literature

My Life with Folk Tales & Fairy Tales

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I think everyone has a special story of their life alongside fairy tales—particularly bookish people. At one point you realize they’ve either been there all along, or you’ve spent your whole life chasing them. This post is very self-involved and for that I must apologize. If you don’t care about one person’s life in fairy tales (respectively mine) then don’t bother. If you care, read on!

Most of my childhood was spent in two separate locations in Romania, the first five years in absolute poverty in the middle of nowhere, and the second in an idyllic, pastoral village in the Carpathian mountains. For the first five years I have memories of my mother reading some Romanian folk tales to me—most of them were about revenge in a form of another and almost all had either anthropomorphic talking objects, or animals at their center. Images in my head of the first five years involve a goat with three kids (two of which get brutally murdered) who seeks revenge on the big bad wolf, the prince who turns into a pig every night and whose wife skins him alive, the competition between the ‘daughter of the old man’ and ‘daughter of the old lady,’ a rooster who swallows treasures, and a guy named Ivan who has a bag that traps demons while he is bunking with Satan in a jail cell…you know… your typical 5-year-old folk and fairy tales. Easter Europe is so broken. I find it so amusing when Western kids find out a small inappropriate fact about one of their fairy tales or children’s movies and say ‘childhood ruined.’ Really? Have you heard the one about Ivan bunking with Satan? How about the one where the prince comes back home only to find a coffin and be slapped in the face by Death? I am not making these up.

41SQXR8NNWLI did however get a Walkman as a gift from a visiting cousin (keep in mind the ’80s made it to Eastern Europe by the late ’90s) and he gave me alongside it a tape with “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Snow White.” You best believe I listened to that tape cassette a million times. I also have a vague memory of my kindergarten teacher (who was also the mayor, my next door neighbor, and the principal) doing puppet shows for us where the big bad wolf ate little red and I remember seeing its stomach bulging. The last memory of this place from the first five years was finding in the library (which was made of exactly 20 books and was located beneath the discotheque) a very thick, dusty book with stories. I couldn’t read it, but I remember the pictures and that it was massive and for some reason it stayed in my mind forever. I also remember pretending I’m in a coffin and saying: “Look mom, I’m Snow White!”

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My village

I then moved to the village in the Carpathian mountains with my grandparents. Here life was much much better. While living here “St. Nicholas” once gave me the collected fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen which became my bread and butter. “The Wild Swans” and “The Ugly Duckling” were my favourite but I cherished “The Little Match Girl” every Christmas since. It was so beautiful and sad. Reading these fairy tales while living on a farm in the mountains was so perfect. Each spring we had real ducklings and goslings, and baby bunnies, and sheep. It was merged into my relationship with fairytales and my overall loneliness as an only child. I once visited my cousin in the city and he had gotten a boxed fairy tale collection in which I was introduced for the first time to “The Princess and the Frog,” and “Rumpelstiltskin.” The latter stayed in my mind forever and I’ll never forget those illustrations. My cousin was lucky, he had so many fairy tale books and so many Disney movies. When I turned 7 my cousin’s family relocated to Canada which meant that they handed down those tapes to: ME!

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My copy of Andersen’s tales 

These are the tapes I had from age 7-10: Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Aristocats, 101 Dalmatians, and Sleeping Beauty. Most of these were two on the same tape, and sometimes with voice dubbed over with translation or just captions in Romanian. A few years later I got a present of a film of Snow White and The Wizard of Oz. Meanwhile on regular TV I watched only two things: The Adventures of Sinbad (a television series with live-action), and Xena: Princess Warrior.

Meanwhile, my knowledge of Romanian folklore was enriching with Ion Creanga’s memories from childhood series and a popular author-less folktale series containing a comical foolish peasant for whom everything somehow works out anyway named Pacala.

DwarfcottageAll these had a huge impact on my life choices. Having so little for so long made me remember each encounter with a fairy tale, and it stayed with me for very long. One day I was walking through the mountains (we had to go get our cow back) and I was on this walk with a family friend, who was in her 30s. As we were going up the mountain she pointed in a random direction and told me that if you go on a seven day journey in that direction you will come across the house where the seven dwarves lived, and that she’s personally been there. My jaw dropped. I was set on going to find it right then and there. It was the first time someone convincingly told me a lie. I never heard of grown-ups telling lies and I thought she’d have no reason to. Most importantly, I wanted it to be true. Every day I kept asking her to take me there so maybe I too can live with the dwarves. She always said no.

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Rumplestiltskin

Alongside regular fairy tales I was always deep into Eastern Orthodox narratives and hagiographies (which I later realized were taken out of The Golden Legend) and the traditions of the small town were quite morbid—and I was very involved. I’d go to funerals and they would take on days. I’d see the whole process of death from beginning to end. Mix that with the fairy tales and folk tales from earlier….yep.

Skip forward now to ages 10-14. I moved to Canada and had to learn a new language from scratch. I had no friends and my aunt had somehow become over the top religious in this time and took me with her to her church which was very very very different from anything in Europe. No birthdays, no Christmases, NO MAGIC. We weren’t allowed to read or watch anything with magic in it, and that included Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, several other Disney films, and anything relating to Santa Clause. These four years were filled with Bible Stories of another kind and there was a lot of fear. I really missed my fairy tales. At school kids were reading Harry Potter and I always felt like I was missing out on something. I kind of stuck by the kids who were into A Series of Unfortunate Events, and I read the first 5 books and dropped the series after that because I wasn’t too interested anymore. Every time I think of those four years I get really angry.

Luckily I moved out from her house at 14 and never looked back. Slowly I returned to fairy tales and watched every Disney movie I never saw before. By 15 I decided that I would become an artist and work for Disney one day and make magical movies for children. I worked on that portfolio for three years. Unfortunately it had many rigid demands and I wasn’t able to meet the standards or get in to a very competitive program, though I received a letter telling me that the storytelling components and ideas were some of the best they’ve ever seen and ranked highest on their charts, but the art work itself was not up to the standard of allowing me into a program with 10% acceptance rate. Changing course I went into literature because in the end…stories were what I was after. By 18 I discovered new children’s literature that blew me away like Peter Pan: the boy who never grew up, and got quite literally under my skin, and Alice in Wonderland, and Mary from the Secret Garden, and oh so so many more fairy tales. I discovered that the Sinbad I used to watch had been from the Arabian Nights or 1001 Nights and that there’s so much more mythology out there from Greek and Roman myth, to Egyptian legends, to Tolkien’s vast made-up world, and the vast world of Medieval legends. In the year between 18-19 I was just as alone in my parents’ house as I had been in my Carpathian village. I read non-stop that year. I read every Victorian book, Russian Lit book, I went down the lists of “100 books one must read” and got a grasp of the canon. At 19 I got into seven universities for their English programs and chose the University of Toronto. Here I made a chart of everything I wanted to know. I took a course on Greek and Roman Mytholgoy, many many others on every Arthurian and Medieval thing, Celtic Mythology, Children’s Literature, Slavic Folklore, the Finnish Kalevala, and even retellings from the post-colonial world including Maori and other Indigenous forms of writing back to the Canon. My head was booming with so much literature. It got to be overwhelming. The magic started flickering away many times when things got too academic. I was moments away from pursuing this topic further, but each time I had to stop myself because I didn’t want to kill what I loved about my fairy tales and myths.

B0MNwBdCYAAPUPZAt the same time I was introduced to Once Upon a Time, a television series produced by ABC that brings together all the fairy tale characters out there in a very soap-opera way (got me through some of the toughest times). This show became so important to me and every time things were bad I still had Once Upon a Time. Meanwhile, my sister (17 years younger) was starting to discover things for the first time and forced me to keep updated with the new kids movies, shows, and books. My Disney and Fairy Tale side started pulling me in my sister’s direction while my dark morbid side found Gothic Literature, Tim Burton, and LORE. Meanwhile movies like Frozen completely reawakened my memories of reading Hans Christian Andersen. Also the Romanian side of me found a lot of joy in the sort of perception of Romania as the cradle of Vampires and creepiness. Yeah, pretty much. Can’t disagree with you.

md17953497530I met some incredible academics along the way who did pursue this topic on a different trajectory. I spent a day with Maria Tatar, Harvard professor and (author of Enchanted Hunters, and most of the Annotated fairy tale books out the particularly on the Brothers Grimm). I took an independent research course on children’s literature focusing on what is magic really, and what makes it so different from technology, by zooming in on the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud. (What a Muggle thing to do?!—from what I recall, my thesis was that communication is magic because there’s a lot of verbal incantations, signs, symbols, and textual preservation). I got very very involved with all sorts of projects involving children’s literature (click here if interested).

By fourth year I decided: I want to be very close to the books. I want to have them in my life. I want to participate in bookish culture and fairy tales will have a place in my life, but I will not become an academic. I will become a librarian!

So now I am a librarian with a library “job,” and Once Upon a Time just had its series finale last weekend….and I don’t know what to do with my life if I’m honest. People don’t interact with the library in the way I used to, or the way I fantasized they would. I feel no engagement with the actual books, and it’s really sad. I feel like subconsciously I chased fairy tales my whole life (but in a secret cool way that got to pass for acceptable in regular society). Somewhere in the last 4 years magic sort of started flickering away and I feel a little lost. I don’t know if this is a result of having read all of these, or actively studying them, or encountering too many retellings told poorly, or watching too many fairy tale spoofs like Shrek, Happily Never After, and short-format parodies…or losing the hope that maybe one day fairy tales will come true (though funny enough the royal wedding which happened alongside the Once Upon a Time finale was announced in the Toronto Star with the headline: “Happily Ever After”). Maybe it was also finding out that they weren’t special only to me. I always had this super-heightened intimate relationship to fairy tales and suddenly I found out that everyone does. I see people roll their eyes at the thoughts of a ‘fairy tale themed’ anything as if it’s something so cliche. I keep hunting for fairy tales. I try to decorate my apartment with fairy tale elements, I went to Disney World, I try to go in secret places…and they all turn out to be attractions. Nothing feels sacred, or special, or magical. I search for paintings, and art, and any semblance of anything that may come remotely close to feeling like it used to. Now I’m really into pirates for some reason. I still look into the distance sometimes and think about what that woman said to me: if you walk seven days in that direction, you will find the dwarves’ house. One day I’ll fucking do it!

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.

 

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!

The Freeze-Frame Revolution

36510759Peter Watts’s The Freeze-Frame Revolution is an addition to a longer series including The Island (2009) for which Watts received the Hugo Award for best novelette in 2010, Hotshot (2014), and Giants (2014). The Freeze-Frame Revolution will be published in June of 2018 by Tachyon Publications. These works are certainly part of what would be categorized as “hard sci-fi” for Watts does not spoon-feed his readers, nor spends too much time explaining. He drops his characters in some unusual circumstances, and tries to convey ideas about technology, life, the universe, and the limitations of humanity. It is simultaneously focused on macro scale settings and ideas and on micro details with few characters in a rather condensed space of 185 pages. Given these limitations I think Watts was very successful.

The novel/novella follows Sunday who is part of a large crew (in the tens of thousands) and was trained for this mission, to build a web of wormhole gates through space, making interstellar travel more accessible. Eriophora is their spaceship, and simultaneously used for creating ‘gates’ or wormholes through which they can continue to travel. Of the tens of thousands involved, only a handful of people are awake at a time while everyone else is still suspended in unconsciousness. The gate-building ship is controlled by Artificial Intelligence: the Chimp—who decides who he will wake, and what information it will provide to the awakened ones. The people are awakened only for a few days at a time when they are, which leaves very little room to accomplish anything.

As in most hard sci-fi character development isn’t a priority, and the reader will be left with a lot of questions about the characters, the ‘world,’ and sometimes even the plot. This novella will also leave you with a lot of questions but with the knowledge that there is a certain suspenseful beauty in leaving them unanswered.

The travelling through space and gates has been happening for millions of years, and people have been maybe awake a total of few full conscious years where they have scattered memories here and there from the few times they have been awakened at several time intervals (thousands of years apart). The people grow uneasy about their ‘leader’ and AI: The Chimp and plot against him, which is quite the task when they are only awake one day of every thousand. There are also problems relating to the AI’s relationship to the ship, because they are essentially one and the same. The “consciousness” of the ship is also their home (at least that’s how I read it). We are told for instance:

Eriophora’s riddled with blind spots: shadows in crawlways and corners, in the spaces behind looming machinery where no one had any reason to put a camera. There are even places—near powerlines whose massive currents swamp the milliamp signals that connect artificial brains to natural ones—where Chimp is blind to our cortical links.”

The thought that Chimp can automatically know what happens on every surveilled location on the ship makes the ship itself unreliable which gives the reader a sense of uneasiness at all times.

I really liked the ways in which Watts presents some ‘dilemmas’ or concerns for the characters which resemble our daily struggles with online personas, and simulated experiences, particularly with the ability to “plug in.” I do have a tendency to read into social criticisms as hidden between the lines of every work, but in all seriousness Watts wrote a book here that is really fun and sprinkled with philosophical questions. Here’s an example:

 “’I suppose I’m thinking that maybe there’s more to life than living like a troglodyte for a few days every couple thousand years, knowing that I’m never gonna see an honest-to-God forest again that doesn’t look like, like’– She glanced around—’nightmare someone shat out in lieu of therapy.’

‘Honestly, I don’t understand. Any time you want a—a green forest, just plug in…you can experience things nobody ever did back on Earth, any time you want.’

‘It’s not real.’

‘You can’t tell the difference.’

‘I know the difference.’”

It’s hard to omit these dark philosophical moments from the overall suspense and tension—particularly since the main mission itself: creating a wormhole gate network, has lost meaning for the people involved. I enjoyed very much the dark aspects of this novella. The ways in which Watts has this meaninglessness looming over every one little action of the characters, and the atmospheric tension he creates with the ship, and the crypt, coffin-like places the majority of crew members lie in made this work worthwhile and rewarding.

It’s a work of great talent, and I hope that soon all of his connected works, or “Sunflower Cycle” will be published in a single volume together. Peter Watts has created a sci-fi work of art where every word is refined, and has a purpose. I highly recommend this work to lovers of science fiction.

Trees and Animals | P. Wohlleben

28256439I spent a few days fully immersed in these two books by Peter Wohlleben. They are both books in the “nature” section, obviously, but they are written in the style of Thoreau’s Walden, which I referred to earlier as my ‘comfort classic.’ I absolutely loved being in the company of Wohlleben and I very much look forward to his next book which will be released this year. I believe it’s called The Weather Detective: Rediscovering Nature’s Secret Signs, which will be published in June. It sounds a lot like Tristan Gooley’s The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs, (a book I also loved) but hopefully it will add a new perspective to the conversation.

The first book written was The Hidden Life of Trees, and it sold quite rapidly. In a way it is rather meaningful because it changed the way we look at trees. He humanizes them by explaining the many ways in which they communicate with each other. I learned so much from this book, and it makes me want to start every conversation with “did you know that trees…” It made me want to learn a lot more about mushrooms and fungi in general. The way he depicted mushrooms as a social network between trees, carrying messages from a tree to another, was absolutely fascinating. The ways trees contain anti-freezing materials by self-lubricating with the essential oils in their branch tips, or the ways they contribute to bee life with their sap and sweet needles, or the function of the roots for a myriad of smaller ecosystems beneath the ground. The fun facts in this book are countless. This book heavily inspired, and informed (and featured Wohlleben in) the documentary Intelligent Trees.

9781784705954The second book, The Secret Life of Animals was published in 2016 and was recently translated into English from the German, in late 2017. In this book Wohlleben observes the life of the animals on his farm and those in the nearby forests and notes his observations. This book made me want to learn more about ravens, as they appear to be rather fascinating creatures. I particularly enjoyed how much of this book focused on squirrels and their behavior. Squirrels carry their young around their neck, they plant hundreds of trees by accidentally forgetting where they buried their acorns, and they adopt the young of another squirrel if that other squirrel didn’t make it. There was a chapter on the fun animals have for fun’s sake, rather than solely completing a behavior for survival purposes.

Again, both books are wonderful, and they have a cozy feeling to them. It honestly feels as if you are sitting by the fireplace with a grandfather-figure and he’s telling you about the forest, the trees, and the animals he has including his shy horses, his bees, and every other woodland creature. There’s something very Disney’s Bambi and Snow White about the atmosphere of these two books. Although these books are not very science-heavy, Wohlleben draws on studies and research conducted on the animals given each topic, but does not heavily rely on scientific evidence. Many times it really feels like we are learning things only about his own personal animal friends, and we are relying on Wohlleben’s observations. If you are looking for scientific books these are not it, but they certainly are reminiscent of something Thoreau would write. They are not preachy (regarding veganism), but they certainly invoke empathy and understanding regarding the fauna and flora around us. These books deepened my observation skills when walking. I see birds and trees differently now on a walk to and from places, and they forced me to pay attention to more than I would have noticed before. These books are very pleasant, accessible to a wide audience, and cozy. Ideal for nature lovers. Here are some pictures of trees I took after taking a walk recently (on my lunch break at work):

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.