.

It’s incredibly interesting how Erdrich manages to have an omniscient narrator and have each character also as an independent narrator as each tells their own story. The personalities of each character really shine through in Erdrich’s writing. For example:

“All I had to do was make myself available because I knew from his look, from his approach, from the way he had walked toward me down the aisle of glass, that he could be interested in me. I knew.” –Eleanor Schlick

“I developed hopes from this. We might bond on the trip. He might fall in love with me for real and ever. I’d melt him, warm him, fill him with cheese sandwiches and heat him up with thermos coffee” — Candice Pantamounty

Jack Mauser is described by each of the women in particular ways, and this made me think of how each of us is seen differently by every person that we meet or know. The perspective of us from each member of our family is different, not to mention the perspectives of the people that we have other meaningful relationships with. Each person sees us in different time frames, in our childhood, as we grow into adolescence and into adulthood. I am so curious as to how different people in my life see me, as well as how the one perspective I have on the people I know is different from others. It’s just mind-blowing!

The title of the book, Tales of Burning Love, is echoed throughout the book with the language that Erdrich uses. She often gives us the imagery of fire or heat, both literal and figurative. There are many instances where the characters are saved or doomed by fire, just as they are by love and desire. The idea that love is fire, it can warm you and protect you, save you, but also burn you and even kill you, is thoroughly explored in this book. In that sense, it is not just romantic love, there’s also the idea of familial love that can be a safety net or a dangerous fire one must keep at bay. She says:

“Love — which the young expect, the middle-aged fear or wrestle with or find unbearable or clutch to death — those content in their age, finally, cherish with pained gratitude”

Although this book talks about love and relationships, I’m not sure that “romantic” would be the best way to describe it. The characters are driven by this love, but it’s not sweet or nice most times, it is driven by lust, by power, by money, and by revenge. Love is complex and dynamic, and this novel explores this theme with beautiful writing and complex characters.

There are a few other themes throughout the book, such as religion and spirituality, gender equality, sexuality, the opportunities that Native American people have in this country, their rights and their culture. If you are interested in any of these topics do read this book because it will give you a very unique point of view.

I leave you with my favorite image from this book, one that I wish I could transport myself to every time I read:

“One night, in a moon drift, the late August air billowing and succulent, in the lush scents of turned dirt and growing plants and ancient skunk musk and the sweet pink rugosa roses, the screen door unlatched, Eleanor read in a pool of lamplight by the citronella candle.”

Final rating: 5/5 stars