Book Reviews

Author Spotlight: Caitlin Doughty

 “The Order is about making death a part of your life. That means committing to staring down your death fears- whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety and terror of modern culture are not.” – The Order of the Good Death

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“The Funeral of Shelley” by Louis Édouard Fournier

Caitlin Doughty is one of the most wonderful women I stumbled upon on YouTube, and I am so glad I did. Since I was five years old, I’ve had many encounters with death. Born and raised in Romania, open casket funerals and three-day wakes in the home are followed by so many practices that I can say I was very much involved with the handling of many human corpses from death to burial. Washing the corpse, preparing food and serving it to more than half the town, kissing the corpse’s forehead, guarding it night and day for three days, and covering all the mirrors in the house in a black shroud for the whole time the corpse is in the house were all perfectly normal requests in rural Romania. Most importantly, death was (and is) very much a part of daily conversation. In the West however, bodies are hidden and even worse: death is hardly discussed. I constantly feel like a morbid weirdo (in Canada) talking about something that had been a huge part of my childhood and the many ways in which it confronted me to question my life, and prepare for my inevitable death. When I encountered Caitlin Doughty on YouTube it was like meeting a long-lost friend.

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Caitlin Doughty

Doughty was born and raised in Hawaii and after witnessing a death at the age of eight she became fascinated with the topic. She studied the medieval period at University, and after attending mortuary school, apprenticed at a crematory in Los Angeles. Becoming more and more familiar with the practices of embalming, cremation, and funeral practices in America, Doughty began to notice some red flags regarding the funeral industry. Funeral home directors taking advantage of mourning family members by pushing upon them caskets worth thousands of dollars (all to make money of course, and so the people cutting the grass don’t have to go over uneven ground), pushing embalming practices, as well as presenting these topics in a light that make the remaining family members believe it is legally enforced. Imbuing bodies with toxic chemicals, and incorporating them in non-biodegradable caskets have damaging consequences for the environment. In addition, taking bodies away and hiding them from the moment of death hardly allows the family to process the death of a loved one. Lastly, people disengaged from discussion about and around death live in a constant dread. Thinking of human remains boxed in a rigid casket six feet under as a possibility (at least for me) is really quite frightening.

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Doughty’s first book

When I heard that one could be buried in a pod in fetal position organically decomposing beneath a tree–it was the first time I got excited about my death (weird to say out loud). Just the thought that with my body I could nourish the Earth, and live in a different form in a ‘Sacred Forest’ makes me happy. But not just me, ‘many’ according to Caitlin want to become trees and have an organic death in different forms. She gave two TED Talks focusing on The Corpses that Changed My Life (which in text format–with far more details–became Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory) and most recently: A Burial Practice that Nourishes the Planet which is a summary of what she now encourages: a natural burial. Caitlin herself repeats that what she is suggesting is not ‘her idea,’ ‘new,’ or ‘an invention’ because it’s a practice that has been done in different forms all over the world, and in history. She now works on advocating for an environmentally friendly burial, a burial practice that respects the wishes of the dead person, and most importantly on educating the public about their options, their rights, and the opportunities available. Doughty became the founder of The Order of the Good Death.  If you click on the title you can find more about it from the website itself, run by a large team advocating for educating the public on ‘the good death.’ There are links there that can lead you to other books written on topics like ‘death,’ or ‘ghosts’ which are academic in nature. Caitlin’s YouTube channel “Ask a Mortician” is absolute gold! In videos ranging from 4-10 minutes Doughty tackles topics like “What happened to the dead bodies on Everest?” “How is Vladimir Lenin’s Body Preserved?” or “What’s the deal with La Pascualita?” — seriously I binge-watched 5 years of YouTube in a week.

511i6HQoG+L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_The support from viewers of her work for The Order of the Good Death on Patreon, and encouragement from a large number of people reading her first book, motivated Doughty to travel to several countries, and some American States to learn about their burial practices–Indonesia, Bolivia, and California among them. On October 3rd of 2017 her book From Here to Eternity was published by W. W. Norton & Company. In this book, Doughty dedicates a chapter to a different location and examines how the role of death fits into the larger conversation, how burial practices are carried through, and how/what we can learn from them.

The book is accompanied by wonderful illustrations executed to perfection by Landis Blair. His artwork is dark and highly atmospheric. Blair himself is a member of The Order of the Good Death. 

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Illustration by Landis Blair

If you are fortunate enough to live in the United States, Doughty will be going on a book tour very soon, and the dates have been listed HERE. If you are near one of them I highly encourage you to go. I must emphasize that no one asked me to review this book or promote Doughty, this is what I would genuinely recommend, and what I genuinely enjoy/believe in. I am grateful that people like Doughty exist. I highly recommend her books, her YouTube channel, and her message.

I will close off as Doughty always does on her channel:

“and remember: you WILL die.” 

 

 

The Biophilia Effect | Book Review

“Everyone feels the need deep inside to be close to nature. We have roots, and they definitely did not grow in cement.” – Andres Danzer

“The biophilia effect stands for wilderness and the conception of nature, for natural beauty and aesthetics and breaking free and healing. That is what this book is about.”

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51RnoLAew9L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Austrian writer Clemens G. Arvay wrote in this book every argument for why humans must co-exist with the natural realm.  The term ‘biophilia’ originates from Greek, meaning: ‘love of life or living systems’ and was coined by psychotherapist and philosopher Erich Fromm. Edward O. Wilson introduced the “biophilia hypothesis” claiming that it is “the human urge to affiliate with other forms of life” and that is our deeply rooted connection with nature in the web of life.

Arvay explores in this book the history of ‘biophilia’ in literature and philosophy starting with the Abbess Hildegard Von Bingen (1098-1179) who wrote “there is a power in eternity, and it is green.”

Arvay continues by incorporating medical and scientific studies which show that people who live close to a forest have stress reduced by as much as 30% living the same lifestyle as those in the cities. He writes:

“Plants heal without having to be processed….they heal us through biological communication that our immune system and unconscious understand”

He dives deeper by explaining how plants, like insects, communicate using chemical substances and we are just another cohabitant in the ecosystem benefiting from this communication.

What I enjoyed about this book was how Arvay describes nature and how he backs up each statement with a study. I never thought about the symbiotic relationship between a mushroom and tree roots for instance, and how the mushroom in turn provides the tree with water and nutrients from the soil. Arvay also presents readers with several relaxation and visualization exercises. He teaches readers how to be hyperaware when walking through a forest and take in all of the forest’s energy while telling yourself “I am a part of the woods.”

He urges readers to:

“take this visual language of your soul seriously.”

Arvay doesn’t try to sell products, services, or anything other than to encourage a love for the forest and for people to go outside and benefit from what nature has to offer. He makes an argument for the forest by presenting the history we as humans have with it, how deeply rooted our ‘biophilia’ truly is, and how we need it now more than ever.

Arvay is an advocate for clean eating and has written other works in the past on forgotten vegetable varieties, regional small-scale agriculture, and connecting philosophy with nature. I personally enjoyed this book, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading nature books like Thoreau’s Walden, or Muir’s Essays on Wilderness.

This book will be released in February 2018 by Sounds True Publishing.

Literary Titans Revisited | Review

“Their writing explores themes in our society…the plight of the marginalized, the environment, the difficulties of finding one’s self and place, the anxiety of getting it all wrong, the longing for love, the search for justice.” —Anne Urbancic

32841205Professor Anne Urbancic (at Victoria College, University of Toronto) assigns her first-year students to explore in depth a library’s archive, write a detailed essay, and present it to the class. One of her students, Griffin Kelly, discovered in her search a series of compact discs in the Victoria University Archive at the E.J. Pratt Library. What she found were 16 interviews conducted by Earle Toppings with some of Canada’s top novelists and poets who were leading figures in the emergence of Canadian identity in literature. Kelly brought Mr. Earle Topping—an editor turned radio host who still resided in Toronto at the time—to speak to the class. Thus began the project that has now been turned into the book Literary Titans Revisited. Urbancic called upon four students, including Griffin Kelly herself, Geoff Baillie, Amy Kalbun, Vpasha Shaik, and the E.J. Pratt Library’s leading Reader Services librarians Agatha Barc, and Colin Deinhardt to collaborate on transcribing the interviews.

Urbancic notes in the introduction that:

“While Canada prides itself on its many excellent and exceptional authors and poets… they had not often appeared on the world’s literary stages until the second half of the twentieth century.”

The topic of Canadian identity in literature is still relatively new compared to its English and American fellows, and resources on Canlit authors are still being pieced together. What Urbancic created with Literary Titans Revisited is an excellent primary source for future Canlit students. Each writer’s interview with Earle Topping is preceded by a brief introduction including biographical material, a portrait, relevant and major contributions, as well as a brief analysis of their overall influence on Canadian literature and culture. The first section ‘Prose’ includes interviews with six novelists including Margaret Laurence, Morley Callaghan, Hugh Garner, Hugh MacLennan, Mordecai Richler, and Sinclair Ross. The second section ‘Poetry’ contains the remaining ten interviews—among which are Al Purdy, Dorothy Livesay, and Irving Layton—to name a few. Lastly, the seventeenth chapter contains an interview with Earle Toppings who discloses his interviewing process, the composition of his questions, and the experience of interviewing the sixteen authors. Finding how he came up with the project and the recording devices he used at the time is an inspiring reminder of how much one can do with minimal resources.

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Statue of Al Purdy in Queen’s Park (unveiled in 2008).

The authors shared personal anecdotes, life struggles, and their creative process. Some poets read aloud to Toppings some of their newly composed poems which are not necessarily the ones that later on appeared in print. When it comes to transcribing the poems, this collection stays true to the recordings rather than what was finalized in print. What I found particularly interesting was how at the moment Canadian writers were asked how some of their life experiences connect to their artwork, they began by discussing either a British or American author as an example of how that can happen. Morley Callaghann speaks of Conrad and Joyce, Hugh Garner of Fitzgerald, Hugh Maclennan of Hemingway, and Mordecai Richler of several authors like George Orwell, and Norman Mailer. While trying to find the Canadian voice, these Canadian authors were still using American and British identities as a crutch even in the late sixties.  These interviews are a clear depiction of the search for a unique voice. Simultaneously, some keep in perspective the problematic consequences of Canadian history. Urbancic emphasizes that Al Purdy for instance:

“points out in his poignantly metaphorical verses about broken indigenous art pieces that represent the plight of Canada’s First Nations.”

This book has been published by Dundurn Press and is currently available for purchase (click here) and at your public library (click here). I would recommend this work to anyone who is interested in Canadian Literature, wants to be in the presence of Canadian literary titans, and interested in aspects of the creative process. Lastly, I would hope that all libraries will have this book in their collection. This collaborative project supplemented with the editorial work of Anne Urbancic is a new excellent primary source in Canadian scholarship.

Odd Type Writers | Book Review

15811570This will be a relatively short review as most of its contents would be a ‘spoiler.’ Odd Type Writers focuses on the strange habits of famous authors. Each chapter has a different theme. For instance the topics vary from: authors who write early in the morning versus late at night, what each author’s daily word count for writing is, what preference of ink colour they have, whether they write sitting down or standing up, or how many cups of coffee they had in a day. Balzac for instance would have about fifty cups of coffee per day. This is the kind of book that makes you say a lot of “did you know…” after reading it. I wish the author went in further detail on each author and habit, but the listing at the back marks this as a “reference work” which explains its presentation and quick introductory remarks. The authors covered and the quirks they had are so vast that the amount of research Celia Blue Johnson did for this book is astounding. There are eleven pages of references/works cited at the back and most of them are from authors’ papers, personal letters, and additional secondary material. The work Johnson had to do to pick out the little quirks required hours upon hours of searching. Like I said, almost anything I say could and might be a spoiler, so I will cite a few excerpts from the back of the book that got my attention when I picked it up:

“To meet his deadlines for The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Victor Hugo placed himself under strict house arrest, locking up all of his clothes and wearing nothing but a large gray shawl until he finished the book.”

“Friedrich Schiller kept a drawer full of rotten apples in his study. According to his wife, he couldn’t work with out that pungent odor wafting into his nose.”

“Virginia Woolf used purple ink for love letters and diary entries…in her twenties, she preferred to write while standing up.”

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in fun facts and wants to know some of the quirks and odd habits of some of their favourite authors. It made me realize that there is no blueprint for being an author. While some have a disciplined routine and a precise daily word count, or worked only when inspired and late at night like Kafka did, neither dictated who was more successful, or the better writer. For that reason I would recommend this to aspiring writers, because I think in searching for answers young writers turn to writing clubs, seminars, and notes or vlogs from other authors. This book is a reminder that if your habits don’t match those of other writers it is perfectly fine. And if you have a strange little path let it be and own it! It’s YOUR strange little path.

Johnson wrote a second book called Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway : stories of the inspiration behind great works of literature which may be of interest to you if you enjoy this one or like the sound of it.

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 runs 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.