humour

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.

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

6916961I read Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself  about three years ago for the first time, and it was my introduction to David Foster Wallace. Back then, I highlighted profusely in this book, and took many notes about what was said by both Lipsky and Wallace. Since then, I’ve watched numerous interviews with Wallace himself, read the majority of his novels, and essays, as well as D.T. Max’s biography of DFW. Re-reading this book now, there were many things that made me question its value while taking into consideration readers’ responses. I read every written review of this book on Goodreads, and they vary immensely. Some people met David Lipsky and got the book signed being really happy with it, whilst others are absolutely furious that this book exists asserting that Lipsky is an opportunist who cashed in right after a tragedy.

This book is an edited, reduced transcript of a conversation which in real time took about three days. David Lipsky arrived at David Foster Wallace’s house right near the end of the Infinite Jest book tour in 1996. Wallace was already somewhat famous at the time, and Lipsky was conducting an interview not expecting that Wallace would invite him to stay in his house. Lipsky followed Wallace around to fast food restaurants, the mall, a friend gathering, several readings, meetings with his agent, and even to his writing classes where he was teaching at the university. Sometimes he recorded on a tape recorder, other times he was required to write down as recording devices were not permitted. Throughout, Lipsky tries to capture the essence of Wallace at that time and in his own private spaces. I think he was trying to capture what on YouTube is now “a day in the life” kind of vlog, only for a very famous author, pre-YouTube. Lipsky asks Wallace about his feelings, aspirations, how he got here. I think in a way, Lipsky being such a fan-boy for Wallace led to some interesting minutiae-type questions that we all want to know of our favourite writers. How? Why? When? What poster is on their kitchen wall? How do they spend their days? What pets do they have? The problem most readers have with Lipsky is that he didn’t publish this book, nor transcribed the conversation for publication until 2010, two years after DFW killed himself, got slightly sanctified by the Howling Fantods, and remained famous. Was he afraid that Wallace himself wouldn’t like it? If Wallace wouldn’t have allowed it to be published in his lifetime then is it unethical to publish it?

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Newspaper Obituary

Here, is where most readers have found the publication somewhat problematic, in addition to the fact that Lipsky is himself a fiction writer, of works that have gotten little to no recognition. Fans accuse Lipsky of using Wallace to get some recognition, seizing the opportunity immediately after Wallace killed himself. When this ‘transcript’ book was turned into a movie (which I really liked) the Wallace estate (mainly his family members) did not want to have any affiliation with this film, because they felt it would be unfair to capture Wallace at 34, for three days, and miss out on who he really was or how he had changed and matured.

With all the above in mind, I can say that as a reader I appreciate this book. I needed it, and it’s something of interest to me. For a moment there it feels like you’re hanging out with David Foster Wallace too, and you get a glimpse into his private life, in a way that is presented by an outsider which is kind of ideal. That said, I also think readers should look at this book as: this was Wallace for three days of his life near the end of his successful book tour. Stop there. Don’t dissect further, or read any more into it. Don’t look for clues on whether or not he knew he would kill himself, or anything like beyond what is on the page. There were times I think Lipsky spends too much time on his feelings and opinions, which I frankly didn’t care much about. I also didn’t like that this work is presented as a Jack Kerouak-ish On the Road kind of book, which is really not the case mainly because the two of them were complete strangers. Lastly, while Lipsky is getting some negativity from readers for when he chose to publish this and how, I would say that it’s really quite sad for a fiction writer’s most famous and most reviewed book to be a transcript of what another more famous author said. It’s the book most people ask him to sign, with six times more the reviews than any other of his works, and there’s something heartbreaking in that. I don’t think he’s just rolling in cash right now happy he made a profit off of Wallace’s death. I think his love for Wallace and deep admiration comes through in his introduction, and in the way his conversations with Wallace were carried out (if these transcripts are true). So I look at this book as a three day conversation between a fan/journalist and a writer. If you would like to read this, it’s not time wasted, but for once I don’t recommend the audiobook, as the person cast as Wallace has the opposite of a Wallace voice. I had to return it because I could not stand it.

If you are interested in what a writer-friend of Wallace’s wrote after Wallace died, I strongly recommend this essay by Jonathan Franzen titled “Farther Away.” I think I read it over ten times and listened to it on Audible. It’s so beautiful. In fact, the audiobook for Franzen’s Farther Away is extraordinary and he reads it himself. He mixes literature, personal experience, and memories of Wallace and writes one of the most beautiful contemporary essays.

Trailer for The End of the Tour feturing Jesse Eisenberg (as Lipsky) and Jason Segal as David Foster Wallace.

July Wrap-Up

boarding pass

July was a good reading month for me. I enjoyed what I read immensely. It will become apparent from the list that what I read consisted mostly of science fiction. This year I seem to have been drawn more and more in this direction and I am enjoying it. Because I enjoyed most of these I had more thoughts on each work and wrote individual posts/reviews for most of the books listed below. This is just a monthly overview.

I also had a very auditory experience this month. I discovered a lot of podcasts so I spent a lot of time listening. Here are some of the ones I enjoyed and discovered this month: Serial, Uncanny, Clarkesworld, Escape Pod, Lore, The Sword and Laser, Welcome to Night Vale, and lastly, the one that JUST started so you can get on board now too if you want because it’s at the beginning is this sci-fi one called Steal the Stars launched by Tor.com

Books I read for Early Review

35097384Artemis by Andy Weir. This is Weir’s second book after The Martian and it is just as great. This book is about the first village on the moon following a great female lead who is of Middle Eastern origin and her side profession is smuggling contraband on the moon. This book is scheduled for publication by Crown Publishing on November 14, 2017. It’s available for pre-order. My full review is HERE.

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The Emerald Circus by Jane Yolen. This is an anthology of short stories that are retellings. It includes retellings of fairy tales, children’s literature, Arthurian legends, Robin Hood, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson. This book is scheduled for publication by Tachyon Publications on November 24, 2017. It’s available for pre-order. My full review is HERE.

 

Books I read for Myself

Short Stories

  • Points of Origin” by Marissa K. Lingen from Tor.com – an elderly couple (80 years old) living alone on Mars, childless, find themselves with three grandchildren dropped at their doorstep since they had donated some genes to Earth many years ago. Soft sci-fi, but it gets at the heart.
  • In Libres” by Elizabeth Bear from Uncanny Magazine – our female protagonist needs one more source for her thesis on “the use of psychoactive plants in thaumaturgy” and enters the library with a Centaur friend who helps her. I loved this story so I had to re-read it. The librarian, the special collections…everything in this story is just great. This short story will be inserted in an anthology about Libraries in Sci-fi. See review for that HERE. There’s also a podcast with an audio of this story HERE.

Books

Central Station by Lavie Tidhar 

25986774I read Central Station at the very beginning of the month in one sitting following the text and listening to the audiobook at the same time. This is a fix-up novel where Tidhar gathered stories published over the years and combined them in one cohesive novel. Central Station is set in the future, and is a port or in-between place where people come and go and stay only temporarily. It follows several characters. Each “chapter” or story is dedicated to a character and then they feature as secondary characters in other stories. Similar to the “tavern scene” in Star Wars you have various ‘races’ of people like data vampires (strigoi) to give one example. I wrote a more detailed review here. I absolutely loved this book and I kind of want to re-read it soon. I’m glad this was the first of the month because it set my month on a good path.

Also I should mention that a lot of credit goes to the cover art for being so spectacular that it compelled me to pick it up all day long until it was finished.

Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

774928I started working on a project where I set out to read all the Arthur C. Clarke Winners since its first prize (in 1987). More on that project: HERE. As I was making the list I realized that I haven’t actually read anything by Arthur C. Clarke himself so I read Rendezvous with Rama, the novel for which he received the Hugo and Nebula Award. The summary in short is that the year is 2130 and as time has passed humans have created protocols to prevent asteroids from hitting the Earth. A giant asteroid comes in proximity and it’s intimidating and new. As scientist look for Greek or Roman god names they have decided to label it “Rama” after the Hindu God instead. A space team lead by Commander Norton explore the asteroid Rama with their ship Endeavour featured on the cover. I had to write a more detailed review because the book put me in a really great place, and I wanted to explore the reasons why.

Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor 

23129410What started out as a podcast has been turned into a novel. I now have the book, the audiobook, and have subscribed to the podcast. I highly recommend reading this while listening to the audiobook like I have because the voices, narration style, and musical accompaniment make this an experience. Night Vale is a town in the ‘American’ desert. Everything in Night Vale is very weird. If I had to describe it to someone from scratch I would say it’s a cross between Twin Peaks, The Twilight Zone, and maybe even Lost or Once Upon a Time. In this town there is a radio station that we get to tune in, and a series of strange characters. Every chapter focuses on one character but then they feature in future narratives. I wrote more on Welcome to Night Vale in detail HERE, because there was a lot to say. Long story short: I loved it.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

25667918Binti is about a young female protagonist from the ‘Himba’ tribe. The Himba are a people very much connected to the Earth and no one leaves their community or Earth in general. In their traditions they wear anklets and a red-hued clay called Otjize. Binti is the first to be so advanced and secretly apply to Oozma University that she must leave her tribe and people knowing that it would ruin her prospects in the community afterwards. She is immediately perceived as different even in the commute towards Oozma but the way she describes her tribe is really beautiful:

“My tribe is obsessed with innovation and technology, but it is small, private, and, as I said, we don’t like to leave Earth. We prefer to explore the universe by traveling inward, as opposed to outward.”

“The ship was packed with outward-looking people who loved mathematics, experimenting, learning, reading, inventing, studying, obsessing, revealing.”

The novella is very short, it’s just slightly longer than what I would call a “short story.” In a short time Okorafor interacts with spirituality, intelligence, honour, cultural differences, and does so in a delicate and elegant way. I really enjoyed this novella and I will most likely pick up the next two.  I really liked the combination of mathematics, harmonizing in an inward spiritual way, and the involvement of symbols like the Otjize and Earthing, the astroglobe, and the edan to which Binti refers to again and again reminding her of home. This novella is both a Hugo and Nebula Award Winner.

Unmentionable by Therese Oneill

29467289Unmentionable by Therese Oneill is so funny and well-written but reading it I just felt incredibly sad. It had nothing to do with the author, but realizing how gruesome fashion and cultural expectations, as well as beauty standards have been for women even in the “progressive” West. As a reader I’ve looked at the Victorian period as a very classy, elegant, clean, polished time. I read novels from that period like candy and think how classy those people were, and what I would give to have those habits, and manners. Unmentionable woke me up. There are so many things we haven’t considered and rarely see in literature and film from this time period. Getting dressed in a corset that crushes your innards is just the beginning. Oneill explores the ways women back then handled pregnancy, periods, baths, clothing, flirting etiquette, marriage, and all cultural standards with such high expectations. She often makes a point of differentiating between high class and lower class women and looks at the injustices towards both (thought different, still pressing). The truth is we never picture Jane Eyre going to the washroom where there was no running water in the house with professional flushable toilets, or lying in bed with menstrual cramps. The content of this book is excellent, and I wish it was an introductory required reading before Victorian Literature courses because it really puts everything in perspective. The way it’s written however makes it very light and pleasant, because it’s put in such a way that is funny like “wasn’t this so silly, glad we don’t still do it.” The humour is ever-present. Some captioned photos make references to contemporary songs like “omg Becky look at her strut” (you know the song). The book also deals with mental illness and the way it was (or wasn’t) treated: ideas of hysteria, treatment for it, and mental breakdown from pure exhaustion. I really enjoyed this work, and I’m glad it has been written. I enjoyed the pictures, the adds, and humour though sometimes I found things a bit too sad to laugh. It is a pretty serious topic and I wish the language was slightly more academic at times, because it deserves that kind of attention. It did make me consider how fortunate I am to be born in this century.

The Cherry Blossom Rarely Smiles by Ioana Nitobe Lee

34181899I came across Ioana Nitobe Lee watching a Romanian talk show and she intrigued me right away. When she was a student of foreign languages in Romania, particularly fascinated with Japan, she met Ken who was Japanese royalty (an imperial prince). Ken was simultaneously fascinated by Romania and the music, language, and culture. Upon his visit Ken fell in love with Ioana and asked her to marry him. Together they left for Japan. What Ioana did not anticipate was how formal and ceremonial everything was. There was a long ceremony just for using the washroom, including changing one’s shoes several times. She had to wash herself at least twice a day, and have staff help and watch her every move. Isolated from her family and missing Romanian traditions, Ioana felt trapped. There were many cultural differences, but also class differences and Ioana went from simple Romanian citizen to Japanese royalty without warning. When she did return to Romania many people asked her to recount the tales of such differences which is why she wrote this book. This is a memoir. I read the English copy and I was a bit disappointed because this book deserves serious editorial work (it is self published). However, keeping in mind that this woman knows so many languages and she published this work alone, it remains impressive. Scattered throughout are many Romanian sayings, proverbs, or direct quotations (translations) from Romanian poets and writers. This put me in a very good place. No matter how choppy the English gets, she reminds you that she studied a lot, knows a lot, and is well-read. I found it problematic at times that she sort of sees her whole identity defined by her marriage to a Japanese prince. A simple Google search of her pretty much has “married to a Japanese prince” as a banner in all her excerpts. I was more fascinated by HER, as a person. I liked her knowledge tidbits, her memories from home, the literary quotations that stayed with her for life. I’m glad that she captured some of her essence in this book.

How to Be a Person in the World by Heather Havrilesky

27065373This sort of thing isn’t my cup of tea, I’m not sure why I picked it up. The title intrigued me. I also saw people comparing it to Cheryl Strayed’s book Tiny Beautiful Things so I gave it a try. Heather Havrilesky is a columnist and answers people’s personal questions at “Ask Polly”…basically Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City. I had one running thought reading this book which is: people in the West seem very preoccupied with the thought of being alone, the fear of being alone, or relationship drama (triangles, cheating, falling out of love, etc). This relationship preoccupation was pointed out during the French Revolution in Choderlos de Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons and some theorize it started the revolution for pointing out to the working classes that the rich and wealthy had so much time and money they focused on trivial things like having side-affairs and seduction contests. Similarly, this book is very much a ‘Western,’ ‘well-off,’ daresay ‘white people problems.’ I do see its merit for existing out in the world and that is to remind the people who do despair over small problems in their life and obsess with such problems to remind them that they are not alone. It’s the same merit I see in shows like Dr. Phil. It may not be literary, poetically written, or applicable to all people…but it picks out an average middle-class problem/preoccupation and reminds readers that if they had a similar thought or problem chipping away at their happiness and self-worth, that they are not alone, and that they should learn to love themselves and be good people. It’s an easy read, I did it one sitting and it’s somewhat entertaining…in a schadenfreude kind of way. It was a 2 star read for me.

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I have also been reading Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings which is Book One of the Dandelion Dynasty. I read only 122 pages out of 618 and I am enjoying it very much so far. I am also reading a non-fiction book on the history of Time Travel (in literature) by James Gleick. Both these books will be wrapped up and finished in August. Some of the books above, including the newly mentioned Ken Liu I got to enjoy alternating between the book and the audiobook. According to my Audible app, this month I listened to 11 Hours. I will be away for this weekend and I don’t see myself finishing anything new.

The Emerald Circus | Book Review

34218720The Emerald Circus is an excellent collection of fairy tale ‘retellings’ written by Nebula Award-winning author Jane Yolen. Although I use the term “fairy tale retellings” since it is a labelled sub-genre, Yolen’s collection incorporates the retelling of more than just fairy tales. Children’s books like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Peter Pan are also retold in this short story format from different perspectives, as well as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and Emily Dickinson’s lifestyle and inspiration. The third category of retellings in this collection is of medieval legends of Camelot and Robin Hood. “The Quiet Monk” is the story of the hidden grave which supposedly had Arthur and Guinevere’s bodies in it which falls under Arthurian Retellings along with “The Confession of Brother Blaise,” and “Evian Steel.” Some of the short stories in this collection have been previously published in anthologies, or individually. For instance, “Lost Girls” the feminist retelling of Peter Pan where women riot and protest for their rights in Neverland won the Nebula Award in 1999 and has been published in Twelve Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

The Emerald Circus is a great introduction to Jane Yolen as it incorporates works from various points in her writing career. This anthology includes all the stories that haunt us past childhood and stay with us in a collective imaginary space. Arthurian Legends, Children’s Literature, and 19th Century American gothic poets share a fantastical quality that remains a point of comparison when reading contemporary literature. At the end of the collection of retellings, Yolen takes a few pages to explain how the idea for each of these stories came about. I will focus on one of her stories to give you an idea of how Yolen’s stories come through. As a big fan of Peter Pan and Neverland retellings, “Lost Girls” was the story that stayed with me most.

Yolen explains:

“I wrote ‘Lost Girls’ because I couldn’t forget the uneasy scene in which Peter Pan is weeping because he can’t re-attach his shadow. When Wendy sews it on for him, he crows and cries out ‘Oh the cleverness of me!’ As if Wendy had done nothing and he had done it all.”

Yolen’s research led her to Alison Lurie’s study of Peter Pan in a 2012 essay where she compares Peter’s existence with what we currently know of child psychology. He is easily distracted, has little understanding of the future, and lives in a world where real life and make-believe are almost the same thing. Peter might be “gay and innocent and heartless” as the last words of Peter and Wendy suggests, but according to Yolen:

“he [Peter] is also deeply self-centered and without remorse…Peter might be eternally young in his looks, but his eyes betray his real age. He has seen so much, he would have an old and narcissistic soul.”

Yolen takes this analysis and applies it to her story “Lost Girls.” In it, the main character is a young girl named Darla who has been raised by today’s Western standards of feminism and equality. As Darla reads Peter and Wendy she finds it unfair that “Wendy only did the housework in Neverland and that Peter and the boys got to fight Captain Hook.” Darla arrives in Neverland that night and Peter immediately sees her as “a regular Wendy” —as all women are interchangeable to him, in fact he refers to all the women he comes in contact with as “The Wendys.” As celebrations continue with Peter and the Lost Boys, the girls would obediently stand behind the boys “like banquet waitresses.” When Darla cannot stand being called a ‘regular Wendy’ she asks the girls why Peter refuses to call them by their actual individual names, to which the girls respond:

“Because he can’t be bothered to remember…and we can’t be bothered reminding him…it’s all right…really. He has so much else to worry about.”

The injustices present in Neverland and children’s literature are highlighted by Yolen in this story as she pinpoints examples in narratives that follow us and we enjoy without questioning. Yes, Peter Pan is about adventure and fun but who gets to have most of it, and who ends up hurt in the end as she must put up with his moods, flaws, and inability to adapt to circumstances? Innocence and living in the moment as ‘fun’ children do results in selfish behavior and unbearable cruelty to others.

This story is just an example of the kind of excellent work that Yolen accomplishes by creating alternative possibilities in this collection of retellings. Such attention to detail is present in all the stories in The Emerald Circus and it is a collection I would recommend to everyone.

Welcome to Night Vale | Review

23129410This book has been an experience for me in the last week: I read the text while listening to the audiobook, and listened to the Podcast when colouring, walking, or doing other activities.

The book is written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor and is published by Harper Perennial.

Night Vale is a town in the middle of the ‘American’ desert that is overall peculiar. All its inhabitants are very strange. The main story follows a single mom (of a shape-shifting boy) Diane, and a pawnshop owner named Jackie. A mysterious man in a tan jacket arrives leaving behind a note with only two words on it “King City.” The memories of this man fade and all Jackie is left with is “King City.” It’s a mystery/thriller that feels very much like Twin Peaks, but with the storytelling style of The Twilight Zone. The strangeness of each character is fantastical similar to Stranger Things where it’s sci-fi but told in a realistic way, highlighting human mundane problems using the supernatural. Between the narratives there are passages that look like transcripts from the town radio show. The radio passages unite the narratives because the news applies to all citizens of Night Vale and as a reader one can get a better sense of what goes on in town and what all the characters talk about communally.

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Podcast Cover

I understand that the Podcast is wildly popular and has achieved great success between 2015 and 2016. I did not get a chance to finish the Podcast so I will write my impressions of the book/audiobook.

First: if you can get the audiobook I recommend it strongly. In fact, if you must choose between the printed text and the audio, choose the audio. There are several reasons why it works better in audio format. The first reason is that in Night Vale there is a radio broadcast and the narrator who reads the radio host voice Cecil is also the one who does it in the podcast. The second reason is that this is not a ‘literary’ book, but a highly atmospheric one. The musical accompaniment and sound effects from the audiobook help enhance the setting and atmosphere. It reminded me of so many things (like the shows mentioned above) and reading it I just got an overall feeling of eeriness and mystery. The plot itself is not that exciting and the characters are not that deep, but somehow it works and it works well.

If I had to choose between its three existing formats as a narrative I would say the Podcast is the best. Although I haven’t heard it through to the end, I can tell from the few episodes that it is this narrative’s best format. The novelization incorporates some characters from the Podcast but not necessarily the best ones. There are several parts with lulls where the novel lost my interest but it does pick up again.

That said, overall I loved this book and the experience of it. I look forward to finishing all the Podcast episodes.

The book is filled with lines that left me in awe and some that just made me laugh out loud. Here are some examples of lines I found funny and some I found beautiful.

Humour extracted from Cecil’s Broadcast:

“coming up after this break, some exclusive clips from my recent three-hour interview with myself, in which I interrogated myself on my motivations, where I am in life, why I’m not in a different place in life, whose fault that is, and why I said that one embarrassing thing once.”

“If you see one of these False Police, act right away by shrugging and thinking What am I gonna do? And then seeing if anything funny is on Twitter”

“if the School Board could not promise to prevent children from learning about dangerous activities like drug use and library science at recess…”

“if you see hooded figures in the Dog Park, no you didn’t.”

Beautiful Lines

“Later she understood databases, having become the person she’d lied about being…”

“How does a person discover whether they are shy if they never have the time to meet new people?”

“There is nothing more lonely than an action taken quietly on your own, and nothing more comforting than doing that same quiet action in parallel with fellow humans doing the same action, everyone alone next to each other.”

“She left the shower as most people leave showers, clean and a little lonely”

“A person’s life is only what they do.”

Hopefully I captured some of Night Vale’s charm. I definitely recommend the Podcast, and the book/audiobook. This work will have a sequel coming out on October 17 this year with the title: It Devours! from the same authors.

The Audiobook is available through the public library with Overdrive. The ebook is also on Overdrive, and  the public library should have the printed copy in its system.

There are also two volumes of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast SCRIPTS:

  1. Mostly Void, Partially Stars
  2. The Great Glowing Coils of the Universe

 

 

 

Gork, the Teenage Dragon | Book Review

“For inside my scale green chest, there beats a grotesquely large and sensitive heart.”

32766443I hope this book gets turned into a children’s cartoon series because I would watch it with a lot of passion. Gork: the Teenage Dragon, is Gabe Hudson’s debut middle-grade fantasy novel. The narrative follows a dragon named Gork who, you guessed it, is a teenager. What’s particularly charming about this novel is its snappy humour. Gork narrates his story and in the first chapter he establishes himself as:

“My first name is Gork, my middle name is The, and my last name is Terrible, and like I said, I’m a dragon, plus I’m a poet”

But not before criticizing Beowulf and Tolkien to no end for their bad portrayal of dragons. He says:

“Mr. Tolkien was a real low-hearted sonuvabitch.”

Gork is in high school at WarWings Military Academy where he is a little different than the other dragons. He is afraid of heights, and really does have a large heart. His nickname is: Weak Sauce. His main purpose in this novel is to find himself a queen, for if he fails to do so he will become a slave forever.

Maybe I read Spinster, and All the Single Ladies too closely together this year and only in the last month, but this ‘despair’ that young Gork has throughout this novel really resembled for me the pressures society put on women in the past. You must find a husband or be ridiculed as a ‘spinster’ or enslaved in various other forms. I hope I’m not reading incorrectly into this children’s book, but this is the first time I’ve read a book where the male character is forced, nay, obliged and in ardent despair to find himself a partner. While other books have shown this dynamic from a male perspective, never with such urgency, and I’ve personally never encountered it in children’s literature. Well done Gabe Hudson!

Politics aside, I must return to the humour. This book is so funny. I found it funny as an adult who is quite in love with dragons and I wonder how the children would take this same humour. There’s something in his voice that echoes Lemony Snicket for me, though his publishers insist that it’s ‘Harry Potter meets Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.’ Either way, I suggest we, the readers, allow Hudson to have his own voice through Gork. I also enjoyed the ways he doesn’t shy away from swearing a little bit (never vulgar though). Highly recommend! I would also suggest that parents read this book aloud to their children, or librarians to their students at circle reading time. It’s a great bonding book! I look forward to Hudson’s future novels.

This book is scheduled for publication on July 11, from Knopf Publishing Group.