NOTE: the prices listed online fluctuate over time
- Downpour: Downpour, like Audible below, is subscription-based. For $12.99 per month you get one credit. If used wisely the credit can go a long way. For instance, if you were to get with the one credit Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer, you’ve just invested in over 55 hours of narrative time. That’s like paying someone 23 cents per hour. Twelve credits a year amount to a $156 commitment, but you can cancel at any time, and get only one credit at a time. This is the same sum as an audible gold membership, so it really is quite even. What I love about Downpour is that they have more indie and hidden gems that are not quite so mainstream, and they constantly have sales going on. I also appreciate that they have a connection to Soundcloud (through Blackstone Audio) where…
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Introduction and Story Content
Beowulf is the foundational text in the English literary canon. It is the only epic in Old English and has been used as a source for a large portion of our vocabulary and understanding of Old English and Anglo-Saxon England. Nobody knows for certain when the poem was originally composed in an oral tradition and by whom but the manuscript itself has been dated around the year 1000 A.D. There is a large scholarly debate as to whether the manuscript was written in the early part of the 11th century or late part of the 10th century so the compromise agreement settled on 1000. The scholars who have tried to situate the oral poem itself based on syntax, word usage, vocabulary, and references to clans, people, and events include J.R.R. Tolkien who situated the origins in the year 700, about three hundred years prior…
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“Ricardo de Avila would have followed Coronado to the ends of the earth. Instead, Ricardo found the end of his mortal life, and a new one, as a renegade vampire-conquistador.”
The Immortal Conquistador is the 15th installment of the both collaborative, and (mostly) Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville series—an urban fantasy series with werewolves and vampires–just what the doctor ordered. This book contributes greatly to the world-building components of Vaughn’s series as it provides a background on Rick the vampire’s origin story.
Set in Rome and Mexico City, we follow Rick struggle with becoming what he hates most, and dealing with components of his conditions and learning to accept them. Rick witnesses the history of western civilization in some of its most gruesome moments and must continue to live with all this knowledge. There is a lot of time hopping in this book but once you get into it it’s very easy to follow. This book leaves a lot of room for development and as it is only an installment I think we’re going to see a lot more of the characters present in The Immortal Conquistador.
What I love about Vaughn’s writing is that she takes you on a fun adventure and secretly sneaks in layers of complexity to her characters where you find yourself thinking about them for days on end. I can’t wait to see where this series is heading!
Last year I read Lisa Goldstein’s The Red Magician and was overjoyed when Tachyon sent me Ivory Apples. Once again, Goldstein writes a cozy feel-good novel imbued with magic. This book is heartwarming, accessible, and inclusive. It engages with the idea of fandom as much as it looks at complicated family dynamics. This novel follows Ivy whose great-aunt Maeve is famous writer Adela Martin, writer of a fantasy classic called Ivory Apples. Her readers had consumed her works in a very ‘fandom-like’ fashion, now becoming a familiar trend in a post-Potter world. The protagonists in this novel are very young and there are many elements involving school, growing, learning as well as finding out parts of oneself for the first time. Ivy, like her Great-aunt treasures the craft of writing and keeps it close to her heart even when questioned about it in school. Ivy’s relationship with Maeve is also founded on literature, as she received most of the children’s classics from her, and somehow Ivy’s whole world seems to be around Ivory Apples through the engagement with Maeve’s fans (and seeing as they are hard to avoid, some haters as well). The narrative takes a turn once the line between real life and fantasy is blurred. In the process of being thrown into the unknown, Ivy grows even closer to her family. It’s a wonderful bonding novel, ideal for anyone ages 10 and up! I see this being a children’s book, YA, and adult fantasy all at once.
Ivory Apples will be released October 15, 2019 and is currently available for pre-order.
Introduction and Story Content
Beowulf is the foundational text in the English literary canon. It is the only epic in Old English and has been used as a source for a large portion of our vocabulary and understanding of Old English and Anglo-Saxon England. Nobody knows for certain when the poem was originally composed in an oral tradition and by whom but the manuscript itself has been dated around the year 1000 A.D. There is a large scholarly debate as to whether the manuscript was written in the early part of the 11th century or late part of the 10th century so the compromise agreement settled on 1000. The scholars who have tried to situate the oral poem itself based on syntax, word usage, vocabulary, and references to clans, people, and events include J.R.R. Tolkien who situated the origins in the year 700, about three hundred years prior to it being set in text. Since then several scholars have verified and defended Tolkien’s stance.
The story of Beowulf contains 3182 lines and is divided into three almost equal parts, identified by the various ‘monsters’ the protagonists must face. Beowulf, a prince of the Geats, hears of his neighbour Hrothgar’s troubles. Hrothgar resides in his Kingdom of the Danes as the poem introduces itself “wē Gār-Dena” literally translated as “we, the Spear-Danes.” Hrothgar’s mead hall is terrorized by a monster named Grendel repeatedly. No man had been strong enough to face the monster and defeat him. The Geats (OE: gēatas) would be what is now South Sweden and was at the time a North Germanic Tribe, and the Danes (OE: danēs) were where Denmark is now. What is curious is that the first English epic and the first English hero is from Sweden, especially since the Viking Raids were detrimental to English monasteries, manuscripts, and culture. Although the Vikings were Nordic military and their attacks happened between the oral tradition of the poem and its immortalization in text, it is still interesting given these relations that the first English hero, is not English.
Beowulf defeats Grendel and there is much rejoicing, after which Grendel’s mother seeks revenge on Beowulf and Hrothgar for killing her son. The idea of avenging was a widely accepted concept in Anglo-Saxon England, and many argue that Grendel’s mother is not so monstrous and uncivilized, because what she seeks is quite noble by Anglo-Saxon standards. Beowulf defeats her as well after which he departs and returns to Geat-land. Years go by, and near the end of his life Beowulf must face a dragon who has been guarding a treasure-hoard. In the process of defending his people and defeating the Dragon, Beowulf dies. The poem is concluded with a funeral service. There have been parallels drawn between the funeral mentioned in Beowulf and burial ship found at Sutton Hoo in England near Woodbridge, Suffolk.
In terms of content one may be able to see parallels between Beowulf and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, particularly the dragon Smaug who is also sitting on a treasure-hoard in The Hobbit. Tolkien was not only one of the biggest Beowulf fans he was one of the few to make it canon. According to his biographers, when Tolkien gave a lecture on Beowulf in front of a large group of scholars:
“Tolkien’s argument changed forever the landscape of Beowulf scholarship. He said what everyone wanted to hear but no one had mustered the courage to say: that Beowulf was a great poem, a joy to read, a masterpiece of mythopoeic art.”
Tolkien brought Beowulf into scholarship studies by being highly influential, and yet his greatest contribution was brining Beowulf into mainstream culture. Due to the large success of Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and The Hobbit, Fantasy as a genre began to grow with a formula: landscape (maps), new language, and dragons were almost always present. The Elvish language Tolkien created was heavily influenced by Old English, and so, fans would work their way backwards and find their way to Beowulf. From my personal experience, as I was sitting in an undergraduate class of Old English, I noted that a large group of the class was sitting there because of their love for Tolkien (as they mentioned it outright).
As mentioned earlier, the manuscript containing the written text of Beowulf was written around the year 1000. According the British Library
“we do know that the manuscript was produced by two scribes, working in collaboration, but whose handwriting suggests that they were trained at different times, and were significantly different in age. The first scribe copied the texts at the beginning of the book, together with the opening part of Beowulf itself. His counterpart, clearly working at the same time and place, took over the middle of a line, and brought Beowulf to its conclusion, besides adding Judith. To judge by his hand writing, the second scribe was trained late in the tenth century; the first, in contrast, writes a script more typical of the period after 1000. The most likely time for them to have collaborated in the early decades of the eleventh century, possibly during the reign of Æthelred the Unread (978-1016), when England was subjected to waves of Danish attacks.”
The script itself is insular writing and a clear result of communal collaboration. Such scribes (monks) would evidently be in a monastery. The manuscript’s place of origin is also uncertain but the poem’s language is “Late West Saxon, but preserving earlier dialectical forms.” Given that we have no other proof in writing, academics have speculated and agreed that this manuscript remained in a monkish community until King Henry VIII had the religious revolt and reform across England.
The first person to write a name within this manuscript is Laurence Nowell (d.c.1570). Kevin Kiernan argues that Nowell most likely acquired it thorough William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, in 1563, when Nowell entered Cecil’s household as a tutor to his ward, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Nowell himself was a pioneer in Anglo-Saxon studies, and his signature on the opening leaf of this manuscript is on its opening leaf, dated 1563.
The inscription is not on the incipit page of Beowulf because the Beowulf manuscript is part of a larger collection within the “Nowell Codex.” Rather, the inscription is on the first page of the Homily on St. Christopher.
Soon after, the manuscript found its way to Sir. Robert Cotton (d. 1631). Cotton was a politician, and a collector of manuscripts, as well as printed books and other antiquities. Cotton’s method of organizing his large collection was based on various shelves having the bust of a Roman Emperor on it placing this codex under Emperor Vitellius’s. Cotton however, had a habit of binding together manuscripts and works that had unrelated origins. He pieced together the Nowell Codex to the Southwick Codex into one larger, leather-bound codex known as Cotton Vitellius A XV. In an essay titled “Thomas Smith, Humfrey Wanley, and the ‘Little-Known Country’ of the Cotton Library” Eileen Joy wrote about the cataloguing of the Cotton Library. After Cotton passed away, Reverant Thomas Smith (1638-1710) and Humfrey Wanley (1672-1726) were hired to catalogue his library. According to Joy:
“The Beowulf manuscript itself was identified by name for the first time in an exchange of letters in 1700 between George Hickes, Wanley’s assistant, and Wanley. In the letter to Wanley, Hicks responds to an apparent charge against Smith, made by Wanley, that Smith had failed to mention the Beowulf script when cataloguing Cotton MS. Vitellius A. XV. Hickes replies to Wanley ‘I can find nothing yet on Beowulph.’”
The theory that Kiernan has on the matter is that Smith failed to mention the Beowulf manuscript because of his reliance on previous catalogues, or because he had no idea how to describe it, or because it was temporarily out of the codex.
Cotton however, hired a ‘librarian’ named Richard James (d.1638) to write an index at the beginning of the two combined codices. He seemed to have dismembered the Psalter for use as binding-leaves in 1612 and sewn the two codices, Southwick, and Nowell together. In an attempt to make sense of what is in in it he pasted a parchment page at the very front with a legend/index.The final product of what was in the codex is as follows, according to the British Library:
“This manuscript contains four separate items, bound together for Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631):(i) f 1: Psalter leaf (now removed to form London, British Library, MS Royal 13 D I*, f 37); (ii) f 3: Medieval endleaf, containing historical memoranda; (iii) ff 4–93: Augustine of Hippo, Soliloquia (ff 4r–59v: imperfect); Gospel of Nicodemus (ff 60r–86v: imperfect); Debate of Saturn and Solomon (ff 86v–93v); homily on St Quintin (f 93v: imperfect); (iv) ff 94–209: Homily on St Christopher (ff 94r–98r: imperfect); Marvels of the East (ff 98v–106v); Letter of Alexander to Aristotle (ff 107r–131v); Beowulf (ff 132r–201v); Judith (ff 202r–209v: imperfect). f 2 is a 17th-century Cottonian endleaf.”
Because Robert Cotton would ‘catalogue’ his manuscripts by means of which Roman Emperor’s bust would be above it, this manuscript, sewn together, happened to be under Emperor Vitellius. Thus it being 15th on the first A shelf, it is known and still labelled to this day as “Cotton, Vitellius MS A. XV.” Sometimes in papers when scholars refer to Beowulf alone they may bring up the Nowell Codex as its own entity and discuss it as such. The British Library however, knows it by the Vitellius name and that is how it is catalogued.
The leaf detached from a fourteenth-century English Psalter (f.1), was reunited in 1913 with other parts of the same volume, the early modern contents-page (f2.), as mentioned before was written by Cotton’s ‘librarian,’ and a late-medieval English endleaf (f3) containing historical memoranda in Latin and Anglo-Norman French.
After Cotton passed away, his son, and then grandson inherited it, but by 1702 the Beowulf-manuscript, was given to the nation and eventually moved to Ashburnham House at Westminster. This particular manuscript was there almost untouched or studied and was left of it. In time some parts deteriorated, as mentioned, it was bound in leather and the pages were parchment so it was susceptible to pests and mould. It had survived about 700 years thus far, and on October 23 of 1731 there was a massive fire where hundreds of manuscripts were severly damaged either by fire or water and thirteen of them were completely destroyed. The collection was moved to the British Museum in 1753. But the manuscript remained in its original biding, and mothering was done to stop the dry, brittle pages from disintegrating. In about 1786, about 50 years after the fire, Danish scholar Grimur Jonsson Thorkelin came to the Museum, looking for documents relating to Denmark. He made two complete copies of the manuscript (the first time ever a copy was made), one by a professional copyist and the other by himself.
Torkelin returned to Copenhagen which was then bombed in 1807 by the British (Napoleonic Wars). Thorkelin’s house burned, but the two transcripts were saved. This aided Thorkelin in producing the first printed edition of Beowulf in 1815. Over time, the original manuscript back in England, was severely deteriorating. Keeping in mind that no one was tending to it, and it had recently survived a fire. The margins and even some of the text itself gradually crumbled.
Because Thorkelin brought Beowulf to light, in 1833 there were preparations for the first (modern English translation) English edition of Beowulf so the manuscript was brought up for examination when for the first time curators noticed that the neglected manuscript was in critical condition. Luckily, Thorkelin’s transcription of the manuscript helped us piece the missing text together. In 1845, the British Museum took steps to preserve what remained. The manuscript’s restoration is owed to Sir Frederic Madden (d.1873), keeper of manuscripts at the British Museum, and Henry Gough, who rebound its leaves in 1845. They mounted each leaf on a paper frame and the manuscript was rebound. The tape still obscured some of the letters as you can see in both figures one and two above. The translation used frequently before more translations appeared was that of William Morris associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement, and A.J. Wyatt, published it in 1895 as The Tale of Beowulf, Sometime King of the Folk of the Weder Geats.
After that the text came to surface, more translations were in the making. Some would directly translated, as others tried to maintain meter, and rhythm. Others would try to make poetic renditions. In time, Tolkien and the Beowulf/Anglo-Saxon scholarship had grown into what was discussed in the introduction. The 20th century was a renaissance for Beowulf and it was immediately incorporated in the English curriculum.
In 1973 the British Library took hold of the manuscript, where it remains today. I was assured in an email from the British Library that:
“[the Beowulf Manuscript] is regularly displayed in our Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library, under controlled temperature and light conditions. The amount of time it can spend on display is carefully regulated, and it is frequently removed for periods of rest.” 
I asked the British Library if the manuscript has gone any treatments in terms of conservation, particularly in the times it is not on display. The response I received was:
“Dear Andreea, I asked the curator responsible for the Beowulf MS (Cotton MS Vitellius A XV) and he replied as follows: I’m not aware of any information we hold about the conservation of the Beowulf manuscript and this hasn’t happened since I’ve been at the BL (about 10 years).”
Post-Thorkelin bibliographers and scholars such as Sir Frederick Madden and John Josias Conybeare contributed to the production of study-worthy manuscripts of Beowulf by creating their own transcriptions and collations. Equally as significant were the many translations of Beowulf that have been surfacing. While some maintained direct translation, others like the Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, tried to adapt it in a poetic style to resemble a folk/poetic song. Many people have translated and published their translations of Beowulf, Heaney’s being the most recently famous. Tolkien himself had translated Beowulf and his son Christopher recently published in 2016, Tolkien’s translation. It being in the public domain, and widely studied, the amount of scholarship on content, language, syntax, history, and literary analysis, as well as existing translations are countless. This phenomenon is not included in the manuscript’s history, but the content is now immortalized.
Kiernan did not digitize only the original Beowulf, he also digitized Thorkelin’s two transcriptions as well as Conybeare’s and Madden’s. The beauty of Beowulf’s digital form is that one may look at the copy of the medieval manuscript alongside Thorkelin’s transcription and interact with the digital transcription simultaneously using it as a study aid in translation for content, but also in the study of bibliography. By comparing variations in the different copies and through different lighting Kiernan observed for instance how Nowell or a post-medieval forger may have tried to ‘freshen up’ some of the writing as it is visible through the layers of ink on the palimpsest. Kiernan preserves and shows in his digitization project all the details revealing the long history mentioned above of the manuscript’s provenance—such as script, inscriptions, etc.
In addition to the facsimile-like scans of each transcript, the manuscript, and variations in writing, the website contains metadata. There are glossaries, indication of recto and verso, bright light digitizations (and in response to ultraviolet) to give the student the full bibliographic experience without missing a single detail. Kiernan’s intended audience for this work of art is not necessarily the English student as it does not include various translations of Beowulf such as
Seamus Heaney’s or even Conybeare’s. Kiernan includes only the raw materials (including access to an Old-English translation) to give the student a similar experience to interacting with the primary sources only. In the website including the digitization project, particularly in the acknowledgements section Kiernan attached a presentation titled “Electronic Beowulf Archives, 1993-1997” where Kiernan writes:
“The equipment we are using to capture the images is the Roche/Kontron ProgRes 3012 digital camera, which can scan any text, from a letter or a word to an entire page, at 2000 x 3000 pixels in 24-bit color. The resulting images at this maximum resolution are enormous, about 21-25 MB, and tax the capabilities of the biggest machines. Three or four images – three or four letters or words if that is what we are scanning – will fill up an 88 MB hard disk, and we have found that no single image of this size can be processed in real time without at least 64 MB of RAM.”
In the same spirit he marks that the backup files and images were saved on banded microfilm by the University of Kentucky in storage.
The Digitization project of the Beowulf epic is only small portion of an approximate thousand years of preservation and scholarship in relation to its existence as print culture and as text. The set-up of the digital form of Beowulf forces the contemporary student to understand the manuscript’s provenance and history in order to navigate the website. In its set up a student may view different ‘versions’ of Beowulf and collate and compare them alongside a transcription, and various guiding aids for translation from Old English. In addition there an option to see the palimpsest through bright light and in response to ultraviolet.
As a bibliographer and person keenly interested in the material and print culture of a manuscript I was convinced that the story of the Beowulf manuscript has ended in Digitization. However, in a moment of inspiration I decided to experiment by reverse google-image sourcing the incipit page of Beowulf. The first page is most famous and the first word is as contested as its dating. I’ve personally read several papers inquiring whether “Hwaet!” the first word on the incipit of Beowulf means: ‘Lo!’ ‘Listen,’ ‘Hear,’ ‘pay attention,’ or other possible interpretations. I took this first page and reversed it online. I wanted to see in what ways has the Beowulf manuscript, as it exists today has been appropriated online. My findings resulted in something else which was: readerships. By tracing the first page alone I could find what kind of people use Beowulf and for what purposes. Something that could not be traced in a pre-digital era, now can be. I found the page had been used in settling debates on what Old English looks like on websites and social media. In addition the page had been used on many blogs on literature.
There was a 2010 version of Kindle using it as a screen saver, it was used commercially in a poster sale, among blogs (some personal including headings such as ‘works which inspire me’), Buzzfeed quizzes such as “who were you in a past life.” The digital traces of Beowulf indicate a lot more than its existence as a form of ‘digital print culture’ as it also contextualizes the ways by which readers use it. The readership and usage of Beowulf give a better understanding to what people know of Beowulf, or the misconceptions around it, including traces of its digital format. Although the links to Tolkien and public academic forums were traceable in this experiment, private academic databases like OMEKA for instance do not show in a google image reverse search or other privately-set blogs/or journals. Thus, Beowulf’s digital afterlives might be even more detailed and vast than its many ownerships prior to digitization. I hope that future scholars will consider exploring the present usage of the ‘Beowulf manuscript’ in contemporary media and find the ways in which it has been used, read, or interpreted.
The reverse-image search is a pure manuscript study, whereas in terms of text there is a lot more online. The text opens up opportunity for hypertext as in: one clicks on a word and finds translations of it or a link to an explanation of what that person did, what the historical event was, and so on. One link leading to another, one page nested in another.
 Beowulf Treasures in Focus. The British Library Board: London. 2009. Print. pp.1-23.
 Beowulf, Line 1
 Beowulf Treasures in Focus. The British Library Board: London. 2009. Print. pp.15.
 Zaleski, Philip, and Carol Zaleski. 2015. The fellowship: the literary lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams.
 Beowulf Treasures in Focus. The British Library Board: London. 2009. Prin
 Kiernan, Kevin S. 1981. Beowulf and the Beowulf manuscript. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
 Beowulf Treasures in Focus. The British Library Board: London. 2009. Print. pp 7.
 Joy, Elieen. Thomas Smith, Humfrey Wanley, and the ‘Little-Known Country’ of the Cotton Library”
 Kiernan, Kevin S. 1981. Beowulf and the Beowulf manuscript. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
 “Digitised Manuscripts.” 2017. Accessed March 26. http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv.
 Beowulf Treasures in Focus. The British Library Board: London. 2009. Print. pp.1-23.
 Prescott, Andrew. “Their Present Miserable State of Cremation: The Restoration of the Cotton Library.” Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: Essays on an Early Courtier and His Legacy. (1997).
 Beowulf Treasures in Focus. The British Library Board: London. 2009. Print. pp.1-23.
 Stansell, Zoe. “Library Question Answer On Behalf Of Mss@Bl.Uk”. 2017. E-mail.
 Kiernan, Kevin. “Madden, Thorkelin and MS Vitellius/Vespasian A XV” Library 8, no. 2 (1986): 127-132.
 Kiernan, Kevin. “The State of the Beowulf Manuscript 1882-1983.” Anglo-Saxon England 13 (1984): 23-42
“Electronic Beowulf Archives, 1993-1997.” 2019. Accessed March 20 http://www.uky.edu/~kiernan/eBeo_archives/
“Smash this circus to the ground. Howl fiercely at the moon”
Jen Campbell’s The Girl Aquarium has a very distinct poetic voice. It’s like entering a dream where all the fairy tales, folktales, magical creatures, and children’s stories are participating in the same circus. The term Robert Lowell used when introducing Plath’s Ariel was ‘a controlled hallucination’ and it’s the same term that first came to my mind when reading Campbell’s collection. In addition to the beautiful imagery, there are insights to the inner world of womanhood: perceived by the male gaze tapping on the glass of female aquariums whilst simultaneously containing overlooked multitudes. The corporeal existence of womanhood divorced from all the potential, feeling, and depth. There are limbs severed and scattered all over this collection, and a great focus is placed on movement and performance. In “The woman’s private Looking-glass” the poetic voice urges us to “smash this circus to the ground” and to “howl fiercely at the moon.”
This collection plays with form, it is cohesive and well-edited, and acts as social criticism in the disguise of a dance with words. There’s fluidity and movement not only in the form of the poems but in their content. I will try to focus on one component of all I’ve described. The distinction between how a woman is perceived versus her inner world(s). In “Luminiferous Aether” the poetic voice narrates:
“…there are limbs reaching out / for the Peter Pan collars of speechless girls. / They wait in skin that is not their own. / In the dark they forget the names / of each others’ mothers…in fractured handbags they carry/ knitted souls. They Stretch themselves…..their poor/scarred heads. They know too many things now.”
There is so much to unpack in this single poem. Young girls forced to grow up so soon, to stretch themselves out in skins not of their own and fit a mould of something they have not chosen. To forget that they too need care and protection and are just as lost as the boys. To know so much and be unable to break out of the corporeal prison. No matter what you say or do, you will never be perceived as anything more than something to be admired in your tight claustrophobic aquarium. We are reminded of this gaze throughout. For instance in “The Exorcism of the North Sea” aside from the voices of the past, the ‘ghost birds,’ the grandeur and splendor of the sea and nature, our head is forcibly turned to look at the reality beyond the sublime:
“….we are snow globes…young boys peer…girls in bathing suits. We stretch out our carol sheets and hum like bees.”
In the poem “The Girl Aquarium” the poetic voice shows the dual nature of being both forced to perform, whilst made to feel guilty for actively participating. Craving care and attention, whilst simultaneously being trapped into being perceived differently from who you are and lacking the deeply desired human experiences:
“Labelled doors, interactive exhibits….girls with extra limbs. They scuttle into corners, pretend they’re shy. …hashtag girls….hashtag nothing you’ve ever seen before in your tiny little life….a teenage boy bangs the window, gives them the finger. / The girls rush forward, lips open, kissing the glass…All the better to see you with”
Contrast this poem with “Movement”
“On the bus home, I think of all the constellations / hiding under my skin. / I think of the word vein / and decide I don’t like it. / I think of you and how – maybe / you flit and fit / within a different galaxy. / I write in my notebook in code / and think about gravity. / I think that maybe we’re both lost / in the skins of human planets.”
Presented with constellations and infinite worlds beneath the skin whilst reminded that you will only be seen only for the stretched out, dried, and manufactured covering on the outside. There are no words.
I loved this collection so much. I allowed myself to be amazed and immersed in the experience upon my first reading and so many lines and ideas kept coming back to me the following days. I couldn’t stop thinking about this collection, and I had to go back several times to unpack and interpret. When I tried to decide what I thought of it as a whole I asked myself if there was anything I would have subtracted or added to improve it, and nothing came to mind. The collection is mesmerizing, cohesive, and superbly edited. I highly recommend this collection to those who love poetry, magical realism, and fairy tales, and those looking to try a distinct voice in contemporary poetry.
I received an advanced reader copy for review from Bloodaxe Books. The book is available for pre-order and more information can be found on Campbell’s website. Jen Campbell is a towering figure on Booktube, a great podcast host, a poet, and an award-winning author of nonfiction, children’s books, and humour books.
“What she gives us is something more subtle and strangely ephemeral. In a way, her best stories are acts of haunting” – Richard Kadrey, Introduction.
The Very Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan was not my introduction to Kiernan, as I have encountered one of her short stories in the Unicorn Anthology, and I simply devoured her novel The Drowning Girl. She’s an incredible writer, one whom I greatly admire for her dark atmosphere and unique fantastical cosmic horror. This collection includes some of her best short works over the years ranging from 2005-present day. As readers we get glimpses into Kiernan’s growth as an author in the last fourteen years witnessing different styles and plots. Most of these short works have been either published independently in SFF magazines, or anthologized thematically, but here her strongest short works have been collected under one name. Kiernan has received the James Tiptree, Jr. and Bram Stoker Awards in the past, and is an author whose work I would recommend you explore.
Kiernan’s style of writing is not very traditional and her use of language is dark, disturbing, and grotesque, while simultaneously drawing you in and holding your attention. The reading equivalent of: ‘I can’t look away.’ Like in The Drowning Girl here too we find that water and fluidity is a reoccurring symbol in Kiernan’s works. I found that her stories managed to incorporate different arts in the mix, specifically film which was a very interesting take. For instance, “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” tells the story of a movie critic watching a film about Elizabeth Báthory, the Blood Countess weaving in the various arts, film, theory, and historical figures. Such interconnected plot-lines will be found in most of these stories. You will find twins killing people, a unique take on the unicorn, a science journalist investigating lighting strikes and finding the unexpected, art critics interviewing models of famous paintings, art exhibitions, and violins made of human remains. You will find a different fictional take on the “dysfunctional family” (and that is putting it mildly), and pays homage to Sci-fi classics with the incorporation of non-responsive abandoned ships. And as I mentioned, this collection covers a lot of ground: you will find a bit of everything in this book. What is truly intriguing and captivating in Kiernan’s work is her atmosphere and writing style. I will warn readers, however, that aside from the grotesque, there are many instances of swearing in this work (it did not interfere with my personal reading experience). It’s a thrilleresque experience, rough around the edges.
This collection is not for everyone, and that’s okay. Kiernan writes in a dark niche corner of literature, and I think she directs her writings at a very specific kind of audience. I would recommend this collection to you if you enjoy the works of: Shirley Jackson, Victor Lavalle, Nick Mamatas, Angela Carter, David Lynch, H.P. Lovecraft, or Cosmic Horror. If you have not read any of the listed authors, but you want to get out of your comfort zone and try something different, Kiernan might be a great place to start.
“Unicorns aren’t splendid, or any other such word…indeed, through my entire career as the Unicorn Guy – at the last, there is no a word to describe what a unicorn is. No word that I know , anyway.” – Peter S. Beagle, Introduction.
In the introduction to this anthology Peter S. Beagle explains, how, like a type-cast actor known for a prominent role, at times writers too get trapped with a certain label. For Beagle, the novel of The Last Unicorn and the subsequent stories, adaptations, and retellings that followed have made him known as: “The Unicorn Guy.” He explains that unicorns are not his favourite, and his most successful book is not the one he considers best written. He arrived at one valuable question: what is a unicorn anyway? Using the expansive malleability of fiction, this anthology features a large cast of writers contributing variations, and interpretations on what a unicorn could be. There are such varied takes on ‘the unicorn’ from the scientific, to the magical, to the gender-bending mystery.
“The Magical Properties of Unicorn Ivory” by Carlos Hernandez looks at the realistic interpretation of what our world would be like, and what explanation would be available for the existence of unicorns. A group of scientists discover a small tear in the fabric of the universe and people become immediately obsessed with hunting, gathering, and using the unicorn horn as a tradable good. The unicorns become endangered and in need of protection. This story was among my favourites, and a strong first story for this anthology. There are cautionary tales of all kinds in this collection, from the mixture of hunting and loving in Carrie Vaughn’s “A Hunter’s Ode,” to a more simplistic approach to the wonder of unicorns in “Ghost Town” by Jack. C. Halderman II where we follow a modest small town setting with a simple encounter: “Everyone comes to a place like this once in their lives…if your heart is right, you will recognize it for what it is. If your soul is hardened you will bass it by and never know.”
There are also tales in this collection on the darker more erotic side. I have recently become more acquainted with Cailtín R. Kiernan’s writing style and even so, I can honestly say her story “The Maltese Unicorn” will leave you in a state of shock. There are also more classic fantasy takes like the one found in “The Highest Justice” by Garth Nyx, and “The Transfigured Heart” by Jane Yolen. Far too many in this collection go right for your heartstrings like “Stampede of Light” by Marina Fitch: “Open a child’s mind and heart to the world, and you achieve immortality…whether they remember you or not, you’ll live forever” or a story by Beagle himself about a boy and an injured beast, the brief moments of friendship, and the intricacies of the healing process. There are many others in this collection, and they are all incredible voices contributing on the multi-faceted, and versatile existence of a unicorn in our collective imagination.
The collection ends on a poem written by Nancy Springer capturing the innocence and magic surrounding our fascination with unicorns. Reading this poem feels like walking straight into a Pre-Raphaelite painting. This collection is a great introduction to various authors and a great sample of their writing, in addition to various ways one can look at a unicorn.
This anthology is edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman. The two have edited another anthology I reviewed two years ago called The New Voices of Fantasy. The Unicorn Anthology will be released soon by Tachyon Publications. It is currently available for pre-order.
In Early Modern England, children were not only in choirs, but they also participated in plays to entertain mayors, Queens, and Kings, in addition to travelling alongside acting guilds in larger cycle productions. There were, however, rare cases where deformed children or ‘monstrous chyldrn’ were paraded for a sum of money (payable to their owner) and for the entertainment of the crowd. One such record appears in the Norwich Record of Early English Drama for the 5th of June 1616 in the Mayors’ court Books XV.
“Humfry Bromely hath libertie to shewe in some howse within this Citty A strange Child with two heads. And that by the space of two days and no more But he ys forbidden to sound any Drume of vse any other meanes to drawe company then onely the hangynge vpp of the picture of the said Child.”
This record is a source of three informative points: deformed children would be on display, public announcements for such displays were regulated, and it became the business of the mayor’s court to keep a record of these showings. Though the Norwich 1616 record shows no sign of payment, an account from the 29th of November, 1637 (also a Saturday) at Coventry in the Chamberlains’ and Wardens’ Account Book III under the subheading of ‘Rewardes to players’ reads “paid given to Walter Neare that went about the shew a child borne without Armes ij s. vj d.” The two shillings and six pence, (or half a crown) would have the buying power today of about $28-30 Canadian Dollars. Thus, Mr. Neare got paid a decent sum from the town’s treasury to go around and show a child who did not have any arms, just as it can be assumed Mr. Bromely was also paid to show a child with two heads.
In the late Middle Ages/Early Modern Period deformed children would scarcely make it to adulthood, yet the parents found it necessary to place these children in monasteries, on the steps of Churches, or journey alongside them on pilgrimages in the hope of a miraculous cure. Most importantly, the prevailing belief was that these ‘changelings’ were mitigating “guilt-feelings by transference” and physically reflected the sins of their parents. One popular method of connecting these ‘monstrous chyldrn’ to Biblical damnation can be found in the late 1500s on broadside ballads printed in the newspapers. These ballads were a “broad cross-section of ‘news’ ballads, miraculous happenings [and] monstrous births…which sometimes made use of religious judgements, but which (like criminal last speeches) appealed to their audience primarily on other grounds.” What Tessa Watt is describing is the intrigue audiences found in crude humour and entertainment. In his book Mirth Making, Chris Holcomb sustains that “deformity and conformity divide the social world into those who laugh and those who are laughed at.” Though this may come across as ignorant and insensitive in 21st century North America, in the late Middle Ages deformity was a laughing matter and an entertainment act of its own.
These two deformed children accounted and paid for in Coventry and Norwich were an ‘embodiment’ of human sins, impending doom, and a source of cruel humour and entertainment. Their existence and presentation were physical appropriations of the broadside ballads confirming doubts and incredulity. The fact that Bromely was forbidden “to vse the drumme” did imply that this activity was not universally tolerated in 1616 Norwich. However, Neare being paid a half-crown implies that wonder overcame the sense of guilt, as crowds indulged in watching a circus-bound, ‘monstrous chylde’; this shame went only as far as preventing a boisterous form of advertising in Norwich. According to the introduction in the Norwich REED volume, “the mayor and alderman were the guardians for public morality, as we can read in the Court Books of fines for swearers, drunkards, unlicensed ale-house keepers, ballad sellers, [and] wife beaters” (xxiv). Hence, a person caught ‘swearing’ might have been in much more trouble with the ‘guardians for public morality’ than one showing a deformed child.
If one is to consider a play in performance as the appropriation of a written text transferred to a physical presence, then perhaps the ‘shewing of monstrous chyldern’ can be better understood in performance by closely reading a broadside ballad. In an article dedicated to the religious interpretation of these ballads entitled “Popular Hermeneutics: Monstrous Children in English Renaissance Broadside Ballads,” Helaine Razovksy concludes that the three widely found interpretations of such ballads were that:
- the monstrous child embodies the sins of the parents (if unmarried), and constitutes a specific warning;
- the monstrous child embodies the sins of the world (independent of the parents’ marital state and constitutes a general warning;
- the monstrous child embodies the sins of the world (independent of the parents’ marital state) and constitutes a lesson about the practice of interpretation
This interpretation of monstrous children creates a better understanding as to why the Mayors Court and the Wardens would pay for such displays—to maintain a sense of ‘morality’ by instilling fear, parading ‘proof’ all around. The Wardens of Coventry were in charge of rewarding travelling players and by doing so “they maintained the apparently unwritten agreement among civic officials in England that the names of the plays presented should not be mentioned” (xxxiii). Evidently, civic officials, though ‘indirectly,’ knew the presentation of deformed children and willing to pay a half-crown for it.
The same religious interpretation of deformed children that Razovsky presents, might have been the reason why Mr. Bromely in Norwich was “forbidden to vse any Drumme…then onely the hangynge vpp of the picture of the said child.” The advertisement for the ‘strange child’ was like the presentation itself, one that was solely visual.
In addition, the records show that this display of deformed children was more frequent than one would think. In the same 1616 record, on June 15 (only 10 days later from the Humfry Bromely record) the Mayor’s Court listed a Mr. Abell Gary with a:
“warrant signed by his Maiestie & vnder his Maiesties signed Aucthorisinge the said Abell to shew a child…they haue leaue to shewe the same till Wednesday next at night & no longer…they are forbidden to use any Drumme…other than A Trumpet at the windows of the howse where they showe”
June 15 was a Wednesday in 1616, thus ‘till Wednesdays next’ implies that the showing of this child by Mr. Abell Gary would be for an entire week. The record itself was only 10 days after Humfry Bromely—who had shown a deformed child for two days—meaning only eight days had passed in Norwich since the crowd had seen a deformed child (or at least written down).
This frequent display emphasized that there was a pressing moral and religious matter that the Majesty himself wanted to instill in his people, or that these deformed children were sensationalized and the crowds simply loved to be entertained by seeing such ‘monstrous’ or ‘strange’ children. Subsequently, a rising demand for such performances was created. However, due to the regulated advertising noted in the Norwich records, the religious damnation associated with deformed children from the late 16th century, encountered in the broadside ballads, was still an underlying component influencing the reception of such a display.
 The court normally ‘met on Wednesdays and Saturdays in the Guildhall’ thus, simply because it was written down on the 5th of June (a Saturday) it does not mean that it is the exact day the account happened.
Records of Early English Drama, University of Toronto Press. Toronto: Coventry (1981), Ecclesiastical London (2008), Newcastle Upon Tyne (1982), and Norwich 1540-1642 (1984)
Short version: Story means “truth” and tale means “to tell a lie”
The interchangeable usage of story and tale as having the same semantic connotation is relatively new and pertains solely to Present Day English. Within the English vocabulary tale has evolved and progressed natively through Germanic, West Germanic, and Anglo-Frisian which resulted in the Old English tæl. In contrast story/storie is a loanword imposed on the English language post-Norman conquest from the French estoire which developed through the Italic and Latin branch. Within the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction however, the two words came from separate roots and were not used interchangeably (nor should they be now). What becomes apparent in the history of the two words is the ‘truth’ aspect present in a story and that a tale brings forth a lie. For the purpose of understanding how each word was being defined by lexicographers I have examined dictionaries as far back as 1678 and have found that tale has been used to define story and vice versa. At times both were being used in defining history. The concept “narrative” is however at the base of all three within all dictionaries at all historical points thus being the cohesive agent of all three.
Tale evolved naturally into the English language. The Proto-Indo-European *del meaning “to recount/count” developed into the Germanic Talō which then separated into North Germanic and West Germanic talu (“*del”). North Germanic later divided into Old Norse/Old Icelandic which contains in its dictionary Tal as noun meaning “Talk, parley, conversation. 2. Speech, language. Tala 1. Discourse, speech 2. Tale, number and Tala as verb meaning to talk or speak. To record and to tell.” This shows the word had maintained its semantic value throughout this division. Anglo-Frisian tælu developed into the Old English tæl. In Joseph Bosworth’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary tæl appears as noun to be “a tale, number, series” but also “evil speaking, calumny, detraction…attack with blasphemy.” Interestingly enough “tale” as a number system finds its way into Portuguese as tæl coming from the Malay tahil meaning “any of several monetary units equal to the equivalent weight in silver.” This is quite amusing as it develops through a different branch and comes to a semantically-relevant homophonic word which in Old English is tæl. Another homophone of “tale” being “tail” maintains the same semantic value in Old Norse as it is tagl meaning the tail of an animal which at the same time in Old English was taegel also meaning tail. Tælan as a verb meant “to blame, rebuke, reprove, reproach, censure, accuse. To speak evil. To slander, to treat with contempt, scorn, insult, mock.” Throughout this division of language, the word brought along with it the implication that one would “recount” or “speak.” There is however a difference between speaking and telling. Elizabeth Closs Traugott writes in her work Regularity in Semantic Change that “tell primarily introduces a narrative…[and that] the reorganization of the lexicon occurred in Middle English with the introduction of talk (an early Frisian term) and the focusing of tell on verbal action (in OE tellan meant primarily ‘count’ or ‘recount; in sequence, i.e. ‘narrate’). Talk is the only word in English borrowed from Lithuanian, which has talkas for ‘talk’ and tulkot for ‘interpreter.’ Russian tolk meaning ‘sense’ and the verb tolkovant-‘to interpret.’ Thus tale as it became in Middle English, though it remained ‘an account’ it also brought along with it a trace of deceit and evil-speaking.
Story on the other hand, originated from the PIE root *wid-tor meaning “to know” or literally translated “to see.” This became in Latin historia which was a “narrative of past events, an account.” Istō/Istoc (root of historia) meant “to the place where you are, to the point you have reached, to this place.” The Latin equivalent for what we now use the word “story/tale” was narratio or fabulo, which we know to be ‘narrative’ or ‘fable’ (quite a different topic altogether). Historia divided into the Romance languages and in French became estoire which literally meant “a chronicle, a history.” The introduction of stoire/story into the English language occurred post-Norman Conquest in Middle English.
Looking at past lexicographers and how they defined story, tale or even history, it becomes apparent that all definitions contain “narrative” as a key concept of each word’s semantic connotation. Samuel Johnson in 1806, E. Cobham Brewer in 1882, and Rev. Walter W. Skeat in 1910 all use tale when defining story and vice versa. This brings to question why the merging of the two separate words occurred, and why the ‘deceit’ in what was previously known in OE tæl was no longer part of the definition of tale. Though the two separate are being used interchangeable tale did maintain the lie in other tangential words sprung from it up to Present Day English. Looking for instance at Johnson’s definition of storyteller and talebearer the distinction becomes much clearer. Johnson defines storyteller as “[story and tell] One who relates tales in conversation, a historian, in contempt” and yet he defines talebearing as “[tale and bear] The act of informing; officious or malignant intelligence.” Talebearing thus implies a gossip-like nature versus one delivering an informative speech.
The most interesting form in which the two words have appeared within a text together as “tale-story” was within Thomas Fuller’s The History of the Worthies of England. It is the only text identified by the OED to have used the words together (hyphened). It is worth glancing at how Fuller used this hyphenated word and within what context (Fuller is speaking about Sutton of Salsbury and how he became wealthy based on an old pamphlet –advertising):
“Thus these mongrel pamphlets (part true, part false) do most mischief. Snakes are less dangerous than lampreys, seeing none will feed on what is known to be poison. But these books are most pernicious, where truth and falsehoods are blended tougher, and such a medley-cloth is the tale-story of this clothier.”
Mongrel, medley-cloth, and tale-story are used interchangeably by Fuller containing the same semantic implication. Mongrel he himself emphasizes to be “part true, part false” and medley-cloth was “a type of cloth woven with wool of different colours or shades mixed in the thread.” Thus, tale-story within this context is the mixture of a truth and a falsehood which means story remained a more reliable account and tale still brought along with it the ‘calumny’ and deceit encountered in the Old English even mid-17th century. Thomas Fuller wrote the book in the late 1650s and passed away in 1661. The book was published posthumously in 1662.
Joint words like tall-tale and fairy-tale emphasize the different aspects of a lie a tale contains. For instance the word tall is a figurative word within the English language which stands for something being exaggerated and has been widely used. Yet one rarely encounters “tall-stories” or “fairy-stories” because the implication would be that one had been there and the content of the account is based in a truth or a biographical occurrence that had once happened and simply been retold. Should one recount a truth with exaggeration it would no longer be a story, rather it would become a “tall-tale” and he/she would be Johnson’s talebearer rather than his storyteller.
This semantic property of ‘truth’ to story remains in Present Day English yet within narrower contexts. Authors like Alice Munro who publish a collection of short narrative accounts are not summed up by publishers as ‘short tales’ nor do they write that on the cover or on the title page. Rather, due to the mature content and the respect attributed to the content, the collected works would be referred to as Short Stories thus implying that parts of these narratives are true and have been appropriated for publication. Tales on the other hand are encountered within texts intended for children (beyond fairy tales) or within contexts where the lie is known to be there. For instance, Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote his autobiography Living To Tell the Tale, with clear hindsight of what has been professed about his art. Magical Realism has been treated as “the truth of a five-year-old” or “telling a lie with a brick face” (as my English professor, Nick Mount, used to say). Evidently, even in present day narrative content with a more deceitful tone or intended for children is more likely to be labelled as a tale rather than a story.
Thus, by looking at the two words individually and tracing them to their reconstructed Indo-European root in addition to examining how they have been defined by lexicographers at various historical points it becomes evident that story and tale cannot always be used interchangeably (or at least they shouldn’t). The two are not only different but they are contradictory in meaning for one means “truth/to know” while the other means “a lie/to deceive.” The credibility attached to stories has remained through to Present Day English and the exaggerated (somewhat derogatory) connotation remains attached to tales. The possibility that idioms within the English language have contributed to the semantic property of a tale leaves much room for exploration on this topic.
Works Cited: Fuller, Thomas D.D. The History of the Worthies of England (1840), “*del” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Derocquigny, Jules. A Contribution to the Study of the French Element in English (1904),“Isto/Istoc” Oxford Latin Desk Dictionary (2005), “Medley-cloth” The OED Online, Nick, Mount “Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Magical Realism” (Lecture, 2011), Lemon, Rev. George William. English Etymology or A derivative dictionary of the English language: in two alphabets (1783), Murray, James A.H. “Oxford English Dictionary.” X, XI. (1969-70), Philips, Edward. The New World of Words (1684), Skeat, Rev. Walter W. An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (1910), “storyteller” n.f. Def 1. Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1806), “tael” Def.1. Joseph Bosworth’s An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (1954), “taelan” Def.1. Joseph Bosworth’s An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (1954), “talebearing”n.f. Def.1. Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1806), Traugott, Elizabeth Closs. Regularity in Semantic Change (2005), Tulloch, Alexander R. Word Routes: Journeys Through Etymology (2005), “*wid-tor” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2013), Zoega, Geir T. A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic (1926)
“Prepare to have your long-held opinions put to the test” –Marissa Meyer, Introduction
“A fracture is a break, usually in the bone, but also can mean a crack in the earth, an interruption of the norm. It can be a fault line, a fissure, a split, breach, disruption, splintering, fissure—oh and a breakup. It sounds explosive, can hurt like a sprain or reveal like a geode being split apart to show the jewels within” – Jane Yolen
Last year I read and reviewed The Emerald Circus and fell in love with Jane Yolen’s storytelling. Having just closed the back cover on How to Fracture a Fairy Tale I can’t help but wonder how such levels of creativity are possible. Just how many stories can a single person carry with them at all times? Once more, Yolen takes us through familiar fairy tales, legends, folklore, and even Judeo-Christian narratives and shows us different sides to them, adds depth to unknown characters, and even flips them—either by using a feminist editing pen, or painting over them with the values of progressive 21st century brushes (this flip is what Yolen refers to as a ‘fracture’ synonymous with ‘retelling’). In this collection Yolen flexes her creativity muscles, and like in The Emerald Circus we get a glimpse of Yolen’s work from various points in her career. Aside from the introduction by fantasy YA author Marrisa Meyer, this book is accompanied by Yolen’s own min-histories for how she came up with ideas, how each tale came to fruition, and what concepts she wanted to bring forward for discussion.
The retelling of “Rumpelstiltskin,” in this collection: “Granny Rumple,” and Yolen’s playfulness with Death personified are the two concepts I’d like to discuss in further detail from this collection.
In “Granny Rumple” we are presented with a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin looking at the ways Jewish people have been historically demonized. The story itself is well-written, and the conversation it begins is even more fascinating. In her explanation Yolen says that she first thought of Rumpelstiltskin as the representation of a Jewish person at Smith College while teaching a course on children’s literature. She writes that:
“the only character who does what he promises and isn’t lying is Rumpelstiltskin…the small man with the unpronounceable name who lives outside the walls of the kingdom and is allowed only one job—spinning straw into gold—does not lie…so of course he must be a demon who wants to use the (as yet unborn) baby prince in some disgusting blood rite…. that’s when I realized the ‘demon’ was a stand-in for a Jew. Someone with an unprounceable name who is forced to live outside the city walls.”
I thought this take was really something I would never consider without being faced with it in the format of “Granny Rumple.” The secondary figure that makes several appearances in various formats is Death. “Godmother Death” and “Sister Death” were by far my favourite as I am a fan of Death as a main character in general. They both reminded me a lot Neil Gaiman and in some instances the snarky dry humour of Markus Zusak’s Death narrator. Yolen states that her first story “Godmother Death” was actually started by an invitation from Neil Gaiman for an anthology but could never outright publish it because of DC owning copyrights. She explains: “I was using Neil’s character Death, in his retelling a wonderful, snarky Goth girl who is ageless and endless.” This character is once more represented in “Sister Death” which has a more folkloric presence rather than fairy tale retelling yet in this one Death isn’t one to be snarky, dry, or playful, rather, Death is presented as a sympathetic character. Yolen writes that this story “comes from the Jewish tradition of both ‘Lilith’ and ‘The Angel of Death,’ stories that make Death female …we writers have been stealing from tradition forever.” The presentation of Death as female, and the many ways historically in which women have been around Death, or associated with Death are tackled in this collection in a creative way.
Once again, I must reiterate that Jane Yolen knows the craft of storytelling and retelling. I think her collections open a lot of room for discussion both in reading circles and scholarship at large. Presentations of Death, Anti-Semitism, Sexism, and the bulldozing of old traditions and folklore are tackled by Yolen in such a creative way. She reclaims these narratives, and she presents them to us in this new ‘fractured’ way, creating a new tradition of her own.
This book will be out on November 15, published by Tachyon Publications.
I am very happy to be participating in S.M Beiko’s blog tour for the release of the second book in The Realms of Ancient Series titled Children of the Bloodlands. Last year I reviewed the first book titled Scion of the Fox (review here) and I enjoyed it immensely. This is a YA series set in Canada riddled with fae-like, gothic, sublime, and fantastical elements. Children of the Bloodlands continues where Scion of the Fox left off, three months after the battle of Zabor. The friend group is reunited, and Roan must once more face new monsters of great magnitude in different parts of the world, leaving the Canadian landscape behind and turning to Edinburgh, Seoul, and parts of the Underworld—all overpowered by Ancient’s influence on Earth. There are several reviewers involved in the blog tour this month and I will take a step back from doing my usual literary reviews focused on the narrative.
I would like to turn my attention to the artwork accompanying this novel, specifically the cover art and design. This aspect of book design is highly collaborative, and labour-intensive. Both Scion of the Fox and Children of the Bloodlands have been designed by the team at Made by Emblem. Children of the Bloodlands has a red cover and at its center is the figure of an owl. This artistic choice had been applied previously to the first book where its central figure was a fox in the foreground of a green forest. I had many questions regarding the process of creating such covers, and got in touch with Erik Mohr, the Creative Director at Made by Emblem. Erik has been working as an art director for over 10 years and has received numerous industry awards including the Society of Publication Designers, Canadian National Magazine Awards, Art Directors Club of Canada and Magazines du Québec. Erik has been very kind and patient, and answered all of the questions I directed at him about the artwork, and I can see why it would be an absolute pleasure for any author to work with him and his team. Here is our full interview:
What attracted you about this particular project, and what made you take on Scion of the Fox in the first place last year?
I have been a fan of Sam Beiko’s work for years. We had worked together on her previous book, The Lake and the Library, and she really wanted to work together on The Realms of Ancient series. I was super excited and loved the direction she wanted to see the cover taking. Book design can be really exciting for a number of reasons, but the best is working with incredibly talented people and the collaboration between the author and designer.
Does it feel different working on Canadian projects for Canadian authors versus magazine art for things further away?
We have worked on book covers for Canadian, US and British publishers. I have to admit that the Canadian market is normally very conservative. That said, we’ve had the opportunity to work with publishers who are willing to take risks and create really exciting book covers. The magazine work we do is very different from the book design work. But there is cross-over, too. Magazine work is very fast paced and every page needs lots of entry points and design elements. But legibility and typographic skills are mandatory in book design and it’s simple and little tricks that can make a big difference.
What techniques do you use when creating a book cover? Do you make a plan, do you make several covers and choose the best one, or do you just keep building on the one template?
The process for creating a book cover involves reading the manuscript or excerpt, discussing the cover with the publisher and author, lots of sketches, then lots of discussions, lots of revisions and then eventually the finished product. Sometimes the first sketch is bang on. Sometimes there are 20+ revisions. Designing a book cover is all about marketing the book. Many considerations can influence the design of the book: who’s the audience, what genre is the book, is it part of a series?
Do you read the novel in its entirety first and then decide what to extract from it for the cover art, or do you obtain an excerpt and an idea from the publisher and work with that?
It totally depends. Sometimes the cover needs to be designed before the book has gone through its final proofing. Or there are substantial rewrites happening. In that case, we read the synopsis. Sometimes if there are issues with the manuscript, there are exhaustive emails about the story to best communicate the themes and mood.
Would reading the whole novel be too distracting because there would be too much material to decide what to choose?
Not at all! It’s what we prefer! That way we can understand the story arc and what elements are significant and which are spoilers!
Did you coordinate that both books complement each other (green and red) and have one central figure in the middle on purpose or did it turn out that way by accident?
This was very much on purpose! We didn’t know what the characters would be on the second book cover, but we purposely created a simple and impactful cover featuring a central character. This made for a composition which could easily be adapted to other books in the series.
Do you paint or draw by hand, or do you use computer programs, if yes, which programs do you use?
We use Photoshop primarily. The process is basically a digital collage. We photograph textures and find stock photos online that we can use as elements. Then there is a lengthy layered process to achieve the final photographic image. This way, we are able to create surreal or fantastical settings and characters.
Is the author S.M. Beiko involved at all in the process of the book cover design?
Super involved! Sam is very creative. She draws, paints, designs, etc. So she always has great suggestions! We talk a lot about what the book is about and what she sees as a cover image.
–End of Interview–
Website of Author S.M. Beiko with further details on everything relating to The Realms of Ancient: HERE.
I would like to extend my thanks to Erik Mohr for answering all of the questions and for creating such beautiful covers I will proudly display on my shelf. Children of the Bloodlands will be released on September 25th–published by ECW Press. Many thanks to Caroline Suzuki, the Publicity Co-ordinator of ECW Press for sending me an ARC and including me in the Blog Tour project.
Done! I challenged myself to read all five nominees for best novel in the Shirley Jackson Awards 2017 within a month and I officially finished them. Here are the links and names of the five novels I read for this challenge:
- The Bone Mother by David Demchuk
- Ill Will by Dan Chaon
- The Changeling by Victor LaValle
- The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun
- The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge
I enjoyed all these works very much and I’m glad I took on this little project for a few weeks. Looking at some numbers and stats, my instinct says the winner will be The Changeling by Victor LaValle. My personal favourite was The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge. The Bone Mother sent me on an adventure looking at really cool Romanian photographs from a hundred years ago. The Hole was the first Korean book I’ve read in translation, so that was something new for me. Ill Will tested my ability to solve a mystery and interact with text presented in a new and interesting way, and forced me to learn about Satanic cults in the United States. Each one of these books brought something very different to this challenge. Of course, I have been wrong many times before, and all I can say is that I’m very excited to see who they will select as this year’s winner. There’s nothing as pleasant as making wrong predictions on the internet! All I can say is that whoever they choose there is no wrong choice here. The 2017 Shirley Jackson Awards will be presented on Sunday, July 15, 2018, at Readercon 29, Conference on Imaginative Literature, in Quincy, Massachusetts. If you have been following this with me, or reading my reviews for this challenge thank you very much for sticking with me and for your time!
The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge is the last novel I’m reading for the Shirley Jackson Awards Nominees. I think I accidentally saved the best for last because this was my favourite out of the bunch. What La Farge did with this work is really impressive because he had to work with one of the most controversial figures in Science Fiction history and somehow he examines possibilities without glorifying any of the negatives in H.P. Lovecraft. Only three years ago the figure of Lovecraft was removed by the Locus Fantasy Awards so it’s a difficult topic to work with so shortly after. Reading this novel was like peeling layers and layers on a dark flower and finding something new each time. Like a cubist artist, La Farge holds H.P. Lovecraft and the persona of this mysterious figure, but looks at it from every possible angle, considering each perspective. For one, this story isn’t really about H.P Lovecraft, it’s about a woman who is in love with a man who was passionate about a particular aspect of H.P. Lovecraft’s life. This hierarchy of perspectives creates a distance between all that one may find problematic with Lovecraft. Each character being slightly flawed and a little unreliable still preserves the mystery. Allow me to explain a little of the plot and I will try to be less cryptic. The story follows Marina who is herself a psychiatrist. Her husband Charlie was hospitalized for psychiatric reasons and one day simply vanished. The last thing we know is that he was by the edge of the lake. In trying to find out more about her husband Marina finds that Charlie was doing passionate research work on H.P. Lovecraft, in particular focusing on his sexuality, and if maybe he might have had a homosexual relationship with a young fan by the name of Robert Barlow. His lead was finding a Lovecraft diary also known in this novel as The Erotonomicon (playing on the Necronomicon). It was kind of interesting to consider that at the time H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘clues’ or proof trail of being homosexual might have been hidden by publishers or friends to ‘preserve’ his integrity whilst the racist and xenophobic parts of his biography were unashamedly left in, whereas today it would be exactly the reverse. I am a big fan of acknowledging that no one is good or bad, but a dynamic character with flaws and qualities alike and that the path to rehabilitation and education can help anyone no matter what they said or did in the past. Lovecraft did a lot of good for fantasy and sparked a series of subgenres. He was very unhappy and died in extreme poverty. I have always tried to keep that in mind, and La Farge just reminded me how interesting Lovecraft was and it’s making me want to go read the Necronomicon again.
Because the main narrator is involved in a mystery trying to find out more about her own husband, because Charlie himself is psychologically unstable (which automatically makes him an unreliable narrator), and because the ‘findings’ about Lovecraft have been filtered, hidden, and ‘rumoured’ the whole novel preserves an overall tone of suspense and eerie mystery. Even Charlie’s disappearance is something straight out of a Cthulhu story. No one is one hundred percent reliable, and no one has a definite answer on Lovecraft, which leaves the reader of The Night Ocean alone, left to come up with answers by connecting the dots. Also, Marina trying to understand Charlie, and him explaining Lovecraft to her in flashbacks/memories, and her learning more about him as we go along, we are introduced to bits of biography about Lovecraft, including the parts which make him a controversial figure. Like I said, this novel was very dynamic and it is presented in such a way that reminds me of a cubist painting. It is no small feat, and La Farge has succeeded immensely (in my humble opinion). This was a very difficult task and his writing is absolutely amazing. The way the story is told, the diverse cast of characters, the new parts of Lovecraft’s life to be explored, the incorporation of a female narrator to guide the story forward are just a few aspects of what makes this story so good. I also have to slip in that I was hooked on Charlie the moment he said he procrastinated by watching Lost…something I’m obsessed with. There goes my bias.
Definitely read this book if you love H.P. Lovecraft, mystery, science fiction, the macabre, steampunkish speculative fiction, and gothic atmospheres/settings. I mean…this is a Shirley Jackson Award nominee…so you already know.
If you’re looking for a fantasy book to pick up next here are some recommendations. Most of these are series (some VERY long) but it’s a good starting point if you are on the lookout for what to read next in the genre:
Print-out PDF here: FANTASY BOOKS
The Changeling by Victor LaValle is the fourth book I’m reading for the Shirley Jackson Awards 2017 nominees. If I had to put my money down, based on what I’ve read so far and looking at its stats, I would say that this book has the strongest chance to be the winner. That said, I have not finished all five yet (still have one left). Also, The Changeling has just won the 2018 Locus Award for Best Horror novel.
This novel has “two starts” but for good reason. The first is Apollo Kagwa’s parents’ love story and the beginnings of Apollo. Apollo is mixed and from a low-income family. His father mysteriously disappears but continues to appear to Apollo in dreams/nightmares. Apollo grows up and becomes very involved in dealing/collecting/selling rare books and is himself an avid reader. As things progress he too falls in love (the second start) with Emma and together they have a baby boy. At this point the novel takes a term from slightly creepy and mysterious to supernatural stellar writing. I liked the way the Goodreads synopsis puts it without spoilers: “Before Apollo can do anything to help, Emma commits a horrific act—beyond any parent’s comprehension—and vanishes, seemingly into thin air. Thus begins Apollo’s odyssey through a world he only thought he understood to find a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined.” That…is putting it mildly. This novel is a roller-coaster ride, and it somehow does it by creeping up on you. You start slowly and you’re being fed one odd thing at a time, until you find yourself so deep you forget how you got here in the first place. I had to consult the synopsis because by the end I wasn’t sure what would be considered a spoiler.
What I particularly loved about LaValle’s writing was the way he brought the dark fairy tale to the city: New York. As a passionate Lore fan and reading these kinds of stories with supernatural elements, I can’t help but notice they are almost always set in an isolated town, in a rural part of a very abandoned state, or in some very small place with few inhabitants. Dropping this dark fairy tale in New York while simultaneously poking at the very contemporary “here and now” elements of parenting, social networks, and media is something that I never considered could come together so well in one cohesive narrative. LaValle challenges the spaces one thought of as ‘safe’ due to their bright lights and overpopulation and turns this concept it on its head. Parallel to these writing techniques, unstable setting, and atmosphere LaValle still places at this novel’s core the essence of what makes us human in exploring our strengths and weaknesses when it comes to family, love, parenting, and how our origins, or ‘where we come from’ or the literal ghosts of our past can influence our present. I really enjoyed this book, and even though it took me a lot longer to read this one than the others it was worth the effort. I recommend this if you like Aaron Mahnke’s Lore and Cabinet of Curiosities, dark fairy tales, gothic atmospheres, and of course…Shirley Jackson.
The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun is the third book I read for my Shirley Jackson Awards 2017 challenge (See more here). Pyun is from Korea and this novel has been translated into English by Sora Kim-Russell. The novel has been marketed as a psychological thriller about loneliness. Even before being translated or nominated for this prize Hye-Young Pyun has been compared Shirley Jackson and Yoko Ogawa “for her blending of the everyday with the gothic and the grotesque.”
The novel is short but very intense. As I mentioned earlier, it is the shortest novel on the list of nominees this year. The novel follows Oghi, a university professor who has recently been in a car accident with his wife. His wife passes away on impact during the crash, and he survives it, but is fully paralyzed and must have a caretaker. His caretaker is his “next of kin” which is surprisingly enough: his mother in law. There must be some difference in cultures here because I don’t see this happening in the West. We are told the narrative from Oghi’s perspective and the lack of mobility, the grief, and the flashbacks all accumulate to a very tense and suspenseful read, as you feel just as paralyzed as Oghi. Oghi’s tense relationship with his wife and mother-in-law pre-accident makes this story extra creepy and gives the reader a sense of uneasiness, but also the present due to his incapacitated state, and visions of the ghost of his wife. His mother-in-law is as strange as the plot and situation, she is a widow, just lost her daughter, but struggles with her half-Japanese identity. At this point I felt a little disjointedness from the narrative because I felt like something was missing—there’s a gap in my knowledge of understanding certain things relating to Japanese-Korean relationships and I missed out on a lot of the mother-in-law’s characterization.
What I absolutely admired about Hye-Young Pyun’s writing was the way she weaved the theme of “the hole” through this novel. According to her publisher: “The title of the novel is a play on words: a transliteration of the English word “hole,” 홀 (hol) is a Korean prefix meaning “alone” and most readily refers to one who is widowed.” The hole here is used as both fixating on the fact that both Oghi and his mother-in-law are alone and widowed, and also on the hole within, the hole of experiencing complete loneliness and despair. One reviewer on Goodreads noted that even Oghi’s profession and his thoughts towards the Babylonian Map of the World, dated to the 5th century BC has a hole at its center. Even visually, as you progress through the novel, each chapter is prefaced by a “black hole” which gets progressively larger before it engulfs the reader completely. I took a picture because it looks really cool.
Pyun’s ability to play with so many elements, themes, and characters in such a small space while simultaneously keeping the reader on edge is really admirable. Again, I think maybe some things got lost in translation, or maybe the translation enhanced it, I don’t know. It’s a little difficult to compare as this is the only novel on the nomination list that is in translation. The original has been published in Korea in 2016 which means a lot of thought and consideration was given to place bring this novel into this competition. I thought it was a great read, and I highly recommend it for people who enjoy the works of Han Kang, Yoko Ogawa, Daphne du Maurier, and yes, even Shirley Jackson herself.
Before assessing my own opinion in terms of literary merit, and what I believe Shirley Jackson-worthy literary books to be like, I looked at some previous winners and award patterns. First of all, I’m NOT a judge or a literary scholar by any means, this is just MY OPINION and personal project. I like examining these things and nerding out over them, so I looked at all the winners since the awards got started. For instance, if you tally up all the winners for all six categories (best novel, novella, novelette, short story, single-author collection, edited anthology) included there have been a total of 66 winners in the last 10 years (some years there were 2 editors for anthologies, and one year there were two winners in the same category). Of the total 40 were men, and 26 were women. Of the total winners 49 were from USA, 7 from Canada, 5 from the UK, 2 from Australia, 2 from Japan, and 1 from South Africa.
Some people have won the Shirley Jackson Award twice (or more), or even in more than one category in the same year. For example in 2010 Neil Gaiman won for best novelette, but also for best edited anthology for a different work. From the list of this year’s nominees for best novel, Victor Lavalle won in the past, in 2016 for best novella, and in 2009 for best novel.
I tried to look at this year’s nominees from a “numerical” standpoint in terms of readership and ratings (as of RIGHT NOW looking at Goodreads)
These numbers are of course very loose as many readers may not have Goodreads, or are like me and don’t like to assign a star rating to a book on Goodreads and merely “add it” with a written review of pros/cons.
There are some things to consider about each of these books that doesn’t even involve the content. This is me brainstorming:
The Hole is the shortest book on the list with only 198 pages, of that not even having the most favourable ratings, and it is the only book in translation (thus we cannot read it in the original language to fully appreciate its craft). Simultaneously it involves the work of more people since it is in translation. It is also the only book on this list with no audiobook accompaniment which usually reaches a wider audience which may have shortened its reach. IF it did win though, it would be the first winner from Korea. Hye-Young Pyun is also the only female nominee in the best novel category this year. The Bone Mother‘s presentation is in the form of a series of short stories or anecdotes rather than a novel in the traditional sense. It is also the only debut novel from the list, whereas all the other authors have published several works beforehand. Ill Will has also played around with presentation in the forms on non-traditional columns (something I have not encountered before in a novel), and The Night Ocean has at its center one of the most controversial figures in fantasy: H.P Lovecraft who just three years ago was dropped as the image of the World Fantasy Award. To be honest, from the list this novel got my attention most because I enjoy Lovecraftian fiction and I am saving it for last. Of course, the judges probably already knew this when they selected it, and as I have not yet read it, I will not pass judgement on it. Victor Lavalle has won the Shirley Jackson twice in the past both for best novel (2009) and best novella (2016) so he’s clearly mastered something the judges of the Jackson Awards appreciate. His book is also the only one with both high readerships and equally high percentages in ratings (highlighted in red above). I think the WISE thing to assume here is that these five novels have been selected for a reason, and that judges will place all prejudices or previous knowledge aside and look at each novel as it stands alone. Sometimes I wish these things were as easy as: I just enjoyed this one the most! But it’s so hard when they are all very very good! So far I’ve enjoyed the two books I read, and I’m currently in the middle of The Changeling, and almost done The Hole and they are both equally amazing and elegant to the previous two works I read. Reviews for the next three books will follow!
This novel involves two unsolved murders connected to Dustin Tillman, a psychologist, father of two sons, in his mid-forties, living in a suburb of Cleveland. The two murders are separated by a significant time gap, the first happening in the 80’s. Dustin’s parents, aunt, and uncle were killed and the blame fell on his adopted teenage brother Russell. Russell’s trial lacked any sort of physical evidence, as the jury simply took Dustin’s and Kate’s (Dustin’s cousin) word for it being related to Satanic cults. After a quick Google search I found that apparently there was a lot of hysteria during the 1980s over Satanic cults with many testimonies, physical, sexual abuse, and dangerous practices, and very prevalent in the United States, spreading to other countries by the early ‘90s. In present day, DNA testing proves that Rusty didn’t actually commit the crime and he has been released. We find this out in the first few pages as Dustin receives a phone call. The second crime involves one of Dustin’s patients connecting drunk college boy drownings sending Dustin on a “Clarice Starling” puzzle-solving quest. Suggestions of repressed memories, people’s perception of reality and truth, a lot of manipulation and the 80s Satanic rituals’ aftermath involving all the psychological side effects on individuals, groups, and society at large all play a part in this book that jumps back and forth in time between the 1980s and present day. Dustin’s own family has to observe, speculate, and deal with the hardship second -hand. The perspective from which we are told this story changes as well, and we are presented with “evidence” as if we too were participating in the solving of the mystery by means of text messages, or information laid out in ‘brainstorming’ format appearing in columns on the page.
This book had its own innovations, mainly in the ways it experimented with delivering information to its readers. By allowing readers to be a part of the decoding, and trying to figure things out, as well as leaving the end slightly ambiguous and vague, it succeeds in maintaining an overall mystery looming over the plot even after the story ends. It was an easy read, despite it being the longest on the nominee list, (I sped through it in two days) I don’t think it’s intimidating, and if it sounds like something of interest to you, I strongly recommend you pick it up. My issues with this novel nominated in this category comes from its lack of “Shirley Jacksonness.” Aside from the Satanic cults, this novel read more like a crime thriller, or a horror-mystery. I think it’s an excellent candidate for a horror or murder mystery award, and I’m glad to see it on the Locus Horror Award nomination list. I think it stands an excellent change of winning that one, I am just not sure it’s ideal for this category in this particular award series. I wouldn’t generally pick up something like this, so in a way this novel put me out of my reading comfort zone, but at the same time I turn to the Jackson Awards for a particular kind of supernatural, dark fairy tale element. There’s a sense that this novel was written for the screen. Perhaps it would make an interesting mini-series or full feature, but something in the way it’s written suggests that it was written for the screen more-so than a literary crowd. I am wondering if anyone else has read this book, and if so, what are you thoughts on this book, and its subsequent award nominations?
The Bone Mother is the first novel I’m reading for the project I’m currently working on: reading the nominees for the Shirley Jackson Award. The Bone Mother has already hit a very good spot with me and I enjoyed it immensely. I think in many ways it’s like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children for adults, and has a resemblance to Lore. As I mentioned before I’m from Romania, but I have been educated and raised in Canada. This book is written by Canadian author David Demchuk and it draws its inspiration from photographs made by Romanian photographer Costică Acsinte between 1935-1945, and Eastern European folklore, so in many ways it felt very familiar and close to home. This novel was also long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which is very impressive as it is his debut novel.
This ‘novel’ isn’t quite a novel in the traditional sense. It is a series of stories, each prefaced by a black and white photograph from Acsinte’s collection, with a new name in the title. The names are both Romanian and Ukrainian/Russian. The tales focus on three villages on the border of Ukraine and Romania, neighbouring “The Thimble Factory.” Images of thimbles are present throughout the book, and we quickly learn that those who inhabit these villages must work five years at the thimble factory. There are narratives surrounding those working in the thimble factory which are more snippets of daily life, interspersed with fables and folkloric anecdotes featuring the supernatural like Strigoi (Romanian myth, troubled spirits of the dead rising from the grave, sometimes similar to vampire folklore) and Rusalkas (Russian myth, water spirit). At the center of it all is the fear of the Night Police who take people in the dead of night, and the most frightening figure at the center of the forest, not belonging to any village: the Bone Mother—she cooks and eats people who fail the tasks she gives them.
There are some phenomenal features to this work. The first is its juxtaposition of ‘regular’ folk next to these ‘supernatural’ beings as co-existing in the same spaces, while narrating it in a simplified, casual tone. The Bone Mother is never trying to scare you, but presents some narratives side by side of a history that may or may not have been. The way Demchuk also incorporates queer narratives gives the reader the impression that he is trying to look at various angles on the story of marginalized groups contrasting historical superstitions with contemporary oppression. There is also the juxtaposition of post-industrialism influence: the thimble factory, existing as a machine in the garden of folklore. The Bone Mother reminded me very much of a branch of literary theory contrasting naturalism with technology in literature. A work that comes to mind is the academic book by Leo Marx called The Machine in the Garden which explores the ways North America started out with such promise on untouched land with possibility, yet entered it with full industrial, assembly-line force, and how this is reflected in literature when the pastoral ideal clashes with technological advance. The way Demchuk presents these ideas in fiction is subtle but ever-present. Overall The Bone Mother very well written and had an innovative take on Eastern European folklore.
My only “problem” with this novel is that it’s not a novel. I thought the stories would combine as one, or that we would be introduced to some characters and then it would merge in novel-form. It maintained its short anecdote format, separated by images, that it was a little frustrating at times not knowing if it will merge or not. The short story format worked for what it is, however I’m wondering how it will rank against the other four nominees, and if this format would hold it back. What helped me a lot with this was getting the audiobook from Audible and following along in the text because they had different voice actors for each character and it brought them to life as diverse voices, with heavy Eastern European accents. Considering this is also a debut work, I think we can look forward to more from Demchuk and the book has done quite well so far making it on the list of two literary prizes already. This was a strong start!
I know a lot of people on Booktube, Bookstagram, and reading blogs keep up with several literary prizes. The Women’s Prize, International Man Booker, CBC Canada Reads, Bram Stoker, and Pulitzer among the most popular. I decided this year to try to keep up with at least one prize: The Shirley Jackson Awards. This award was created in recognition of the legacy of Shirley Jackson’s writing, for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic. My favourite kind!
I am only going to read the novels nominated as I know I won’t be able to find the rest in time (most of the short fiction is found under publications that require subscription). I placed holds on the five novels which have been nominated for this prize at my local library. They will announce the winner by July 15, so I have about a month to get through these five novels, which should be achievable. I may end up reading 2-3 of the novellas but that is where I will stop. Here are the five novels nominated:
- Ill Will, Dan Chaon (Ballantine Books)
- The Bone Mother, David Demchuk (ChiZine Publications)
- The Changeling, Victor Lavalle (Spiegel & Grau)
- The Hole, Hye-young Pyun (Arcade Publishing)
- The Night Ocean, Paul La Farge (Penguin Press)
The full list of other categories can be found here. I will try to put a review for each of the five within the next month and see how I’d rank them.
Just an update, right now I’m also reading a lot of children’s stories and children’s literature. It’s a “fantastical” kind of mood I’ve been having. I wanted to take on this project because it’s nice to have an ongoing challenge that has a definitive end (July 15). Anything that would be stretched out over a longer period of time…well… I’m afraid I’d fail or lose interest. If you also want to keep up, feel free to join in! The public library should have all these, and you can join in the conversation as I review these. If you already wrote about any of them in the past, or will in the future on your own review blog and would like to share it with me, just put a link below, I’d love to read your thoughts on these. I will start with The Bone Mother by David Demchuck.
Earlier this year I read Nick Mamatas’s essay collection Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horror of the Writing Life. The non-fictional work covered the skill and resilience involved in producing a successful and ‘sell-able’ short story as a freelance writer without waiting for divine inspiration. I immediately requested an ARC from Tachyon when I heard that The People’s Republic of Everything will be published this year. This collection includes fifteen short stories involving a spectrum of science fiction, horror, political satire, and atmospheric settings. Mamatas is very Lovecraftian in his writing style, a presence felt even in his non-fiction. He’s written seven novels and has been nominated for the Hugo, Locus, Wold Fantasy, Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and International Horror Guild Awards.
This collection incorporates a range of stories written over the last ten years. I enjoyed that each story is followed up by Mamatas elaborating on how the story was written, but most importantly, the ever-frequently-asked question: where do your ideas come from? I really enjoyed this aspect because at times short stories in the speculative genre that cross over can be so odd I’m not sure I know what to think of them. Mamatas explains how he came up with the idea and what he was trying to achieve for each one of these short stories. Two stories in this volume are about collecting correspondence to create a personality-emulator. Mamatas writes after “Walking with a Ghost” that he was fascinated by the friendship and correspondence between Jack Kerouac and H.P. Lovecraft and their cult following, and the idea that one can gather enough data on a person’s way of addressing to be able to emulate ‘personhood.’ Yes, there is an AI Lovecraft in this collection. The second story follows a Marx and Engels partnership in the style of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson—told in a steampunk style. These are just two examples of the variety that can be found in this collection. In the middle there are some that struck a chord with me, particularly “Tom Silex, Spirit-Smasher” and “The Phylactery”–mainly because there was something very personal to them with a touch of humanity and interesting characters. There are a few stories published here for the first time for which even Mamatas has no further comments. Several of his stories focus on Communism and politics, and concludes with a novella (what used to be a screenplay) about the George W.H. Bush era and the invasion of Iraq which was picked up for a film and then dropped (but we get to enjoy it in novella format).
I have to say, I learned a lot of new terminology in this collection. For one, I never heard of dieselpunk before which according to a Google search is: “a genre similar to steampunk that combines the aesthetics of the diesel-based technology of the interwar period through to the 1950s with retro-futuristic technology and postmodern sensibilities,” or as Mamatas puts it “like steampunk, but greasier and more efficient.” Mamatas extracts the essence of several sub-genres and cult followings that are in themselves so niche, obscure, and esoteric and creates a genre that is uniquely him. Mamatas quite recently came out to say that he was done writing genre fiction, but I don’t think he has a genre to which his writing belongs. Kerouac’s language, Lovecraft’s atmosphere, and Bukowski’s coarseness are already sub-groups in larger literary circles where such few people have heard of them, read them (enough to create a fandom). But then, Mamatas takes elements from each and incorporates them in a writing style that is also a sub-genre of a sub-genre like: dieselpunk, cyberpunk, etc. Take all that and place it in an urbuan fantasy setting, and you got yourself a Nick Mamatas short story. See!? Not very easy to define.
I liked his writing style. On a sentence-level Mamatas in not pretentious nor exclusionary. His fiction is accessible if you want to be taken into the dark corners of niche-speculative fiction. I enjoyed them very much, and like every short story collection there will be a mixture of what works and what doesn’t on an individual level.
This collection has been announced to be published on September 8, 2018.
I was lucky enough to read this book at the right time. I can see this novel being a hit or miss for so many people depending on the circumstances in which they come across this work. Here are some personal things that helped with fully grasping this novel at the right time: Earlier this month I read The First Bad Man by Miranda July and was introduced to a very particular niche-kind of narrating voice. When I was about to enter my first year of university an online group hosted by the soon-to-be second years in our program constantly repeated to newcomers: whatever you do, don’t be pretentious. My observations of Canada, coming from Eastern Europe, and studying Russian Literature in undergrad. All these come into play in my personal experience reading this novel.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman is what I would classify as a “campus novel.” It’s about young people trying to figure themselves out, trying to learn from the clean theory work, and realizing that it doesn’t match up to the messiness of the real world. To me, this novel read like The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, but written in the style of Miranda July. I think Batuman was more successful in the deadpan narration because her writing has an aesthetic that isn’t bordering the grotesque which had me very distracted in the July novel.
The Idiot follows Selin, a Turkish-American young woman in the mid-90s, who is a first year undergraduate student at Harvard. She has a few eccentric friends and roommates and falls in love with Ivan, an emotionally unavailable Hungarian math major. The plot is overly simplistic. The first half involves campus experiences from first year undergrad at Harvard, and the second involves Selin following Ivan to Hungary under the pretext of teaching English to children in a village and becoming completely disappointed in a lot of aspects of her life, her studies, and her relationships. Before I elaborate on what I enjoyed about this novel and where it felt short for me, I’d like to list the two sentiments expressed by many other reviewers in places where readers couldn’t get along with the narration style or the characters. The first is:
“It’s basically a rite of passage for a college-age girl to go through that phase where she falls in love with an intellectually exciting but emotionally inept asshole.”
And the second is:
“Selin is an Ivy League student who does not need to hold down a job, has zero problems in life and seems to spend all day reading fun texts and thinking about, yes, herself. Still, she is pretentiously suffering from disorientation. Get a life, Selin, your #firstworldproblems are a bore. Full disclosure: I never had much sympathy for people who seem to want to crawl back to their high school (and mommy), because, like, college is, like, so hard and stuff. It’s not. College is a privilege, so grow up and get over yourself. It’s a mystery to me how Selin can have so little fun there without any apparent reason”
Accusations of pretentiousness, lack of self-awareness, first world problems, and white-girl-type relationship drama are reasons listed by people as to why this novel fell short for them.
My argument is that this novel about a person becoming self-aware. From the get-go if you don’t think most people at Harvard are already at the top of the college hierarchy then you didn’t start reading this novel on the right foot. I personally went to a pretty ‘prestigious’ and respectable university and met people of unmatchable privilege, and it doesn’t even come close to Harvard’s reputation. Given the setting, I would say Selin is quite humble. The novel is filled with deadpan comedy, situational humour, quiet bizarre moments, and Selin adjusting her headspace to make room for all these things in her life. You realize shortly after that Selin is very self-aware that despite being surrounded by some of the world’s ‘most intelligent’ people each one of them is ‘an idiot’ in various aspects of real life in the ‘real’ world. I think if I had to sum up this novel in one word it would be “realizations.” Reading it feels like you are walking through the simple actions of life with a very quirky friend, and the whole time you sort of hear life from their odd point of view. When Selin takes literature classes she says: “I wasn’t interested in society, or ancient people’s money troubles. I wanted to know what books really meant.” Stopping to think what that would mean in terms of discussion. There are many quiet moments like these where Selin just makes statements and observations and as a reader I found myself going ‘heh, I never thought about it in that light before.’ For example, Selin contemplates that Disney villains knew they were evil and prided themselves on it, whereas in the real world bad people think they’re the good guys, what it would have meant to really love certain historical figures like Lenin, or feeling trapped when you realize every one of your experiences is some form of oppression on some people somewhere at all times when you really want to do the right thing.
The novel is also filled with movie analyses, book references (particularly Russian literature), side-comments about these novels, cultural references, and a set of quirky characters. Selin is constantly grasping at experience and trying to form an identity while she is constantly disappointed that real life never matched her romanticized notions and expectations. That hit every college student experiences when they realize that even though they were the smartest fish in the small pond that is high school, they are now surrounded by thousands of overachievers, intellects, and people with a drive that is unmatchable: people who invent vaccines, Nobel Prize winners, and self-starting billionaries. There are no lessons learned really, the deadpan style of comedy is somewhat depressing at times, and the mixture of observations and ‘true to life’ experiences gives this novel a shroud of hyper-realism in a way. It feels like real life, while the characters are still part of the top 1%. What makes the novel fall short is its length. What starts out being charming and endearing becomes sort of dry and dragged out by its length. There’s only so much time one can spend with overly odd characters at a time, and only so many Zoey Deschanel movies one can watch in a row.
Overall I really enjoyed this book, and I would recommend it if you like campus novels, if you want to be brought back to a time when you were surrounded by pretentious nerds, if you like quirkiness and odd observations from strange characters, and if any of the things I said above sounds like you might want to give this book a try. It really works if you’re in the right mindset for it. The Idiot was short listed for the 2018 Women’s Prize in literature. I found it worth my time, and I wish I could have discussed this with someone as I was reading it, so maybe a good book club choice? Overall, I think for a debut novel it’s excellent.
“The ship drifted on the horizon like a symbol of escape”
“I wonder…when it was that the world first went amiss, and men forgot how to live and to love and be happy.”
I loved this book so much! It’s exactly what I needed right now. Daphne Du Maurier is so skilled in creating a perfect atmosphere, exciting plots, and dynamic relationships between her characters. This novel is escapism at its best.
Frenchman’s Creek follows Dona, a beautiful 30-year-old woman who is part of London’s upper class. Dona married Harry years ago and had two children with him. She never liked propriety, or the aristocracy, and would try to visit saloons and infiltrate other parts of society but it never felt enough, and it never felt right. The passion and love between Harry and Dona had faded many years ago (and never really existed in the first place) and Harry stopped trying, being completely inattentive to his wife. He was so preoccupied with his projects and hobbies that he might as well have been single. Feeling trapped, Dona decided to leave Harry for the summer and spent her days in absolute freedom at their summer home/cottage Navron House, right by the coast. We get a sense that Dona wants to escape. She wants absolute freedom and adventure. Upon arriving she thinks to herself as she stands by the coast:
“this was freedom, to stand here for one minute with her face to the sun and the wind, this was living, to smile and to be alone.”
Upon arriving, Dona finds all of her household staff missing with the exception of a rugged man named William. Rumours around town are that in recent months a pirate and his crew have been robbing the rich families around Navron House. Dona finds all this quite odd, until she comes face to face with the pirate ship hiding right by her house in a creek by the forest. Dona develops a friendship with the captain of the ship, who is a Frenchman (hence the title) by the name of Jean-Benoit Aubéry. The pirate is dark, handsome, French, and an incredible artist. He loves the sea, basking in freedom, and has a fondness for birds, naming his own ship La Mouette (the seagull). The novel picks up from there and there are so many escapades, and Three Musketeers-like fights, and adventures, filled with excitement and passion. The whole time Dona must reconcile her position in society with her longing for escape, and her role as mother and part of the aristocracy with her pirate adventures. There are two prevailing themes brought up over and over in this novel. The first is contemplating what it means to be happy and free, and the second is the realization that excitement and absolute ecstatic happiness can only be experienced temporarily. Good, nay, great things cannot last for too long or they lose their charm.
William says to Dona:
“a man is faced at once with a choice. He must either stay at home and be bored, or go away and be miserable. He is lost in either case. No, to be really free, a man must sail alone.”
Later Jean-Benoit and Dona discuss life as a pirate and she asks him if this life has brought him happiness, to which he responds that it has brought him contentment. When asked to explain the difference he says:
“contentment is a state of mind and body when the two work in harmony, and there is no friction. The mind is at peace, and the body also. The two are sufficient to themselves. Happiness is elusive—coming perhaps once in a life-time—and approaching ecstasy.”
The novel’s dominant feeling of uneasiness is best captured in this conversation between Jean-Benoit and Dona as she knows she must return from her first one-day escapade wishing their love-affair could last forever, and that her life could always be at sea. He says:
“you forget…that women are more primitive than men. For a time they will wander, yes, and play at love, and play at adventure. And then, like the birds, they must make their nest. Instinct is too strong for them. Birds build the home they crave, and settle down into it, warm and safe, and have their babies.’
‘but the babies grow up,’ she said, ‘and fly away, and the parent birds fly away too, and are free once more.’
He laughed at her, staring into the fire, watching the flames.
‘There is no answer, Dona,’ he said, ‘for I could sail away now in La Mouette and come back to you in twenty years’ time, and what should I find but a placid, comfortable woman…with her dreams long forgotten, and I myself a weather-beaten mariner, stiff in the joints, with a beareded face, and my taste for piracy gone with the spent years.’
‘and if I sailed with you now, and never returned?’
‘Who can tell? Regret perhaps, and disillusion, and a looking back over you shoulders…perhaps no regrets. But more building of nests, and more rearing of broods, and I having to sail alone again, and so a losing once more of adventure. So you see, my Dona, there is no escape for a woman, only for a night and for a day.’
To follow this story from Dona’s perspective and to know what she wants, what she is capable of, and to know that even those who ‘love’ her are not willing to join her in either adventure, or nesting, or misery is one of the ways in which this novel pulls at the reader’s heartstrings. The adventures she has are very Wendy-like: temporary. I would like to think that Frenchman’s Creek is almost like Peter Pan for adults. Both novels incorporate pirates, a woman trapped between a world of fun and one of responsibility, a woman longing for adventure, two younger children, and they are both filled with bird-references. (Totally cool fun fact, Daphne Du Maurier’s aunt was Sylvia Llewelyn Davies–the mother of the children who inspired Barrie’s Peter Pan). I don’t know if this book is too deep, or heavy in any way. It is light, and fun, with a bit of pain, but what makes this light narrative worth your time is that it’s very well-written. Daphne Du Maurier has such dexterity and uses language with such craft. The landscape alone will place the reader in an amazing state of mind. This is very much an escapist novel, and like Dona, the reader will temporarily go on an amazing journey. I highly recommend this book, it’s really fun, and has many funny bits (particularly when Dona pokes fun at the aristocrats in their faces without them realizing what she is doing).
I haven’t written for a bit but I have been reading, and I’m starting to have some feelings affecting my overall disposition and attitude towards books. I had my Goodreads goal set at 100. I’m now at 56, and I am sure I’ll reach 100 anyway, but numbers in general really stress me out. I like numbers at the end of a year so I can see what I liked, or what I picked up, but while I’m in the process they are overwhelming. There is an undeniable pressure on two accounts: the first is that I MUST reach that 100 goal, and the second is the rating. It’s a little complicated but sometimes I really enjoy a book, or it stays with me for a particular reason, but I wouldn’t consider it great literature. At the same time, others tackle extremely difficult subjects and important conversations must be had around them, but again, I wouldn’t consider it amazing. An idea worth a sentence or two stands out and I still remember it but I don’t know if I would read it again. I decided to set my count on Goodreads to “52” as if to say one book per week just so I don’t have to worry about it anymore, and from now on to review books without assigning them a rating on Goodreads UNLESS it is a 5 star-rating, or if it made me so mad I had to give it a low rating to emphasize how bad it was (rarely happens). I also need to keep my book-buying habit in check and spend less. I will try to focus on books I have, and use the library more. I am certainly doing better than last year, but it still requires some improvement. The majority of books however fall under the 2-4.5 ratings and the pros and cons add and take away on an individual level. I also learned something about myself and a particular pet-peeve I have lately which is this:
- Books (normally culture-based or gender-based) that have a topic but instead end up being an autobiography of the author (who is often not of interest to me), or a series of people’s experiences. These kinds of books are disguised as “non-fiction” but at the end you learn nothing except for one person’s experience of life, which most certainly cannot be replicated. This same thing often results in people trying to have academic or non-biased conversations around a topic and suddenly attach their personal experience with this topic which now skews the topic in their favour because attacking their stance, means personally attack their experience. I am going to use an example to where a book failed and one succeeded. First you have books like Spinster by Kate Bolick. It is a cultural non-fiction book meant to discusses spinsterhood (by choice or not). Instead we get really large portions of Bolick’s life story and it turns into an autobiography using spinsterhood as a frame while mainly discussing her dating history and upbringing, and relationship with her mother. Then you have books like The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains by Thomas W. Laqueur. The book follows burial practices from various cultures, using examples from each, ties it all together around geography, architecture etc. and how it affects us on a human level. At no point is there a long story about all the people in Laqueur’s life and how he coped with death etc. Turning a cultural topic into an autobiography IS NOT cool (to me). Others might like it, but that’s not how I read.
- “Self-Help” books that recycle everything from other self-help books but pretending that they’re original. This to me is a sign that the author didn’t read all that much (especially if they think they’re original). Sometimes it’s interesting to see how many people reach the same conclusions, but is it worth printing out so many copies and flooding the market and planet with hundreds of these?
- Books about other books that again have hardly any analysis or insight but are completely one-sided and irrelevant to anyone else. Example: Dear Fahrenheit 451
This has left me generally unenthusiastic about a big chunk of the books I read this year (and some from last year). Learning that will help me make better selections in the future, because obviously I’m at fault for picking these up. So here’s a list of books that I haven’t talked about in much detail but have been reading. A detailed post about Alan Watts will follow, and a full review of the Robertson Davies Cornish Trilogy. As for the rest, there is either nothing I can really criticize like in Naomi Morgenstern’s book and Not That Bad edited by Roxanne Gay, or the rest which didn’t have much of an impact on me but were “just okay.”
- The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater by Alanna Okun.—young woman discusses her passion which is knitting. She weaves in parts of her life, the people in her life who have passed away and how knitting helps her cope with many things. It’s a book about art mixed with life. The topic being so micro-focused made it all work out.
- The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai—book about a 26-year-old librarian who has a favourite young patron who is stuck in a religious family and is homosexual. She takes it upon herself to save him. Fictional work. The main character is weirdly a lot like me so it was nice to read from a very personal self-invested perspective.
- Lady Killers Tori Telfer—book about women serial killers. It hopped back and forth between: look how baddass this woman was! and: even when they kill women aren’t taken seriously, like they get hardly any jail time and get silly nicknames instead of cool ones like Jack the Ripper. Sometimes the wording made it sound like certain serial killers plead insanity as a cover-up…but people who murder repeatedly are mentally ill. There were weird lines where the author uses mental illness as an excuse for murder, or as if the murderers chose it to get away from real jail, and you’re never quite sure what the author thinks it’s right or wrong.
- Not That Bad edited by Roxanne Gay: individual accounts of rape and how it affects women differently and all the different ways rape exists. This is extremely difficult to read because of the subject matter, and it opens an important conversation.
- The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson: although it recycles many other philosophies it words it in a ‘bro-ish’ way for millennials using present-day examples and targeting out present-day anxieties. It was like an energy shot. Very quick, I liked the audiobook way better, because TONE is everything with this book.
- The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts—I’m going through an Alan Watts addiction phase right now. I will elaborate on him further. He is a philosopher who brings together Eastern Philosophy with Western Religion/Theology. He is in conversation with Buddhism, and the works of Carl Jung as well as several others. He’s currently my favourite person.
- The Wild Child: Intensive Parenting and Posthumanist Ethics by Naomi Morgenstern: this is an academic book that just got released looking at parenting and engages with several works like Room by Emma Donoghue, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Lioner Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, and a film called Prisoners. It is extremely well thought out and well-written, but again this is an academic work. The introduction alone engages with the works of Derrida, Philip Aries, and several other takes on childhood and child-bearing (particularly regarding scientific involvement) and Freudian psychoanalysis.
- The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies: book one of the Cornish Trilogy, follows a group of eccentric academics in Toronto following the death of Arthur Cornish who was a really interesting art and manuscript collector. It involves a lot of wit. Reading this is like reading a rap battle between Winston Churchill and Oscar Wilde.
- Shrill by Lindy West: Lindy West’s account and experience of being overweight, being a feminist, and how she exists or sees herself in mainstream media.
- Vampires: Afield Guide to Creatures that Stalk the Night by Bob Curran: a very short book on Vampires not going into much depth on any particular subject.
- Cities in Flight by James Blish: science fiction work where science is the new religion. Buddy-read this with a few people and everyone had a hard time with how dated and verbose this book was.
- Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson: the person who started the Zero-waste movement shares her experience with being Zero-waste when she is also a mother, fully employed, and applies this to her entire home with all her family memebers, showing people it is possible to live in the city and apply the Zero Waste Lifestyle.
- Starve Better—Nick Mamatas: explains the difficulties with writing, particularly science fiction and trying to make a living. He focuses much more on short stories and the craft of short stories, and/or the difficulties of selling short fiction
- The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. A fictional work about a “famous” actress based on the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and other women from the good Hollywood years, being interviewed by a young journalist.
There were others that had no effect on me which I haven’t mentioned, but here’s a full account of what I read this year if it’s of interest.
WHAT I’M CURRENTLY READING
- Book II of the Cornish Trilogy by Robertson Davies called What’s Bred in the Bone
- Listening to Out of Your Mind by Alan Watts on Audible
- Buddy-reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry with James Chatham
What I plan to Do from Now On:
- No more Goodreads Ratings, and ignore the count tracker
- No more reading cultural/gender-studies books. Either scientific or historical non-fiction, or fiction.
- Read better fictional works that have been around for a while and I know they are worth investing time in
- Three Reviews will come soon including: Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley, The People’s Republic of Everything by Nick Mamatas, and At the Teahouse Cafe: Essays from the Middle Kingdom by Isham Cook.
Perhaps it’s tough to step back in time just a little and see that David Foster Wallace saw the dangers of what is now on demand 24/7 media consumption in the form of Netflix and other film networks, YouTube, etc. While Infinite Jest is an attempt to present some of the dangers thinly veiled in fiction, it is a bit exclusionary by being over 1000 pages, serving a very narrow, elitist, academic crowd, taking Shakespearean strides and inventing too many new words hoping the reader understands, and has a fragmented structure with layers of references, meta-references, and irony. It’s certainly readable but it is intimidating. If I had to discuss David Foster Wallace, or give an introduction to him, I would start off with the first essay in this collection: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” It’s one of my favourite essays of all time, and one I re-read often. While this collection contains seven separate pieces (one including an academic discourse, an analysis of David Lynch’s films, a tennis essay, and a retreat), I will discuss in this post two of my favourite David Foster Wallace essays: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (henceforth I’ll refer to them as “E Unibus Pluram” and “Supposedly Fun”). I will highlight some of my favourite passages and add to it some of my experiences. This is not a review, or an analysis. This is me jotting down my favourite parts of these essays with a few notes from my annotations and what it reminds me of, as well as the feelings it stirs. Let’s call it a ‘reader’s diary?’
What has drawn me to DFW is my highly addictive behavior—something DFW himself struggled with, and a theme he incorporates in his fiction and non-fiction. Television, porn, and weed more than anything else (in Wallace’s work). We see traces of all these things in Hal Incandenza in Infinite Jest, the whole of “Big Red Son” focusing on pornography alone in Consider the Lobster, and television in this collection. I’ve always watched a lot of television as a kid, a teen, and in undergrad. Not only did I stream things continuously, I would watch several of them again and again. I would have it on in the background to avoid silence when cooking, cleaning, painting etc. By third year of undergrad I was on Netflix and YouTube non-stop but this time actively watching. I calculated that I had spent a total of 56 days of the year watching (24 hour days) when I put all the calculated time of all the seasons of all the shows I had watched in second year. Netflix made things even worse by automatically going to the next episode, something YouTube now does too—like an all-you-can-eat buffet of media. The strangest thing was, that I felt like I was doing some sort of artistic research, or like I was doing this for the purpose of learning something. Lost kind of put an end to my TV watching days because nothing ever compared, but the YouTube watching persists. You will immediately be able to see why this essay struck a chord with me. Wallace begins with:
“Fiction writers as a species tend to be oglers. They tend to lurk and to stare. They are born watchers. They are viewers. They are the ones on the subway about whose nonchalant stare there is something creepy somehow. Almost predatory…but fiction writers tend at the same time to be terribly self-conscious.”
This of course results in watching television as a voyeur, or ‘peeping-Tom’-ism hoping to see some human behavior and in on the secret lives of others:
“We can see Them; They can’t see Us. We can relax, unobserved, as we ogle. I happen to believe this is why television also appeals so much to lonely people. To voluntary shut-ins…lonely people tend, rather, to be lonely because they decline to bear the psychic costs of being of other humans. They are allergic to people. People affect them too strongly.”
The problem however, is that all of these lives that we are watching are not real. The actors know that they are filmed, it’s all a fakery. These behaviours transcribe later on into social media where everyone on you know presents only the best versions of themselves, and everything is filtered and edited on YouTube, and even to the extreme in Hollywood films and shows.
“The people we’re watching through TV’s framed-glass screen not really ignorant of the fact that somebody is watching them. In fact a whole lot of somebodies…they are on the screen engaging in broad non-mundane gestures at all…we’re not voyeurs here at all. We’re just viewers…television is pretending ignorance. They know we’re out there. It’s proffered—illusion…not real people in real situation. We’re not really even seeing ‘characters.’”
This seeps into the lives of celebrities as well. Wallace writes of our relationships with these celebrities:
“…we worship them. These characters may be our ‘close friends’ but the performers are beyond strangers: they’re imagos, demigods, and they move in a different sphere, hangout with and marry only each other, inaccessible “
In assessing these relationships Wallace states:
“This illusion is toxic. It’s toxic for lonely people because it sets up an alienating cycle (vis. ‘Why can’t I be like that?’ etc), and it’s toxic for writers because it leads us to confuse actual fiction-research with a weird kind of fiction-consumption.
We spend enough time watching, pretty soon we start watching ourselves watching. Pretty soon we start to ‘feel’ ourselves feeling, yearn to experience ‘experiences.’”
I think here is where this sort of disjunction occurs because since Wallace wrote this essay and killed himself in 2008, social media has sort of become the everyday person’s form and response to these celebrity lifestyles. Zadie Smith related that in her criticism of Facebook when she says that you behave like a mini-celebrity with ‘fans’ before becoming a full person, or becoming someone at all. The voyeuristic nature of our relationships to our immediate social network is just as detrimental as the pretend-voyeuristic nature of our relationship to television, because like these actors, people filter, and edit and choose which version of themselves they present to the world. The gap between the Wallace essay and “the now” comes in the form of Franzen-Smith in the conversations on Facebook (see my full essay on that here). The part that Wallace concerned himself with is the way this longing for experiences and a way into another human’s life becomes as addictive as a substance. He writes:
“An activity is addictive if one’s relationship to it lies on that downward-sloping continuum between liking it a little too much and really needing it. It both cases problems for the addict and offers itself as a relief from the very problems it causes…[television] is a ‘distraction’ –diverts the mind from quotidian troubles…television also purveys and enables dreams, and most of these dreams involve some sort of transcendence of average daily life…offering a dreamy promise of escape.”
The reality is you’re sitting on a piece of furniture inside a box staring at another piece of furniture in a box. In this essay though, Wallace isn’t only observing an entire culture’s relationship to television, rather he’s looking at how this lifestyle then becomes the contemporary American life, and then it ultimately gets placed into fiction and art. He writes:
“This culture-of-watching’s relation to the cycle of indulgence, guilt, and reassurance has important consequences for U.S. art…giving in to collective visions of mass images that have themselves become mass images only because they’ve been made the objects of collective vision…I want to persuade you that irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture that enjoys a significant relation to the television that has my generation by the throat.”
Wallace then says that when media makes ‘loathing oneself’ references and is meta-referential, then it’s a sort of permission slip for the viewer to continue to indulge. Now that you notice the hypocrisy and irony of it all you are somehow better than the masses, because you’ve noticed it, and we are giving you permission to keep going because look, you’re better than everyone else. The beginning scenes of Norton’s character in Fight Club come to mind–IKEA nesting and daily numbness. Anyone?
Wallace’s bottom line is that what this cycle does is create a society of lonely people. He writes:
“The well-trained viewer becomes even more allergic to people. Lonelier…. the viewer’s exhaustive TV-training in how to worry about how he might come across, seem to watching eyes, makes genuine human encounters even scarier.”
The second essay in this collection “A supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again” is Wallace’s account of taking a cruise and ‘enjoying’ himself—but mostly capturing the pressures that exist on a vacation (as they do on birthdays, Christmas, summer and other such designed places, times, and spaces) to enjoy oneself. He writes:
“It’s more like a feeling. But it’s also still a bona fide product—it’s supposed to be produced in you, this feeling: a blend of relaxation and stimulation, stresses indulgence and frantic tourism, that special mix of servility and condescension that’s marketed under configurations of the verb ‘to pamper.’… You are excused from doing the work of constructing the fantasy. The ads do it for you…a seductive promise. The ads promise…. you will have NO CHOICE but to have a good time.”
But Wallace captures something in this essay that I’ve personally felt on every resort and every ‘pamper’-oriented trip or event. An overwhelming sadness, despair, and loneliness. Wallace writes it beautifully:
“There’s something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad…especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased—I felt despair. The word’s overused and banalified now, despair, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture—a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It’s maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it’s not these things, quite. It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die.”
By taking choice away from you the cruise-line has made decisions for you, and now you must be forced to enjoy them. The alarm comes from realizing that being on this vacation in itself was your choice and it’s a choice you are now stuck in and a choice you must live with, which becomes a metaphor for life at large. Wallace writes:
“It feels like much time has passed and it’s passing faster and faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun and then I have live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose. And I’m starting to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life’s sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time.”
Which reminds me of the ever-famous Fig Tree passage from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which is now framed on my wall.
Yes, I know this post was long. That’s why it’s called Infinite Text folks.
Given the recent Toronto attack which has shaken this city to its core, particularly the way it was directed with a passionate hatred towards women, this book has been a source of comfort to me over the last few days. Reading articles claiming “Toronto has lost its innocence” due to a “men’s-rights culture warrior channeling a cult of toxic misogyny” made it particularly difficult to enjoy the place I call home without the constant sense of uneasiness and violation. I needed to read a book where all the characters are women and they are sexually free within their own spaces, in the city of Toronto. This has been (for me) one of those rare moments of right book at the right time. In addition to its content, the author’s dry humour and deadpan writing style gives this narrative a ‘matter-of fact’ tone, which is much needed given the plot and characters.
The narrative follows Liberty, who has dropped out of university, and hitched a ride to Toronto back in the ’90s. In Toronto, and in her early 20s she falls for Veronika who is an unreliable, and unpredictable character. The reader gets a sense that Liberty wants both passion and stability in her life. Liberty wants safety, and comfort, but Veronika’s style puts her constantly on the edge. Liberty’s ambitions aside from her romantic involvements become apparent as she continues her studies and becomes a law librarian working for a very important Toronto firm. Her personal life is laid bare in this novel, but we are reminded that on a daily basis, Liberty is a contributing member of society completing important work. While Veronika distances herself from Liberty, and things never really work out, life keeps throwing them opportunities to meet again and again. The relationship between them is quite familiar, Liberty sees Veronika as a goddess, and muse, while Veronika could not care less. Even when Veronika is hurtful, Liberty narrates:
“She was like Wonder Woman, lifting up bulletproof bracelets to a bolt of humiliation and cooly zapping it back…there was no way I could have been as cool as Veronika, who didn’t seem to get hurt”
The third main character introduced is David, who transitions to Dana. Throughout the course of the novel the reader gets an insight to the difficulties a trans-gendered person encounters even during small meaningless daily activities like joining a recreational basketball team.
There are many moments when Liberty vocalizes what sex means to her, despite what the action itself might look like from the outside (ranging from somewhat rough, BDSM-like, or even at times passionless). Liberty experiences an array of rejections that are really painful to read. Although you see her brushing them aside, as a reader, you can feel the sting. After sleeping with a woman who was extremely hurtful and told Liberty that sex with her had been ‘terrible,’ Liberty doesn’t retort in a hurtful manner, rather she says:
“Listen. Sex for me is not about coming. It’s not about one particular act. It’s about having fun and taking care of each other’s needs”
This novel looks at the three women in Toronto in the ’90s, with a brief flashback to the early ’80s set in Nova Scotia, all the way to 2014 where the novel begins, as Liberty accidentally bumps into Veronika’s step-daughter. This ‘bump’ to me is an overarching theme over the novel. You get a sense that Liberty has strange feelings towards young people today and not only to how casually they experience things which were a struggle for her, but also towards the demands they make. For instance, having read about all these flesh and bone experiences of the past, Liberty has a reaction to seeing a young person on Tinder (or as she calls it: ‘Grindr for straight people’):
“With quick finger swipes, she rejected three face shots of young men and displayed a photo gallery of boys and girls whom she hadn’t rejected. All the cool urban high school kids were genderqueer these days—we can date anyone and we don’t care about gender!…when I was a teenager, the idea of being a dyke had scared the hell out of me.”
And just as she begins with this shock of how young people reject so easily with a single swipe and not being comforted by the awkwardness of doing it in person, or being rejected in person, all tied together with Liberty’s constant desire for safety and stability in her life, she concludes the novel with:
“We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it was what I’d grown up with, was different from the current demands for safe spaces. Demands I wasn’t entirely comfortable with because who defined safe and when did it rub up against freedom? I understood wanting a safe space—any person who has been treated like shit would….when [Beth] stroked the center of my back, as she was right now, I felt utterly safe, precious, protected.’
What I loved most about this novel were the scenes of Toronto, and Liberty Village (name of Toronto neighbourhood) from the ’90s’ and early ‘00s. Descriptions of familiar streets, and familiar places made this novel particularly comforting. There is a lot of character development and growth while the city simultaneously changes with them. The Toronto Liberty runs to in the ‘90s is not the same Toronto she is in today. There is a mirroring in how Liberty enters the city unsure and fragile while the city itself feels defined, and near the end, Liberty knows who she is and what she wants, while the city is in a fragile state. Perhaps this novel can be summarized as “Life, and Liberty’s pursuit of happiness.”
This novel is written by Hamilton-based Nairne Holtz who is a law librarian in Toronto. She has written several other fictional works, and completed an annotated bibliography of Canadian Lesbian Literature. Information on all these works can be found at Holtz’s website. She has been shortlisted for Quebec’s McAuslan Prize, won the Alice B. Award for Debut Lesbian Fiction, and was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. She is almost always illustrated or photographed holding a dog, and she volunteers a lot of her free time at the Gay and Lesbian Archives.
In anticipation for the soon-to-be-published Apocalypse Nyx I thought I’d take some time and get to know Kameron Hurley (or at least her non-fictional voice). I was thrilled to see that The Geek Feminist Revolution has been appreciated by many of my bookish friends and I am no exception. I read a few feminist texts this year, and found some to be slightly repetitive. I find it interesting that a non-fictional work about a topic is greatly affected by who has written it. If another had written this exact same book I may have been annoyed at the biographical bits. However, learning about Hurley’s journey to becoming a (beloved and respected) science-fiction writer against all odds has been worth the read. It also helps to know that she won to Hugo awards. One for Best Related Work (2013), for her essay “‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative,” and the second for Best Fan Writer (2014). In addition she has published several books in the Bel Dame Apocrypha, respectively God’s War (2010), Infidel (2011), and Rapture (2012), and the Worldbreakar Saga: The Mirror Empire (2014), Empire Ascendant (2015), and The Broken Heavens (2017) as well as lots of short fiction published across several online platforms, magazines, and anthologies.
Hurley begins by telling readers of her journey and struggle as a young writer in her teens and early 20s facing rejection after rejection in the writing industry. At the same time there was a rise of women speaking up in all fields and standing their ground. A lot of times Hurley reinforces some of the points Roxanne Gay made in her books and adds to them. She is in many ways in conversation with Gay, and mentions Gay’s work several times. What I appreciated about Hurley’s work was the way she tackled different aspects of what a ‘Geek’ feminist must endure, particularly in the Science Fiction/Fantasy world. She takes us on a journey through the history of the Hugos, the many excuses made by the crowds on behalf of successful men, the ridiculous things authors like Harlan Ellison, and Theodore Beale have said in public spaces about other writers. For instance, finding out that anyone could possibly dislike N.K. Jemisin was already a shock to me, but finding out that someone publicly wrote that she was a ‘half-savage’ and was still read and supported by readers and the industry made me lose some of the faith I had in bookish people. And that’s just it, Hurley takes on the ‘Geek’ feminist dilemma. We’re supposed to be surrounded by the educated folk, the people who know better than to be racist, and sexist. And yet… The back-end drama of the Hugos and the Sci-Fi industry is all laid bare by Hurley here and she backs every single assertion with examples, and supportive evidence. For instance, she looks at the way we look at male heroes versus female heroes from varying angles, and even relates the story of Alice Sheldon being discovered as James Tiptree Jr, pointing out that Robert Silverberg famously said of Tiptree, “it has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.”
I wasn’t the only one often confused by society’s expectations versus what I actually wanted.
Traits we love in male heroes-their complexity, their confidence, their occasional bouts of selfish whim—become, in female heroes, marks of the dreaded ‘unlikable character.’
Anything is possible But to make it possible, we must first acknowledge that none of it is normal.
Hurley also takes on Gamergate and how it looks like from the outside. And how/why did so many young men from relatively cultured and well-off places think that the appropriate response to a heartbreak/rejection/criticism of consumed media had to be met with rage, violence, and threats? Hurley writes:
“when you are promised the world and the world says it doesn’t want you, you’re left flailing and lashing out, and that’s what these guys did.”
Hurley also elaborates on her weight being a secondary barrier for her as a writer and in the way she is accepted or judged in the first seconds of meeting, or being seen in a conference, a reading, or an online video platform. She writes:
“I’d be judged on whether or not I had the ‘discipline’ to take up less space in the world.”
Her bottom line to everything however is persistence. She writes about persistence a lot:
“Persistence isn’t the end of the road, after all. Persistence is the game. The narrative that wins is the one that persists the longest, in the face of overwhelming odds…Persistence is the name of the road.”
Persistence in the name of oppression, persistence in getting your work published, persistence, persistence, persistence.
Lastly, I’ll leave you with this line that Hurley quotes from Ursula K. Le Guin, which I think is a good summary of what Hurley conveys in this work successfully:
“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words”
This work certainly speaks to the here and now. It reflects present day, Western anxieties. I liked that Hurley went for the specific niche “Geek” feminist and took on the SFF world, rather than trying to encompass everything else. Whenever she zooms out of the ‘geek’ circle, she speaks of other issues in her personal experience, and because of who she is and what she has achieved, these experiences are relevant and interesting.
What Makes This Book So Great is a series of reflections and essays written by Jo Walton for Tor.com between 2008 and 2011. There are several essays where she offers her opinion and personal experience on a particular topic in a frank, and personalized way. The other essays however are specific things Walton wishes to discuss from her reading experience of particular books. They are not quite reviews, rather, they are snippets of what worked or didn’t work in a book or series for her (as a reader). She states in the introduction:
“there’s no impersonality here, no attempt at objectivity. These are my thoughts and opinions, for what they’re worth, my likes and dislikes, my quirks and prejudices and enthusiasms”
For the most part I think she has certainly achieved what she set out to accomplish with this collection. There are three essays that caught my attention, which I’d like to discuss at length here. The rest of the essays just made my TBR longer with about five new long series, and a dozen other individual novels. I loved the ways Walton describes how she reads when she is cozy, or down, or sick, and how comforting is to be in the company of a great book that seeks only to entertain and be fun.
In the very first essay Walton takes a stand for ‘re-reading’ in favour of only reading new books at all times. There are books one would like to read, or likes the idea of knowing its contents, but not necessarily willing to put hours into reading the material itself. Certain histories and political books fall into this category for Walton, and others alike (myself included). This topic is reoccurring through the collection and becomes apparent in the ways Walton describes certain long series. She writes:
“There are readers and re-readers…when I re-read, I know what I’m getting. It’s like revisiting an old friend. An unread book holds wonderful unknown promise, but also threatens disappointment…upon a re-read one is not surprised…you have more time to pay attention to the characters.”
The second essay that caught my attention is one where Walton discusses Speculative Fiction as it stand in opposition to the mainstream. She writes:
“when mainstream writers come to write SF, it’s normally the case that they don’t understand the idioms of SF, the things we do when we (SF readers) read SF…the mainstream writers know how to do all the basic writing stuff, stories and characters and all of that, sometimes they know how to do that really well. They really want to write SF…but they don’t know how SF works…they explain too much of the wrong things and not enough of the right things…In a science fiction novel, the world is a character, and often the most important character. In a mainstream novel, the world is our world and the characters are in the world. In a mainstream novel trying to be SF, this gets peculiar and can make the reading experience uneven”
I think this topic gave me pause, for two reasons. The first is that now I think the SFF field has its own sub-genres and its own version of the mainstream. For instance, I consider books like N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season to be so mainstream, because on Booktube everyone talks about it (or has in the past) particularly in the Science Fiction and Fantasy channels. It’s hard to keep in perspective how small this group is overall, and how within society avid readers (10+ books per month) are a small subgroup. I now pride myself on knowing the most obscure texts rather than the mainstream, and yet ‘mainstream’ Science Fiction, is not recognizable by the average person (or reader) as it is a subgenre of a subgenre (speculative). It sort of reminded me of the Jeffrey Eugenides quote from The Marriage Plot:
“College wasn’t like the real world. In the real world people dropped names based on their renown. In college, people dropped names based on their obscurity.”
Walton also made me me reflect on the ways I interact with Science Fiction, and how, compared to many other SFF readers I’m still very much a beginner. This language Walton refers to with technicalities, and knowing what needs explaining and what doesn’t is at the beginning very excluding to a beginner. When I approached this topic I felt like there was a group of smart people, a nerdy and intellectual crowd, and they ALSO told me that I can’t sit with them. It’s almost like they’ve made up an entirely new vocabulary telling the ‘norm cool kids’ or the ‘belonging to no group’ people like me: NO, YOU can’t hang out with us. It’s like being rejected by every group on the social spectrum.
In chapter 95 “SF reading protocols” Walton is in communication with Samuel R. Delany’s nonfiction works, particularly when he was attaching a vocabulary to Science Fiction in 1977 when the field was still finding its defining characteristics. She points out how other genres are defined by their tropes, i.e. romance is two people finding each other, mystery has clues, etc. But
“SF not defined by tropes. Samuel Delany suggested that rather than trying to define science fiction it’s more interesting to describe it, and when describing it, it’s more interesting to draw a broad circle around what everyone agrees is SF than to quibble about the edge conditions…look at the way people read it—those of us who read it have built up a set of skills for reading SF which let us enjoy it, where people who don’t have this approach to reading are left confused.”
Walton also considers what leaves a ‘friend’ who borrows a Sci-Fi book and returns it claiming ‘I didn’t get it’ say that they ‘don’t get it.’ They are not stupid, and they can read sentences. But Walton states that Modern Science Fiction assumes you already know how to interpret its language and:
“It’s just that part of the fun of science fiction happens in your head, and their head isn’t having fun, it’s finding it hard work to keep up.”
The last essay (and its alluring title) is the main reason I checked this book out in the first place. The topic is “Literary criticism vs. talking about books.” All I’ve ever wanted to do: talk about books! I want to talk about the books I love, and the ones I hate, and sometimes I simply have an emotional reaction, whereas in formal discussion people want a more objective, distant analysis, which makes things very difficult. In undergrad I joined ‘writing groups,’ ‘poetry clubs,’ and all kinds of groups that weren’t quite what I wanted. They all required of me something different from pouring out my heart and soul on what a book meant to me. The way I’ve been using this platform for instance, is mainly me trying to introduce everything I’ve highlighted in a text so I can keep all the quotations I loved from a book in one place. Some turn into reviews, others just into a log of quotations, and most somewhere in-between–but at no point would I call myself a critic, even when I draw lines of comparison between other texts or schools of thought (at times). Walton writes:
“Critics are in dialogue with the text but also in dialogue with each other…I resist the term because critics are supposed to be impersonal and detached, they’re not supposed to burble about how much they love books and how they cried on the train. Most of all I resist because I hate the way that necessary detachment and objectivity seem to suck the life and the joy of reading out of the books critics talk about.”
There’s also the matter of ‘spoilers.’ Often academics go to the core of what they want to discuss in order to have a frame for their greater philosophical or historical point, that they completely forget that some people might have not read the book. The way SF assumes you know the terminology, academics assume you have read every book they refer to. Walton mentioned how a footnote from a Penguin classic of a Victorian book about three chapters in spoiled the ending of the book. This doesn’t happen in bookish circles (like on Booktube, Book Blogs, or just gatherings of bookish friends) because we are quite cautious of spoilers.
“In academia spoiler warnings are fannish and embarrassing….re-reading is forever, but you can only have the experience of reading a book for the first time once.”
The fact that a footnote, or an academic/critic can ruin someone’s first reading experience of a text is devastating, and I have a feeling this happened for lots of people who took literature courses in University, carefully choosing courses they loved, and subsequently having those books ruined for them. Finally I loved the ways Walton distinguishes herself from critics and puts herself in the category of people who love to read and just to talk about books. She writes:
“I’m not standing on a mountain peak holding them at arm’s length and issuing Olympian pronouncements about them…the lines of respectability in the SFF world, or that if something is studied it ought not to be fun, and you can only have fun with certain books…I feel as if I’m not really a grown-up critic. And I don’t want to be. It’s too much of a responsibility and not enough fun”
I’ve been a devoted subscriber to The Financial Diet (TFD) on YouTube for some time, so I thought I would give the book a try. I’ve been listening to it on audiobook on my commute to and from work. The book is relatively short and incorporates many of the messages and topics covered by the videos, many of them in interview format featuring guest ‘speakers’ who are experts in their field and contribute advice per topic. I admit that as much as I enjoy listening to Chelsea Fagan, I should have gotten the print copy because often she often refers to charts, diagrams, or “the PDF” which comes with the audiobook and the PDF is 84 pages long, and I unfortunately did not have it on hand most of the time. So if you are thinking of picking this up, I would recommend the eBook, or physical copy.
The two authors and co-founders of “The Financial Diet” brand, Chelsea Fagan and Lauren Ver Hage, are two young, self-made, organized, and intelligent, business-women. Chelsea went to community college, got her funds in a mess, slowly recovered and gained economic literacy and decided to share her experiences with others who might find themselves in similar situations, particularly young adults in, or freshly out of University, (perhaps even slightly before entering University/College/Certificate Programs). My understanding of “The Financial Diet” as an outside observer is that it is geared at young people (and by young I mean 16-24ish) who have zero understanding of financial matters, and who have been crippled with anxieties and pressures from all angles of social media, and live in the West, particularly USA, Canada, UK. They also address repeatedly that the idea that old white men often appear in mainstream media as being the only secret-holders to the world of “finance.” Both Fagan and Ver Hage relate experiences in this book, as do all the other professional women invited to speak/write. This book, to me, is meant to let you know that you are not alone, that everyone makes mistakes, and to relate experiences and stories that may put things into focus. I also appreciated that most people involved at TFD and the interviewees are women, and the way they approach financial information is in an accessible, non-exclusive, non-intimidating way for young adults who have a hard time even approaching the topic of finance, budgeting, and saving.
After finishing the book and wondering how I feel about it, I came across two Goodreads reviews (on the negative side) stating the following:
“This is not a book that would help a 20- or 30-something gain financial literacy. It’s a lifestyle book, focused on how to get the lifestyle you aspire to on a budget, how to cope with the fact that some aspirational lifestyles will remain out of reach, and how to feel as though you’re doing a good job with your finances…this book is written specifically for Millennials…At its best, the book offers a critique of Instagram and Pinterest-lifestyle aspirations, or why we shouldn’t all be working 80-hours a week…this book that lives in the layer of fixing up thrift store furniture so that it’s Pinterest-worthy, rather than really digging into the nuts and bolts of how to negotiate the confusing experience of being a first-time homebuyer, or by explaining the mechanics of compound interest rather than just mentioning it in passing.”
Another reviewer states:
“how difficult it is to find content that’s geared towards women without being infantilizing…often provides financial advice that probably works for the Carrie Bradshaws of the world (like buying expensive designer bags for your first job) but not for the average millennial on a budget…this book is less about personal finance for young women and more about how to become the sort of young woman I imagine Chelsea and her social circle generally are– largely white, largely affluent, largely living in expensive cities, and taking pride in the fact that they have a “budget” but with no desire to actually take charge of their finances”
I took a step back and thought about a few things: how this book was marketed, what its title is, who is the target audience, and what I have personally gotten from this experience. After synthesizing it all, I am behind TFD.
From the whole TFD experience mixing together all the different media I have consumed their information, I have found both Chelsea and Lauren to be very useful. I also remembered that Chelsea lived in complete poverty for the early stages of her life, and went to community college. She mentions some of this in her video emphasizing the difference between being Broke and being Poor, and how linguistically one ought not to use the two interchangeably. I don’t know if her background is a ‘privileged’ one, though she currently lives in New York after starting and thriving on the TFD business that she has been working on for years. She is, as I mentioned before: self-made. I appreciated anecdotes of failure, and trial/error. I appreciated advice on minimal things like: budgeting apps, and even money-saving cooking tips, or DIY pet food. I don’t know how we’ve become convinced over time that absolutely everything can and must be bought. I also feel inspired seeing so many women together working and collaborating on a project that is really quite successful and has picked up a significant following on online forums. It makes me happy to see them succeed. I don’t know if that is a weird thing to say, but it does! I learned a lot over the last two years from them, and I know I am approaching this book from a privileged position, but I needed someone to tell me that it’s okay not to aim for the ‘Instagrammable’ wedding, lifestyle, house, daily meal etc. It is no more exclusive, elitist, or upper-middle class than the same target audience towards whom other writers like Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen direct their essays–which you may recall from my long post regarding the anxieties raised by Facebook. I know this ties in to what ‘negative reviewer #2’ has stated, and granted, this book is very much speaking to people in a privileged position, but this is the TFD audience. If you have the time and technology to consume videos on YouTube from TFD then you are in the demographic of their target audience. Social media pressures and insecurities created by social media are actually very costly (both mentally and financially). Monthly we make so many purchases (impulsive ones) that stem simply out of our insecurities created by the immediate technological environment around us. The fact that one reviewer mentioned the ‘Carrie Bradshaws’ is just an example, but we often see characters, or people in CEO positions and in various lifestyles and associate the Starbucks Latte, or the designer handbag with the kind of person we’d like to be, and in moments of weakness splurge as an excuse to ‘treat ourselves’ while feeding our insecurities trying to create a bridge between who we are, and who we would like to be. Buying a gym membership doesn’t automatically transform you into a person who goes to the gym. See Chelsea’s video on How Much Your Insecurity Actually Cost You.
The reason TFD mentions how to cook, what utensils you need, etc. is because good budgeting, minimalism, minimal-waste lifestyle, and living ethically are very interconnected. I approached these topics individually and most of the time they bounce off each other. The bottom line is that one should invest in good quality, ethical things, that are good long term for us, and the environment and to stop treating everything in our life as disposable. The Financial Diet approaches this topic from the financial angle, and it is not simply a finance book (nor pretending to be one), but it is a cultural examination, a social critique of the middle class Western lifestyle, and a starting point for the TOTAL beginner.
I will do a full author spotlight on Matt Haig, particularly regarding his fictional works, where I will get into further details about my strange connection to this author, and my fascination with his work. I did want to tackle his non-fiction/memoir/self-help book independently. I will say that this blog entry is less a book review and more of a personal interaction with this work. I mostly jotted down notes of the portions of this book I enjoyed, and found striking in a way. It’s more of a ‘personal reading log.’ I would recommend this book for times when you are in a depressive state, but I think the first time you read it, I would ideally recommend this at a time when you are out of a depressive episode, and then use it as a guide to return to when it hits. I also saw this image often on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram, and I always found it wonderful, but I had no idea it was taken out of this book.
This work is Haig’s account of his lowest point in life when he was brought down by a mixture of Anxiety, Depression, and all other physical and psychological effects they bring.
“We humans love to compartmentalize things. We love to divide our education system into separate subjects, just as we love to divide our shared planet into nations, and our books into separate genres. But the reality is that things are blurred. Just as being good at mathematics often means someone is good at physics, so having depression means it probably comes with other things. Anxieties, maybe some phobias, a pinch of OCD…”
Haig’s lowest point happened in Spain where he wanted to kill himself and he describes in detail the pressures and negative thoughts enveloping his days for months to follow, and the ways in which his parents and girlfriend supported him through this. He writes about the ways our awareness of death can often be both an anxiety-inducer and a life ‘activator’ and the paradoxical relationship between depression and happiness:
“It is a hard thing to accept, that death and decay and everything bad leads to everything good, but I for one believe it…that’s the odd thing about depression and anxiety. It acts like an intense fear of happiness, even as you yourself consciously want that happiness more than anything.”
What I particularly enjoyed about this work was the way Haig introduces us to his relationship to books, literature, authors (both dead and alive, both depressed and not) and often quotes another writer associating it with his immediate feeling or concern. The way he talks about books made me highlight uncontrollably:
“There is this idea that you either read to escape or you read to find yourself. I don’t really see the difference. We find ourselves through the process of escaping…So yes, I loved external narratives for the hope they offered…most of all, books. They were, in and of themselves, reasons to stay alive. Every book written is the product of a human mind in a particular state. Add all the books together and you get the end sum of humanity. Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself. But each map was incomplete, and I would only locate the treasure if I read all the books, and so the process of finding my best self was an endless quest…. the plot of every book can be boiled down to ‘someone is looking for something.’”
Haig also urges us (or challenges us in order to be happy) to:
“Read a book without thinking about finishing it. Just read it. Enjoy every word, sentence, and paragraph. Don’t wish for it to end, or for it to never end.”
A secondary point of focus of Haig is the observation on how we view the mind as separate from the body, and how in reality the two are highly connected. He looks at the psychological symptoms and physical symptoms of a mental illness and notes that there are much more on the physical side. He describes his relationship to running, meditation, and yoga and throughout this work returns to how important physical movement, physical nourishment, and physical forms of self-care influence the mental state.
Haig examines our relationship to ‘greats’ in literary and artistic history who have killed themselves. I know I am certainly one of those. But Haig takes a different approach. He urges us to admire and look up to people who certainly have depression but get out, putting aside Woolf, Plath, Sexton, Wallace, Hemingway, Van Gogh, and look at a much longer list of people who made it out. He even mentions the great long list that he keeps on hand of depressed celebrities who did make it out. There are also greats like Linocln and Churchill who overcame great depression and thrived on the lessons learned from the experience. Haig writes that maybe biographies of Lincoln and Churchill shouldn’t say that they thrived “despite” having depression, rather that they should say they thrived “because” of it.
There are moments in the book where Haig will mention something a famous writer says and in a way responds back to it with his own take. Here are two examples:
“Anais Nin called anxiety ‘love’s greatest killer,’ but fortunately, the reverse is also true. Love is anxiety’s greatest killer…forcing yourself to see the world through love’s gaze can be healthy. Love is an attitude to life. It can save us.
As Schopenhauer said, ‘we forfeit three-fourths of ourselves in order to be like other people,’ then love—at its best—is a way to reclaim those lost parts of ourselves.”
I particularly enjoyed his thoughts on time and time anxiety. This has certainly been a fixation of mine in the past I found some of his lines on time to be quite powerful. He writes:
“I was as obsessed with time as some people are about money. It was the only weapon I had…We feel an urgency to get on because time is short. Pain lengthens time…pain forces us to be aware of it…turning life into a desperate race for more stuff is only going to shorten it…in terms of how it feels.”
The whole book is also filled with advice from Haig and reminders that happiness will return, even when you are in a depressive state feeling shrouded in hopelessness:
Hate is a pointless emotion. Hate is the lack of imagination
Be around trees
we find infinity in ourselves, and the space we need to survive.
The key thing about life on Earth is Change. Cars rust, paper yellows, caterpillars become butterflies, depression lifts.
Accept. Don’t fight things, feel them. Tension is about opposition, relaxation is about letting go.
You will one day experience joy that matches this pain…you will stare down at a baby’s face as she lies asleep in your lap…you will eat delicious foods…there are books you haven’t read yet that will enrich you, films you will watch while eating extra-large buckets of popcorn, and you will dance and laugh and have sex and go for runs by the river and have late-night conversation and laugh until it hurts. Life is waiting for you…hang on in there if you can. Life is always worth it.
Lastly, as I was reading this book I took note of every quotation by other writers that Haig brought into this work that I enjoyed and each gave me pause. I jotted most of them down here to look at from time to time.
Quotations from other people scattered through the book that I really enjoyed:
“The wound is the place where the light enters you.” –Rumi
“is there no way out of the mind”- Plath
“The object of art is to give life a shape” – Shakespeare
“That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.” Emily Dickinson
“I know why logs spit. I know what it is to be consumed.”-Winston Churchill
“it did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.”- David Foster Wallace (on Advertising).
“Time crumbles things”- Aristotle
“The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. It is nothing but love and emotion; it is the Living Infinite.” – Jules Verne
“The lotus flower…grows in mud at the bottom of a pool but rises above the murky water and blooms in the clear air, pure, and beautiful.” – Buddhist Teaching
I often check the Toronto Reference Library’s Exhibit Room because they have some of the most wonderful exhibits. Often they are in collaboration with other libraries and collections, and I can’t help myself from taking pictures of my experience. This exhibit showcased paintings, drawings and prints of post-war Toronto from the library’s Canadian Documentary Art Collection, demonstrating the fast-paced changes in our city in the mid-late Twentieth Century. More information HERE.
I really enjoyed the sense of community this project inspired, particularly in the way they requested that people share their best pictures of Toronto and added them to the collection.
Peter Watts’s The Freeze-Frame Revolution is an addition to a longer series including The Island (2009) for which Watts received the Hugo Award for best novelette in 2010, Hotshot (2014), and Giants (2014). The Freeze-Frame Revolution will be published in June of 2018 by Tachyon Publications. These works are certainly part of what would be categorized as “hard sci-fi” for Watts does not spoon-feed his readers, nor spends too much time explaining. He drops his characters in some unusual circumstances, and tries to convey ideas about technology, life, the universe, and the limitations of humanity. It is simultaneously focused on macro scale settings and ideas and on micro details with few characters in a rather condensed space of 185 pages. Given these limitations I think Watts was very successful.
The novel/novella follows Sunday who is part of a large crew (in the tens of thousands) and was trained for this mission, to build a web of wormhole gates through space, making interstellar travel more accessible. Eriophora is their spaceship, and simultaneously used for creating ‘gates’ or wormholes through which they can continue to travel. Of the tens of thousands involved, only a handful of people are awake at a time while everyone else is still suspended in unconsciousness. The gate-building ship is controlled by Artificial Intelligence: the Chimp—who decides who he will wake, and what information it will provide to the awakened ones. The people are awakened only for a few days at a time when they are, which leaves very little room to accomplish anything.
As in most hard sci-fi character development isn’t a priority, and the reader will be left with a lot of questions about the characters, the ‘world,’ and sometimes even the plot. This novella will also leave you with a lot of questions but with the knowledge that there is a certain suspenseful beauty in leaving them unanswered.
The travelling through space and gates has been happening for millions of years, and people have been maybe awake a total of few full conscious years where they have scattered memories here and there from the few times they have been awakened at several time intervals (thousands of years apart). The people grow uneasy about their ‘leader’ and AI: The Chimp and plot against him, which is quite the task when they are only awake one day of every thousand. There are also problems relating to the AI’s relationship to the ship, because they are essentially one and the same. The “consciousness” of the ship is also their home (at least that’s how I read it). We are told for instance:
“Eriophora’s riddled with blind spots: shadows in crawlways and corners, in the spaces behind looming machinery where no one had any reason to put a camera. There are even places—near powerlines whose massive currents swamp the milliamp signals that connect artificial brains to natural ones—where Chimp is blind to our cortical links.”
The thought that Chimp can automatically know what happens on every surveilled location on the ship makes the ship itself unreliable which gives the reader a sense of uneasiness at all times.
I really liked the ways in which Watts presents some ‘dilemmas’ or concerns for the characters which resemble our daily struggles with online personas, and simulated experiences, particularly with the ability to “plug in.” I do have a tendency to read into social criticisms as hidden between the lines of every work, but in all seriousness Watts wrote a book here that is really fun and sprinkled with philosophical questions. Here’s an example:
“’I suppose I’m thinking that maybe there’s more to life than living like a troglodyte for a few days every couple thousand years, knowing that I’m never gonna see an honest-to-God forest again that doesn’t look like, like’– She glanced around—’nightmare someone shat out in lieu of therapy.’
‘Honestly, I don’t understand. Any time you want a—a green forest, just plug in…you can experience things nobody ever did back on Earth, any time you want.’
‘It’s not real.’
‘You can’t tell the difference.’
‘I know the difference.’”
It’s hard to omit these dark philosophical moments from the overall suspense and tension—particularly since the main mission itself: creating a wormhole gate network, has lost meaning for the people involved. I enjoyed very much the dark aspects of this novella. The ways in which Watts has this meaninglessness looming over every one little action of the characters, and the atmospheric tension he creates with the ship, and the crypt, coffin-like places the majority of crew members lie in made this work worthwhile and rewarding.
It’s a work of great talent, and I hope that soon all of his connected works, or “Sunflower Cycle” will be published in a single volume together. Peter Watts has created a sci-fi work of art where every word is refined, and has a purpose. I highly recommend this work to lovers of science fiction.
I spent a few days fully immersed in these two books by Peter Wohlleben. They are both books in the “nature” section, obviously, but they are written in the style of Thoreau’s Walden, which I referred to earlier as my ‘comfort classic.’ I absolutely loved being in the company of Wohlleben and I very much look forward to his next book which will be released this year. I believe it’s called The Weather Detective: Rediscovering Nature’s Secret Signs, which will be published in June. It sounds a lot like Tristan Gooley’s The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs, (a book I also loved) but hopefully it will add a new perspective to the conversation.
The first book written was The Hidden Life of Trees, and it sold quite rapidly. In a way it is rather meaningful because it changed the way we look at trees. He humanizes them by explaining the many ways in which they communicate with each other. I learned so much from this book, and it makes me want to start every conversation with “did you know that trees…” It made me want to learn a lot more about mushrooms and fungi in general. The way he depicted mushrooms as a social network between trees, carrying messages from a tree to another, was absolutely fascinating. The ways trees contain anti-freezing materials by self-lubricating with the essential oils in their branch tips, or the ways they contribute to bee life with their sap and sweet needles, or the function of the roots for a myriad of smaller ecosystems beneath the ground. The fun facts in this book are countless. This book heavily inspired, and informed (and featured Wohlleben in) the documentary Intelligent Trees.
The second book, The Secret Life of Animals was published in 2016 and was recently translated into English from the German, in late 2017. In this book Wohlleben observes the life of the animals on his farm and those in the nearby forests and notes his observations. This book made me want to learn more about ravens, as they appear to be rather fascinating creatures. I particularly enjoyed how much of this book focused on squirrels and their behavior. Squirrels carry their young around their neck, they plant hundreds of trees by accidentally forgetting where they buried their acorns, and they adopt the young of another squirrel if that other squirrel didn’t make it. There was a chapter on the fun animals have for fun’s sake, rather than solely completing a behavior for survival purposes.
Again, both books are wonderful, and they have a cozy feeling to them. It honestly feels as if you are sitting by the fireplace with a grandfather-figure and he’s telling you about the forest, the trees, and the animals he has including his shy horses, his bees, and every other woodland creature. There’s something very Disney’s Bambi and Snow White about the atmosphere of these two books. Although these books are not very science-heavy, Wohlleben draws on studies and research conducted on the animals given each topic, but does not heavily rely on scientific evidence. Many times it really feels like we are learning things only about his own personal animal friends, and we are relying on Wohlleben’s observations. If you are looking for scientific books these are not it, but they certainly are reminiscent of something Thoreau would write. They are not preachy (regarding veganism), but they certainly invoke empathy and understanding regarding the fauna and flora around us. These books deepened my observation skills when walking. I see birds and trees differently now on a walk to and from places, and they forced me to pay attention to more than I would have noticed before. These books are very pleasant, accessible to a wide audience, and cozy. Ideal for nature lovers. Here are some pictures of trees I took after taking a walk recently (on my lunch break at work):
“an unknown compelling force should be considered the cause of the hikers’ deaths” – Lev Ivanov
On January 23, 1959 nine young, experienced hikers who loved adventure went on a passage near the elevations of what was named “Dead Mountain” in the Ural Mountains. The team actually had 10 hikers, one who happened to be forced to return due to his health on February 2nd. On the 12th of February when the team did not return as expected, a rescue team was sent out to retrieve them. When the rescue team found all 9 corpses, they found the bodies in a very odd situation. Some of the bodies were completely stripped down, one of the young women was missing her tongue, and one body was highly radioactive. The team leader’s name was Igor Dyatlov (1936-1959) and so the name “The Dyatlov Pass” was used when referring to the mystery surrounding the young hikers. I watched a mini-documentary on YouTube as well as one of Caitlin Doughty’s Morbid Mystery videos on this topic, and I wanted to learn more. I picked up this book by Donnie Eichar published in 2013 by First Chronicle Books and I was quite delighted in the amount of passion and research that Eichar conducted on this topic. He left the United States to not only investigate what tangible information can be pieced together about this mystery, but he also wanted to speak to the one ‘survivor’ Yuri Yudin, as well as family and friends of the nine deceased hikers. Eichar pieces together this mystery and almost allows readers to figure it out alone, by presenting the facts.
Eichar interviews everyone possible, he reads the hikers’ diary which was logged by one of the young women to track their journey, he looks at the forensic analysis, and tries to give as well-rounded a character analysis of each of the hikers from what could have been known about them. Keeping in mind that this was in pre-social media and pre-internet era, and these hikers were only university students, it truly is impressive how much information Eichar was able to piece together. He also had a Russian-English translator with him to help with each one of the interviews, and tangible information. At the end of the book he offers two timelines: the hikers’ timeline as he understands it day by day, and the rescue team’s timeline. He also offers a re-imagining or “recreation” of February 1, and the early morning hours of February 2nd, using the diary entries, weather reports, and expert scientific opinion on what he believes really happened that night.
There is a lot to unpack from this mystery and I think Eichar does a wonderful job. I think telling too much of what I learned would be, in a way, spoiling the book, if you are interested in reading it. I personally found it scarier than most fictional horror books. Some of the siblings describe the state of the corpses when they saw them, and four corpses were so mutilated they had to be in a closed casket for the funeral procession. If description of such things make you feel uncomfortable, perhaps just watch one of the two videos I mentioned and linked above.
If you like reading Jon Kakauer’s books you would probably enjoy this one (both scared me a lot). It’s journalistic and research-based, but it’s also surrounding a real story with adventure, and nature in it. I thought it was well-written and it kept my attention the whole time. I also appreciated all the attached images, and maps, and the way it was structured. I think as of right now, this is perhaps the most we can ever know about the Dyatlov Pass.
In 2013 an adaptation loosely based on this tragedy (Devil’s Pass) came out featuring a very “science fiction meets horror” take on the story. It really helps to have so many perspectives on this hike and be able to appreciate the horrors of a true story.
Ever since I started reading this book I want to grab every stranger on the street by the collar and yell at them: “We’re going to Mars!”
This book has been with me for the last two weeks and it has left me completely mesmerized by the unquenchable fires of human innovation and by how much can be achieved through mass collaboration. Rocket Billionaires, written by Tim Fernholz, follows the narrative of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and the plan to create a colony on Mars in hopes that humans can become a multi-planetary civilization.
Fernholz focuses on the competition between Bezos and Musk to realize their visions of humanity as a multi-planetary civilization by building space companies focused on reusable technology. Fernholz spends some time examining the managerial differences between Bezos and Musk and looks at how these differences affect their relationship to this project. Aside from the clash between the two billionaires, there was also a tension between military-industrial space programs and these new, self-made, space companies. Fernholz describes how NASA policymakers stepped in to save SpaceX when it was on the verge of bankruptcy. The plan as we know it, is that in the next decade there will be an attempt to place the first colony on Mars. Over time, this colony’s goal will be to grow to one million citizens so that it can get started. Supplies sent on each individual mission will include a new batch of people as well as foods, plants, technologies etc. in order to create greenhouse farms, Martian villages with hospitals and schools, and a full-on functioning civilization.
This book is exemplary journalistic work. Fernholz relates the story of these two self-made companies to the public in a non-biased way. It is evident on every page how passionate Fernholz is about this project and it really shows, yet he maintains an academic, non-intrusive journalistic voice. The narrative flows smoothly and is by no means elitist or exclusive.
Reading this book made me jot down a lot of questions. For instance, I wonder if the women who embark on this mission be under insurmountable pressure to procreate. Will future generations look back and remember Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos in a kind of Henry Ford/Thomas Edison way, or will people forget the financial struggles and remember the name of the first man/woman to step on Martian soil, the way we all know the name of Neil Armstrong? What technologies will be created as a result that could better life on Earth? After discussing this topic over the last two weeks with people at home, work, and public spaces, I was taken aback with how ‘civilians’ receive information about this project. For one, everyone ‘heard’ about this topic, and yet, they look at it both as ‘old news’ and as a ‘it’s probably not going to happen in our lifetime.’ For me, this book has been eye-opening. The project is not only on its way in a monumental way, but it will happen within the next decade. The second comment I am met with when bringing up this topic is “what a waste of money, why not save the starving, struggling people here on Earth first?” While I agree that it is a fair point, this project is equally important. I am somewhat relieved that the people leading this project are very much focused on renewables, and reusable technologies.
Henry Ford famously said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” That is to say, we don’t know what this undertaking will accomplish for humanity yet. This book makes me see the scientific intrigue to colonizing Mars. It will be monumental on an engineering, scientific, educational, and human level—no matter how the mission will go. It will make students want to study the sciences even more ardently than before, and as Fernholz narrowed it down in this book, one of the answers to the question of “why go to Mars?” really can be as simple as: “because it’s there.”
Fernholz relates often the reality of the project to the leading figures in science fiction literature particularly that of the big three: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein, and of course Kim Stanley Robinson whose Red Mars trilogy is precisely this project (set in 2026 no less). The sprinkling of sci-fi references made this book exemplary. The sci-fi allusions act as a cohesive between the imagination found in the arts and what the great minds of scientists, programmers, engineers, and mathematicians can help bring to fruition—making readers see the beauty in humanity’s collective effort.
Would I recommend this book? YES!
Tim Fernholz is one of the leading journalists reporting on SpaceX and one of the best news commentary experts. Many of his articles have been featured in Quartz, and you may recognize him from the 2016 Quartz/Marketplace economics podcast: Actuality. Fernholz was both a Knight Journalism Fellow and at the New America Foundation in Washington D.C. He is a Georgetown University alumni with studies in Government, Theology, and Arabic, and one of the founding editors for the Tomorrow Magazine. If you’d like to learn more about his other fascinating projects, and previous journalistic work, you can find more information here.
The book is available as of Tuesday, March 20th, 2018 on Amazon, Audible, (read by Erin Moon) and The Book Depository, as well as your local bookstores (some links: Indigo, Barnes & Noble, Blackwell’s) and of course libraries.
Many thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt both for publishing this wonderful book and for sending me a review copy. The book design is completed by Graphic Artist Chloe Foster.
“A woman came to the funeral home looking for a job as a funeral director. When I learned that her dog’s name was Rigor Mortis, I hired her.”
The Life of Death is a memoir written by Ralph R. Rossell who is the owner and funeral director of the Rossell Funeral Home in Flushing (a small town near Flint, Michigan with a population of approximately 8,400 people).
In this work Rossell narrates how he got the family business, and explains terminologies in the death industry from embalmment to caskets, and everything in between. This work is autobiographical and part memoir, part-anecdotes, part non-fiction.
First and foremost I appreciated Rossell’s honesty. Knowing he is a funeral home director I expected him to try and emphasize the goodness of purchasing certain caskets or to hide the ways in which the market profits off of people’s grief. For instance, when it comes to purchasing a casket he writes an entire chapter and in it he says:
“Purchasing a casket can be stressful because it enforces the finality of life…In mortuary school, our casket-sales training course lasted about two minutes. Our instructor walked into the classroom and told us that the way to sell a casket is to go to the casket you want to sell and put your hand on it. Supposedly, this would lead the client to purchase that particular unit; that was it. Thus, the task of training a funeral director in the sale of caskets was left to the middle man: the casket salesman.”
For me personally, this way of laying out facts even if they are ‘secrets of the trade’ or ‘gimmicks’ makes me respect the writer, because I can see that he is not trying to hide anything or convince people that certain companies are better than others, or that one should be obliged to embalm etc. I refrained from looking at what his funeral home offers in terms of eco-friendly services, or options, because as a book reviewer I want to look at this work as literature and judge it only as such.
Aside from the above-mentioned, the main contents of the book brings forward something new, and I enjoyed it immensely: the community. This book is about people. Each short chapter/section focuses on a different anecdote from the 45 years Rossell has worked in the industry. He highlights the humour that can be extracted from concentrated time spent with grieving people in a stressful time. Reading this book felt like I was observing different behaviours and takes on grief, and like I was present to many funerals, which was incredibly humbling and pleasant. The ‘pleasant’ part is a personal investment in the topic, and perhaps other readers will have a different experience. I don’t want to say he puts the “fun” in “funeral” but…kind of. To clarify, he is by no means at any point disrespectful. Rossell acknowledges many times how troubling a time it is when someone passes, and how devastating it is to the remaining living people, but each funeral brings its own story. Sometimes the people don’t fit in the coffin, sometimes no one shows up, sometimes there are very strange requests made, by both the living and the dead. Each of these stories is short, and Rossell extracted the main points of what made them memorable, which makes this book a great read. As a reader I was also able to feel the small-town lifestyle, and the spirit of the small Flushing community.
I read many books on death, funerals, and the funeral industry in the last few years, but this is the first one that uses anecdotal evidence to bring forward the experience of being present at a funeral, and how the people in a small community deal with death. It was a very interesting read, and I have to say, I was quite impressed with the humour levels given the heaviness of the topic. I think when you are in this industry, you simply must have a great sense of humour, or at least be able to see it through the darkness in order to make it out yourself. I received an eARC from the publisher on Netgalley, but I am certainly going to get a hard copy of this book. I will leave you with Rossell’s own concluding words:
“And remember I am the last to let you down”
“Maybe there were no villains in my mother’s story at all. Just men and women, trying to do their best by each other. And failing.”
“I could number more sexual partners in my history than anyone I knew but the difference between love and sex could be summed up for me in eight words: I loved Julian; I had sex with strangers.”
“A line came into my mind, something that Hannah Ardent once said about the poet Auden: that life had manifested the heart’s invisible furies on his face“
I don’t even know where to begin with this book. I initially took it out from the library, while following along in the text with the audiobook read by Stephen Hogan. About 90 pages in, I knew I had to buy my own copy, and when I was done I bought two for my friends. First of all, hats off to Hogan for being able to read each character in a different voice, I don’t know how he did it, but it was an exceptional audiobook.
The novel’s true life-force and heart however is John Boyne. His prose is unmatchable. With this novel Boyne went to the top of my list as a contemporary author and I am currently acquiring the backlist.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a bildungsroman following Cyril Avery. His birth-mother, Catherine Goggin, is ‘a fallen woman’ who cannot provide a life for him and puts him up for adoption. He is taken in by Maude and Charles Avery who remind Cyril that he’s not “a real Avery” on a daily basis. Cyril knows early on that he is not interested in women like the other boys in his immediate circle of friends, and falls deeply in love with his best friend, and roommate, Julian Woodbead. Boyne highlights the dominance of homophobia in Dublin at the time, and the hypocrisy of the Catholic church in many respects. The same priest who had violently exiled Cyril’s birth mother had fathered children to several women—that’s just one example among many. The novel follows Cyril through Amsterdam, all the way to New York during the AIDS epidemic, and then back to Ireland. The difficulties of coming out, the struggle of living a lie, and the violence and hatred directed at the LGBT community historically are shown with such dexterity in this narrative. It truly is an education, and simultaneously a heartwarming reminder of how far we’ve come. The story is told in first person by Cyril, so readers know from the very beginning that he will one day be reunited with his birth mother, and we get a chance to know his feelings, while seeing his actions often contradict them (though not by choice). I was taken aback by the way in which Boyne crafted Cyril to come across as a quiet person even though he was ‘talking’ the whole time. The dominant theme of this novel is growth, and the difficulties of being forced to lie—those lies creating pain to oneself and other innocent bystanders. It also demonstrates how, if we don’t make progress and meaningful social change, history will continue to repeat itself generation after generation.
Synopsis aside, this novel is very much character-driven. There are three incredible women in this novel. First we have Catherine Goggin, who is strong, resourceful, and self-sufficient considering all the hardships that life has thrown at her. Then, there is Maude Avery who, to me at least, reads like she is Gertrude Stein—without the freedom to be Gertrude Stein. She is constantly writing novels, shies away from fame, cares very little for her husband, and has literary circles of bohemian artists. Lastly, there is Alice Woodbead—Julian’s sister. She is by far my favourite character. Her traumas speak to all my anxieties. She is smart, has a Ph.D. in literature, studies Maude Avery exclusively (writing her biography), and she’s an Ally, or at least more understanding than others to the LGBT struggle. Cyril feels an emotional and temperamental connection to her, and as a reader, so did I. She completely charmed me and got my attention when she says to Cyril:
“I sometimes feel as if I wasn’t supposed to live among people at all. As if I would be happier on a little island somewhere, all alone with my books and some writing material for company. I could grow my own food and never have to speak to a soul.”
The novel is, of course, mostly focused on Cyril. There are many characters that come and go in his life, and the novel relies heavily on coincidence meetings, and extremely dangerous events happening at random times. Characters make “cameo” appearances creating a strong sense of dramatic irony. There are a few events however where I felt that maybe the timing was just too convenient. I’ve seen coincidences happen many times, but there are two deaths that were kind of unexplained, as if by fate’s design when the character conveniently needed it most. Two other ‘deaths’ afterwards are quite rushed, and it feels as if the author needs to get rid of them somehow to focus on Cyril’s growth as an individual instead, and he does so in a very Shakespearean way (Polonius comes to mind). Aside from that, this novel is absolute perfection and I can’t give it anything less than five perfect stars.
I also love the way Boyne guides you safely out of the novel in the epilogue, and the story comes full perfect circle, leaving no question unanswered. None. None of my questions were left unanswered, and the reader gets closure with every single character and how their life turns out. It’s absolutely wonderful, which is something you need considering the heavy topics discussed. The chapters are each seven years apart which makes things really quite exciting because we get to experience only the interesting bits.
Lastly, there is Boyne’s masterful use of humour. Though the humour is much stronger in the Dublin parts, there are some lines that made me laugh out loud. Cyril is so naïve and innocent that some of his limited understanding of women, or just life, made me laugh out loud. A small example of that for instance is when one of the women at his work refers to her menstrual cycle as “aunt Jemima” coming for a visit and Cyril narrates: I don’t know who this aunt was, or where she lived, but she came to Dublin every month and stayed for a few days.
Again…. there are no words. Just a perfect book. Absolutely loved it from beginning to end. Character development is perfect, plot is very exciting, and the humour is spot on, while dealing with some of the most difficult topics, and the language is absolute perfection.
This novel came strongly recommended by James Chatham whose Booktube channel I follow quite passionately. Thank you very much James.
“What the hell kind of a life was this? What in God’s name was the point or the meaning of the purpose of a life like this?”
I read Revolutionary Road for the first time in high school, and I can honestly say this lifestyle is my biggest fear and worst nightmare: the suburban family. Franzen’s novels just added salt to the wounds afterwards, and it gave me the impression that people still live this way. The good news: not all people do, and we don’t have to anymore. It’s a choice, not an imposition.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates is a modern classic, and widely-known, even more so after the cinematic adaptation featuring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. The novel is set in 1950s New York and follows April and Frank Wheeler, a couple with two children who live on Revolutionary Road in the suburbs. The couple appears happy from the outside—April stays home, while Frank commutes into the city every day, but they love each other, and they are both beautiful. In reality, the couple is absolutely miserable, and April experiences the worst of it. Her disposition creates discord in their marriage. She tries to participate in the community by attending a theater group’s small performance, which fails miserably, she tries to talk to the neighbours, and finds that no one has anything interesting to say. April fondly remembers how exciting Frank was when the two had met. He traveled the world, and made grandiose promises of the adventures they would have together, while she herself was a young, beautiful, aspiring actress. Day in and day out, the couple is shrouded by extreme boredom, and they feel the hopelessness and emptiness of their situation. April proposes that they break this lifestyle, quit everything and leave. She suggests Paris, knowing it’s where Frank had traveled in his youth, hoping his nostalgic feelings towards Paris would inspire him to agree. This idea brings joy and hope into their lives—while everyone around them thinks they are making the wrong choices in life, trying to stop them from leaving. The only person who understands them is John, the son of the real estate agent, who used to be a bright mathematics teacher, and has recently come out of a mental institution. This trigger puts a series of events in motion, and there are lots of twists which pull at the reader’s heartstrings.
A simple Google search for the author states that he is associated with the mid-century ‘Age of Anxiety’ coined by W.H. Auden in his Pulitzer-prize Winning poem. Both Auden and Yates emphasize the struggle of man’s quest to find substance and identity in a rapidly changing, industrialized, Capitalist world.
The way Yates sets up the narrative, it feels as if everything done in suburbia is a game of pretend—grown adults pretending that everything is okay, when really, everyone is aware that every little thing they do is irrelevant, and a distraction from the rich, fulfilling lives they should be living.
“[play director:] any play deserves the best that any actor has to give…we’re not just putting on a play here. We’re establishing a community theater, and that’s a pretty important thing to be doing…[narrator:] the main thing, though, was not the play itself but the company—the brave idea of it, the healthy, hopeful sound of it: the birth of a really good community theater right here, among themselves.”
Everything around the play sparks pity, and is the catalyst for April to stop pretending. There are many layers to this pretense. Acting in itself isn’t real, and yet, acting in a small suburbian, amateur production, for April, isn’t real acting—not at her age.
“No one forgets the truth; they just get better at lying”
Time and pretense are entwined, things that would have seemed fine years ago, no longer work at this age. April might have had a chance to be a real actress, but now it’s too late for her, and it’s too late to start over. Her age, and her disposition are constant reminders throughout the text, particularly in the ways that Frank sees her:
“[April used to be:] A girl he hadn’t seen in years, a girl whose every glance and gesture could make his throat fill up with longing (‘Wouldn’t you like to be loved by me?’) and that then before his very eyes she would dissolve and change into the graceless, suffering creature whose existence he tried every day of his life to deny but whom he knew as well and as painfully as he knew himself, a gaunt constricted woman whose red eyes flashed reproach, whose false smile in the curtain call was as homely as his own sore feet, his own damp climbing underwear and his own sour smell.”
Time is passing, resentment builds up, and pretending everything is fine no longer works. Another point that Yates touches on in this work is the incredible loneliness felt on an individual level by everyone in this kind of world. Everyone thinks the other is better off, while each character experiences an extreme, forceful loneliness—while at the same time longing for a spiritual solitude in which you can find your truest self, and the source of your honest actions.
“if you wanted to do something absolutely honest, something true, it always turned out to be a thing that had to be done alone.”
“Being alone has nothing to do with how many people are around.”
What I particularly love about Yates’s narrative is the way in which he touches on sensitive topics regarding women and the ways they were trapped by their womanhood. Had April not kept the two children, she would be chain-less. Choices as such weren’t as readily available in the ‘50s, and in many ways continue to be limited today. I was also somewhat struck by the way in which John discusses “female” versus “feminine” with the Wheelers. He says:
“’I like your girl, Wheeler,’ he announced at last. ‘I get the feeling she’s female. You know what the difference between female and feminine is? Huh? Well, here’s a hint: a feminine woman never laughs out loud and always shaves her armpits. Old Helen in there [his mom] is feminine as hell. I’ve only met about half a dozen females in my life, and I think you got one of them here.’”
John compliments April for her resilience and strength, while simultaneously directing the compliment at Frank, as if he needs to take credit for ‘[his] girl.’ I don’t know if “female vs. feminine” as a topic for discussion would stand a chance today, and I see the term ‘female’ be used in a medical realm more than a conversational one.
Everything in Revolutionary Road clashes, people want things and do the opposite, and characters continuously say things that are innately contradictory, and paradoxical. Even the road which is supposedly ‘Revolutionary’ has nothing but the ‘ordinary,’ on it. This work truly is a masterpiece, and I can see why it’s a modern classic. There is a lot to discuss about this novel, and it’s a perfect book for a reading club, or close study. It is quite depressing (so read cautiously).
For the long weekend, I took a brief trip to NYC and explored several bookstores and the exhibition at the Morgan Library: Tennessee Williams No Refuge but Writing, hosted in the Engelhard Gallery. Only a quick glimpse demonstrated what a huge collaboration this exhibition was. Manuscripts were brought from the Harry Ransom Center, Columbia University, New York Public Library, Harvard, and many others, with the collaboration of many librarians and curators. The exhibition was made possible by generous donors, and it is exemplary work by the librarians and curators at the Morgan Library. Walking through the exhibition I felt absolutely inspired! Inspired to write, to learn, to read, to live! The way the exhibit was set up, the information provided, the research done, all was put together so well that—in my mind at least— it brought Tennessee Williams back to life.
The way my high school English courses were set up, and coincided with my theater classes, I accidentally had to read A Streetcar Named Desire about five times—not only read it, but study it, memorize it, and write several essays on it, as well as performing parts of it on stage. In undergrad I studied The Glass Menagerie, and this put me on a bit of a Williams crusade. His tragic female characters who cannot let go of an idealized past, his confrontational men who are mere bullies incapable of understanding the delicate nature of their sexuality, in addition to the intensity of the plot—are absolutely unforgettable.
The way the exhibition is set up we get glimpses into Williams’s life in chronological order. Artefacts include one of his many typewriters, keys he collected from hotels, manuscripts and first drafts of his plays, elaborate plans for some of his character development, as well some of his well-deserved awards. Because Williams wrote on the cusp of the Golden Age of Hollywood, there are many playbills from Broadway, images of Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh, and Marlon Brando, and posters/still images of these great actors playing a role in one of his many plays.
Tennessee Williams’s inner life, however, was most intriguing to me. On display was a letter Williams sent to his grandfather explaining how anxious he was for receiving a grant from the Rockefeller fellowship, the ways in which he based Belle Reve (the location from which Blanche arrives—the idealized past) on a poem he wrote many years prior, the way he dissects Blanche’s character and psyche before writing her into dialogue, and his many oil paintings. This was new information to me—I had no idea Williams painted—in a style I very much admire. His painting style resembles a cross between Cezanne and Van Gogh—a form of expressionism/impressionism but with a flat brush. I remember a moment from Streetcar where he went through a lot of trouble to outline the setting by means of a painting:
“There is a picture of Van Gogh’s of a billiard-parlor at night. The kitchen now suggests that sort of lurid nocturnal brilliance, the raw colors of childhood’s spectrum. Over the yellow linoleum of the kitchen table hangs and electric bulb with a vivid green glass shade. The poker players—Stanley, Steve, Mitch and Pablo—wear colored shirts, solid blues, a purple, a red-and-white check, a light green, and they are men at the peak of their physical manhood, as coarse and direct and powerful as the primary colors.” (Streetcar Named Desire)
According to one of the information panels next to his drafts of Streetcar, Williams got the idea for the play when living in New Orleans with his new lover Pancho Rodriguez where he famously wrote:
“’I was and still am Blanche…[although] God knows I have a Stanley in me, too,’” drew on their tumultuous relationship for the play. This he wove together with elements from earlier poems, shorter plays, and character studies to draft and redraft The Poker Night, the immediate precursor to A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Clearly, he drew a lot from Van Gogh’s art and allowed it to guide the poker night scene which became the heart and beginning of his most famous play.
Lastly, and what I found most interesting, was the way Tennessee Williams regarded writing as a kind of madness. In a diary where he noted anxieties about his play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which he feared was a failure, he wrote:
“I love writing too much, and to love anything too much is to feel a terror of loss: it’s a kind of madness”
Then, below the typewriter on display The Morgan Library wrote:
“Two of Williams’s most important possessions were his copy of Hart Crane’s Poems (also on view) and his typewriter. As a young man, he would write through the night, seeming to subsist on strong black coffee and creative expression alone. Even at his poorest, when his typewriter was seized by his landlady, he borrowed one. When he pawned the borrowed typewriter, he found another and promptly spent 15 cents of his last $2.00 on paper. ‘I must be mad,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘It’s all a little too much, too much.’”
It was so interesting to see it all laid out and to get so close to his handwriting, and most prized possessions. The exhibition will be on at the Morgan Library until May 13, 2018, so if at any point you find yourself in New York, try to see it if you can. If not, the exhibition has been put together in a library catalog titled Tennessee Williams No Refuge but Writing, which is available for purchase online.
Note: all pictures above were taken by me (no flash) at the Morgan Library, and are the property of the sources listed in the opening paragraph. According to their website: “Images may be printed out for study, or downloaded for presentations, dissertations, or non-commercial websites or blogs.”
I recently read Zadie Smith’s Feel Free essay collection, and re-read several times the essay and film review of The Social Network: “Generation Why,” which was published in the New York Review of Books back in 2010. I found similarities between her essay and Jonathan Franzen’s essay/speech “Liking is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts,” which was published in the New York Times a year later (2011), though they both reach for different points. Franzen’s essay is now in the collection Farther Away. They are both linked if you are interested in reading them, though I will be summarizing them, and quoting what I considered valuable in them before I share my experience.
Smith looks at the ways in which 2.0 kids (Millennials, and Gen Y) have been making a new world by having alternate personalities, and alternate versions of themselves in social networks. Her concerns are directed at the strength of our connections, and the fullness of the person we choose to share with others. She writes:
“Connection is the goal. The quality of that connection, the quality of the information that passes through it, the quality of the relationship that connection permits—none of this is important. That a lot of social networking software explicitly encourages people to make weak, superficial connections with each other… ‘You have to be somebody,’ Lanier writes, ‘before you can share yourself.’ But to Zuckerberg sharing your choices with everybody (and doing what they do) is being somebody.”
To Smith there is a sort of façade that one should feel and behave like a mini-celebrity with ‘fans’ when one hasn’t quite become a full person, nor is one sharing their full and real, three-dimensional selves, or circulating concrete ideas. She writes:
“..here in the Anglo-American world we race ahead with technology and hope the ideas will look after themselves…If you love a medium made of software, there’s a danger that you will become entrapped in someone else’s recent careless thoughts. Struggle against that!”
In a NYPL interview following this piece she says that what is lost with the use of this interface is that we become performative in our interactions with others rather than relational.
“The relationship is one way, and you are voyeuristic about other people’s lives… real life is relational, you have to deal with real people. You have to look at people in the eye.”
Smith is both hopeful and self-aware. She agrees that “no generation is more stupid than the one before” and that it will be interesting to watch young people work their way out of this situation.
What got my attention in her analysis of our generation was an observation of people interacting with someone’s Facebook wall after that person had recently passed away, in somewhat simplistic, street-talk. Smith reminds herself that perhaps this person feels the same way as she would, but simply doesn’t have the education or language to express it.
“But another part of me has a darker, more frightening thought. Do they genuinely believe, because the girl’s wall is still up, that she is still, in some sense, alive? What’s the difference, after all, if all your contact was virtual?”
I’ve seen this happen myself and I’ve been an active participant in it. Immediately after the death of someone you’re looking for people to relate to, a form of mouring community, and seeing people post on someone’s wall immediately after it happens is somewhat reassuring, especially when both friends and family don’t always live in the vicinity. However, after several months or years, seeing people continue to post seems somewhat performative like you’re showing others how you continue to grieve. To me, sharing these inner feelings is reasonable, and a part of being human. But I can see that it’s complicated. Smith writes: what’s inside of me is none of your business; and I think this attitude is something we all admire: people who can think and act this way, but find it equally difficult to follow up on it ourselves, and actually stop our hands from typing every little thought, feeling, or frustration. But Smith too shares inner feelings in her long novels. I do it on this platform. Just because hers are disguised as fiction doesn’t make them particularly private. What Facebook does, and what I think Smith is actually disagreeing with is making the trivial important. “Jamie got a haircut today….250 likes.” Not only is the trivial important, it is more valued than a work-hard achievement at times. On my feed I’ve seen a haircut, or a hamburger picture receiving more attention and likes than someone getting their Ph.D diploma, at which point it makes you feel compared. Everything is always one up against the other. He/she/they have more fans, more friends, more support. These ‘likes’ in numbers give a numerical value making it look objectively (and feel subjectively) the haircut was clearly more important today—which can make the-person-working-somewhat-harder-for-longer-periods-on-something’s achievement seem illaudable or unworthy of the respect of one’s peers. These become moments of comparison as the timeline quite literally puts one above the other, and next to each other.
Jonathan Franzen looks at Facebook as an anesthetic. Temporarily feeling numbed into not feeling, or tricking oneself into feeling happy from people’s immediate reactions. He writes:
“The prospect of pain generally, the pain of loss, of breakup, of death, is what makes it so tempting to avoid love and stay safely in the world of liking…And yet pain hurts but it doesn’t kill. When you consider the alternative — an anesthetized dream of self-sufficiency, abetted by technology — pain emerges as the natural product and natural indicator of being alive in a resistant world. To go through a life painlessly is to have not lived. Even just to say to yourself, “Oh, I’ll get to that love and pain stuff later, maybe in my 30s” is to consign yourself to 10 years of merely taking up space on the planet and burning up its resources. Of being (and I mean this in the most damning sense of the word) a consumer.”
Franzen’s solution to handling this fear, instead of anesthetizing it like ‘a patient etherized upon a table,’ is to surrender yourself to something real. He writes:
“my love of birds became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I’d never even known existed. Instead of continuing to drift forward through my life as a global citizen, liking and disliking and withholding my commitment for some later date, I was forced to confront a self that I had to either straight-up accept or flat-out reject.”
Both writers seem to narrow in on the fear of “not being liked.” Above I mentioned how a lack of ‘likes’ can make one feel somewhat inadequate or lacking approval—or on the reverse, quite happy/popular on days the reactions and feedback is favourable. Yes, at its bottom line it is a fear of not being liked, but outside of social media, isn’t everything we do in the real world, day to day, for one form of social approval? How many people don’t become doctors, lawyers, and professors for the social respect attributed to those jobs?
“For our self-conscious generation (and in this, I and Zuckerberg, and everyone raised on TV in the Eighties and Nineties, share a single soul), not being liked is as bad as it gets. Intolerable to be thought of badly for a minute, even for a moment.”
“But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist — a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable…to love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.”
Real life is messy. This two-dimensional world is too cleaned up. Moments of eye contact are irrelevant, your full, whole-rounded person doesn’t come through, you’re afraid of being disliked on a constant basis, thus giving you anxiety, and you constantly compare someone’s highlight reel to your ‘behind-the-scenes’ moments.
I’ve been on Facebook since 2006 (has it been 12 years?) I remember when it first came out and we were just adjusting to the shift from MSN messenger not quite getting the difference between the MSN status (the immediate feeling), and the FB status: an opinion. I remember being terrified when the switch to the “timeline” happened back in 2011 because I had my life laid out in such a way that my past self, my teenage self, was archived in an easily accessible way for the new people to see the old me—a person I no longer liked, a person I no longer wanted to be, and a person I didn’t want others (new people in my life) to have a chance to see. I can hear people say the same responses they give to NSA intrusions: what do you have to hide? Nothing. I’m just not that person anymore, and I don’t want her here. Moments of “this was you five years ago” as I stare at my screen horrified. Moments I’d rather not remember. Facebook picks the numerically important (by likes), or random picture to remind you of a time, when realistically, that wasn’t an important moment to you, nor something you want to recall right now. While I encountered the feelings both Smith and Franzen discuss, there were so many other layers to them.
My first frustration is from the people involved. Facebook to me isn’t made of people with whom I have things in common or share similar interests. Rather it’s made up of the people I happened to live near in high school, accidentally got paired to be near in university, and extended family I happen to have. On that forum, I feel like I am constantly at a high school reunion or at the family gathering. People fighting, disagreeing, bragging, and everything in between. There are moments of mourning, and moments of celebration, and moments of tagging each other in memes and gifs that show ‘dogs who know exactly how you feel about pizza.’ I watched SO MANY movies where Gen X and Y’s ‘biggest obstacle’ was to go to their high school reunion or a family gathering with extended family. On Facebook we live that every single moment. Every day is a high school reunion. I’ve read psych articles highlighting the stress most people have before a high school reunion because it brings back all of your high school self’s insecurities. My bottom line here is that Facebook is filled with people I don’t hang out with, people who don’t share my interests, and people who I don’t necessarily talk to through this forum. It feels like gossip. Did you hear, did you see? Detective work beings. John and Jane had pictures together, now they’re all gone. John deleted them. What happened? Are you going on a date with so-and-so? Let’s ‘creep’ his Facebook and see what we can dig. A reductionist understanding of his top likes, top pictures, etc. It all seemed “fine” until I tried looking at my Facebook the same way. I hardly have any pictures on Facebook with my best friends, my close family, or my real interests. I was mortified by the idea that someone might judge me by the information they find, and the pictures they see.
Thinking this through a few years ago, I decided to be that person who shares little happiness-es often, rather than only the big accomplishments, to remind people there are little reasons to smile. Such as: I found a penny. There’s an apple shape on my apple. I met a squirrel outside, gave it seeds, and now we’re friends. They shouldn’t name condoms Trojan since they lost because the enemy intruded through the wall—literally the opposite of what you want.
After a while I began to feel annoying and above all: I started to make the trivial things more important and I started to feel performative. Like I’m some sort of clown who owes people a smile, entertainment, or humour. You don’t want to make anyone feel sad because you achieved something big, so you focus on the small. Then you complain for making the trivial take priority and become more important. There’s just no winning.
I also (and this is funny) found myself at work (in “the real world”) needing instant feedback from my boss and co-workers. Did you like my assignment? How would you say you reacted to it? What would your immediate commentary be? What GIF would you assign it? Not to mention that mindless clicking of the ‘f’ button has led me to waste countless hours liking pictures of books, and taking time from actual reading.
Then there are the failures in life where you feel like you owe people (a large amount of people) an explanation. I’ve seen countless people explain their choices as if they owed it to us (as Smith puts it: their fans). It only takes one ugly breakup to want all digital traces erased.
And the last thing is this: have you ever met a completely new person with no digital trace? Or no social media? Because I did, and they are fascinating! The Ron Swanson type. I feel like Jane Goodall. It’s so intriguing getting to know someone based on what you see, actually see—and actually communicate. I want to become that person.
I don’t hate Facebook, but I hate my relationship to it. If I can adjust that, then maybe I can go back. But for now, I’m going to pretend that Instagram and probably everything else is not owned by Facebook. I’m okay with it existing, I’m okay with what it has become and could be, but for now, I don’t like how it makes me feel, and my personal relationship to it. It’s something I have to work on. Maybe for a while I’ll try the Franzen method and say it out loud: I don’t care about being liked! I’ll try to find something real and alive to give part of my self to.
So…Valentine’s Day. Though it’s a holiday most people have mixed feelings towards, it gives us a good opportunity to think about love, and romance, particularly what it means to us on a personal level and what we think philosophically. My favourite thing about love is that the same thing that makes us warm in the heart, and gives us butterflies in the stomach can so easily turn into a hideous scar leaving us all walking wounded. The line between love and hate so thin, and it always amazes me how two people can go from being together every second of every day, absolutely besotted, to avoiding each other like the plague. It’s both sad and hilarious. It’s sad when you’re the kid of divorced parents, it’s heartbreaking when it’s happening to you and it feels like someone tore off a limb, but watching it happen from far away, there is some humour in all this melancholic drama.
That said, love—when it’s happening— is absolutely beautiful, particularly in the many forms and shapes it has: how, with whom, and its duration. Whatever societal obstacle may be, there is one undeniable truth: love is love is love. Love is sometimes not even separated by death and the living continues living, forever loving the departed—I’m sure there are necromancy love novels re-imagining a happy alternative to the tragic reality. Love can happen for a month, or ten years, or a lifetime, and no one else can deny that it happened just because of its brevity. We are ready to accept that Rose and Jack loved each other in Titanic when it lasted less than three days, or that Romeo and Juliet are in love as young teenagers who know each other for less than a week. Likewise, if the love dissolves over time it doesn’t mean that it never happened. Most importantly, no one else has the right to deny the way you feel, or decide how you choose to love—you alone can know how it happens to you, and how you feel. In that respect love is very much like pain: a personal experience that can never be fully expressed because language is too limited for its complexity. The way these little wounds or loves happen can influence the ways you live your life henceforth, what you look for in other people, and how you interact with the world around you. Other people denying the existence of certain kinds of love does not make it any less real for the people living it. Above all else, the way you love, and the people you love influence the books you read and your relationship to that literature (see I made it about books eventually).
My favourite kind of romance in literature has always been when it’s love between two incredibly broken people. My two favourite “romances” are Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (which many argue is not even a romance), and The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. In both cases, the main characters are absolutely broken (as individuals), and broken down by society, and the past (Heathcliff by poverty, class structure, and child abuse, and Hanna by the Holocaust in which she was an active participant (detailed analysis of that here). Also, I will never ever stop talking about The Heart’s Invisible Furies highlighting the pain of unrequited love. There’s also the ‘messed up/one-sided’ kind of love bred out of pure insecurity and need for possession without consummation like in Fowler’s The Collector, or the kind where it ends miserably like in Anna Karenina, Revolutionary Road, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or Madame Bovary. And that got me wondering just how much of love is exciting and thrilling because something in society finds it shameful and/or problematic. If there were no boundaries, restrictions, or societal pressures, how would ‘free’ love look like? How would love without any problems, hiccups, or prejudices even look like? But for the sake of not going down the rabbit hole of my weird state of mind, I am going to list some books that are at least semi-appropriate for Valentine’s day. I am going to just assume that most people have read: Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and due to recent films you’ve read or heard of Call Me By Your Name, Carol, Brokeback Mountain, He’s Just Not that Into You, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and The Bridget Jones Diary—or that if you haven’t read them you’ve at least heard of them and know the premise.
My difficulties here lie in whether love is necessarily tied to sex. For instance, should The Kama Sutra, or Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom count as Valentine’s reads? Did I enjoy them? Yes. Should I recommend them for Valentine’s Day? I don’t know. If you can have one-sided love, and love without sex, then is counting sex with the absence of deep affection, appropriate for a ‘Valentine’ tradition? And what about self-love? As in, when a character is self-sufficient, invests in themselves, and has no interest in anyone else in a self-kind, non-selfish way. Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game for instance contains such a character, who is constantly looking within and focusing on his own spiritual journey. I started wondering, if I was sitting down with Plato and his fellow characters in The Symposium, and the topic of love came up: what would my input be? Would I fight with Aristophanes and argue that our goal isn’t to find our missing half, but to become whole before joining lives with someone else—being self-sufficient and happy as an individual?
A simple ‘love and romance’ search on Goodreads reading lists has given me so many variations: bad boy, forbidden, literary, angsty, violent, funny, bikers, erotica written by men, ‘I’ve loved you for years,’ time-travelling, historical…after page three they start to sound like porn categories: “the sexy teacher,” “the bad boy vampire’…endless choices my friends. You can mix and match for years! I can’t do justice to all the lists and all the forms. So instead I’m going to tell you some of my personal favourites followed by suggestions I’ve received from others…because I clearly haven’t read everything. I’m going to try to combine different kinds of love with different literary genres as well. Space-alien love counts too. My platform, my rules.
Few of My Suggestions
(from the little ‘romance’ category I’ve read—aside from all the ones mentioned above)
Note: if the author is dead more than 75 years the book is very likely to be free in the public domain. If not, I have linked the list to The Book Depository. Also, they will most likely be available at your public library.
- The Symposium by Plato
- The Seducer’s Diary by Soren Kierkegaard
- The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy
- Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature by Emma Donoghue
Biographical and semi-biographical works:
- Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters (historical romance, lesbian love)
- The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
- Peter Darling by Austin Chant (trans-gendered Wendy/Peter Pan retelling)
- Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold (Science Fiction, different planets)
- Persuasion by Jane Austen (Regency Period, classic, second chances, regret)
- Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos (epistolary, French, seduction games)
- The Lover by Marguerite Duras (French novel, set in China, age gap, interracial)
- Nana by Emile Zola (lady of the night, France, polyamory)
Suggested by Others (I have not read yet)
- If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
- Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo
- The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
- The Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
- Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
- Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
- The Princess Bride by William Goldman
- Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
- Tinman by Sarah Winman
- Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
- A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
- Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
Cheers everybody! Love others, love yourself, and LOVE books!
Feel Free is Zadie Smith’s most recent collection of essays published by Penguin Press. The collection as a whole feels as if Smith has poked her head out of her isolated writing chamber and is contributing to ongoing conversations. Because these essays have been written over the course of a few years, and previously published individually (for instance one is a film review of The Social Network) some come across as dated, but their essence is still ever-present and relevant. Almost every essay in here either reminded me of another essay I have read, or another speaker I heard, but of course, Smith has an elegant style, and contributes a new perspective. Some of the essays are reviews of books and movies, and her reaction to musicians like David Bowie, or Prince, or Billie Holiday. In all honesty, the musical bits were the least interesting to me. I think that if I had a chance to have a one-on-one conversation with one of my favourite authors, their musical tastes and opinions on musicians wouldn’t be of interest to me. However, Zadie Smith’s recent fictional work Swing Time is about music, and dance, and I can see that for her, this is a very important topic, so I understand why these essays are included. In others, she offers her opinion on topics that are ongoing debates like: do we need libraries? Is Facebook good for us? In the third and last category, if I had to group them, she offers answers to more personal questions relating to her own private experience when it comes to writing, journaling, ideas, and other Smith-specific details.
I would like to unpack a few of my favourite essays in this collection and record what was interesting (to me).
The first essay in the collection “Northwest London Blues” is on the importance of Willesden Library (1894) and Willesden Green Library Centre (1989), which is sprinkled with Smith’s opinions on libraries in general: whether they are still relevant, and what is their role in an individual’s life.
She writes that even though there is a kind of obsolescence to the library as we once knew it, due to the Internet’s all-encompassing information powers, she still sees a need for the space:
“Each morning I struggle to find a seat in the packed university library in which I write this, despite the fact that every single student in here could be at home in front of their MacBook browsing Google Books.”
“Libraries are not failing ‘because they are libraries.’ Neglected libraries get neglected, and this cycle, in time, provides the excuse to close them. Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay.”
“It’s not just a matter of free books. A library is a different kind of social reality (of the three-dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal.”
Perhaps I’ve read more on libraries than most people, but to me Zadie Smith is in conversation with Neil Gaiman’s essay “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming“ and Ray Oldenburg’s essay on “The Third Place” in his book The Great Good Place (All three essays worth your time).
The second essay in Feel Free that got my attention was “Life-Writing” in which Smith explores her relationship with journaling and keeping a personal diary. Though the essay was quite brief, Smith explains her difficulties with keeping a journal. She writes about the ways in which intimate details of her romantic encounters feel far too personal and exposing, and how the Judy Blume character voice made her feel like she had homework, and never felt genuine. She writes:
“The dishonestly of diary-writing—this voice you put on for supposedly no one but yourself—I found that idea so depressing. I feel that life has too much artifice in it anyway without making a pretty pattern of your own most intimate thoughts.”
She then tried imitating authors like Virginia Woolf who recorded only literary happenings, which according to Smith lasted only one day because a single meeting with Jeffrey Eugenides took up twelve pages and half the night. She writes:
“Who is it for? What is this voice? Who am I trying to kid—myself? I realize that I don’t want any record of my days….when it comes to life-writing, the real, honest, diaristic, warts-and-all, the only thing I have to show for myself…is my email account.”
There’s something so honest in the way she wrote this piece that went far for me. I think we all try to do things because we’ve seen them done by others, or on T.V, or YouTube channels, and refuse to admit when something just didn’t work out for us—because it just didn’t.
Lastly, the third and by far my favourite essay in this collection was “Generation Why?” in which Zadie Smith tears apart our obsession with Facebook, reviews the film The Social Network, tries to find ‘the missing thing’ within us, and concludes with a harsh:
“It’s a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore.”
I’m going to hold off on the Facebook discussion and write a different entry for it, because I think she is in conversation with Jonathan Franzen’s essay “Liking is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts” (2011)– or at least he is in conversation with her, as her piece was written a year earlier. I would like to write a proper opinion piece on it and link it HERE.
Overall I loved this collection. I think Zadie Smith is a brilliant, Wonder-Woman figure in my life, so I would 100% recommend her essay collection to you. If you doubt whether you should invest time in her long fictional works, or this collection, I strongly recommend listening to one of her commencement speeches, or her interviews—hearing her voice, and her real-life tone, helps in fully embracing her ideas and loving every minute you spend reading her works.
When I first read A Room of One’s Own, I understood it simply as Woolf states it in her thesis that for a woman to be a person and to be a writer she must have money and a room of her own. The room I took literally as a corner in the house just for herself. Reading it now, Woolf has given me so much clarity. I kept asking myself: What are you trying to tell me Virginia? And then I found the answer in this line:
“suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers….how literature would suffer.”
Literature has always been a mirror held up to the world and the way we see ourselves. Women never get to be individuals like: “soldiers, thinkers, [and] dreamers.” That privilege is reserved for men. They get to be Thoreau, and Rilke wandering alone by choice in youth, while women must be forced into loneliness, rather than choosing solitude. She must be forced into loneliness by means of being a girl rejected, a spinster, a widow, or a person who waits upon the return of the travelling adventurer, like Penelope. This can happen within a union as well. While Karl Marx gets to hang out with Engels and write manifestos and volumes upon volumes, Jenny has no freedom to make her own choices. In more contemporary terms, men sometimes force women to be their mothers, their caretakers, their (unpaid) prostitutes, and still pushing them into roles, without them being imposed by an institution. The “room” of one’s own, to me, is choosing to be alone, even while young, and having that choice respected, without being judged as: “are you a lesbian?” or “how could you be so selfish?” Those questions are never addressed to men, when they make the choice to be solitary. What was so wrong about Emily Dickinson, and what was so right about Henry David Thoreau?
Woolf then contrasts George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) to Tolstoy. Woolf mentions that while Eliot was seeking this solitude by secluding herself in a cottage in the middle of nowhere to hide from the world, Tolstoy was experiencing life as a fully grown individual. She writes:
“At the same time, on the other side of Europe, there was a young man living freely with this gypsy or with that great lady; going to the wars; picking up unhindered and uncensored all that varied experience of human life which served him so splendidly later when he came to write his books. Had Tolstoy lived at the Prior in seclusion with a married lady ‘cut off from what is called the world’ however edifying the moral lesson, he could scarcely, I thought, have written War and Peace.”
This is the room Woolf speaks of. Room to grow alone without being in the shadow of a label, and without having obligations to another human.
The second portion of Woolf’s message in this text is the gender spectrum, and women trying to usurp the roles of men while resisting the ‘patriarchy.’ She writes:
“It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only?”
She later writes:
“it is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly, or man-womanly…if an explorer should come back and bring world of other sexes looking through the branches of other trees at other skies, nothing would be of greater service to humanity.”
Woolf delivered this speech in 1928 and it’s so impressive that she not only foresaw the liberation of the gender spectrum, and to see the goodness in womanly qualities in men, and manly qualities in women, but that she also grasped its importance to the ‘greater service to humanity.’
Her bottom line is this:
“There must be freedom, and there must be peace.”
Woolf delivered this speech to a women’s college in 1928, and later polished it and made it longer into what is now a print text-format of A Room of One’s Own. She delivers these messages by creating a Judith Shakespeare (a hypothetical sister of Shakespeare with the same genius but constrained by society) and four Marys, giving them each a personality and a different struggle. I had a chance to truly appreciate the style in which Woolf wrote this book, and her structure with the fictional ‘Marys.’ This is a perfect book.
This year I decided to keep up with the Red Maple awards (hosted by the Ontario Library Association) and I thought I’d read at least one of this year’s nominees. The book that intrigued me most from the list was written by Vikki VanSickle and published by Scholastic Canada Ltd. I must admit I read this in one sitting. On a personal level, this novel brought back memories of my middle-grade years where we had to read books like The Giver, and after class or during library reading time we would purposely spook ourselves out with the Goosebumps series.
The Winnowing follows protagonist Marivic Stone who lives in a small town. There’s an eeriness about the setting reminiscent of Night Vale or Stranger Things, maybe even The Twilight Zone. The general narrative is certainly contemporary and realistic, but there are strange occurrences bordering the supernatural which makes this book hard to classify. VanSickle imagines a past where post-World War II there had been an outbreak of infertility rather than a baby-boom, and in this society the medical centers tried to reverse the crisis. The ‘boomers’ born out of this procedure all have this side-effect known as the ACES which is something a teenager starts developing and must be treated for. The treatment is also known as ‘winnowing.’ If one is not ‘winnowed’ the powers from the ACES can be destructive to the individual and the community. That is all I can say without spoiling too much. Like all good novels however, The Winnowing is about much more than its speculative premise. VanSickle focuses a lot of her writing on creating the bond between Marivic and her best friend Saren, Marivic’s understanding of the past and how it fits into her present situation—particularly the actions of her own mother—and how the young of any generation must carry the burdens resulting from the mistakes done by the older generations. This burden is beyond medical, as these young children have not only been robbed of natural development and must live in perpetual fear, but they have also been robbed of the innocence and playfulness that comes with childhood.
That said, I must discuss my favourite character in this book: Gumps! Gumps is Marivic’s grandfather who is a person I wish I could hang out with all the time. He is on his own a lot, but he’s so innovative and caring. We are told in the early pages that “Gumps was a retired repairman…he still liked to keep his skills sharp by practicing on old appliances that people at the side of the road for pickup or, worse, that he had scavenged from the scrapyard.” I don’t know why but I’ve always been so drawn to people who can fix and repair, or make something out of scraps, like an old-school inventor. We need more people like this in a world where everything is treated like it’s disposable. From the get-go I was completely fascinated by Gumps and on the lookout on what he had to say, and what he was doing. I think VanSickle wrote his character so well, because she doesn’t reveal too much about him that he isn’t mysterious, but she gives us just enough to keep him very interesting. He also tackles difficult situations with humour, which is just perfect. I kept on reading just for more moments with Gumps.
This is definitely a great bonding novel and ideal for a teacher, or librarian to read to a class, or for a book club. I certainly enjoyed it, and I hope there’s more to follow. Go read it!
I’ve been accused in the past (particularly by my high school teachers) of “falling in love with the writer not their work.” This is true. I am who I am and I refuse to change this particular aspect of my reading experience. Authors need to come across as decent human beings, and people I want to spend time with because I AM spending time with them for hundreds of pages, and countless hours. If I can’t stand the way an author speaks, interacts with readers, or the way they answer public questions, and aspects of their life (i.e. finding out someone is extremely racist or sexist), I tend to find their fictional work reflects that and it bothers me for the same reasons. I was introduced to every single work (that I arrived to alone without recommendations) by finding the author first and falling in love with their personality. I watched countless Neil Gaiman, David Foster Wallace, David Mitchell, Ray Bradbury, Zadie Smith, Anne Rice etc. videos first before attempting their actual fiction. For dead writers, there are biographies. My favourite writers of the past have been men and women I’ve particularly admired for the barriers they crossed, the lives they led, and the opinions they had, or letters they exchanged.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I have not read any of Kazuo Ishiguro’s fiction (yet) because I wasn’t sure what is the essence of his writing, and what I should expect; at first I mistakenly believed he wrote only romance novels. I needed to hear Kazuo Ishiguro first. I took this morning to listen and read along in this book My Twentieth Century Evening and Other Small Breakthroughs: The Nobel Lecture and my goals of the year just changed to: I must read as much Kazuo Ishiguro as I possibly can. This man is so poised, intelligent, and well-spoken. What I love about his Nobel Lecture is that he introduces himself, gives an overview of his life, and details about how he wrote each one of his novels: what inspired him to write each one of them, what changes happened in his life, what revelations he had, and how he grew as an artist.
It was so interesting to read and hear him describe the ways in which he was inspired by music, his roots and heritage, and how a single question from a reading made him change his writing away from the isolated individual reminiscing to the meaningful relationships between people. I also enjoyed the way he sprinkles many literary references particularly of writers who have inspired him like Forester and Proust.
Near the end of the lecture Ishiguro looks forward, and respectfully acknowledges that we must allow “the younger generation to lead us” and that:
“if we are to get the best of the writers of today and tomorrow we must be more diverse…beyond our comfort zones of elite first world countries.”
If I had to highlight what stood out to me from this summarized life and writing overview, it would be the way Ishiguro emphasizes that inspiration can come from various formats not necessarily only books but also media like music, film, and lectures. He also notes that he wanted his works to be something that can exist only on the page, which is very intriguing.
This book is very short, but packs in it the essence and craft of Ishiguro, and if like me you haven’t read any of his works but want an introduction to an exceptional individual then give this a try.
I read Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself about three years ago for the first time, and it was my introduction to David Foster Wallace. Back then, I highlighted profusely in this book, and took many notes about what was said by both Lipsky and Wallace. Since then, I’ve watched numerous interviews with Wallace himself, read the majority of his novels, and essays, as well as D.T. Max’s biography of DFW. Re-reading this book now, there were many things that made me question its value while taking into consideration readers’ responses. I read every written review of this book on Goodreads, and they vary immensely. Some people met David Lipsky and got the book signed being really happy with it, whilst others are absolutely furious that this book exists asserting that Lipsky is an opportunist who cashed in right after a tragedy.
This book is an edited, reduced transcript of a conversation which in real time took about three days. David Lipsky arrived at David Foster Wallace’s house right near the end of the Infinite Jest book tour in 1996. Wallace was already somewhat famous at the time, and Lipsky was conducting an interview not expecting that Wallace would invite him to stay in his house. Lipsky followed Wallace around to fast food restaurants, the mall, a friend gathering, several readings, meetings with his agent, and even to his writing classes where he was teaching at the university. Sometimes he recorded on a tape recorder, other times he was required to write down as recording devices were not permitted. Throughout, Lipsky tries to capture the essence of Wallace at that time and in his own private spaces. I think he was trying to capture what on YouTube is now “a day in the life” kind of vlog, only for a very famous author, pre-YouTube. Lipsky asks Wallace about his feelings, aspirations, how he got here. I think in a way, Lipsky being such a fan-boy for Wallace led to some interesting minutiae-type questions that we all want to know of our favourite writers. How? Why? When? What poster is on their kitchen wall? How do they spend their days? What pets do they have? The problem most readers have with Lipsky is that he didn’t publish this book, nor transcribed the conversation for publication until 2010, two years after DFW killed himself, got slightly sanctified by the Howling Fantods, and remained famous. Was he afraid that Wallace himself wouldn’t like it? If Wallace wouldn’t have allowed it to be published in his lifetime then is it unethical to publish it?
Here, is where most readers have found the publication somewhat problematic, in addition to the fact that Lipsky is himself a fiction writer, of works that have gotten little to no recognition. Fans accuse Lipsky of using Wallace to get some recognition, seizing the opportunity immediately after Wallace killed himself. When this ‘transcript’ book was turned into a movie (which I really liked) the Wallace estate (mainly his family members) did not want to have any affiliation with this film, because they felt it would be unfair to capture Wallace at 34, for three days, and miss out on who he really was or how he had changed and matured.
With all the above in mind, I can say that as a reader I appreciate this book. I needed it, and it’s something of interest to me. For a moment there it feels like you’re hanging out with David Foster Wallace too, and you get a glimpse into his private life, in a way that is presented by an outsider which is kind of ideal. That said, I also think readers should look at this book as: this was Wallace for three days of his life near the end of his successful book tour. Stop there. Don’t dissect further, or read any more into it. Don’t look for clues on whether or not he knew he would kill himself, or anything like beyond what is on the page. There were times I think Lipsky spends too much time on his feelings and opinions, which I frankly didn’t care much about. I also didn’t like that this work is presented as a Jack Kerouak-ish On the Road kind of book, which is really not the case mainly because the two of them were complete strangers. Lastly, while Lipsky is getting some negativity from readers for when he chose to publish this and how, I would say that it’s really quite sad for a fiction writer’s most famous and most reviewed book to be a transcript of what another more famous author said. It’s the book most people ask him to sign, with six times more the reviews than any other of his works, and there’s something heartbreaking in that. I don’t think he’s just rolling in cash right now happy he made a profit off of Wallace’s death. I think his love for Wallace and deep admiration comes through in his introduction, and in the way his conversations with Wallace were carried out (if these transcripts are true). So I look at this book as a three day conversation between a fan/journalist and a writer. If you would like to read this, it’s not time wasted, but for once I don’t recommend the audiobook, as the person cast as Wallace has the opposite of a Wallace voice. I had to return it because I could not stand it.
If you are interested in what a writer-friend of Wallace’s wrote after Wallace died, I strongly recommend this essay by Jonathan Franzen titled “Farther Away.” I think I read it over ten times and listened to it on Audible. It’s so beautiful. In fact, the audiobook for Franzen’s Farther Away is extraordinary and he reads it himself. He mixes literature, personal experience, and memories of Wallace and writes one of the most beautiful contemporary essays.
Trailer for The End of the Tour feturing Jesse Eisenberg (as Lipsky) and Jason Segal as David Foster Wallace.
Shakespeare Saved My Life by Laura Bates is a re-read for me. This book made me take down lots of notes and had me wondering if I should start marking these passages and keep them safe on an online forum/reading journal. Laura Bates is a Shakespeare professor who teaches at Indiana State University. She entered a correctional facility and started a Shakespeare reading club with inmates. According to her introduction, what led her to this activity, was reading an academic paper from a famous literary scholar, who asserted that Shakespeare’s play Macbeth represented “the ipso facto valorization of transgression.” She set out to prove that “real-life transgressors would disagree.”
Bates starts off by offering inmates the soliloquy of Richard II in prison. She then asks for a written analysis. Depending on what people write, she either continues to work with them, or steps aside. Some would participate, others would not. Over the years Shakespeare had an influence on some inmates, but none struck so hard a cord as Larry Newton. At first I thought this book focused too much on this one person but then I realized that the book is a memoir written about a person who couldn’t write it himself. I was very intrigued by what choices Bates made regarding the material she started with, and what she focused on, but I was even more interested in what Newton did with the contents of Shakespeare’s works. I got so immersed in his words that many times I forgot that he is someone who would be labelled as extremely dangerous in our society. This book made me think a lot about rehabilitation, and what it means to have committed a crime in the past, incapable to prove that you have grown as a person. I find that readers can often analyze characters on paper in all their complexity but label real humans in society so fast without giving them a chance.
I’ll give an example of something that came out of the reading group from Laura Bates and the inmates. The topic was Macbeth. I studied Macbeth many times in school and it’s one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. In class discussions, we always talk about Macbeth “becoming” a murderer and changing drastically, doing things he was never okay with before encountering the witches. But the inmates say:
“Macbeth was a killer before, they [Duncan and the society] made him into one. He was a soldier.” Before Macbeth was still killing but it was this ‘othered’ enemy, not his best friends. That was the only difference. They also paid close attention to how he killed Duncan:
“…if Macbeth wanted to kill Duncan in the most efficient, most merciful manner, he would stab him once, through the heart…but he uses two daggers…that’s butchering”
Newton notes that in his moment of guilt Macbeth sees the dagger and the act, not the person. He relates to Macbeth and relates his crimes, explaining how he too sees the act rather than the victim, every time he thinks of it. Then there was an insight on Hamlet, which Newton calls the “prison of expectation”
“Hamlet is chasing honor for his family’s name because that is what was expected of him…His father has returned from the dead not to tell Hamlet how much he loved him, not to apologize for all the times that he worked late. He returned to make Hamlet revenge his death.”
These are just two examples of literary analysis that completely escaped me and my fellow busy students in university. Newton had only Shakespeare to work with. He had time, silence, and could focus on this one thing, while contemplating that he is never getting out, and might never discuss this with anyone else other than Ms. Bates. Many of Shakespeare’s characters are in a form of prison, whether literal or metaphorical, and most are murderers. Newton can understand all those thoughts much better than any one student in first year undergrad can even imagine. I wonder if Newton had had a richer education prior to the crime, how much would his thoughts have differed? If instead of Larry Newton it had been Dostoevsky post-solitary confinement with a larger literary corpus to compare, and philosophers to allude to, how would that differ to my reading experience of this book or to Laura Bates’s discussions?
I enjoyed the ways in which Newton almost looks down on Othello for being unable to see his faults. Newton says:
“no one can make you be anything that is not already you…accepting responsibility for one’s actions is an essential first step toward rehabilitation.”
This book covers the history of Larry Newton, the context upon which Ms. Bates arrives, some problems with the prison system, and discussions on several Shakespeare plays. There are moments when Bates compares what students at the university produce from the same play to what Newton would write behind bars. I found myself almost annoyed, as if I could see the hungover student who wasn’t reflecting, or thinking hard enough on these topics, and remembered that I too was one of them.
There are too many lines in this book that are absolutely breathtaking and notes I’d like to keep, so I created a PDF with some of my favourite quotations. Don’t worry, it’s only one page. I recommend this book if you love Shakespeare and want to learn more about one person, namely Larry Newton, and his reading experience behind bars after spending ten years in solitary confinement. I will leave you with this line from Newton if you don’t get a chance to look at the PDF:
“It is an absolute magic, and the magic has little with what Shakespeare has to say. You can memorize every cool quote and be as clueless as you were before reading. So it is not Shakespeare’s offering that invokes this evolution. The secret, the magic, is YOU! Shakespeare has created an environment that allows for genuine development…Shakespeare is simply an environment that allows us to evolve without the influence of everyone else telling us what we should evolve into. Shakespeare offers a freedom from those prisons! Your mind will begin shaking the residue of other people’s ideas and begin developing understandings that are genuinely yours!…you have nothing to lose but the parts of you that do not belong anyhow”
I’ve been fascinated by the Tudors for quite some time. Judging by the abundance of books I found online so are most people. Every time I look for a new book on the topic I find so many others. Often I find that books will either be historical fiction with too much invention and dialogue that doesn’t fit the character, or being overly academic, focusing on a specific aspect of the time period (only wardrobe, only children etc), or have a dry, pedantic explanation of the late 1500s explaining only pure politics and military details.
The Private Lives of the Tudors by Tracy Borman tells the story of the Tudors from Henry VII to Elizabeth I and contextualizes them in a very humanizing way, as citizens of that time and place. Generalizations, superstitions of the time, rituals, things viewed as Royal-specific, daily and practical things like: how men viewed women at the time, practices around childbirth, etc. All these details are covered by Borman and made this book fascinating. If I could sum it up in one word it would be: details. Borman accumulated all of this information about the Tudors from accounts written by the people around them. I learned things that I won’t be able to unlearn for a long time. For instance, King Henry VIII gained so much weight in his later years and developed a leg ulcer which accumulated pus and had a wretched smell which made it very difficult for the people around him help him get dressed. He would wake up randomly and demand pudding at late hours in the night. Elizabeth I had a very problematic “relationship” with Thomas Seymour who used to be with her a lot in her early teens. Henry VIII was fixated on clothing and spent a fortune on his wardrobe. Anne Boleyn demanded that Catherine (of Aragon) give her the birthing shroud she was going to use before she (Catherine) found out she wouldn’t be able to have children–an insolent demand which was denied. The last point kind of gave me a clue as to what kind of person Anne Boleyn was without any dialogue in the ways she tried to rub salt in the wounds of others so publicly. Listing them right now, from what is memorable to me, it sounds a lot like what today would be a form of gossip, or tabloid news, but these little details bring the Tudors to life. For once I got an idea of the kind of person each of them was based on what they asked of and said to the people immediately around them.
Having been reading this book in the last week, I couldn’t help but draw parallels with today’s bestselling book: Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff. We “know” a lot about Donald Trump because we see him on T.V, we read his Tweets, etc, but the fascination with Michael Wolff’s book surrounds the details of Trump’s daily activities. For the last few nights, all the trending tidbits were things like: ‘Donald Trump eats cheeseburgers alone at night in fear of getting poisoned,’ ‘he eats them alone in his bed while watching T.V,’ ‘he has three television screens in his room,’ ‘he didn’t think he was going to win,’ ‘Melania cried upon victory and they weren’t tears of joy’ etc. Although they are small, insignificant details, they matter, and they help us characterize him.
I think Borman’s book is very important because it tells us how the people around the Tudors viewed them, and the circulating gossip of the time around them. Drawing parallels between the ways our current leaders and the details of their private lives leak into our collective psyche has helped me empathize with the people of England from that time period. I think more historians should extract minutiae because it brings history to life. What is that saying:? “The devil is in the details!” I strongly recommend this book if the Tudors interest you.