Confessions of a Bookaholic: Book reviews about red rock country

Capitol Reef Fruit Orchard_feistyharriet_March 2015 (7)

This year I decided to write my book reviews a little differently instead of focusing on what I read chronologically, I want to group similar books together by topic and write about them that way.

Mormon Country, by Wallace Stegner (5 stars). Stegner spent a lot of time in Utah during his formative years, and his grasp of Mormon culture and idiosyncrasies while still respecting their faith is, frankly, refreshing. This was published in the early 1940’s and while there have been some big changes in many aspects of Mormon culture since then as the LDS church has grown exponentially, some of the idiosyncrasies are now just bigger issues, and some have disappeared completely.

In addition to describing the people and culture of Utah, however, Stegner spends many chapters discussing the land, the settlement (small agricultural towns based on community and irrigation, not the stand-alone ranches of the Midwest), the working with the natural resources instead of exploiting them (Mormons did not mine, despite settling in mineral and oil rich country), history of native tribes and people, history of battles (actual and political) with the federal government in the early days of the Utah Territory, Spanish explorers, Butch Cassidy’s outlaws, legends and stories from the Colorado Strip, dinosaur hunters, and the “colonizing” Mormons who settled from Idaho to Mexico, from the Rockies to the Sierra and even outposts at San Francisco, San Bernadino, and San Diego, California.

Mostly, this book just made me homesick. Stegner’s descriptions of the wildest places of the Wasatch mountains and south-eastern Utah’s red rock country made me long desperately for home. Stegner’s predictions for Utah have almost all come true, which was really interesting to read about.

Petrified Forest NP 2_feistyharriet_March 2016

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West, by Wallace Stegner (4 stars). The high desert, red rock canyon country of south-east Utah was the last part of the contiguous United States to be mapped, and with good reason. That country is harsh, blistering, and difficult to navigate by foot, horse, boat, or, frankly, jeep. Terry Tempest Williams says Utah has “a spine like a stegosaurus” and I think that’s quite apt. Powell is the first (white) explorer to attempt this country and try to map the rivers and mountains and plateaus. This book is that history and follows Powell’s political career for several decades as he tries to convince Congress and the public, so hot for the Homestead Act, that agricultural farming just will not work in vast areas of the arid, desert West. He failed, and it wasn’t until decades later that the US Government started to understand his points. The subsequent water war that has lasted and heightened in the last 15 or 20 years was predicted by Powell over 150 years ago, he knew exactly what would happen to the lands of the West if farming and ranching were left unchecked and the water resources were not protected.

The most exciting part of this book is the first 150 pages where Powell and a small group of adventurers run the Green River from Wyoming down through the Uintas and eastern Utah, finally meeting up with the Grand/Colorado River and continuing on through southeast Utah and northern Arizona, running the Grand Canyon, and ending up in the tip of Nevada. His descriptions are fantastic and, in many ways, a love letter to the red rock country I hold so dear. The rest of the book is more political and details the history of homesteading and immigration through the western United States, bits of the wars and treaties and decimation of the Native American tribes, and a lot of congressional arguments and acts and vetoes that led to the “opening” and settlement of the West. Stegner wrote this in the 1950’s and it is fascinating how much still holds true 75 years later on the fight for water and other sustaining resources in the hot desert mesas and mountains.

Utah Hwy 95_feistyharriet

High Tide in Tucson: Essays From Now or Never, by Barbara Kingsolver (4 stars). When I picked this book up I thought it would be include essays about Kingsolver’s life in Arizona, experiences in and around Tucson. It does not. The essays are well written and thought invoking, but only one or two has any direct ties to living in an arid desert. Just shows you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover. Kingsolver discusses politics, environment protection, family, travel, and many of her own childhood experiences. Excellent read.

Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, by Terry Tempest Williams (4 stars). This book is part environmental treatise, and part family history. While I sometimes did not identify with the connection Tempest Williams feels to the women in her family, I certainly felt in my bones her love for the Salt Lake valley and the Great Salt Lake herself (yes, the lake is a woman). Tempest Williams is a gifted storyteller and writes beautiful, poetic descriptions full of emotion and feeling.

Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, by Terry Tempest Williams (3 stars). This collection of essays about red rock and canyon country was a little hit and miss. Some of them I *loved* and re-read immediately. Other essays didn’t really affect me much, or even made me angry; but, in most ways, this book is a series of love letters to the wild, rocky country I call home.

Other Reading Recommendations:

Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey

The Anthropology of Turquoise, by Ellen Meloy


Harriet sig

Confessions of a Bookaholic: Feminism, volume 1

The more I read and hear about the war on women, the more I actively seek out additional information. The more I seek, the more I find, and the more I realize that once seen I cannot unsee the vast tentacles of patriarchy that are underlying so much of the society in which we live.

Now, there are a LOT of things I could talk about when I talk about feminism, but I want to specifically discuss the idea that “boys will be boys” and “men can’t help themselves”…particularly when it comes to degrading, assaulting, harassing, or otherwise abusing women. Men can help it. Their “animal” nature can be “trained” and curbed. You can train a dog to drop a juicy steak and leave it, untouched. You can train a dog to sit still and stay put while an in-heat dog is nearby. The dog may not like that command or that training, but they will do it. AND, if those dogs do not response properly to that training, they are castrated and kept in a cage, away from other dogs. So, don’t tell me that men cannot keep their thoughts and hands to themselves. Don’t tell me that it’s impossible for them to overcome their base instincts. Don’t tell me that they “can’t help it.” If a German Shepherd can “leave it alone”, any dude can. And frankly, men who are unable to keep their ego and penis in check should be castrated and kept far from society, to reduce their opportunities for harm. Oh, that doesn’t seem fair? THEN STOP COMPARING YOURSELVES TO ANIMALS! I know, I am preaching to a mostly female choir of fellow feminists here, the two or three men who read my blog are–from what I can tell–already feminists in their own right. Or at least they are well on their way.

I think there is a lot of fear and misinformation about what it means to be a feminist. I do not hate men. I do not think women are better than men. I do not think one must put men down in order to champion women. If you think feminism means any of those things, you don’t understand the point of feminism. Feminism as a social movement benefits women as much as it benefits men. The super-macho manliness that is advocated for across the media, advertising, and throughout society would be eliminated if feminism was more prominent. That “macho-man” bullshit is actually misogyny, relabeled, most of the time, and it is dangerous for men and women.

We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie (4 stars). “Gender matters everywhere in the world…we should begin to dream about and plan for a different world. A fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves. And this is how we start: we must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently.” This is a very quick read, or you can listen to the Ted Talk, and I think every American should hear what Adichie has to say.

The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir (4 stars). This book took me forever to read, it is super dense and the sentences and paragraphs are all packed with information and psychology and history and science. I’d read a little, think a lot, read some more, think some more. I kept a pen and highlighter with me and will probably go back and review some of my notes on the regular. de Beauvoir has so much insight and history and thought on key issues to being human, man or woman, and to being a feminist, fighting for equal rights for all humans.

My Life On The Road, by Gloria Steinem (3 stars). More than a feminist treatise, this book reads as an autobiographical travelogue. Granted, Steinem’s travels were mostly centered around politics and rallies for equality for women and equal rights, so it does have a lot of typical Steinem in it, but I didn’t really feel hit over the head with her particular brand of feminism. I do appreciate that she covered feminist issues for more than a middle-class or upper-middle-class white American woman; she focuses a lot of women of color, tribal women, poor women, lesbian and transgender women and the particular issues they face are all covered. Steinem highlights other groups with little vignettes and chapters that almost read like independent essays or short stories. You can read the New York Times review here.

Bad Feminist, by Roxanne Gay (3 stars). An essay collection, a few of these absolutely hit home for me, and a large chunk (mostly in the first half) were a lot harder for me to get in to. When Gay is writing what feels like a blog-post response to a piece of media she read or watched I lost interest pretty quickly, I want to read the original thing she read first, I felt like she didn’t explain enough about it for her critique or review of it to be successful for me as a reader. When she writes as a response to a major event covered by the news it was a lot easier for me to get through the piece because I had enough background to understand her jumps and lines of thought. The last half of this book is FAR better than the first (for me, except for the introduction, the first half was maybe 2.5 stars, the second half was easily 4, hence a 3-star rating).

Other feminist titles I would recommend, in no particular order:

A Vindication of the Rights of Women, by Mary Wollstonecraft

The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan

Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks

Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn

This year I decided to write my book reviews a little differently instead of focusing on what I read chronologically, I want to group similar books together by topic and write about them that way. I have a hefty shelf on Goodreads devoted to feminist writings, you should check it out.

Harriet sig

Confessions of a Bookaholic: Creativity and Writing

I seem to go through phases of high creative output and then these doldrum-y weeks where I don’t want to do anything but lie on my fainting couch, watching Netflix and eating frozen M&Ms. Granted, lately some of that lazing about may possibly be due to several weeks of go-go-go and temperatures many many degrees higher than I ever agreed to.

However, I have missed writing, I’ve not painted in months, and the extent of my creative ventures have involved mastering sunscreen application techniques. In the last few weeks I’ve read (ok, listened to) two books about creativity…and it seems the biggest lessons I need to learn are 1) it doesn’t have to be perfect or even important; 2) do something creative every day, anything.  I often feel crushed by my own internal need to create (write, paint, conjure) something AMAZING…when, truly, I just need to do something, to get into a habit of doing and then let the repetition and practice hone my skill and the dedicated space for doing to provide a platform for inspiration.

Creativity Inc_Big Magic_feistyharriet

Creativity Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, by Ed Catmull & Amy Wallace (5 stars). I loved the idea that failure is not actually failure, it’s just part of the process of creating, it’s part of refining an idea, or a story, or a piece of art. It’s not a negative, it’s an essential stepping stone for moving forward. I think parts of this book are very workplace or manager-style specific, but I also think there is a lot to learn as a creative-type, or a creative-wannabe-type, on how the process is not usually a BLAM of inspiration and, 10 minutes later, a perfect finished product. It is a PROCESS with a lot of back and forth and revising and more revising. It’s work to create something, and it’s okay if not every single decision you make in that process is, ultimately, one that leads to your finished product. It’s all part of the process.

I’m not sure if it is because my whole life feels like it’s in a state of flux–workplace things included–but I responded SO WELL to this book, the ideas and principles Catmull talks about for success, and all the little factoids and stories about his time in digital animation.

Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert (4 stars). Many years ago I read and loathed “Eat, Pray, Love” and while I maintained Gilbert was a great writer, I really really hated that book. So, I was pretty hesitant to pick this one up, however I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it. Gilbert’s ideas on what to do with creativity, how to not think of your creative outputs as your babies, or unchangeable, or needing to be perfect are things I have struggled with of late. I love to write, but I want it all to be brilliant and witty, and the truth is, I am not 100% brilliant or witty, there are a LOT of parts of me that I can express creatively that have nothing to do with brilliance or wit, and THAT IS OKAY, HARRIET, IT’S OKAY TO BE A LITTLE VULNERABLE SOMETIMES. I love to paint, but I often get bogged down in not having the skill to express on paper or canvas what I see in my mind’s eye, and THAT’S OKAY! IT’S OKAY TO BE AN AMATEUR, HARRIET! So….clearly I have some internal things that I need to work on when it comes to creativity and writing and expression, and I also need to remember that this space, in particular, is not for a shiny finished product. This little corner of the internet is for me, in all my unfinished and work-in-progress glory. That is why I made this space in the first place, for the process.

Overall, there were a few parts I think some parts of Big Magic that were a little too hippy-dippy for me, a little too woo-woo, and even a little too Elizabeth Gilbert, but, I really enjoyed her take on the creative process and it has already inspired some additional creative ventures of my own, so in that respect, this book is a success! In may ways this book reminded me of Gretchin Rubin’s book on habits, and Anne Lamott’s book on writing.

Other Books That Inspire Me:

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott (4 stars).

Writing About Your Life, by William Zinsser (5 stars).

Instead of grouping book reviews by month or quarter, I’ve decided to group them by topic instead because that seems to be how I read them anyway. What are you reading lately?

Harriet sig

Confessions of a Bookaholic: Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age

I have a literary crush on F. Scott Fitzgerald, but for the last couple of years I have wanted to know a lot more about his wife Zelda, their actual relationship, and what really went on during their golden Jazz Age. I’m slowly making my way through Fitzgerald’s novels, and have read a couple of different biographies on Zelda. This latest batch of reading, I feel, gave me a lot more insight into the famous couple, their struggles, and their failings. Also, my crush on F. Scott is now strictly on his writing, he himself seems to be quite the jackass.

Tender is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (3 stars). Well, it’s no Great Gatsby, but it does offer some interesting insights into the relationship between Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. They are only thinly disguised here, Dick as a brilliant but struggling psychiatrist who doesn’t have family wealth, but does make a name for himself through his psych textbooks and his copious consumption of alcohol and tendency to have affairs with young actresses (replace “writer” with psychiatrist and you have Scott, in a nutshell). Nicole is the beautiful young woman with loads of family money and a lot of mental health problems, which she must depend on her husband to help her solve (hi, Zelda). The couple waltz across Europe, staying in high-brow resorts, spending lavishly, drinking a ton, and flirting and sexing whomever they fancy between WWI and WWII. Honestly, pretty much every character was kind of deplorable, but I suppose that is a trademark of Fitzgerald, as well.

Zelda Fitzgerald, by Sally Cline (4 stars). Not an easy book to read, the legendary Zelda Fitzgerald, American flapper, high priestess of the Jazz Age, blonde Southern bombshell in Paris, is only a very small part of her very sad life. Most of her adult life she spent alone, controlled by doctors and her husband, receiving truly horrific treatments that would put her into a coma for weeks at a time. She died in a psychiatric hospital when it caught on fire and she was chained into her room on the top floor. In writing this biography Cline had access to a lot of records that were previously sealed, these documents seem to provide a new and terribly tragic view of Zelda Fitzgerald, and a not very flattering one of Scott. She was a talented writer, painter, and dancer in her own right, but was unable to assert herself publicly or privately, partly due to a Southern upbringing, partly due to the society of the time, and a lot to do with Scott on purpose silencing her, censoring her, and when she still tried to write about her own experiences, he literally shut her up in mental hospitals, ordered the doctors to drug her senseless, and then demanded that any of their shared experiences–in life, marriage, parenthood, or with her mental illnesses, were HIS property, alone, to use in literary works. He often directly quoted her letters and dialogue in his stories, he published her work under his name and used the proceeds to pay off his debts, he was an unstable alcoholic and a terrible father and husband…and Zelda received the brunt of his behavior her entire adult life.

This whole book read, to me, like an independent girl desperately trying to just EXIST outside of the shadow of her more famous husband, only he refused not only to share the spotlight, but to allow her anything outside of the role he preferred she play (devoted muse to his artistry). His actions surrounding her being confined to asylums was particularly nasty, the “treatments” she received most likely caused the bulk of her psychosis and certainly significantly contributed to her instability. Poor, poor Zelda. I loathe Scott’s behavior and treatment of her as some kind of controllable, performing pet instead of a full-fledged human with her own ideas, needs, and aspirations. I resent the society that legally allowed him such power and the medical system he didn’t even have to manipulate in order to knowingly destroy his wife, while his alcoholism, abuse, and unchecked egotism remained perfectly “normal” because, you know, he was a man. Ugh.

The Collected Writings of Zelda Fitzgerald (3 stars). It is really hard for me to rank this book which includes Zelda’s novel, “Save Me the Waltz,” and a play, “Scandalabra,” and a few short stories. I personally thought “Scandalabra” was hilarious, her dialog and stage direction are flawless (with a few iffy bits of the actual plot). The novel, however, seems….tortured. She seems tortured. The story is highly autobiographical and deals with Alabama (Zelda) as she and her artist husband travel around the US, then to Europe, with their young daughter in tow. In Paris, Alabama starts ballet and dreams so hard of being a prima belladonna…but her husband doesn’t want her to, and dancing is hard, and there is tension, which, finally, she overcomes and gets cast as the lead in an Italian ballet core. Now, in real life, Zelda started dancing in Paris while Scott was writing, and he hated her dancing, and when she got cast in an Italian troupe he refused to allow her to go to Italy and dance, and she didn’t, and she spent most of the rest of her life in and out of hospitals/asylums, more or less controlled by Scott and his desire for her to not succeed as an artist because HE was the artist in the family. “Save Me the Waltz” was heartbreaking, especially knowing more about Zelda’s life and her relationship with Scott, however, it wasn’t written very well. Whether that is because Scott edited it heavily prior to publication, or because it was heavy and emotional and Zelda was more successful at lighthearted dialogue, I don’t know. I don’t know if we’ll ever know. “Scandalabra” does not have many personal or autobiographical details, but was better written and really quite hilarious. I’m not sure why it had so little success as a play (6 performances, then closed forever). I feel like if “Scandalabra” is where Zelda’s talent shines, “Save Me the Waltz” shows just how controlled she was by Scott, both in it’s autobiographical aspects, and in the parts that stray from Zelda’s life (her success as a dancer in Italy, husband and child by her side, something she desperately wanted).

Other Recommended Reading:

Harriet sig

How To Start The Best Book Club In All The Land

For the last four years a group of friends has met the second Thursday of every month to talk about books; Book Club is a solid pillar of my social life and my reading list. Really, Book Club is my favorite. In fact, it is SO MUCH my favorite that even with a 700-mile move, Book Club is still going strong and I have managed to arrange my work trips to still be able to host/attend every month. Yep, I love it that much. We are still going strong with many original members and some new(ish) ones, we average about 15 attendees, but have had as few as 6 and as many as 30. I want to give a preliminary disclaimer that this is for an actual book discussion group; we talk about the book every. single. month. No exceptions. Honestly, I think that is part of the reason our book club has been as successful and long-running as it has; the other reason is because it’s a freaking awesome group of people who are super smart and have interesting ideas and great hair. Great hair not a requirement for joining, but it doesn’t hurt. (Wink.)

Here is everything you need to know to start your own fantastic book club:

How to Start a Book Club_feistyharriet_April 2016

How To Start A Book Club

1. Send out an email to a handful of friends to gauge interest. Be clear that this is a book club, not a monthly dinner party or gab-fest; the expectation is to read the book and attend the meeting prepared to discuss. We have a mix of men and women, single and married people (both with or without their spouse) and a pretty solid variety of backgrounds. There are many hard core readers and some recreational readers. And, to be honest, there are probably a few who come just for the conversation and the food, which is okay too as long as they don’t detract from the discussion. Be clear about whether or not members can bring friends or invite others who may be interested. I asked for some notice if a member was bringing someone new and tried to vet them a bit prior to officially adding them to the group. If you are still short on attendees, you can always put a call out via social media, or if you’re brave you can put an ad on Craig’s List or a flyer at a bookstore or library.

2. Decide where, and how often you want to meet. I wanted to meet monthly knowing that every person may not be able to come every single month; we opted for the second Thursday. For the first four years I always hosted Book Club at my apartment, and it worked splendidly, now the location is rotated among member’s homes and that’s been great too. Other options include using a room at the library, a church, or bookstore to have your discussion.

3. Decide what mix of books you will read. Some book clubs do all their readings from one genre–sci fi, romance novel, biography, memoir–and others have rules on content or length. Decide if you want to choose books that no one has read before or books that a couple of members have previewed and recommend for reading. We decided that we could go either way, although I do quite a bit of research/review reading on any book I’m unfamiliar with prior to adding it to the rotation. We alternate fiction and non-fiction and try and get a wide variety of topics. Our only real hard-and-fast rule is that books must be under 400 pages and available in paperback, that’s it. That being said, our January selection is always a little longer than 400 pages because we don’t have a book club discussion in December.

I made a simple Google form for people to suggest books, and I ask everyone to suggest at least one book per year, but it’s not required. Having that survey makes it easy to keep track of all the books and who recommended them. I like to have the next 4-6 months scheduled out with title and discussion leader, and I include this information & schedule in an email after every discussion (date, title & author, discussion leader, location) along with a brief synopsis of our discussion and any Book Club announcements.

4. Decide how to determine the discussion leader or moderator. Do you want to be the moderator for all titles, or if the person who suggested the book is the discussion leader. I get a lot of suggestions for books to read and I always ask whether or not the suggestee is willing to lead the discussion, most people agree to do so. I’ve surprise-asked a couple of people to lead a discussion on a title, sometimes because I know it’s a subject they are interested in or because they have some kind of background that I think is relevant to the book. I think overall I probably lead 30% of the discussions, but it’s my Book Club and I am totally fine doing that in order to keep a solid schedule and discussion. I usually make a list of 10-12 questions to talk about (sometimes lifting those questions straight from the publisher’s website) and that easily gets us through an hour’s discussion.

5. Decide what format you want your book club to take. This was the aspect I did the most research on, reading dozens of articles and blog posts about different book clubs. Our format works really well for our group, and it has not changed for four year; it’s also the one aspect I am most adamant we maintain. We always meet the second Thursday of the month, from 7:30-8:00 pm there is chit-chat, and a few light appetizers, people showing up throughout, but no book discussion. From 8:00-9:00 pm is the formal discussion and that block of time is strictly reserved for talking about the book: no gossip, no relationship updates, just book discussion. After 9pm many people hang around chatting and laughing and having a good time, sometimes for 30 minutes, sometimes for a couple of hours (this is also one of my favorite things about book club: the after party). If you don’t want to chit-chat before hand, you can come only for the discussion and leave at 9:00 pm. If you haven’t read the book and don’t want to hear all the spoilers but want to see your friends, you can come before or after the discussion. If you want to stay for the discussion but haven’t read the book, you need to a) somehow contribute to the conversation or b) you need to stay quiet, no distracting side-convos. The last few minutes of the discussion (like, 3 minutes, tops) are for any housekeeping items and an announcement of the next month’s book selection.

Our Book Club has a holiday party every December, we exchange books (sometimes our favorites, sometimes White Elephant selections) and instead of talking about one specific book we talk about reading in general, eat a lot, catch up with each other, and oftentimes see members who haven’t attended a discussion in months. It’s an easy way to continue the book club tradition without adding additional stress (must read the book!) to an already busy holiday season.

6. Decide what kind of food situation you’d like, formal or casual, pot-luck or not? I always think food is a good idea for a get-together. At our meetings we will be having a mix of salty and sweet, healthy and not-so-healthy appetizers, snacks, and desserts. If possible, I love to include food that somehow relates to the book either because it was mentioned in the text, or whatever. (Example: when we read a book set in Iran we had a Middle-Eastern feast. When we read a book set in Germany we had all sorts of Germanic foods). Most attendees bring something to share and we almost always have leftover food. I usually print up some RIDICULOUSLY simple food label tents so everyone knows what is on the table and those will allergies can make better decisions. If I’m feeling fancy I’ll take those food label tents (that I made in Microsoft Word) and add a themed background or something, but usually they are pretty black and white, literally.

That’s it! It’s really only a few simple steps to start a book club of your own, solidify your bookish friendships, and quite possibly, change your life for the better. Because I’m in a sharing mood, here are some easy ways to get started on your own fabulous book club.

  • Want to see the survey I use to get book recommendations? It’s right here.
  • After the break is a list of the books we’ve read since 2012 , an asterix denotes (in my opinion) an extra stellar discussion. You can also view the spreadsheet here.
  • Want to get a copy of the (Easy! Microsoft Word!) file I use to make reminder bookmarks? Right here. To update for your needs, just google-image search for the title of the book and you can copy-paste the cover onto the front of the bookmark. On the back you just need to copy-paste the book summary from Amazon or Goodreads. Print double-sided (flip on short edge) onto cardstock and cut into bookmarks. Viola! Easy-peasy. You can also just print the front-side and call it a day, I doubt anyone will think less of you if a summary is not included on the back.
  • Want to download some of the book-themed food labels I’ve made? Right here. Feel free to use however you’d like.
  • Are we friends on Goodreads yet? If not, please add me! I love to see what other people are reading!

Harriet sig




Continue Reading →