book review

Rocket Billionaires by Tim Fernholz

35721160Ever since I started reading this book I want to grab every stranger on the street by the collar and yell at them: “We’re going to Mars!”

This book has been with me for the last two weeks and it has left me completely mesmerized by the unquenchable fires of human innovation and by how much can be achieved through mass collaboration. Rocket Billionaires, written by Tim Fernholz, follows the narrative of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and the plan to create a colony on Mars in hopes that humans can become a multi-planetary civilization.

Fernholz focuses on the competition between Bezos and Musk to realize their visions of humanity as a multi-planetary civilization by building space companies focused on reusable technology. Fernholz spends some time examining the managerial differences between Bezos and Musk and looks at how these differences affect their relationship to this project. Aside from the clash between the two billionaires, there was also a tension between military-industrial space programs and these new, self-made, space companies. Fernholz describes how NASA policymakers stepped in to save SpaceX when it was on the verge of bankruptcy. The plan as we know it, is that in the next decade there will be an attempt to place the first colony on Mars. Over time, this colony’s goal will be to grow to one million citizens so that it can get started. Supplies sent on each individual mission will include a new batch of people as well as foods, plants, technologies etc. in order to create greenhouse farms, Martian villages with hospitals and schools, and a full-on functioning civilization.

This book is exemplary journalistic work. Fernholz relates the story of these two self-made companies to the public in a non-biased way. It is evident on every page how passionate Fernholz is about this project and it really shows, yet he maintains an academic, non-intrusive journalistic voice. The narrative flows smoothly and is by no means elitist or exclusive.

Reading this book made me jot down a lot of questions. For instance, I wonder if the women who embark on this mission be under insurmountable pressure to procreate. Will future generations look back and remember Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos in a kind of Henry Ford/Thomas Edison way, or will people forget the financial struggles and remember the name of the first man/woman to step on Martian soil, the way we all know the name of Neil Armstrong? What technologies will be created as a result that could better life on Earth? After discussing this topic over the last two weeks with people at home, work, and public spaces, I was taken aback with how ‘civilians’ receive information about this project. For one, everyone ‘heard’ about this topic, and yet, they look at it both as ‘old news’ and as a ‘it’s probably not going to happen in our lifetime.’ For me, this book has been eye-opening. The project is not only on its way in a monumental way, but it will happen within the next decade.  The second comment I am met with when bringing up this topic is “what a waste of money, why not save the starving, struggling people here on Earth first?” While I agree that it is a fair point, this project is equally important. I am somewhat relieved that the people leading this project are very much focused on renewables, and reusable technologies.

Henry Ford famously said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” That is to say, we don’t know what this undertaking will accomplish for humanity yet. This book makes me see the scientific intrigue to colonizing Mars. It will be monumental on an engineering, scientific, educational, and human level—no matter how the mission will go. It will make students want to study the sciences even more ardently than before, and as Fernholz narrowed it down in this book, one of the answers to the question of “why go to Mars?” really can be as simple as: “because it’s there.”

Fernholz relates often the reality of the project to the leading figures in science fiction literature particularly that of the big three: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein, and of course Kim Stanley Robinson whose Red Mars trilogy is precisely this project (set in 2026 no less). The sprinkling of sci-fi references made this book exemplary. The sci-fi allusions act as a cohesive between the imagination found in the arts and what the great minds of scientists, programmers, engineers, and mathematicians can help bring to fruition—making readers see the beauty in humanity’s collective effort.

Would I recommend this book? YES!

Tim Fernholz is one of the leading journalists reporting on SpaceX and one of the best news commentary experts. Many of his articles have been featured in Quartz, and you may recognize him from the 2016 Quartz/Marketplace economics podcast: Actuality. Fernholz was both a Knight Journalism Fellow and at the New America Foundation in Washington D.C. He is a Georgetown University alumni with studies in Government, Theology, and Arabic, and one of the founding editors for the Tomorrow Magazine. If you’d like to learn more about his other fascinating projects, and previous journalistic work, you can find more information here.

The book is available as of Tuesday, March 20th, 2018 on Amazon, Audible, (read by Erin Moon) and The Book Depository, as well as your local bookstores (some links: Indigo, Barnes & Noble, Blackwell’s) and of course libraries.

Many thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt both for publishing this wonderful book and for sending me a review copy. The book design is completed by Graphic Artist Chloe Foster.


The Life of Death | Book Review

“A woman came to the funeral home looking for a job as a funeral director. When I learned that her dog’s name was Rigor Mortis, I hired her.”

36695230The Life of Death is a memoir written by Ralph R. Rossell who is the owner and funeral director of the Rossell Funeral Home in Flushing (a small town near Flint, Michigan with a population of approximately 8,400 people).

In this work Rossell narrates how he got the family business, and explains terminologies in the death industry from embalmment to caskets, and everything in between. This work is autobiographical and part memoir, part-anecdotes, part non-fiction.

First and foremost I appreciated Rossell’s honesty. Knowing he is a funeral home director I expected him to try and emphasize the goodness of purchasing certain caskets or to hide the ways in which the market profits off of people’s grief. For instance, when it comes to purchasing a casket he writes an entire chapter and in it he says:

“Purchasing a casket can be stressful because it enforces the finality of life…In mortuary school, our casket-sales training course lasted about two minutes. Our instructor walked into the classroom and told us that the way to sell a casket is to go to the casket you want to sell and put your hand on it. Supposedly, this would lead the client to purchase that particular unit; that was it. Thus, the task of training a funeral director in the sale of caskets was left to the middle man: the casket salesman.”

For me personally, this way of laying out facts even if they are ‘secrets of the trade’ or ‘gimmicks’ makes me respect the writer, because I can see that he is not trying to hide anything or convince people that certain companies are better than others, or that one should be obliged to embalm etc. I refrained from looking at what his funeral home offers in terms of eco-friendly services, or options, because as a book reviewer I want to look at this work as literature and judge it only as such.

Aside from the above-mentioned, the main contents of the book brings forward something new, and I enjoyed it immensely: the community. This book is about people. Each short chapter/section focuses on a different anecdote from the 45 years Rossell has worked in the industry. He highlights the humour that can be extracted from concentrated time spent with grieving people in a stressful time. Reading this book felt like I was observing different behaviours and takes on grief, and like I was present to many funerals, which was incredibly humbling and pleasant. The ‘pleasant’ part is a personal investment in the topic, and perhaps other readers will have a different experience. I don’t want to say he puts the “fun” in “funeral” but…kind of. To clarify, he is by no means at any point disrespectful. Rossell acknowledges many times how troubling a time it is when someone passes, and how devastating it is to the remaining living people, but each funeral brings its own story. Sometimes the people don’t fit in the coffin, sometimes no one shows up, sometimes there are very strange requests made, by both the living and the dead. Each of these stories is short, and Rossell extracted the main points of what made them memorable, which makes this book a great read. As a reader I was also able to feel the small-town lifestyle, and the spirit of the small Flushing community.

I read many books on death, funerals, and the funeral industry in the last few years, but this is the first one that uses anecdotal evidence to bring forward the experience of being present at a funeral, and how the people in a small community deal with death. It was a very interesting read, and I have to say, I was quite impressed with the humour levels given the heaviness of the topic. I think when you are in this industry, you simply must have a great sense of humour, or at least be able to see it through the darkness in order to make it out yourself. I received an eARC from the publisher on Netgalley, but I am certainly going to get a hard copy of this book. I will leave you with Rossell’s own concluding words:

“And remember I am the last to let you down”

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.

Revolutionary Road | Thoughts

“What the hell kind of a life was this? What in God’s name was the point or the meaning of the purpose of a life like this?”

51uwmSFbeOL._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_I read Revolutionary Road for the first time in high school,  and I can honestly say this lifestyle is my biggest fear and worst nightmare: the suburban family. Franzen’s novels just added salt to the wounds afterwards, and it gave me the impression that people still live this way. The good news: not all people do, and we don’t have to anymore. It’s a choice, not an imposition.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates is a modern classic, and widely-known, even more so after the cinematic adaptation featuring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. The novel is set in 1950s New York and follows April and Frank Wheeler, a couple with two children who live on Revolutionary Road in the suburbs. The couple appears happy from the outside—April stays home, while Frank commutes into the city every day, but they love each other, and they are both beautiful. In reality, the couple is absolutely miserable, and April experiences the worst of it. Her disposition creates discord in their marriage. She tries to participate in the community by attending a theater group’s small performance, which fails miserably, she tries to talk to the neighbours, and finds that no one has anything interesting to say. April fondly remembers how exciting Frank was when the two had met. He traveled the world, and made grandiose promises of the adventures they would have together, while she herself was a young, beautiful, aspiring actress. Day in and day out, the couple is shrouded by extreme boredom, and they feel the hopelessness and emptiness of their situation. April proposes that they break this lifestyle, quit everything and leave. She suggests Paris, knowing it’s where Frank had traveled in his youth, hoping his nostalgic feelings towards Paris would inspire him to agree. This idea brings joy and hope into their lives—while everyone around them thinks they are making the wrong choices in life, trying to stop them from leaving. The only person who understands them is John, the son of the real estate agent, who used to be a bright mathematics teacher, and has recently come out of a mental institution. This trigger puts a series of events in motion, and there are lots of twists which pull at the reader’s heartstrings.

A simple Google search for the author states that he is associated with the mid-century ‘Age of Anxiety’ coined by W.H. Auden in his Pulitzer-prize Winning poem. Both Auden and Yates emphasize the struggle of man’s quest to find substance and identity in a rapidly changing, industrialized, Capitalist world.

The way Yates sets up the narrative, it feels as if everything done in suburbia is a game of pretend—grown adults pretending that everything is okay, when really, everyone is aware that every little thing they do is irrelevant, and a distraction from the rich, fulfilling lives they should be living.

“[play director:] any play deserves the best that any actor has to give…we’re not just putting on a play here. We’re establishing a community theater, and that’s a pretty important thing to be doing…[narrator:] the main thing, though, was not the play itself but the company—the brave idea of it, the healthy, hopeful sound of it: the birth of a really good community theater right here, among themselves.”

Everything around the play sparks pity, and is the catalyst for April to stop pretending. There are many layers to this pretense. Acting in itself isn’t real, and yet, acting in a small suburbian, amateur production, for April, isn’t real acting—not at her age.

“No one forgets the truth; they just get better at lying”

Time and pretense are entwined, things that would have seemed fine years ago, no longer work at this age. April might have had a chance to be a real actress, but now it’s too late for her, and it’s too late to start over. Her age, and her disposition are constant reminders throughout the text, particularly in the ways that Frank sees her:

“[April used to be:] A girl he hadn’t seen in years, a girl whose every glance and gesture could make his throat fill up with longing (‘Wouldn’t you like to be loved by me?’) and that then before his very eyes she would dissolve and change into the graceless, suffering creature whose existence he tried every day of his life to deny but whom he knew as well and as painfully as he knew himself, a gaunt constricted woman whose red eyes flashed reproach, whose false smile in the curtain call was as homely as his own sore feet, his own damp climbing underwear and his own sour smell.”

Time is passing, resentment builds up, and pretending everything is fine no longer works. Another point that Yates touches on in this work is the incredible loneliness felt on an individual level by everyone in this kind of world. Everyone thinks the other is better off, while each character experiences an extreme, forceful loneliness—while at the same time longing for a spiritual solitude in which you can find your truest self, and the source of your honest actions.

“if you wanted to do something absolutely honest, something true, it always turned out to be a thing that had to be done alone.” 

“Being alone has nothing to do with how many people are around.”

What I particularly love about Yates’s narrative is the way in which he touches on sensitive topics regarding women and the ways they were trapped by their womanhood. Had April not kept the two children, she would be chain-less. Choices as such weren’t as readily available in the ‘50s, and in many ways continue to be limited today. I was also somewhat struck by the way in which John discusses “female” versus “feminine” with the Wheelers. He says:

“’I like your girl, Wheeler,’ he announced at last. ‘I get the feeling she’s female. You know what the difference between female and feminine is? Huh? Well, here’s a hint: a feminine woman never laughs out loud and always shaves her armpits. Old Helen in there [his mom] is feminine as hell. I’ve only met about half a dozen females in my life, and I think you got one of them here.’”

John compliments April for her resilience and strength, while simultaneously directing the compliment at Frank, as if he needs to take credit for ‘[his] girl.’ I don’t know if “female vs. feminine” as a topic for discussion would stand a chance today, and I see the term ‘female’ be used in a medical realm more than a conversational one.

Everything in Revolutionary Road clashes, people want things and do the opposite, and characters continuously say things that are innately contradictory, and paradoxical. Even the road which is supposedly ‘Revolutionary’ has nothing but the ‘ordinary,’ on it. This work truly is a masterpiece, and I can see why it’s a modern classic. There is a lot to discuss about this novel, and it’s a perfect book for a reading club, or close study. It is quite depressing (so read cautiously).

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living

29430716Manjula Martin collected essays by contemporary writers claiming to shed some light on what it means to struggle as an artist. Each writer approaches the topic in a different way. Some, like the more famous Cheryl Strayed, Jonathan Franzen, and Roxanne Gay offer their thoughts in interview format, whereas others take creative liberties to capture their history as a writer, their journey, and relationship with books. The overarching topic is: money. How much money do artists get and what does it mean? For instance, Cheryl Strayed explains that even though she received a large sum of money as an advance for Wild, it was given to her in installments. She had so much credit card debt, student loans to pay, and two small children. The art world is the only case in which sometimes people expect you to work for free in hopes that “the love of the public” and “followers” is enough compensation, as if you owe the gallery and the publishing house for being published, rather than being paid for your labour and hard work. It’s the only time when you could wake up one morning and think: today I could make zero dollars, or get a $50,000 advance, we’ll never know. It’s hard to imagine that while being on book tour, Strayed’s check bounced when trying to pay the rent.

The opening essay by Julia Fierro for instance focused on the ways in which she felt inferior to her classmates in university as well as at the Iowa Writers’ workshop. How she started hoarding and collecting books she couldn’t afford so she could stay in the ranks of her classmates, and how subsequently this resulted in her avoiding reading altogether for a while. She writes:

“My loan money moved from my bank account to my bookshelf, and not once did I stop myself, look around my apartment at the stacks of unread books–several lifetimes’ worth–and think of Jay Gatsby and his library of pristine uncut books. My fear was too loud. Fear that I was inauthentic, undeserving of a place among my mostly Ivy League–educated classmates who, it seemed, were more well-read than even the gray-haired authors who were our professors.”

Colin Dickey wrote a very interesting essay that was more historical and academic in nature. He cites a lot of Karl Marx, but begins his essay with the way in which Charles Dickens’s work got immediately tainted for him the day he found out he was paid by installment. He writes:

“once we’d been introduced to the economy of writing, everything was tainted….how to trust each word from that point on…money taints everything, why not writing too”

Roxanne Gay discusses how she remains in academic circles at universities, and teaches classes, just because they offer her a steady salary and health insurance. When she broke down her income, she discloses that less than 30% of her income comes from her writing.

I also found that this collection poked at a strange can of worms regarding the Jonathan Franzen-Oprah Winfrey conflict, back in 2001. When it comes up in the interview, and reminds readers about the conflict, some women are referenced (like Jennifer Weiner) who used social media to point out that critics rarely pay the same attention to women authors, as they do to Jonathan Franzen back when this conflict was happening. Franzen responds here with:

“well, I am a male animal, and there’s nothing I can do about that. I can’t stop writing and disappear just because someone chooses to project onto me her grievance with a million years of sexist human history”

What I found strange was that Jennifer Weiner is also one of the essays in here, and it’s written in essay/memoir format whereas Franzen’s is in interview format with the editor. The interview is by far the longest and I felt as if the editor was swooning over Franzen whereas Weiner was “left alone” as it were. In her essay, Weiner writes conversations she never thought she would have to have with herself like

“big-name critics will call your work ‘subliterary,’ and big-deal writers will sneer at the notion that your books deserve even a smidgen of attention in the New York Times…History ought to give me some context. Women’s work has always been devalued, seen as less. ‘commercial’ she asks for what she doesn’t deserve, says the privileged white man, who gets both sales and respect–as if privileged white men haven’t always been the ones to make those judgement, and those judgement haven’t always been in their favor.”

It’s an interesting fight/argument (which let’s face it, it’s about posterity), but it wasn’t why I bought this book.

As a reader interested in the “nitty-gritty of the writing profession” which is what I came to this book for, I did not find those answers here. For one Cheryl Strayed, Roxanne Gay,  Jennifer Weiner, and Jonathan Franzen are all best sellers who made money, got film deals, and some reached critical acclaim. The Franzen-Weiner “fight” was kind of central to me when I looked back.

My favourite by far was Colin Dickey. His essay actually focused on the topic. Cheryl Strayed’s article got my attention because of her success, but everyone else kind of fell through the cracks. For one, I didn’t find myself caring about authors I haven’t heard of, but if I did, I would have liked them to discuss the struggle more, rather than the details of biography. This was Spinster all over again, I got biographies I never asked for. I came to this collection looking for financial struggles, what did it mean, how much? What fees did you have to pay? Where did you live? How did you manage? One Goodreads reviewer put it best:

“the essayists tiptoe around pragmatic questions of money to instead navel-gaze about issues of privilege and class. Several of them explicitly repeat the problem this book was supposed to solve: they flatly refuse to discuss specific financial details.” – Amy Rogers 

Beowulf: Grendel’s Mother


Incipit page for Beowulf section in MS Cotton Vitellius A XV

After watching a few adaptations of Beowulf, I couldn’t help but wonder if it made sense for Angelina Jolie to play Grendel’s mother in the latest interpretation. It didn’t seem right. I went back to the Old English text to see if it makes any sense. Turns out I was wrong.

Beowulf has been fully translated by sixty-five (and counting) translators, has been adapted into four films (including an animated and a post-apocalyptic version), two shorter animated films, a rock-opera with music by Dave Malloy, it has been incorporated in various comic books and graphic novels and has made its way into smaller independent short clips on YouTube (and children’s shows) in addition to being referenced and parodied within contemporary comedy. With all the representations and adaptations, despite some characters being omitted (such as Wiglaf in Gunnarsson’s 2005 film) Beowulf has remained portrayed as a strong, muscular male, Grendel as a hideous monster and King Hrothgar and his wife as a middle aged couple worn by time and troubles. Grendel’s mother however, differs from the rest due to her shape-shifting portrayal throughout the adaptations. Her monstrosity and destructive powers are bent; yet from a demonic beast, to an Amazon-like figure, to a sexually appealing seductress, Grendel’s mother remains successful in destroying Hrothgar’s peace and bringing Beowulf to her cave. In the original text we are told that:


Grendel’s mother in online depiction

“widcuþ werum   þætte wreccend þa gyt

Lifde æfter laþum       lange þrage

Æfter guðceare    Grendles modor

Ides aglaecwif   yrmþe gemunde

se þe wæteregesan   wunian scolde”

[widely known by men / that an avenger still / lived after the misfortunes, for a long time / after the hostile one, Grendel’s mother / lad troll-wife, remembered misery / she who had to inhabit the dreadful water] (Beowulf, 1253-1261a)


Second online depiction

The word “wrecend” resonates as a masculine quality, one highly valued by the Anglo-Saxons, yet pertaining to male warriors thus making Grendel’s mother an Amazon-like figure. The idea of avenging the murder of a dead one is a recurrent theme in Anglo-Saxon literature, but the poet of Beowulf adds a few lines emphasizing the “troll’s” motherly role:

“…ond his modor þa gyt

Gifre ond galgmond   gegan wolde

Sorhfulne sið      sunnu deað wrecan”

[and his mother even now / greedy and gloomy-hearted / wished to go forth / on a sorrowful journey to avenge her son’s death] (Beowulf 1276-8)

Burton Raffel adds more sensitivity in his translation of this passage translating it as “His mother’s sad heart, and her greed, drove her from her den on the dangerous pathway of revenge” creating a dynamic to this character. A monster who first appears repulsive and masculine in her heroic return to avenge her son (the act of avenge as one commendable by Anglo-Saxon standards) is now presented to us in feminine form, as a mother. This alone makes her action of kidnapping and killing Hrothgar’s kinsman Æschere completely justified. Though as readers we may not be on her side, we understand her actions.

Grendel’s mother is perhaps one of the first females in Anglo-Saxon literature with feminist qualities. She is not only like an Amazon in her warrior nature, but also like the Greek Goddess Athena, seeker of justice (in her quest to settle an equal ransom for her son’s death by taking only one victim) and strong in battle searing for equality based on merit in a man-dominated society. The poet writes:

“                            waes se gryre laessaraffel

Efne swa micle      swa bið mæg þa cræft

Wiggryre wifes      bewaepned men

Þonne heoru bunden    hamere geþuren

Sweord swate fah   swin over helme

Ecgum dyhttig      andweard scireð”

[The horror was less / by even so much as is maid’s strength / the war-violence of woman from an armed man / when adorned blade by hammer forged / sword stained with blood the boar-crest / by edges firm the opposing is sheared] (Beowulf, 1282-5)

Interestingly enough, in Seamus Heaney’s translation of this same passage he writes “her onslaught was less only by as much as an Amazon warrior’s strength.” The key word being “Amazon” since it is absent in the Old English text, yet Heaney too detects that Grendel’s mother’s characteristics resonate with previously encountered female warriors in Greek epic poetry.

What sets Grendel’s mother apart from an Amazon-figure in a somewhat strange way is the fact that she has a son. Between lines 1354 and 1356 Hrothgar says “if he [Grendel] had a father no one knew him” suggesting Grendel’s mother could have been sexually involved with a man, since Grendel resembles men in his physical characteristics (only with more strength). This raises the question of Grendel’s mother’s appearance and it is with this detail that her portrayal becomes diverse as one may wonder if a man was attracted to this woman or if she truly is an anthropomorphic beast. When it comes to description this monster is left to the mercy of the translators and adapters.51cofDOKunL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

For instance, when describing her kidnapping to Æschere in line 1295 which in Old English appears to be “fæste befangen,” Burton Raffel uses words like “dripping claws” where Heaney simply writes “tight hold” with no mention of “claw.” “Claw” implies a hideous beast with animal features whereas “tight hold” simply emphasizes strength.

Even upon explaining the mother and son Raffel only says that “one of the devils was a female creature…they named the huge one Grendel: if he had a father no one knew him” whereas Heaney writes “one…looks like a woman; the other…an unnatural birth called Grendel…they are fatherless creatures…and their whole ancestry is hidden in a past of demons and ghosts.” The difference between the two is huge as one implies Grendel was from his mother’s womb and may have had a father, whereas the other implies they are demonic, fatherless creatures.

In his book Beowulf and Grendel, John Grigsby writes:

“since the poet makes it clear that Grendel and his mother are amongst such fiends [descendants of Cain] it can be deduced that this pair of monsters were originally divinities too—namely the fertility God and his lover/mother of ancient Denmark. She’s referred to as ‘cursed spirits,’ ‘demons,’ ‘monster of the deep,’ and ‘water-witch.’”

Simply by working with text and translation, Grendel’s mother obtains a dynamic through her actions as feminist, warrior, avenger, and mother. In description we do not know if she is as hideous as Grendel or not. Stepping aside from the text for a moment we can observe how modern artists have envisioned Grendel’s mother.

In Graham Baker’s post-apocalyptic film in 1999, various comic books, and Gareth Hinds’s graphic novel, she takes the form of an alien-like figure. Face and body, she does not resemble humans in any characteristics and her role is miniscule, having no impact on the rest of the plot. Her interference is minor as the main focus is on the Dragon and Grendel, thus diminishing the female warrior presence.

51TCWCPKJFL._SY445_       In Sturla Gunnarsson’s 2005 film, some choices were made in this regard, though not plot-altering. We first see Grendel’s mother as an arm grabbing for the warriors on a boat from beneath the waters, where she becomes a mysterious faceless figure, until she finally has her revenge where she has a human body (though bluish in colour) and a beast-like face with sharp teeth. What makes this portrayal interesting is that, at the beginning of the film the audience sees Grendel’s “father” who we do not encounter in the original text. Though in the fil he appears a strong, tall man, he is a man nonetheless and Grendel then becomes a product of the copulation between the tall nameless man and the monstrous nameless woman. In this movie, Grendel himself is avenging his father’s death (which as the director interprets he was killed by Hrothgar) giving him the role his mother has in the text (that of the avenger).

Lastly, and perhaps the boldest interpretation of Grendel’s mother was carried out by Robert Zemeckis in 2007 (written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery). Using the motion-capture process, Zemeckis models Grendel’s mother after Angelina Jolie, famous for her beauty (the simulation replicating the actress’s looks onto the animation panel). This adaptation makes Grendel’s mother a main character and Grendel a mere pawn in her larger game. Her power is not warrior-like; rather she use her sexuality as a weapon—a female weapon. The movie implies that Grendel’s mother seduced Hrothgar years before, and Grendel was not only his son, but the curse she set upon Hrothgar for being weak and giving in to her seductive powers. This, putting a strain on Hrothgar’s marriage, made him want to rid of Grendel and ultimately Grendel’s mother. She is in fact portrayed as Hrothgar’s burden. When Beowulf descends to her lair, Zemeckis’s film implies that Beowulf too gives in to the siren’s seductive powers and the moment he does so, the burden is no longer on Hrothgar but it is transferred to Beowulf. Hrothgar’s ‘freedom’ is portrayed by him committing suicide and Beowulf replacing him on the throne.p-beowulf-grendels-mother

What is interesting of this sexual siren representation of Grendel’s mother, is that the original text allows it to exist. Her description in the text, as previously examined, allows for her looks to be charming and only her character to be beastly and vengeful, as Zemeckis showed her in his film. Interestingly enough, after Beowulf’s burial, the ending of the film is Grendel’s mother waking up from the waters looking in the eyes of her next victim. Although in the original text Beowulf successfully kills her, this film makes Grendel’s mother appear immortal. Her cyclical seducing, torturous and murderous activity can perhaps symbolize the way Beowulf as a text has charmed audiences in Anglo-Saxon England and continues to do so each generation, making us all its slaves, unable to resist the charm that lies in the Old English poetry.



I still have to read Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf — recently published by his son, and I’m a bit hesitant because Tolkien himself didn’t release it in his lifetime which makes me believe it wasn’t a finished product, or something he was comfortable publishing. We do owe Tolkien a lot for bringing Beowulf out of the darkness. Perhaps I will write a post sometime soon on the history of the Beowulf portion of the MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, and how its popularity increased after Tolkien’s 1936 lecture “Beowulf the Monsters and the Critics” which I highly recommend if you haven’t read it yet.

Mary Ann Cotton — Dark Angel

31290822I recently got immersed in the world of Mary Ann Cotton, branded as “Britain’s first female serial killer.” Although Cotton being “the first” is disputed as there might have been many others before her, she is fascinating nonetheless. Martin Connolly wrote a short booklet on the town he lived in, titled The Potted History of West Auckland. After reading his work, many requested that he write a book about Mary Ann Cotton. Who was she? What do we know about her? Connolly decided to go to all of the possible sources to find out as much information as he can on Mary Ann Cotton. Connolly writes in the introduction:

“When I had brought together all my material and thoughts, I then turned to see what books on Mary Ann Cotton were being recommended. In this, two stood out, Mary Annn Cotton –Her Story and Trial by Arthur Appleton and Mary Ann cotton Dead, But not Forgotten by Tony Whitehead. Arthur’s account has some factual and date errors, but was a good read. It was on reading tony Whitehead’s book that I had a moment of wishing I had started with that particular book. In it, he had amassed a large number of images of birth, death and baptismal records. It would have saved me a great deal of time, energy and money.”

What I enjoy about Connolly’s book is that he frames the structure of Mary Ann Cotton’s life chronologically and in each sequence he tells us what we can know from the facts without interference. He doesn’t make assumptions or tell us what to believe. He collected so many pictures, certificates, and documents simply presenting them to us as images with a brief explanation of where he acquired them. After laying down the entirety of Cotton’s documented life, he presents to us her trial, documents from the trial, letters to and from Mary Ann Cotton whilst she was in jail, and accounts of the day she was hanged with all the details (including how long her body convulsed upon being hanged). After, Connolly tells us who survived Mary Ann Cotton (from people she knew and lived with), and subsequent rural stories that circulated about potential ghost sightings of Cotton. She entered English folklore for quite some time. He also gathered medical recordings of how the doctor examined the corpses to indicate that it was in fact Arsenic poisoning—which was used as ‘proof’ of her guilt. Connolly even covers a brief biography of all the men and women involved in her trial, doctor supporting evidence, and police officers involved in her arrest.arsenic

On one hand I liked being presented with facts/proof around Mary Ann Cotton’s life without biographer interference or flowery language. On the other hand, I found this work lacking in setting the atmosphere. Although Connolly makes a brief mention at the beginning that she came from a mining village with low wages, and death was aplenty; he didn’t quite set the atmosphere of the time. He jumps from one section of her life to the next without much more introduction. I would have appreciated a sensory experience, an induction into this Victorian life to try and understand. Connolly concludes with:

“was she guilty of murders? I struggle to answer this question. It would be anachronistic to try and look at the situation with a modern mind. In that period, many things were black and white in legal terms…to judge her then is difficult…I suppose I arrive at a place where I would bring in the Scottish legal judgment of ‘not proven.’”

That is a pretty dark note to end on (considering the woman was hanged).

DarkAngel_MasterpieceI read the book at the same time as watching the PBS three-episode miniseries called Dark Angel featuring Joanne Froggatt as Mary Ann Cotton. The show helped me with what the book was lacking which was atmosphere. The imagery, and the details in costumes and setting really put things in perspective.

What the show focused more on was Cotton’s seduction abilities. They presented her sexuality as being far more overt than any Victorian character I’ve encountered thus far, which made me think they appropriated a slightly modern take. The book tells us to assume she was at least charming because she managed to lock down four husbands but her seductive abilities weren’t notorious. Something missing from the show though, was the ambiguity and potential innocence that Connolly presented to us in the book. In the television program they pretty much show her carrying spoon-fulls of Arsenic into everyone’s tea, including her four husbands, lover, several step-children, her mother, and best friend. If you ‘judge’ her based on the show you ‘know’ she murdered everyone, whereas if you look at the documents and transcripts of what we actually can know….it’s pretty ambiguous, and certainly doesn’t make the case for a death penalty.

Both the book and miniseries kind of gloss over something kind of important. Mary Ann Cotton gave birth to 13 children, 11 of which died. I recently read The Light Between Oceans showing how much damage can be done to a woman’s psyche after losing a single living child, or even experience a miscarriage. To have lost eleven children she gave birth to is so much proof to me that Cotton was certainly not mentally stable. Postpartum depression alone will mess you up, let alone burying so many children of your own. The show and book gloss over it as if it was no big deal, as if it’s to be expected of the time; but even in the Victorian period the death of a child was not so simple. We have records of how much Dickens, and Darwin grieved over the loss of a single child (as fathers). Skipping over this concept to me, is kind of missing the point. I think when people read books on “serial killers” they are intrigued by character and the how they got to be that way. Skipping over the grieving process, and the bodily damage from each pregnancy and subsequent burial of tiny bodies completely hides from the readers and audience what messed this woman up so much (IF she was guilty at all). The presentation of economic circumstances of women at the time and their dependency on men really placed a contemporary feminist angle of how difficult it must have been to lack autonomy and how desperate things can really get.

So if you embark on this grim adventure I recommend reading something about the Victorian period first, and perhaps read the book alongside watching the miniseries so you have a full picture of Mary Ann Cotton. I really did enjoy this narrative altogether. The book is published by Pen and Sword, and the miniseries by PBS.


Ah, now I get that line from Chicago

The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction by Istavan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. a Summary, Discussion, and Review

“…science fiction is more than a literary genre or a social passion. It is a way of organizing the mind to include the contemporary world…SF is an art that delights in vision, intelligence, and the infinite possibilities of change.”

5925031My overall impression of this book was that it was trying so hard to be exclusive and elite that it almost became nonsensical. Yes, I understand that it contributes to a larger conversation. However, if you look at Joanna Russ’s discourse on feminist science fiction, or Sterling’s, LeGuin’s, and Atwood’s nonfiction writing as a writer-critic, or even Auerbach, Marx, and Bakhtin (all names with whom Csicsery-Ronay Jr claims to be ‘in conversation’) they are still trying to reach the public and actually have a discourse. When you purposely make yourself so inaccessible, you might as well be ranting in a dark room, in solitary confinement. It was clear to me that he wanted to fit into the ‘philosophy’ department more than the literary analysis and criticism department, or the literary studies in general. In some sections, he over-complicates topics that are so simple with his verbose and restrictive writing style. For instance, in the section on fictive neology, the entire passage sounds like an anthropology paper on humans as an overview. “Languages have an inherent potential for development through their interaction with the discourses of other cultures and their own internal elaboration.” Yeah…we know. You’d find yourself reading pages upon pages of just common sense knowledge told in a restrictive style. I also found this work to be limited by the few sci-fi works that Csicsery-Ronay has read. While he references certain things here and there from a wider range, he goes into detailed discussion on only a few works (but almost the same ones in every chapter). You can tell he’s definitely (properly) read Solaris, the Kim Stanley Robinson books, few works by Ursula K. LeGuin (if not one) and some of the 19th century classics…but there are so many other works to consider (especially when this was published in 2008). I think he barely dips into science fiction works, extracts a very superficially well-known theme and then starts ranting about it in a way only Philosophy students would understand. This becomes crystal clear the moment you encounter chapters dedicated to Kant, Adorno, and Burke.  Sometimes he just name-drops titles without even discussing them, to get them to fit into his ‘totally-unrelated-to-sf’ thesis.

Those two frustrations aside, the book gets good once you get used to his use of language about mid-end of chapter one. Once he begins to engage with science fiction works (though few) I actually really enjoyed it.

The title for this work is inspired by the medieval Persian allegorical romance The Haft Paykar—a tale of mystical love and moral enlightenment, in which a prince falls in love with seven beauties and upon visiting each of them in a week, each bride tells him a new allegorical story. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. appropriates the seven beauties to the form of “categories” found in science fiction (which he calls science-fictionality)—of which one work may contain several.

This work is not expository or historical. It is a theoretical model of criticism and responding to a rich discourse about the genre. While there are many literary critical lenses through which to examine sf works (feminist, Marxist, etc) Csicsery-Ronay Jr. approaches sf as (what he ‘simply’ describes as):

“a product of the convergence of social-historical forces that has led to the current global hegemony of technoscience, and as an institution of ideological expression on one hand, and on the other, the ludic framework in a culture of game and play in which that hegemony is entertained, absorbed, and resisted.”

The author explains that he wanted to interact with sf works and read closely while trying to not to border on the banal by using popular works, nor slip into obscurity by addressing texts that deserve a wider audience. A great difficulty arises when he wanted to be inclusive of non-Anglo sf works, while the SF genre is predominantly an Anglo-American genre. These are the seven ‘beauties’ or categories he discusses at length (I am paraphrasing some from the way Csicsery-Ronay Jr introduced them, with some examples that were memorable to me):

  1. Fictive Neology: new worlds, variations and combinations based on the actual process of lexicogenesis (ways words are coined) experienced in social life. Imply linguistic-symbolic models of technological transformation. They engage audiences to use them as clues and triggers to construct the logic of science fictional worlds. In this chapter he looks at the way language is used to construct a novelty but also how the absence of it can also achieve the same results. For instance, he uses the example of Dr. Jekyll’s chemical compound of which we never get to know the name. “By refusing to give his novum a scientific name Stevenson kept his tale from engaging with the discourse of science.” He also examines ways in which Tolkien’s well-constructed Elvish gives the fantasy epic a scientific foundations, while other ‘languages’ referenced in sci-fi with few words here and there and a name do not. Parseltongue isn’t a language, Elivish and Klingon are (in a scientific way).
  2. Fictive Novums: coined by Darko Suvin, the term refers to a historically unprecedented and unpredictable ‘new thing’ that intervenes in the routine course of social life and changes the trajectory of history. According to Csicsery-Ronay Jr., every sf text supplies fictive novums and responses to them, and thus engages the sense of real inhabitants of technorevolutionary societies. Here we learn about negative apocalypse predictions, or we find that something we knew in the past or present to be true, in the future it won’t be so. For instance Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Vinland the dream” contains the idea that the Vikings’ landing in North America is a recent hoax. This chapter has a deeper study of Lem’s Solairs.
  3. Future History: most sf is set in the future, though it does not need to be. The genre relies on the techniques of realism. Maintaining a sense of connection between the present and future, sf constructs micromyths of the historical process, establishing the audience’s present as the future-oriented ‘prehistory of the future.’
  4. Imaginary Science: introducing technoscientific ideas and events among the value-bearing stories and metaphors of social life. “We make science of our metaphors.”
  5. The Science-fictional Sublime: here Csicsery-Ronay Jr. explores several branches of the sublime like the Kantian sublime of temporal and special infinitude of the mathematical, the sense of overwhelming physical power of the dynamic sublime, David E. Nye’s coined American technological sublime where it’s the sense of access to, and control of, the powers of nature that typified the Americanpopulace’s responses to the monumental engineering projects of the nineteenth century, and last the technoscientific sublime, popularized post-WWII which entails a sense of awe and dread in response to human technological projects that exceed the power of their human creators.
  6. The Science-Fictional grotesque: the inversion of the technosublimeàcollapse of ontological categories. This is the domain of monstrous aliens. The grotesque is implosive, accompanied by fascination and horror at the prospect of intimate category-violating phenomena discovered by human science.
  7. Technologiade: transforms popular cultural materials by reorienting their concerns toward its characteristic horizon: the transformation of human societies as a result of innovations attending technoscientific projects. This chapter is similar to Jung’s models of the archetype, only he appropriates it here for the Gothic vs. Adventure. What I found interesting in this chapter was the presentation or idea of the Gothic as a mere inversion of the adventure tale.

He writes:

“Where modern adventure narrates the projection of discovery and invention further and further away from the home base, the metropole and the ‘motherland,’ into exotic venues, the Gothic imagines the subject position of the victim of these cognitive interests…the field of values is reversed…the Gothic inverts the dream world of thrilling travels among wonders into nightmares of abduction, imprisonment, and victimization by barely controllable archaic passions.”

I recommend this  book to people interested in philosophical discourse, rather than people interested in the history, analysis, or in-depth study of science fiction literature/film.

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. 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, vegan, healthy-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.

Rabbit Hole | Reading Reflection

“Rabbit Hole is not a tidy play. Resist smoothing out its edges” – David Lindsay-Abaire

38700I’m not really sure where to begin with Rabbit Hole. I loved it so much. This play was written by David Lindsay-Abaire, published in 2007, and yes, that makes it 10 years old right now. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2007 and in 2010 was turned into a film featuring Nicole Kidman in the leading role. I really want to discuss the details of this play, and figure out what it is that I love about it—in doing so, I will most likely spoil the play for you, so if you want to read it without spoilers, I suggest you don’t read ahead on this blog post. Consider yourself warned.

Rabbit Hole is told simply, but contains a complex narrative with complicated relationship dynamics. Beeca and Howie are two young parents who have just lost their 4 year old son Danny. Danny chased the dog into the road and got hit by a teenage driver. This play is a glimpse into their daily life several months after the tragedy and the ways in which they cope with it. Howie likes to constantly celebrate Danny’s life and look at home-made videos of him, and he needs to talk about it so he goes to support groups. Becca on the other hand can’t stand the constant reminders of Danny in the house. She wants his fingerprints gone from the windows, his drawings off the fridge, the dog away from the house, and eventually to move out. Howie on the other hand loves all those things in the house. Above all, Becca refuses to talk about it with anyone. The subtle ways these things come up are shown in the little interactions Becca and Howie have with extended family, neighbours, and friends. While others tiptoe around them and either avoid them completely or try to be extra sensitive and offer advice, Howie and Becca feel awkward around them. Advice is transparent, and ‘relatability’ goes right through them because no one grieves the same way. The worst is when people try to draw comparisons between what happened to them personally when they encountered death, and what is happening to Becca and Howie now. On the other hand, Becca gets irritated by little things, like seeing a mother ignore her child at the grocery store when he asked for candy (a fruit roll-up). The lady’s parenting style got to Becca. She wanted to grab her and tell her to appreciate her child while he is there, not take him for granted, and explain why he can’t have the candy, rather than ignoring him. Becca sees Danny everywhere in the details of her home and wishes she could just ignore the details and the memories, but this woman is purposely ignoring her living, breathing child.

The play takes a turn when the character of Jason is introduced. Jason is seventeen years old and was the driver who ran over Danny. He wants to talk to Becca and Howie. He tries to reach out several times. The first time is by means of a letter and in it he encloses a science fiction story he wrote about parallel universes, which he dedicates to Danny. The story is called Rabbit Hole. The first time we see Becca truly discuss her grief and have a good cry about it is in the presence of Jason. Jason is intriguing to her, because he seems equally broken. There are a few parallels between Jason and Danny, and (in my opinion) Becca looks at Jason as what Danny might have become if he was given the chance to grow up. For one, Jason draws a few parallels between him and Danny in the letter by referencing robots and how he too liked them as a child. Danny’s favourite book was The Runaway Rabbit, whereas Jason writes Rabbit Hole. It was so strange to me the first time I read this, and even when watching the movie, that Becca loses her temper with everyone else except the person who actually killed her son. We get only glimpses into Jason’s life but we know that he is broken by what happened, that he’s trying to be normal and can’t and has a desperate desire to have a different life. He contemplates parallel universes, because he likes to think that there is a world where he didn’t kill Danny. One can also look at Rabbit Hole as a direct reference to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as it being a portal into madness for everyone involved.

There are two other characters constantly present. The first is Izzy, Becca’s irresponsible sister who gets to be pregnant and one can sense that Becca feels like Izzy doesn’t deserve to be a mother—Izzy feels that judgement herself. The second character is Nat, Becca’s mother. She too had lost a son, Becca’s brother, who killed himself at the age of 39. He was a cocaine addict. Whenever she tries to compare the loss of her son, with the loss of Danny, Becca shuts her up right way. She can’t stand comparison. Most importantly, she can’t stand the thought that a 39 year old man who self-harmed and lived a “sinful life” can be compared to, or be the same as an innocent four-year-old.

Lastly, I was taken aback by the author’s note at the end of the play. He is very direct about his instructions to future actors, but in it he reveals just a little more about Jason’s character. He writes:

“It’s a sad play. Don’t make it any sadder than it needs to be…if the stage directions don’t mention tears, please resist adding them…I KNOW Jason shouldn’t cry, ever. (Yes, he’s haunted by the death of Danny, but his emotions aren’t especially accessible to him…please, no choked-up kids openly racked with guilt. That’s not who he is. Restraint, please.)”

I am completely astounded at how David Lindsay-Abaire managed to pack so much depth, detail, and complexity while using such simple dialogue. No one talks too much—the longest being maybe two sentences at a time. The interactions are brief and subtle, but carry with them a back story. It’s rivaling Hemingway’s style (particularly in his short stories), and dare-I-say, I think I enjoy Rabbit Hole more. There is so much to discuss. I wish I could go into the details of parallel universes and their significance, the backstory we can piece together for Jason, the potential affair Howie had, the differences in the ways all these characters grieve, attempts at healing, and the ending of the play slipping into normality. There is so much to discuss, and I think this play is so important. If they ever stop teaching A Streetcar Named Desire in schools, they should replace it with this one. This was a perfect 5-star play for me.


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.”


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.

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.

Writings from the Golden Age of Russian Poetry

34889267I received this work from Columbia University Press. It’s an academic book scheduled for publication on November 28. The work itself is a translation and presentation by Peter France of Konstantin Batyushkov’s writings. France interweaves Batyushkov’s own writings with his biography presenting to readers the life of a poet and his career as a soldier with his subsequent decline into mental illness at the age of thirty-four. A mixture of depression and PTSD from his life as a soldier made Batyushkov unable to write poetry any longer in the last few years of his life. Konstantin Batyushkov (1787-1855) was one of Russia’s greatest poets. France makes it known on page one of the introduction that even though:

“To most non-Russian readers his name is hardly known… for Russians he is a classic.”

He emerged in the 1820s in a literary grouping of what was later known as the Golden Age or the Pushkin Pléiade. The introduction to this work tells us that Pushkin himself regarded Batyushkov as a master.

In terms of where in the canon one might place or discuss Batyushkov, France tells us that:

“One might see in this divided soul an expression of Batyushkov’s intermediary historical position—between the urbane sociability of Enlightenment Russia, and the rebellious Romantic sensibility that is embodied in Pushkin’s Eugin Onegin.”


Portrait of Batyushkov

This work is relatively short but quite dense. Peter France focuses on each section of Batyushkov’s life by adding an introduction with biographical information. He then selects the corresponding poems that fit in with that time in Batyushkov’s life and illuminate his feelings, reflections, and own self-documentation. France also adds passages of close reading and analysis to Batyshkov’s poems supporting the connection to his biographical passages by adding letters Batyushkov sent to his family and friends.

Reading this work was refreshing because it felt like I was reading something completely new, but somehow reading a classic as well. I found it absolutely crucial that someone should introduce Batyushkov to the West after reading his poems. France did an excellent job not only presenting/introducing Batyushkov but also in translating his poems. I would strongly recommend this book to readers fond of Russian literature, poetry, and semi-academic works. I didn’t find it exclusive by any means, it was accessible and interesting.

Cheek by Jowl by Ursula K. Le Guin

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

“fantasy is not primitive, but primary”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acadie by Dave Hutchinson | Review

Acadie_coverAcadie is part of the Summer of Space Opera hosted by, the last of the five to be published, scheduled for the 5th of September. Dave Hutchinson, the author, was born in Sheffield in 1960, studied at the University of Nottingham and became a journalist. He’s the author of five collections of short stories, and four novels.

Acadie is set in the future following protagonist Duke who has been summoned by a group of leading researchers who have created “Kids” a long time ago for the purpose of colonizing other planets. After several generations Kids evolved to be more and more human-like, but their creator Isabel Potter is bent on finding all of them and killing them. We find that:

“the Kids were superbrights, tall fragile children with towering IQs, and a penchant for terrible jokes.”

Conversations between the Kids resemble equations as they are hardwired to see all problems in doing a specific activity.

This novella is short but filled with humour and great character interactions. While it resembles “hard sci-fi” it has many moments of reflection and character development. As readers we get an insight into Duke’s history, opinions, and frustrations. I found it particularly interesting when Duke tells readers that after travelling in space for long enough “it’s all just stars and emptiness…all space looks the same.” The writers and engineers who work for Isabel Potter, the original creator of the Kids, are like a giant fandom group from Comic-Con dressed as LOTR and Star Trek fans or as Duke calls it: early 20th century media references. The ‘Writers’ in this novella have higher powers. Their ‘creations’ shape more than expected and they have abilities like conducting complete memory-wipe on another, should they choose to.

The last few pages contained a surprising ending (which I will obviously not spoil) but it added a different dimension to the novella. It can be easily read in one sitting and it’s very exciting. I think this is one of the reads I would add to “get out of a reading slump” kind of book lists because it’s short, well-written, and highly atmospheric.

Also, the cover design by Stephen Youll is absolutely beautiful. I’ve linked his website so you can take a look at all his extraordinary artwork.

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.


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



Rendezvous with Rama | Review

774928I set myself up for a project (which has no time limit on it so it could take a while) where I try to read all of the winners of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. More on that project: HERE. I realized going through the list that I haven’t read anything by Arthur C. Clarke himself so I decided to read Rendezvous with Rama–winner of the Hugo and Nebula Award.

By the year 2130 humans have already been travelling in space to various planets, and after a disastrous event of asteroids hitting the Earth they created many protocols and safety systems to prevent future celestial objects from hitting our planet. When a large celestial object is “at the gates” Commander Norton and a committee of space military advisers go explore this celestial object which is spherical in shape. We are told:


“by our standards, Rama is enormous–yet it is still a very tiny planet…its ecology could survive for only about a thousand year.”

They try to map it by giving several points names of cities on Earth, and the ‘asteroid’ is given the name of Hindu God Rama because:

“long ago, the astronomers had exhausted Green and Roman mythology; now they were working through the Hindu pantheon.”

The greatest chunk of this book involves the various encounters with Rama and its cylindrical sea. The silence, the darkness, and the attempts to understand it. We see most things through the eyes of Commander Norton. Some of the writing is actually quite funny. For instance, Norton thinks:

“when Rama shot through some other star system, it might have visitors again. He would like to give them a good impression of Earth.”


“you know Jerry Kirchoff, my exec, who’s got such a library of real books that he can’t afford to emigrate from Earth? Well, Jerry…” (:D)

I loved this work so much. I was trying to analyse what sets it apart from less heavy sci-fi and I think what made this book wholesome for me were the many historical references and deep roots. It rounded the characters and gave the story line a sturdy foundation. For instance, when the Commander is hypothesizing what Rama could be he considers that he has once heard of the excavation of a tomb from an Egyptian pharaoh, King Tut and how Rama too, could be a tomb. He contemplates the possibility of that by discussing King Tut for a little while. Moments like these made Rama real for me as a reader. Another time, we find that Norton is a big fan of Captain James Cook who had sailed the world between 1768 and 1771. He read all the Journals and knew everything about him:

“it still seemed incredible that one man could have done so much with such primitive equipment…it was Norton’s private dream, which he knew he would never achieve, to retrace at least one of Cook’s voyages around the world.”

Norton became so interesting to me the moment he had a dream and was a well-read person with historical heroes. The historical details sprinkled in this futuristic novel make it dynamic, and it works.

There were some things that upset me in the projected future. I decided to let it slide because it’s a great book and it was written in the early ’70s. The main one is that Norton, like other people who are making all these important space decisions and meetings, has two wives and two separate families. One is on Mars, one on Earth (they travel fast). The way women are discussed ever so briefly are like these interchangeable things who have enough on their hands because Norton or whichever man impregnated them. There is one team leader doctor/biologist Surgeon-Commander Laura Ernst and she has some influence, and I think it was here where I kind of let the whole “2-wives” thing slide and trying to keep 1970s as a context.

There are several interviews conducted by Strange Horizons on impressions of Rendezvous with Rama, looking back on it, and Karen Burnham says:

“So wow, this was really refreshing! A mixed-gender, mixed-race, comfortable-with-polygamy team and society with some solid world building involving asteroid threats. I liked it much more than I thought I would.”

I gathered from this comment that this was as “mixed-gender” as sci-fi got at the time.

Full Strange Horizons interview: CLICK HERE.

All in all, this is a great book, great science fiction classic, and I strongly recommend it. I especially recommend it to those interested in science fiction and fantasy and want to read the foundational texts or “classics” in the genre. Heinlein, Clarke, Herbert, and Asimov are the four main pillars.


Central Station | Book Review

25986774Lavie Tidhar’s Sci-fi Novel Central Station is one of the six on the shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, was a finalist for the Locus Awards, and only two weeks ago has been awarded the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best science fiction of the year.

The composition of Central Station is known as a ‘fix-up’ novel, meaning that several stories that have been published in the past (in this case ranging between 2011-2015) have been brought together along several new added chapters to form one cohesive narrative.

In its essence Central Station is an in-between place, similar to an airport and/or port located between Jewish Tel Aviv and Arab Jaffa. We learn that trades and cargo play a huge role in this distant future, even on a spiritual level:

“Cargo came from everywhere. In space, cargo was a religion all by itself. It came from Earth, shipped up to orbit, to the massive habitat called Gateway. It came from Lunar Port, and it came from the Belt, from Ceres and Vesta where the wealth of the Belt poured.”

The location is the core of the novel because it’s the only thing all the characters have in common. In the prologue an author sits down and writes of a civilization in the future imagining and reminiscing of the past (which is still quite distant from us and what we know). The term often used is the “imagined past.” It reminded me of one of those notebooks that certain hotels or locations make you sign every time you visit. It’s as if all these species of ‘people’ from the future (from all over the Solar System) get to sign their names at Central Station and tell their story.

Every chapter focuses on one character and is told from a different perspective, and the same character will re-appear in future stories as a secondary character. What is astounding is that even though all these species of the future are so different they seem to be a lot more tolerant of each other and understanding than humans are now. They look to us and our history the way we look at Cavemen. There are a few characters that dominate the naraative, mainly Miriam (Mama Jones), Boris, Caramel, and Kranky.

What amazes me is that Tidhar managed to create entities so different from us and somehow breathe air into their lungs and humanize them giving them relatable cravings and vices. The story I found most fascinating was that of a creature called “Strigoi” which we follow in chapter five, by name of ‘Caramel.’ Strigois are data vampires and absorb everything one knows. We follow how Caramel herself became a Strigoi and what her feelings were being at Central Station:

“she had never imagined the Conversation as she experienced it just then –the nearness and yet the distance of it, the compressedness of it all. Billions of humans, uncounted billions of digitals and machines, all talking, chattering, sharing at once. Images, text, voice, recordings, all-immersive memcordist media, gamesworlds spill-over—it came on her at once, and she reeled against it.”

When she meets Boris and Miriam at Central Station her parasite-like nature is viewed by Miriam as a disease, something Caramel can’t help similar to the ways we look at depression or Schizophrenia. There is a sort of dangerous aspect about being a Strigoi but also involuntary on their part. For Boris, Caramel is a sexualized entity. He is

“aroused by her difference…all the while knowing his own weakness, admitting to his sexual infatuation with her, this human kink that made them lust for Strigoi, for the thing that could harm them.”

To me this story is representative of the whole. Tidhar takes something so distant from us and makes it relatable. As readers we empathize with the non-human and that is the result of great craftsmanship and storytelling. I absolutely love this book and I will read it again soon.

Also, the cover art for this novel is so beautiful. This is the work of Sarah Anne Langton. 

I recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys science fiction. To learn more about Lavie Tidhar and his other works click HERE.

I received a digital copy of this novel from Tachyon Publications in exchange for an honest review (thank you Tachyon!) however I bought my own copy and an audible version. I hope it’s come through that I genuinely enjoyed this work. It brought me to a good place and I will take a look at Tidhar’s backlist and forward to his future publications.


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.

The New Voices of Fantasy | Review

33838972The New Voices of Fantasy is an anthology compiled by Peter. S. Beagle (famously known for his work The Last Unicorn) and Jacob Wiseman. All the stories in this collection have been previously published between 2010 and 2017 in short story magazines like Clarkesworld, Uncanny, Strange Horizons, and In 2010 Beagle edited another anthology The Secret History of Fantasy exploring the merging of genre fantasy and mainstream markets into a new form of literary fantasy. Wiseman asserts that “this anthology constitutes something of a sequel.”

Beagle begins his introduction to this anthology with a block quote paraphrasing an excerpt from Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination:

“Jules Verne, who always considered himself a scientist, was distinctly put out by the work of the younger writer H.G. Wells. ‘Il a invente!’ the author of From the Earth to the Moon sniffed at the author of The War of the Worlds. ‘He makes things up!’”

The older generation constantly unwilling to accept the young/new. What Verne could not accept was that Wells invented machines beyond what was mechanically possible—unlike what Verne did in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with the submarine—Wells expanded by creating a time machine. Beagle relates an anecdote from his experience as a young writer where one of his older teachers, Frank O’Connor, could not accept Beagle’s storytelling in the writing class back in the ‘60s because he was a fan of realism and classics. Beagle writes: “I was outraged at O’Connor’s rigidity.” The resistance from the older generation is not the only thing keeping young fantasy writers back–there is also the hierarchy, favouring ‘literary works’ and ‘realism’ above the innovations brought forward by fantasy. Ursula K. Le Guin tells Beagle:

“all of us [fantasy writers] feel, to one degree or another, that mainstream fiction has been stealing our ideas—and even our classic clichés—for generations, and selling them back to us as ‘Magical Realism.’”

Realism is not everything, and fantasy under a different name does not become more ‘literary’ or significant. Beagle and Le Guin ask us to open our eyes and see that it was Fantasy all along.

What Beagle does with this anthology is an elegant passing of the writing pen to a younger generation of fantasy writers, and he presents them to us, the readers, without rigidity as his teachers before him have. He accepts them as they are and is in awe of their risk-taking, creativity, and courage. I cannot imagine how many works Beagle must have read through to select these top 19 stories, but I had a hard time selecting my favourites, as each one of them brings something completely unique to the Fantasy cornucopia. His selection includes a great balance of men and women writers, as well as various backgrounds.

The stories featured in this anthology are as follows:

  • “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong
  • “Selkie Stories are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar
  • Tornado’s Siren” by Brooke Bolander (opening line: “Rhea is nine years old when she first meets the tornado that will fall in love with her”)
  • “Left the Century to Sit Unmoved” by Sarah Pinsker
  • A Kiss with Teeth” by Max Gladstone (featuring Dracula as a suburban dad so worth reading)
  • “Jackalope Wives” by Ursula Vernon
  • “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu
  • The Practical Witch’s Guide to Acquiring Real Estate” by A.C. Wise
  • “The Tallest Doll in New York City” by Maria Dahvana Headley
  • “The Haunting of Apollo A7LB” by Hannu Rajeniemi
  • Here Be Dragons” by Chris Tarry
  • “The One they Took Before” by Kelly Sandoval
  • “Tiger Baby” by JY Yang
  • “The Duck” by Ben Loory
  • “Wing” by Amal El-Mohtar
  • The Philosophers” by Adam Ehrlich Sachs
  • “My Time Among the Bridge Blowers” by Eugene Fischer
  • “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado
  • “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” by Usman T. Malik

I linked some of my favourite ones, but in support of Beagle and his work I would recommend this anthology as an individual codex because it is cohesive and works well as a collection with the choices Beagle has made.

I recommend this anthology to anyone who loves fantasy and wants to try some of the new emerging voices. I have no doubt that each one of these writers will continue to write and publish larger works in the future, and this anthology is a great introduction to them. I would especially recommend this to readers who are new to fantasy and want to sample shorter works without committing to an entire series and/or trilogy.

Many thanks to Tachyon Publications for sending me an ARC for review. This anthology is currently scheduled to be published on  August 18, 2017 (though books are always subject to having dates pushed back). Regardless of publication date, it is currently available for pre-order on Amazon.

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


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.



Ex Libris: Stories of Librarians, Libraries & Lore | Book Review


front coverI requested this book for review when I saw the word ‘librarians’ in its title. I did not expect to love it as much as I did. This book is 5 Star rating for me, and I pre-ordered the hardcopy from Amazon after reading the introduction. This is by far my favourite anthology. Sci-Fi & Fantasy on the topic of Librarians and Libraries. Need I say more? Okay I will:

Paula Guran, the editor of this anthology, has compiled 24 short stories that have been previously published in Sci-fi and Fantasy magazines like Uncanny, and Clarkesworld which have at its core the topic of libraries and librarians. Some of the authors include Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch, Ray Bradbury, Ken Liu, and Xia Jia (the last two were in a short story anthology I reviewed last month Invisible Planets). These writers are contemporary giants in the Science Fiction and Fantasy community, and I was pleasantly surprised by the stories they wrote.

In library school the subject of “the image of the librarian in the public sphere” was a topic that was frequently discussed. We often looked at film adaptations and the usual depiction of a librarian was either the frumpy/spinster librarian like Marian the librarian in The Music Man, stern-shushing librarian figures like the librarian in Monsters University (Pixar Film), and real-life elderly librarian figures like Nancy Pearl (who is now an action figure), or the sexy librarian like Evy from The Mummy, Tammy Swanson from Parks and Recreation, or seductive library-figures in ads like Margot Robbie’s skit on SNL.

What Paula Guran outlines in the introduction is that librarians in fiction tend to be unhappy or stereotyped, but since this is science fiction and fantasy, the librarians expand beyond that. She writes:

“Science fiction and fantasy, is thank goodness, not ‘serious fiction’ (whatever that is). The troubled, gloomy librarian does, of course, occur in speculative fiction, but librarians are also characterized in many other ways.”

She explores libraries and librarians in sci-fi and fantasy works that have been published with the exception of the stories in this collection. She explores Borges’s Library of Babel, The Library of Dream in Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series The Sandman, to Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library Novels, Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom Series, and even projections of future libraries like in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, to give just a few examples. I was so intrigued that for the first time, a discussion of librarians explored literature that entertained possibilities rather than capturing stereotypes. Guran provided me with a bibliography of the many books I must read with a library at its core (added to my TBR).

I must admit that I read the Ray Bradbury story “Exchange” with a lot of passion—particularly since Bradbury is famously known for having been made a writer by the public library. He said in an interview with Sam Weller:

“I graduated from the library when I was twenty-eight years old. So that’s why I’m here tonight—because I believe in libraries. They’re more important than universities. They’re more important than colleges. Libraries are the center of our lives.”

My favourite story in this anthology however is “In the House of the Seven Librarians” by Ellen Kloges. It’s about a small child who is left at the doorstep of a library where seven librarians ‘live.’ Library space and time are explored in a way I have not yet encountered in literature. These are just a few lines that stayed with me:

“Librarians are guardians of books. They help others along their paths, offering keys to help unlock the doors of knowledge.”

“knowledge is not static; information must flow in order to live.”

“Books were small comfort once the lights were out, and their hard, sharp corners made them awkward companions under the covers.”

“time had become quite flexible inside the Library. (This is true of most places with interesting books. Sit down to read for twenty minutes, and suddenly it’s dark, with no clue as to where the hours have gone.)

I recommend this book to everyone, particularly librarians, people who love libraries and book descriptions, and lovers of science fiction and fantasy. This book will be published on August 15, 2017  and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon. Many thanks to Diamond Book Distributors and Prime Books for sending me and ARC.

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.


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:

Up Against Beyond | Poetry | Review

“Holt has little interest in plain speech that is not, simultaneously, slippery. One thinks one has the meaning, the image, of the verse, and then it is gone — as fleeting as the moment of reading.” – George Elliott Clarke

34713994Jason Holt is a Canadian poet who lives in Nova Scotia and teaches at Acadia University. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Western University in 1998. His books include Blindsight and the Nature of Consciousness, which was shortlisted for the 2005 CPA Book Prize and various academic works like Leonard Cohen and Philosophy, as well as Philosophy of Sport—a topic he teaches at Acadia in the Kinesiology department. His full academic bibliography can be found here. Up Against Beyond includes poetry selected from his six previous poetry book. This collection includes poems ranging from 1994 to 2017.  His use of language in his work Inversed (2014) received praise from Toronto’s poet Laureate George Elliott Clarke—one of my favourite professors at the University of Toronto—in an article titled “Linguistic Masquerades to Savour.”

Up Against Beyond, as a collection, contains a total of 121 poems and is divided in eight sections.

  1. (1994) Poems selected from Fine in Kafka’s Burrow
  2. (1999) from Memos to No One
  3. (2003) from A Hair’s Breadth of Abandon
  4. (2005) from Relics from an Open Vault
  5. (2009) from Longstern Poems
  6. (2012) from “A Brace of Sonnets”
  7. (2014) from Inversed
  8. New Poems

Holt’s poetry is hyper-self-aware and  playful with an intense sense of humour. For instance, the first new poem listed in section eight starts with:

“this is a poem/ I don’t/ title my poems/ not because/ I’m pretentious/ although/ I am pretentious…”

It’s the kind of poem that knows exactly what the reader expects to find from a Ph.D. University professor, and yet, it turns it on its head making fun of itself before the reader gets a chance to. Other poems sound like a proverb: “too many/ books/ Spoil/The prof” where the reader is left alone wondering what to make of it.

However, many of his other poems are so memorable and quotable told in a more sombre and philosophical tone, with the elegance one expects from a poet. Holt rewards readers and gives them the poetry they deserve. One of my favourite poems is this one (from which the title of the collection is derived):

“the only place to go

is up against beyond

what other challenge worthy

what other meaning

less than war

more than game

between covers of book or bed”

Most of Holt’s poetry is brief. The one proverb-like being indicative of that as it is in itself a single poem, alone on the page and each individual line is often one or two words with few exceptions. Clarke referred to Holt’s poems as “whimsical parades of terms and phrases” where one must puzzle his/her way through as a reader, akin to figuring out a Rubik’s cube, which is perhaps the best attitude to have, entering this collection.

What I particularly enjoyed about this collection is that excerpts are taken from the poet’s life spanning 23 years. We get to see a poet in various moods, and various spaces, using language as a tool for each occasion. I would recommend this work for anyone interested in reading new poetic voices and particularly those who are open to experimental poems. This collection also has a brief trailer on YouTube.

Many thanks to Anaphora Literary Press and Anna Faktorovich for sending me an ARC for early review. This poetry collection will be published on July 20, 2017 and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon.

Travels with Charley | Review and Notes

“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch…I fear the disease is incurable.”


Front Cover of Edition I read

Have you ever thought “I love Steinbeck! I wish I could hang out with him!” If you have, then: READ. THIS. BOOK. This journal/travelogue work is John Steinbeck’s account of his travels across the United States in the 1960s, with his dog Charley, in a trailer that he names the Rocinante (after Don Quixote’s horse). He describes what he sees, records interactions with different people he meets on the way, and this book is filled with reflective notes on what he thought of certain situation and how they relate to other instances in life or giving his opinion on his immediate reaction. There are a few literary references, and there instances of simple humour (i.e. getting stopped at the Canadian border for “dog reasons”).

Screen shot 2013-02-24 at 6.26.08 AM
Steinbeck and Charley

I kept thinking that if anyone other than Steinbeck wrote the same travelogue it wouldn’t be that interesting. Although it’s not as high of a thrill as later written travelogues which are now quite popular, this book is interesting BECAUSE it’s Steinbeck. It seems a lot more relaxed than reading Krakauer’s Into The Wild for instance, or Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys travel literature, travelogues, journals/diaries, and those who love Steinbeck and his work because in the end it just feels like you’re hanging out with him and his dog. Interestingly enough, in 2014 Bill Steigerwald dedicated a lot of time to “exposing” Steinbeck as a fraud for this book and labelled this travelogue as a “fictionalized non-fiction” in his book Dogging Steinbeck. He elaborates on his issues with Steinbeck’s work in his blog.


Regardless, I enjoyed Steinbeck’s work and I thought I would share with you some of my favourite lines:

We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us (page 4)

I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation—a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something (page 10)

It was like starting to write a novel. When I face the desolate impossibility of writing fie hundred pages a sick sense of failure falls on me and I know I can never do it. This happens every time. then gradually I write one page and then another. One day’s work is all I can permit myself to contemplate and I eliminate the possibility of ever finishing (page 23)

Humans had perhaps a million years to get used to fire as a thing and as an idea. Between the time a man got his fingers burned on a lighting-struck tree until another man carried some inside a cave and found it kept him warm, maybe a hundred thousand years, and from there to the blast furnaces of Detroit – how long?…for man has to have feelings and then words before he can come close to thought and, in the past at least, that has taken a long time (page 32)

I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found (page 70)

Edition of book I read is the Bantam Pathfinder Edition and Viking Press, 1961.