REVIEW: These Precious Days by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett’s recent collection of essays, These Precious Days, is a tour de force that traverses a wide range of themes and the author’s life experiences. There is, however, a weighty thread running through the book, which reads more as a personal memoir than an essay collection – mortality, particularly in connection to the pandemic and the last several years.

In the book’s introduction, entitled “Essays Don’t Die,” Ms. Patchett, a prolific novelist, explains that when she is working on a novel, “were [she] to die, [she’d] be taking the entire world of [her] novel with [her]”, and “the thought of losing all the souls inside [her] was unbearable.” On the other hand, essays offer a way out: “death,” she notes, “has no interest in essays.” Hence, These Precious Days is a collection borne out of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting inability to avoid our own mortality. “Death always thinks of us eventually,” she writes, adding that “the trick is to find the joy in the interim, and make good use of the days we have.” Ms. Patchett’s essay collection is a tabulation of that joy.

The essays themselves are vivid without being florid, and poignant, but certainly not saccharine. They are humorous at times, and melancholy at others. They offer a small window into Ms. Patchett’s childhood, education, writing process, and personal life, touching on her family, relationships, bookstore, and even her knitting. One of my favorite essays, titled “Reading Kate DiCamillo” is a reflection on children’s literature from an adult reader’s perspective. (Ms. Patchett writes: “These books had given me the means to look backwards. I marveled at the resilience of children who were strong enough to read such sad and beautiful novels full of prisons and dungeons and hunger and sorrow and knives.”)

“These Precious Days,” the book’s title essay, is simultaneously the unlikely story of how Ms. Patchett and her husband spent quarantine with Sooki Raphael, who happened to be Tom Hank’s assistant, and a meditation on life, death, and the human experience. Though the essay could gleam with the star power of the celebrity names included in it, it instead ends up being a real and tender story of regular people. Ms. Patchett notes in the introduction that this “essay was so important to me that I wanted to build a solid shelter for it” (These Precious Days, the book, being the result). It is the longest essay in the book, pithy and raw in a way that stings, and I stayed up reading it into the early hours of the morning because I could not stop in the middle.

Though death is a current present throughout These Precious Days, “the river that ran underground, always,” the essay collection is ultimately about life, and the people and moments to be cherished. It is a beautifully-crafted literary reminder in trying times that, even when death and shadows lurk, there is still life, and there is still joy.

REVIEW: Jan 28 Webster Reading Series

I’m a rather boring person, so for me, Friday nights usually mean climbing in bed by eight, and sitting there for four hours reading, playing a game, or just scrolling through my phone. However, I mixed it up this Friday and went to UMMA after leaving my work.

Yes — a museum is very exciting.

The Webster Reading Series, which features the poetry and fiction works of the second-year Masters of Fine Arts students, was held in UMMA’s Stern Auditorium. And thus, my weekend was spiced up with a poetry and fiction reading.

Jokes aside, the reading was a pretty chill way to bookend my week. As my intended major is Creative Writing and Literature, I thought that I may learn something from the event’s authors. It was also a good opportunity to see more of UMMA since I usually don’t have a reason to go there. The University has multiple landmarks free to its students that I have yet to fully explore.

 At the session, Eva Warrick read her fiction works, and Abigail McFee read her poetry after being generously introduced by their cohorts. Their works, despite their apparent simplicity, were gripping once spoken aloud. It’s always interesting to actually hear stories be translated from the authors’ own voice. Simply reading works is a different experience altogether.

It was also nice to be reminded that “real” stories aren’t only what I was shown throughout my past years of schooling — lengthy, antique tales, with symbolism that made me feel stupid. They can also be modern and direct. Eva and Abigail presented humor and heart to the audience with their cadent storytelling. I thoroughly enjoyed their artistic narrations.

The Webster Reading Series has three more events on February 11th, March 11th, and March 18th which you all should definitely check out if you’re interested. And if you can’t make it in person it is also possible to witness it through a provided Zoom link.

REVIEW: Candle-Making with the Coven Mavens at Booksweet!

For those who prefer more intimate Halloween celebrations, this Samhain candle making workshop at new North Campus bookstore Booksweet was not to be missed. The Coven Mavens curated a truly magical experience right down to the golden place settings and the abundance of dried herbs and essential oils. Before we made our striped candles, Coven Mavens Juliana and Sara shared with us a bit about Samhain. “Samhain is the traditional celebration in Celtic and Wiccan belief at the end of Harvest before winter begins when the veil between worlds is understood to be thin. This means that we might feel the closer presence of the dead, or ancestors, or even spirits like fairies.” The Coven Mavens are two alumni of the University of Michigan who now facilitate magical events around Ann Arbor.

The Coven Mavens at the divination table
Coven Maven Juliana pours wax for a participant

This workshop attracted local Ann Arbor families and students a like. There were people like myself there who practice witchcraft and other types of spirituality but I would say we were outnumbered by participants as equally passionate about scented candles and candlemaking. The Coven Mavens helped us along every step of the way with tips to make even stripes and a large variety of ingredients including palo santo oil, dried lavender, and sea salt. My favorite scent to try was the white birch! The workshop also featured optional Tarot reading and a raffle. Each participant received a goody bag with a metal candle snuffer among other treats. I was really impressed with the quality of it all and excited to add my new candle and snuffer to my altar!

I hope in the future the Mavens will host more events and give us an even deeper glimpse into some of these magical traditions. The Coven Mavens may attract a wide range of customers but when it comes to witchcraft, they are the real deal. They practice magic themselves as part of a larger group and hold specific events to share some of their practice through their business. They are what Booksweet owner Truly Render calls “community experts”, local practitioners, writers, scholars, and activists based in Ann Arbor who collaborate with Booksweet.

Booksweet is a family owned and operated business that seeks to showcase the work of these experts and foster community around literature and discussion. The shop features curated reading lists, including a Racial Justice List and a Gender Reading List. Past partners have included Black Men Read and Booksweet is a proud partner for monthly Family Book Parties when the weather is nice. Next month, Booksweet is hosting  11/6 event with with Rise, a student-led advocacy organization committed to restoring funding for public higher education to make public colleges and universities affordable and accessible to all.

A selection of books on the topic of racial justice
Participants at the candle making table
My new Samhain candle!

Booksweet is not your typical Barnes and Nobles type of experience. Where as larger bookstores might provide variety and anonymity– a place to drink a coffee and work undistracted– smaller bookstores like Booksweet offer a curated, interactive experience. They have a unique selection of books ranging on topics from religion to current events to young adult fiction to graphic novels.

I picked up a gem I have been coveting, Misfits: A Personal Manifesto by Michaela Coel, the genius writer, director, and star of tv series I May Destroy You. Included at this event as well were various books of magic and tarot decks discounted to the participants of the workshop. If you’ve been craving a change in perspective, check out Booksweet on 1729 Plymouth Rd!



REVIEW: Jonathan Franzen Releases “Crossroads”

Acclaimed author Jonathan Franzen recently released his latest novel, Crossroads and is also presenting an accompanying virtual book tour in partnership with local bookstores around the country. Last Thursday, local bookstores around the midwest including Ann Arbor’s Literati Books co-hosted an online book tour event where Franzen read excerpts from Crossroads and discussed the book in conversation with Kathy Wang, author of the novels Impostor Syndrome and Family Trust.

The concept of an “online” version of the classic local bookstore book tour is a bit odd at first glance, but it proved to be a rewarding substitute for the pre-covid format. The event began with Franzen reading an excerpt from Crossroads. The novel itself focuses primarily on a single family over the course of a single day around Christmastime in the 1970s. To open, he chose a segment which at times felt deliberately uncomfortable, dealing with complex issues of religion, maternal roles and responsibilities, and the concept of the “ideal body” and dieting for women in the 1970s (when the novel is set). The prose isn’t terribly complex, but the associated emotion in the excerpt is compelling and palpable.

The excerpt serves as a springboard for Franzen and Wang to discuss just how this book and its characters came to be. Franzen chooses to inhabit the consciousness of each family member, a decision that arrived slowly over the course of the creation of the novel. He discusses how originally he thought the matriarch, Marion, would be “just a mom”—a character without much depth or her own perspective. Yet she grew so much during the three years of the book’s gestation that she ultimately became a character so important that the multi-paragraph opening excerpt was focused entirely on her and her internal conflict.

Not only did Marion change throughout the novel’s creation, but Franzen and Wang also discuss how Franzen’s attitude towards his characters has changed with time, over the course of his previous novels up until now. Franzen admits that he’s not trying to be “kinder to his characters”, although in his eyes, he sees that as a potential loss of comedy. The inextricable partnership of anger and comedy is something I had never seriously considered before, but Franzen and Wang put it into sharp perspective. They discuss how, in Franzen’s eyes, it’s impossible to have comedy without also having anger, and how his choice to treat his characters in Crossroads with greater kindness—although never forgoing honesty—may have sacrificed some comedy in the interest of having deeper, truer characters.

The “peek behind the curtain” about the creation of Crossroads and Franzen’s literary process only increased my excitement about reading the novel. If you’re a fan of Franzen or just generally interested in reading the novel, I would recommend attending a book tour date! The tour is virtual and future tour dates can be viewed here: 

Stay tuned for an upcoming review of the full novel!

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REVIEW: The Four Winds

Set in the 1930s and telling the story of a family who fled Dust Bowl-ravaged Texas for California, The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah is not a comfortable book to read. That said, however, its descriptive prose and well-developed characters has the potential to draw readers in, and certainly kept me turning to the next page. Furthermore, despite the immense pain contained in the book’s pages, there is also an undercurrent of hope and survival, making it a worthwhile read in the current times. At over four hundred pages long, it is an excellent book for summer reading.

Elsa Martinelli, the main character of the book, is a woman who does not know her strength. As a young girl, a heart condition kept her from participating in many activities. Her family treated her as weak and as an outsider, and the resulting feelings of inadequacy haunted Elsa in a failing marriage and into middle age. However, she rises from these ashes to find family in her children and mother- and father-in-law, whom she fights fiercely for. This fierce love leads her to make one of the toughest decisions of all – to leave the Texas farm that is her family’s livelihood, but where everything is dying as a result of the dust storms, in search of a better future for her children.

However, life is not automatically better in California. Although the Martinellis escape the dust and its associated health consequences, work is hard to come by. Migrants fleeing the dust storms, referred to by California locals by derogatory terms such as “Okies” or “your kind,” were forced to live in inhumane tent camps, scraping together money to afford the most necessities. Though the story takes place nearly a century ago, it is hard to read it and not draw comparisons to the treatment of twenty-first century immigrants and refugees. So much progress has been made in so many areas since then, and yet we still tolerate, and even perpetrate, the same gross violations of human rights and dignity:

“Elsa couldn’t believe people lived this way in California. In America. These folks weren’t bindle stiffs or vagabonds or hobos. These tents and shacks and jalopies housed families. Children. Women. Babies. People who had come here to start over, people looking for work.”

However, fortunately, the human spirit also remains today as it did in the 1930s. In the Author’s Note, Kristin Hannah observes that strength can be drawn from others’ persistence in past hardships and applied to current struggles like the pandemic: “We’ve gone through bad times before and survived, even thrived. History has shown us the strength and durability of the human spirit. In the end, it is our idealism and our courage and our commitment to one another – what we have in common – that will save us.”

Even when things kept getting worse for the Martinelli’s when it seemed as though it was already as bad as it could get, they held onto one another, to friends, and to hope for better days. That is a message well worth four hundred pages.