Book Reviews

Ivory Apples by Lisa Goldstein

45435928Last 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.

The Realms of Ancient: Cover Art

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Final Cover for Children of the Bloodlands

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:

ERIK

Erik Mohr, Creative Director

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!

two booksDid 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.

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Author S.M. Beiko

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.

The Night Ocean | Book Review

30901609The 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.

The Changeling | Victor LaValle

the changelingThe 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

31213272The 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.

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Visual of chapter headings

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.

Ill Will | Dan Chaon | Review

30687788This 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 | David Demchuk

Boy Eating

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!

The Idiot by Elif Batuman | Review

34025825I 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.

 

Femme Confidential | Book Review

34713199Given 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.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies | Review

“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

33253215I 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.

boyneI 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.

No Refuge but Writing | Exhibition

IMG_20180218_122302For 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.

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Battle of Angels Playbill

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.

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Self-Portrait, Oil Painting

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)

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Typewritten draft for Streetcar

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.

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His typewriter (one of them)

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.

 

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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.”

Feel Free by Zadie Smith | Review

imagesFeel 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.

 

 

A Room of One’s Own | Thoughts

51oa5lhpGvL._SX338_BO1,204,203,200_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.

The Winnowing by Vikki VanSickle

35167806This 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!

Kazuo Ishiguro | Nobel Lecture

36655283I’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.

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself | D. F. Wallace

6916961I 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?

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Newspaper Obituary

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 | Review

14296907Shakespeare 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”

The Private Lives of the Tudors

27904523I’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.

 

Lore by Aaron Mahnke | Review

LORE

I’ve been trying to find ways to bring LORE into conversation, and on this blog several times without deviating from my main topic, unsure how, and then the book came out!  For anyone who doesn’t know the exact content of this “LORE” I will go into detail in the Book Review section. But first, I want to introduce you to all the formats LORE comes in. I’ve officially consumed LORE in every format.

  1. The Podcast

lore-logo-lightFor the month of October I binge-listened to the entire LORE Podcast (still ongoing) and caught up to the latest one. My new job allows for the listening of podcasts and audio books, so Aaron Mahnke has been my “coworker” for the last two months. Needless to say, I loved it. Every episode features a different macabre topic in which Mahnke weaves together several narratives that have been historically recorded and fit the topic. He does an excellent job, and the literary allusions, and pop-culture references are on point. One of the many reasons I adore this project is that it’s highly inter-textual.

LPJ1200S PSDThe podcast won best history podcast last year. The podcast is accompanied by music throughout and occasional commercials. New episodes are released every two weeks on Mondays. If you’re like me and late to the party just be happy. It’s a GOOD party, and you get to binge, which is awesome! The musical accompaniment is by Chad Lawson, who will soon release an album featuring the songs from LORE called A Grave Mistake. 

2. The TV Show

MV5BMjA3ODQwNzM0OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjY5MTczMzI@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Just as I was deep mid-podcast, on October 15, Amazon Prime Video released Season 1 of LORE which features six of the most chilling episodes. It was so much scarier seeing these tales performed with live people and seeing the settings (most are set in times different from our own). The costumes and settings really gave another dimension to these little histories. The direction of this season was excellent. The music, mixed with live demonstrations of some of these horrific things, made me far more afraid than I thought I would be (especially since I knew from the podcast how they end). Although I found some criticisms online where people dislike that Mahnke’s voice narrates throughout the show, I found his voice to be comforting when things got scary. He was the familiar constant, and I needed that.

3. The Audiobook

LOREThis was actually my favourite format of the four, which I’ll explain at length below. It maintains the ‘cleanliness’ of the book, but it also has Mahnke’s voice and some musical effects which I loved from the Podcast. I got this from Audible. Although I completely understand why in the podcasts people often take requests for placing ads throughout, it can be a little annoying while listening, but with the audio-book, it was commercial-free and the transitions between topics were so smooth. This audio-book is a reading of the book below.

 

4. LORE: Monstrous Creatures | Book Review

images (1)This book is made of the transcripts from the LORE Podcast mentioned above and edited in such a way that results in a very smooth transition from one tale to the next. The book itself is a mere fraction of what is to be a longer series, published by Del Rey. The second book Wicked Mortals is set for release in May of 2018 and the third book has been announced, but the cover has not been revealed.

The book cover and the accompanying illustrations are made by M.S. Corley whose contribution to this work gives LORE yet another layer of talent and atmosphere. His illustrations are so morbid and simultaneously whimsical. I think the two choices for colors: the red and black, relate to the section in the book “Doing Tricks, Shifting Shapes” where Mahnke writes:

“Black and red, for a very long time, were considered bad colors, so if you wanted to describe something as evil, of course it was black or red or both.” (Mahnke, 76)

The content of LORE is made up of vignettes and separate accounts of mysterious sightings, happenings, or experiments done by humans. The range is anywhere from the supernatural to the scientific. All of them are rooted in real recordings and stories, even if at times humans just ‘claimed’ to have seen or done something. Mahnke reminds us with this work, that not too long ago oral testimony is all we really had, and that a lot of people were highly superstitious.

The way he captures these stories is in the same spirit of the Grimm Brothers. He collected and compiled tales of the macabre, but roots each firmly in historical context. I found it very useful to understand why and how certain practices were done in a particular time period. Mahnke references historical figures, other works of literature, and the sources from which one can find the details of each of these records. What I found most exciting is that he brings together stories from all over the world. We are globally united in our  fear of the unknown, death, and the unexplained and Mahnke forces readers (and listeners) to look at that aspect of our human nature. He writes:

“We fear death because it means the loss of control, the loss of purpose and freedom. Death, in the eyes of many people, robs us of our identity and replaces it with finality.”

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Mahnke drawn by Corley

At the 200-year-anniversary of the Brothers Grimm, Harvard professor Maria Tatar—expert on folklore and fairy tales— mentioned that the reason fairy tales are so deeply ingrained in our society and why we love them so much is because they’ve been told and retold so many times that all the boring bits have been left out. What we get now is the final product of a story that has been edited through generations. I think Mahnke’s work captures the same effect through the refining of folklore, and the editing process that these tales have experienced simply by being tested in the format of a Podcast prior to being committed to text. Of course the stories and their content prior to Mahnke’s work on them were refined through oral storytelling. Mahnke sometimes even extends the use of ‘lore’ or ‘folklore’ and appropriates it to other unifying communal activities like sports and how we all share a common language like the “Curse of the Bambino” in baseball folklore for example. Mahnke constantly reminds us of the power of stories:

“no realm holds more explanation for the unexplainable than folklore” (65)

“Given enough time, story–like water–will leave its mark and transform a place.” (127)

I don’t know if I’ve convinced you to give LORE a try if you haven’t, or to experience it in at least one of its formats, but clearly I love it! No one asked me to write a review, this is just me writing about my love for this whole production, because in trying to explain what I love about it, I understand myself better, and what I enjoy about this kind of storytelling. An additional Lore-related video I strongly enjoyed was Aaron Mahnke’s speech here, on how he started out, and what brought LORE to the phenomenon it is today. If you have enjoyed LORE and want to try Mahnke’s other works, here are some of this other works:

Also, this is the official link to all things LORE.

The Light Between Oceans | Review

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I took my time reading this book as I was buddy-reading with the host of “Take Me to the Video Store” We read about five chapters per week as suggested by the Goodreads group. We tried to borrow some questions from the group for discussion and followed their plan. I know this book is widely-read, popular, well-loved, and has even been turned into a movie with Michael Fassbender, but yet again I am late to the party. This was my first time reading it, and I enjoyed it immensely.

imagesThis novel follows Tom, a soldier in World War I who has recently obtained a job off the coast of Australia as a lighthouse  keeper on an isolated island, quite some distance from the main shore. As he spends the first six months in complete silence, all alone, upon his first visit to shore he befriends a woman named Isabel. As they correspond via snail-mail (only when boats would go to and from the island) over time the two decide they love each other and get married. Isabel joins Tom on the island and the two live in romantic honeymoon bliss, taking care of the lighthouse and livestock. Isabel gets pregnant three times and loses the baby, each when she is further and further along. The devastation of miscarriage, inability to become a mother, and concentrated loneliness break Isabel’s spirit quite rapidly. One day a boat washes up on shore. In it they find the corpse of a man, and a living baby. After much discussion, Isabel convinces Tom to break the rules, bury the man, avoid marking this event in the lighthouse log, and to let her keep the baby.  The plot takes a turn from there. We find out about the baby in the prologue, thus it is not a spoiler.

I enjoyed this book for several reasons. The first is the personal reason: how I read it. For the first time since high school I read a novel at a glacial pace. Five chapters per week is not fast, not a lot, and not how I’ve read since University started six years ago. To take it slow with a book, to think about the characters and allowing them to stay with me for eight weeks rather than one or two days was such a strange experience.

I can also see the appeal for readers (myself included). After so many books with intricate plots, exciting ‘effects,’ twists, layers upon layers of magic systems, military combat, and cliff hangers with plot twists upon plot twists it was so nice for a book to focus in on a simple setting with two main characters. I felt like time stood still and I enjoyed every minute at the lighthouse. Like Tom, I too felt like I was getting away from it all. Stedman invites you to listen to the wind and the waves, to experience the isolation and loneliness but in a way that is similar to a vacation rather than forced exile.

There are several themes explored in this novel that are worthy of discussion. The first is the effect of War on people (on an individual level and as a community). PTSD for soldiers (or Tom) is only the beginning. Isabel lost brothers, other people lost children. Reading about the characters in Isabel’s home town and how they dealt with the effects of war and loss of beloved family members opened my eyes to the varying levels of grief.

The second theme explored at large is that of motherhood. This novel follows what it means to be a mother from conception to child instruction. The horrors of miscarriage described in the early chapters, forcing Tom (a regular man who went to War) to look at the bloody mess that is pregnancy and miscarriage, particularly for Isabel who really wants a baby was a very interesting contrast. It was intriguing to see Tom become horrified at the sight and compare it to the battlefield. In addition, we see themes of nature vs. nurture, does one own a child because she gave birth or does one own one because she/he/they raised it?

This book had me asking “what is the right thing to do?” at almost every step of the way. Every moral conundrum in this novel is such a grey area, where the right thing to do is not clear and simultaneously you cannot blame any of the characters for their choices. Every action is justified, and somehow it’s not okay for everyone involved.

I loved this book, and I strongly recommend it, particularly if you are looking for something calmer. You won’t be able to forget this lighthouse.

Big Little Lies | Review & Discussion

19486412I am not going to lie, I watched the show before reading the book. There were some questions left unanswered for me, and the book supplied the answers I was looking for. I recommend both. The show was really well done. There are two changes between the text and film and they are regarding Madeline. Unfortunately I can’t really discuss them without giving things away so I will do my best to explain what this book is about. The plot revolves around three women who are very involved in their children’s lives. The three women are ‘suburban moms’ only they are in an extremely wealthy neighborhood in California (in movie) and Australia (book). Madeline is the social glue and a feisty character who likes to get involved in people’s lives. She has an ex husband with whom she shares her older daughter, and two children with her new husband Ed (the show has only one kid). Celeste is her best friend–who used to be a lawyer but is now a stay-at-home mom taking care of her twin boys–she is absolutely gorgeous. Celeste’s life looks absolutely perfect from the outside, and she strives to maintain the perfect public perception. Her gorgeous husband, her perfect house, everything just right. We find out early on that Celeste and her husband have a problematic relationship. They abuse each other physically and sometimes it escalates–always ending in sexual intercourse. “Our dirty little secret” as Celeste puts it. The third main heroine is Jane. She is a single mom and only 24 years old. She got her son Ziggy (named after Ziggy Stardust) after a one night stand. All the women are united in that, their children go to the same school. There are other characters around like Renata the CEO business woman power mom who does it all, and other parents mentioned/interviewed who are woven in and out of the main plot, as well as Bonnie–the perfect holistic, yoga instructing, health-oriented woman who is currently married to Nathan, (Madeline’s ex-husband). All the peripheral characters play a role but the main focus is on Madeline, Celeste, and Jane.

We find out early on that there has been a murder, but we don’t know who died. The parents are interviewed by the police as we go along.

What I wrote so far covers the “plot” and “characters.” What I really want to discuss is why I love this narrative. I found it to be highly empowering. Moriarty takes 5 kinds of moms: divorced sharing (used to be single) mom, career mom (Renata), Mom who used to have a career (Celeste), single mom (Jane), and Free Will non-controlling mom (Bonnie). Madeline and Renata are more ‘helicopter’ parents than the others  but Jane spends most of her time with her son too.

The different kinds of mom and womanhood portrayed by Moriarty in this novel is innovative because we often see moms portrayed as either horrible and/or absent….or this sort of “Mrs. Darling” perfect mom who sings lullabies and reads to her children. The kind of mom achievable only if you have a very supportive partner, a housekeeper, household staff, and a lot of free time. In the 21st century these are hardly achievable for an average woman with an average income. I liked that the three main women were strong together by giving each other advice, helping each other out, and were loyal to their group while simultaneously being protective over their children when it came to it.

I also like that no one in this book is “happy.” There is no perfect scenario. No one is 100% fulfilled, and the suburban, ‘rich-life’ boredom, turns into cattiness and cliques. Everyone is trying to find an outlet to fulfill their lives aside from their family and children–the helicopter parents use the children as that outlet.

I particularly admired the ways in which Moriarty depicts variations of rape and abuse. She shows what it feels like, and the subsequent ‘PTSD-like’ symptoms post-rape; how these symptoms differ, how they are handled, and how an abuser never does it just once. It’s a powerful message. Sometimes I get lost in Moriarty’s little details (school drama and children talk) I almost forget the gravity of some of the big themes embedded in the plot. Lastly, she shows the ways in which children become miniatures of their parents in the way they imitate behaviour patterns, rather than being a certain way because of genetic predispositions. Madeline’s child Chloe is a social glue just like Madeline. Ziggy is quiet but a good kid, just like Jane. Skye, Bonnie’s child, is peaceful and calm.

I think this book is certainly a perfect one for a book club because there is so much to discuss and so many details. I definitely recommend this to everyone.

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.

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

34218720The 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

 

 

 

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.

Drinks with Dead Poets | Book Review

“Every word, phrase or sentence spoken by the literary figures in this book is drawn verbatim from their letters, diaries, journals, or essays.” – Preface

33011553The main character is a professor by the name of “Glyn Maxwell” (name of Author) who finds himself in a dream-like, quaint, rustic, village school. There’s a pub, a church, all like in the old days. He must teach a semester-long course on poetry.  He is charismatic, funny, and passionate–a bit like Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society.

He is given this syllabus to teach: “Reading List for Elective Poetry Module” featuring a week on each one of these poets: Keats, Dickinson, Hopkins, Brontes, Coleridge. Poe (on Halloween), Clare, Yeats, Whitman, Browning, Byron.

Each lesson feels like you, the reader, are present in a small seminar at University where the students can freely joke with the professor and also become fully engaged with the material—and the professor is passionate, and charismatic as he decomposes poems, discusses the poet(s), and asks thought-provoking questions. The lecture is followed by a vivid ‘hallucination’ or imagining that the narrator is meeting the poet in discussion. This whole book is a dream-like state. The dead poets talk to the narrator, get invited to class where they are publicly interviewed and they share anecdotes. They also explore parts of this town like the library, or pub. I enjoy the ways in which the whole text is full of literary references. For example if a student jokes a bit too much the teacher announces that ‘Yorrick’ is in the class. Simultaneously it merges the past with the present. Students for instance pick up that Bob Dylan songs have Poe references, as do Hitchcock films. I was more intrigued by the poets I genuinely like (Dickinson, Poe, and Whitman) because I was curious what Maxwell would do with them, and what new things I might learn about them. I found there were many funny parts, like when the narrator/author tries to write a letter to Walt Whitman but he just can’t get it right, because it sounds too much like something a teenage fan-girl would write, so he crumples up every draft thanking his lucky stars he didn’t ‘send it.’

Here are some of my favourite lines

Keats Lecture:

“poems that stay stay because the body feels them”

Dickinson Lecture:

“You can’t teach Emily Dickinson, you can’t write like her either. You no more have to write in her stanzas than you have to write limericks or clerihews. But you do have to absorb that she wrote about everything else she could think of—herself, others, life, death, God, Time, being here, being gone—in little quatrains shaped like hymns, rhymed or half rhymed, mostly four beats then three beats, four, three, stanza-break, and she barely left her bedroom…what you owe to such a poet is a true pause for thought.”

The visit to the library (with Emily):

“There are old books on every stall, twelve stalls, volumes and volumes, and great swathes of canvas thrown back behind the hardwood frames as if to protect them when needed.”

(A draft) Letter to Whitman:

“There’s more Life than there is Art, your poems seem to say, and the glory is in the reach, the stretch, the straining ever upwards like plant-life in the sunshine.”

I really enjoyed this book, and it really comes across as a work of passion. I wish I would have spread it out and read the poet alongside each chapter so that it feels like a real course. One can see that the author is well-versed and well-acquainted with the poets he teaches. The whole work felt like a love letter to these poets. I hope that if this work gets worked into an audiobook there will be more voices for each student and they find suitable voice actors for the dead poets because the whole work is mostly in dialogue and it would be fascinating to experience it that way—something like the way they recorded Lincoln in the Bardo. I thought it was well written, and captures the poets spot on because as the preface mentions the words, the attempt to reconstruct them, and capture their spirit comes from the poets’ archives and is probably as close as we will ever get to them.

I strongly recommend this book to readers who enjoy poetry, have liked studying poetry, want to learn any more about the poets listed, and who like 19th century literature from the Western Canon. Again, the feeling I had reading this was akin to sitting in a University lecture taught by a great professor…and that is a very pleasant feeling.

The book is scheduled to be published in August by Pegasus Books. Click here for link.

The Excursionist | Book Review

33973204The Excursionist was released today.

Book advertisements need to stop comparing new coming books to old ‘successful’ ones because it’s damaging to the emerging author. Readers automatically come to the book with an exact expectation, and I found that so far on Goodreads the book has received somewhere between 2-3 stars simply because readers’ expectations were not met. The first line in every one of its ads is as follows: “The anti-Eat Pray Love – A darkly comic novel about travel.” My mind automatically went to cynical of: ‘travelogue,’ ‘self-discovery’ or in a way convince us that traveling isn’t all that it’s hyped up to be. I wanted wanderlust travelers to be exposed for being as empty as the rest of us (just for a different take on it). I’m angry as a reader for two reasons: one that the ads for this book let J.D. Sumner down, and two: that readers (who should know better) changed their answers on Goodreads. I tracked some of the linked reviews and they gave this book 4 or 5 stars and as soon as they got on Goodreads and saw some cranky first reviewers changed their answers to 2-3 stars. Stand by your first instinct and trust your own opinion!

So here’s what this book is actually about:

The main character, Jack Kaganagh, wants to visit 100 countries so that he may enter the Travelers’ Century Club all before he turns 45. His fiancé had been an enthusiast for traveling and they had gone on some adventures together, yet recently his fiancé has disappeared, in fact everything about her has an aura of strangeness around it. For his final choices of destinations he has chosen to go to the ‘Coronation Islands’ which are between Madagascar and Sri Lanka: Placentia, Kilrush, and Fulgary. Although there is a Coronation Island near Australia, the locations Kaganagh travels to are fictional.

Sumner begins the novel with this lovely quotation from When The Going Was Good by Evelyn Waugh:

“at the age of thirty-five one needs to go to the moon or some such place, to recapture the excitement with which one first landed at Calais.”

However, the quotation starting part two, is much more suited to our main character:

“I am free of all prejudices. I hate everyone equally.” – W.C. Fields

3fb1b6fd6fcdc12d5085b3aac5cc715cThe novel isn’t dark and comic but the main character is. I found it easier to imagine someone like Dr. House to be on this trip (seriously, House even said: “It’s nothing personal, I don’t like anybody” in Season 1).

A cranky, cynical person, who has had so many life experiences that he’s resistant to many things and won’t take too much attitude from people. He’s obviously privileged (100 countries by 45) and an Englishman. I do think this book is a critique of the people who travel for traveling’s sake rather than feeling drawn to true adventure. Traveling to tick of check marks, or put notches down – or share it on social media for others to know and see that you have done it is not the same as fully enjoying the place and having a real adventure. Jack spends his mornings sleeping in, and taking interim naps, he reads the preface to another author’s book In Placentia (also fictional) and falls asleep. He just wants to get to that 100 Countries club. Jack is not enjoying anything, he’s clearly depressed from losing his fiancé and adventure buddy. He kind of reminded me of the Cohen Brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davies. I also think there are opportunities to read closer into the names he gives places, books, and authors.

J.D. Sumner graduated from The Oscar Wilde Centre, Trinity College Dublin and has a Ph.D. in Satirical Travel Writing from Royal Holloway College, University of London. His thesis explores the history of British travel writing and examines how the literature of exploration, which initially presented itself as factual, evolved into the fictional use of travel writing.

I for one enjoyed his constructions. This story has so many layers and there are so many “books” that Jack is reading that don’t exist. I liked it.

I recommend this book to people who are fans of studying travel literature and can see past an “easy” read. This is NOT a real travelogue, or a ‘finding yourself’ kind of story.

Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith | Book Review

42734479Shaun Hume is a young emerging author with a unique voice. He is Australian-born and has self-published three works, Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith, The Girl in the Blue Shoes, and Tightrope Walker. All three works involve elements of speculative fiction, however, Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith is the only work that is written for a younger audience—perhaps 10 to 12 years old. Hume shares his writing experience and process in his literary blog which can be found here. One particular line that got my attention in his blog made me want to read Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith (2013):

“Writing can be an emotive and immersive experience sometimes. And when the scene is set right, there’s no greater thing to do than be lost in the world of one’s creations”

Ewan Pendle is a strange boy. He is an orphan who has been through numerous foster families—so much so the parents might as well be named John and Jane Doe—which funny enough they are. What sets Pendle apart is that he has vivid visions and can see monsters. Because he sees such creatures, he is labelled many things under the umbrella of ‘weird’ and must suffer the consequences by being bullied, and thrown around various families. The confusion of not knowing who he is, and his strangeness, is soon explained as he finds that he is part of an ancient peoples, the Lenitnes, who can see the truth. The monsters that regular people cannot see are actually there and the rest of the world is ignorant to their existence. He is then taken in a school called the Firedrake Lyceum where he learns the ways of the monstrous creatures he sees with other children just like him. Ewan is told in ‘orientation’:

“Firedrake Lyceum is a place where other Lenitnes children such as yourself go to learn to develop that gift, as well as how to put it to best use. The monsters you have been seeing are called Creatures. We as Lenitnes have been charged, for thousands of years, with the task of protecting other humans from these Creatures. And as the situation may arise, to protect the Creatures from some humans as well.”

Ewan befriends Mathilde and Enid and together they solve the ‘case’ of the White Wraith—threatening the royal family.

As mentioned above, this book is self-published, thus there will be instances of evident lack of editorial work. However, I found that it was very easy to read and the plot and characterization make up for that several times over. On Goodreads and Amazon, this work is labeled as “an antidote for Post-Potter Depression.” I myself missed out on the Potter fandom growing up, though I did thoroughly enjoy the series as an adult. I can see this label being both useful and problematic for an emerging author like Hume. In a way it’s a flattering comparison, and simultaneously it raises expectations where the reader approaches the work with a skeptical eye. I would urge readers who try Hume’s work to refrain from such expectations. As a person who has read both later in life I found the two works to be different in pleasant ways, and I think there is room for both works to exist. That said, the work contains magical creatures, and fantastical elements one may find in any other works post and pre-Potter like The Magicians, The Inheritance Cycle, or Wizard’s Hall. I was personally reminded of the children’s film ParaNorman. I would recommend this book to children around ages 10-12. Hume’s closing remarks give readers something to look forward to. He writes:

“If any of you fine and well-dressed people out there are keen to hear more of Ewan, Enid, Mathilde, and all the rest, then you may be pleased to know that the second volume of this monstrous tale (of which you have been witness to just the first part of ) is planned, and so are others”

Scion of the Fox | Book Review

34014624Scion of the Fox is a YA Fantasy Novel following Roan, who is an orphan with few memories of her parents. Roan is a lone-soul in an empowering way—to be honest it’s someone I would have loved to have as a friend in high school. She enjoys her time alone, she is a big fan of Wuthering Heights, and she sometimes talks to a stone menagerie made up of animals. Her grandmother, Cecilia, is a mysterious Fae-like, world-traveler (who kind of reminded me of Moana’s grandmother). Roan’s grandmother falls into a deep coma, whilst traveling, and her final wishes among being brought to Winnipeg no matter what state she is in, also included being preserved ‘alive’ until she expires on her own, and that her next of kin must reside in her home. I don’t want to spoil too much but I will say that this book is very much in tune with nature, mysticism, and spirituality. Roan cheats death as she is aided by a fox spirit and this leads to a series of fantastical events. The fox, and the moths are reoccurring symbols throughout this book. I thought this book was well-written and it got my attention immediately. The main character is well-rounded and likable, and I must add that it’s refreshing to read a YA novel that does not have a romantic relationship (or lack of) at its core. It deals with ancestry, battles, family traditions and history, and is very much entwined with the natural realm. This book is heavy with symbolism and I love the ‘Canadianness’ of it. I don’t generally read YA fantasy but this book got my attention and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I look forward to the next two books as this is the first in a trilogy.

I would recommend it to anyone who likes young adult fiction and the elements listed above. On Goodreads the synopsis portion compares this book to American Gods and Princess Mononoke which I think is an apt comparison. Other words that come to mind is ‘fae-like,’ ‘gothic,’ and ‘sublime’ sprinkled with ‘Canadian.’

The author, S.M. Beiko (Samantha Mary) is from Winnipeg Manitoba. Her first novel, a young adult fantasy set in rural Manitoba called The Lake and the Library, was nominated for the Manitoba Book Award for Best First Book, as well as the 2014 Aurora Award. Scion of the Fox is the first book in what will be a trilogy. ECW press will release one book per year. This first book will be out on October 17, 2017 and is currently available for pre-order.

 

How to Read Nature | Book Review

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cover of bookThis year I started my reading journey with an attempt to learn more about nature. I ended up picking Tristan Gooley’s book The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs, for which I wrote a very passionate review at the beginning of April. I also got a hold of Gooley’s book How to Read Water which has been on my TBR for a while but I got the chance to browse through it. Naturally I requested How to Read Nature as soon as I was notified that it will be published this year on August 22. I came to this book with knowledge of Gooley’s previous works and having watched a few lectures of his on YouTube. Gooley is a natural navigator and teaches classes on navigating through nature. This book read like being in one of his classes and receiving an introduction to the course. His previous works are much more detailed and go in-depth for each topic like navigating the sky, understanding fungi, trees, reading water (which has its own 400 page book) etc. I think this book will become the best place to start with Gooley’s works and an important starting place for readers of nature books.

This book very much resembles a course syllabus and gives readers a glimpse into each topic with exercises attached. Gooley focuses in this book on building a relationship with nature and the ways in which every person can begin to do so in a world that is very much detached from the natural realm. It’s almost as if Gooley is a relationship therapist here to fix the miscommunication between us and nature. He writes:

“a connection with nature allows us to see the roots that sustain and explain everything around us.”

He focuses on Maslow’s pyramid of needs and points to how lacking our society is in its foundation: physical needs. We take better care of everything else on the pyramid and neglect the most important one of all.

I learned a lot from this book about colour and time. Tristan Gooley spends a long time in this book focusing on the senses, colours, and timekeeping. One small example is the way he talks about plants:

“plants react to colours…if we are dressed in blue we can change the way a plant grows, while if we wear red we will influence its timekeeping”

What I particularly enjoyed is that the book is accompanied by images and exercises (which go hand in hand) helping the reader act on each section and practice. At the end of the book Gooley also provides readers with a bibliography of other nature books they can read on the topics he covers in this book. My reading list just grew ten-fold.

Many thanks to The Experiment for sending me an ARC. You can now purchase this book here.

 

 

Of Men and Women | Book Review

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Pearl S. Buck

Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973) was a bestselling author of fiction and nonfiction, celebrated particularly for the ground-breaking depictions of rural life in China. He best work The Good Earth which is a trilogy, received the Pulitzer Prize in 1931, and in 1938 she received the Nobel Prize in Literature for her body of work, making her the first American woman to do so. She spent most of her life in China (Zhenjiang) because her parents were Presbyterian missionaries. She was educated in the U.S. at Randolph-Macon Women’s College, then returned to China, married John Lossing Buck and moved to Nanking.

Her novels dealt with the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the changes in the East post-WWII, and rural China. In 1934 Buck left China to be near her daughter who was mentally ill and hospitalized in New Jersey. In her later years Buck started engaging in philanthropic projects. Because there were practices rendering mixed-raced children unadoptable—in particular, orphans from the war—she founded Welcome House in 1949, the first international, interracial adoption agency in the United States. She died in 1973 from lung cancer in Vermont. The Chinese government objected to Buck’s portrayal of the country’s rural poverty, and in 1972, banned Buck from returning to China.

front cover buckOf Men and Women is a series of essays that Pearl S. Buck wrote and published in 1941 where she examined the differences in relationships between men and women in China versus the United States. She writes:

“Very early, therefore, I perceived that women together led a life of their own”

“In China the home was not what it is in our country, a thing apart from men’s lives except when they return to it for food and sleep. The real life of the nation went on in the home.”

She explores the set-up of the Chinese household that would often include “three-four generations under connecting roofs” versus the American lifestyle where only the nuclear family would be found living under the same roof. Children would then grow up not knowing just one household leader/alpha, but have a multi-generational experience.

She then turns her attention to the different ways women were educated in the East versus the West. In China “women handed down to women a vast lore of history, custom, ritual, and practical knowledge which educated them and made them a part of the great national whole.”

Buck asks in this series of essays one essential question:

“Why do so many American women seem not happy in being women when they have the freedom to make what they will of themselves? And why do women and men not enjoy each other more in my country?”

Although Buck emphasises that despite everything she prefers the American way over any other, and thinks the progress done in the West is one to strive for, she noted that American women, while educated, free, and supported, were still viewed as a separate entity from men, and there was still a miscommunication between the two. Buck examines how relationships between men and women are different in every country, and it’s that difference that makes it a nation of its own. She writes that a traveler should examine how in every country men and women feel towards each other or “the reality of that country has escaped him.”

“For no human being was created to be solitary, and when it is cut off by doubt and distrust and lack of understanding from the other to whom instinctively it turns, whom nature has created for it, then strange stops and blocks and ills are inescapable.”

In the epilogue Buck writes that it has been thirty years since she wrote this book (in preparation for a newer edition back in 1971). She writes that the China she spoke of “is no more…how changed! Communism rules, and Communism has totally altered the relationship between Chinese men and women.”

Thus, I would urge the reader to remember, when reading this collection, that these essays were written in 1941, reprinted with an added epilogue in 1971, and then reprinted now in 2017 for this brand new edition. In the interim, China, and America have changed drastically.

The collection includes a brief biographical note and several images taken from Pearl S. Buck’s archive.

Many thanks to Open Road Integrated Media for sending me this work for review. This electronic edition will be published on June 27, and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon. Open Road Integrated Media focuses on publishing ebook editions of older works of literature and nonfiction.

*The biographical note at the top is a paraphrasing of the biographical note in the text.

Hunger by Roxane Gay | Book Review

22813605“This is a memoir of my body”

Hunger is my first Roxane Gay book and my introduction to the author. She emphasises in the first chapters that this book is not a diet book, or a self-help book.  This book does not justify morbid obesity as healthy, nor does it provide excuses as to why the author is not thin. Gay definitely emphasises the great shame that comes with being overweight from the pressures of society and beauty standards, to the health distresses, and the many side-effects of being obese. The author specifies that this book is a memoir or a history of her body. Alongside, she writes reflections and thoughts she has had about weight in general. As I was taking notes for this review, I kept wondering: how could I possibly criticise a book that is the history of a person’s body? It feels awfully personal,  especially when the author is so pleasant and such great company. The best I can do is tell you what it’s about.

Roxane Gay discusses in the early portions of the book the most traumatic event of her life (and body) where she was physically violated by a group of young boys at the tender age of twelve. The humiliation and trauma alone resulted in her silence for years to follow. The shattering experience and undoing of her world would have been subject to discussion. It would be her word against theirs—she would have to experience the judgement passed on women who come forward as rape victims as they are immediately questioned, doubted, and accused of lying. Women who step forward to report a crime, and instead of being aided, supported, and promised justice, they are discussed as if their testimony is debatable. Gay writes that even “the medical community is not particularly interested in taking the pain of women seriously.”

What follows is a series of chapters focusing on the struggles Gay had with weight as she used her body as its own fortress. She writes:

 “I could become more solid, stronger, safer…if I was undesirable, I could keep more hurt away.”

She describes the experience akin to being trapped in a cage where you are safe, but cannot move freely.

“The frustrating thing about cages is that you’re trapped but you can see exactly what you want”

For years the author struggled with trying to become conventionally attractive, and simultaneously trying to protect herself. What I found particularly uplifting was her description of the refuge she found in books. Certain books she said “offered a vocabulary” for her to understand what happened to her and gave her the knowledge/relief that being raped was not her fault.

She also focuses several chapters critiquing television shows like The Biggest Loser, and Revenge Bodies, the conversations in the medical community, and the way society as a whole perceives overweight bodies in discussion, books, and mainstream media.

Most importantly, she writes about her family and the people around her who claimed that they only bring the topic of weight up on a constant basis because they ‘care about her.’ No one focused on her Ph.D., on her books, or on her successes.

“I became resentful that the only thing anyone ever wanted to focus on was my body…People project assumed narratives onto your body and are not at all interested in the truth of your body…your body is the subject of public discourse.”

What I find particularly interesting is that Roxane Gay took the history of her body and critiqued the people who put her body in public discourse, under observation and discussion, as if it was a text, and in the process, she wrote this book which is in itself a text.

I hope that people who read this book don’t go in with a closed mind, and prepared to judge. I hope readers come to this text willing to understand the story of one person’s body.

I would also recommend two non-fiction companion books to this:

9780195049961The first is a philosophy-heavy text by Elaine Scarry called The Body in Pain – in this book Scarry writes an analysis of physical suffering and its relation to the numerous vocabularies and cultural forces that confront it: literary, political, medical, religious. It particularly focuses on how physical pain destroys language, and how every individual experiences pain differently on a personal level, where pain can never be shared, described, or conveyed in its entirety.

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The second is Dr. Gabor Mate’s book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. He is the first doctor who worked with heroin addicts, alcoholics, and overweight people and asked the question: why don’t doctors take a moment to understand WHY some people are more susceptible to addiction than others.

I found that Roxane Gay’s personal narrative in Hunger provided the most perfect story to support the philosophy-heavy Scarry book, and the medical book by Gabor Mate.

Many thanks to Harper for sending an ARC for early review. Hunger will be published on June 13, and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Roxane Gay’s other Works:

Links to Some of Roxane Gay’s Lectures:

Peter Darling | A Book Review

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When it comes to analyzing Peter and Wendy, Peter is often interpreted as Wendy; the two characters being one and the same. Peter is seen as a symbolic or metaphorical way of dealing with issues regarding adulthood and growing up.  Wendy herself is forced to by her father, and she approaches this dilemma by escaping mentally to a separate space where she can work out her issues. In the original play the actor playing Wendy’s father would also play Hook as a continuation of the ongoing confrontation. Although there can be much read through a Freudian lens, a practical explanation is that the two characters never meet and so it would be an efficient use of the actor, rather than hiring another one. However, I much prefer the former. Jen Campbell discusses this in more detail on her YouTube channel (certainly worth watching).

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Front cover designed by Natasha Snow

I am a huge Peter Pan fan, and as a result have watched almost every possible adaptation, and am working my way through reading retellings. Austin Chant’s Peter Darling is by far one of my favourite retellings. In his novel Chant shows how Peter and Wendy are one and the same. Peter Pan returns to Neverland as a grown man after he had chosen to grow up ten years prior, back in London, as Wendy. Chant captures the voices of the Lost Boys particularly well, (the dialogue is absolutely perfect) and most importantly he captures the spirit of Neverland. I have read some retellings that lost the essence of those characters while trying to achieve a different goal through plot, but Chant kept them all in tact as if Barrie is just continuing on. I loved how well-preserved they are through dialogue and interactions.

Chant writes the character as Peter as a trans individual who had been born Wendy. This new added dimension told through the metaphor that exists in Peter Pan is one of the best ways to create a means by which anyone can begin to listen, and understand the trans narrative. Chant adds a layer of depth to these characters that deals with identity, losing and finding oneself, and struggle for power and asserting oneself in places that were theirs to begin with (in Peter’s case: Neverland). Here are some examples of dialogue that stuck with me:

[Ernest:] I knew…I was different somehow…I had to get away from my family. They kept saying there was something wrong with me. In Neverland, nobody cares about that. You can be free.”

“I know what you mean,” Peter said without thinking (page 30)

“It hit him again that his skin didn’t belong to him, that he was a puppeteer moving a stranger’s body. That was playing a character, while the real, lonely, frightened Peter was buried inside him…. I’m here to fight. I’m a boy.” (page 47)

This Peter Pan however, is very pro-fighting and pro-war. He arrives in Neverland driven to take his place back as leader almost immediately, and wants to fight the pirates even though there has been a ten year peace treaty on the island. He sees pirates as one dimensional and is constantly in the mood for a fight. My interpretation is that this is a result of years spent among regular people and growing up back in London. Before Pan was a playful fighter whereas now he just wants to fight with an anger-driven passion.

There is a romantic/sexual dynamic between Hook and Pan which others find distracting, based on some reviews I browsed, however, I thought it worked really well with this retelling. I didn’t know I’d love that but I did. I always thought there was a strange sort of tension or sexual energy between Hook and Wendy (even more apparent in film adaptations like Hogan’s), and if Wendy is Peter, then it makes perfect sense.

The author, Austin Chant, identifies himself as “a bitter millennial, decent chef, and a queer, trans writer of romance and speculative fiction.” He co-hosts the Hopeless Romantic, a podcast dedicated to LGBTQIA love stories, and the art of writing romance. I look forward to his next books, and I recommend this one to anyone who enjoys retellings, Peter Pan, or just wants to look at Pan from a different angle.

The Whydah: A Pirate Ship Feared, Wrecked & Found | Book Review

“When a ship sinks, it becomes a time capsule”

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Front Cover to the Hardcover Copy, top right image/illustration taken from Daniel Defoe’s history of Pirates

I received The Whydah, A Pirate Ship Feared, Wrecked & Found by Martin W. Sandler from Early Reviewers on LibraryThing. This book is printed by Candlewick Press and is part of the Junior Library Guild Selection. Although it’s intended for children (ages 8-14 or “middle grade”) I found this book fascinating and very informative. It revived the love I used to have for this topic and I read it in one sitting. Pirates have fascinated me for so long and I know that 14 year-old me would have loved to have this book. Mentions of “pieces of eight,” and The Pearl, brought back good memories, and just in time for the fifth film which came out this summer (though a different Pearl, it’s the ambiance that matters). I would recommend that every school library for 6th to 8th graders get a copy of this book. For that matter, I would recommend it for high school libraries as well.

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Map of Caribbean

Sandler has woven a beautiful timeline of the Whydah in this book. By focusing on one ship he dives into the details of every aspect of piracy. He begins by following our main Captain pirate: Samuel Bellamy, to whom he refers to as Robin Hood of the seas, and the history of the ship he hijacks: The Whydah. He reminds the reader that this was a time of unrestrained murder, robbery, and kidnapping and that the true stories of pirate cruelty shocked the population throughout the 1700s. He explains the Articles of Agreement (among pirates) from the notorious pirate Captain Bartholomew Roberts, and my personal favourite fun fact that the “Jolly Roger” is the name of the flag for pirates not a ship’s name (though we may know it as such because of Treasure Island and Peter and Wendy). The history of the “Jolly Roger” is fascinating and he explains why and how the flag got its name. Sandler also goes into the details of torture methods on board, punishments, as well as the good parts of pirate atmosphere on the ship such as theatrical sketches put together by the crew, and facing the wrath of the sea as well as critical weather conditions (i.e. storms, wind etc.)

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Blackbeard

The second half of the book focuses on the wreck of the Whydah and the importance of each artifact which was retrieved in 1984. The Whydah was the first sunken pirate ship ever to be found and excavated, and these findings validated what were before just stories. I guess dead men tell some tales!

The details of each artifact, its history, and importance are absolutely fascinating and throughout Sandler debunks many pirate myths.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves the history of ‘Pirates’ and ‘Piracy.’ The book is so beautiful, it has many illustrations, and (perhaps this is just my copy) the newly printed copy smells amazing. Again, this is aimed at a younger audience, but as an adult I got a lot from it, and it delivered what its title promised it would. Lastly, on a personal note, it revived my love and passion for Pirate History.

The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs | Book Review

“I do not go walking with the purpose of staying within a world of perfect safety and comfort. Personally, I would rather die walking than die of boredom reading about how to walk safely.” –Tristan Gooley, xi

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I don’t remember how I came across Tristan Gooley. It must have been through YouTube or an online reference, but somehow I was led to buy this book and his second work on Kindle. I’ve always wanted to be able to navigate through the natural realm and know exactly where I’m going. This idea kept coming back every time I remembered My Side of the Mountain, Hatchet, Robinson Crusoe, John Locke’s character on LOST, or Ron Swanson of Parks and Rec. I re-read Walden a few times and enjoyed that Nature-savvy protagonist so much and realized that as much as I like hearing about nature and surviving in it, I myself know nothing about it. I knew how to use several teas and herbs, some essential oils, but that’s pretty much it. The trigger was reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer where for the first time I realized that my idealized and romanticized notion of nature has a dark side. So I turned to Gooley.

lost artThis book is a ‘how-to’ manual but told with the storytelling skills of Thoreau. He takes breaks through the instructions to share anecdotes or personal stories of how that specific skill has helped him in navigating or explains how it would have come in handy to know before. Some of his stories really keep you on the edge of your seat.

“Sense and thought, observation and deduction, this simple two-step process is the key to transforming a walk from mind-numbing to synapse-tingling.”

The first four chapters focus on getting grounded and sorted (the latter used in this book as an acronym: Shape Overall character Routes Tracks Edges Detail). He discusses the ground, soil, trees, and plants as ways to find your bearings during the day. Chapters 5 and 6 focus on Mosses, Algae, Fungi, and Lichens (my personal favourite) as well as rocks and wildflowers (to a botanist or geologist this may be elementary but here we are learning how to navigate using clues from them). Lastly, chapters 7 through 11 focus on navigating the sky and weather. He writes about constellations to look out for, alignments, the sun, moon, and general sky details that can help you navigate if you are lost at night.

After reading this I found myself sounding like a know-it-all scout:

“did you know that grey soil is usually wetter than the red to yellow shades and is often a symptom of leaching?”

“did you know that where there is limestone we also sometimes find holes, caves, and stone pillars?”

This book made me feel like Sherlock Holmes outside. And here is where things get interesting. What makes Gooley different for me, is that he takes into consideration the things we have like GPS, and the metropolis, and synthesizes the two with nature. This way you don’t feel like you’re reading an 1800s manual, rather it feels very present and in tune with our days, our hobbies, and the tools we have at our disposal. For instance, chapter one begins with the explanation of smelling smoke on a cold morning (in the city!). I always thought something was on fire, but Gooley then explains that it’s the effect of temperature inversion and that “the smoke from factories and home fires gets trapped near the ground and spreads along under the warmer layer, giving the air a musty whiff of smoke.”

This book for me is a solid 5 stars in the non-fiction realm because it delivers what it promises in the title and it’s told with such great skill. There are sprinkles of science (i.e. Latin Linnaean terminology and classification) but it’s carefully placed among many practical, ‘how-to’ passages, and personal anecdotes. Gooley has five other books out: The Natural Navigator, The Natural Explorer, How to Connect with Nature, The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs and How to Read Water.

The book is printed by The Experiment in New York, and the illustrations within the book as well as the front cover are done by Neil Gower. Gooley can be found at naturalnavigator.com

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Book Covers for Gooley’s works with the exception of The Walker’s Guide.

At The Speed of Light – Simon Morden | Book Review

AtsoLcover3.5 I’ve received an Early Reviewers copy of Simon Morden’s 2017 novella At the Speed of Light from LibraryThing. This is a NewCon Press novella that is about 115 pages and can be read in one sitting. The main character, Corbyn, is slipping through two levels of consciousness as he fully awakens realizing that he had fallen asleep at the wheel of his spaceship with the foot on the accelerator traveling for years at the speed of light. His state brings him on the outskirts of space, outside of the bounds of human knowledge or the universe and along he finds different kinds of consciousness/characters. I was hooked in the beginning stages pre-awakening as Morden explored certain anxieties of the human condition. The discussion of anxiety dreams, derealisation, and questioning reality altogether is a topic that highly fascinates me. The novella however takes a very ‘hard sci-fi’ turn halfway through which threw me off especially in terminology. I’ll give you examples: “cross-referenced hibernation,’ ‘pre-defined range of stimuli,’ ‘semi-crystalline matrix,’ and ‘astrogation data.’ Maybe I’m a little bit too early on in my science-fiction reading journey to judge this novella too harshly, but I would have really liked to understand what those things meant. The novella would have done much better (for me) if it had more reflections, tapped into what made humans human that is different/unique, and it could have worked wonderfully through Corbyn’s character having been more 3-Dimentional. I realized halfway through that I didn’t care that much about the protagonist because nothing humanizing about him was shared.

There are some nice lines like:

“not as close as his superstructure, not as far as infinity” or “are dreams that you don’t remember less real?”

Good question. It reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s “…tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure.” The first 30 pages and the last two pages tap into Corbyn’s philosophical side, particularly on what it is that makes the human consciousness and I think I preferred that to the engineering manual that was everything in between. I will re-read this in the future after I read more sci-fi and see if I feel the same way. I would recommend this to people who know they like sci-fi and technology, with a machine/mechanical orientation and not character-driven. I am also fascinated by Simon Morden; his background in Geophysics contributed greatly to his work and I look forward to reading his longer works particularly his Metrozone series that is set in post-apocalyptic London, for which he recently received the Philip K. Dick Award (2011).

The cover on this novella is fantastic. There are four NewCon Press novellas released and the artist worked on all of them. The name however was not released online.