What I’m Reading This Week

Nonfiction: Not the Camilla We Knew by Rachael Hanel & Fiction: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt


I’m reading Rachael Hanel’s Not the Camilla We Knew: One Woman’s Path from Small-Town America to the Symbionese Liberation Army for a couple of reasons. First, I very much like Hanel’s writing. I read her memoir We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, and I enjoyed her voice, writing style, and her story-telling skills.

Second, the title, Not the Camilla We Knew, captured my attention. Camilla grew up in Minnesota, and as a young woman she joined the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), an organization of domestic terrorists. Hanel’s book title promised to give me the rest of Camilla’s story. Camilla died in a shootout in Los Angeles in 1974. The SLA and the events before and after that shootout were widely reported in the news. People involved in tragic events are often vilified or exalted, but reality is often murkier.

Hanel doesn’t excuse Camilla’s behavior, but rather tries to understand why someone who grew up middle class with so many options available to them decided to join a domestic terrorist group. While Hanel’s book focuses on Camilla, I’m also learning more about the SLA. Hanel spent twenty years researching and writing this book. I’ve read almost half of the book, and I have to say that Hanel’s dedication pays off. The book is well-written and it’s a page-turner.


I’m reading Shelby Van Pelt’s Remarkably Bright Creatures because I read a review about it on Angry Angel Books, a blog by Amanda Nissen. She raved about the book so enthusiastically that I had to check out a copy from the library. Nissen likes books “about women, especially older women,” and so do I. Older characters who are fully developed resonate with me, perhaps because I’m an older character. But also because older people are complete people, with all the thoughts, hopes, desires, and feelings of younger people. Often society wants to see older people as one-dimensional, as a stereotype. I’m about one-fourth into the book, and Van Pelt’s seventy-year-old character Tova, a widow, is a well-rounded, and I like her a lot.

But I was convinced that I absolutely had to read this book when Nissen described Marcellus, a remarkably bright octopus, who lives in the aquarium where Tova works. I find octopuses fascinating. Marcellus and Tova become friends. Readers meet Marcellus in short chapters, which are told from his point of view and interspersed among chapters told from the human point of view. His cantankerous voice is engaging and sarcastically witty as he describes his life in an aquarium, nudging readers to reflect upon how they interreact with nonhuman creatures.

Nissen’s review crackled with 1,000-watt-electric enthusiasm. Leaving no room for doubt, she discusses this book like one talks about a new love who is so perfect that there is nothing negative to be said. When someone touts a book or a movie in such glowing terms, there is always a chance that reality won’t match the hype. Nissen states that the book is “as bright and full of life as its cover.” And so far, I agree, wholeheartedly.

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