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50 Book Check-In and Catch-Up

challI haven’t written for a bit but I have been reading, and I’m starting to have some feelings affecting my overall disposition and attitude towards books. I had my Goodreads goal set at 100. I’m now at 56, and I am sure I’ll reach 100 anyway, but numbers in general really stress me out. I like numbers at the end of a year so I can see what I liked, or what I picked up, but while I’m in the process they are overwhelming. There is an undeniable pressure on two accounts: the first is that I MUST reach that 100 goal, and the second is the rating. It’s a little complicated but sometimes I really enjoy a book, or it stays with me for a particular reason, but I wouldn’t consider it great literature. At the same time, others tackle extremely difficult subjects and important conversations must be had around them, but again, I wouldn’t consider it amazing. An idea worth a sentence or two stands out and I still remember it but I don’t know if I would read it again. I decided to set my count on Goodreads to “52” as if to say one book per week just so I don’t have to worry about it anymore, and from now on to review books without assigning them a rating on Goodreads UNLESS it is a 5 star-rating, or if it made me so mad I had to give it a low rating to emphasize how bad it was (rarely happens). I also need to keep my book-buying habit in check and spend less. I will try to focus on books I have, and use the library more. I am certainly doing better than last year, but it still requires some improvement. The majority of books however fall under the 2-4.5 ratings and the pros and cons add and take away on an individual level. I also learned something about myself and a particular pet-peeve I have lately which is this:

  • Books (normally culture-based or gender-based) that have a topic but instead end up being an autobiography of the author (who is often not of interest to me), or a series of people’s experiences. These kinds of books are disguised as “non-fiction” but at the end you learn nothing except for one person’s experience of life, which most certainly cannot be replicated. This same thing often results in people trying to have academic or non-biased conversations around a topic and suddenly attach their personal experience with this topic which now skews the topic in their favour because attacking their stance, means personally attack their experience. I am going to use an example to where a book failed and one succeeded. First you have books like Spinster by Kate Bolick. It is a cultural non-fiction book meant to discusses spinsterhood (by choice or not). Instead we get really large portions of Bolick’s life story and it turns into an autobiography using spinsterhood as a frame while mainly discussing her dating history and upbringing, and relationship with her mother. Then you have books like The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains by Thomas W. Laqueur. The book follows burial practices from various cultures, using examples from each, ties it all together around geography, architecture etc. and how it affects us on a human level. At no point is there a long story about all the people in Laqueur’s life and how he coped with death etc. Turning a cultural topic into an autobiography IS NOT cool (to me). Others might like it, but that’s not how I read.
  • “Self-Help” books that recycle everything from other self-help books but pretending that they’re original. This to me is a sign that the author didn’t read all that much (especially if they think they’re original). Sometimes it’s interesting to see how many people reach the same conclusions, but is it worth printing out so many copies and flooding the market and planet with hundreds of these?
  • Books about other books that again have hardly any analysis or insight but are completely one-sided and irrelevant to anyone else. Example: Dear Fahrenheit 451

9902278This has left me generally unenthusiastic about a big chunk of the books I read this year (and some from last year). Learning that will help me make better selections in the future, because obviously I’m at fault for picking these up. So here’s a list of books that I haven’t talked about in much detail but have been reading. A detailed post about Alan Watts will follow, and a full review of the Robertson Davies Cornish Trilogy. As for the rest, there is either nothing I can really criticize like in Naomi Morgenstern’s book and Not That Bad edited by Roxanne Gay, or the rest which didn’t have much of an impact on me but were “just okay.”

  1. The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater by Alanna Okun.—young woman discusses her passion which is knitting. She weaves in parts of her life, the people in her life who have passed away and how knitting helps her cope with many things. It’s a book about art mixed with life. The topic being so micro-focused made it all work out.
  2. The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai—book about a 26-year-old librarian who has a favourite young patron who is stuck in a religious family and is homosexual. She takes it upon herself to save him. Fictional work. The main character is weirdly a lot like me so it was nice to read from a very personal self-invested perspective.
  3. Lady Killers Tori Telfer—book about women serial killers. It hopped back and forth between: look how baddass this woman was! and: even when they kill women aren’t taken seriously, like they get hardly any jail time and get silly nicknames instead of cool ones like Jack the Ripper. Sometimes the wording made it sound like certain serial killers plead insanity as a cover-up…but people who murder repeatedly are mentally ill. There were weird lines where the author uses mental illness as an excuse for murder, or as if the murderers chose it to get away from real jail, and you’re never quite sure what the author thinks it’s right or wrong.
  4. Not That Bad edited by Roxanne Gay: individual accounts of rape and how it affects women differently and all the different ways rape exists. This is extremely difficult to read because of the subject matter, and it opens an important conversation.
  5. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson: although it recycles many other philosophies it words it in a ‘bro-ish’ way for millennials using present-day examples and targeting out present-day anxieties. It was like an energy shot. Very quick, I liked the audiobook way better, because TONE is everything with this book.
  6. The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts—I’m going through an Alan Watts addiction phase right now. I will elaborate on him further. He is a philosopher who brings together Eastern Philosophy with Western Religion/Theology. He is in conversation with Buddhism, and the works of Carl Jung as well as several others. He’s currently my favourite person.
  7. The Wild Child: Intensive Parenting and Posthumanist Ethics by Naomi Morgenstern: this is an academic book that just got released looking at parenting and engages with several works like Room by Emma Donoghue, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Lioner Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, and a film called Prisoners. It is extremely well thought out and well-written, but again this is an academic work. The introduction alone engages with the works of Derrida, Philip Aries, and several other takes on childhood and child-bearing (particularly regarding scientific involvement) and Freudian psychoanalysis.
  8. The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies: book one of the Cornish Trilogy, follows a group of eccentric academics in Toronto following the death of Arthur Cornish who was a really interesting art and manuscript collector. It involves a lot of wit. Reading this is like reading a rap battle between Winston Churchill and Oscar Wilde.
  9. Shrill by Lindy West: Lindy West’s account and experience of being overweight, being a feminist, and how she exists or sees herself in mainstream media.
  10. Vampires: Afield Guide to Creatures that Stalk the Night by Bob Curran: a very short book on Vampires not going into much depth on any particular subject.
  11. Cities in Flight by James Blish: science fiction work where science is the new religion. Buddy-read this with a few people and everyone had a hard time with how dated and verbose this book was.
  12. Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson: the person who started the Zero-waste movement shares her experience with being Zero-waste when she is also a mother, fully employed, and applies this to her entire home with all her family memebers, showing people it is possible to live in the city and apply the Zero Waste Lifestyle.
  13. Starve Better—Nick Mamatas: explains the difficulties with writing, particularly science fiction and trying to make a living. He focuses much more on short stories and the craft of short stories, and/or the difficulties of selling short fiction
  14. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. A fictional work about a “famous” actress based on the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and other women from the good Hollywood years, being interviewed by a young journalist.

There were others that had no effect on me which I haven’t mentioned, but here’s a full account of what I read this year if it’s of interest.

WHAT I’M CURRENTLY READING 

  • Book II of the Cornish Trilogy by Robertson Davies called What’s Bred in the Bone
  • Listening to Out of Your Mind by Alan Watts on Audible
  • Buddy-reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry with James Chatham

 

 

What I plan to Do from Now On:

  • No more Goodreads Ratings, and ignore the count trackerpci
  • No more reading cultural/gender-studies books. Either scientific or historical non-fiction, or fiction.
  • Read better fictional works that have been around for a while and I know they are worth investing time in
  • Three Reviews will come soon including: Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley, The People’s Republic of Everything by Nick Mamatas, and At the Teahouse Cafe: Essays from the Middle Kingdom by Isham Cook.

The Geek Feminist Revolution

26114477In anticipation for the soon-to-be-published Apocalypse Nyx I thought I’d take some time and get to know Kameron Hurley (or at least her non-fictional voice). I was thrilled to see that The Geek Feminist Revolution has been appreciated by many of my bookish friends and I am no exception. I read a few feminist texts this year, and found some to be slightly repetitive. I find it interesting that a non-fictional work about a topic is greatly affected by who has written it. If another had written this exact same book I may have been annoyed at the biographical bits. However, learning about Hurley’s journey to becoming a (beloved and respected) science-fiction writer against all odds has been worth the read. It also helps to know that she won to Hugo awards. One for Best Related Work (2013), for her essay “‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative,” and the second for Best Fan Writer (2014). In addition she has published several books in the Bel Dame Apocrypha, respectively God’s War (2010), Infidel (2011), and Rapture (2012),  and the Worldbreakar Saga: The Mirror Empire (2014), Empire Ascendant (2015), and The Broken Heavens (2017) as well as lots of short fiction published across several online platforms, magazines, and anthologies.

Hurley begins by telling readers of her journey and struggle as a young writer in her teens and early 20s facing rejection after rejection in the writing industry. At the same time there was a rise of women speaking up in all fields and standing their ground. A lot of times Hurley reinforces some of the points Roxanne Gay made in her books and adds to them. She is in many ways in conversation with Gay, and mentions Gay’s work several times. What I appreciated about Hurley’s work was the way she tackled different aspects of what a ‘Geek’ feminist must endure, particularly in the Science Fiction/Fantasy world. She takes us on a journey through the history of the Hugos, the many excuses made by the crowds on behalf of successful men, the ridiculous things authors like Harlan Ellison, and Theodore Beale have said in public spaces about other writers. For instance, finding out that anyone could possibly dislike N.K. Jemisin was already a shock to me, but finding out that someone publicly wrote that she was a ‘half-savage’ and was still read and supported by readers and the industry made me lose some of the faith I had in bookish people. And that’s just it, Hurley takes on the ‘Geek’ feminist dilemma. We’re supposed to be surrounded by the educated folk, the people who know better than to be racist, and sexist. And yet… The back-end drama of the Hugos and the Sci-Fi industry is all laid bare by Hurley here and she backs every single assertion with examples, and supportive evidence. For instance, she looks at the way we look at male heroes versus female heroes from varying angles, and even relates the story of Alice Sheldon being discovered as James Tiptree Jr, pointing out that Robert Silverberg famously said of Tiptree, “it has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.”

Hurley writes:

I wasn’t the only one often confused by society’s expectations versus what I actually wanted.

Traits we love in male heroes-their complexity, their confidence, their occasional bouts of selfish whim—become, in female heroes, marks of the dreaded ‘unlikable character.’

Anything is possible But to make it possible, we must first acknowledge that none of it is normal.

Hurley also takes on Gamergate and how it looks like from the outside. And how/why did so many young men from relatively cultured and well-off places think that the appropriate response to a heartbreak/rejection/criticism of consumed media had to be met with rage, violence, and threats? Hurley writes:

“when you are promised the world and the world says it doesn’t want you, you’re left flailing and lashing out, and that’s what these guys did.”

Hurley also elaborates on her weight being a secondary barrier for her as a writer and in the way she is accepted or judged in the first seconds of meeting, or being seen in a conference, a reading, or an online video platform. She writes:

“I’d be judged on whether or not I had the ‘discipline’ to take up less space in the world.”

Her bottom line to everything however is persistence. She writes about persistence a lot:

“Persistence isn’t the end of the road, after all. Persistence is the game. The narrative that wins is the one that persists the longest, in the face of overwhelming odds…Persistence is the name of the road.”

Persistence in the name of oppression, persistence in getting your work published, persistence, persistence, persistence.

Lastly, I’ll leave you with this line that Hurley quotes from Ursula K. Le Guin, which I think is a good summary of what Hurley conveys in this work successfully:

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words”

This work certainly speaks to the here and now. It reflects present day, Western anxieties. I liked that Hurley went for the specific niche “Geek” feminist and took on the SFF world, rather than trying to encompass everything else. Whenever she zooms out of the ‘geek’ circle, she speaks of other issues in her personal experience, and because of who she is and what she has achieved, these experiences are relevant and interesting.

 

Dead Mountain | The Dyatlov Pass

17557470 (1) “an unknown compelling force should be considered the cause of the hikers’ deaths” – Lev Ivanov

On January 23, 1959 nine young, experienced hikers who loved adventure went on a passage near the elevations of what was named “Dead Mountain” in the Ural Mountains. The team actually had 10 hikers, one who happened to be forced to return due to his health on February 2nd. On the 12th of February when the team did not return as expected, a rescue team was sent out to retrieve them. When the rescue team found all 9 corpses, they found the bodies in a very odd situation. Some of the bodies were completely stripped down, one of the young women was missing her tongue, and one body was highly radioactive. The team leader’s name was Igor Dyatlov (1936-1959) and so the name “The Dyatlov Pass” was used when referring to the mystery surrounding the young hikers. I watched a mini-documentary on YouTube as well as one of Caitlin Doughty’s Morbid Mystery videos on this topic, and I wanted to learn more. I picked up this book by Donnie Eichar published in 2013 by First Chronicle Books and I was quite delighted in the amount of passion and research that Eichar conducted on this topic. He left the United States to not only investigate what tangible information can be pieced together about this mystery, but he also wanted to speak to the one ‘survivor’ Yuri Yudin, as well as family and friends of the nine deceased hikers. Eichar pieces together this mystery and almost allows readers to figure it out alone, by presenting the facts.

dyatlov-011

Rescue Team finds the tent

Eichar interviews everyone possible, he reads the hikers’ diary which was logged by one of the young women to track their journey, he looks at the forensic analysis, and tries to give as well-rounded a character analysis of each of the hikers from what could have been known about them. Keeping in mind that this was in pre-social media and pre-internet era, and these hikers were only university students, it truly is impressive how much information Eichar was able to piece together. He also had a Russian-English translator with him to help with each one of the interviews, and tangible information. At the end of the book he offers two timelines: the hikers’ timeline as he understands it day by day, and the rescue team’s timeline. He also offers a re-imagining  or “recreation” of February 1, and the early morning hours of February 2nd, using the diary entries, weather reports, and expert scientific opinion on what he believes really happened that night.

There is a lot to unpack from this mystery and I think Eichar does a wonderful job. I think telling too much of what I learned would be, in a way, spoiling the book, if you are interested in reading it. I personally found it scarier than most fictional horror books. Some of the siblings describe the state of the corpses when they saw them, and four corpses were so mutilated they had to be in a closed casket for the funeral procession. If description of such things make you feel uncomfortable, perhaps just watch one of the two videos I mentioned and linked above.

If you like reading Jon Kakauer’s books you would probably enjoy this one (both scared me a lot). It’s journalistic and research-based, but it’s also surrounding a real story with adventure, and nature in it. I thought it was well-written and it kept my attention the whole time. I also appreciated all the attached images, and maps, and the way it was structured. I think as of right now, this is perhaps the most we can ever know about the Dyatlov Pass.

In 2013 an adaptation loosely based on this tragedy (Devil’s Pass) came out featuring a very “science fiction meets horror” take on the story. It really helps to have so many perspectives on this hike and be able to appreciate the horrors of a true story.

5tDJou6

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.

Shakespeare Saved My Life | Review

14296907Shakespeare Saved My Life by Laura Bates is a re-read for me. This book made me take down lots of notes and had me wondering if I should start marking these passages and keep them safe on an online forum/reading journal. Laura Bates is a Shakespeare professor who teaches at Indiana State University. She entered a correctional facility and started a Shakespeare reading club with inmates. According to her introduction, what led her to this activity, was reading an academic paper from a famous literary scholar, who asserted that Shakespeare’s play Macbeth represented “the ipso facto valorization of transgression.” She set out to prove that “real-life transgressors would disagree.”

Bates starts off by offering inmates the soliloquy of Richard II in prison. She then asks for a written analysis. Depending on what people write, she either continues to work with them, or steps aside.  Some would participate, others would not. Over the years Shakespeare had an influence on some inmates, but none struck so hard a cord as Larry Newton. At first I thought this book focused too much on this one person but then I realized that the book is a memoir written about a person who couldn’t write it himself. I was very intrigued by what choices Bates made regarding the material she started with, and what she focused on, but I was even more interested in what Newton did with the contents of Shakespeare’s works. I got so immersed in his words that many times I forgot that he is someone who would be labelled as extremely dangerous in our society. This book made me think a lot about rehabilitation, and what it means to have committed a crime in the past, incapable to prove that you have grown as a person. I find that readers can often analyze characters on paper in all their complexity but label real humans in society so fast without giving them a chance.

I’ll give an example of something that came out of the reading group from Laura Bates and the inmates. The topic was Macbeth. I studied Macbeth many times in school and it’s one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. In class discussions, we always talk about Macbeth “becoming” a murderer and changing drastically, doing things he was never okay with before encountering the witches. But the inmates say:

“Macbeth was a killer before, they [Duncan and the society] made him into one. He was a soldier.” Before Macbeth was still killing but it was this ‘othered’ enemy, not his best friends. That was the only difference. They also paid close attention to how he killed Duncan:

 “…if Macbeth wanted to kill Duncan in the most efficient, most merciful manner, he would stab him once, through the heart…but he uses two daggers…that’s butchering”

Newton notes that in his moment of guilt Macbeth sees the dagger and the act, not the person. He relates to Macbeth and relates his crimes, explaining how he too sees the act rather than the victim, every time he thinks of it. Then there was an insight on Hamlet, which Newton calls the “prison of expectation”

“Hamlet is chasing honor for his family’s name because that is what was expected of him…His father has returned from the dead not to tell Hamlet how much he loved him, not to apologize for all the times that he worked late. He returned to make Hamlet revenge his death.”

These are just two examples of literary analysis that completely escaped me and my fellow busy students in university. Newton had only Shakespeare to work with. He had time, silence, and could focus on this one thing, while contemplating that he is never getting out, and might never discuss this with anyone else other than Ms. Bates. Many of Shakespeare’s characters are in a form of prison, whether literal or metaphorical, and most are murderers. Newton can understand all those thoughts much better than any one student in first year undergrad can even imagine. I wonder if Newton had had a richer education prior to the crime, how much would his thoughts have differed? If instead of Larry Newton it had been Dostoevsky post-solitary confinement with a larger literary corpus to compare, and philosophers to allude to, how would that differ to my reading experience of this book or to Laura Bates’s discussions?

I enjoyed the ways in which Newton almost looks down on Othello for being unable to see his faults. Newton says:

“no one can make you be anything that is not already you…accepting responsibility for one’s actions is an essential first step toward rehabilitation.”

This book covers the history of Larry Newton, the context upon which Ms. Bates arrives, some problems with the prison system, and discussions on several Shakespeare plays. There are moments when Bates compares what students at the university produce from the same play to what Newton would write behind bars. I found myself almost annoyed, as if I could see the hungover student who wasn’t reflecting, or thinking hard enough on these topics, and remembered that I too was one of them.

There are too many lines in this book that are absolutely breathtaking and notes I’d like to keep, so I created a PDF with some of my favourite quotations. Don’t worry, it’s only one page. I recommend this book if you love Shakespeare and want to learn more about one person, namely Larry Newton, and his reading experience behind bars after spending ten years in solitary confinement. I will leave you with this line from Newton if you don’t get a chance to look at the PDF:

“It is an absolute magic, and the magic has little with what Shakespeare has to say. You can memorize every cool quote and be as clueless as you were before reading. So it is not Shakespeare’s offering that invokes this evolution. The secret, the magic, is YOU! Shakespeare has created an environment that allows for genuine development…Shakespeare is simply an environment that allows us to evolve without the influence of everyone else telling us what we should evolve into. Shakespeare offers a freedom from those prisons! Your mind will begin shaking the residue of other people’s ideas and begin developing understandings that are genuinely yours!…you have nothing to lose but the parts of you that do not belong anyhow”