review

The Very Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan

“What she gives us is something more subtle and strangely ephemeral. In a way, her best stories are acts of haunting” – Richard Kadrey, Introduction.

39720095The 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.

This book has been published by Tachyon Publications.

How to Fracture a Fairy Tale

“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

40228322Last 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.  

The Realms of Ancient: Cover Art

ChildrenoftheBloodlands_Cover

Final Cover for Children of the Bloodlands

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:

ERIK

Erik Mohr, Creative Director

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!

two booksDid 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.

beiko

Author S.M. Beiko

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.

The Night Ocean | Book Review

30901609The 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.

Shirley Jackson Awards “Brainstorming”

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.

Percent Region mvsfem

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)

chartsss

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!

 

Frenchman’s Creek | Du Maurier

“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.”

27823692I 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.

35416b0b4f38c93fce912db65a8009e4William 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.’

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Where Jean-Benoit’s ‘home’ is at Point du Raz in France when he is not at sea

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).

Wallace | TV and “Fun” | Reflection

51P8MZzESJL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_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.

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Yes, I know this post was long. That’s why it’s called Infinite Text folks.

Reasons to Stay Alive | Matt Haig

25733573I 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.IMG_20180412_104121

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.

He writes:

“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

Dead Mountain | The Dyatlov Pass

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

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

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Rescue Team finds the tent

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

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

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

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

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Rocket Billionaires by Tim Fernholz

35721160Ever since I started reading this book I want to grab every stranger on the street by the collar and yell at them: “We’re going to Mars!”

This book has been with me for the last two weeks and it has left me completely mesmerized by the unquenchable fires of human innovation and by how much can be achieved through mass collaboration. Rocket Billionaires, written by Tim Fernholz, follows the narrative of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and the plan to create a colony on Mars in hopes that humans can become a multi-planetary civilization.

Fernholz focuses on the competition between Bezos and Musk to realize their visions of humanity as a multi-planetary civilization by building space companies focused on reusable technology. Fernholz spends some time examining the managerial differences between Bezos and Musk and looks at how these differences affect their relationship to this project. Aside from the clash between the two billionaires, there was also a tension between military-industrial space programs and these new, self-made, space companies. Fernholz describes how NASA policymakers stepped in to save SpaceX when it was on the verge of bankruptcy. The plan as we know it, is that in the next decade there will be an attempt to place the first colony on Mars. Over time, this colony’s goal will be to grow to one million citizens so that it can get started. Supplies sent on each individual mission will include a new batch of people as well as foods, plants, technologies etc. in order to create greenhouse farms, Martian villages with hospitals and schools, and a full-on functioning civilization.

This book is exemplary journalistic work. Fernholz relates the story of these two self-made companies to the public in a non-biased way. It is evident on every page how passionate Fernholz is about this project and it really shows, yet he maintains an academic, non-intrusive journalistic voice. The narrative flows smoothly and is by no means elitist or exclusive.

Reading this book made me jot down a lot of questions. For instance, I wonder if the women who embark on this mission be under insurmountable pressure to procreate. Will future generations look back and remember Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos in a kind of Henry Ford/Thomas Edison way, or will people forget the financial struggles and remember the name of the first man/woman to step on Martian soil, the way we all know the name of Neil Armstrong? What technologies will be created as a result that could better life on Earth? After discussing this topic over the last two weeks with people at home, work, and public spaces, I was taken aback with how ‘civilians’ receive information about this project. For one, everyone ‘heard’ about this topic, and yet, they look at it both as ‘old news’ and as a ‘it’s probably not going to happen in our lifetime.’ For me, this book has been eye-opening. The project is not only on its way in a monumental way, but it will happen within the next decade.  The second comment I am met with when bringing up this topic is “what a waste of money, why not save the starving, struggling people here on Earth first?” While I agree that it is a fair point, this project is equally important. I am somewhat relieved that the people leading this project are very much focused on renewables, and reusable technologies.

Henry Ford famously said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” That is to say, we don’t know what this undertaking will accomplish for humanity yet. This book makes me see the scientific intrigue to colonizing Mars. It will be monumental on an engineering, scientific, educational, and human level—no matter how the mission will go. It will make students want to study the sciences even more ardently than before, and as Fernholz narrowed it down in this book, one of the answers to the question of “why go to Mars?” really can be as simple as: “because it’s there.”

Fernholz relates often the reality of the project to the leading figures in science fiction literature particularly that of the big three: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein, and of course Kim Stanley Robinson whose Red Mars trilogy is precisely this project (set in 2026 no less). The sprinkling of sci-fi references made this book exemplary. The sci-fi allusions act as a cohesive between the imagination found in the arts and what the great minds of scientists, programmers, engineers, and mathematicians can help bring to fruition—making readers see the beauty in humanity’s collective effort.

Would I recommend this book? YES!

Tim Fernholz is one of the leading journalists reporting on SpaceX and one of the best news commentary experts. Many of his articles have been featured in Quartz, and you may recognize him from the 2016 Quartz/Marketplace economics podcast: Actuality. Fernholz was both a Knight Journalism Fellow and at the New America Foundation in Washington D.C. He is a Georgetown University alumni with studies in Government, Theology, and Arabic, and one of the founding editors for the Tomorrow Magazine. If you’d like to learn more about his other fascinating projects, and previous journalistic work, you can find more information here.

The book is available as of Tuesday, March 20th, 2018 on Amazon, Audible, (read by Erin Moon) and The Book Depository, as well as your local bookstores (some links: Indigo, Barnes & Noble, Blackwell’s) and of course libraries.

Many thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt both for publishing this wonderful book and for sending me a review copy. The book design is completed by Graphic Artist Chloe Foster.

 

Feel Free by Zadie Smith | Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Kazuo Ishiguro | Nobel Lecture

36655283I’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.

The Private Lives of the Tudors

27904523I’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.

 

Beowulf: Grendel’s Mother

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Incipit page for Beowulf section in MS Cotton Vitellius A XV

After watching a few adaptations of Beowulf, I couldn’t help but wonder if it made sense for Angelina Jolie to play Grendel’s mother in the latest interpretation. It didn’t seem right. I went back to the Old English text to see if it makes any sense. Turns out I was wrong.

Beowulf has been fully translated by sixty-five (and counting) translators, has been adapted into four films (including an animated and a post-apocalyptic version), two shorter animated films, a rock-opera with music by Dave Malloy, it has been incorporated in various comic books and graphic novels and has made its way into smaller independent short clips on YouTube (and children’s shows) in addition to being referenced and parodied within contemporary comedy. With all the representations and adaptations, despite some characters being omitted (such as Wiglaf in Gunnarsson’s 2005 film) Beowulf has remained portrayed as a strong, muscular male, Grendel as a hideous monster and King Hrothgar and his wife as a middle aged couple worn by time and troubles. Grendel’s mother however, differs from the rest due to her shape-shifting portrayal throughout the adaptations. Her monstrosity and destructive powers are bent; yet from a demonic beast, to an Amazon-like figure, to a sexually appealing seductress, Grendel’s mother remains successful in destroying Hrothgar’s peace and bringing Beowulf to her cave. In the original text we are told that:

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Grendel’s mother in online depiction

“widcuþ werum   þætte wreccend þa gyt

Lifde æfter laþum       lange þrage

Æfter guðceare    Grendles modor

Ides aglaecwif   yrmþe gemunde

se þe wæteregesan   wunian scolde”

[widely known by men / that an avenger still / lived after the misfortunes, for a long time / after the hostile one, Grendel’s mother / lad troll-wife, remembered misery / she who had to inhabit the dreadful water] (Beowulf, 1253-1261a)

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Second online depiction

The word “wrecend” resonates as a masculine quality, one highly valued by the Anglo-Saxons, yet pertaining to male warriors thus making Grendel’s mother an Amazon-like figure. The idea of avenging the murder of a dead one is a recurrent theme in Anglo-Saxon literature, but the poet of Beowulf adds a few lines emphasizing the “troll’s” motherly role:

“…ond his modor þa gyt

Gifre ond galgmond   gegan wolde

Sorhfulne sið      sunnu deað wrecan”

[and his mother even now / greedy and gloomy-hearted / wished to go forth / on a sorrowful journey to avenge her son’s death] (Beowulf 1276-8)

Burton Raffel adds more sensitivity in his translation of this passage translating it as “His mother’s sad heart, and her greed, drove her from her den on the dangerous pathway of revenge” creating a dynamic to this character. A monster who first appears repulsive and masculine in her heroic return to avenge her son (the act of avenge as one commendable by Anglo-Saxon standards) is now presented to us in feminine form, as a mother. This alone makes her action of kidnapping and killing Hrothgar’s kinsman Æschere completely justified. Though as readers we may not be on her side, we understand her actions.

Grendel’s mother is perhaps one of the first females in Anglo-Saxon literature with feminist qualities. She is not only like an Amazon in her warrior nature, but also like the Greek Goddess Athena, seeker of justice (in her quest to settle an equal ransom for her son’s death by taking only one victim) and strong in battle searing for equality based on merit in a man-dominated society. The poet writes:

“                            waes se gryre laessaraffel

Efne swa micle      swa bið mæg þa cræft

Wiggryre wifes      bewaepned men

Þonne heoru bunden    hamere geþuren

Sweord swate fah   swin over helme

Ecgum dyhttig      andweard scireð”

[The horror was less / by even so much as is maid’s strength / the war-violence of woman from an armed man / when adorned blade by hammer forged / sword stained with blood the boar-crest / by edges firm the opposing is sheared] (Beowulf, 1282-5)

Interestingly enough, in Seamus Heaney’s translation of this same passage he writes “her onslaught was less only by as much as an Amazon warrior’s strength.” The key word being “Amazon” since it is absent in the Old English text, yet Heaney too detects that Grendel’s mother’s characteristics resonate with previously encountered female warriors in Greek epic poetry.

What sets Grendel’s mother apart from an Amazon-figure in a somewhat strange way is the fact that she has a son. Between lines 1354 and 1356 Hrothgar says “if he [Grendel] had a father no one knew him” suggesting Grendel’s mother could have been sexually involved with a man, since Grendel resembles men in his physical characteristics (only with more strength). This raises the question of Grendel’s mother’s appearance and it is with this detail that her portrayal becomes diverse as one may wonder if a man was attracted to this woman or if she truly is an anthropomorphic beast. When it comes to description this monster is left to the mercy of the translators and adapters.51cofDOKunL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

For instance, when describing her kidnapping to Æschere in line 1295 which in Old English appears to be “fæste befangen,” Burton Raffel uses words like “dripping claws” where Heaney simply writes “tight hold” with no mention of “claw.” “Claw” implies a hideous beast with animal features whereas “tight hold” simply emphasizes strength.

Even upon explaining the mother and son Raffel only says that “one of the devils was a female creature…they named the huge one Grendel: if he had a father no one knew him” whereas Heaney writes “one…looks like a woman; the other…an unnatural birth called Grendel…they are fatherless creatures…and their whole ancestry is hidden in a past of demons and ghosts.” The difference between the two is huge as one implies Grendel was from his mother’s womb and may have had a father, whereas the other implies they are demonic, fatherless creatures.

In his book Beowulf and Grendel, John Grigsby writes:

“since the poet makes it clear that Grendel and his mother are amongst such fiends [descendants of Cain] it can be deduced that this pair of monsters were originally divinities too—namely the fertility God and his lover/mother of ancient Denmark. She’s referred to as ‘cursed spirits,’ ‘demons,’ ‘monster of the deep,’ and ‘water-witch.’”

Simply by working with text and translation, Grendel’s mother obtains a dynamic through her actions as feminist, warrior, avenger, and mother. In description we do not know if she is as hideous as Grendel or not. Stepping aside from the text for a moment we can observe how modern artists have envisioned Grendel’s mother.

In Graham Baker’s post-apocalyptic film in 1999, various comic books, and Gareth Hinds’s graphic novel, she takes the form of an alien-like figure. Face and body, she does not resemble humans in any characteristics and her role is miniscule, having no impact on the rest of the plot. Her interference is minor as the main focus is on the Dragon and Grendel, thus diminishing the female warrior presence.

51TCWCPKJFL._SY445_       In Sturla Gunnarsson’s 2005 film, some choices were made in this regard, though not plot-altering. We first see Grendel’s mother as an arm grabbing for the warriors on a boat from beneath the waters, where she becomes a mysterious faceless figure, until she finally has her revenge where she has a human body (though bluish in colour) and a beast-like face with sharp teeth. What makes this portrayal interesting is that, at the beginning of the film the audience sees Grendel’s “father” who we do not encounter in the original text. Though in the fil he appears a strong, tall man, he is a man nonetheless and Grendel then becomes a product of the copulation between the tall nameless man and the monstrous nameless woman. In this movie, Grendel himself is avenging his father’s death (which as the director interprets he was killed by Hrothgar) giving him the role his mother has in the text (that of the avenger).

Lastly, and perhaps the boldest interpretation of Grendel’s mother was carried out by Robert Zemeckis in 2007 (written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery). Using the motion-capture process, Zemeckis models Grendel’s mother after Angelina Jolie, famous for her beauty (the simulation replicating the actress’s looks onto the animation panel). This adaptation makes Grendel’s mother a main character and Grendel a mere pawn in her larger game. Her power is not warrior-like; rather she use her sexuality as a weapon—a female weapon. The movie implies that Grendel’s mother seduced Hrothgar years before, and Grendel was not only his son, but the curse she set upon Hrothgar for being weak and giving in to her seductive powers. This, putting a strain on Hrothgar’s marriage, made him want to rid of Grendel and ultimately Grendel’s mother. She is in fact portrayed as Hrothgar’s burden. When Beowulf descends to her lair, Zemeckis’s film implies that Beowulf too gives in to the siren’s seductive powers and the moment he does so, the burden is no longer on Hrothgar but it is transferred to Beowulf. Hrothgar’s ‘freedom’ is portrayed by him committing suicide and Beowulf replacing him on the throne.p-beowulf-grendels-mother

What is interesting of this sexual siren representation of Grendel’s mother, is that the original text allows it to exist. Her description in the text, as previously examined, allows for her looks to be charming and only her character to be beastly and vengeful, as Zemeckis showed her in his film. Interestingly enough, after Beowulf’s burial, the ending of the film is Grendel’s mother waking up from the waters looking in the eyes of her next victim. Although in the original text Beowulf successfully kills her, this film makes Grendel’s mother appear immortal. Her cyclical seducing, torturous and murderous activity can perhaps symbolize the way Beowulf as a text has charmed audiences in Anglo-Saxon England and continues to do so each generation, making us all its slaves, unable to resist the charm that lies in the Old English poetry.

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I still have to read Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf — recently published by his son, and I’m a bit hesitant because Tolkien himself didn’t release it in his lifetime which makes me believe it wasn’t a finished product, or something he was comfortable publishing. We do owe Tolkien a lot for bringing Beowulf out of the darkness. Perhaps I will write a post sometime soon on the history of the Beowulf portion of the MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, and how its popularity increased after Tolkien’s 1936 lecture “Beowulf the Monsters and the Critics” which I highly recommend if you haven’t read it yet.

The Collector by John Fowles

18892522The Collector by John Fowles is about a man named Frederick Clegg, a lonesome person who recently wins the lottery. He is socially strange, and loves to collect butterflies. He develops an obsession for a young, blonde, beautiful, 20 year-old art student named Miranda. After he stalks her for a while, he decides to buy a cottage in the middle of nowhere preparing everything for her ‘arrival.’ One day he chlorophorms her and actually carries out his fantasy, keeping her a prisoner.

It’s easy to compare this with Lolita, which I will hold off on because I will write a proper analysis comparing Clegg to Humbert, Jean-Baptise Grenouille from Suskind’s Perfume, and to the main character in John Burnside’s The Dumb House. There is a thread running through these works, worthy of a closer look. This novel also made me think that this is what Beauty and the Beast would really look like in real life (perhaps another topic altogether).

Clegg is somewhat scarier than the other men in the novels mentioned above because he doesn’t have sex with his prisoner. In fact, he finds sex dirty, unnecessary, and dishonorable. I know this sounds like a strange thing to say, but I kept thinking of the Oscar Wilde line “everything in this world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” That in itself makes The Collector more perverse.

The interactions between Frederick and Miranda are absolutely chilling. She says to him

“you’ve gone to a lot of trouble…I’m your prisoner, but you want me to be a happy prisoner.”

Later on, she brings up the topic again:

“’There must be something you want to do with me.’ ‘I just want to be with you. All the time.’ ‘In bed?’ ‘I’ve told you no. …I don’t allow myself to think of what I know is wrong, I said. I don’t consider it nice.’”

She tries to sleep with him out of desperation, hoping he would let her go afterwards but he refuses her. One of the many times she tries to escape, he chlorophorms her and carries her upstairs. He writes:

“She looked a sight, the dress all off one shoulder. I don’t know what it was, it got me excited, it gave me ideas, seeing her lying there right out. It was like I’d showed who was really the master…I took off her dress…she looked a real picture…It was my chance I had been waiting for. I got the old camera and took some photos…The photographs, I used to look at them sometimes. I could take my time with them. They didn’t talk back at me.”

The next day he pats himself on the back, congratulating himself for not raping her, as any other man would (according to him). As much as Frederick is disgusted by sexual conduct, he’s very much immersed in it. Miranda tries to show him that being a scientist, and a collector of beautiful things isn’t as honourable as being an artist who dwells in the vices.

“You hoard up all the beauty in these drawers… Do you know that every great thing in the history of art and every beautiful thing in life is actually what you call nasty or has been caused by feelings that you would call nasty?…do you know that?”

“You can change…You can learn. And what have you done? You’ve had a little dream, the sort of dream I suppose little boys have and masturbate about, and you fall over yourself being nice to me so that you won’t have to admit to yourself that the whole business of my being here is nasty, nasty, nasty.”

I will draw a line here. I’ve read a few reviews accusing Fowles and this book of extreme misogyny. What I think is important is to examine how Miranda’s character has been written (by Fowles), and how Frederick’s messed up character views women. Miranda has autonomy. Despite being a prisoner, gagged, chlorophormed, and kept, Miranda is an educated adult. She also becomes quickly aware of the power she has over Frederick. She mockingly calls him Ferdinand (to her Miranda), but more often calls him Caliban. Caliban is so broken, and abused, but I don’t think Frederick gets the references. I think Miranda’s comments go over his head. They are her little inside jokes with us the readers. These references to The Tempest are scattered through the novel. She discusses high art, and in her portions tries to frame narratives from fiction to understand her situation, so that she may cope with being in solitary confinement, and a prisoner. The witty remarks she makes towards Fred shows that she is by far superior to his intellect. At the beginning she tries to understand him, more than to freak out. She even pull out a cigarette and discusses with him the situation like a beatnik art student in a bar discussing existentialism.

Frederick on the other hand does not understand women. He defensively admits that he is not “a queer” as if that thought also offended him, but women to him are these two dimensional characters that he bases on his aunt (who was a piece of work). He built up a fantasy about Miranda and hypnotized by her beauty the same way he is with his butterflies, he keeps her locked up. Once in a while though, Miranda will say something to him that he doesn’t expect from her, and he narrates:

“Her making criticisms like a typical woman … she was just like a woman. Unpredictable. Smiling one minute and spiteful the next.”

These “just like a woman” comments make you ask: what kind of women have you met? How can you possibly think of more than half of Earth’s population this way? But the key distinction here is how Frederick thinks of women versus how Miranda is actually written.

The second half of the novel is shown from Miranda’s point of view and we see how her thinking changes as the days of imprisonment take a toll on her. This half for me was lacking. Mainly because it’s the same plot told from her point of view, and as a reader, I inferred that already. I saw the despair and saw her thinking process without her actually saying it (for another 100 pages).

The ending, which I won’t spoil (regarding Miranda) was slightly disappointing, and a little convenient. The cliff hanger suggests that Frederick will continue to do this with a new woman. While this is the ‘creepy’ element, it made me wonder what he saw in Miranda. His “just like a woman” stabs did not match the fantasy that he made up about Miranda in his head, but that she was still somewhat special to him, that something about her was different. The end had me wondering if it’s just his own fantasy he falls in love with every time, and the girls are just vessels for it, without the girls themselves having a particular quality he likes.

Like I said, something about Clegg is creepier than the other literary kidnapper men, and because he kidnaps beautiful women, and keeps them so that he’s not alone, with no other intent, to me, he is perhaps the creepiest of them all. Like Lolita, I thought this book was by far more intriguing in the first half. While I understand what both authors were trying to achieve in these second halves, I think they both executed it poorly. Still, both really great novels! Should you read this? Yes.

Starlings by Jo Walton | Review

35909363Jo 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.

 

Victober Announcement and TBR

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.

General Guidelines

  • 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.

2017 Challenges

  1. Read a book that was recommended to you
  2. Read a book by a Scottish, Welsh, or Irish author
  3. Read a book containing supernatural elements
  4. Read a lesser known Victorian book with less than 2000 Goodreads reviews
  5. Read a book written by a Victorian woman author

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My TBR for Victober

  1. 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.
  2. Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson—Scottish writer
  3. 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:

  1. 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!

 

 

August Wrap-Up

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

Books I Read For Early Review

Acadie_coverAcadie written by Dave Hutchinson is a Tor.com novella which is part of the Summer of Space Opera. It was very short, but I enjoyed it. My full review HEREAcadie is set in the future following protagonist Duke who has been summoned by a group of leading researchers who have created “Kids” a long time ago for the purpose of colonizing other planets. After several generations Kids evolved to be more and more human-like, but their creator Isabel Potter is bent on finding all of them and killing them.

 

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

 

Books I Read For Myself 

Cheek by Jowl by Ursula K. Le Guin

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

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

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

“all of us [fantasy writers] feel, to one degree or another, that mainstream fiction has been stealing our ideas—and even our classic clichés—for generations, and selling them back to us as ‘Magical Realism.’”

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

Time Travel: A History by James Gleick 

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

Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald 

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

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

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

Upstream by Mary Oliver

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

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

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

Too Many Books at Once

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

Rendezvous with Rama | Review

774928 I realized that I haven’t read anything by Arthur C. Clarke so I decided to read Rendezvous with Rama–winner of the Hugo and Nebula Award.

By the year 2130 humans have already been travelling in space to various planets, and after a disastrous event of asteroids hitting the Earth they created many protocols and safety systems to prevent future celestial objects from hitting our planet. When a large celestial object is “at the gates” Commander Norton and a committee of space military advisers go explore this celestial object which is spherical in shape. We are told:

 

“by our standards, Rama is enormous–yet it is still a very tiny planet…its ecology could survive for only about a thousand year.”

They try to map it by giving several points names of cities on Earth, and the ‘asteroid’ is given the name of Hindu God Rama because:

“long ago, the astronomers had exhausted Green and Roman mythology; now they were working through the Hindu pantheon.”

The greatest chunk of this book involves the various encounters with Rama and its cylindrical sea. The silence, the darkness, and the attempts to understand it. We see most things through the eyes of Commander Norton. Some of the writing is actually quite funny. For instance, Norton thinks:

“when Rama shot through some other star system, it might have visitors again. He would like to give them a good impression of Earth.”

or

“you know Jerry Kirchoff, my exec, who’s got such a library of real books that he can’t afford to emigrate from Earth? Well, Jerry…” (:D)

I loved this work so much. I was trying to analyse what sets it apart from less heavy sci-fi and I think what made this book wholesome for me were the many historical references and deep roots. It rounded the characters and gave the story line a sturdy foundation. For instance, when the Commander is hypothesizing what Rama could be he considers that he has once heard of the excavation of a tomb from an Egyptian pharaoh, King Tut and how Rama too, could be a tomb. He contemplates the possibility of that by discussing King Tut for a little while. Moments like these made Rama real for me as a reader. Another time, we find that Norton is a big fan of Captain James Cook who had sailed the world between 1768 and 1771. He read all the Journals and knew everything about him:

“it still seemed incredible that one man could have done so much with such primitive equipment…it was Norton’s private dream, which he knew he would never achieve, to retrace at least one of Cook’s voyages around the world.”

Norton became so interesting to me the moment he had a dream and was a well-read person with historical heroes. The historical details sprinkled in this futuristic novel make it dynamic, and it works.

There were some things that upset me in the projected future. I decided to let it slide because it’s a great book and it was written in the early ’70s. The main one is that Norton, like other people who are making all these important space decisions and meetings, has two wives and two separate families. One is on Mars, one on Earth (they travel fast). The way women are discussed ever so briefly are like these interchangeable things who have enough on their hands because Norton or whichever man impregnated them. There is one team leader doctor/biologist Surgeon-Commander Laura Ernst and she has some influence, and I think it was here where I kind of let the whole “2-wives” thing slide and trying to keep 1970s as a context.

There are several interviews conducted by Strange Horizons on impressions of Rendezvous with Rama, looking back on it, and Karen Burnham says:

“So wow, this was really refreshing! A mixed-gender, mixed-race, comfortable-with-polygamy team and society with some solid world building involving asteroid threats. I liked it much more than I thought I would.”

I gathered from this comment that this was as “mixed-gender” as sci-fi got at the time.

Full Strange Horizons interview: CLICK HERE.

All in all, this is a great book, great science fiction classic, and I strongly recommend it. I especially recommend it to those interested in science fiction and fantasy and want to read the foundational texts or “classics” in the genre. Heinlein, Clarke, Herbert, and Asimov are the four main pillars.

 

Glances of Life | Poetry Review

35251432This poetry collection is divided in three sections:

  1. Intrigue: the way we perceive the world around us, how we take beauty in, how we get to know everything around us
  2. Whimsy: sketches of life, things that make up our life and become particularly significant to our role such as playing baseball, or putting ointment on foot fungi.
  3. Reflection: a step back analyzing ideas and concepts

As is indicated by the cover of this collection the symbol of the butterfly is a running thread through all three sections. The author considers the butterfly when discussing beauty, flight, and transformation.

Aside from the aforementioned three-part division, most poems in this collection are so diverse one cannot categorize them as they are stand-alones.  For instance, in the first section there is a poem called “Shattered” which is a rhyming poem juxtaposing the fairy tale of Snow White with the contemporary ways in which we attempt to alter the perception of our beauty either through cosmetic surgery or digitally manipulated Facebook pictures. While it still looks at another kind of transformation similar to that of a butterfly, the writing style, rhythm, and composition of this poem makes it somewhat unique and apart from others in its section.

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Accompanying illustration of fireflies by Maria Rodriguez for poem: “Dusk”

In the poems where Anderson captures moments from life I was reminded of Sylvia Plath’s ‘moment’ poems like “Cut” or “Balloons” and yet his play on words is so fun that I couldn’t help but imagine that I was being serenaded by the Caterpillar from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  For example he plays with the word IT in the poem “IT” as ‘it’ being an ominous presence, a something, or literally the digital IT department. There are other moments where he writes ‘fizzycists’ instead of physicists, or when he writes in the poem “i.”:

“they say it’s as easy as a π in the sky”

Anderson combines the mundane daily life snippets with the larger activity all around all-present in nature and the larger cosmos.

My favourite poems are “i,” “Shattered,” and the very first one “First Glance.” Here is “First Glance” in its entirety (spelling of words appear as such in the collection, they are not typos):

“Inananosecond / The Photons reflect / From your face and zip / Through the lens of my eye – / Your image summersaults on my retina / Where all comes into brilliant sharp focus / Then the rhodopsin in the colorful cones / And sensitive rods transforms to create / The impulse which crosses / Via the optic chiasm / To the visual cortex / Where all is parsed –/ And though I have / Never seen you / In the past / Somehow / I know / You are / Beautiful ”

(“First Glance,” Anderson)

I enjoyed the collection and would recommend it to anyone who loves poetry. It is appropriate for younger children as well if you would like to use this collection as a bonding moment, or a poetry study in a classroom.

The poetry collection is also accompanied by several illustrations created by Maria Rodriguez.

J.B. Anderson is a Detroit poet with a B.A. in English Literature who has been practicing orthopedic medicine for 30 years. He published a children’s book called Hockey Cat in 2010 under a pseudonym.

The collection was published on May 30 by Dog Ear Publishing.

Up Against Beyond | Poetry | Review

“Holt has little interest in plain speech that is not, simultaneously, slippery. One thinks one has the meaning, the image, of the verse, and then it is gone — as fleeting as the moment of reading.” – George Elliott Clarke

34713994Jason Holt is a Canadian poet who lives in Nova Scotia and teaches at Acadia University. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Western University in 1998. His books include Blindsight and the Nature of Consciousness, which was shortlisted for the 2005 CPA Book Prize and various academic works like Leonard Cohen and Philosophy, as well as Philosophy of Sport—a topic he teaches at Acadia in the Kinesiology department. His full academic bibliography can be found here. Up Against Beyond includes poetry selected from his six previous poetry book. This collection includes poems ranging from 1994 to 2017.  His use of language in his work Inversed (2014) received praise from Toronto’s poet Laureate George Elliott Clarke—one of my favourite professors at the University of Toronto—in an article titled “Linguistic Masquerades to Savour.”

Up Against Beyond, as a collection, contains a total of 121 poems and is divided in eight sections.

  1. (1994) Poems selected from Fine in Kafka’s Burrow
  2. (1999) from Memos to No One
  3. (2003) from A Hair’s Breadth of Abandon
  4. (2005) from Relics from an Open Vault
  5. (2009) from Longstern Poems
  6. (2012) from “A Brace of Sonnets”
  7. (2014) from Inversed
  8. New Poems

Holt’s poetry is hyper-self-aware and  playful with an intense sense of humour. For instance, the first new poem listed in section eight starts with:

“this is a poem/ I don’t/ title my poems/ not because/ I’m pretentious/ although/ I am pretentious…”

It’s the kind of poem that knows exactly what the reader expects to find from a Ph.D. University professor, and yet, it turns it on its head making fun of itself before the reader gets a chance to. Other poems sound like a proverb: “too many/ books/ Spoil/The prof” where the reader is left alone wondering what to make of it.

However, many of his other poems are so memorable and quotable told in a more sombre and philosophical tone, with the elegance one expects from a poet. Holt rewards readers and gives them the poetry they deserve. One of my favourite poems is this one (from which the title of the collection is derived):

“the only place to go

is up against beyond

what other challenge worthy

what other meaning

less than war

more than game

between covers of book or bed”

Most of Holt’s poetry is brief. The one proverb-like being indicative of that as it is in itself a single poem, alone on the page and each individual line is often one or two words with few exceptions. Clarke referred to Holt’s poems as “whimsical parades of terms and phrases” where one must puzzle his/her way through as a reader, akin to figuring out a Rubik’s cube, which is perhaps the best attitude to have, entering this collection.

What I particularly enjoyed about this collection is that excerpts are taken from the poet’s life spanning 23 years. We get to see a poet in various moods, and various spaces, using language as a tool for each occasion. I would recommend this work for anyone interested in reading new poetic voices and particularly those who are open to experimental poems. This collection also has a brief trailer on YouTube.

Many thanks to Anaphora Literary Press and Anna Faktorovich for sending me an ARC for early review. This poetry collection will be published on July 20, 2017 and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon.

Iain M. Banks by Paul Kincaid | Book Review

32828220This book is a part of the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series published by the University of Illinois Press. Earlier works included Gerry Canavan’s book on Octavia E. Bulter (2016), Jad Smith’s close reading of Alfred Bester (2016), and many others. This work on Banks is scheduled for publication on May 30 and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon.

This book is an academic work, and I can say with confidence that Paul Kincaid is Iain M. Banks’s biggest fan. This book has been written with so much passion. Kincaid writes an in-depth analysis as a product of very detailed close reading. Kincaid is a life-long critic of science fiction. He has reviewed hundreds of science fiction works, been featured in sci-fi magazines, and has contributed to critical anthologies. In addition, he has been the administrator for the Arthur C. Clarke Award from 1995 to 2006 following up this prestigious position with an anthology he edited on each of the first 18 award winners, The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology (anth 2006).

This non-fiction book is divided in five sections (or long chapters). It begins with an introduction to Banks and a biographical piece on him—which is quite necessary considering thus far no biography of Banks exists. What particularly pulled at my heart strings and got my immediate attention was that Kincaid started with Banks’s public post after finding out he has a late stage of gall bladder cancer giving him a limited time.

The biographical chapter is followed by three comprehensive chapters on the history, theory, and philosophy of Banks’s works. Kincaid situates Banks in both the science fiction community as well as in a larger cultural spectrum. He takes apart the Culture Series and examines the ways Banks was influenced by historical and political events, and how he in turn influenced others. Kincaid brings in works by other theorists, other writers (H.G. Wells, T.S. Eliot, and J.R.R. Tolkien among them) who have influenced Banks, and subsequently the ways his own works predicted 9/11 and the dominant fear/anxieties after.  Lastly, Kincaid examines the aftermath of Banks’s death in 2013 and his last work written: The Quarry, which was published posthumously, and the new and emerging sci-fi writers, that he himself influenced, like China Miéville.

The last section of this book is an extended interview via email correspondence between Iain M. Banks and Jude Roberts who was working on a Ph.D. thesis. The interview occurred between April-June of 2010 and even though a copy of it appeared in Strange Horizons in 2014, this copy is an extended version. In this interview Banks gives his opinion of writers he enjoyed growing up, theorists, women sci-fi writers who influenced him, and the general reception and process of writing his own works.

What I particularly enjoyed about this work was that Kincaid left no stone unturned. Every article, epitaph, critical essay, previous academic work, and/or interview that exists with or about Iain M. Banks, has been acknowledged in this work in one form or another.

I would highly recommend this book on Iain M. Banks (and Iain Banks as Kincaid discusses the difference between the two publication names of the author) to academic universities with courses in Science Fiction as a thorough and comprehensive study of Banks’s work. I would also recommend this book to fans of Banks, particularly those who have read a majority of his works. If you want to know more about Banks and how others have interpreted his works I would also recommend this book, with the suggestion that you read at least The Wasp Factory and Consider Phlebas, as those two works are the most discussed two in this academic book.

Many thanks to the University of Illinois Press for sending me an ARC of this book for review.

The Hour Wasp | Poetry Review

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The Hour Wasp will be published on May 28, 2017 and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon.

front cover hourThis poetry collection is written by Jay Sheets and illustrated by Robyn Leigh Lear. This is Sheets’s debut collection, and it’s published by April Gloaming Publishing.

Lance Umenhofer, Author of And the Soft Wind Blows, writes in the introduction to this collection that Jay Sheets is setting out to create a

 “guidebook for those times in the dark, for those times the great world might decide to leave us behind, to drop us off in the void and carry on ahead without us, those times in which we are dead weight”

This collection reads like the description of  a dream in free verse. It’s almost as if someone tried to make poetry out of a surrealist painting. The natural realm is ever-present and there are references to scenes from nature though some appear as a vision like “a caterpillar in the centre of a heart-shaped bone.” There are references to oracles, fishbones, poetic enlightenment like in Cædmon’s hymn, jinn maps, henna-wrapped hands, and natural phenomenons. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, or the Finnish Kalevala, but with the writing style of someone like e.e. cummings. Reading this collection was akin to what I’ve always imagined a shaman’s vision looks like or the birth of a myth. There is also a constant reference to ‘her’ as if he’s talking about a specific woman or enigma.

The book is divided in three sections

  1. [o the dark places we will go] – where Sheets sets the atmosphere to his collection by his use of imagery. Here are a few of my favourite lines from this section:

“my fingers damp in a ruined dream hold tiny mirrors to her ashen face”

“…her fingers exhume vellum word-coffins”

“to the places you bottled your herbs &

preserved your rosewater tinctures tubed

chemical potions… magnetic precipitations

now spiderwebbed in the cabinet & like

worldly things [lace & pewter] idle elements

calcify : coral floats…”

  1. The Second part of this poem is the most dominant, it’s called [blue haunts black]

My reading of this section was that in the same atmosphere of part one, we as readers enter the night realm, and it is here where the dream-like description I mentioned above is most prominent.

  1. The Third section is called [the sky is white] which resembles morning, an aubade, and awakening. A rebirth.

“i hugged myself as a child & told

Myself that everything was perfect in the petrichor

The smell of pure innocence & earth & earthly

Innocence that stays in the clothes i only wear

on good days…”

In addition to such beautiful poetry the reader is also accompanied by the illustrations of Robyn Leigh Lear which set the mood even more-so.

I enjoyed this collection and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys poetry and is interested in discovering new voices.

illustration

Illustration by Robyn Leigh Lear

The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs | Book Review

“I do not go walking with the purpose of staying within a world of perfect safety and comfort. Personally, I would rather die walking than die of boredom reading about how to walk safely.” –Tristan Gooley, xi

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I don’t remember how I came across Tristan Gooley. It must have been through YouTube or an online reference, but somehow I was led to buy this book and his second work on Kindle. I’ve always wanted to be able to navigate through the natural realm and know exactly where I’m going. This idea kept coming back every time I remembered My Side of the Mountain, Hatchet, Robinson Crusoe, John Locke’s character on LOST, or Ron Swanson of Parks and Rec. I re-read Walden a few times and enjoyed that Nature-savvy protagonist so much and realized that as much as I like hearing about nature and surviving in it, I myself know nothing about it. I knew how to use several teas and herbs, some essential oils, but that’s pretty much it. The trigger was reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer where for the first time I realized that my idealized and romanticized notion of nature has a dark side. So I turned to Gooley.

lost artThis book is a ‘how-to’ manual but told with the storytelling skills of Thoreau. He takes breaks through the instructions to share anecdotes or personal stories of how that specific skill has helped him in navigating or explains how it would have come in handy to know before. Some of his stories really keep you on the edge of your seat.

“Sense and thought, observation and deduction, this simple two-step process is the key to transforming a walk from mind-numbing to synapse-tingling.”

The first four chapters focus on getting grounded and sorted (the latter used in this book as an acronym: Shape Overall character Routes Tracks Edges Detail). He discusses the ground, soil, trees, and plants as ways to find your bearings during the day. Chapters 5 and 6 focus on Mosses, Algae, Fungi, and Lichens (my personal favourite) as well as rocks and wildflowers (to a botanist or geologist this may be elementary but here we are learning how to navigate using clues from them). Lastly, chapters 7 through 11 focus on navigating the sky and weather. He writes about constellations to look out for, alignments, the sun, moon, and general sky details that can help you navigate if you are lost at night.

After reading this I found myself sounding like a know-it-all scout:

“did you know that grey soil is usually wetter than the red to yellow shades and is often a symptom of leaching?”

“did you know that where there is limestone we also sometimes find holes, caves, and stone pillars?”

This book made me feel like Sherlock Holmes outside. And here is where things get interesting. What makes Gooley different for me, is that he takes into consideration the things we have like GPS, and the metropolis, and synthesizes the two with nature. This way you don’t feel like you’re reading an 1800s manual, rather it feels very present and in tune with our days, our hobbies, and the tools we have at our disposal. For instance, chapter one begins with the explanation of smelling smoke on a cold morning (in the city!). I always thought something was on fire, but Gooley then explains that it’s the effect of temperature inversion and that “the smoke from factories and home fires gets trapped near the ground and spreads along under the warmer layer, giving the air a musty whiff of smoke.”

This book for me is a solid 5 stars in the non-fiction realm because it delivers what it promises in the title and it’s told with such great skill. There are sprinkles of science (i.e. Latin Linnaean terminology and classification) but it’s carefully placed among many practical, ‘how-to’ passages, and personal anecdotes. Gooley has five other books out: The Natural Navigator, The Natural Explorer, How to Connect with Nature, The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs and How to Read Water.

The book is printed by The Experiment in New York, and the illustrations within the book as well as the front cover are done by Neil Gower. Gooley can be found at naturalnavigator.com

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Book Covers for Gooley’s works with the exception of The Walker’s Guide.