essays

The People’s Republic of Everything

39286411Earlier this year I read Nick Mamatas’s essay collection Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horror of the Writing Life. The non-fictional work covered the skill and resilience involved in producing a successful and ‘sell-able’ short story as a freelance writer without waiting for divine inspiration. I immediately requested an ARC from Tachyon when I heard that The People’s Republic of Everything will be published this year. This collection includes fifteen short stories involving a spectrum of science fiction, horror, political satire, and atmospheric settings. Mamatas is very Lovecraftian in his writing style, a presence felt even in his non-fiction. He’s written seven novels and has been nominated for the Hugo, Locus, Wold Fantasy, Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and International Horror Guild Awards.

This collection incorporates a range of stories written over the last ten years. I enjoyed that each story is followed up by Mamatas elaborating on how the story was written, but most importantly, the ever-frequently-asked question: where do your ideas come from? I really enjoyed this aspect because at times short stories in the speculative genre that cross over can be so odd I’m not sure I know what to think of them. Mamatas explains how he came up with the idea and what he was trying to achieve for each one of these short stories. Two stories in this volume are about collecting correspondence to create a personality-emulator. Mamatas writes after “Walking with a Ghost” that he was fascinated by the friendship and correspondence between Jack Kerouac and H.P. Lovecraft and their cult following, and the idea that one can gather enough data on a person’s way of addressing to be able to emulate ‘personhood.’ Yes, there is an AI Lovecraft in this collection. The second story follows a Marx and Engels partnership in the style of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson—told in a steampunk style. These are just two examples of the variety that can be found in this collection. In the middle there are some that struck a chord with me, particularly “Tom Silex, Spirit-Smasher” and “The Phylactery”–mainly because there was something very personal to them with a touch of humanity and interesting characters. There are a few stories published here for the first time for which even Mamatas has no further comments. Several of his stories focus on Communism and politics, and concludes with a novella (what used to be a screenplay) about the George W.H. Bush era and the invasion of Iraq which was picked up for a film and then dropped (but we get to enjoy it in novella format).

I have to say, I learned a lot of new terminology in this collection. For one, I never heard of dieselpunk before which according to a Google search is: “a genre similar to steampunk that combines the aesthetics of the diesel-based technology of the interwar period through to the 1950s with retro-futuristic technology and postmodern sensibilities,” or as Mamatas puts it “like steampunk, but greasier and more efficient.” Mamatas extracts the essence of several sub-genres and cult followings that are in themselves so niche, obscure, and esoteric and creates a genre that is uniquely him. Mamatas quite recently came out to say that he was done writing genre fiction, but I don’t think he has a genre to which his writing belongs. Kerouac’s language, Lovecraft’s atmosphere, and Bukowski’s coarseness are already sub-groups in larger literary circles where such few people have heard of them, read them (enough to create a fandom). But then, Mamatas takes elements from each and incorporates them in a writing style that is also a sub-genre of a sub-genre like: dieselpunk, cyberpunk, etc. Take all that and place it in an urbuan fantasy setting, and you got yourself a Nick Mamatas short story. See!? Not very easy to define.

I liked his writing style. On a sentence-level Mamatas in not pretentious nor exclusionary. His fiction is accessible if you want to be taken into the dark corners of niche-speculative fiction. I enjoyed them very much, and like every short story collection there will be a mixture of what works and what doesn’t on an individual level.

This collection has been announced to be published on September 8, 2018.

What Makes This Book so Great

17910076What Makes This Book So Great is a series of reflections and essays written by Jo Walton for Tor.com between 2008 and 2011. There are several essays where she offers her opinion and personal experience on a particular topic in a frank, and personalized way. The other essays however are specific things Walton wishes to discuss from her reading experience of particular books. They are not quite reviews, rather, they are snippets of what worked or didn’t work in a book or series for her (as a reader). She states in the introduction:

“there’s no impersonality here, no attempt at objectivity. These are my thoughts and opinions, for what they’re worth, my likes and dislikes, my quirks and prejudices and enthusiasms”

For the most part I think she has certainly achieved what she set out to accomplish with this collection. There are three essays that caught my attention, which I’d like to discuss at length here. The rest of the essays just made my TBR longer with about five new long series, and a dozen other individual novels.  I loved the ways Walton describes how she reads when she is cozy, or down, or sick, and how comforting is to be in the company of a great book that seeks only to entertain and be fun.

In the very first essay Walton takes a stand for ‘re-reading’ in favour of only reading new books at all times. There are books one would like to read, or likes the idea of knowing its contents, but not necessarily willing to put hours into reading the material itself. Certain histories and political books fall into this category for Walton, and others alike (myself included). This topic is reoccurring through the collection and becomes apparent in the ways Walton describes certain long series. She writes:

“There are readers and re-readers…when I re-read, I know what I’m getting. It’s like revisiting an old friend. An unread book holds wonderful unknown promise, but also threatens disappointment…upon a re-read one is not surprised…you have more time to pay attention to the characters.”

The second essay that caught my attention is one where Walton discusses Speculative Fiction as it stand in opposition to the mainstream. She writes:

 “when mainstream writers come to write SF, it’s normally the case that they don’t understand the idioms of SF, the things we do when we (SF readers) read SF…the mainstream writers know how to do all the basic writing stuff, stories and characters and all of that, sometimes they know how to do that really well. They really want to write SF…but they don’t know how SF works…they explain too much of the wrong things and not enough of the right things…In a science fiction novel, the world is a character, and often the most important character. In a mainstream novel, the world is our world and the characters are in the world. In a mainstream novel trying to be SF, this gets peculiar and can make the reading experience uneven”

I think this topic gave me pause, for two reasons. The first is that now I think the SFF field has its own sub-genres and its own version of the mainstream. For instance, I consider books like N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season to be so mainstream, because on Booktube everyone talks about it (or has in the past) particularly in the Science Fiction and Fantasy channels. It’s hard to keep in perspective how small this group is overall, and how within society avid readers (10+ books per month) are a small subgroup. I now pride myself on knowing the most obscure texts rather than the mainstream, and yet ‘mainstream’ Science Fiction, is not recognizable by the average person (or reader) as it is a subgenre of a subgenre (speculative). It sort of reminded me of the Jeffrey Eugenides quote from The Marriage Plot:

“College wasn’t like the real world. In the real world people dropped names based on their renown. In college, people dropped names based on their obscurity.”

Walton also made me me reflect on the ways I interact with Science Fiction, and how, compared to many other SFF readers I’m still very much a beginner. This language Walton refers to with technicalities, and knowing what needs explaining and what doesn’t is at the beginning very excluding to a beginner. When I approached this topic I felt like there was a group of smart people, a nerdy and intellectual crowd, and they ALSO told me that I can’t sit with them. It’s almost like they’ve made up an entirely new vocabulary telling the ‘norm cool kids’ or the ‘belonging to no group’ people like me: NO, YOU can’t hang out with us. It’s like being rejected by every group on the social spectrum.

In chapter 95 “SF reading protocols” Walton is in communication with Samuel R. Delany’s nonfiction works, particularly when he was attaching a vocabulary to Science Fiction in 1977 when the field was still finding its defining characteristics. She points out how other genres are defined by their tropes, i.e. romance is two people finding each other, mystery has clues, etc. But

“SF not defined by tropes. Samuel Delany suggested that rather than trying to define science fiction it’s more interesting to describe it, and when describing it, it’s more interesting to draw a broad circle around what everyone agrees is SF than to quibble about the edge conditions…look at the way people read it—those of us who read it have built up a set of skills for reading SF which let us enjoy it, where people who don’t have this approach to reading are left confused.”

Walton also considers what leaves a ‘friend’ who borrows a Sci-Fi book and returns it claiming ‘I didn’t get it’ say that they ‘don’t get it.’ They are not stupid, and they can read sentences. But Walton states that Modern Science Fiction assumes you already know how to interpret its language and:

 “It’s just that part of the fun of science fiction happens in your head, and their head isn’t having fun, it’s finding it hard work to keep up.”

The last essay (and its alluring title) is the main reason I checked this book out in the first place. The topic is “Literary criticism vs. talking about books.” All I’ve ever wanted to do: talk about books! I want to talk about the books I love, and the ones I hate, and sometimes I simply have an emotional reaction, whereas in formal discussion people want a more objective, distant analysis, which makes things very difficult. In undergrad I joined ‘writing groups,’ ‘poetry clubs,’ and all kinds of groups that weren’t quite what I wanted. They all required of me something different from pouring out my heart and soul on what a book meant to me. The way I’ve been using this platform for instance, is mainly me trying to introduce everything I’ve highlighted in a text so I can keep all the quotations I loved from a book in one place. Some turn into reviews, others just into a log of quotations, and most somewhere in-between–but at no point would I call myself a critic, even when I draw lines of comparison between other texts or schools of thought (at times). Walton writes:

“Critics are in dialogue with the text but also in dialogue with each other…I resist the term because critics are supposed to be impersonal and detached, they’re not supposed to burble about how much they love books and how they cried on the train. Most of all I resist because I hate the way that necessary detachment and objectivity seem to suck the life and the joy of reading out of the books critics talk about.”

There’s also the matter of ‘spoilers.’ Often academics go to the core of what they want to discuss in order to have a frame for their greater philosophical or historical point, that they completely forget that some people might have not read the book. The way SF assumes you know the terminology, academics assume you have read every book they refer to. Walton mentioned how a footnote from a Penguin classic of a Victorian book about three chapters in spoiled the ending of the book. This doesn’t happen in bookish circles (like on Booktube, Book Blogs, or just gatherings of bookish friends) because we are quite cautious of spoilers.

“In academia spoiler warnings are fannish and embarrassing….re-reading is forever, but you can only have the experience of reading a book for the first time once.”

The fact that a footnote, or an academic/critic can ruin someone’s first reading experience of a text is devastating, and I have a feeling this happened for lots of people who took literature courses in University, carefully choosing courses they loved, and subsequently having those books ruined for them. Finally I loved the ways Walton distinguishes herself from critics and puts herself in the category of people who love to read and just to talk about books. She writes:

“I’m not standing on a mountain peak holding them at arm’s length and issuing Olympian pronouncements about them…the lines of respectability in the SFF world, or that if something is studied it ought not to be fun, and you can only have fun with certain books…I feel as if I’m not really a grown-up critic. And I don’t want to be. It’s too much of a responsibility and not enough fun”

Yes!

Feel Free by Zadie Smith | Review

imagesFeel Free is Zadie Smith’s most recent collection of essays published by Penguin Press. The collection as a whole feels as if Smith has poked her head out of her isolated writing chamber and is contributing to ongoing conversations. Because these essays have been written over the course of a few years, and previously published individually (for instance one is a film review of The Social Network) some come across as dated, but their essence is still ever-present and relevant. Almost every essay in here either reminded me of another essay I have read, or another speaker I heard, but of course, Smith has an elegant style, and contributes a new perspective. Some of the essays are reviews of books and movies, and her reaction to musicians like David Bowie, or Prince, or Billie Holiday. In all honesty, the musical bits were the least interesting to me. I think that if I had a chance to have a one-on-one conversation with one of my favourite authors, their musical tastes and opinions on musicians wouldn’t be of interest to me. However, Zadie Smith’s recent fictional work Swing Time is about music, and dance, and I can see that for her, this is a very important topic, so I understand why these essays are included. In others, she offers her opinion on topics that are ongoing debates like: do we need libraries? Is Facebook good for us? In the third and last category, if I had to group them, she offers answers to more personal questions relating to her own private experience when it comes to writing, journaling, ideas, and other Smith-specific details.

I would like to unpack a few of my favourite essays in this collection and record what was interesting (to me).

The first essay in the collection “Northwest London Blues” is on the importance of Willesden Library (1894) and Willesden Green Library Centre (1989), which is sprinkled with Smith’s opinions on libraries in general: whether they are still relevant, and what is their role in an individual’s life.

She writes that even though there is a kind of obsolescence to the library as we once knew it, due to the Internet’s all-encompassing information powers, she still sees a need for the space:

“Each morning I struggle to find a seat in the packed university library in which I write this, despite the fact that every single student in here could be at home in front of their MacBook browsing Google Books.”

“Libraries are not failing ‘because they are libraries.’ Neglected libraries get neglected, and this cycle, in time, provides the excuse to close them. Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay.”

“It’s not just a matter of free books. A library is a different kind of social reality (of the three-dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal.”

Perhaps I’ve read more on libraries than most people, but to me Zadie Smith is in conversation with Neil Gaiman’s essay “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming“ and Ray Oldenburg’s essay on “The Third Place” in his book The Great Good Place (All three essays worth your time).

The second essay in Feel Free that got my attention was “Life-Writing” in which Smith explores her relationship with journaling and keeping a personal diary.  Though the essay was quite brief, Smith explains her difficulties with keeping a journal. She writes about the ways in which intimate details of her romantic encounters feel far too personal and exposing, and how the Judy Blume character voice made her feel like she had homework, and never felt genuine. She writes:

“The dishonestly of diary-writing—this voice you put on for supposedly no one but yourself—I found that idea so depressing. I feel that life has too much artifice in it anyway without making a pretty pattern of your own most intimate thoughts.”

She then tried imitating authors like Virginia Woolf who recorded only literary happenings, which according to Smith lasted only one day because a single meeting with Jeffrey Eugenides took up twelve pages and half the night. She writes:

“Who is it for? What is this voice? Who am I trying to kid—myself? I realize that I don’t want any record of my days….when it comes to life-writing, the real, honest, diaristic, warts-and-all, the only thing I have to show for myself…is my email account.”

There’s something so honest in the way she wrote this piece that went far for me. I think we all try to do things because we’ve seen them done by others, or on T.V, or YouTube channels, and refuse to admit when something just didn’t work out for us—because it just didn’t.

Lastly, the third and by far my favourite essay in this collection was “Generation Why?” in which Zadie Smith tears apart our obsession with Facebook, reviews the film The Social Network, tries to find ‘the missing thing’ within us, and concludes with a harsh:

“It’s a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore.”

I’m going to hold off on the Facebook discussion and write a different entry for it, because I think she is in conversation with Jonathan Franzen’s essay “Liking is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts” (2011)– or at least he is in conversation with her, as her piece was written a year earlier.  I would like to write a proper opinion piece on it and link it HERE.

Overall I loved this collection. I think Zadie Smith is a brilliant, Wonder-Woman figure in my life, so I would 100% recommend her essay collection to you. If you doubt whether you should invest time in her long fictional works, or this collection, I strongly recommend listening to one of her commencement speeches, or her interviews—hearing her voice, and her real-life tone, helps in fully embracing her ideas and loving every minute you spend reading her works.

 

 

Don’t Live for Your Obituary

36471758What a perfect book to start off my year! This collection of essays (or short blog entries) is an accumulation of John Scalzi’s most popular and best writing on his blog over a decade (2008-2018). I was very intrigued by the title Don’t Live for Your Obituary—even though the entry with this particular title is quite short, it encapsulates Scalzi’s main message to young aspiring writers, and to readers alike: do what you love, live for now, don’t focus on posterity. This message comes across clearly through different topics. For instance, Scalzi discusses finances, writing as a professional, self-publishing versus established publishing houses, ebooks versus physical books (taking a quick stab at Jonathan Franzen on the way), etc. In each topic Scalzi emphasizes just how important it is to write for fun because you enjoy it in your present moment, for people to discuss and enjoy now. Here are some lines that stayed with me:

“Relieve yourself of the illusion that you’re writing for the ages…you don’t get a vote…[you won’t know] the values and interests or views of the world that people might have a century from now.”

“Be relevant now”

“writers want to write rather than have to write”

“Either you want to write or you don’t, and thinking that you want to write really doesn’t mean anything.”

“Being a writer isn’t some grand, mystical state of being, it just means you put words together to amuse people, most of all yourself.”

“Writing is an act of setting down in words the things about which you have a concern”

(Regarding writers being assholes as portrayed in mainstream media):

“it’s correlation, not causation”

Scalzi is a good writer, and a successful one. As he gives examples for each topic and/or argument he uses his most popular works and explores why they were successful (with the privilege of hindsight) often referencing The Old Man’s War, and Redshirts. Again, topics range from finances, to digital platforms, to posterity, MFA programs, inspirational authors, making fun of some successful authors in good spirit, to even showing how one can still be a writer while being a stay-at-home dad (or mom). I particularly enjoyed his portion breaking down what it means to have 1000 devoted fans, and how authors like Dan Brown and E.L. James don’t do a disservice to authors as a whole, because they don’t take away from other authors, rather, they bring more readers in. This book is filled with wisdom for this day and age. I found it so much fun to read, and I feel like it caught me up on 10 years of Scalzi. What I loved most about it was that even though it was filled with advice from an experienced person it maintained a light sense of humor. I think this book is perfect for anyone who struggles with getting started, has anxiety because they live only in the future, or for those who are fans of Scalzi’s science fiction and want to hear his opinions. Reading this felt like I was sitting with Scalzi over a cup of coffee and he was just answering all my questions.

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 

August Wrap-Up

august

August has so far been my worst reading month, and it wasn’t due to a “reading slump,” I  was just caught up in too many things, the main one being: moving. When you hoard so many books… moving is difficult. Heavy box, after box, after box filled with books…followed by re-organizing. I am still not done organizing them. This is what I had the opportunity to read this month:

Books I Read For Early Review

Acadie_coverAcadie written by Dave Hutchinson is a Tor.com novella which is part of the Summer of Space Opera. It was very short, but I enjoyed it. My full review HEREAcadie 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.

 

34889267Writings from the Golden Age of Russian Poetry by Konstantin Batyushkov, translated by Peter France. Batyushkov was a contemporary of Alexandr Pushkin’s and was highly admired by him. Batyushkov is studied in Russia as a great pillar of the Russian canon, but is not known so well in the West as his works have hardly been translated. My full review can be found HERE.

 

Books I Read For Myself 

Cheek by Jowl by Ursula K. Le Guin

6380284I had many thoughts on this book and highlighted a lot so I made an individual post/review about it. Full review HERE. In this collection, Le Guin questions why we consider “literary” literature as important, and who decides what that looks like. One quotation from the series that strikes to the core is this:

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

Earlier this year I reviewed New Voices of Fantasy, and in the introduction, Peter S. Beagle recalls speaking to Le Guin and her saying to him:

“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.’”

I think that sentiment comes across strongly in Cheek by Jowl. The dominant essay is on the role and presence of animals in fantasy and children’s literature. If you want to know more about it click on the full review link above.

Time Travel: A History by James Gleick 

9780307908797This book was highly anticipated reading for me. Time is one of the most interesting concepts to me and when I heard that there is a book focusing on time travel I ordered it right away. It is a lot shorter than I anticipated, but what surprised me was the content and structure of it. Gleick focuses on our relationship to time travel in fiction. He begins by explaining that before H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine people didn’t discuss time as a linear concept, something one could go back or forward to. He briefly shows how Einstein’s creation of the fourth dimension in the scientific realm opened up way to a lot of science fiction stories. He then tells readers about the plots of several science fiction works. I wish more time had been spend discussing time with philosophical lines of thought or tapped into something interesting on the topic. I found that it was a bit frustrating just recapitulating the plot of several works that I’ve already read. I still enjoyed it a lot. Again, it was quite short, but all in all enjoyable.

Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald 

25573977This book was recommended to me by a friend. With the news being so terrifying on a daily basis I needed a good, easy read that would put me in a pleasant mood. This was that book. When Sara arrives from Sweden to the United States to live for two months with her pen pal Amy she finds out that only a day before, Amy passed away. The town of Broken Wheel is very small, and Sara can’t drive away. Being too proud to admit to her parents that she should have traveled somewhere more crowded, and still in shock with Amy’s passing, Sara decides to stay in Broken Wheel. The book features letters Amy sent to Sara over time about her town, and about books. The more we learn about Sara the more we, the readers fall in love with her. She is Elizabeth Bennet, Matilda, Hermoine Granger, Jane Eyre and all the ‘reading woman character’ merged into one. Again, this is just an easy, pleasant read and it’s one of those ‘books about books’ similar to The Thirteenth Tale, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Among Others, Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, and The Shadow of the Wind (to name a few). What I enjoyed most were the letters from Amy. After every chapter, a letter from the past that Amy sent to Sara is presented to us where we learn what Sara knows about the town, or what Amy told Sara about certain books before. I enjoyed this aspect because it was a reminder of the influence dead people can have on the living even when gone. Their voices continue to exist and we carry them with us in our experiences. Even Sara ponders about death in relationship to books–vessels of ideas. Or letters: written down mementos.

“That night Sara sat in Amy’s library for hours, thinking about how tragic it was that the written word was immortal while people were not, and grieving for her, the woman she had never met.”

Bivald’s description of books, reading spaces, and book-based friendships are really well constructed. I certainly enjoyed it.

Upstream by Mary Oliver

29358559This is a collection of essays written by the poetess Mary Oliver. This book was just a reaffirmation for me of how much it matters who writes the book when it comes to non-fiction or memoir/personal writings. Earlier in the year I discussed reading Spinster at same time as Travels with Charley and while the first had more depth, research, and stronger opinions with vastly more interesting subject matter, I couldn’t bring myself to care as much as I did for the latter because it was written by Steinbeck. I had the same experience here. I never read any poetry by Mary Oliver, so I picked this up as my first experience of her. After a few chapters I didn’t think much of it. I was ready to stop reading it. I then looked up Mary Oliver and read her poetry (or as much of it as I could find). Knowing a little about her, her creative corpus, and that she is a poet turned this essay collection around for me. The wording, the language, and her opinions on transcendental poets, Walt Whitman, and her relationship with nature became so interesting.

“You can fool a lot of yourself but you can’t fool the soul.”

Although I enjoyed it more after knowing Oliver’s poetry, I still wanted more from this collection. For instance, I found it unnecessary to get a biographical introduction of Emerson and Thoreau. I felt a bit spoon-fed at points. I wanted to get more of her impressions, and feelings about these poets’ work, or their relationship to nature, or how she herself relates to nature. I think this collection tried to sound academic and reflective while at the same time being personal and poetic and in the end didn’t manage to accomplish either. There are shorter anecdotes like a dog breaking free from his rope, or the adoption of a little bird with attempts to extract proverb-like endings like: “or maybe it’s about the wonderful things that may happen if you break the ropes that are holding you.” For the most part, when discussing other poets or writers, I felt like Oliver was just listing books and poems in a way that was “I read this and liked it” rather than diving deep and discussing it at length. The truth is I feel like I’ve read better nature books lately with essays and opinions that left me in awe. For me, anything by Tristan Gooley, or Andrea Wulf (recent) or things written by medieval monks and botanists like the abbess Hildegard Von Bingen, managed to inspire that love of nature and felt like reading a love letter to nature in a controlled academic way whilst still using personal anecdotes and poetic language than this collection has. Upstream has a few well-written lines that makes you want to highlight and keep from time to time, and those keep you going, but overall it wasn’t what I wanted to obtain from this collection.

Too Many Books at Once

Lastly, I’ve been dividing my reading between several books lately which I am trying to finish. The books are: The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge, A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume, still trying to finish the first book of the Dandelion Dynasty by Ken Liu, and then I went ahead and took out far too many books from the library… I am also currently working on an early review for another nature book called The Biophile Effect. It has been a busy month and I am a little disoriented by how many projects I’ve started and aware that I have finished far fewer.

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.