“What she gives us is something more subtle and strangely ephemeral. In a way, her best stories are acts of haunting” – Richard Kadrey, Introduction.
The Very Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan was not my introduction to Kiernan, as I have encountered one of her short stories in the Unicorn Anthology, and I simply devoured her novel The Drowning Girl. She’s an incredible writer, one whom I greatly admire for her dark atmosphere and unique fantastical cosmic horror. This collection includes some of her best short works over the years ranging from 2005-present day. As readers we get glimpses into Kiernan’s growth as an author in the last fourteen years witnessing different styles and plots. Most of these short works have been either published independently in SFF magazines, or anthologized thematically, but here her strongest short works have been collected under one name. Kiernan has received the James Tiptree, Jr. and Bram Stoker Awards in the past, and is an author whose work I would recommend you explore.
Kiernan’s style of writing is not very traditional and her use of language is dark, disturbing, and grotesque, while simultaneously drawing you in and holding your attention. The reading equivalent of: ‘I can’t look away.’ Like in The Drowning Girl here too we find that water and fluidity is a reoccurring symbol in Kiernan’s works. I found that her stories managed to incorporate different arts in the mix, specifically film which was a very interesting take. For instance, “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” tells the story of a movie critic watching a film about Elizabeth Báthory, the Blood Countess weaving in the various arts, film, theory, and historical figures. Such interconnected plot-lines will be found in most of these stories. You will find twins killing people, a unique take on the unicorn, a science journalist investigating lighting strikes and finding the unexpected, art critics interviewing models of famous paintings, art exhibitions, and violins made of human remains. You will find a different fictional take on the “dysfunctional family” (and that is putting it mildly), and pays homage to Sci-fi classics with the incorporation of non-responsive abandoned ships. And as I mentioned, this collection covers a lot of ground: you will find a bit of everything in this book. What is truly intriguing and captivating in Kiernan’s work is her atmosphere and writing style. I will warn readers, however, that aside from the grotesque, there are many instances of swearing in this work (it did not interfere with my personal reading experience). It’s a thrilleresque experience, rough around the edges.
This collection is not for everyone, and that’s okay. Kiernan writes in a dark niche corner of literature, and I think she directs her writings at a very specific kind of audience. I would recommend this collection to you if you enjoy the works of: Shirley Jackson, Victor Lavalle, Nick Mamatas, Angela Carter, David Lynch, H.P. Lovecraft, or Cosmic Horror. If you have not read any of the listed authors, but you want to get out of your comfort zone and try something different, Kiernan might be a great place to start.
“Prepare to have your long-held opinions put to the test” –Marissa Meyer, Introduction
“A fracture is a break, usually in the bone, but also can mean a crack in the earth, an interruption of the norm. It can be a fault line, a fissure, a split, breach, disruption, splintering, fissure—oh and a breakup. It sounds explosive, can hurt like a sprain or reveal like a geode being split apart to show the jewels within” – Jane Yolen
Last year I read and reviewed The Emerald Circus and fell in love with Jane Yolen’s storytelling. Having just closed the back cover on How to Fracture a Fairy Tale I can’t help but wonder how such levels of creativity are possible. Just how many stories can a single person carry with them at all times? Once more, Yolen takes us through familiar fairy tales, legends, folklore, and even Judeo-Christian narratives and shows us different sides to them, adds depth to unknown characters, and even flips them—either by using a feminist editing pen, or painting over them with the values of progressive 21st century brushes (this flip is what Yolen refers to as a ‘fracture’ synonymous with ‘retelling’). In this collection Yolen flexes her creativity muscles, and like in The Emerald Circus we get a glimpse of Yolen’s work from various points in her career. Aside from the introduction by fantasy YA author Marrisa Meyer, this book is accompanied by Yolen’s own min-histories for how she came up with ideas, how each tale came to fruition, and what concepts she wanted to bring forward for discussion.
The retelling of “Rumpelstiltskin,” in this collection: “Granny Rumple,” and Yolen’s playfulness with Death personified are the two concepts I’d like to discuss in further detail from this collection.
In “Granny Rumple” we are presented with a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin looking at the ways Jewish people have been historically demonized. The story itself is well-written, and the conversation it begins is even more fascinating. In her explanation Yolen says that she first thought of Rumpelstiltskin as the representation of a Jewish person at Smith College while teaching a course on children’s literature. She writes that:
“the only character who does what he promises and isn’t lying is Rumpelstiltskin…the small man with the unpronounceable name who lives outside the walls of the kingdom and is allowed only one job—spinning straw into gold—does not lie…so of course he must be a demon who wants to use the (as yet unborn) baby prince in some disgusting blood rite…. that’s when I realized the ‘demon’ was a stand-in for a Jew. Someone with an unprounceable name who is forced to live outside the city walls.”
I thought this take was really something I would never consider without being faced with it in the format of “Granny Rumple.” The secondary figure that makes several appearances in various formats is Death. “Godmother Death” and “Sister Death” were by far my favourite as I am a fan of Death as a main character in general. They both reminded me a lot Neil Gaiman and in some instances the snarky dry humour of Markus Zusak’s Death narrator. Yolen states that her first story “Godmother Death” was actually started by an invitation from Neil Gaiman for an anthology but could never outright publish it because of DC owning copyrights. She explains: “I was using Neil’s character Death, in his retelling a wonderful, snarky Goth girl who is ageless and endless.” This character is once more represented in “Sister Death” which has a more folkloric presence rather than fairy tale retelling yet in this one Death isn’t one to be snarky, dry, or playful, rather, Death is presented as a sympathetic character. Yolen writes that this story “comes from the Jewish tradition of both ‘Lilith’ and ‘The Angel of Death,’ stories that make Death female …we writers have been stealing from tradition forever.” The presentation of Death as female, and the many ways historically in which women have been around Death, or associated with Death are tackled in this collection in a creative way.
Once again, I must reiterate that Jane Yolen knows the craft of storytelling and retelling. I think her collections open a lot of room for discussion both in reading circles and scholarship at large. Presentations of Death, Anti-Semitism, Sexism, and the bulldozing of old traditions and folklore are tackled by Yolen in such a creative way. She reclaims these narratives, and she presents them to us in this new ‘fractured’ way, creating a new tradition of her own.
This book will be out on November 15, published by Tachyon Publications.
I am very happy to be participating in S.M Beiko’s blog tour for the release of the second book in The Realms of Ancient Series titled Children of the Bloodlands. Last year I reviewed the first book titled Scion of the Fox (review here) and I enjoyed it immensely. This is a YA series set in Canada riddled with fae-like, gothic, sublime, and fantastical elements. Children of the Bloodlands continues where Scion of the Fox left off, three months after the battle of Zabor. The friend group is reunited, and Roan must once more face new monsters of great magnitude in different parts of the world, leaving the Canadian landscape behind and turning to Edinburgh, Seoul, and parts of the Underworld—all overpowered by Ancient’s influence on Earth. There are several reviewers involved in the blog tour this month and I will take a step back from doing my usual literary reviews focused on the narrative.
I would like to turn my attention to the artwork accompanying this novel, specifically the cover art and design. This aspect of book design is highly collaborative, and labour-intensive. Both Scion of the Fox and Children of the Bloodlands have been designed by the team at Made by Emblem. Children of the Bloodlands has a red cover and at its center is the figure of an owl. This artistic choice had been applied previously to the first book where its central figure was a fox in the foreground of a green forest. I had many questions regarding the process of creating such covers, and got in touch with Erik Mohr, the Creative Director at Made by Emblem. Erik has been working as an art director for over 10 years and has received numerous industry awards including the Society of Publication Designers, Canadian National Magazine Awards, Art Directors Club of Canada and Magazines du Québec. Erik has been very kind and patient, and answered all of the questions I directed at him about the artwork, and I can see why it would be an absolute pleasure for any author to work with him and his team. Here is our full interview:
What attracted you about this particular project, and what made you take on Scion of the Fox in the first place last year?
I have been a fan of Sam Beiko’s work for years. We had worked together on her previous book, The Lake and the Library, and she really wanted to work together on The Realms of Ancient series. I was super excited and loved the direction she wanted to see the cover taking. Book design can be really exciting for a number of reasons, but the best is working with incredibly talented people and the collaboration between the author and designer.
Does it feel different working on Canadian projects for Canadian authors versus magazine art for things further away?
We have worked on book covers for Canadian, US and British publishers. I have to admit that the Canadian market is normally very conservative. That said, we’ve had the opportunity to work with publishers who are willing to take risks and create really exciting book covers. The magazine work we do is very different from the book design work. But there is cross-over, too. Magazine work is very fast paced and every page needs lots of entry points and design elements. But legibility and typographic skills are mandatory in book design and it’s simple and little tricks that can make a big difference.
What techniques do you use when creating a book cover? Do you make a plan, do you make several covers and choose the best one, or do you just keep building on the one template?
The process for creating a book cover involves reading the manuscript or excerpt, discussing the cover with the publisher and author, lots of sketches, then lots of discussions, lots of revisions and then eventually the finished product. Sometimes the first sketch is bang on. Sometimes there are 20+ revisions. Designing a book cover is all about marketing the book. Many considerations can influence the design of the book: who’s the audience, what genre is the book, is it part of a series?
Do you read the novel in its entirety first and then decide what to extract from it for the cover art, or do you obtain an excerpt and an idea from the publisher and work with that?
It totally depends. Sometimes the cover needs to be designed before the book has gone through its final proofing. Or there are substantial rewrites happening. In that case, we read the synopsis. Sometimes if there are issues with the manuscript, there are exhaustive emails about the story to best communicate the themes and mood.
Would reading the whole novel be too distracting because there would be too much material to decide what to choose?
Not at all! It’s what we prefer! That way we can understand the story arc and what elements are significant and which are spoilers!
Did you coordinate that both books complement each other (green and red) and have one central figure in the middle on purpose or did it turn out that way by accident?
This was very much on purpose! We didn’t know what the characters would be on the second book cover, but we purposely created a simple and impactful cover featuring a central character. This made for a composition which could easily be adapted to other books in the series.
Do you paint or draw by hand, or do you use computer programs, if yes, which programs do you use?
We use Photoshop primarily. The process is basically a digital collage. We photograph textures and find stock photos online that we can use as elements. Then there is a lengthy layered process to achieve the final photographic image. This way, we are able to create surreal or fantastical settings and characters.
Is the author S.M. Beiko involved at all in the process of the book cover design?
Super involved! Sam is very creative. She draws, paints, designs, etc. So she always has great suggestions! We talk a lot about what the book is about and what she sees as a cover image.
–End of Interview–
Website of Author S.M. Beiko with further details on everything relating to The Realms of Ancient: HERE.
I would like to extend my thanks to Erik Mohr for answering all of the questions and for creating such beautiful covers I will proudly display on my shelf. Children of the Bloodlands will be released on September 25th–published by ECW Press. Many thanks to Caroline Suzuki, the Publicity Co-ordinator of ECW Press for sending me an ARC and including me in the Blog Tour project.
Done! I challenged myself to read all five nominees for best novel in the Shirley Jackson Awards 2017 within a month and I officially finished them. Here are the links and names of the five novels I read for this challenge:
- The Bone Mother by David Demchuk
- Ill Will by Dan Chaon
- The Changeling by Victor LaValle
- The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun
- The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge
I enjoyed all these works very much and I’m glad I took on this little project for a few weeks. Looking at some numbers and stats, my instinct says the winner will be The Changeling by Victor LaValle. My personal favourite was The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge. The Bone Mother sent me on an adventure looking at really cool Romanian photographs from a hundred years ago. The Hole was the first Korean book I’ve read in translation, so that was something new for me. Ill Will tested my ability to solve a mystery and interact with text presented in a new and interesting way, and forced me to learn about Satanic cults in the United States. Each one of these books brought something very different to this challenge. Of course, I have been wrong many times before, and all I can say is that I’m very excited to see who they will select as this year’s winner. There’s nothing as pleasant as making wrong predictions on the internet! All I can say is that whoever they choose there is no wrong choice here. The 2017 Shirley Jackson Awards will be presented on Sunday, July 15, 2018, at Readercon 29, Conference on Imaginative Literature, in Quincy, Massachusetts. If you have been following this with me, or reading my reviews for this challenge thank you very much for sticking with me and for your time!
The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge is the last novel I’m reading for the Shirley Jackson Awards Nominees. I think I accidentally saved the best for last because this was my favourite out of the bunch. What La Farge did with this work is really impressive because he had to work with one of the most controversial figures in Science Fiction history and somehow he examines possibilities without glorifying any of the negatives in H.P. Lovecraft. Only three years ago the figure of Lovecraft was removed by the Locus Fantasy Awards so it’s a difficult topic to work with so shortly after. Reading this novel was like peeling layers and layers on a dark flower and finding something new each time. Like a cubist artist, La Farge holds H.P. Lovecraft and the persona of this mysterious figure, but looks at it from every possible angle, considering each perspective. For one, this story isn’t really about H.P Lovecraft, it’s about a woman who is in love with a man who was passionate about a particular aspect of H.P. Lovecraft’s life. This hierarchy of perspectives creates a distance between all that one may find problematic with Lovecraft. Each character being slightly flawed and a little unreliable still preserves the mystery. Allow me to explain a little of the plot and I will try to be less cryptic. The story follows Marina who is herself a psychiatrist. Her husband Charlie was hospitalized for psychiatric reasons and one day simply vanished. The last thing we know is that he was by the edge of the lake. In trying to find out more about her husband Marina finds that Charlie was doing passionate research work on H.P. Lovecraft, in particular focusing on his sexuality, and if maybe he might have had a homosexual relationship with a young fan by the name of Robert Barlow. His lead was finding a Lovecraft diary also known in this novel as The Erotonomicon (playing on the Necronomicon). It was kind of interesting to consider that at the time H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘clues’ or proof trail of being homosexual might have been hidden by publishers or friends to ‘preserve’ his integrity whilst the racist and xenophobic parts of his biography were unashamedly left in, whereas today it would be exactly the reverse. I am a big fan of acknowledging that no one is good or bad, but a dynamic character with flaws and qualities alike and that the path to rehabilitation and education can help anyone no matter what they said or did in the past. Lovecraft did a lot of good for fantasy and sparked a series of subgenres. He was very unhappy and died in extreme poverty. I have always tried to keep that in mind, and La Farge just reminded me how interesting Lovecraft was and it’s making me want to go read the Necronomicon again.
Because the main narrator is involved in a mystery trying to find out more about her own husband, because Charlie himself is psychologically unstable (which automatically makes him an unreliable narrator), and because the ‘findings’ about Lovecraft have been filtered, hidden, and ‘rumoured’ the whole novel preserves an overall tone of suspense and eerie mystery. Even Charlie’s disappearance is something straight out of a Cthulhu story. No one is one hundred percent reliable, and no one has a definite answer on Lovecraft, which leaves the reader of The Night Ocean alone, left to come up with answers by connecting the dots. Also, Marina trying to understand Charlie, and him explaining Lovecraft to her in flashbacks/memories, and her learning more about him as we go along, we are introduced to bits of biography about Lovecraft, including the parts which make him a controversial figure. Like I said, this novel was very dynamic and it is presented in such a way that reminds me of a cubist painting. It is no small feat, and La Farge has succeeded immensely (in my humble opinion). This was a very difficult task and his writing is absolutely amazing. The way the story is told, the diverse cast of characters, the new parts of Lovecraft’s life to be explored, the incorporation of a female narrator to guide the story forward are just a few aspects of what makes this story so good. I also have to slip in that I was hooked on Charlie the moment he said he procrastinated by watching Lost…something I’m obsessed with. There goes my bias.
Definitely read this book if you love H.P. Lovecraft, mystery, science fiction, the macabre, steampunkish speculative fiction, and gothic atmospheres/settings. I mean…this is a Shirley Jackson Award nominee…so you already know.
The Changeling by Victor LaValle is the fourth book I’m reading for the Shirley Jackson Awards 2017 nominees. If I had to put my money down, based on what I’ve read so far and looking at its stats, I would say that this book has the strongest chance to be the winner. That said, I have not finished all five yet (still have one left). Also, The Changeling has just won the 2018 Locus Award for Best Horror novel.
This novel has “two starts” but for good reason. The first is Apollo Kagwa’s parents’ love story and the beginnings of Apollo. Apollo is mixed and from a low-income family. His father mysteriously disappears but continues to appear to Apollo in dreams/nightmares. Apollo grows up and becomes very involved in dealing/collecting/selling rare books and is himself an avid reader. As things progress he too falls in love (the second start) with Emma and together they have a baby boy. At this point the novel takes a term from slightly creepy and mysterious to supernatural stellar writing. I liked the way the Goodreads synopsis puts it without spoilers: “Before Apollo can do anything to help, Emma commits a horrific act—beyond any parent’s comprehension—and vanishes, seemingly into thin air. Thus begins Apollo’s odyssey through a world he only thought he understood to find a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined.” That…is putting it mildly. This novel is a roller-coaster ride, and it somehow does it by creeping up on you. You start slowly and you’re being fed one odd thing at a time, until you find yourself so deep you forget how you got here in the first place. I had to consult the synopsis because by the end I wasn’t sure what would be considered a spoiler.
What I particularly loved about LaValle’s writing was the way he brought the dark fairy tale to the city: New York. As a passionate Lore fan and reading these kinds of stories with supernatural elements, I can’t help but notice they are almost always set in an isolated town, in a rural part of a very abandoned state, or in some very small place with few inhabitants. Dropping this dark fairy tale in New York while simultaneously poking at the very contemporary “here and now” elements of parenting, social networks, and media is something that I never considered could come together so well in one cohesive narrative. LaValle challenges the spaces one thought of as ‘safe’ due to their bright lights and overpopulation and turns this concept it on its head. Parallel to these writing techniques, unstable setting, and atmosphere LaValle still places at this novel’s core the essence of what makes us human in exploring our strengths and weaknesses when it comes to family, love, parenting, and how our origins, or ‘where we come from’ or the literal ghosts of our past can influence our present. I really enjoyed this book, and even though it took me a lot longer to read this one than the others it was worth the effort. I recommend this if you like Aaron Mahnke’s Lore and Cabinet of Curiosities, dark fairy tales, gothic atmospheres, and of course…Shirley Jackson.
The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun is the third book I read for my Shirley Jackson Awards 2017 challenge (See more here). Pyun is from Korea and this novel has been translated into English by Sora Kim-Russell. The novel has been marketed as a psychological thriller about loneliness. Even before being translated or nominated for this prize Hye-Young Pyun has been compared Shirley Jackson and Yoko Ogawa “for her blending of the everyday with the gothic and the grotesque.”
The novel is short but very intense. As I mentioned earlier, it is the shortest novel on the list of nominees this year. The novel follows Oghi, a university professor who has recently been in a car accident with his wife. His wife passes away on impact during the crash, and he survives it, but is fully paralyzed and must have a caretaker. His caretaker is his “next of kin” which is surprisingly enough: his mother in law. There must be some difference in cultures here because I don’t see this happening in the West. We are told the narrative from Oghi’s perspective and the lack of mobility, the grief, and the flashbacks all accumulate to a very tense and suspenseful read, as you feel just as paralyzed as Oghi. Oghi’s tense relationship with his wife and mother-in-law pre-accident makes this story extra creepy and gives the reader a sense of uneasiness, but also the present due to his incapacitated state, and visions of the ghost of his wife. His mother-in-law is as strange as the plot and situation, she is a widow, just lost her daughter, but struggles with her half-Japanese identity. At this point I felt a little disjointedness from the narrative because I felt like something was missing—there’s a gap in my knowledge of understanding certain things relating to Japanese-Korean relationships and I missed out on a lot of the mother-in-law’s characterization.
What I absolutely admired about Hye-Young Pyun’s writing was the way she weaved the theme of “the hole” through this novel. According to her publisher: “The title of the novel is a play on words: a transliteration of the English word “hole,” 홀 (hol) is a Korean prefix meaning “alone” and most readily refers to one who is widowed.” The hole here is used as both fixating on the fact that both Oghi and his mother-in-law are alone and widowed, and also on the hole within, the hole of experiencing complete loneliness and despair. One reviewer on Goodreads noted that even Oghi’s profession and his thoughts towards the Babylonian Map of the World, dated to the 5th century BC has a hole at its center. Even visually, as you progress through the novel, each chapter is prefaced by a “black hole” which gets progressively larger before it engulfs the reader completely. I took a picture because it looks really cool.
Pyun’s ability to play with so many elements, themes, and characters in such a small space while simultaneously keeping the reader on edge is really admirable. Again, I think maybe some things got lost in translation, or maybe the translation enhanced it, I don’t know. It’s a little difficult to compare as this is the only novel on the nomination list that is in translation. The original has been published in Korea in 2016 which means a lot of thought and consideration was given to place bring this novel into this competition. I thought it was a great read, and I highly recommend it for people who enjoy the works of Han Kang, Yoko Ogawa, Daphne du Maurier, and yes, even Shirley Jackson herself.
Before assessing my own opinion in terms of literary merit, and what I believe Shirley Jackson-worthy literary books to be like, I looked at some previous winners and award patterns. First of all, I’m NOT a judge or a literary scholar by any means, this is just MY OPINION and personal project. I like examining these things and nerding out over them, so I looked at all the winners since the awards got started. For instance, if you tally up all the winners for all six categories (best novel, novella, novelette, short story, single-author collection, edited anthology) included there have been a total of 66 winners in the last 10 years (some years there were 2 editors for anthologies, and one year there were two winners in the same category). Of the total 40 were men, and 26 were women. Of the total winners 49 were from USA, 7 from Canada, 5 from the UK, 2 from Australia, 2 from Japan, and 1 from South Africa.
Some people have won the Shirley Jackson Award twice (or more), or even in more than one category in the same year. For example in 2010 Neil Gaiman won for best novelette, but also for best edited anthology for a different work. From the list of this year’s nominees for best novel, Victor Lavalle won in the past, in 2016 for best novella, and in 2009 for best novel.
I tried to look at this year’s nominees from a “numerical” standpoint in terms of readership and ratings (as of RIGHT NOW looking at Goodreads)
These numbers are of course very loose as many readers may not have Goodreads, or are like me and don’t like to assign a star rating to a book on Goodreads and merely “add it” with a written review of pros/cons.
There are some things to consider about each of these books that doesn’t even involve the content. This is me brainstorming:
The Hole is the shortest book on the list with only 198 pages, of that not even having the most favourable ratings, and it is the only book in translation (thus we cannot read it in the original language to fully appreciate its craft). Simultaneously it involves the work of more people since it is in translation. It is also the only book on this list with no audiobook accompaniment which usually reaches a wider audience which may have shortened its reach. IF it did win though, it would be the first winner from Korea. Hye-Young Pyun is also the only female nominee in the best novel category this year. The Bone Mother‘s presentation is in the form of a series of short stories or anecdotes rather than a novel in the traditional sense. It is also the only debut novel from the list, whereas all the other authors have published several works beforehand. Ill Will has also played around with presentation in the forms on non-traditional columns (something I have not encountered before in a novel), and The Night Ocean has at its center one of the most controversial figures in fantasy: H.P Lovecraft who just three years ago was dropped as the image of the World Fantasy Award. To be honest, from the list this novel got my attention most because I enjoy Lovecraftian fiction and I am saving it for last. Of course, the judges probably already knew this when they selected it, and as I have not yet read it, I will not pass judgement on it. Victor Lavalle has won the Shirley Jackson twice in the past both for best novel (2009) and best novella (2016) so he’s clearly mastered something the judges of the Jackson Awards appreciate. His book is also the only one with both high readerships and equally high percentages in ratings (highlighted in red above). I think the WISE thing to assume here is that these five novels have been selected for a reason, and that judges will place all prejudices or previous knowledge aside and look at each novel as it stands alone. Sometimes I wish these things were as easy as: I just enjoyed this one the most! But it’s so hard when they are all very very good! So far I’ve enjoyed the two books I read, and I’m currently in the middle of The Changeling, and almost done The Hole and they are both equally amazing and elegant to the previous two works I read. Reviews for the next three books will follow!
This novel involves two unsolved murders connected to Dustin Tillman, a psychologist, father of two sons, in his mid-forties, living in a suburb of Cleveland. The two murders are separated by a significant time gap, the first happening in the 80’s. Dustin’s parents, aunt, and uncle were killed and the blame fell on his adopted teenage brother Russell. Russell’s trial lacked any sort of physical evidence, as the jury simply took Dustin’s and Kate’s (Dustin’s cousin) word for it being related to Satanic cults. After a quick Google search I found that apparently there was a lot of hysteria during the 1980s over Satanic cults with many testimonies, physical, sexual abuse, and dangerous practices, and very prevalent in the United States, spreading to other countries by the early ‘90s. In present day, DNA testing proves that Rusty didn’t actually commit the crime and he has been released. We find this out in the first few pages as Dustin receives a phone call. The second crime involves one of Dustin’s patients connecting drunk college boy drownings sending Dustin on a “Clarice Starling” puzzle-solving quest. Suggestions of repressed memories, people’s perception of reality and truth, a lot of manipulation and the 80s Satanic rituals’ aftermath involving all the psychological side effects on individuals, groups, and society at large all play a part in this book that jumps back and forth in time between the 1980s and present day. Dustin’s own family has to observe, speculate, and deal with the hardship second -hand. The perspective from which we are told this story changes as well, and we are presented with “evidence” as if we too were participating in the solving of the mystery by means of text messages, or information laid out in ‘brainstorming’ format appearing in columns on the page.
This book had its own innovations, mainly in the ways it experimented with delivering information to its readers. By allowing readers to be a part of the decoding, and trying to figure things out, as well as leaving the end slightly ambiguous and vague, it succeeds in maintaining an overall mystery looming over the plot even after the story ends. It was an easy read, despite it being the longest on the nominee list, (I sped through it in two days) I don’t think it’s intimidating, and if it sounds like something of interest to you, I strongly recommend you pick it up. My issues with this novel nominated in this category comes from its lack of “Shirley Jacksonness.” Aside from the Satanic cults, this novel read more like a crime thriller, or a horror-mystery. I think it’s an excellent candidate for a horror or murder mystery award, and I’m glad to see it on the Locus Horror Award nomination list. I think it stands an excellent change of winning that one, I am just not sure it’s ideal for this category in this particular award series. I wouldn’t generally pick up something like this, so in a way this novel put me out of my reading comfort zone, but at the same time I turn to the Jackson Awards for a particular kind of supernatural, dark fairy tale element. There’s a sense that this novel was written for the screen. Perhaps it would make an interesting mini-series or full feature, but something in the way it’s written suggests that it was written for the screen more-so than a literary crowd. I am wondering if anyone else has read this book, and if so, what are you thoughts on this book, and its subsequent award nominations?
The Bone Mother is the first novel I’m reading for the project I’m currently working on: reading the nominees for the Shirley Jackson Award. The Bone Mother has already hit a very good spot with me and I enjoyed it immensely. I think in many ways it’s like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children for adults, and has a resemblance to Lore. As I mentioned before I’m from Romania, but I have been educated and raised in Canada. This book is written by Canadian author David Demchuk and it draws its inspiration from photographs made by Romanian photographer Costică Acsinte between 1935-1945, and Eastern European folklore, so in many ways it felt very familiar and close to home. This novel was also long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which is very impressive as it is his debut novel.
This ‘novel’ isn’t quite a novel in the traditional sense. It is a series of stories, each prefaced by a black and white photograph from Acsinte’s collection, with a new name in the title. The names are both Romanian and Ukrainian/Russian. The tales focus on three villages on the border of Ukraine and Romania, neighbouring “The Thimble Factory.” Images of thimbles are present throughout the book, and we quickly learn that those who inhabit these villages must work five years at the thimble factory. There are narratives surrounding those working in the thimble factory which are more snippets of daily life, interspersed with fables and folkloric anecdotes featuring the supernatural like Strigoi (Romanian myth, troubled spirits of the dead rising from the grave, sometimes similar to vampire folklore) and Rusalkas (Russian myth, water spirit). At the center of it all is the fear of the Night Police who take people in the dead of night, and the most frightening figure at the center of the forest, not belonging to any village: the Bone Mother—she cooks and eats people who fail the tasks she gives them.
There are some phenomenal features to this work. The first is its juxtaposition of ‘regular’ folk next to these ‘supernatural’ beings as co-existing in the same spaces, while narrating it in a simplified, casual tone. The Bone Mother is never trying to scare you, but presents some narratives side by side of a history that may or may not have been. The way Demchuk also incorporates queer narratives gives the reader the impression that he is trying to look at various angles on the story of marginalized groups contrasting historical superstitions with contemporary oppression. There is also the juxtaposition of post-industrialism influence: the thimble factory, existing as a machine in the garden of folklore. The Bone Mother reminded me very much of a branch of literary theory contrasting naturalism with technology in literature. A work that comes to mind is the academic book by Leo Marx called The Machine in the Garden which explores the ways North America started out with such promise on untouched land with possibility, yet entered it with full industrial, assembly-line force, and how this is reflected in literature when the pastoral ideal clashes with technological advance. The way Demchuk presents these ideas in fiction is subtle but ever-present. Overall The Bone Mother very well written and had an innovative take on Eastern European folklore.
My only “problem” with this novel is that it’s not a novel. I thought the stories would combine as one, or that we would be introduced to some characters and then it would merge in novel-form. It maintained its short anecdote format, separated by images, that it was a little frustrating at times not knowing if it will merge or not. The short story format worked for what it is, however I’m wondering how it will rank against the other four nominees, and if this format would hold it back. What helped me a lot with this was getting the audiobook from Audible and following along in the text because they had different voice actors for each character and it brought them to life as diverse voices, with heavy Eastern European accents. Considering this is also a debut work, I think we can look forward to more from Demchuk and the book has done quite well so far making it on the list of two literary prizes already. This was a strong start!
I know a lot of people on Booktube, Bookstagram, and reading blogs keep up with several literary prizes. The Women’s Prize, International Man Booker, CBC Canada Reads, Bram Stoker, and Pulitzer among the most popular. I decided this year to try to keep up with at least one prize: The Shirley Jackson Awards. This award was created in recognition of the legacy of Shirley Jackson’s writing, for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic. My favourite kind!
I am only going to read the novels nominated as I know I won’t be able to find the rest in time (most of the short fiction is found under publications that require subscription). I placed holds on the five novels which have been nominated for this prize at my local library. They will announce the winner by July 15, so I have about a month to get through these five novels, which should be achievable. I may end up reading 2-3 of the novellas but that is where I will stop. Here are the five novels nominated:
- Ill Will, Dan Chaon (Ballantine Books)
- The Bone Mother, David Demchuk (ChiZine Publications)
- The Changeling, Victor Lavalle (Spiegel & Grau)
- The Hole, Hye-young Pyun (Arcade Publishing)
- The Night Ocean, Paul La Farge (Penguin Press)
The full list of other categories can be found here. I will try to put a review for each of the five within the next month and see how I’d rank them.
Just an update, right now I’m also reading a lot of children’s stories and children’s literature. It’s a “fantastical” kind of mood I’ve been having. I wanted to take on this project because it’s nice to have an ongoing challenge that has a definitive end (July 15). Anything that would be stretched out over a longer period of time…well… I’m afraid I’d fail or lose interest. If you also want to keep up, feel free to join in! The public library should have all these, and you can join in the conversation as I review these. If you already wrote about any of them in the past, or will in the future on your own review blog and would like to share it with me, just put a link below, I’d love to read your thoughts on these. I will start with The Bone Mother by David Demchuck.
Earlier 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.
I was lucky enough to read this book at the right time. I can see this novel being a hit or miss for so many people depending on the circumstances in which they come across this work. Here are some personal things that helped with fully grasping this novel at the right time: Earlier this month I read The First Bad Man by Miranda July and was introduced to a very particular niche-kind of narrating voice. When I was about to enter my first year of university an online group hosted by the soon-to-be second years in our program constantly repeated to newcomers: whatever you do, don’t be pretentious. My observations of Canada, coming from Eastern Europe, and studying Russian Literature in undergrad. All these come into play in my personal experience reading this novel.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman is what I would classify as a “campus novel.” It’s about young people trying to figure themselves out, trying to learn from the clean theory work, and realizing that it doesn’t match up to the messiness of the real world. To me, this novel read like The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, but written in the style of Miranda July. I think Batuman was more successful in the deadpan narration because her writing has an aesthetic that isn’t bordering the grotesque which had me very distracted in the July novel.
The Idiot follows Selin, a Turkish-American young woman in the mid-90s, who is a first year undergraduate student at Harvard. She has a few eccentric friends and roommates and falls in love with Ivan, an emotionally unavailable Hungarian math major. The plot is overly simplistic. The first half involves campus experiences from first year undergrad at Harvard, and the second involves Selin following Ivan to Hungary under the pretext of teaching English to children in a village and becoming completely disappointed in a lot of aspects of her life, her studies, and her relationships. Before I elaborate on what I enjoyed about this novel and where it felt short for me, I’d like to list the two sentiments expressed by many other reviewers in places where readers couldn’t get along with the narration style or the characters. The first is:
“It’s basically a rite of passage for a college-age girl to go through that phase where she falls in love with an intellectually exciting but emotionally inept asshole.”
And the second is:
“Selin is an Ivy League student who does not need to hold down a job, has zero problems in life and seems to spend all day reading fun texts and thinking about, yes, herself. Still, she is pretentiously suffering from disorientation. Get a life, Selin, your #firstworldproblems are a bore. Full disclosure: I never had much sympathy for people who seem to want to crawl back to their high school (and mommy), because, like, college is, like, so hard and stuff. It’s not. College is a privilege, so grow up and get over yourself. It’s a mystery to me how Selin can have so little fun there without any apparent reason”
Accusations of pretentiousness, lack of self-awareness, first world problems, and white-girl-type relationship drama are reasons listed by people as to why this novel fell short for them.
My argument is that this novel about a person becoming self-aware. From the get-go if you don’t think most people at Harvard are already at the top of the college hierarchy then you didn’t start reading this novel on the right foot. I personally went to a pretty ‘prestigious’ and respectable university and met people of unmatchable privilege, and it doesn’t even come close to Harvard’s reputation. Given the setting, I would say Selin is quite humble. The novel is filled with deadpan comedy, situational humour, quiet bizarre moments, and Selin adjusting her headspace to make room for all these things in her life. You realize shortly after that Selin is very self-aware that despite being surrounded by some of the world’s ‘most intelligent’ people each one of them is ‘an idiot’ in various aspects of real life in the ‘real’ world. I think if I had to sum up this novel in one word it would be “realizations.” Reading it feels like you are walking through the simple actions of life with a very quirky friend, and the whole time you sort of hear life from their odd point of view. When Selin takes literature classes she says: “I wasn’t interested in society, or ancient people’s money troubles. I wanted to know what books really meant.” Stopping to think what that would mean in terms of discussion. There are many quiet moments like these where Selin just makes statements and observations and as a reader I found myself going ‘heh, I never thought about it in that light before.’ For example, Selin contemplates that Disney villains knew they were evil and prided themselves on it, whereas in the real world bad people think they’re the good guys, what it would have meant to really love certain historical figures like Lenin, or feeling trapped when you realize every one of your experiences is some form of oppression on some people somewhere at all times when you really want to do the right thing.
The novel is also filled with movie analyses, book references (particularly Russian literature), side-comments about these novels, cultural references, and a set of quirky characters. Selin is constantly grasping at experience and trying to form an identity while she is constantly disappointed that real life never matched her romanticized notions and expectations. That hit every college student experiences when they realize that even though they were the smartest fish in the small pond that is high school, they are now surrounded by thousands of overachievers, intellects, and people with a drive that is unmatchable: people who invent vaccines, Nobel Prize winners, and self-starting billionaries. There are no lessons learned really, the deadpan style of comedy is somewhat depressing at times, and the mixture of observations and ‘true to life’ experiences gives this novel a shroud of hyper-realism in a way. It feels like real life, while the characters are still part of the top 1%. What makes the novel fall short is its length. What starts out being charming and endearing becomes sort of dry and dragged out by its length. There’s only so much time one can spend with overly odd characters at a time, and only so many Zoey Deschanel movies one can watch in a row.
Overall I really enjoyed this book, and I would recommend it if you like campus novels, if you want to be brought back to a time when you were surrounded by pretentious nerds, if you like quirkiness and odd observations from strange characters, and if any of the things I said above sounds like you might want to give this book a try. It really works if you’re in the right mindset for it. The Idiot was short listed for the 2018 Women’s Prize in literature. I found it worth my time, and I wish I could have discussed this with someone as I was reading it, so maybe a good book club choice? Overall, I think for a debut novel it’s excellent.
“The ship drifted on the horizon like a symbol of escape”
“I wonder…when it was that the world first went amiss, and men forgot how to live and to love and be happy.”
I loved this book so much! It’s exactly what I needed right now. Daphne Du Maurier is so skilled in creating a perfect atmosphere, exciting plots, and dynamic relationships between her characters. This novel is escapism at its best.
Frenchman’s Creek follows Dona, a beautiful 30-year-old woman who is part of London’s upper class. Dona married Harry years ago and had two children with him. She never liked propriety, or the aristocracy, and would try to visit saloons and infiltrate other parts of society but it never felt enough, and it never felt right. The passion and love between Harry and Dona had faded many years ago (and never really existed in the first place) and Harry stopped trying, being completely inattentive to his wife. He was so preoccupied with his projects and hobbies that he might as well have been single. Feeling trapped, Dona decided to leave Harry for the summer and spent her days in absolute freedom at their summer home/cottage Navron House, right by the coast. We get a sense that Dona wants to escape. She wants absolute freedom and adventure. Upon arriving she thinks to herself as she stands by the coast:
“this was freedom, to stand here for one minute with her face to the sun and the wind, this was living, to smile and to be alone.”
Upon arriving, Dona finds all of her household staff missing with the exception of a rugged man named William. Rumours around town are that in recent months a pirate and his crew have been robbing the rich families around Navron House. Dona finds all this quite odd, until she comes face to face with the pirate ship hiding right by her house in a creek by the forest. Dona develops a friendship with the captain of the ship, who is a Frenchman (hence the title) by the name of Jean-Benoit Aubéry. The pirate is dark, handsome, French, and an incredible artist. He loves the sea, basking in freedom, and has a fondness for birds, naming his own ship La Mouette (the seagull). The novel picks up from there and there are so many escapades, and Three Musketeers-like fights, and adventures, filled with excitement and passion. The whole time Dona must reconcile her position in society with her longing for escape, and her role as mother and part of the aristocracy with her pirate adventures. There are two prevailing themes brought up over and over in this novel. The first is contemplating what it means to be happy and free, and the second is the realization that excitement and absolute ecstatic happiness can only be experienced temporarily. Good, nay, great things cannot last for too long or they lose their charm.
William says to Dona:
“a man is faced at once with a choice. He must either stay at home and be bored, or go away and be miserable. He is lost in either case. No, to be really free, a man must sail alone.”
Later Jean-Benoit and Dona discuss life as a pirate and she asks him if this life has brought him happiness, to which he responds that it has brought him contentment. When asked to explain the difference he says:
“contentment is a state of mind and body when the two work in harmony, and there is no friction. The mind is at peace, and the body also. The two are sufficient to themselves. Happiness is elusive—coming perhaps once in a life-time—and approaching ecstasy.”
The novel’s dominant feeling of uneasiness is best captured in this conversation between Jean-Benoit and Dona as she knows she must return from her first one-day escapade wishing their love-affair could last forever, and that her life could always be at sea. He says:
“you forget…that women are more primitive than men. For a time they will wander, yes, and play at love, and play at adventure. And then, like the birds, they must make their nest. Instinct is too strong for them. Birds build the home they crave, and settle down into it, warm and safe, and have their babies.’
‘but the babies grow up,’ she said, ‘and fly away, and the parent birds fly away too, and are free once more.’
He laughed at her, staring into the fire, watching the flames.
‘There is no answer, Dona,’ he said, ‘for I could sail away now in La Mouette and come back to you in twenty years’ time, and what should I find but a placid, comfortable woman…with her dreams long forgotten, and I myself a weather-beaten mariner, stiff in the joints, with a beareded face, and my taste for piracy gone with the spent years.’
‘and if I sailed with you now, and never returned?’
‘Who can tell? Regret perhaps, and disillusion, and a looking back over you shoulders…perhaps no regrets. But more building of nests, and more rearing of broods, and I having to sail alone again, and so a losing once more of adventure. So you see, my Dona, there is no escape for a woman, only for a night and for a day.’
To follow this story from Dona’s perspective and to know what she wants, what she is capable of, and to know that even those who ‘love’ her are not willing to join her in either adventure, or nesting, or misery is one of the ways in which this novel pulls at the reader’s heartstrings. The adventures she has are very Wendy-like: temporary. I would like to think that Frenchman’s Creek is almost like Peter Pan for adults. Both novels incorporate pirates, a woman trapped between a world of fun and one of responsibility, a woman longing for adventure, two younger children, and they are both filled with bird-references. (Totally cool fun fact, Daphne Du Maurier’s aunt was Sylvia Llewelyn Davies–the mother of the children who inspired Barrie’s Peter Pan). I don’t know if this book is too deep, or heavy in any way. It is light, and fun, with a bit of pain, but what makes this light narrative worth your time is that it’s very well-written. Daphne Du Maurier has such dexterity and uses language with such craft. The landscape alone will place the reader in an amazing state of mind. This is very much an escapist novel, and like Dona, the reader will temporarily go on an amazing journey. I highly recommend this book, it’s really fun, and has many funny bits (particularly when Dona pokes fun at the aristocrats in their faces without them realizing what she is doing).
I haven’t written for a bit but I have been reading, and I’m starting to have some feelings affecting my overall disposition and attitude towards books. I had my Goodreads goal set at 100. I’m now at 56, and I am sure I’ll reach 100 anyway, but numbers in general really stress me out. I like numbers at the end of a year so I can see what I liked, or what I picked up, but while I’m in the process they are overwhelming. There is an undeniable pressure on two accounts: the first is that I MUST reach that 100 goal, and the second is the rating. It’s a little complicated but sometimes I really enjoy a book, or it stays with me for a particular reason, but I wouldn’t consider it great literature. At the same time, others tackle extremely difficult subjects and important conversations must be had around them, but again, I wouldn’t consider it amazing. An idea worth a sentence or two stands out and I still remember it but I don’t know if I would read it again. I decided to set my count on Goodreads to “52” as if to say one book per week just so I don’t have to worry about it anymore, and from now on to review books without assigning them a rating on Goodreads UNLESS it is a 5 star-rating, or if it made me so mad I had to give it a low rating to emphasize how bad it was (rarely happens). I also need to keep my book-buying habit in check and spend less. I will try to focus on books I have, and use the library more. I am certainly doing better than last year, but it still requires some improvement. The majority of books however fall under the 2-4.5 ratings and the pros and cons add and take away on an individual level. I also learned something about myself and a particular pet-peeve I have lately which is this:
- Books (normally culture-based or gender-based) that have a topic but instead end up being an autobiography of the author (who is often not of interest to me), or a series of people’s experiences. These kinds of books are disguised as “non-fiction” but at the end you learn nothing except for one person’s experience of life, which most certainly cannot be replicated. This same thing often results in people trying to have academic or non-biased conversations around a topic and suddenly attach their personal experience with this topic which now skews the topic in their favour because attacking their stance, means personally attack their experience. I am going to use an example to where a book failed and one succeeded. First you have books like Spinster by Kate Bolick. It is a cultural non-fiction book meant to discusses spinsterhood (by choice or not). Instead we get really large portions of Bolick’s life story and it turns into an autobiography using spinsterhood as a frame while mainly discussing her dating history and upbringing, and relationship with her mother. Then you have books like The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains by Thomas W. Laqueur. The book follows burial practices from various cultures, using examples from each, ties it all together around geography, architecture etc. and how it affects us on a human level. At no point is there a long story about all the people in Laqueur’s life and how he coped with death etc. Turning a cultural topic into an autobiography IS NOT cool (to me). Others might like it, but that’s not how I read.
- “Self-Help” books that recycle everything from other self-help books but pretending that they’re original. This to me is a sign that the author didn’t read all that much (especially if they think they’re original). Sometimes it’s interesting to see how many people reach the same conclusions, but is it worth printing out so many copies and flooding the market and planet with hundreds of these?
- Books about other books that again have hardly any analysis or insight but are completely one-sided and irrelevant to anyone else. Example: Dear Fahrenheit 451
This has left me generally unenthusiastic about a big chunk of the books I read this year (and some from last year). Learning that will help me make better selections in the future, because obviously I’m at fault for picking these up. So here’s a list of books that I haven’t talked about in much detail but have been reading. A detailed post about Alan Watts will follow, and a full review of the Robertson Davies Cornish Trilogy. As for the rest, there is either nothing I can really criticize like in Naomi Morgenstern’s book and Not That Bad edited by Roxanne Gay, or the rest which didn’t have much of an impact on me but were “just okay.”
- The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater by Alanna Okun.—young woman discusses her passion which is knitting. She weaves in parts of her life, the people in her life who have passed away and how knitting helps her cope with many things. It’s a book about art mixed with life. The topic being so micro-focused made it all work out.
- The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai—book about a 26-year-old librarian who has a favourite young patron who is stuck in a religious family and is homosexual. She takes it upon herself to save him. Fictional work. The main character is weirdly a lot like me so it was nice to read from a very personal self-invested perspective.
- Lady Killers Tori Telfer—book about women serial killers. It hopped back and forth between: look how baddass this woman was! and: even when they kill women aren’t taken seriously, like they get hardly any jail time and get silly nicknames instead of cool ones like Jack the Ripper. Sometimes the wording made it sound like certain serial killers plead insanity as a cover-up…but people who murder repeatedly are mentally ill. There were weird lines where the author uses mental illness as an excuse for murder, or as if the murderers chose it to get away from real jail, and you’re never quite sure what the author thinks it’s right or wrong.
- Not That Bad edited by Roxanne Gay: individual accounts of rape and how it affects women differently and all the different ways rape exists. This is extremely difficult to read because of the subject matter, and it opens an important conversation.
- The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson: although it recycles many other philosophies it words it in a ‘bro-ish’ way for millennials using present-day examples and targeting out present-day anxieties. It was like an energy shot. Very quick, I liked the audiobook way better, because TONE is everything with this book.
- The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts—I’m going through an Alan Watts addiction phase right now. I will elaborate on him further. He is a philosopher who brings together Eastern Philosophy with Western Religion/Theology. He is in conversation with Buddhism, and the works of Carl Jung as well as several others. He’s currently my favourite person.
- The Wild Child: Intensive Parenting and Posthumanist Ethics by Naomi Morgenstern: this is an academic book that just got released looking at parenting and engages with several works like Room by Emma Donoghue, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Lioner Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, and a film called Prisoners. It is extremely well thought out and well-written, but again this is an academic work. The introduction alone engages with the works of Derrida, Philip Aries, and several other takes on childhood and child-bearing (particularly regarding scientific involvement) and Freudian psychoanalysis.
- The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies: book one of the Cornish Trilogy, follows a group of eccentric academics in Toronto following the death of Arthur Cornish who was a really interesting art and manuscript collector. It involves a lot of wit. Reading this is like reading a rap battle between Winston Churchill and Oscar Wilde.
- Shrill by Lindy West: Lindy West’s account and experience of being overweight, being a feminist, and how she exists or sees herself in mainstream media.
- Vampires: Afield Guide to Creatures that Stalk the Night by Bob Curran: a very short book on Vampires not going into much depth on any particular subject.
- Cities in Flight by James Blish: science fiction work where science is the new religion. Buddy-read this with a few people and everyone had a hard time with how dated and verbose this book was.
- Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson: the person who started the Zero-waste movement shares her experience with being Zero-waste when she is also a mother, fully employed, and applies this to her entire home with all her family memebers, showing people it is possible to live in the city and apply the Zero Waste Lifestyle.
- Starve Better—Nick Mamatas: explains the difficulties with writing, particularly science fiction and trying to make a living. He focuses much more on short stories and the craft of short stories, and/or the difficulties of selling short fiction
- The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. A fictional work about a “famous” actress based on the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and other women from the good Hollywood years, being interviewed by a young journalist.
There were others that had no effect on me which I haven’t mentioned, but here’s a full account of what I read this year if it’s of interest.
WHAT I’M CURRENTLY READING
- Book II of the Cornish Trilogy by Robertson Davies called What’s Bred in the Bone
- Listening to Out of Your Mind by Alan Watts on Audible
- Buddy-reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry with James Chatham
What I plan to Do from Now On:
- No more Goodreads Ratings, and ignore the count tracker
- No more reading cultural/gender-studies books. Either scientific or historical non-fiction, or fiction.
- Read better fictional works that have been around for a while and I know they are worth investing time in
- Three Reviews will come soon including: Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley, The People’s Republic of Everything by Nick Mamatas, and At the Teahouse Cafe: Essays from the Middle Kingdom by Isham Cook.
Perhaps it’s tough to step back in time just a little and see that David Foster Wallace saw the dangers of what is now on demand 24/7 media consumption in the form of Netflix and other film networks, YouTube, etc. While Infinite Jest is an attempt to present some of the dangers thinly veiled in fiction, it is a bit exclusionary by being over 1000 pages, serving a very narrow, elitist, academic crowd, taking Shakespearean strides and inventing too many new words hoping the reader understands, and has a fragmented structure with layers of references, meta-references, and irony. It’s certainly readable but it is intimidating. If I had to discuss David Foster Wallace, or give an introduction to him, I would start off with the first essay in this collection: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” It’s one of my favourite essays of all time, and one I re-read often. While this collection contains seven separate pieces (one including an academic discourse, an analysis of David Lynch’s films, a tennis essay, and a retreat), I will discuss in this post two of my favourite David Foster Wallace essays: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (henceforth I’ll refer to them as “E Unibus Pluram” and “Supposedly Fun”). I will highlight some of my favourite passages and add to it some of my experiences. This is not a review, or an analysis. This is me jotting down my favourite parts of these essays with a few notes from my annotations and what it reminds me of, as well as the feelings it stirs. Let’s call it a ‘reader’s diary?’
What has drawn me to DFW is my highly addictive behavior—something DFW himself struggled with, and a theme he incorporates in his fiction and non-fiction. Television, porn, and weed more than anything else (in Wallace’s work). We see traces of all these things in Hal Incandenza in Infinite Jest, the whole of “Big Red Son” focusing on pornography alone in Consider the Lobster, and television in this collection. I’ve always watched a lot of television as a kid, a teen, and in undergrad. Not only did I stream things continuously, I would watch several of them again and again. I would have it on in the background to avoid silence when cooking, cleaning, painting etc. By third year of undergrad I was on Netflix and YouTube non-stop but this time actively watching. I calculated that I had spent a total of 56 days of the year watching (24 hour days) when I put all the calculated time of all the seasons of all the shows I had watched in second year. Netflix made things even worse by automatically going to the next episode, something YouTube now does too—like an all-you-can-eat buffet of media. The strangest thing was, that I felt like I was doing some sort of artistic research, or like I was doing this for the purpose of learning something. Lost kind of put an end to my TV watching days because nothing ever compared, but the YouTube watching persists. You will immediately be able to see why this essay struck a chord with me. Wallace begins with:
“Fiction writers as a species tend to be oglers. They tend to lurk and to stare. They are born watchers. They are viewers. They are the ones on the subway about whose nonchalant stare there is something creepy somehow. Almost predatory…but fiction writers tend at the same time to be terribly self-conscious.”
This of course results in watching television as a voyeur, or ‘peeping-Tom’-ism hoping to see some human behavior and in on the secret lives of others:
“We can see Them; They can’t see Us. We can relax, unobserved, as we ogle. I happen to believe this is why television also appeals so much to lonely people. To voluntary shut-ins…lonely people tend, rather, to be lonely because they decline to bear the psychic costs of being of other humans. They are allergic to people. People affect them too strongly.”
The problem however, is that all of these lives that we are watching are not real. The actors know that they are filmed, it’s all a fakery. These behaviours transcribe later on into social media where everyone on you know presents only the best versions of themselves, and everything is filtered and edited on YouTube, and even to the extreme in Hollywood films and shows.
“The people we’re watching through TV’s framed-glass screen not really ignorant of the fact that somebody is watching them. In fact a whole lot of somebodies…they are on the screen engaging in broad non-mundane gestures at all…we’re not voyeurs here at all. We’re just viewers…television is pretending ignorance. They know we’re out there. It’s proffered—illusion…not real people in real situation. We’re not really even seeing ‘characters.’”
This seeps into the lives of celebrities as well. Wallace writes of our relationships with these celebrities:
“…we worship them. These characters may be our ‘close friends’ but the performers are beyond strangers: they’re imagos, demigods, and they move in a different sphere, hangout with and marry only each other, inaccessible “
In assessing these relationships Wallace states:
“This illusion is toxic. It’s toxic for lonely people because it sets up an alienating cycle (vis. ‘Why can’t I be like that?’ etc), and it’s toxic for writers because it leads us to confuse actual fiction-research with a weird kind of fiction-consumption.
We spend enough time watching, pretty soon we start watching ourselves watching. Pretty soon we start to ‘feel’ ourselves feeling, yearn to experience ‘experiences.’”
I think here is where this sort of disjunction occurs because since Wallace wrote this essay and killed himself in 2008, social media has sort of become the everyday person’s form and response to these celebrity lifestyles. Zadie Smith related that in her criticism of Facebook when she says that you behave like a mini-celebrity with ‘fans’ before becoming a full person, or becoming someone at all. The voyeuristic nature of our relationships to our immediate social network is just as detrimental as the pretend-voyeuristic nature of our relationship to television, because like these actors, people filter, and edit and choose which version of themselves they present to the world. The gap between the Wallace essay and “the now” comes in the form of Franzen-Smith in the conversations on Facebook (see my full essay on that here). The part that Wallace concerned himself with is the way this longing for experiences and a way into another human’s life becomes as addictive as a substance. He writes:
“An activity is addictive if one’s relationship to it lies on that downward-sloping continuum between liking it a little too much and really needing it. It both cases problems for the addict and offers itself as a relief from the very problems it causes…[television] is a ‘distraction’ –diverts the mind from quotidian troubles…television also purveys and enables dreams, and most of these dreams involve some sort of transcendence of average daily life…offering a dreamy promise of escape.”
The reality is you’re sitting on a piece of furniture inside a box staring at another piece of furniture in a box. In this essay though, Wallace isn’t only observing an entire culture’s relationship to television, rather he’s looking at how this lifestyle then becomes the contemporary American life, and then it ultimately gets placed into fiction and art. He writes:
“This culture-of-watching’s relation to the cycle of indulgence, guilt, and reassurance has important consequences for U.S. art…giving in to collective visions of mass images that have themselves become mass images only because they’ve been made the objects of collective vision…I want to persuade you that irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture that enjoys a significant relation to the television that has my generation by the throat.”
Wallace then says that when media makes ‘loathing oneself’ references and is meta-referential, then it’s a sort of permission slip for the viewer to continue to indulge. Now that you notice the hypocrisy and irony of it all you are somehow better than the masses, because you’ve noticed it, and we are giving you permission to keep going because look, you’re better than everyone else. The beginning scenes of Norton’s character in Fight Club come to mind–IKEA nesting and daily numbness. Anyone?
Wallace’s bottom line is that what this cycle does is create a society of lonely people. He writes:
“The well-trained viewer becomes even more allergic to people. Lonelier…. the viewer’s exhaustive TV-training in how to worry about how he might come across, seem to watching eyes, makes genuine human encounters even scarier.”
The second essay in this collection “A supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again” is Wallace’s account of taking a cruise and ‘enjoying’ himself—but mostly capturing the pressures that exist on a vacation (as they do on birthdays, Christmas, summer and other such designed places, times, and spaces) to enjoy oneself. He writes:
“It’s more like a feeling. But it’s also still a bona fide product—it’s supposed to be produced in you, this feeling: a blend of relaxation and stimulation, stresses indulgence and frantic tourism, that special mix of servility and condescension that’s marketed under configurations of the verb ‘to pamper.’… You are excused from doing the work of constructing the fantasy. The ads do it for you…a seductive promise. The ads promise…. you will have NO CHOICE but to have a good time.”
But Wallace captures something in this essay that I’ve personally felt on every resort and every ‘pamper’-oriented trip or event. An overwhelming sadness, despair, and loneliness. Wallace writes it beautifully:
“There’s something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad…especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased—I felt despair. The word’s overused and banalified now, despair, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture—a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It’s maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it’s not these things, quite. It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die.”
By taking choice away from you the cruise-line has made decisions for you, and now you must be forced to enjoy them. The alarm comes from realizing that being on this vacation in itself was your choice and it’s a choice you are now stuck in and a choice you must live with, which becomes a metaphor for life at large. Wallace writes:
“It feels like much time has passed and it’s passing faster and faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun and then I have live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose. And I’m starting to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life’s sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time.”
Which reminds me of the ever-famous Fig Tree passage from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which is now framed on my wall.
Yes, I know this post was long. That’s why it’s called Infinite Text folks.
In 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.”
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 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”
I will do a full author spotlight on Matt Haig, particularly regarding his fictional works, where I will get into further details about my strange connection to this author, and my fascination with his work. I did want to tackle his non-fiction/memoir/self-help book independently. I will say that this blog entry is less a book review and more of a personal interaction with this work. I mostly jotted down notes of the portions of this book I enjoyed, and found striking in a way. It’s more of a ‘personal reading log.’ I would recommend this book for times when you are in a depressive state, but I think the first time you read it, I would ideally recommend this at a time when you are out of a depressive episode, and then use it as a guide to return to when it hits. I also saw this image often on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram, and I always found it wonderful, but I had no idea it was taken out of this book.
This work is Haig’s account of his lowest point in life when he was brought down by a mixture of Anxiety, Depression, and all other physical and psychological effects they bring.
“We humans love to compartmentalize things. We love to divide our education system into separate subjects, just as we love to divide our shared planet into nations, and our books into separate genres. But the reality is that things are blurred. Just as being good at mathematics often means someone is good at physics, so having depression means it probably comes with other things. Anxieties, maybe some phobias, a pinch of OCD…”
Haig’s lowest point happened in Spain where he wanted to kill himself and he describes in detail the pressures and negative thoughts enveloping his days for months to follow, and the ways in which his parents and girlfriend supported him through this. He writes about the ways our awareness of death can often be both an anxiety-inducer and a life ‘activator’ and the paradoxical relationship between depression and happiness:
“It is a hard thing to accept, that death and decay and everything bad leads to everything good, but I for one believe it…that’s the odd thing about depression and anxiety. It acts like an intense fear of happiness, even as you yourself consciously want that happiness more than anything.”
What I particularly enjoyed about this work was the way Haig introduces us to his relationship to books, literature, authors (both dead and alive, both depressed and not) and often quotes another writer associating it with his immediate feeling or concern. The way he talks about books made me highlight uncontrollably:
“There is this idea that you either read to escape or you read to find yourself. I don’t really see the difference. We find ourselves through the process of escaping…So yes, I loved external narratives for the hope they offered…most of all, books. They were, in and of themselves, reasons to stay alive. Every book written is the product of a human mind in a particular state. Add all the books together and you get the end sum of humanity. Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself. But each map was incomplete, and I would only locate the treasure if I read all the books, and so the process of finding my best self was an endless quest…. the plot of every book can be boiled down to ‘someone is looking for something.’”
Haig also urges us (or challenges us in order to be happy) to:
“Read a book without thinking about finishing it. Just read it. Enjoy every word, sentence, and paragraph. Don’t wish for it to end, or for it to never end.”
A secondary point of focus of Haig is the observation on how we view the mind as separate from the body, and how in reality the two are highly connected. He looks at the psychological symptoms and physical symptoms of a mental illness and notes that there are much more on the physical side. He describes his relationship to running, meditation, and yoga and throughout this work returns to how important physical movement, physical nourishment, and physical forms of self-care influence the mental state.
Haig examines our relationship to ‘greats’ in literary and artistic history who have killed themselves. I know I am certainly one of those. But Haig takes a different approach. He urges us to admire and look up to people who certainly have depression but get out, putting aside Woolf, Plath, Sexton, Wallace, Hemingway, Van Gogh, and look at a much longer list of people who made it out. He even mentions the great long list that he keeps on hand of depressed celebrities who did make it out. There are also greats like Linocln and Churchill who overcame great depression and thrived on the lessons learned from the experience. Haig writes that maybe biographies of Lincoln and Churchill shouldn’t say that they thrived “despite” having depression, rather that they should say they thrived “because” of it.
There are moments in the book where Haig will mention something a famous writer says and in a way responds back to it with his own take. Here are two examples:
“Anais Nin called anxiety ‘love’s greatest killer,’ but fortunately, the reverse is also true. Love is anxiety’s greatest killer…forcing yourself to see the world through love’s gaze can be healthy. Love is an attitude to life. It can save us.
As Schopenhauer said, ‘we forfeit three-fourths of ourselves in order to be like other people,’ then love—at its best—is a way to reclaim those lost parts of ourselves.”
I particularly enjoyed his thoughts on time and time anxiety. This has certainly been a fixation of mine in the past I found some of his lines on time to be quite powerful. He writes:
“I was as obsessed with time as some people are about money. It was the only weapon I had…We feel an urgency to get on because time is short. Pain lengthens time…pain forces us to be aware of it…turning life into a desperate race for more stuff is only going to shorten it…in terms of how it feels.”
The whole book is also filled with advice from Haig and reminders that happiness will return, even when you are in a depressive state feeling shrouded in hopelessness:
Hate is a pointless emotion. Hate is the lack of imagination
Be around trees
we find infinity in ourselves, and the space we need to survive.
The key thing about life on Earth is Change. Cars rust, paper yellows, caterpillars become butterflies, depression lifts.
Accept. Don’t fight things, feel them. Tension is about opposition, relaxation is about letting go.
You will one day experience joy that matches this pain…you will stare down at a baby’s face as she lies asleep in your lap…you will eat delicious foods…there are books you haven’t read yet that will enrich you, films you will watch while eating extra-large buckets of popcorn, and you will dance and laugh and have sex and go for runs by the river and have late-night conversation and laugh until it hurts. Life is waiting for you…hang on in there if you can. Life is always worth it.
Lastly, as I was reading this book I took note of every quotation by other writers that Haig brought into this work that I enjoyed and each gave me pause. I jotted most of them down here to look at from time to time.
Quotations from other people scattered through the book that I really enjoyed:
“The wound is the place where the light enters you.” –Rumi
“is there no way out of the mind”- Plath
“The object of art is to give life a shape” – Shakespeare
“That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.” Emily Dickinson
“I know why logs spit. I know what it is to be consumed.”-Winston Churchill
“it did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.”- David Foster Wallace (on Advertising).
“Time crumbles things”- Aristotle
“The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. It is nothing but love and emotion; it is the Living Infinite.” – Jules Verne
“The lotus flower…grows in mud at the bottom of a pool but rises above the murky water and blooms in the clear air, pure, and beautiful.” – Buddhist Teaching
Peter 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.
“an unknown compelling force should be considered the cause of the hikers’ deaths” – Lev Ivanov
On January 23, 1959 nine young, experienced hikers who loved adventure went on a passage near the elevations of what was named “Dead Mountain” in the Ural Mountains. The team actually had 10 hikers, one who happened to be forced to return due to his health on February 2nd. On the 12th of February when the team did not return as expected, a rescue team was sent out to retrieve them. When the rescue team found all 9 corpses, they found the bodies in a very odd situation. Some of the bodies were completely stripped down, one of the young women was missing her tongue, and one body was highly radioactive. The team leader’s name was Igor Dyatlov (1936-1959) and so the name “The Dyatlov Pass” was used when referring to the mystery surrounding the young hikers. I watched a mini-documentary on YouTube as well as one of Caitlin Doughty’s Morbid Mystery videos on this topic, and I wanted to learn more. I picked up this book by Donnie Eichar published in 2013 by First Chronicle Books and I was quite delighted in the amount of passion and research that Eichar conducted on this topic. He left the United States to not only investigate what tangible information can be pieced together about this mystery, but he also wanted to speak to the one ‘survivor’ Yuri Yudin, as well as family and friends of the nine deceased hikers. Eichar pieces together this mystery and almost allows readers to figure it out alone, by presenting the facts.
Eichar interviews everyone possible, he reads the hikers’ diary which was logged by one of the young women to track their journey, he looks at the forensic analysis, and tries to give as well-rounded a character analysis of each of the hikers from what could have been known about them. Keeping in mind that this was in pre-social media and pre-internet era, and these hikers were only university students, it truly is impressive how much information Eichar was able to piece together. He also had a Russian-English translator with him to help with each one of the interviews, and tangible information. At the end of the book he offers two timelines: the hikers’ timeline as he understands it day by day, and the rescue team’s timeline. He also offers a re-imagining or “recreation” of February 1, and the early morning hours of February 2nd, using the diary entries, weather reports, and expert scientific opinion on what he believes really happened that night.
There is a lot to unpack from this mystery and I think Eichar does a wonderful job. I think telling too much of what I learned would be, in a way, spoiling the book, if you are interested in reading it. I personally found it scarier than most fictional horror books. Some of the siblings describe the state of the corpses when they saw them, and four corpses were so mutilated they had to be in a closed casket for the funeral procession. If description of such things make you feel uncomfortable, perhaps just watch one of the two videos I mentioned and linked above.
If you like reading Jon Kakauer’s books you would probably enjoy this one (both scared me a lot). It’s journalistic and research-based, but it’s also surrounding a real story with adventure, and nature in it. I thought it was well-written and it kept my attention the whole time. I also appreciated all the attached images, and maps, and the way it was structured. I think as of right now, this is perhaps the most we can ever know about the Dyatlov Pass.
In 2013 an adaptation loosely based on this tragedy (Devil’s Pass) came out featuring a very “science fiction meets horror” take on the story. It really helps to have so many perspectives on this hike and be able to appreciate the horrors of a true story.
Ever since I started reading this book I want to grab every stranger on the street by the collar and yell at them: “We’re going to Mars!”
This book has been with me for the last two weeks and it has left me completely mesmerized by the unquenchable fires of human innovation and by how much can be achieved through mass collaboration. Rocket Billionaires, written by Tim Fernholz, follows the narrative of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and the plan to create a colony on Mars in hopes that humans can become a multi-planetary civilization.
Fernholz focuses on the competition between Bezos and Musk to realize their visions of humanity as a multi-planetary civilization by building space companies focused on reusable technology. Fernholz spends some time examining the managerial differences between Bezos and Musk and looks at how these differences affect their relationship to this project. Aside from the clash between the two billionaires, there was also a tension between military-industrial space programs and these new, self-made, space companies. Fernholz describes how NASA policymakers stepped in to save SpaceX when it was on the verge of bankruptcy. The plan as we know it, is that in the next decade there will be an attempt to place the first colony on Mars. Over time, this colony’s goal will be to grow to one million citizens so that it can get started. Supplies sent on each individual mission will include a new batch of people as well as foods, plants, technologies etc. in order to create greenhouse farms, Martian villages with hospitals and schools, and a full-on functioning civilization.
This book is exemplary journalistic work. Fernholz relates the story of these two self-made companies to the public in a non-biased way. It is evident on every page how passionate Fernholz is about this project and it really shows, yet he maintains an academic, non-intrusive journalistic voice. The narrative flows smoothly and is by no means elitist or exclusive.
Reading this book made me jot down a lot of questions. For instance, I wonder if the women who embark on this mission be under insurmountable pressure to procreate. Will future generations look back and remember Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos in a kind of Henry Ford/Thomas Edison way, or will people forget the financial struggles and remember the name of the first man/woman to step on Martian soil, the way we all know the name of Neil Armstrong? What technologies will be created as a result that could better life on Earth? After discussing this topic over the last two weeks with people at home, work, and public spaces, I was taken aback with how ‘civilians’ receive information about this project. For one, everyone ‘heard’ about this topic, and yet, they look at it both as ‘old news’ and as a ‘it’s probably not going to happen in our lifetime.’ For me, this book has been eye-opening. The project is not only on its way in a monumental way, but it will happen within the next decade. The second comment I am met with when bringing up this topic is “what a waste of money, why not save the starving, struggling people here on Earth first?” While I agree that it is a fair point, this project is equally important. I am somewhat relieved that the people leading this project are very much focused on renewables, and reusable technologies.
Henry Ford famously said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” That is to say, we don’t know what this undertaking will accomplish for humanity yet. This book makes me see the scientific intrigue to colonizing Mars. It will be monumental on an engineering, scientific, educational, and human level—no matter how the mission will go. It will make students want to study the sciences even more ardently than before, and as Fernholz narrowed it down in this book, one of the answers to the question of “why go to Mars?” really can be as simple as: “because it’s there.”
Fernholz relates often the reality of the project to the leading figures in science fiction literature particularly that of the big three: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein, and of course Kim Stanley Robinson whose Red Mars trilogy is precisely this project (set in 2026 no less). The sprinkling of sci-fi references made this book exemplary. The sci-fi allusions act as a cohesive between the imagination found in the arts and what the great minds of scientists, programmers, engineers, and mathematicians can help bring to fruition—making readers see the beauty in humanity’s collective effort.
Would I recommend this book? YES!
Tim Fernholz is one of the leading journalists reporting on SpaceX and one of the best news commentary experts. Many of his articles have been featured in Quartz, and you may recognize him from the 2016 Quartz/Marketplace economics podcast: Actuality. Fernholz was both a Knight Journalism Fellow and at the New America Foundation in Washington D.C. He is a Georgetown University alumni with studies in Government, Theology, and Arabic, and one of the founding editors for the Tomorrow Magazine. If you’d like to learn more about his other fascinating projects, and previous journalistic work, you can find more information here.
The book is available as of Tuesday, March 20th, 2018 on Amazon, Audible, (read by Erin Moon) and The Book Depository, as well as your local bookstores (some links: Indigo, Barnes & Noble, Blackwell’s) and of course libraries.
Many thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt both for publishing this wonderful book and for sending me a review copy. The book design is completed by Graphic Artist Chloe Foster.
“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.”
The 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”
“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“
I 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.
I 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.
“What the hell kind of a life was this? What in God’s name was the point or the meaning of the purpose of a life like this?”
I read Revolutionary Road for the first time in high school, and I can honestly say this lifestyle is my biggest fear and worst nightmare: the suburban family. Franzen’s novels just added salt to the wounds afterwards, and it gave me the impression that people still live this way. The good news: not all people do, and we don’t have to anymore. It’s a choice, not an imposition.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates is a modern classic, and widely-known, even more so after the cinematic adaptation featuring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. The novel is set in 1950s New York and follows April and Frank Wheeler, a couple with two children who live on Revolutionary Road in the suburbs. The couple appears happy from the outside—April stays home, while Frank commutes into the city every day, but they love each other, and they are both beautiful. In reality, the couple is absolutely miserable, and April experiences the worst of it. Her disposition creates discord in their marriage. She tries to participate in the community by attending a theater group’s small performance, which fails miserably, she tries to talk to the neighbours, and finds that no one has anything interesting to say. April fondly remembers how exciting Frank was when the two had met. He traveled the world, and made grandiose promises of the adventures they would have together, while she herself was a young, beautiful, aspiring actress. Day in and day out, the couple is shrouded by extreme boredom, and they feel the hopelessness and emptiness of their situation. April proposes that they break this lifestyle, quit everything and leave. She suggests Paris, knowing it’s where Frank had traveled in his youth, hoping his nostalgic feelings towards Paris would inspire him to agree. This idea brings joy and hope into their lives—while everyone around them thinks they are making the wrong choices in life, trying to stop them from leaving. The only person who understands them is John, the son of the real estate agent, who used to be a bright mathematics teacher, and has recently come out of a mental institution. This trigger puts a series of events in motion, and there are lots of twists which pull at the reader’s heartstrings.
A simple Google search for the author states that he is associated with the mid-century ‘Age of Anxiety’ coined by W.H. Auden in his Pulitzer-prize Winning poem. Both Auden and Yates emphasize the struggle of man’s quest to find substance and identity in a rapidly changing, industrialized, Capitalist world.
The way Yates sets up the narrative, it feels as if everything done in suburbia is a game of pretend—grown adults pretending that everything is okay, when really, everyone is aware that every little thing they do is irrelevant, and a distraction from the rich, fulfilling lives they should be living.
“[play director:] any play deserves the best that any actor has to give…we’re not just putting on a play here. We’re establishing a community theater, and that’s a pretty important thing to be doing…[narrator:] the main thing, though, was not the play itself but the company—the brave idea of it, the healthy, hopeful sound of it: the birth of a really good community theater right here, among themselves.”
Everything around the play sparks pity, and is the catalyst for April to stop pretending. There are many layers to this pretense. Acting in itself isn’t real, and yet, acting in a small suburbian, amateur production, for April, isn’t real acting—not at her age.
“No one forgets the truth; they just get better at lying”
Time and pretense are entwined, things that would have seemed fine years ago, no longer work at this age. April might have had a chance to be a real actress, but now it’s too late for her, and it’s too late to start over. Her age, and her disposition are constant reminders throughout the text, particularly in the ways that Frank sees her:
“[April used to be:] A girl he hadn’t seen in years, a girl whose every glance and gesture could make his throat fill up with longing (‘Wouldn’t you like to be loved by me?’) and that then before his very eyes she would dissolve and change into the graceless, suffering creature whose existence he tried every day of his life to deny but whom he knew as well and as painfully as he knew himself, a gaunt constricted woman whose red eyes flashed reproach, whose false smile in the curtain call was as homely as his own sore feet, his own damp climbing underwear and his own sour smell.”
Time is passing, resentment builds up, and pretending everything is fine no longer works. Another point that Yates touches on in this work is the incredible loneliness felt on an individual level by everyone in this kind of world. Everyone thinks the other is better off, while each character experiences an extreme, forceful loneliness—while at the same time longing for a spiritual solitude in which you can find your truest self, and the source of your honest actions.
“if you wanted to do something absolutely honest, something true, it always turned out to be a thing that had to be done alone.”
“Being alone has nothing to do with how many people are around.”
What I particularly love about Yates’s narrative is the way in which he touches on sensitive topics regarding women and the ways they were trapped by their womanhood. Had April not kept the two children, she would be chain-less. Choices as such weren’t as readily available in the ‘50s, and in many ways continue to be limited today. I was also somewhat struck by the way in which John discusses “female” versus “feminine” with the Wheelers. He says:
“’I like your girl, Wheeler,’ he announced at last. ‘I get the feeling she’s female. You know what the difference between female and feminine is? Huh? Well, here’s a hint: a feminine woman never laughs out loud and always shaves her armpits. Old Helen in there [his mom] is feminine as hell. I’ve only met about half a dozen females in my life, and I think you got one of them here.’”
John compliments April for her resilience and strength, while simultaneously directing the compliment at Frank, as if he needs to take credit for ‘[his] girl.’ I don’t know if “female vs. feminine” as a topic for discussion would stand a chance today, and I see the term ‘female’ be used in a medical realm more than a conversational one.
Everything in Revolutionary Road clashes, people want things and do the opposite, and characters continuously say things that are innately contradictory, and paradoxical. Even the road which is supposedly ‘Revolutionary’ has nothing but the ‘ordinary,’ on it. This work truly is a masterpiece, and I can see why it’s a modern classic. There is a lot to discuss about this novel, and it’s a perfect book for a reading club, or close study. It is quite depressing (so read cautiously).
For the long weekend, I took a brief trip to NYC and explored several bookstores and the exhibition at the Morgan Library: Tennessee Williams No Refuge but Writing, hosted in the Engelhard Gallery. Only a quick glimpse demonstrated what a huge collaboration this exhibition was. Manuscripts were brought from the Harry Ransom Center, Columbia University, New York Public Library, Harvard, and many others, with the collaboration of many librarians and curators. The exhibition was made possible by generous donors, and it is exemplary work by the librarians and curators at the Morgan Library. Walking through the exhibition I felt absolutely inspired! Inspired to write, to learn, to read, to live! The way the exhibit was set up, the information provided, the research done, all was put together so well that—in my mind at least— it brought Tennessee Williams back to life.
The way my high school English courses were set up, and coincided with my theater classes, I accidentally had to read A Streetcar Named Desire about five times—not only read it, but study it, memorize it, and write several essays on it, as well as performing parts of it on stage. In undergrad I studied The Glass Menagerie, and this put me on a bit of a Williams crusade. His tragic female characters who cannot let go of an idealized past, his confrontational men who are mere bullies incapable of understanding the delicate nature of their sexuality, in addition to the intensity of the plot—are absolutely unforgettable.
The way the exhibition is set up we get glimpses into Williams’s life in chronological order. Artefacts include one of his many typewriters, keys he collected from hotels, manuscripts and first drafts of his plays, elaborate plans for some of his character development, as well some of his well-deserved awards. Because Williams wrote on the cusp of the Golden Age of Hollywood, there are many playbills from Broadway, images of Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh, and Marlon Brando, and posters/still images of these great actors playing a role in one of his many plays.
Tennessee Williams’s inner life, however, was most intriguing to me. On display was a letter Williams sent to his grandfather explaining how anxious he was for receiving a grant from the Rockefeller fellowship, the ways in which he based Belle Reve (the location from which Blanche arrives—the idealized past) on a poem he wrote many years prior, the way he dissects Blanche’s character and psyche before writing her into dialogue, and his many oil paintings. This was new information to me—I had no idea Williams painted—in a style I very much admire. His painting style resembles a cross between Cezanne and Van Gogh—a form of expressionism/impressionism but with a flat brush. I remember a moment from Streetcar where he went through a lot of trouble to outline the setting by means of a painting:
“There is a picture of Van Gogh’s of a billiard-parlor at night. The kitchen now suggests that sort of lurid nocturnal brilliance, the raw colors of childhood’s spectrum. Over the yellow linoleum of the kitchen table hangs and electric bulb with a vivid green glass shade. The poker players—Stanley, Steve, Mitch and Pablo—wear colored shirts, solid blues, a purple, a red-and-white check, a light green, and they are men at the peak of their physical manhood, as coarse and direct and powerful as the primary colors.” (Streetcar Named Desire)
According to one of the information panels next to his drafts of Streetcar, Williams got the idea for the play when living in New Orleans with his new lover Pancho Rodriguez where he famously wrote:
“’I was and still am Blanche…[although] God knows I have a Stanley in me, too,’” drew on their tumultuous relationship for the play. This he wove together with elements from earlier poems, shorter plays, and character studies to draft and redraft The Poker Night, the immediate precursor to A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Clearly, he drew a lot from Van Gogh’s art and allowed it to guide the poker night scene which became the heart and beginning of his most famous play.
Lastly, and what I found most interesting, was the way Tennessee Williams regarded writing as a kind of madness. In a diary where he noted anxieties about his play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which he feared was a failure, he wrote:
“I love writing too much, and to love anything too much is to feel a terror of loss: it’s a kind of madness”
Then, below the typewriter on display The Morgan Library wrote:
“Two of Williams’s most important possessions were his copy of Hart Crane’s Poems (also on view) and his typewriter. As a young man, he would write through the night, seeming to subsist on strong black coffee and creative expression alone. Even at his poorest, when his typewriter was seized by his landlady, he borrowed one. When he pawned the borrowed typewriter, he found another and promptly spent 15 cents of his last $2.00 on paper. ‘I must be mad,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘It’s all a little too much, too much.’”
It was so interesting to see it all laid out and to get so close to his handwriting, and most prized possessions. The exhibition will be on at the Morgan Library until May 13, 2018, so if at any point you find yourself in New York, try to see it if you can. If not, the exhibition has been put together in a library catalog titled Tennessee Williams No Refuge but Writing, which is available for purchase online.
Note: all pictures above were taken by me (no flash) at the Morgan Library, and are the property of the sources listed in the opening paragraph. According to their website: “Images may be printed out for study, or downloaded for presentations, dissertations, or non-commercial websites or blogs.”
Feel 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.
This year I decided to keep up with the Red Maple awards (hosted by the Ontario Library Association) and I thought I’d read at least one of this year’s nominees. The book that intrigued me most from the list was written by Vikki VanSickle and published by Scholastic Canada Ltd. I must admit I read this in one sitting. On a personal level, this novel brought back memories of my middle-grade years where we had to read books like The Giver, and after class or during library reading time we would purposely spook ourselves out with the Goosebumps series.
The Winnowing follows protagonist Marivic Stone who lives in a small town. There’s an eeriness about the setting reminiscent of Night Vale or Stranger Things, maybe even The Twilight Zone. The general narrative is certainly contemporary and realistic, but there are strange occurrences bordering the supernatural which makes this book hard to classify. VanSickle imagines a past where post-World War II there had been an outbreak of infertility rather than a baby-boom, and in this society the medical centers tried to reverse the crisis. The ‘boomers’ born out of this procedure all have this side-effect known as the ACES which is something a teenager starts developing and must be treated for. The treatment is also known as ‘winnowing.’ If one is not ‘winnowed’ the powers from the ACES can be destructive to the individual and the community. That is all I can say without spoiling too much. Like all good novels however, The Winnowing is about much more than its speculative premise. VanSickle focuses a lot of her writing on creating the bond between Marivic and her best friend Saren, Marivic’s understanding of the past and how it fits into her present situation—particularly the actions of her own mother—and how the young of any generation must carry the burdens resulting from the mistakes done by the older generations. This burden is beyond medical, as these young children have not only been robbed of natural development and must live in perpetual fear, but they have also been robbed of the innocence and playfulness that comes with childhood.
That said, I must discuss my favourite character in this book: Gumps! Gumps is Marivic’s grandfather who is a person I wish I could hang out with all the time. He is on his own a lot, but he’s so innovative and caring. We are told in the early pages that “Gumps was a retired repairman…he still liked to keep his skills sharp by practicing on old appliances that people at the side of the road for pickup or, worse, that he had scavenged from the scrapyard.” I don’t know why but I’ve always been so drawn to people who can fix and repair, or make something out of scraps, like an old-school inventor. We need more people like this in a world where everything is treated like it’s disposable. From the get-go I was completely fascinated by Gumps and on the lookout on what he had to say, and what he was doing. I think VanSickle wrote his character so well, because she doesn’t reveal too much about him that he isn’t mysterious, but she gives us just enough to keep him very interesting. He also tackles difficult situations with humour, which is just perfect. I kept on reading just for more moments with Gumps.
This is definitely a great bonding novel and ideal for a teacher, or librarian to read to a class, or for a book club. I certainly enjoyed it, and I hope there’s more to follow. Go read it!
I’ve been accused in the past (particularly by my high school teachers) of “falling in love with the writer not their work.” This is true. I am who I am and I refuse to change this particular aspect of my reading experience. Authors need to come across as decent human beings, and people I want to spend time with because I AM spending time with them for hundreds of pages, and countless hours. If I can’t stand the way an author speaks, interacts with readers, or the way they answer public questions, and aspects of their life (i.e. finding out someone is extremely racist or sexist), I tend to find their fictional work reflects that and it bothers me for the same reasons. I was introduced to every single work (that I arrived to alone without recommendations) by finding the author first and falling in love with their personality. I watched countless Neil Gaiman, David Foster Wallace, David Mitchell, Ray Bradbury, Zadie Smith, Anne Rice etc. videos first before attempting their actual fiction. For dead writers, there are biographies. My favourite writers of the past have been men and women I’ve particularly admired for the barriers they crossed, the lives they led, and the opinions they had, or letters they exchanged.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I have not read any of Kazuo Ishiguro’s fiction (yet) because I wasn’t sure what is the essence of his writing, and what I should expect; at first I mistakenly believed he wrote only romance novels. I needed to hear Kazuo Ishiguro first. I took this morning to listen and read along in this book My Twentieth Century Evening and Other Small Breakthroughs: The Nobel Lecture and my goals of the year just changed to: I must read as much Kazuo Ishiguro as I possibly can. This man is so poised, intelligent, and well-spoken. What I love about his Nobel Lecture is that he introduces himself, gives an overview of his life, and details about how he wrote each one of his novels: what inspired him to write each one of them, what changes happened in his life, what revelations he had, and how he grew as an artist.
It was so interesting to read and hear him describe the ways in which he was inspired by music, his roots and heritage, and how a single question from a reading made him change his writing away from the isolated individual reminiscing to the meaningful relationships between people. I also enjoyed the way he sprinkles many literary references particularly of writers who have inspired him like Forester and Proust.
Near the end of the lecture Ishiguro looks forward, and respectfully acknowledges that we must allow “the younger generation to lead us” and that:
“if we are to get the best of the writers of today and tomorrow we must be more diverse…beyond our comfort zones of elite first world countries.”
If I had to highlight what stood out to me from this summarized life and writing overview, it would be the way Ishiguro emphasizes that inspiration can come from various formats not necessarily only books but also media like music, film, and lectures. He also notes that he wanted his works to be something that can exist only on the page, which is very intriguing.
This book is very short, but packs in it the essence and craft of Ishiguro, and if like me you haven’t read any of his works but want an introduction to an exceptional individual then give this a try.
Shakespeare Saved My Life by Laura Bates is a re-read for me. This book made me take down lots of notes and had me wondering if I should start marking these passages and keep them safe on an online forum/reading journal. Laura Bates is a Shakespeare professor who teaches at Indiana State University. She entered a correctional facility and started a Shakespeare reading club with inmates. According to her introduction, what led her to this activity, was reading an academic paper from a famous literary scholar, who asserted that Shakespeare’s play Macbeth represented “the ipso facto valorization of transgression.” She set out to prove that “real-life transgressors would disagree.”
Bates starts off by offering inmates the soliloquy of Richard II in prison. She then asks for a written analysis. Depending on what people write, she either continues to work with them, or steps aside. Some would participate, others would not. Over the years Shakespeare had an influence on some inmates, but none struck so hard a cord as Larry Newton. At first I thought this book focused too much on this one person but then I realized that the book is a memoir written about a person who couldn’t write it himself. I was very intrigued by what choices Bates made regarding the material she started with, and what she focused on, but I was even more interested in what Newton did with the contents of Shakespeare’s works. I got so immersed in his words that many times I forgot that he is someone who would be labelled as extremely dangerous in our society. This book made me think a lot about rehabilitation, and what it means to have committed a crime in the past, incapable to prove that you have grown as a person. I find that readers can often analyze characters on paper in all their complexity but label real humans in society so fast without giving them a chance.
I’ll give an example of something that came out of the reading group from Laura Bates and the inmates. The topic was Macbeth. I studied Macbeth many times in school and it’s one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. In class discussions, we always talk about Macbeth “becoming” a murderer and changing drastically, doing things he was never okay with before encountering the witches. But the inmates say:
“Macbeth was a killer before, they [Duncan and the society] made him into one. He was a soldier.” Before Macbeth was still killing but it was this ‘othered’ enemy, not his best friends. That was the only difference. They also paid close attention to how he killed Duncan:
“…if Macbeth wanted to kill Duncan in the most efficient, most merciful manner, he would stab him once, through the heart…but he uses two daggers…that’s butchering”
Newton notes that in his moment of guilt Macbeth sees the dagger and the act, not the person. He relates to Macbeth and relates his crimes, explaining how he too sees the act rather than the victim, every time he thinks of it. Then there was an insight on Hamlet, which Newton calls the “prison of expectation”
“Hamlet is chasing honor for his family’s name because that is what was expected of him…His father has returned from the dead not to tell Hamlet how much he loved him, not to apologize for all the times that he worked late. He returned to make Hamlet revenge his death.”
These are just two examples of literary analysis that completely escaped me and my fellow busy students in university. Newton had only Shakespeare to work with. He had time, silence, and could focus on this one thing, while contemplating that he is never getting out, and might never discuss this with anyone else other than Ms. Bates. Many of Shakespeare’s characters are in a form of prison, whether literal or metaphorical, and most are murderers. Newton can understand all those thoughts much better than any one student in first year undergrad can even imagine. I wonder if Newton had had a richer education prior to the crime, how much would his thoughts have differed? If instead of Larry Newton it had been Dostoevsky post-solitary confinement with a larger literary corpus to compare, and philosophers to allude to, how would that differ to my reading experience of this book or to Laura Bates’s discussions?
I enjoyed the ways in which Newton almost looks down on Othello for being unable to see his faults. Newton says:
“no one can make you be anything that is not already you…accepting responsibility for one’s actions is an essential first step toward rehabilitation.”
This book covers the history of Larry Newton, the context upon which Ms. Bates arrives, some problems with the prison system, and discussions on several Shakespeare plays. There are moments when Bates compares what students at the university produce from the same play to what Newton would write behind bars. I found myself almost annoyed, as if I could see the hungover student who wasn’t reflecting, or thinking hard enough on these topics, and remembered that I too was one of them.
There are too many lines in this book that are absolutely breathtaking and notes I’d like to keep, so I created a PDF with some of my favourite quotations. Don’t worry, it’s only one page. I recommend this book if you love Shakespeare and want to learn more about one person, namely Larry Newton, and his reading experience behind bars after spending ten years in solitary confinement. I will leave you with this line from Newton if you don’t get a chance to look at the PDF:
“It is an absolute magic, and the magic has little with what Shakespeare has to say. You can memorize every cool quote and be as clueless as you were before reading. So it is not Shakespeare’s offering that invokes this evolution. The secret, the magic, is YOU! Shakespeare has created an environment that allows for genuine development…Shakespeare is simply an environment that allows us to evolve without the influence of everyone else telling us what we should evolve into. Shakespeare offers a freedom from those prisons! Your mind will begin shaking the residue of other people’s ideas and begin developing understandings that are genuinely yours!…you have nothing to lose but the parts of you that do not belong anyhow”
I’ve been fascinated by the Tudors for quite some time. Judging by the abundance of books I found online so are most people. Every time I look for a new book on the topic I find so many others. Often I find that books will either be historical fiction with too much invention and dialogue that doesn’t fit the character, or being overly academic, focusing on a specific aspect of the time period (only wardrobe, only children etc), or have a dry, pedantic explanation of the late 1500s explaining only pure politics and military details.
The Private Lives of the Tudors by Tracy Borman tells the story of the Tudors from Henry VII to Elizabeth I and contextualizes them in a very humanizing way, as citizens of that time and place. Generalizations, superstitions of the time, rituals, things viewed as Royal-specific, daily and practical things like: how men viewed women at the time, practices around childbirth, etc. All these details are covered by Borman and made this book fascinating. If I could sum it up in one word it would be: details. Borman accumulated all of this information about the Tudors from accounts written by the people around them. I learned things that I won’t be able to unlearn for a long time. For instance, King Henry VIII gained so much weight in his later years and developed a leg ulcer which accumulated pus and had a wretched smell which made it very difficult for the people around him help him get dressed. He would wake up randomly and demand pudding at late hours in the night. Elizabeth I had a very problematic “relationship” with Thomas Seymour who used to be with her a lot in her early teens. Henry VIII was fixated on clothing and spent a fortune on his wardrobe. Anne Boleyn demanded that Catherine (of Aragon) give her the birthing shroud she was going to use before she (Catherine) found out she wouldn’t be able to have children–an insolent demand which was denied. The last point kind of gave me a clue as to what kind of person Anne Boleyn was without any dialogue in the ways she tried to rub salt in the wounds of others so publicly. Listing them right now, from what is memorable to me, it sounds a lot like what today would be a form of gossip, or tabloid news, but these little details bring the Tudors to life. For once I got an idea of the kind of person each of them was based on what they asked of and said to the people immediately around them.
Having been reading this book in the last week, I couldn’t help but draw parallels with today’s bestselling book: Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff. We “know” a lot about Donald Trump because we see him on T.V, we read his Tweets, etc, but the fascination with Michael Wolff’s book surrounds the details of Trump’s daily activities. For the last few nights, all the trending tidbits were things like: ‘Donald Trump eats cheeseburgers alone at night in fear of getting poisoned,’ ‘he eats them alone in his bed while watching T.V,’ ‘he has three television screens in his room,’ ‘he didn’t think he was going to win,’ ‘Melania cried upon victory and they weren’t tears of joy’ etc. Although they are small, insignificant details, they matter, and they help us characterize him.
I think Borman’s book is very important because it tells us how the people around the Tudors viewed them, and the circulating gossip of the time around them. Drawing parallels between the ways our current leaders and the details of their private lives leak into our collective psyche has helped me empathize with the people of England from that time period. I think more historians should extract minutiae because it brings history to life. What is that saying:? “The devil is in the details!” I strongly recommend this book if the Tudors interest you.
What 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.
First of all, if you are currently reading this, thank you! A many great thanks to readers who have stuck with me this year, and commented on, or read my reading experience. I really appreciate your bookish company and academic contributions. Also, thank you if you’ve recommended books, audiobooks, podcasts, or stories to me, because you contributed to my reading experience, and honestly, that is the greatest gift.
This year was a very strange year for me, mainly because it’s been a “transition” year. In March I officially started this review/reading journal blog which for the first time held me accountable for my personal reading reflections. I also started to get ARCs for reviews which was exciting at first, but became overwhelming very fast. The truth about early editions for review, is that, as exciting as it is to receive a present in exchange for an honest review, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that it’s a good book. As an early reviewer I have no idea what the book will be like, and because I have promised to give a review, I can’t in all honesty review something unless I’ve fully read it. I chose not to post about any book I didn’t like, which is why you are unlikely to find my negative rants anywhere here (except for monthly wrap-ups). Nonetheless, it means I’ve given hours and hours of my time to books that I didn’t necessarily enjoy all that much. While I was compiling this end of year list, I realized that only one book I got for early review actually made it on the fiction list, which was Ex Libris.
In May I finished University (6 years and 2 degrees later) which led to four months of being on pins and needles trying to get a job in a library. After getting a job in September I then had to move houses three times which was really quite unnerving. Lugging books back and forth, trying to keep my reading going, and at the same time being released from “reading for school” in April to “reading for myself” was very confusing after six years. Sometimes I feel like maybe I enjoyed getting ARCs because they were like school assignments again and that has become my comfort zone. That said, my eye for which books I request as ARCs has also become better. I can see already that books I’m currently reading (to be released in 2018) are far more interesting and right up my alley regarding reading preference. I’m really enjoying Simon Garfield’s Timekeepers: How the World became Obsessed with Time, and Christian Davenport’s The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos. Although I have not yet reviewed them, I can tell that they will become favourites. I have a long list of fiction as well, which I think I will enjoy much more than what I previously requested.
On my top lists I will count the books which I’ve personally read in 2017 (which were not necessarily published in 2017). I will also not count re-reads, which I obviously enjoyed before if I’ve returned to them. I did however start reading some books that I enjoyed so much but for some reason they coincided with a stressful time and I couldn’t accord them the attention they deserved, so I’ve temporarily put them aside (even though I predict 4-5 star ratings).
If the title of any of the books below is “clickable” it means I wrote an in-depth review/reflection on it (if you want to read it).
- I read a total of 111 books
- Of these books (42 of them) or 38% were written by female authors, (5) 4% by mixed (particularly short story collections) and (64 books) 58% male authors.
- Categories are: Nonfiction (34 books, 31%), Plays (2 books, 2%), Scifi and Fantasy (22 books, 20%), Academic (10 books, 9%), Poetry (14 books, 13%), Classics (12 books, 11%), General Contemporary Fiction 15%. See pie chart
- Of these initially, 70 of them were bought from Indigo, Amazon, and second hand bookstores. 36 of them were free (friends, ARCs, presents), and only 5 of them were from the library….which we should all realize it’s really shameful (I’m a librarian). Bad Andreea! You can already guess my new year’s resolutions.
- From these books 42 were Digital (Kindle/Overdrive), 69 of them were physical copies, and 18 of them were Audiobooks.
- From the whole 32/111 were ARCs (Advance Reader Copies).
- There are a few cross-overs, and I definitely bought WAY more than 70 books this year. By cross-overs I mean: although 18 were Audiobooks from Audible (which I bought), there’s a chance I also bought the physical copy to follow along and annotate. I also bought books that I haven’t read yet (many, MANY of them). Also, sometimes a book was free like an ARC, library loan, or from Overdrive, and I loved it so much I bought a copy anyway. The things I listed in the breakdown were in the “initial encounter” with the book.
- According to my Audible App this year alone I listened to a total of 61 Hours, or 2 days and 13 hours. (The total since 2014 is 8 days, 2 hrs, and 48 min so this year was definitely my best Audible year so far). I am only 56 hours away from “Scholar” Listening Level. I must add that this year I listened to a lot of podcasts from Castbox, and several audiobooks from Overdrive which have not been counted into my Audible app, so I probably listened to a lot more.
- But Andreea, you may say, the year is not over yet. True. I know my schedule ahead for the next two weeks, and I’m currently in the middle of three really large books. I don’t think I’m going to finish them all this year, just based on my plans for the next two weeks, so I will not be counting them towards the 2017 calculations…also there’s no way I’m redoing all these calculations. It took a while.
Books I re-read this year were (No Particular Order):
- Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
- Poor Folk by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
- Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne
- Odd Type Writers, by Celia Blue Johnson
- Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
- Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire
- Walden by Henry David Thoreau
- The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Top 5 Non-Fiction (In Order of How much I enjoyed them)
- Lore by Aaron Mahnke. I spend two continuous months with Mahnke by means of his audiobook, podast, and text. He made the autumn season glorious for me, and this whole experience was just perfect. I gave him five stars. My long review is linked in the title. Definitely my #1 Non-Fiction Read.
- The Readers’ Advisory Service in North American Public Libraries, 1870-2005: A History and Critical Analysis by Juris Dilevko. This book was perhaps the most comprehensive “history of the library” book I’ve yet encountered, and I really enjoyed it.
- The Hermit’s Cookbook: Monks, Food, and Fasting in the Middle Ages by Andrew Jotischky. Exactly what it sounds like: an academic book on monks and food. I loved it.
- The Witches: Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff. A comprehensive, well-researched non-fiction work on the history of the Salem Witch Trials.
- Dark Angel: Mary Ann Cotton by Martin Connolly. The historical account of the “first” female serial killer in Britain.
Bonus: (book I’m currently reading and not really counting in the statistics above, but am REALLY enjoying)
Vampyres: Genesis and Resurrection: From Count Dracula to Vampirella by Christopher Frayling. This work is half non-fiction history of Vampires in literature and mainstream culture, and half anthology of fictional works containing vampires. It is very well put together, and I am enjoying all the non-fiction bits just as much as the fiction.
Top 10 Fiction (In Order of How much I enjoyed them)
- The Collector by John Fowles
- Ex Libris Stories of Librarians, Libraries, and Lore
- The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
- The Dumb House by John Burnside
- Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier
- Central Station by Lavie Tidhar
- Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
- The Light Between Oceans by M.L Stedman
- Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
- Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Things I learned about Myself:
- I am really bad at maintaining a TBR or participating in Read-alongs. I didn’t read 2/4 books I announced I would for Victober, and I didn’t read 3/4 books I announced I would read for Nonfiction November. I hardly contributed conversations on the Reddit Thread for Infinite Jest, even though it was the only reason I re-read it. I still read Victorian Literature in October, and Nonfiction in November….I just didn’t stick to the list I had prepared. I got very easily distracted by different books. I also find it very hard to read on someone else’s schedule. I tried participating in a few “Goodreads book clubs” and I ended up being unable to do it at either too slow, or too fast a pace (depending on the book).
- I am very much a “mood reader.” This is the reason I buy a lot of my books, even though I’m a librarian. I like to have the foundational texts always around because some days I feel like Tolkien, the next I may feel like it’s a Sherlock kind of day….and I need to have them on hand.
- Some books really upset me (for pretentiousness) and bored me while I was reading them but then I found I couldn’t stop thinking about them after I put them down (Lincoln in the Bardo and Infinite Jest were such examples)
Posts I enjoyed Writing
In the meantime I may still squeeze in a few posts until the year is out, including of course my NEW YEAR RESOLUTIONS in terms of what I hope to achieve with my reading goals next year. I hope you all have a wonderful time in these last two weeks before the New Year! Happy Holidays, and thanks again for reading 🙂
I came across this beautiful line by Emily Dickinson early in the month, and something about it feels right. November is somewhat peaceful and (at least in Canada) holiday-less, which makes it just a calm month. It’s not brutally cold, it doesn’t snow yet, but it’s also not too colourful like early fall, or as vibrant as the summer/spring months. Since October I’ve been feeling the morbid reads and I didn’t feel the need for them to end just because Halloween is over. I kind of like the theme year-round. I tried to read Nonfiction for this month’s Nonfiction challenge, plays, and poetry with less full fictional novels than usual. This month I was lost in the Podcast LIMETOWN.
Books I read for Review
- Cello’s Tears by Geza Tatrallyay
- Starlings by Jo Walton
- The Light Between Oceans by M.L Steadman (personal book club)
- LORE <– massive spotlight of all formats
- The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction <– academic work
Books I read for Myself
Endgame & Act Without Words by Samuel Beckett
Maybe I just didn’t have the patience for this…which sucks because I really love Samuel Beckett. I find that an artist has failed in some ways at times when people reading it (according to Goodreads reviews) ask questions like “I’m not sure I get it,” “it’s the same recycled material from his most famous work,” and “I know this is important, but I’m not sure how….I don’t get it.” To which others retort: “you just don’t understand him because your ignorance is showing….*high brow laugh…” Reading it, I felt a little exasperated. I know that it’s what Beckett wants, but it’s not what I want to get out of my reading experience. Maybe he’s one of those people whose intensity comes across from heated discussion, or watching his works be performed live and feeling a tension between the physical presence of the actors, with time to think about it all in your seat because that is your only choice in that time and enclosed space….feeling the grayness of it all. But sitting here in MY space, trying to READ this play was agonizing. …for a person who keeps reminding you life has no point and beginnings and endings are cyclical, it really makes you think: do I want to spend the little time I have on this Earth reading this play?. I just wish it wasn’t so much like Waiting for Godot…I wish it had a different point. Not my favorite….not the worst either. I stand by: Beckett’s plays should be an experience whilst watching them be performed….rather than be read. I think I gave it 3/5 stars if that matters (it doesn’t).
Origins of a Story by Jake Grogan
This book is amazing! I honestly wish it existed long ago. I’ve read many books varying on writer’s hobbies, habits, and odd sources of inspiration but this tiny book covers 202 of them. I liked that Grogan was succinct. He didn’t go on and on for any specific author. If inspiration for some authors took longer, it only goes on for a page an a half. He gets to the essential part and focuses on his thesis which is: where the inspiration came from. He doesn’t take it further than that….like how they wrote, where they wrote etc. For some authors that is a shame because I wish I knew more, but I was content with how he approached this topic.
My favourite story of inspiration that I didn’t know about what Margaret Mitchell for Gone with the Wind. Apparently her husband was so tired of carrying books to and from the library for her and one day snapped and said: “For God’s sake, Peggy, can’t you write a book instead of reading thousands of them?”
The truth is… the people most likely to pick this up are bibliophiles who have read many novels, love many authors, and know a lot of these stories. For more famous cases you’ll find yourself patting yourself on the back going: “already knew that, 10 points Ravenclaw!”
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
I loved this book so much. I felt the need to elaborate on it further, so I wrote a review mixed in with discussion. You can find a link to it HERE. It has one of those plots that is so intricate and there’s so much to discuss that it either takes some time to properly explain plot and then discuss….or just read it. It’s one of those books perfect for a book club.
Key words for it would be: motherhood, thriller, murder
I would totally recommend this.
House of Fiction by Phyllis Richardson
I read this for Non-fiction November and I received a review copy in exchange for an honest review. This book is very well-researched, though a little dry in parts. It was presented to me as a “reference work” so I anticipated a broader overview of many literary houses with starting points. This is actually an academic work and has a lot of depth/detail on FEW literary houses. Phyllis Richardson takes a few houses that were significant as either the birthplace or writing place of authors, or like the one in Virginia Woolf’s case, the location in which several authors gathered (Bloomsbury group). Richardson discusses several aspects of “the house.” How it looked, what it was like, how the author/writer made use of it, who visited it, and the subsequent artworks that came out of it. There are several interesting chapters that had my attention throughout. I thought there would be more obscure writers, but this author chose big names like The Brontes, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Hardy, Woolf. The reason I’m pointing it out, is because nowadays, people who are a fan of the ‘big book squad’ like the people mentioned would most likely have already seen at least one biopic, one documentary, or one picture of their house. So in that respect I wish less covered artists would have been featured. Needless to say the book is Anglo-centric, but it is called Great “BRITISH” houses, so it’s fair. It’s well-researched.
The Witches: Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff
A lot of people have recommended Stacy Schiff’s works to me, and I now understand why. I loved this book so much. I started reading this at the same time in October when I was binge-listening to the LORE podcast. It was a great compliment to it. The work looks at the Salem witch trials in an academic/historical way, but written in such an accessible way that it makes you feel like you’re actually there. I loved the accumulation of references made along the way to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and many other works that refer to the Salem Witch Trials without being completely rooted in truth. She debunks a lot of myths around the stories relating to the Salem ‘witches’ and explains step by step how everything happened. I was surprised to find that even two dogs were killed for being ‘pendle witches.’ I really enjoyed it. It took me two months to read, but I put it down and picked it up on and off. I do recommend this, if the topic interests you.
Sometimes the Magic Works by Terry Brooks
I was introduced to Terry Brooks via Ted Talk, and it was such a pleasure to hear him talk. I will certainly give the first three books of Shannara a try. I listened to the audio-book of Sometimes the Magic Works, and it did not quite live up to the standards I had for it. I thought it would resemble his talk and go deeper into some of the themes he touched on. I wanted to learn about how he wrote, why he wrote what he did, the process, the feelings, etc. Instead, this was a sort of post-success story. The first hour or so he keeps on repeating how everyone hailed his work as the equal of Lord of the Rings, and how it rivaled Middle Earth. He kind of takes us through the process of talking to his publishers etc. What I couldn’t stand about this book was the comparison with LOTR (every five minutes), and the way Brooks sees himself as some sort of genius that is lost in this other world which somehow justifies him being “out of it.” I’ve seen many male authors do this thing where they are like: oh I had to ignore my wife and she wouldn’t understand that I was trapped in this other world…I was busy creating…I am so complicated. Guess what? J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien managed to create complex worlds beyond this one with depth and wonderful characters and they weren’t rude to the people around them, especially the ones they are meant to love and be close to. When Brooks talks about the way his wife would talk to him about news or anything and he’d just ignore her….blaming it on the craft….that’s when I was done. There are better books out there on writing, and you don’t have to be some outcast, or completely check out in conversations with people. You CAN be a decent human being. I don’t know why this bothered me so much, but I am not going to hold Brooks’s fiction far because of it. Maybe this was just slightly off. I mean again, I’ll give Shannara a try, because I think it probably is a good series, but this particular book was not for me.
2001; A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
I’ve been meaning to read this Sci-fi classic for quite some time. Earlier this year, I read Rendezvous with Rama, and I really enjoyed it. Clarke wrote a short story called “Sentinel” in 1948 which was published as “The Sentinel of Eternity” in 1951. Stanley Kubrick really liked the story and wanted to collaborate with Clarke and make the 2001: A Space Odyssey movie script. Clarke had been working on the book and wanted to publish it before the movie, but the movie was released first, and people saw the book as mere novelization of a film. The work remains a classic nonetheless in the realm of science fiction. I listened to this work on Audio rather than reading the text.
Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne
I had to return to this sci-fi classic when I realized I didn’t own a copy and came across a beautiful edition of it from Macmillan. I wrote an in-depth review of it HERE. Axel (the narrator and main character) a young man, visits his uncle, Professor Otto Lidenbrock, who is an eccentric academic and adventurer. Lidenbrock has recently purchased a manuscript with Runic inscriptions which he and Axel decipher to be a cryptogram indicating how one can reach the centre of the Earth. Axel is in love with Lidenbrock’s goddaughter Gräuben, who promises to wait for him and marry him if he returns. The two leave and find themselves a guide, Hans Bjelke, who helps them reach their goal. The journey leads them from Germany, to Denmark. In Copenhagen they take a boat for several days which gets them to Iceland where “the centre’s” entryway is located. Walking through the inside tunnels of a volcano the explorers find fossils, interesting rock formations, water, and many other wonders.
The Light Between Oceans by M.L Stedman
This book was a wonderful experience. I actually spent two months reading it in a personal book club with someone very special to me, and it was the first time in a long time that I read a book at such a slow pace (five chapters per week). The book follows Tom and Isabel who have a difficult past because of the War (WWI) and they fall in love, and move on an isolated island where they take care of a Lighthouse for the Commonwealth. Isabel has three miscarriages and one day, a boat washes up on shore, with a dead body and a living baby. I wrote a much more detailed review HERE.
The Collector by John Fowles
The Collector (1963) is so far my #1 read of the year. I love love love it. It was a weird hybrid of John Burnside’s The Dumb House (1997) and Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) both works I enjoyed immensely in the past. The previous two works mentioned had a few things which made them lacking. The first was the amount of “coincidences” that were almost too convenient, and the second were the several homicides…which were also too convenient. Lolita was a child (though cringe-worthy, her age had its literary devices and significance), and Burnside’s woman lead was already abused by so many, that she almost appeared in the story to conveniently produce the main character’s linguistic experiment. Fowles works in this novel with a woman who is a capable adult, and shows us her point of view, as well as that of her kidnapper/oppressor. The plot, if you have not inferred from my rambles, is: a man kidnaps woman who fascinates him and keeps her in a cabin in the woods. It deals with the depths that make men like Humbert Humbert and Clegg the way they are, and why they do the things they do, but without the completion of the sexual act, which makes it ten times creepier for some reason. There is a lot of complexity to this novel and I will write a proper review very soon. This book deserves a proper analysis. I promise I will be a lot more coherent in my review. It’s already entered my all-time favourites, and I am looking for Fowles’s backlist.
I’ve been trying to find ways to bring LORE into conversation, and on this blog several times without deviating from my main topic, unsure how, and then the book came out! For anyone who doesn’t know the exact content of this “LORE” I will go into detail in the Book Review section. But first, I want to introduce you to all the formats LORE comes in. I’ve officially consumed LORE in every format.
For the month of October I binge-listened to the entire LORE Podcast (still ongoing) and caught up to the latest one. My new job allows for the listening of podcasts and audio books, so Aaron Mahnke has been my “coworker” for the last two months. Needless to say, I loved it. Every episode features a different macabre topic in which Mahnke weaves together several narratives that have been historically recorded and fit the topic. He does an excellent job, and the literary allusions, and pop-culture references are on point. One of the many reasons I adore this project is that it’s highly inter-textual.
The podcast won best history podcast last year. The podcast is accompanied by music throughout and occasional commercials. New episodes are released every two weeks on Mondays. If you’re like me and late to the party just be happy. It’s a GOOD party, and you get to binge, which is awesome! The musical accompaniment is by Chad Lawson, who will soon release an album featuring the songs from LORE called A Grave Mistake.
2. The TV Show
Just as I was deep mid-podcast, on October 15, Amazon Prime Video released Season 1 of LORE which features six of the most chilling episodes. It was so much scarier seeing these tales performed with live people and seeing the settings (most are set in times different from our own). The costumes and settings really gave another dimension to these little histories. The direction of this season was excellent. The music, mixed with live demonstrations of some of these horrific things, made me far more afraid than I thought I would be (especially since I knew from the podcast how they end). Although I found some criticisms online where people dislike that Mahnke’s voice narrates throughout the show, I found his voice to be comforting when things got scary. He was the familiar constant, and I needed that.
3. The Audiobook
This was actually my favourite format of the four, which I’ll explain at length below. It maintains the ‘cleanliness’ of the book, but it also has Mahnke’s voice and some musical effects which I loved from the Podcast. I got this from Audible. Although I completely understand why in the podcasts people often take requests for placing ads throughout, it can be a little annoying while listening, but with the audio-book, it was commercial-free and the transitions between topics were so smooth. This audio-book is a reading of the book below.
4. LORE: Monstrous Creatures | Book Review
This book is made of the transcripts from the LORE Podcast mentioned above and edited in such a way that results in a very smooth transition from one tale to the next. The book itself is a mere fraction of what is to be a longer series, published by Del Rey. The second book Wicked Mortals is set for release in May of 2018 and the third book has been announced, but the cover has not been revealed.
The book cover and the accompanying illustrations are made by M.S. Corley whose contribution to this work gives LORE yet another layer of talent and atmosphere. His illustrations are so morbid and simultaneously whimsical. I think the two choices for colors: the red and black, relate to the section in the book “Doing Tricks, Shifting Shapes” where Mahnke writes:
“Black and red, for a very long time, were considered bad colors, so if you wanted to describe something as evil, of course it was black or red or both.” (Mahnke, 76)
The content of LORE is made up of vignettes and separate accounts of mysterious sightings, happenings, or experiments done by humans. The range is anywhere from the supernatural to the scientific. All of them are rooted in real recordings and stories, even if at times humans just ‘claimed’ to have seen or done something. Mahnke reminds us with this work, that not too long ago oral testimony is all we really had, and that a lot of people were highly superstitious.
The way he captures these stories is in the same spirit of the Grimm Brothers. He collected and compiled tales of the macabre, but roots each firmly in historical context. I found it very useful to understand why and how certain practices were done in a particular time period. Mahnke references historical figures, other works of literature, and the sources from which one can find the details of each of these records. What I found most exciting is that he brings together stories from all over the world. We are globally united in our fear of the unknown, death, and the unexplained and Mahnke forces readers (and listeners) to look at that aspect of our human nature. He writes:
“We fear death because it means the loss of control, the loss of purpose and freedom. Death, in the eyes of many people, robs us of our identity and replaces it with finality.”
At the 200-year-anniversary of the Brothers Grimm, Harvard professor Maria Tatar—expert on folklore and fairy tales— mentioned that the reason fairy tales are so deeply ingrained in our society and why we love them so much is because they’ve been told and retold so many times that all the boring bits have been left out. What we get now is the final product of a story that has been edited through generations. I think Mahnke’s work captures the same effect through the refining of folklore, and the editing process that these tales have experienced simply by being tested in the format of a Podcast prior to being committed to text. Of course the stories and their content prior to Mahnke’s work on them were refined through oral storytelling. Mahnke sometimes even extends the use of ‘lore’ or ‘folklore’ and appropriates it to other unifying communal activities like sports and how we all share a common language like the “Curse of the Bambino” in baseball folklore for example. Mahnke constantly reminds us of the power of stories:
“no realm holds more explanation for the unexplainable than folklore” (65)
“Given enough time, story–like water–will leave its mark and transform a place.” (127)
I don’t know if I’ve convinced you to give LORE a try if you haven’t, or to experience it in at least one of its formats, but clearly I love it! No one asked me to write a review, this is just me writing about my love for this whole production, because in trying to explain what I love about it, I understand myself better, and what I enjoy about this kind of storytelling. An additional Lore-related video I strongly enjoyed was Aaron Mahnke’s speech here, on how he started out, and what brought LORE to the phenomenon it is today. If you have enjoyed LORE and want to try Mahnke’s other works, here are some of this other works:
Also, this is the official link to all things LORE.
“…science fiction is more than a literary genre or a social passion. It is a way of organizing the mind to include the contemporary world…SF is an art that delights in vision, intelligence, and the infinite possibilities of change.”
My overall impression of this book was that it was trying so hard to be exclusive and elite that it almost became nonsensical. Yes, I understand that it contributes to a larger conversation. However, if you look at Joanna Russ’s discourse on feminist science fiction, or Sterling’s, LeGuin’s, and Atwood’s nonfiction writing as a writer-critic, or even Auerbach, Marx, and Bakhtin (all names with whom Csicsery-Ronay Jr claims to be ‘in conversation’) they are still trying to reach the public and actually have a discourse. When you purposely make yourself so inaccessible, you might as well be ranting in a dark room, in solitary confinement. It was clear to me that he wanted to fit into the ‘philosophy’ department more than the literary analysis and criticism department, or the literary studies in general. In some sections, he over-complicates topics that are so simple with his verbose and restrictive writing style. For instance, in the section on fictive neology, the entire passage sounds like an anthropology paper on humans as an overview. “Languages have an inherent potential for development through their interaction with the discourses of other cultures and their own internal elaboration.” Yeah…we know. You’d find yourself reading pages upon pages of just common sense knowledge told in a restrictive style. I also found this work to be limited by the few sci-fi works that Csicsery-Ronay has read. While he references certain things here and there from a wider range, he goes into detailed discussion on only a few works (but almost the same ones in every chapter). You can tell he’s definitely (properly) read Solaris, the Kim Stanley Robinson books, few works by Ursula K. LeGuin (if not one) and some of the 19th century classics…but there are so many other works to consider (especially when this was published in 2008). I think he barely dips into science fiction works, extracts a very superficially well-known theme and then starts ranting about it in a way only Philosophy students would understand. This becomes crystal clear the moment you encounter chapters dedicated to Kant, Adorno, and Burke. Sometimes he just name-drops titles without even discussing them, to get them to fit into his ‘totally-unrelated-to-sf’ thesis.
Those two frustrations aside, the book gets good once you get used to his use of language about mid-end of chapter one. Once he begins to engage with science fiction works (though few) I actually really enjoyed it.
The title for this work is inspired by the medieval Persian allegorical romance The Haft Paykar—a tale of mystical love and moral enlightenment, in which a prince falls in love with seven beauties and upon visiting each of them in a week, each bride tells him a new allegorical story. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. appropriates the seven beauties to the form of “categories” found in science fiction (which he calls science-fictionality)—of which one work may contain several.
This work is not expository or historical. It is a theoretical model of criticism and responding to a rich discourse about the genre. While there are many literary critical lenses through which to examine sf works (feminist, Marxist, etc) Csicsery-Ronay Jr. approaches sf as (what he ‘simply’ describes as):
“a product of the convergence of social-historical forces that has led to the current global hegemony of technoscience, and as an institution of ideological expression on one hand, and on the other, the ludic framework in a culture of game and play in which that hegemony is entertained, absorbed, and resisted.”
The author explains that he wanted to interact with sf works and read closely while trying to not to border on the banal by using popular works, nor slip into obscurity by addressing texts that deserve a wider audience. A great difficulty arises when he wanted to be inclusive of non-Anglo sf works, while the SF genre is predominantly an Anglo-American genre. These are the seven ‘beauties’ or categories he discusses at length (I am paraphrasing some from the way Csicsery-Ronay Jr introduced them, with some examples that were memorable to me):
- Fictive Neology: new worlds, variations and combinations based on the actual process of lexicogenesis (ways words are coined) experienced in social life. Imply linguistic-symbolic models of technological transformation. They engage audiences to use them as clues and triggers to construct the logic of science fictional worlds. In this chapter he looks at the way language is used to construct a novelty but also how the absence of it can also achieve the same results. For instance, he uses the example of Dr. Jekyll’s chemical compound of which we never get to know the name. “By refusing to give his novum a scientific name Stevenson kept his tale from engaging with the discourse of science.” He also examines ways in which Tolkien’s well-constructed Elvish gives the fantasy epic a scientific foundations, while other ‘languages’ referenced in sci-fi with few words here and there and a name do not. Parseltongue isn’t a language, Elvish and Klingon are (in a scientific way).
- Fictive Novums: coined by Darko Suvin, the term refers to a historically unprecedented and unpredictable ‘new thing’ that intervenes in the routine course of social life and changes the trajectory of history. According to Csicsery-Ronay Jr., every sf text supplies fictive novums and responses to them, and thus engages the sense of real inhabitants of technorevolutionary societies. Here we learn about negative apocalypse predictions, or we find that something we knew in the past or present to be true, in the future it won’t be so. For instance Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Vinland the dream” contains the idea that the Vikings’ landing in North America is a recent hoax. This chapter has a deeper study of Lem’s Solairs.
- Future History: most sf is set in the future, though it does not need to be. The genre relies on the techniques of realism. Maintaining a sense of connection between the present and future, sf constructs micromyths of the historical process, establishing the audience’s present as the future-oriented ‘prehistory of the future.’
- Imaginary Science: introducing technoscientific ideas and events among the value-bearing stories and metaphors of social life. “We make science of our metaphors.”
- The Science-fictional Sublime: here Csicsery-Ronay Jr. explores several branches of the sublime like the Kantian sublime of temporal and special infinitude of the mathematical, the sense of overwhelming physical power of the dynamic sublime, David E. Nye’s coined American technological sublime where it’s the sense of access to, and control of, the powers of nature that typified the Americanpopulace’s responses to the monumental engineering projects of the nineteenth century, and last the technoscientific sublime, popularized post-WWII which entails a sense of awe and dread in response to human technological projects that exceed the power of their human creators.
- The Science-Fictional grotesque: the inversion of the technosublimeàcollapse of ontological categories. This is the domain of monstrous aliens. The grotesque is implosive, accompanied by fascination and horror at the prospect of intimate category-violating phenomena discovered by human science.
- Technologiade: transforms popular cultural materials by reorienting their concerns toward its characteristic horizon: the transformation of human societies as a result of innovations attending technoscientific projects. This chapter is similar to Jung’s models of the archetype, only he appropriates it here for the Gothic vs. Adventure. What I found interesting in this chapter was the presentation or idea of the Gothic as a mere inversion of the adventure tale.
“Where modern adventure narrates the projection of discovery and invention further and further away from the home base, the metropole and the ‘motherland,’ into exotic venues, the Gothic imagines the subject position of the victim of these cognitive interests…the field of values is reversed…the Gothic inverts the dream world of thrilling travels among wonders into nightmares of abduction, imprisonment, and victimization by barely controllable archaic passions.”
I recommend this book to people interested in philosophical discourse, rather than people interested in the history, analysis, or in-depth study of science fiction literature/film.
Jo Walton is a Welsh-Canadian fantasy and science fiction author. She is the winner of the John W. Cambell Award for Best New Writer in 2002, The World Fantasy award for her novel Tooth and Claw in 2004, and most famously known for her Nebula and Hugo award winning novel Among Others (2011). Most recently, the Thessaly trilogy has been completed and published as an omnibus containing The Just City, The Philosopher Kings, and Necessity: A Novel. Starlings is the first collection of Walton’s shorter works and it will be published by Tachyon Publications.
In the introduction to Starlings Jo Walton writes:
“For the longest time I didn’t know how to write short stories…I had published nine novels before I figured out short stories…so that career advice for writers isn’t necessarily the way it has to work. Funny that…Writers are different and write in different ways and there is no off-the-peg writing advice that works for everyone.”
Walton knows her craft so well that even on works she says she “never found easy,” or “recently figured out,” she still manages to amaze and inspire.
Starlings is a mix of short stories, poetry, and even a play. This work is an accumulation of all the side projects Walton has been working on for seventeen years. I am a big fan of seeing an author in different moods, and at different skill levels across several years within the covers of the same book. This work is playful and experimental. Each short story, play, or section is followed by an afterword by Walton where one often encounters the words “experiment,” “exercise,” or “challenge.” Reading this collection felt like watching a wizard at the cauldron having fun with new spells.
At several points short stories are really just “poems in disguise” as Walton puts it. Her use of language is highly atmospheric. There are imagined letters between Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra, an encounter with an alien told from the perspective on an 89 year-old woman whose memories are slipping, as well as poems containing myths, legends, and familiar characters. My absolute favourite short story in this collection is “On the Wall.” This story was previously published for Strange Horizons back in 2001 and it’s a retelling of Snow White, pre-Snow White (character) told from the point of view of the magic mirror. In this tale we come to know how the magic mirror came into existence, gained consciousness, and how it came to the possession of who we now know as the Evil Queen. The mirror’s voice stayed with me several days after reading this short story:
“I do not know how long it was before I learned to reflect people. People move so fast, and must always be doing…I learned not merely to reflect them but to see them and to understand their words and commands…what I liked best was hour upon hour of contemplation, truly taking in and understanding something.”
Even the mirror, with all its abilities and magical power, feels inadequate and incomplete.
“I am a failure. I can only see what is never what is to come”
I recommend this collection to anyone who enjoys fantasy, Jo Walton’s previous works, or wants to try shorter works before committing to longer ones. Many thanks to Tachyon for sending me a copy for review.
I am not going to lie, I watched the show before reading the book. There were some questions left unanswered for me, and the book supplied the answers I was looking for. I recommend both. The show was really well done. There are two changes between the text and film and they are regarding Madeline. Unfortunately I can’t really discuss them without giving things away so I will do my best to explain what this book is about. The plot revolves around three women who are very involved in their children’s lives. The three women are ‘suburban moms’ only they are in an extremely wealthy neighborhood in California (in movie) and Australia (book). Madeline is the social glue and a feisty character who likes to get involved in people’s lives. She has an ex husband with whom she shares her older daughter, and two children with her new husband Ed (the show has only one kid). Celeste is her best friend–who used to be a lawyer but is now a stay-at-home mom taking care of her twin boys–she is absolutely gorgeous. Celeste’s life looks absolutely perfect from the outside, and she strives to maintain the perfect public perception. Her gorgeous husband, her perfect house, everything just right. We find out early on that Celeste and her husband have a problematic relationship. They abuse each other physically and sometimes it escalates–always ending in sexual intercourse. “Our dirty little secret” as Celeste puts it. The third main heroine is Jane. She is a single mom and only 24 years old. She got her son Ziggy (named after Ziggy Stardust) after a one night stand. All the women are united in that, their children go to the same school. There are other characters around like Renata the CEO business woman power mom who does it all, and other parents mentioned/interviewed who are woven in and out of the main plot, as well as Bonnie–the perfect holistic, yoga instructing, health-oriented woman who is currently married to Nathan, (Madeline’s ex-husband). All the peripheral characters play a role but the main focus is on Madeline, Celeste, and Jane.
We find out early on that there has been a murder, but we don’t know who died. The parents are interviewed by the police as we go along.
What I wrote so far covers the “plot” and “characters.” What I really want to discuss is why I love this narrative. I found it to be highly empowering. Moriarty takes 5 kinds of moms: divorced sharing (used to be single) mom, career mom (Renata), Mom who used to have a career (Celeste), single mom (Jane), and Free Will non-controlling mom (Bonnie). Madeline and Renata are more ‘helicopter’ parents than the others but Jane spends most of her time with her son too.
The different kinds of mom and womanhood portrayed by Moriarty in this novel is innovative because we often see moms portrayed as either horrible and/or absent….or this sort of “Mrs. Darling” perfect mom who sings lullabies and reads to her children. The kind of mom achievable only if you have a very supportive partner, a housekeeper, household staff, and a lot of free time. In the 21st century these are hardly achievable for an average woman with an average income. I liked that the three main women were strong together by giving each other advice, helping each other out, and were loyal to their group while simultaneously being protective over their children when it came to it.
I also like that no one in this book is “happy.” There is no perfect scenario. No one is 100% fulfilled, and the suburban, ‘rich-life’ boredom, turns into cattiness and cliques. Everyone is trying to find an outlet to fulfill their lives aside from their family and children–the helicopter parents use the children as that outlet.
I particularly admired the ways in which Moriarty depicts variations of rape and abuse. She shows what it feels like, and the subsequent ‘PTSD-like’ symptoms post-rape; how these symptoms differ, how they are handled, and how an abuser never does it just once. It’s a powerful message. Sometimes I get lost in Moriarty’s little details (school drama and children talk) I almost forget the gravity of some of the big themes embedded in the plot. Lastly, she shows the ways in which children become miniatures of their parents in the way they imitate behaviour patterns, rather than being a certain way because of genetic predispositions. Madeline’s child Chloe is a social glue just like Madeline. Ziggy is quiet but a good kid, just like Jane. Skye, Bonnie’s child, is peaceful and calm.
I think this book is certainly a perfect one for a book club because there is so much to discuss and so many details. I definitely recommend this to everyone.
In the bookish community online, November is known as “Nonfiction Month.” Or, at least the month in which readers attempt to read at least ONE Nonfiction text. In order for you to participate you just have to read one nonfiction work. I think that’s doable!
Olive set the ‘challenges’ for this year’s NonFic November. Here’s a link to her channel.
The challenges are as follows (and left open ended for everyone’s interpretation): Home, Substance, Love, and Scholarship
These are my choices:
- Home: I will be reading House of Fiction: From Pemberley to Brideshead, Great British Houses in Literature and Life by Phyllis Richardson. I interpreted this in the literal sense as in: about houses. Others have interpreted this as a book about a small home (family), or a home for seniors, or children. Others read books with the setting in the country where they come from, or the city they were raised in…their personal memories of ‘home.’ It’s up to you.
- Substance: for this I will be reading the history of my favourite substance. I’ve always wanted to know more about the history of coffee. So I will be reading Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed the World by Mark Pendergrast
- Love: as you can guess some people read the story of a romance in history or a topic that they specifically love. I love the latter because it opens the topic widely. I love animals, and I found this book called Being a Beast by Charles Foster by accident. I read that the author explores the behaviours of animals by pretending to be them for a while. I love this topic and this method.
- Scholarship: this is my favourite topic! For this I’ve selected the book I look forward to most: The Vampyre Family: The Curse of Byron by Andrew McConnell Stott. This book explores the biographies and relationships (as well as writing) of Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, and Percy Shelley.
October has been quite the month for me! I started a new job, which allows for the listening of Podcasts whilst working–which is perhaps the greatest job perk ever! I wanted to fully immerse myself in the spirit of October, Halloween, and the eerie supernatural forces of Victober.
I spent most of my month listening to Lore by Aaron Mehnke. I realize, that like with Night Vale, I am a little late to the party. I get happy when I’m late to a good party though, because I have the opportunity to binge-hear, binge-watch, and binge-read–fully immersing myself in the experience. The podcast features in each episode a mysterious occurrence in history and traces what we know of it from reliable sources. Unsolved mysteries, murders, or the history of mythical and folkloric creatures and stories. The podcast has just been turned into a mini-series on Amazon Prime Video (on Friday the 13th in October), and into a book deal. The first one: The World of Lore: Monstrous Creatures by Aaron Mehnke has already been released on October 10th, and the second one The World of Lore: Wicked Humans has been announced for release for May of next year. The podcast was given the award for the “Best History Podcast” in 2016.
Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and From Here to Eternity
Like with Lore, I recently discovered Caitlin Doughty in a different format: on YouTube. Her channel, Ask a Mortician is absolutely wonderful and I binge-watched five years of uploads in under 10 days. She is a mortician, founder of The Order of the Good Death, writer of two books, and leader in the natural burial community. I had my first author spotlight featuring Caitlin Doughty and I went into more details on all the places one can find her, all the formats, and brief summaries of her two books on death. Link HERE.
The strangest part, with both Lore and Doughty’s works, is that one common theme runs through both: the scariest stories are true and most often done by people…which makes for a very thematic October.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
This was a re-read for me but I picked it up for Victober as my “Scottish Writer” entry. The first time I was shocked at how small it was. It’s currently in the public domain and accessible via Project Gutenberg if you want to read it in a sitting. This tale begins with a Mr. Utterson who is trying to figure out a ‘mystery’ –word in town is that a Mr.Hyde is behind it all. He calls upon one close friend Dr. Jekyll to help with the case. I think I enjoyed this the first time a little more than now. It’s atmospheric, and certainly a treat for October, but the execution of it could have been better. I think Stevenson tapped into something incredible with the dual personality, and the term in itself is so prevalent now that ‘the spoiler’ is already known before one can sit down with the novella properly. I did come across a very well-written article from Tor.com on “What Everybody Gets Wrong about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” where Steven Padnick states that not only should Hollywood understand that Hyde is not a separate entity, but:
Jekyll did not create a potion to remove the evil parts of his nature. He made a potion that allowed him express his urges without feeling guilty and without any consequences besmirching his good name. That’s also why he names his alter ego “Hyde,” because Hyde is a disguise, to be worn and discarded like a thick cloak. He might as well have called Edward “Mr. Second Skin,” or “Mr. Mask.”
Another explanation is that Stevenson was tapping into what we now know to be Dissociative Identity Disorder (Borderline Personality Disorder) a little ahead of his time–seeing it as a different manifestation than other kinds of illness.
Poetry (Everyman’s Pocket Library) by Emily Brontë
Emily is my favourite of the Brontes and I always wished there were more novels written by her in addition to Wuthering Heights. Emily Bronte’s poetry was published in her lifetime under the pseudonym of ‘Ellis Bell.’ She often wrote poems located in fictional Gondal (similar to Tolkien’s Middle Earth verses). Gondal was a shared fiction between Anne and Emily, but Emily dedicated more of her time and poems to it. This collection incorporates some of the Gondal poems, but also her works more philosophical in nature.”The Old Stoic,” or “Death” touch on important themes like wisdom, and grief with such elegant usage of the English language. Her verses are like a maze the reader must navigate, and ready to be fragmented and dissected, branching off like Plath’s fig tree vision. I found her poem “Hope” very reminiscent of the more famously known (yet later written) Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers” Here’s an excerpt from Bronte’s:
Hope was but a timid friend;
She sat without the grated den,
Watching how my fate would tend,
Even as selfish-hearted men.
I created a “Hope Poems” PDF with both poems on it, if you would like to see them side by side. I also linked them all above if you click on the titles. Two contemporary, single, strong Emilys separated by an ocean, writing poems about hope. Beautiful. This was also a Victober choice. This was chosen for a work with few reviews on Goodreads. It had 170 when I selected it.
The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon
I didn’t plan to read this book, but someone told me it would be scary or spooky so I took a chance on it. I read parts of it in the text, and most of it via audiobook at work. It was good company. For the synopsis I had to copy/paste the one from Goodreads because it’s told really well:
“West Hall, Vermont, has always been a town of strange disappearances and old legends. The most mysterious is that of Sara Harrison Shea, who, in 1908, was found dead in the field behind her house just months after the tragic death of her daughter, Gertie. Now, in present day, nineteen-year-old Ruthie lives in Sara’s farmhouse with her mother, Alice, and her younger sister, Fawn. Alice has always insisted that they live off the grid, a decision that suddenly proves perilous when Ruthie wakes up one morning to find that Alice has vanished without a trace. Searching for clues, she is startled to find a copy of Sara Harrison Shea’s diary hidden beneath the floorboards of her mother’s bedroom. As Ruthie gets sucked deeper into the mystery of Sara’s fate, she discovers that she’s not the only person who’s desperately looking for someone that they’ve lost. But she may be the only one who can stop history from repeating itself.”
It was okay, but it really wasn’t for me. I thought it would be a lot spookier (because you know…Halloween) but it wasn’t all that scary or spooky. The dialogue was a bit off too. I’m not sure what else to elaborate on because I would spoil it.
Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire
This is one of my favourite plays of all time, and I wanted to revisit it this October and find out what it is that I love about it so much. I took my time, and ended up writing a very spoiler-filled review in more detail. HERE is a link to it if you’d like to read more about it.
Long story shortened: a glimpse into the life of a young couple currently mourning the loss of their four year old son. Becca and Howie are both grieving in different ways and have a hard time understanding the other. Family members and friends are waling on eggshells around them. Lastly, the teenage driver who accidentally killed their son tries to reach out and communicate with them. He is an equally complex character.
Books I’m currently in the middle of but will not finish by the 31st
- I’ve been reading The Light Between Oceans as a buddy-read so we are only doing about 5 chapters per week.
- I watched the HBO show and I have a few unanswered questions, so I am reading Big Little Lies. Really enjoying the book and finding many differences between the two formats. I will try to read more of Moriarty.
- My non-fiction October-themed book is The Witches (Salem, 1692). It’s taking a bit longer than i anticipated it would. I may actually finish this by Halloween. We will see.
- I recently discovered Geza Tatrallyay, an author who is incredibly gifted. I’m reading his collection of poems Cello’s Tears. A full review of this work will follow.
Short answer: if you want to know people’s favourite books DON’T ask “what would you take on an island” because you’ll get survival answers, raft answers, long books one would like to read but hasn’t, and nostalgia for physical editions which have a sentimental value attached to them.
Long answer and personal choices:
I’ve always had issues with the question of “desert island” books (which should be deserted but let’s let that slide). Sometimes people rephrase it as “if there was a fire, which books would you save?” which is an entirely different question. What people want to know when they ask it is: what are your favourite books? Sometimes one is forced to narrow it down to five. I think, this question should be rephrased to “list your five favourite books up to this point in your life based on content and nostalgia.” There will be some books that you genuinely thought were brilliant as an adult and enjoyed the experience of reading them, and some have amazing memories attached to them like: “when mom read ‘x’ to me on our vacation in ‘y.’” The ‘up to this point’ part leaves room for you to know that the list could change and grow as you change and grow. So let’s break it down.
Now, the ISLAND question. First of all, ‘characters isolated on an island’ is my favourite theme, so if I would answer honestly, people would think I just got ‘inspired’ by the question. If you check out my favourites page you’ll many isolated characters on an island. The island implies a few things and depending on how you see it, it influences your answer. The three things implied are:
- You have all the time in the world to yourself
- You are completely alone and socially isolated
- You might need to survive and/or escape
These are three separate questions which are added to the ‘deserted island question.’ Some people give the smartass answer: “I’d bring How to Build a Raft.” Really? You have no idea how far away you are from any land, you hardly have access to drinkable water (no way you can carry enough with you) and if you don’t know how to build a raft, how do you expect to navigate? Seriously, everyone should know how to build a raft by now, it’s 2017. So the ‘Fire’ and ‘Island’ questions are actually four separate questions. Here’s how I would answer them:
Which books would you save from the fire?
This question is actually more about the physical book because you’re not saving the story. In a case of actual fire, if you had to save five books, most people would save:
- Rare editions
- Books with sentimental value (book you have from childhood, book grandma gave you with her inscription on it, book signed by your favourite author)
What you actually save from the fire, isn’t the STORY or plot line, you are saving the physical object and the additional attachments, which sometimes, may have nothing to do with the story. So please don’t ask the fire question unless you want to know what rare editions and special physical books someone has in their home.
My Answer for This Question:
- My 1777, 3rd English translation of Plutarch’s Lives, translated by Thomas North. I found it at a flea market in Oxford when studying there. I have fond memories of the time I found it, it was only £10 and it’s a beautiful copy of a wonderful text. Just think that the first edition (1579) of this book was the source and foundation for Shakespeare when writing his classical-based plays.
- My Annotated Brothers Grimm with an inscription on the cover from Maria Tatar (the annotator). She is one of my favourite academics and I had the chance to meet her once and have lunch with her. She sent me this book as a gift a month later. The inscription says “here’s to magic.”
- My 1910 copy of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. This book was hard to find, and I love it so much, and it’s a rare edition.
- My Romanian edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. When I was seven years old, St. Nicholas (on Dec 6 he leaves presents in your shoes) gave me that book and I cherished it for many years. It’s the only book I brought with me when I moved to Canada.
- Lord of the Rings (Deluxe Editions). One of my favourite teachers from high school gave me this book. It’s so beautiful, irreplaceable, and from someone I really respected.
- Infinite Jest (First Edition). By far the most expensive book I’ve purchased. I just acquired this gem from The Strand Bookstore in New York City, while walking the town with two of my dearest friends. It will forever be ingrained in my memory as one of the most special weekends.
The THREE Island Sub-Questions
Here I would ideally have books like: which plants are poisonous, herb books, natural remedies, how to navigate in nature, which fruits/vegetables are edible, how to preserve foods for long periods of time. I would also be more concerned with building a tree house, rather than trying to get away.
Also…Island-Specific Mental Survival! I would take with me The Ultimate Lost and Philosophy. It would give me a guideline, and a higher purpose/hope whilst being there, and it would remind me of one of my favourite shows. It would strengthen my relationship with the island.
ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD
This aspect of the Island question which some people answer with, implies that you FINALLY have time to read books that you didn’t get a chance to yet, but definitely want to read. Given all the time and freedom, you’ll finally do it. Here’s the problem: HOW do you know you will like them? What if you bring with you Infinite Jest, Middlemarch, and War and Peace….and then find out that you don’t like any of them all that much, and realize: they’re now going to be with you on the island forever and you don’t even like them! Also, even if you were to ‘study’ it for a purpose like writing a great academic paper, or showing off to your friends—well, there’s no chance you can get OFF the island ever. So you have to choose the ones that you love alone, so you must be honest with yourself. Here are some books that are really long and it’s something I wanted to get to but I’m scared of starting because they are way too long of a commitment:
- In Search of Lost Time – Marcel Proust
- The Wheel of Time Omnibus – Robert Jordan (and Brandon Sanderson). I am not sure if an omnibus exists yet, I’m just trying to incorporate a series into one.
- The Gormenghast Trilogy – Mervyn Peake
- The Complete Arabian Nights (I’ve read individual stories but never the complete)
- A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
Again, there is no guarantee I would absolutely love any of these, but they are long works I would get to if I was focused, alone, and had a lot of time.
FAVOURITE NOVELS (Good Company)
The bottom line, the question based on content, and story, with a mix of nostalgia. What would I bring? Most fairy tales and children’s lit, as well as Lord of the Rings, are so deeply ingrained in my mind that I don’t think it would need to be ‘read’ or ‘reread’ on the island alone. I could probably write them from memory. But here is my squad:
- The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi) by Hermann Hesse
- The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
- Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
- Necronomicon by H.P. Lovecraft
- The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
This is the company I’d like to keep, I mean, obviously it doesn’t cover poetry, and all the others, but if I really had to narrow it down to five people’s works that I absolutely love, and would enjoy reading and rereading on an island alone…I think these would be the ones. Again, it’s subject to change as I go on.
Ultimately my point is, that asking someone “What books would you take on a ‘desert’ island” or “which books you’d save from the fire” have different implications, and different answers. So if you want to know people’s favourite questions DON’T ask that because you’ll get survival answers, raft answers, long books I’d like to read answers, and nostalgia for physical editions which have a sentimental value attached to them.
Books I read for Early Review
Literary Titans Revisited ed. Anne Urbancic
This work is a transcript of sixteen interviews conducted in the late 1960s by Earle Toppings with great Canadian literary figures. I received a copy for review from the editor and I think this is a great new primary source upon which to rely when conducting research in Canadian literature. Full review HERE.
The Biophilia Effect by Clemens G. Arvay
This book is a beautifully written work about humans’ connection to nature and the effect nature has on our body and our chemistry. Arvay follows medical studies showing how significant it is to live among trees and to be as close to nature as possible. This book will be coming out in January 2018. Full Review HERE.
Books I read for myself
Odd Type Writers by Celia Blue Johnson
This book covers the quirks of famous authors. It covers anything from the time of day they wrote, their word counts, or the colour of ink they preferred to use. I enjoyed it a lot and I thought it deserved a longer explanation immediately after I read it, so I wrote a review, even if it was a book I read for myself. Full review HERE.
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
This book was really not for me. I was surprised to see Martin Scorsese give a blurb on the back, so I picked it up. A trend on YouTube for lifestyle vloggers is to promote “morning pages” where you should brain-dump words on three pages each morning to clear your head and make space for creativity. This book is where the idea came from and then just spread online. Other than that, I didn’t find many other useful tips. A lot of the things here are journal starter sentences like “when I was a kid I missed out on…” and you’re supposed to treat it like a self-help/therapy workshop to journal your ideas. A lot of the pages here were either the author talking about her extravagant and adventurous life, or lists and lists of affirmations for yourself along the lines of “creativity is God’s gift to us.” It’s a lovely sentiment, and I think many of the ideas could have been easily summarized and made into a pamphlet (and that includes the affirmations). This book is 231 pages of the repetition (in different ways) of the three essential points I mentioned above. To be fair though, she does title the book “The Artist’s Way…a SPIRITUAL PATH to higher creativity” so I guess that one’s on me.
The Warden by Anthony Trollope
I never had the chance to study Trollope in undergrad so I thought I’d give the Barchester Series a try. The series is six books long and begins with The Warden. I read the first twenty pages and realized how lost I was because I didn’t understand Anglican terminology. I put together this Anglican Terminology PDF and printed it out (attached it to the book) and resumed reading. For the most part it’s a bunch of English men who are part of the parish discussing wages and minutiae around their roles, as a young doctor moves into town and decides to open a hospital. The text is mostly heated debate in town over where finances should go. Reading it I didn’t feel ‘entertained’ or even that into it, but as I put it down over the course of the month I kept thinking of that transition stage where those same Anglican terms I had to look up were dominant, and those were the main jobs that would be paid in society. There was a shift that occurred when medicine as we know it today started to be incorporated into actual health-care facilities, and a lot of these jobs were threatened and over time disappeared or became a lot less paid. I think I’ll give book two of the Barchester Chronicles a try because I’ve been told it’s much better but if it doesn’t hold up I think I will stop with Trollope there.
To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck
This book is about a man named Joseph whose father passes away and who begins to have a connection with land. So much so, that he strongly believes a tree up on a hill overlooking his newly-acquired land IS his father. There are fleshly desires, discord among brothers, and a character named Juanito who is from Mexico and not only is a worker-friend of Joseph’s but he does certain things in this novel that push the plot forward. Yes, “California,” “Bible Themes,” and “Saucy relationships” are the plot of A Steinbeck novel, but this one felt different than his other works. I read online that he spent longer writing this novel than any of his other larger works, and I think that struggle shows because it didn’t flow. I had most issues with the character of Juanito and I think they were accentuated by the current political situation between the things being said by the ‘leader’ of the United States towards and about Mexican citizens. His portrayal, way of talking, and overall presence felt like a caricature. I wanted to see more of the connection to nature, I wanted more from the presence of the tree. The tree was alluded to and discussed the same way we see the green flashing light in The Great Gatsby, but here it was such an important part of the plot that I wanted more from it. It’s evident how Steinbeck wanted to illustrate roots and the inability to leave a piece of land as if it was a person. That theme and the tree, as well as allusions to Biblical Joseph were all executed nicely, but the conversation and character development were truly lacking. The exchanges made between Juanito and Joseph almost put me to sleep, the conversation in general was so lacking and not believable…I don’t think people would ever talk that way. I thought about it, and I’m willing to forgive Steinbeck simply because it’s his third work. His first two works flopped when they came out and I think he was still working on his craft at this point. This is my second Steinbeck this year, and I will certainly keep going.
This Victorian Life by Sarah A. Chrisman
This is a work of non-fiction and a sort of experiment. Sarah A. Chrisman and her husband decided to adopt a Victorian lifestyle all the way down to the details. They both had advanced degrees and a life in this world, but decided to take things slowly, step away from technology and start living like Victorians with all the details. I said ‘details’ a lot but that is what is mostly discussed. The minutiae of corsets and other clothing articles, the stationary for letter writing and creating the draft of this book, the cooking methods…absolutely every little thing was slowly changed in their household to mimic a Victorian household. Chrisman kept writing how liberating it was so have things slow down and not be so caught up in this modern world of constant distraction and instant gratification.
I read this book in preparation for Victober and I think it’s nice in a Walden-type experiment kind of way. The whole time though I kept thinking about ‘choice’ and ‘consent’ because I think that was vastly overlooked when Chrisman wrote this. The whole time she would say “I didn’t realize how great this was,” or “how hard it would be to thaw the frozen toilet water” etc. but it makes a HUGE difference that she knows she has a choice. Not just over herself as a woman, but having the knowledge she has autonomy over her own body, that she can say ‘no’ to certain marital pressures, that she has rights as a citizen…but also knowing that should she get sick she would go to a good sanitary hospital where she won’t die of consumption, she won’t die in childbirth, that there are methods to prevent that….I think all the difficulties, the REAL difficulties of the Victorian period weren’t captured. What made those novels dark or that time period different was largely highlighted by the frustrations women like Jane Eyre would have for lacking status, money, autonomy, (or in Bertha Mason’s case good healthcare). I couldn’t bring myself to care of Chrisman’s experiments with stationary, Thanksgiving recipes, and bicycles when she kept repeating “I was trying to live exactly like a Victorian” and “it’s all down to the details” when the reality is far from it. I am not trying to be harsh here because I did enjoy reading this very much, but that thought was at the back of my mind the whole time. Being aware that at times she reminds readers that she has a B.A, and her husband has a Masters degree in Library Science, that she typed the manuscript of this book for publishers, and other details as such, I remembered what she said in the introduction and that was: this is an experiment. The reason I mentioned Walden before is because Thoreau is often criticized for not being too far away from the town when at Walden Pond, and being pampered by the Emersons, so people read his ‘experiment’ with a grain of salt. I think in that same way I’ve been reading This Victorian Life. It certainly is a fun read so I recommend it. I can see how for two people who love something like the Victorian period together this could be fun a fun project, but again: knowing that they can at any point CHOOSE something different and the idea of having a choice in the first place…skips over all the real life anxieties of a true Victorian.
I also re-read Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. Perhaps one day I’ll write a proper analysis of it, but since it is not a first impression I don’t think I’ll critique it much right now. I am currently reading Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland’s The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. I have been neglecting Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings since July and it’s not because I don’t love it, I actually can’t stop thinking about it, but for some reason I got caught up in other books. I think I need to give it the attention it deserves very soon. I also read some of the essays by Ursula K. Le Guin from The Wave in the Mind but I don’t have a strong opinion on any individual essay just yet. All I can say is that Le Guin is one of the most advanced and progressively-thinking writers out there.
October is less than two weeks away and in the bookish community “Victober” planning is upon us. Victober is hosted this year by Kate Howe, Katie from Books and Things, Ange from Beyond the Pages, and Lucy the Reader. Each one of their links will lead you to their video introductions for Victober. In short, Victober is a series of challenges or guidelines to follow as we read Victorian literature for the month of October.
- Victorian literature as a label is generally attached to any book published from 1837-1901 in Great Britain under the reign of Queen Victoria. Some choose to be slightly looser with the term. For instance Frankenstein by Mary Shelley was published in 1818 and wouldn’t technically fit under the ‘Victorian’ label but some people still choose it for Victober, and that’s fine. Depends on how specific you want to get with this challenge.
- There are a total of five ‘challenges,’ however you can mix and match challenges if one book fits in more categories, so long as you read at least 3.
- Read a book that was recommended to you
- Read a book by a Scottish, Welsh, or Irish author
- Read a book containing supernatural elements
- Read a lesser known Victorian book with less than 2000 Goodreads reviews
- Read a book written by a Victorian woman author
My TBR for Victober
- Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy – book recommended to me by a close friend who took a Victorian Lit course and enjoyed the book immensely.
- Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson—Scottish writer
- The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins contains supernatural elements. There is a group on Goodreads moderated by Kate Howe, who kindly invited me to the group after finding out I am also reading it for Victober. If you want to choose this book for your selection you are welcome to join the group. Link to it HERE. (you can count it as my recommendation to you if you want to count it for #1 instead of #3)
I combined challenges 4 and 5 into:
- Bronte: Poems (the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets) edition. Most of the poems are written by Emily Bronte (a woman writer—challenge 5) and the collection has only 169 Reviews on Goodreads which is way below the 2000 limit.
So if you are interested in participating, please do! Perhaps you want to try Victorian Lit for the fist time, or return to some books you read in the past. Either way, it’s a great little community of book lovers, and this activity is a lot of fun. You have some time to plan your reading list, and well…happy reading!
“Everyone feels the need deep inside to be close to nature. We have roots, and they definitely did not grow in cement.” – Andres Danzer
“The biophilia effect stands for wilderness and the conception of nature, for natural beauty and aesthetics and breaking free and healing. That is what this book is about.”
Austrian writer Clemens G. Arvay wrote in this book every argument for why humans must co-exist with the natural realm. The term ‘biophilia’ originates from Greek, meaning: ‘love of life or living systems’ and was coined by psychotherapist and philosopher Erich Fromm. Edward O. Wilson introduced the “biophilia hypothesis” claiming that it is “the human urge to affiliate with other forms of life” and that is our deeply rooted connection with nature in the web of life.
Arvay explores in this book the history of ‘biophilia’ in literature and philosophy starting with the Abbess Hildegard Von Bingen (1098-1179) who wrote “there is a power in eternity, and it is green.”
Arvay continues by incorporating medical and scientific studies which show that people who live close to a forest have stress reduced by as much as 30% living the same lifestyle as those in the cities. He writes:
“Plants heal without having to be processed….they heal us through biological communication that our immune system and unconscious understand”
He dives deeper by explaining how plants, like insects, communicate using chemical substances and we are just another cohabitant in the ecosystem benefiting from this communication.
What I enjoyed about this book was how Arvay describes nature and how he backs up each statement with a study. I never thought about the symbiotic relationship between a mushroom and tree roots for instance, and how the mushroom in turn provides the tree with water and nutrients from the soil. Arvay also presents readers with several relaxation and visualization exercises. He teaches readers how to be hyperaware when walking through a forest and take in all of the forest’s energy while telling yourself “I am a part of the woods.”
He urges readers to:
“take this visual language of your soul seriously.”
Arvay doesn’t try to sell products, services, or anything other than to encourage a love for the forest and for people to go outside and benefit from what nature has to offer. He makes an argument for the forest by presenting the history we as humans have with it, how deeply rooted our ‘biophilia’ truly is, and how we need it now more than ever.
Arvay is an advocate for clean eating and has written other works in the past on forgotten vegetable varieties, regional small-scale agriculture, and connecting philosophy with nature. I personally enjoyed this book, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading nature books like Thoreau’s Walden, or Muir’s Essays on Wilderness.
“Their writing explores themes in our society…the plight of the marginalized, the environment, the difficulties of finding one’s self and place, the anxiety of getting it all wrong, the longing for love, the search for justice.” —Anne Urbancic
Professor Anne Urbancic (at Victoria College, University of Toronto) assigns her first-year students to explore in depth a library’s archive, write a detailed essay, and present it to the class. One of her students, Griffin Kelly, discovered in her search a series of compact discs in the Victoria University Archive at the E.J. Pratt Library. What she found were 16 interviews conducted by Earle Toppings with some of Canada’s top novelists and poets who were leading figures in the emergence of Canadian identity in literature. Kelly brought Mr. Earle Topping—an editor turned radio host who still resided in Toronto at the time—to speak to the class. Thus began the project that has now been turned into the book Literary Titans Revisited. Urbancic called upon four students, including Griffin Kelly herself, Geoff Baillie, Amy Kalbun, Vpasha Shaik, and the E.J. Pratt Library’s leading Reader Services librarians Agatha Barc, and Colin Deinhardt to collaborate on transcribing the interviews.
Urbancic notes in the introduction that:
“While Canada prides itself on its many excellent and exceptional authors and poets… they had not often appeared on the world’s literary stages until the second half of the twentieth century.”
The topic of Canadian identity in literature is still relatively new compared to its English and American fellows, and resources on Canlit authors are still being pieced together. What Urbancic created with Literary Titans Revisited is an excellent primary source for future Canlit students. Each writer’s interview with Earle Topping is preceded by a brief introduction including biographical material, a portrait, relevant and major contributions, as well as a brief analysis of their overall influence on Canadian literature and culture. The first section ‘Prose’ includes interviews with six novelists including Margaret Laurence, Morley Callaghan, Hugh Garner, Hugh MacLennan, Mordecai Richler, and Sinclair Ross. The second section ‘Poetry’ contains the remaining ten interviews—among which are Al Purdy, Dorothy Livesay, and Irving Layton—to name a few. Lastly, the seventeenth chapter contains an interview with Earle Toppings who discloses his interviewing process, the composition of his questions, and the experience of interviewing the sixteen authors. Finding how he came up with the project and the recording devices he used at the time is an inspiring reminder of how much one can do with minimal resources.
The authors shared personal anecdotes, life struggles, and their creative process. Some poets read aloud to Toppings some of their newly composed poems which are not necessarily the ones that later on appeared in print. When it comes to transcribing the poems, this collection stays true to the recordings rather than what was finalized in print. What I found particularly interesting was how at the moment Canadian writers were asked how some of their life experiences connect to their artwork, they began by discussing either a British or American author as an example of how that can happen. Morley Callaghann speaks of Conrad and Joyce, Hugh Garner of Fitzgerald, Hugh Maclennan of Hemingway, and Mordecai Richler of several authors like George Orwell, and Norman Mailer. While trying to find the Canadian voice, these Canadian authors were still using American and British identities as a crutch even in the late sixties. These interviews are a clear depiction of the search for a unique voice. Simultaneously, some keep in perspective the problematic consequences of Canadian history. Urbancic emphasizes that Al Purdy for instance:
“points out in his poignantly metaphorical verses about broken indigenous art pieces that represent the plight of Canada’s First Nations.”
This book has been published by Dundurn Press and is currently available for purchase (click here) and at your public library (click here). I would recommend this work to anyone who is interested in Canadian Literature, wants to be in the presence of Canadian literary titans, and interested in aspects of the creative process. Lastly, I would hope that all libraries will have this book in their collection. This collaborative project supplemented with the editorial work of Anne Urbancic is a new excellent primary source in Canadian scholarship.
This will be a relatively short review as most of its contents would be a ‘spoiler.’ Odd Type Writers focuses on the strange habits of famous authors. Each chapter has a different theme. For instance the topics vary from: authors who write early in the morning versus late at night, what each author’s daily word count for writing is, what preference of ink colour they have, whether they write sitting down or standing up, or how many cups of coffee they had in a day. Balzac for instance would have about fifty cups of coffee per day. This is the kind of book that makes you say a lot of “did you know…” after reading it. I wish the author went in further detail on each author and habit, but the listing at the back marks this as a “reference work” which explains its presentation and quick introductory remarks. The authors covered and the quirks they had are so vast that the amount of research Celia Blue Johnson did for this book is astounding. There are eleven pages of references/works cited at the back and most of them are from authors’ papers, personal letters, and additional secondary material. The work Johnson had to do to pick out the little quirks required hours upon hours of searching. Like I said, almost anything I say could and might be a spoiler, so I will cite a few excerpts from the back of the book that got my attention when I picked it up:
“To meet his deadlines for The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Victor Hugo placed himself under strict house arrest, locking up all of his clothes and wearing nothing but a large gray shawl until he finished the book.”
“Friedrich Schiller kept a drawer full of rotten apples in his study. According to his wife, he couldn’t work with out that pungent odor wafting into his nose.”
“Virginia Woolf used purple ink for love letters and diary entries…in her twenties, she preferred to write while standing up.”
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in fun facts and wants to know some of the quirks and odd habits of some of their favourite authors. It made me realize that there is no blueprint for being an author. While some have a disciplined routine and a precise daily word count, or worked only when inspired and late at night like Kafka did, neither dictated who was more successful, or the better writer. For that reason I would recommend this to aspiring writers, because I think in searching for answers young writers turn to writing clubs, seminars, and notes or vlogs from other authors. This book is a reminder that if your habits don’t match those of other writers it is perfectly fine. And if you have a strange little path let it be and own it! It’s YOUR strange little path.
Johnson wrote a second book called Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway : stories of the inspiration behind great works of literature which may be of interest to you if you enjoy this one or like the sound of it.
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 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 HERE. Acadie is set in the future following protagonist Duke who has been summoned by a group of leading researchers who have created “Kids” a long time ago for the purpose of colonizing other planets. After several generations Kids evolved to be more and more human-like, but their creator Isabel Potter is bent on finding all of them and killing them.
Writings 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
I 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
This 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
This 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
This 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.
I received this work from Columbia University Press. It’s an academic book scheduled for publication on November 28. The work itself is a translation and presentation by Peter France of Konstantin Batyushkov’s writings. France interweaves Batyushkov’s own writings with his biography presenting to readers the life of a poet and his career as a soldier with his subsequent decline into mental illness at the age of thirty-four. A mixture of depression and PTSD from his life as a soldier made Batyushkov unable to write poetry any longer in the last few years of his life. Konstantin Batyushkov (1787-1855) was one of Russia’s greatest poets. France makes it known on page one of the introduction that even though:
“To most non-Russian readers his name is hardly known… for Russians he is a classic.”
He emerged in the 1820s in a literary grouping of what was later known as the Golden Age or the Pushkin Pléiade. The introduction to this work tells us that Pushkin himself regarded Batyushkov as a master.
In terms of where in the canon one might place or discuss Batyushkov, France tells us that:
“One might see in this divided soul an expression of Batyushkov’s intermediary historical position—between the urbane sociability of Enlightenment Russia, and the rebellious Romantic sensibility that is embodied in Pushkin’s Eugin Onegin.”
This work is relatively short but quite dense. Peter France focuses on each section of Batyushkov’s life by adding an introduction with biographical information. He then selects the corresponding poems that fit in with that time in Batyushkov’s life and illuminate his feelings, reflections, and own self-documentation. France also adds passages of close reading and analysis to Batyshkov’s poems supporting the connection to his biographical passages by adding letters Batyushkov sent to his family and friends.
Reading this work was refreshing because it felt like I was reading something completely new, but somehow reading a classic as well. I found it absolutely crucial that someone should introduce Batyushkov to the West after reading his poems. France did an excellent job not only presenting/introducing Batyushkov but also in translating his poems. I would strongly recommend this book to readers fond of Russian literature, poetry, and semi-academic works. I didn’t find it exclusive by any means, it was accessible and interesting.
“I had already noticed the peculiarities of the typewriter, and wrote to the man himself at his business address, asking him if he would come here. As I expected, his reply was typewritten and revealed the same trivial but characteristic defects. The same post brought me a letter from Westhouse & Marbank, of Fenchurch Street, to say that the description tallied in every respect with that of the employee, James Windibank. Vila tout!” – Sherlock Holmes, “A Case of Identity”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s chemistry and print culture knowledge embedded in his iconic character Sherlock Holmes comes from his medical background and hands on experience with the publishing world. The letters exchanged between Doyle and The Strand Magazine’s editor H. G. Smith validate just how detail-oriented Arthur Conan Doyle was when it came to the ways in which his stories were represented in the paper—from selecting his favourite illustrators, to showing concerns for how his work would be perceived by his readers.
In Canada, the largest collection of Doyle’s works can be found on the fifth floor of the Toronto Reference Library –part of the Toronto Public Library system. The idea of a special Doyle collection was conceived in 1969 when a local collector, Mr. Hugh Anson-Carwright sold 200 books from his collection of Sherlock Holmes to the Toronto Library. At the same time, another Torontonian, a “S. Tupper Bigelow, [had] a splendid collection of secondary material –books, pamphlets and magazines about the Sherlock Holmes stories.” The library’s Literature Department purchased the large Doyle collection from Anson-Carwright, the Bigelow collection, and the smaller Mortlake collection. The Collection became accessible to the public in 1971 and continued to grow rapidly since. According to the collection’s current curator, the library back in 1969 could afford to make such purchases based on its allotted budget from donations made by Friends of the Library, benefactors, and/or Sherlock Holmes Specific groups—such as The Bootmakers of Toronto.
Since then, the Toronto Reference Library has purchased secondary material such as “critical, biographical and bibliographic studies” and ephemera such as tickets, brochures and advertisements related to any Sherlock Holmes play, film, exhibit, in addition to literary works that are written by other writers but inspired by Sherlock Holmes (even House M.D featuring Hugh Laurie is such a secondary work because it’s inspired by Holmes).
The Collection itself is composed of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s letters to the press, specifically to Mr. Herbert Greenhough Smith—whom he always refers to in letters as “My dear Smith.” Doyle traveled across Canada in 1914 (staying mainly in Alberta at Jasper Park) where his wife kept a handwritten journal which is also currently in the TPL Special Collection. Doyle’s notes on fauna and flora (beasts, birds, fishers) of North America, which he saw on his subsequent trips in 1922-1923 on his American Lecture Tour, his notebook on coin collecting, and notes for a speech delivered in Canada, are all part of the manuscript collection at the Reference Library. Equally important are two rough drafts for his literary works intended for publication and/or performance of The Crown Diamond (a short Sherlock Holmes play) and The Marriage of Brigadier Gerrard.
Doyle’s manuscripts have been acquired over time by the library at various auctions in the ‘70s, by means of donations, and from private collectors. In London a significant portion of Doyle’s manuscripts was sold at an auction where the work became instantly scattered—“Christie’s held the sale in London at their King Street location on 19 May 2004.” The Toronto representative at the 2004 Christie’s auction was Doug Wrigglesworth (chair of the Friends of the ACD Collection of the Toronto Public Library and contributor to The Magic Door newsletter). When it comes to a collection like Doyle’s, due to such a large fan-base worldwide, his works are purchases by extremely wealthy collectors at times where libraries can barely stand a chance in the competition. Such collectors appear on mainstream book-selling websites like AbeBooks where they sell either hardcover first editions, or manuscripts for prices that are difficulty to match with a library budget.
The largest collections in North America—besides the Toronto Reference Library—of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works and manuscripts are: The Newberry Library (Chicago, Illinois), The University of Minnesota Library (Minneapolis, Minnesota), and the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas. In the UK the Portsmouth Library, The British Library, Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, and National Library of Scotland possess most of the largest European collections. There are several smaller libraries in both North America and Europe containing Doyle’s works and manuscripts yet they are not often frequented by scholars as much as the ones mentioned above. Doyle’s papers are extremely divided among institutions, libraries, and wealthy private collectors—making the TPL’s collection incomplete.
If you happen to visit the special library you will come across a small room with a wooden desk, a lovely carpet, and walls lined from the ceiling to the floor with books that have to do with Sherlock Holmes retellings. The rooms have decorations like busts of Holmes, chess pieces shaped like Sherlock characters, and illustrations. The special collections I mentioned above have to be requested in advance from the librarians. If you do access them make sure to follow the instructions from the librarian on how to use them: no pen, clean hands, delicately and carefully.
Letters to Sherlock Holmes
While I was at the library exploring the collection, I was told this anecdote on tour, which I would like to share with you. As it turns out, over time, people from all over the world wrote letters to Sherlock Holmes at 221b Baker Street. Little did they know that in London at this address was the location of a bank. The bank received so many letters they hired a secretary to archive these letters, and at times, respond to them. Richard Lancelyn Green compiled some of the best and funniest letters in 1985 and published Letters to Sherlock Holmes. The book is available at the public library and for sale on bookseller websites. This is one of those books that makes you laugh out loud. There are people asking Holmes for his picture, for information on mysteries in their home towns, personal questions like: “I want to buy your violin, how much does it cost?” or “what kind of tobacco do you smoke?” There are letters from children asking him for math or chemistry homework help, people who truly believe he is real, or making inquiries for meeting him.
Here’s an example from one letter:
Dear Mr. Holmes
I often wondered how you met Dr. Watson, and what was your hardest mystery, and have you ever made love to any of your clients?
Sincerely yours, Robert Lawrence (Deer Park, NY, USA)
If you want to have a good time by yourself and laugh, I recommend you find this book and read it. It can be easily done in one sitting so there’s no pressure.
I hope you enjoyed this post. I was very happy when I discovered this library two years ago, so I wanted to know as much about it as possible. If you get a chance, do stop by because the librarians there are some of the most wonderful people you will ever meet, and the room is highly atmospheric. Just being there will make you want to run home and read all the Sherlock Holmes books.
P.S. Sherlock never says “elementary my dear Watson” in the books….but you should know this by now. Here’s a fun article on it.
 Toronto Reference Library. Arthur Conan Doyle Collection. Toronto: Toronto Reference Library, 2015. Print.
“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”
This book contains a series of essays on fantasy by Le Guin written in a highly assertive and critical tone. I think I will re-read this every year because it’s a little manifesto worth memorizing. The dominant essay in this collection is the central one (also the longest) focusing on animals in children’s literature and fantasy.
Le Guin begins the series of essays in debunking three stereotypes attached to fantasy like: (1) the characters are white (2) it’s a fantasy land in the middle ages (3) fantasy by definition concerns a battle between Good and Evil. She explores the reasons why some children’s literature is often in a pre-industrial setting, and how fairy tale retellings don’t necessarily mean changing the story, rather, poaching at it and getting into it.
“it interests me that most of these ‘lifelong’ children’s books are fantasies: books in which magic works, or animals speak, or the laws of physics yield to the laws of the human psyche.”
Le Guin questions what the making of fantasy really entails. For instance, a woman may turn into a troll in fantasy, but what does it really mean for a woman to turn into a troll? She compares it to “realist” literature like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Could one say that she has morphed into something monstrous?
Le Guin then turns her attention to the fantastic elements in other novels we consider great ‘realist’ and ‘serious’ literature like Moby Dick.
“The fantasy element of Moby Dick is Moby Dick. To include an animal as a protagonist equal with the human is—in modern terms—to write a fantasy. To include anything on equal footing with the human, as equal in importance, is to abandon realism…Melville’s white whale isn’t a real whale, he’s a beast of the imagination, like dragons or unicorns; hence Moby Dick is not an animal story, but it is a fantasy.”
In the main essay focusing on animals Le Guin examines how we used to be around animals in our earlier stages and what fantasy tries to capture:
“Animals were once more to us than meat, pests, or pets: they were fellow-creatures, colleagues, dangerous equals. We might eat them; but then, they might eat us. That is at least part of the truth of my dragons. They remind us that the human is not the universal.”
“As hunter-gatherers, our relationship to the animals was not one of using, caretaking, ownership. We were among, not above. We are a like in the food chain…each is at the service of the other. Interdependent. A community. Cheek by jowl.”
In literature we find interdependence between animals and nature, coexisting with humans in the same spaces. Lucretius’s poem On the Nature of Things shows us, Le Guin emphasizes, that “Lucretius saw no barrier between man and the rest of creation.” As we distanced ourselves from nature an animals with cities, and passed the industrial period, we separated ourselves from other species “to assert difference and dominance.”
Le Guin spends the rest of the book showing us the many ways in which fantasy as genre, found often in Children’s Literature brings us back to this imagined past where animals are integrated in society as equals. She examines Bambi, The Jungle Book, The Wind in the Willows, among many others and discusses how these points reinforce her thesis, and why they have been so successful. Le Guin uses some of her own stories and shows how she has tried to capture certain things and for what purpose.
Lastly, a part of this book that stayed with me, is Le Guin’s reaction to the Harry Potter phenomenon. Granted, this collection came out the same year as The Deathly Hallows, and didn’t examine in detail the overall effect and its subsequent ‘merchendise, Potter-world, Fantastic Beasts, and Jack Thorne’s Cursed Child‘ but Le Guin has a bone to pick with the critics who had for years shunned fantasy and all of a sudden went along with the main crowd. Le Guin writes that she finds it normal for the public to fall in love with Rowling’s fantasy because they found something they missed out on since childhood, but she says:
“How could so many reviewers and literary critics know so little about a major field of fiction, have so little background, so few standards of comparison, that they believed a book that was typical of a tradition, indeed quite conventional, even derivative, to be a unique achievement?”
Le Guin blames the modernists, realists, and curriculum builders as well as the Edmund Wilson and his generation who labelled ‘realism’ and its various forms as the only kind of ‘serious’ literature. I love her criticism, brutal honesty, and analysis. All Cheek by Jowl has made me want to do is to read her all her essay collections and all her Science Fiction and Fantasy which is all now on my immediate TBR.
This book is one really well-written argument. The whole time I was highlighting and thinking of all the professors to whom I would like to send a copy. I think this book is perfect in how it’s written and how it delivers its argument. I was trying to think of a retort and couldn’t because her argument was that well done. Even in parts that I felt differently towards going in, I found myself converted by the end. Everyone should read this book.
Acadie is part of the Summer of Space Opera hosted by Tor.com, the last of the five to be published, scheduled for the 5th of September. Dave Hutchinson, the author, was born in Sheffield in 1960, studied at the University of Nottingham and became a journalist. He’s the author of five collections of short stories, and four novels.
Acadie is set in the future following protagonist Duke who has been summoned by a group of leading researchers who have created “Kids” a long time ago for the purpose of colonizing other planets. After several generations Kids evolved to be more and more human-like, but their creator Isabel Potter is bent on finding all of them and killing them. We find that:
“the Kids were superbrights, tall fragile children with towering IQs, and a penchant for terrible jokes.”
Conversations between the Kids resemble equations as they are hardwired to see all problems in doing a specific activity.
This novella is short but filled with humour and great character interactions. While it resembles “hard sci-fi” it has many moments of reflection and character development. As readers we get an insight into Duke’s history, opinions, and frustrations. I found it particularly interesting when Duke tells readers that after travelling in space for long enough “it’s all just stars and emptiness…all space looks the same.” The writers and engineers who work for Isabel Potter, the original creator of the Kids, are like a giant fandom group from Comic-Con dressed as LOTR and Star Trek fans or as Duke calls it: early 20th century media references. The ‘Writers’ in this novella have higher powers. Their ‘creations’ shape more than expected and they have abilities like conducting complete memory-wipe on another, should they choose to.
The last few pages contained a surprising ending (which I will obviously not spoil) but it added a different dimension to the novella. It can be easily read in one sitting and it’s very exciting. I think this is one of the reads I would add to “get out of a reading slump” kind of book lists because it’s short, well-written, and highly atmospheric.
Also, the cover design by Stephen Youll is absolutely beautiful. I’ve linked his website so you can take a look at all his extraordinary artwork.
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
Artemis 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.
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
- “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.
Central Station by Lavie Tidhar
I 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
I 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
What 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
Binti 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
Unmentionable 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
I 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
This 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.
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 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.
“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.