Books: Turning Homeward, and Knocking On Heaven’s Door

Today, in typical spring-in-the-Rockies fashion, the weather pivoted 180 degrees from yesterday’s sixty-five and sunny, into freezing rain, mist, sleet, snow, and then steady rain again. When I walked to the Post Office just a few minutes ago, the temperature was hovering just above freezing, and the cloud-blanket was beginning to clear, revealing new snow on the hillsides just above town. 

This kind of weather that makes me want to curl up on the couch and read. With that in mind, here are capsule reviews of two books that crossed my desk recently. The two are very different: one is memoir/nature writing of the best sort, thoughtful and insightful, and the other is crackling good fiction. What they share is that both books stretch boundaries, shift perspectives, and teach us things we didn’t know we needed to know. Which is what makes each a great read. 

Turning Homeward, Restoring Hope and Nature in the Urban Wild, by Adrienne Ross Scanlan

As a girl growing up in the suburbs of New York City, Adrienne Ross Scanlan watched her father with the other men at Temple Zion, white prayer shawls over dark suits, “swaying and chanting their prayers.” At home, she watched a different kind of movement as the tremors and other neuro-motor impacts of Parkinson’s disease robbed her father of the ability to “rise from his Naugahyde recliner, walk into a room, hug his daughters, talk and laugh with friends…”

After her father died, Scanlan, by then an adult, sold her belongings, quit her job and moved West for a new start. She wound up in Seattle and began searching for her own form of healing in volunteer work to help restore the region’s iconic salmon runs. She understood it as a way to practice the Jewish tradition of tikkum olam, a term that translates as ”repair of the world.”

Turning Homeward chronicles what Scanlan learns about the complexities of both mending the world and living as a thoughtful and conscious human being. Her meditations on the meaning of tikkum olam, and the meaning of restoration in nature and in daily life apply to all of us. How can we as fallible human beings live with our flaws and the hurts we intentionally or not inflict on each other and the world? How do we live with the knowledge that even at our best, we cause pain and suffering, simply by being? We all eat, for example, and in the doing, we consume other lives. Even if we eat a purely plant-based diet, we eat plant embryos as we consume grain and beans, and plant flesh in roots like carrots or leaves like spinach. How do we atone for those impacts, unwitting or not?

For Scanlan, the answer is in practicing tikkum olam, consciously working to repair the world in whatever form we are called to:

The call to repair is genuine, arising from our best selves, I like to think, the part of all of us capable of acknowledging the harms we’ve crated without shrinking away in guilt or fear. There’s no end to the damage we caused, just as there’s no end to our curiosity, our capacity for good work, our intelligence, and our compassion. The reasons for despair are everywhere and profound. What’s lost does matter. So does what’s still here and what’s still possible. … Tikkun, I’ve come to learn, isn’t identified by intentions but by the impact of what we hope are reparative actions.

Turning Homeward is a work of thoughtful atonement. Scanlan writes honestly and tenderly about what has not worked in mending her life, and the lives of salmon and urban streams, as well as what has. And out of despair at the havoc we have wreaked on this earth and each other, a quiet sense of hope grows in her words, the kind of active expectation of the results of conscious work that can in fact, lead to mending the wounds of the world and we humans.

Knocking On Heaven’s Door, by Sharman Apt Russell

Clare breathed in the smell of blood. Sharp, metallic, in the air, on her skin. She slipped her knife into the space between the joint and bone of the mare’s hip—a small young female but still too much meat, more than enough for their next few days of hunting. Tonight she and Jon would feast on the rump with garlic and onion, some saltbush leaves, perhaps a mint paste… Clare felt happy thinking about her dinner. She felt…lust. A fervent yearning. Her mouth filled with saliva. A violent tenderness. Her heart expanded, blossomed, pressed against her ribcage so that she mewled without sound, kittenish. She slunk forward, barely in control, through the grass…

No, no, these were not her thoughts. 

“Cat! Cat!” Clare yelled and stood, dropping the knife, picking up her spear from the bloodied ground.

It is the 23rd Century, about 150 years after a supervirus has wiped out almost every human being on Earth. The few survivors have recreated a “utopian” paleolithic hunter-gatherer lifestyle imbued with animism, informed by New Physics, and linked by solar-powered laptops (solarcomps) via the worldwide web.

Clare and her tribe live in New Mexico, moving with the seasons, feasting on abundant plants and wild game, and celebrating the cycles of nature. The only animals they do not hunt are the “paleos,” once-extinct Paleolithic species reintroduced before the virus, creatures like the saber-toothed cat who intruded into Clare’s thoughts and nearly killed her and her hunting companion at the beginning of the book. Many paleos are telepathic; as Clare says, “How could you hunt someone you could talk to?”

A widow whose young daughter died six years before, Clare has found comfort and meaning in teaching creative writing to students from around the world via the worldwide web. Now, one of her students, a younger man from her own tribe, has become her lover. Clare’s life seems settled, until she is assigned to serve as quest-guide to Brad, a “lab rat” and theoretical physicist who lives in the relative comfort of what remains of the Los Alamos National Laboratory complex.

Brad, who discovered The Theory of Everything and whose mathematics describes how life could exist in “quantum non-locality,” as holographic projections of actual cells. Brad, who has put off the required quest as long as possible, who prefers to think math in his office rather than hunt and sleep outdoors. Brad, who initially becomes interested in Clare simply a woman who might bear his children.

The quest the two set off on becomes so much more than a simple journey, bringing up classic conflicts: a life close to the earth versus a life of the mind, technology versus nature, organized society versus loners who live outside the culture, intuitive and sensory knowledge versus intellect, man versus woman. The story twists and turns through the landscape, through lives, through physics and Brad’s risky experiment to win Clare as his own. The choices the two humans make in the aftermath of that experiment will shape their future and that of their people.

Science fiction generally doesn’t interest me, but Knocking on Heaven’s Door sucked me in and kept me hooked, immersed in a culture and characters I hadn’t imagined I wanted to know. Sharman Apt Russell’s imagined future manages to be both utopian and also startlingly contemporary, relevant and illuminating to our lives and choices today.


Two excellent reads, thanks to two authors unafraid to reach deep, think way beyond the norms, and explore the world, in very different ways. Happy reading!

Books: Three Novels by Three Talented Women Writers

Over the past few months, three novels by women writers–all set in the greater Southwest–have landed on my reading stack. The three are very different stories, but all feature strong female characters and evocative stories and landscapes. They’re all very much worth a read!

Bittersweet, by Susan Wittig Albert

Bittersweet is Susan Albert’s 23rd China Bayles mystery, a series based in the fictional Texas town of Pecan Springs, at the edge of the Hill Country. The story opens in the fading daylight of a November evening when a single-engine plane with an expired license touches down at an isolated airstrip owned by two brothers who are illegally importing black-market white-tailed deer to turn their family land into a trophy game ranch.

Their actions set this absorbing story into into motion, derailing the quiet Thanksgiving China had planned at her mother and step-dad’s nearby place, and throwing China and her friend Mac, a Texas game warden, into the world of big-game ranching, animal-rights activism and drone surveillance. Along the way, the two women deal with murder and other mayhem, and come to know each other and themselves better.

What makes Albert’s novels stand out in the world of series mysteries is their strong sense of place, tight plotting, and the authentic way her characters interact, learn and grow in each book. Plus the way Albert educates readers about contemporary issues without preaching.

Bittersweet shines as well for Albert’s deft use of multiple points of view—alternating chapters are told by different characters. Each voice contribute to what we know (and don’t know) about the action without interrupting the tension or the flow of the story.

If you haven’t met China Bayles, the hard-charging trial lawyer turned herb-shop-owner and stepmom, Bittersweet is a great place to start. It’s Albert’s best mystery yet.

Teresa of the New World, by Sharman Apt Russell

Sharman Russell is best-known for her creative non-fiction books, including Anatomy of a Rose, a lyrical and eye-opening look at the sex lives of plants, and her most recent, Diary of a Citizen Scientist. Teresa of the New World is a brilliant departure, a classic journey story told through magical realism.

The novel tells the story of the fictional mestizo daughter of Alvár Nuñéz Cabeza de Vaca, the real-life Spanish conquistador who is one of only four survivors of a Spanish expeditionary force of 300 men who landed in Florida in 1528.

Cabeza de Vaca’s eight years as a captive of the Native American tribes, then a trader and healer, and finally, a conquistador returning to Spain come to life through the eyes of his daughter, the little girl who grows up listening to the voices of plants and earth and animals. Early one morning, her charismatic father sets off to walk to New Spain, taking Teresa away from her family and tribe.

That leaving begins the young girl’s wanderings—across the continent and through cultures and diseases that are wreaking havoc on the Native world Teresa was born into. The journey of this mixed-race young girl, abandoned by her father and searching for a home and a place to belong, will absorb and enchant readers.

Return to Abo, by Sharon Niederman

If you’re looking for a novel about interesting women set in a starkly beautiful part of rural New Mexico, Niederman’s first novel won’t disappoint. It’s another journey story: Maggie, who grew up on a hard scrabble ranch in central New Mexico, the girl who made good as a journalist in faraway San Francisco and then lost heart for her work and ultimately, her stellar job, comes home for the funeral of her mother’s ranch foreman, Elias, the father figure of her childhood. Maggie ends up staying to care for her mother (who of course does not want Maggie’s help) and for the ranch itself.

The crackling energy of the characters makes Return to Abo a good read: Maggie’s punk and multiply pierced teenage daughter, who arrives after being kicked out of the prep school her father enrolled her in; Maggie’s lost high-school love, the Mayor of the small town; and the wonderfully eccentric and resilient collection of old ladies who form Maggie’s mother’s bridge group; and the spare and entrancing New Mexico landscape itself. 

Happy reading!