Book Reviews

Cheek by Jowl by Ursula K. Le Guin

“I have been asking for thirty years why most critics are afraid of dragons while most children, and many adults, are not”

“fantasy is not primitive, but primary”

6380284This book contains a series of essays on fantasy by Le Guin written in a highly assertive and critical tone. I think I will re-read this every year because it’s a little manifesto worth memorizing. The dominant essay in this collection is the central one (also the longest) focusing on animals in children’s literature and fantasy.

Le Guin begins the series of essays in debunking three stereotypes attached to fantasy like: (1) the characters are white (2) it’s a fantasy land in the middle ages (3) fantasy by definition concerns a battle between Good and Evil. She explores the reasons why some children’s literature is often in a pre-industrial setting, and how fairy tale retellings don’t necessarily mean changing the story, rather, poaching at it and getting into it.

“it interests me that most of these ‘lifelong’ children’s books are fantasies: books in which magic works, or animals speak, or the laws of physics yield to the laws of the human psyche.”

Le Guin questions what the making of fantasy really entails. For instance, a woman may turn into a troll in fantasy, but what does it really mean for a woman to turn into a troll? She compares it to “realist” literature like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Could one say that she has morphed into something monstrous?

Le Guin then turns her attention to the fantastic elements in other novels we consider great ‘realist’ and ‘serious’ literature like Moby Dick.

“The fantasy element of Moby Dick is Moby Dick. To include an animal as a protagonist equal with the human is—in modern terms—to write a fantasy. To include anything on equal footing with the human, as equal in importance, is to abandon realism…Melville’s white whale isn’t a real whale, he’s a beast of the imagination, like dragons or unicorns; hence Moby Dick is not an animal story, but it is a fantasy.”

In the main essay focusing on animals Le Guin examines how we used to be around animals in our earlier stages and what fantasy tries to capture:

“Animals were once more to us than meat, pests, or pets: they were fellow-creatures, colleagues, dangerous equals. We might eat them; but then, they might eat us. That is at least part of the truth of my dragons. They remind us that the human is not the universal.”

“As hunter-gatherers, our relationship to the animals was not one of using, caretaking, ownership. We were among, not above. We are a like in the food chain…each is at the service of the other. Interdependent. A community. Cheek by jowl.”

In literature we find interdependence between animals and nature, coexisting with humans in the same spaces. Lucretius’s poem On the Nature of Things shows us, Le Guin emphasizes, that “Lucretius saw no barrier between man and the rest of creation.” As we distanced ourselves from nature an animals with cities, and passed the industrial period, we separated ourselves from other species “to assert difference and dominance.”

Le Guin spends the rest of the book showing us the many ways in which fantasy as genre, found often in Children’s Literature brings us back to this imagined past where animals are integrated in society as equals. She examines Bambi, The Jungle Book, The Wind in the Willows, among many others and discusses how these points reinforce her thesis, and why they have been so successful. Le Guin uses some of her own stories and shows how she has tried to capture certain things and for what purpose.

Lastly, a part of this book that stayed with me, is Le Guin’s reaction to the Harry Potter phenomenon. Granted, this collection came out the same year as The Deathly Hallows, and didn’t examine in detail the overall effect and its subsequent ‘merchendise, Potter-world, Fantastic Beasts, and  Jack Thorne’s Cursed Child‘ but Le Guin has a bone to pick with the critics who had for years shunned fantasy and all of a sudden went along with the main crowd. Le Guin writes that she finds it normal for the public to fall in love with Rowling’s fantasy because they found something they missed out on since childhood, but she says:

“How could so many reviewers and literary critics know so little about a major field of fiction, have so little background, so few standards of comparison, that they believed a book that was typical of a tradition, indeed quite conventional, even derivative, to be a unique achievement?”

Le Guin blames the modernists, realists, and curriculum builders as well as the Edmund Wilson and his generation who labelled ‘realism’ and its various forms as the only kind of ‘serious’ literature. I love her criticism, brutal honesty, and analysis. All Cheek by Jowl has made me want to do is to read her all her essay collections and all her Science Fiction and Fantasy which is all now on my immediate TBR.

This book is one really well-written argument. The whole time I was highlighting and thinking of all the professors to whom I would like to send a copy. I think this book is perfect in how it’s written and how it delivers its argument. I was trying to think of a retort and couldn’t because her argument was that well done. Even in parts that I felt differently towards going in, I found myself converted by the end. Everyone should read this book.

Artemis by Andy Weir | Book Review

35097384Earlier this year I read The Martian by Andy Weir. Artemis is Weir’s second novel and it will be released by Crown/Archetype on November 14 this year. Weir is both blessed and cursed with The Martian being his debut novel. On one hand we all know his name and look forward to every project, and on the other, every work will be compared to The Martian which is a high standard, considering the blockbuster success that followed.

Jasmine Bashara (Jazz) is the protagonist of Artemis. She is a young, ambitious, daring woman of Saudi Arabian descent. She lives on the moon. Set in the near future, Artemis focuses on the first village that humans will have on the moon and how humans will most likely interact with it. The geography of this village is laid out on the first pages as having five domes each named after a famous astronomer. Only the wealthy can really afford to own property on the moon with a luxurious apartment, and the rest are mere employees and household staff. The five domes are mostly underground and the entire village functions as a ‘Vegas-like’ amusement location. Jazz is one of the lower class citizens and aspires to one day afford a roomier place on the moon. Her side project is smuggling contraband on the moon for rich people like Trond, who has a big request of Jazz driving the plot.

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The set-up of the village on the moon

I enjoyed immensely the ways in which this moon village comes to life. There are Earth tourists getting a field guide coming and going, the whole place is run like a resort, there is smuggling and crime, and like all places the moon has its own currency known as Slugs (ğ). In this projected future the moon is reserved for the privileged and is an honor not bestowed on many. The financial situation driving Jazz to do certain things, the description of her headquarters, the occasional ‘space-related’ incidents bring Artemis to life. There are also projected inventions which amused me like the self-cleaning, reusable, self-sterilizing condom.

The book has so far received a criticism of which I am wary and I must address. The early reviews criticize Weir for not being capable of writing a female character. According to some she sounds like a 15 year old boy, or sounds exactly like Watney in The Martian with no added dimensions or changes. I felt similarly near the beginning of the novel and there are moments where she sits a certain way and a male character will say “do women know they look sexy when they sit like that” and she’d say “yeah of course that’s why we do it” and this is just one of many examples, but then I realized that I can’t pinpoint one female character in literature with this much male-like confidence. If Jazz is just what a woman with the confidence of a man looks like then you know what… I like it! She’s the female equivalent of Rothfuss’s Kvothe. She’s confident, attractive, good at what she does, and she’s not shy about it. Also, if you think about it, the moment a character is raised a lifetime on the moon surrounded by a particular kind of person, I think it’s understandable why her personality evolves this way. Why should a woman or a different background origin differentiate her talking ways, her ambitions, or her personality? I think it makes perfect sense for Jazz to be written this way given the context and her upbringing.

As for the writing, there is a secondary reason why Artemis won’t come close to The Martian, and Weir addressed it himself in an interview. He says:

“… for The Martian, I was doing it as a serial, and I posted a chapter at a time to my website, and I could get feedback from the readers right on the spot. But for Artemis, it’s more traditional. I had a publishing deal from day one. The feedback, I got from my editor, my agent, and some close friends and family members. I couldn’t post it online for a few thousand readers.”

He admits that he misses the fact-checking and feedback provided by a wider audience of readers pre-novel publication. I’ll link the entire interview here because Weir has a good sense of self-awareness when it comes to his work and he is quite humble.

Overall I enjoyed Artemis, and I look forward to sharing it with my friends come November.

 

The Emerald Circus | Book Review

34218720I requested this book from Tachyon Publications for review, as retellings are something I enjoy immensely, and they kindly sent me a copy. Many thanks! This collection will be published on November 24, 2017 and is currently available for pre-order.

The Emerald Circus is an excellent collection of fairy tale ‘retellings’ written by Nebula Award-winning author Jane Yolen. Although I use the term “fairy tale retellings” since it is a labelled sub-genre, Yolen’s collection incorporates the retelling of more than just fairy tales. Children’s books like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Peter Pan are also retold in this short story format from different perspectives, as well as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and Emily Dickinson’s lifestyle and inspiration. The third category of retellings in this collection is of medieval legends of Camelot and Robin Hood. “The Quiet Monk” is the story of the hidden grave which supposedly had Arthur and Guinevere’s bodies in it which falls under Arthurian Retellings along with “The Confession of Brother Blaise,” and “Evian Steel.” Some of the short stories in this collection have been previously published in anthologies, or individually. For instance, “Lost Girls” the feminist retelling of Peter Pan where women riot and protest for their rights in Neverland won the Nebula Award in 1999 and has been published in Twelve Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

The Emerald Circus is a great introduction to Jane Yolen as it incorporates works from various points in her writing career. This anthology includes all the stories that haunt us past childhood and stay with us in a collective imaginary space. Arthurian Legends, Children’s Literature, and 19th Century American gothic poets share a fantastical quality that remains a point of comparison when reading contemporary literature. At the end of the collection of retellings, Yolen takes a few pages to explain how the idea for each of these stories came about. I will focus on one of her stories to give you an idea of how Yolen’s stories come through. As a big fan of Peter Pan and Neverland retellings, “Lost Girls” was the story that stayed with me most.

Yolen explains:

“I wrote ‘Lost Girls’ because I couldn’t forget the uneasy scene in which Peter Pan is weeping because he can’t re-attach his shadow. When Wendy sews it on for him, he crows and cries out ‘Oh the cleverness of me!’ As if Wendy had done nothing and he had done it all.”

Yolen’s research led her to Alison Lurie’s study of Peter Pan in a 2012 essay where she compares Peter’s existence with what we currently know of child psychology. He is easily distracted, has little understanding of the future, and lives in a world where real life and make-believe are almost the same thing. Peter might be “gay and innocent and heartless” as the last words of Peter and Wendy suggests, but according to Yolen:

“he [Peter] is also deeply self-centered and without remorse…Peter might be eternally young in his looks, but his eyes betray his real age. He has seen so much, he would have an old and narcissistic soul.”

Yolen takes this analysis and applies it to her story “Lost Girls.” In it, the main character is a young girl named Darla who has been raised by today’s Western standards of feminism and equality. As Darla reads Peter and Wendy she finds it unfair that “Wendy only did the housework in Neverland and that Peter and the boys got to fight Captain Hook.” Darla arrives in Neverland that night and Peter immediately sees her as “a regular Wendy” —as all women are interchangeable to him, in fact he refers to all the women he comes in contact with as “The Wendys.” As celebrations continue with Peter and the Lost Boys, the girls would obediently stand behind the boys “like banquet waitresses.” When Darla cannot stand being called a ‘regular Wendy’ she asks the girls why Peter refuses to call them by their actual individual names, to which the girls respond:

“Because he can’t be bothered to remember…and we can’t be bothered reminding him…it’s all right…really. He has so much else to worry about.”

The injustices present in Neverland and children’s literature are highlighted by Yolen in this story as she pinpoints examples in narratives that follow us and we enjoy without questioning. Yes, Peter Pan is about adventure and fun but who gets to have most of it, and who ends up hurt in the end as she must put up with his moods, flaws, and inability to adapt to circumstances? Innocence and living in the moment as ‘fun’ children do results in selfish behavior and unbearable cruelty to others.

This story is just an example of the kind of excellent work that Yolen accomplishes by creating alternative possibilities in this collection of retellings. Such attention to detail is present in all the stories in The Emerald Circus and it is a collection I would recommend to everyone.

Welcome to Night Vale | Review

23129410This book has been an experience for me in the last week: I read the text while listening to the audiobook, and listened to the Podcast when colouring, walking, or doing other activities.

The book is written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor and is published by Harper Perennial.

Night Vale is a town in the middle of the ‘American’ desert that is overall peculiar. All its inhabitants are very strange. The main story follows a single mom (of a shape-shifting boy) Diane, and a pawnshop owner named Jackie. A mysterious man in a tan jacket arrives leaving behind a note with only two words on it “King City.” The memories of this man fade and all Jackie is left with is “King City.” It’s a mystery/thriller that feels very much like Twin Peaks, but with the storytelling style of The Twilight Zone. The strangeness of each character is fantastical similar to Stranger Things where it’s sci-fi but told in a realistic way, highlighting human mundane problems using the supernatural. Between the narratives there are passages that look like transcripts from the town radio show. The radio passages unite the narratives because the news applies to all citizens of Night Vale and as a reader one can get a better sense of what goes on in town and what all the characters talk about communally.

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Podcast Cover

I understand that the Podcast is wildly popular and has achieved great success between 2015 and 2016. I did not get a chance to finish the Podcast so I will write my impressions of the book/audiobook.

First: if you can get the audiobook I recommend it strongly. In fact, if you must choose between the printed text and the audio, choose the audio. There are several reasons why it works better in audio format. The first reason is that in Night Vale there is a radio broadcast and the narrator who reads the radio host voice Cecil is also the one who does it in the podcast. The second reason is that this is not a ‘literary’ book, but a highly atmospheric one. The musical accompaniment and sound effects from the audiobook help enhance the setting and atmosphere. It reminded me of so many things (like the shows mentioned above) and reading it I just got an overall feeling of eeriness and mystery. The plot itself is not that exciting and the characters are not that deep, but somehow it works and it works well.

If I had to choose between its three existing formats as a narrative I would say the Podcast is the best. Although I haven’t heard it through to the end, I can tell from the few episodes that it is this narrative’s best format. The novelization incorporates some characters from the Podcast but not necessarily the best ones. There are several parts with lulls where the novel lost my interest but it does pick up again.

That said, overall I loved this book and the experience of it. I look forward to finishing all the Podcast episodes.

The book is filled with lines that left me in awe and some that just made me laugh out loud. Here are some examples of lines I found funny and some I found beautiful.

Humour extracted from Cecil’s Broadcast:

“coming up after this break, some exclusive clips from my recent three-hour interview with myself, in which I interrogated myself on my motivations, where I am in life, why I’m not in a different place in life, whose fault that is, and why I said that one embarrassing thing once.”

“If you see one of these False Police, act right away by shrugging and thinking What am I gonna do? And then seeing if anything funny is on Twitter”

“if the School Board could not promise to prevent children from learning about dangerous activities like drug use and library science at recess…”

“if you see hooded figures in the Dog Park, no you didn’t.”

Beautiful Lines

“Later she understood databases, having become the person she’d lied about being…”

“How does a person discover whether they are shy if they never have the time to meet new people?”

“There is nothing more lonely than an action taken quietly on your own, and nothing more comforting than doing that same quiet action in parallel with fellow humans doing the same action, everyone alone next to each other.”

“She left the shower as most people leave showers, clean and a little lonely”

“A person’s life is only what they do.”

Hopefully I captured some of Night Vale’s charm. I definitely recommend the Podcast, and the book/audiobook. This work will have a sequel coming out on October 17 this year with the title: It Devours! from the same authors.

The Audiobook is available through the public library with Overdrive. The ebook is also on Overdrive, and  the public library should have the printed copy in its system.

There are also two volumes of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast SCRIPTS:

  1. Mostly Void, Partially Stars
  2. The Great Glowing Coils of the Universe

 

 

Plank’s Law | Book Review

imagesLast month I reviewed a poetry collection Thin Places by Leslie Choyce which will be released July 29. I received Plank’s Law from LibraryThing Early Reviewers and Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

This story follows a teenage boy named Trevor who has lived a sheltered life and now has only one year left to live. He has been diagnosed with Huntington’s disease when he was 10 years old and it has recently aggravated. In a moment of reflection he finds himself on the side of a cliff imagining that he would just jump when an elderly man named ‘Plank’ stops him and starts talking to him. Trevor is having a Hamletesque experience, he says:

 “I think about doing things, but that’s about it.”

Plank tells Trevor that there are two parts to ‘Plank’s Law’ or his own way of living. The first is: “just live” and the second: “Brains don’t count. Imagination is what counts.” Trevor thinks about what Plank has said, and creates a list of all the things he wants to do. As an adult I had to take a step back and understand his choices as a young teenage boy because I don’t think “to drive a Lamborghini” and “get arrested” would be on my bucket list.

Trevor has many moments of reflection where he narrates about his family, and makes various lists like: the primary bucket list, secondary smaller goals, the many factors that shaped his life, and lists about people he meets. As a character his is a little different. He broods a bit more than he does activity, refuses to take too many chances, is intrigued by religion and thinks of himself as a Buddhist and Christian, and loves to watch Sci-Fi films. Trevor’s life changes even more-so when he meets a girl named Sara. Every time he feels lost he revisits the elderly man Plank and is set straight by Plank’s matter-of-fact attitude about life.

The book has a good message and a good premise but I found the vocabulary to be a bit simplistic, especially for its intended audience. There’s also a lot of telling and not enough showing. The first 50 pages are filled with “but before I move on let me tell you about my mom…my dad…my grandpop.” This is a bit too much because no one does this even in real life, you find things out as you go along. This book also contains a lot of profane language especially when Plank needs to come across as a ‘cranky old man’: a lot of “bullshit” and “fuck offs.” Those components irked me a little as a reader.

What I did enjoy was the premise. It’s a good message to stop overthinking, to prioritize imagination, to just live, and take each moment in your stride. There are some great lines scattered through the book from time to time like: “the best parts of your life are the ones you share with someone else.” I also enjoyed the ending in that it wasn’t a cartoon ending, nor was it world-shattering. It was just right and realistic. I prefer realistic endings so hats off in that respect. I also appreciated that Choyce decided to shed some light on Huntington’s disease because I’ve rarely encountered it in young adult fiction. If I were to recommend this book, I would hand it to people who are having a bit of a crisis and need some perspective (teens and adults alike).

The book will be published in September by Orca Book publishers.

Gork, the Teenage Dragon | Book Review

“For inside my scale green chest, there beats a grotesquely large and sensitive heart.”

32766443I hope this book gets turned into a children’s cartoon series because I would watch it with a lot of passion. Gork: the Teenage Dragon, is Gabe Hudson’s debut middle-grade fantasy novel. The narrative follows a dragon named Gork who, you guessed it, is a teenager. What’s particularly charming about this novel is its snappy humour. Gork narrates his story and in the first chapter he establishes himself as:

“My first name is Gork, my middle name is The, and my last name is Terrible, and like I said, I’m a dragon, plus I’m a poet”

But not before criticizing Beowulf and Tolkien to no end for their bad portrayal of dragons. He says:

“Mr. Tolkien was a real low-hearted sonuvabitch.”

Gork is in high school at WarWings Military Academy where he is a little different than the other dragons. He is afraid of heights, and really does have a large heart. His nickname is: Weak Sauce. His main purpose in this novel is to find himself a queen, for if he fails to do so he will become a slave forever.

Maybe I read Spinster, and All the Single Ladies too closely together this year and only in the last month, but this ‘despair’ that young Gork has throughout this novel really resembled for me the pressures society put on women in the past. You must find a husband or be ridiculed as a ‘spinster’ or enslaved in various other forms. I hope I’m not reading incorrectly into this children’s book, but this is the first time I’ve read a book where the male character is forced, nay, obliged and in ardent despair to find himself a partner. While other books have shown this dynamic from a male perspective, never with such urgency, and I’ve personally never encountered it in children’s literature. Well done Gabe Hudson!

Politics aside, I must return to the humour. This book is so funny. I found it funny as an adult who is quite in love with dragons and I wonder how the children would take this same humour. There’s something in his voice that echoes Lemony Snicket for me, though his publishers insist that it’s ‘Harry Potter meets Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.’ Either way, I suggest we, the readers, allow Hudson to have his own voice through Gork. I also enjoyed the ways he doesn’t shy away from swearing a little bit (never vulgar though). Highly recommend! I would also suggest that parents read this book aloud to their children, or librarians to their students at circle reading time. It’s a great bonding book! I look forward to Hudson’s future novels.

This book is scheduled for publication on July 11, from Knopf Publishing Group.

Matter & Desire | Book Review

“love is the principle of a fulfilling equilibrium between the individual and the whole”

34956703Matter and Desire is not a book about navigating in nature, an analysis of the natural realm, nor a biology book in any way shape or form. I read this text as a love letter to nature. Andreas Weber is a German academic, and scholar who holds degrees in Marine Biology and Cultural Studies. In this text he explores the ways in which humanity, unity with the larger ecosystem, and love as experience connect with nature and all things around us. In the foreword John Elder writes:

“He [Weber] focuses throughout on the ways in which sensory contact with our fellow creatures, as well as with air and water, light and gravity, can deepen our capacity to identify with all of life.”

Weber connects our psychology and experience of nature with ecology, as well as acknowledging writers before him who have managed to do so successfully—like John Muir for instance. In fact, Weber brings together philosophers and writers from Antiquity to present merging their writings with contemporary anthropocenic discussions, exploring how our human identity ties in to nature.

Weber begins his book by defining ‘eros’ as he will use it in the entire text as well as a brief history of the word itself. He writes:

“The Eros of matter counterbalances the physicists’ basic assumption that ‘entropy’ in the universe is constantly increasing, meaning that everything in the cosmos is trending toward a uniform condition of the lowest thinkable level of energy. Fires burn out. Life-forms die. Our bodies break down. Even the sun will collapse someday.”

He brings together all the components of this experience: touch, desire, and death as well as separating the contextual experience of nature in terms of relativity between ‘I,’ ‘you,’ and ‘we.’  Weber also explores the poetic imagination, poetic materialism, philosophy, psychology, and freedom and the ways they fit into the discussion of desire and nature, as well as the many conversations sparked by each separate field.

This entire text is so well written and almost every line is quotable. Here’s an example:

“the feeling of the soul in ascent is the feeling that the desire for aliveness that fills the cosmos to the point of overflowing is being realized.”

Weber also includes in each section of his work an anecdote from his personal experience and relates it to the topic discussed in a theoretical way examining how it applies.

This work is a love letter to nature, and it is first and foremost an academic text. I would recommend this to readers who enjoy Carl Jung, Thoreau, Octavio Paz, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, John Muir, Sigmund Freud, and Classical Mythology, as well as new emerging discussions about the Anthropocene. This work is demanding of its readers but it is worth the effort because it’s extremely rewarding. Every line is so well written and beautiful. This will no doubt become a crucial text on nature in future literary discussions.

This book will be released on August 3rd from Chelsea Green Publishing.