At its heart, amateur naturalism is about love. The kind of love that inspires quiet observation and close attention, the kind that notes tiny changes as well as large ones, the kind that is patient and humble and hopeful. It draws me out of myself, into a world in which I am only one tiny link in a terribly complex and wide-ranging chain. Yet it also anchors me in the here and now: the physical reality of the weather, the geographic idiosyncrasies of my local neighbourhood. It’s a way of affirming life, really. And of course, it’s also about curiosity: endless curiosity that collects tiny facts and delights in oddities and adds new depth to wonder.
Naming Nature by Mary Blocksma captures all of that, and as such was an utter treat for this aspiring naturalist. Following a divorce, Blocksma moves to a cabin along Lake Michigan, fulfilling a long-held dream and allowing herself to begin to reinvent her life at the same time. She’s surprised and slightly horrified to realise she can’t name any of the trees she sees from her window, a sign of the ‘nature illiteracy’ our society generally encourages, so she sets out to learn one new species a day for a year.
The book is set up as a journal, with a short new entry for each day (rather blog-like, now that I think of it). It’s a mix of Blocksma’s observations, facts about whatever plant or animal or other natural phenomena she’s writing about, tips on how to identify species (obviously most useful to residents in a somewhat similar habitat, but she does include information for all regions of the US, which was nice and refreshingly inclusive), and peeks at her daily life. Her tone is infectious, and I defy any reader not to become as interested in the little curiousities of nature as she is! Early in the book, she mentions attempting to sketch some of what she sees; as the year progressed, her efforts must have improved, because the book also includes little sketches done by the author herself, so that until I got to that entry I assumed Blocksma was a professional illustrator.
It’s fascinating to watch her knowledge and confidence grow, and it’s truly inspirational for someone like me who’s pretty much starting at ground zero as far as specific natural knowledge goes. Written in 1992, pre-internet, it includes a handy guide to guidebooks (which as a newbie I’ve found terribly overwhelming), and it so accessible I finished it thinking I could become like Blocksma too, even if I don’t have the rich environment she does. In fact, I’ve begun my own little daily learning project.
Sadly, Naming Nature is out of print (not to be confused with another book by the same title written by Carol Yoon, which has now been added to my wish list); with any luck your library still has it. I got my copy from Better World Books, and I’m glad I did: I love knowing I can dip in and out of this as it suits me. I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying it: in fact, if you’d like to read more nonfiction but feel a bit intimidated, this would be a wonderful choice. Of course, if you have any interest in knowing more about the world we live in, you owe it to yourself to pick this up! As Blocksma herself puts it:
I am convinced that even rank amateurs like me will be rewarded with a glimpse of something rare and wonderful if we poke around nature in a regular sort of way.
Suggested Companion Reads
- Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt : an interesting look at blending learning more about nature with urban living.
- American Primitive by Mary Oliver : this happens to be the book of hers on my nightstand, but any of her poetry collections are full of a careful attention to and love for the natural world.
- A Field Guide to the Familiar by Gale Lawrence : a wonderful collection of similarly themed short essays (originally newspaper columns).
It’s difficult to find a bookworm who doesn’t love lists. There’s something so beautiful and orderly about them, each item receiving its own line and perhaps a bullet point or annotation. Lining up the world, as it were, creating categories and finding connections. And yet, lists are not always about boxing life in: they can also be a way of expanding possibilities. Creating a list can lead to new discoveries or the reinvention of olds ones. They can be a kind of magic.
Which is all a roundabout way of saying, I have decided to join in reading challenges again this year. I miss book lists, and despite my intentions to simply make my own lists without external prompting, I make far fewer of them when I’m not involved in challenges (my bookish lists category reveals three from 2012 and one from 2013). I don’t know why. Lu wrote a lovely, reflective post recently about how she reads that reminded me of how much I enjoy themed reading as well. So in addition to joining a few challenges, I’m currently brainstorming some themes to explore this year, which will also require lists to be made.
Once when I was at the library with my niece last year, doing catalogue searches on cheetahs and fish, a lady passing by asked me if I homeschooled. I smiled and said no, but since then I’ve realised that in a way I do homeschool. It’s just, I’m homeschooling myself. If higher learning were free, I would be a perpetual student, moving from one speciality to another. Luckily for me, I live in a country with free, extensive libraries, and I have plenty of time and opportunity for reading. Themes will be a way for me to push deeper into my interests, and making a tentative list of possibilities has been great fun these past few days.
I’m sure I’ll share results with you soon. For today, I wanted to list some of the challenges that caught my eye, and to ask for your suggestions for other challenges I might have missed, as I’ve been a bit out of touch. I have compiled them all into a challenge page, and as I finish my list for each one, it will appear there. I plan to include books I’ve already read and would suggest to other participants, to make it a better resource, but all of that researching and formatting will take a bit of time.
This list is pretty tilted towards Europe, which is far more a reflection of what challenges I came across than my geographical preferences. If I can’t find challenges relevant to the rest of the world, I’ll simply incorporate them as themes. I can’t wait to get started creating some book lists!
Carmen la Coja, the protagonist and narrator of Peel My Love Like an Onion by Ana Castillo, is a stunning work of fiction. Larger than life, but with a wry, self-deprecating humour that keeps her believable, she made me care about her from the first page. I loved all of her contradictions: her bohemian, dance-filled past alongside her dutiful daughter present, her frank sexuality despite being middle-aged (let’s admit, that’s not a combination often seen in literature; I don’t mean that middle-aged real people lose their sexuality!) and of course her disabled but still famous flamenco-not flamingo-dancing. I also loved her voice, with its magnificent storytelling power, proud Chicana rhythms, and continuous love of life and music and dance. I kept running to the internet to listen to flamenco songs, her descriptions were so enticing. Here’s a random sample of her voice:
Loving Manolo-Manolio-was thrusting both hands out into the darkness to clutch on to something more than luminous air but also hoping that whatever it was won’t bite you. Mi Manolio was dark, even in winter, his skin savory and sweet like Mexican chocolate that makes your mouth water just to whiff it simmering and waiting for you on the stove to have with birthday cake. Manolo was a birthday cake with exactly twenty lit candles when we met. A cake not quite done yet. And I was the birthday girl surprised in the dark.
Castillo’s imagery and timing and rich characterisation makes Peel My Love Like an Onion an easy novel to recommend: anyone who loves a good story, particularly one with quirky, strong women, one that is inclusive from racial, class, and sexuality viewpoints, should give it a try. It’s certainly the most loveable of her novels I’ve read so far, the one that feels a bit like a fairy tale.
And yet, this is so much more than a delicious book. Castillo is a smart, politically aware, activist of a woman, and she endowed Carmen with the same characteristics. She observes, and comments on, all kinds of issues, from patriarchy to the economic system.
Carmen’s parents are Mexican Americans, who came to Chicago from Texas to find work. They are solidly working class, which means that their situation has deteriorated since the 80s:
Apa worked a lot of overtime back in the days when this was a great country for laborers and you could get time-and-a-half for working past your forty hours, not like companies are doing now, allowing foreign children to work as slaves because on their shoulders rests their families’ survival, children who were unlucky to be born in countries that don’t have labor laws.
Now in their 70s, they’re still working, and get by as long as no unexpected medical bills come up. Remember, this book was written in 1999, before a lot of these economic issues had burst on to the scene. I love it. I love that statements like this are casually mixed in with a love triangle-fueled plot. That’s the way political awareness and activism should be, a part of our everyday lives.
Anyway, Carmen notes that for them, work is a religion: even as her health worsens and she’s barely able to walk or stand, her mother keeps insisting she try work. This brings them into sweatshops, piecemeal labour, of the kind that provides our cheap consumer goods. There’s a powerful scene in which Carmen conveys how quickly she was dehumanised, as even her music & headphones were taken away from her, in one of these little sweatshops, a room full of women with brown skin. Women, particularly young women, are preferred employees because they can be paid less and are less likely to stand up for themselves. That is what allows people to buy $5 scarves and $10 memory sticks, but it’s also what allows Western companies to make huge profits selling them. It’s interesting that consumers so often get blamed for demanding cheap goods, when it’s the corporations who follow race-to-the-bottom policies and benefit most from the lack of laws protecting regular working people. And it’s not consumers who fund lobbyists who work hard to make sure such laws are never passed.
At the same time, in the past Carmen opted out of the typical American life, instead dancing for a living, from gig to gig, living on what money she made. While her contentment with her life is obvious, Castillo doesn’t romanticise the actual conditions of poverty in this country: Carmen regularly kills cockroaches in her apartment, talks about installing sturdier locks to avoid junkies breaking in, and of course doesn’t have medical insurance. Her best friend, while coming from a similar childhood, went to an Ivy League school and now works as a financial investor; the glimpses of her world, and the work she puts in to make sure she belongs in it, are just as fascinating.
Oh dear. I’ve written all of this, and I haven’t even gotten to the sexual politics at the heart of the story! Carmen is a flamenco dancer, and in her dancing, she ends up meeting two Roma men. The first is her mentor, and older lover, from the moment she graduates high school. After many years, she meets the other, who is younger, in fact the godson of the older man. And so a love triangle is formed. This is a pretty classic set up in Latin American lit: older man-younger man-woman. But it seems like I’m always reading about it from the male point of view: Castillo subverts it all by putting Carmen at the center, a woman unafraid to question the decisions and motivations of the two men. Particularly as they come from different cultures, which allows Carmen to be even more mystified and frustrated as the men keep removing her agency and voice from the events. Earlier this evening I read this post though, and it made me want to bring up these issues. Castillo makes it very clear that women, fictional or not, are people, with opinions and motivations and agency, and that treating them as anything less is wrong. As someone who has struggled with the way women are written about by some Latin American male authors, I found this turning of a traditional plot into something feminist and activist and progressive very empowering.
There’s also this beautiful moment, soon after she meets the younger man, in which she discovers that her older lover’s unwillingness to do a certain bedroom act is not in fact cultural but just him:
All the years I had been with Agustín had led me to believe that gypsy men weren’t particularly eager about the act because they feared women could put a spell on men that way, a spell that would send them howling like wolves under black skies, a spell that would make their you-know-whats drop off the next time they tried to make love with any other woman, a spell of evil for life. Still, like I said, when he had drunk too much he’d do it as if he were doing me some great big favor.
But Manolo didn’t do it like he was doing me a favor.
(You can read the whole mini-chapter online if you’re inclined).
There’s also moments examining parental expectations of Carmen, the only daughter, and her three brothers, who’s expected to be a caretaker, and more that I simply can’t get into because this post is incredibly long as it is and my arthritis can’t take much more.
Before I close, I wanted to say one more thing: Carmen’s disability and health problems are written in such a true way. I’m not sure I’ve read a book with a disabled protagonist before, and I didn’t realise how much it would mean to read passages like this:
I don’t like pain. I really don’t. I don’t even like talking about it but sometimes it feels better if you complain a little, if you whine, let out a toothache whimper, at least ow and then. So I tell my mother one day that I feel just lousy, lousy all the time, even in my sleep and when I wake I feel worse, and then I just look over at her and start crying. …
There are better days, as they say. On those days I get around a little. I celebrate and make espresso. I’ll cut up a fish, red snapper or salmon, for Ama and me and put it in the broiler. I’ll add two potatoes and make a little butter-lemon sauce, although she will be the one who has to finish up the task because by then some part of me is hurting too much.
The careful way that Carmen approaches every little aspect of her life, has to, in order to negotiate the tasks that healthy people undertake without thought, really struck home for me. It’s something you can’t completely understand if you’re healthy, but reading about it will help. I wish there were more authors writing character like these. It reminded me of this essay about living with a chronic illness, something I encourage you to read, just to give you a bit of context.
I’m remembering now why I stopped writing analytical posts. I’m at almost 1500 words, and I’ve only been able to touch upon a few of the thoughts and issues raised by a two hundred page novel. It’s frustrating. But at the same time, I’m glad I got to talk about them at least a bit, and I hope the talking continues in the comments. I’m undoubtedly out of practice, and I trust you will all make allowances for that. I won’t be able to do this for every book, simply because of my physical limitations. But I’d like to reclaim every aspect of my voice this year, and not shy away from raising difficult, complex questions, just because of my typing problems.
As I said in the beginning, I highly recommend Peel My Love Like an Onion to all kinds of readers, even those who aren’t as political as I. The activism never gets in the way of the story, and as long as you don’t mind stylised melodrama, a la opera or even musical theater, I think you’ll quickly fall under its spell. This would also be a great choice for those who are interested in reading more diversely but not quite sure if you’ll be able to connect. The combination of universal themes and plots with cultural specifics makes it accessible, and nothing will leave you sobbing your eyes out. Go read it already!
Suggested Companion Reads
- Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance by Lloyd Jones : another novel centered around dance, this one is by a New Zealand authors. I liked it when I read in 2009, but who knows what I’d think of it now (the plot centers around a young man and his coming-of-age experience with an older Argentine woman)? Sometimes I worry about recommending books I last read years ago, as we all change in our tastes. But it’s the first book that sprang to mind as far as dancing goes!
- Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros : if, on the other hand, you’re drawn to the Chicana aspects of Castillo’s writing and the Chicago setting, I have no hesitations recommending this one. I loved it and still love Cisneros.
- Samba by Alma Guillermoprieto : Guillermoprieto, a Mexican journalist, was based in Rio and decided to spend a year with one of the samba school from a poorer Rio neighbourhood. This book is about that experience, and it’s fascinating.
I intended to write this hours ago, watching the early morning sun from my window. And yet, despite going to bed a bit before midnight last night, I slept until past 4 pm today, and it’s the twilight that keeps me company now. My body, in the grips of a flare up and perhaps something more, needed the sleep, and I can’t begrudge it those lost hours. This is not how I meant to ring in the new year: my flare up started on New Year’s Day, and thus my usual cleaning and tidying rituals have had to wait. It’s too difficult holding my hands up above my head to dismantle a garland, and besides my balance isn’t terribly trustworthy right now. The little everyday dreams I’d meant to put into place by now have had to wait as well.
A few years ago, I would have been upset, felt betrayed by my body, restless in my inability to complete simple tasks. But now, I’ve been through the mourning, and am settled quite nicely in acceptance, even contentment. I’m growing up.
So even though this week has not gone as I expected, I will still write and share my thoughts on another new year, one full of promise. There a few points in a year’s cycle that seem to me to naturally encourage reflection, and this is one of them. What I share aren’t resolutions, in the go-getter goal setting sense, anyway. But it turns out resolution is a word with many meanings, including “the act or process of resolving or separating into constituent or elementary parts” and, musically speaking, “the progression of a dissonant tone or chord to a consonant tone or chord” and even a literary one: “the part of a literary work in which the complications of the plot are resolved or simplified.” I certainly break my life into separate parts to decide which areas need adjusting, and then put them back together again, hopefully in a more consonant way. And I have a sense of simplifying to a few overarching themes, for the year at least. So perhaps they are resolutions after all.
I’d like my life to have more:
- fresh air
- talking with family & friends, both online and off
- teaching Thistle tricks
- music (violin lessons will soon commence)
- knowledge of the natural world
and I’d like to have less:
- borrowing trouble.
My life is not typical, but like everyone else’s it has its benefits and downsides. Time is my primary gift, and I would like to value it a little more. I would also like 2014 to be a year of creating (as opposed to consuming): I have found that the more I create, the more satisfied I become, and the easier it is to place smaller, meaner thoughts in context. I do not think judging is always bad; my judgement is what has made me so committed to social justice. Yet negative thoughts can build into a cycle, and the best way I know to break that cycle is to remember that (almost) everyone is doing the best they can, according to what they feel is right.
One of my best friends recently wrote about choosing one word for the year, and I found myself enchanted with the idea. The obvious word would be create, and yet I shied away from it. My thesaurus search for synonyms proved fruitless too. Until I began to just reflect, and came up with making. I like that present progressive tense, without the overtones of the imperative, and creating might have done just as well. But making, with its Saxon roots, somehow seemed sturdier, humbler, and just right for me. In this upcoming year, I’ll be making all kinds of things, from the banal to the life changing, inviting metaphors of yarn and needles and knitting the slim strands into a sturdy, enveloping whole. There will be moments of struggle, I’m sure, dropped stitches that seem impossible to fix. At those moments, I hope I remember why I chose to begin anyway. At least I’ll be able to reread these thoughts.
It’s now pitch black outside my window, and I haven’t even gotten to bookish things. I’m a bit superstitious, and for my first read of the year, I decided to go with an author I knew I could depend on. I ended up choosing Ana Castillo’s Peel My Love Like an Onion, which was just a perfect novel for me, particularly now: full of love and humour and struggle and lots of reflections by an emotionally strong but physically disabled woman. I adored every moment of it, and it definitely got the year off to a good start. I also ended up finishing an entire audiobook, Sally Gardener’s fairy story I, Coriander. It was a reread for me, and kept me good company as I lay in bed, playing with knitting and my Christmas gift yarn, deciding what kind of sweater it wished to be. Just last night, I finished my first nonfiction read of the year, although I’d begun it in the last days of 2013: How the Light Gets In by Pat Schneider. It’s an essay collection by a poet, now in her 70s, that I requested from the library after reading “The Patience of Ordinary Things,” a quietly beautiful poem of hers I encourage you to read as well. It was a graceful, if challenging book, to which Schneider brought a stunning degree of emotional honesty. I feel richer and wiser for having read it.
Now it’s certainly time for me to close this post. I wrote it as much for myself than anyone else, and yet as I begin my eighth year of blogging here, I suspect the blog is once again evolving. There will still be lots of bookishness, but the form of that bookishness might change a little. We shall see.
Happy New Year! I’ll miss 2013: it was a truly special year for me. And I do love odd numbers. But this upcoming year holds much promise, which I will be discussing on Sunday. For today, I thought I’d look back at the books I acquired in 2013! Considering I enjoy building my hypothetical bookcase in my atheneum posts, it seemed interesting to see how that compares to my actual buying habits.
This is the first year I’ve had any disposable income, so it’s the first year in ages I’ve bought books. I ended up using Better World Books as my source, for both their ethics and prices. This year I spent $69.55 on 25 books. I also received 21 books as gifts, most from my mother who used my wish list to also order from Better World Books.
Starting with my books…aside from the Spanish pocket dictionary and Ecuador guidebook (which won’t count in the following analyses), all of these are either by favourite authors or natural history books (you can click on the picture to enlarge it and see the titles). They’re about evenly divided between novels (no short stories or poetry) and nonfiction, between international and US/UK authors, and, excepting the natural history books, between authors of colour and white authors. Of the 23 books, 13 are ones I’ve read before and 10 are new to me; if I take out the natural history books, the ratio becomes even more skewed at 12:6. I prefer to stock my shelves with books and authors I know I can depend on! All of the ones I’ve already read are obviously books I’ve adored.
Overall, I think this stack accurately reflects my current reading habits and interests, except for the lack of classics, because I put those on my Nook instead. It was dictated in part by which books were available as trade paperbacks and counted for the sales Better World Books hosts, but I have so many favourite authors that I still had plenty of options! I haven’t yet read any of the new-to-me books I got, because I’m saving them for after I move (my new library system doesn’t have the same generous holds and interlibrary loan policies as my current one, so I imagine I’ll be looking to my own shelves a bit more), but I feel confident recommending any of the books in the picture if they catch your eye.
And here are the presents! There are 3 crafting books at the bottom (1 knitting, 2 sewing), and the rest also divide quite evenly between nonfiction and fiction, with a poetry collection for good measure (the Atwood). 8 are books I’ve read before and am happy to have easy access to for rereading, and there are 5 natural history books! Lots of international authors; in fact, only the Byatt and Gaiman are US/UK fiction. Of course those home base authors are much more heavily represented in the nonfiction. As above, except for the natural history books, these represent some of my very favourite authors and titles, so I definitely recommend everything in the picture!
Today or tomorrow I’ll add these piles to my actual bookcases, working things in here and there. I think I own between 200 and 300 books, so together these represent a big addition, and it will be interesting to see how my bookshelves evolve with them. I mentioned ages ago that, as I stopped buying books, my shelves were a bit frozen in time, reflecting an earlier reading self. Now, I’d happily say they’re becoming truer to who I am as a reader today. I’m not sure if I’ll have a lot of disposable income in the upcoming year ($70 seems like so much money!), but I plan to visit some library sales at least, and I’m sure I’ll treat myself to a package or two from Better World Books.
Oh! I almost forgot ebooks! Of course I added bunches of free classics, and used my fabulous library for most of the other ebooks I read, but I also bought 2 ebooks before I went to Ecuador, so that when the library ebooks expired (3 weeks) I’d have something other than classics to read. I ended up selecting The Bill McKibben Reader (by one of my favourite authors, this collection offered a lot of pages for not a lot of money) and Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent by Lyanda Lynn Haupt (this was very topical, as I was exploring multiple ecosystems in a country with one of the most diverse bird populations on the planet). I read both during my trip, loved both, and am happy that I’ll be able to reread them easily in the future. I currently have a small gift card, enough for 1 ebook, and I’m sure I want to buy a Susanna Kearsley novel, but I haven’t decided yet if I should save it for her new release or get one of the ones I’ve already read and loved. I only own The Winter Sea, which I bought a couple of years ago during a publisher special for only $2. I prefer having her works as ebooks, since they’re comfort reading for me, and when I’m too sick to hold an ordinary book, I can still read ebooks.
I’m curious, for those readers who also buy books, if you buy with a plan or at whim, and if your buying reflects your reading tastes or is somehow skewed. I now have more books on natural history than any other specific nonfiction topic, despite only beginning to get interested in it! And of course, let me know if we share any favourite authors. :)
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light
From now on,
our troubles will be out of sight.
-Ralph Blane, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”
I wish for every one of my readers all of the joy, peace, contentment, togetherness and love that represent the best of this time of year, whether you’re celebrating Christmas or the solstice or simply a few days off work. Thank you for visiting my little bookish corner; you have given me many gifts over the years.
As someone who loves traditional mysteries, particularly as comfort reading, and also strives to ensure half of what I read is written by authors of colour, I face a serious dilemma. The mystery genre is dominated by white authors, and what authors of colour there are tend to write grittier fare than I prefer. This makes sense: after all, for most minorities, the police and courts and justice system represent institutionalised racism rather than a comforting, orderly righting of wrongs. I have more thoughts on this, and will probably devote a whole post to it, but right now the point is, in these circumstances Mardi Oakley Medawar is such a treasure for me!
Of Cherokee descent, Medawar writes just the kind of mysteries I love to curl up with: her primary series features Tay-Bodal, a nineteen-century Kiowa healer who’s on the fringes of his warrior-focussed society, whose everlasting curiousity and wry, self-deprecating humour make him a marvelous amateur sleuth. I love the series for its historical setting (Tay-Bodal and his tribe, living in the northern Texas/Oklahoma are at the forefront of the US government’s westward expanding, land grabbing policies) and cultural insights. The integrity of the Kiowa’s social structure and worldview is clearly conveyed, and thanks to Medawar making Tay-Bodal a bit of an outsider, the explanations necessary to white readers feel more organic than forced. Tay-Bodal is regularly torn between his cultural norms and his curiousity, both in the fields of murder and the medical field his life is actually devoted to. The supporting characters are wonderful too, from Tay-Bodal’s much higher ranking and strongly opinionated wife to his good friend, a shaman whose high status would usually prohibit a friendship with lowly Tay-Bodal.
Murder at Medicine Lodge is the third in the series and puts its mystery right at the heart of Native American/white relations. The Civil War has recently ended, and several Native American tribes have gathered at Medicine Lodge to try to create a peace treaty with the US government. There’s considerable mistrust on all sides, and when a US soldier is found murdered on the plains, his superiors believe Tay-Bodal’s chief is the culprit and intend to hang him. Thus, Tay-Bodal must race against the clock to figure out what actually happened. The mystery is well plotted and includes some fascinating historical tidbits. All in all, I loved reading this and am only sad that there’s only one Tay-Bodal book left for me to discover. I hope Medawar plans to continue such a wonderful series, and I highly recommend it to all readers, particularly those who are perhaps nervous to read books by authors of colour that are sad or dark or depressing. I promise, the Tay-Bodal series manages to be both a comfort read without compromising the realities of nineteenth century Kiowa life. They don’t have to be read in order, but if you’d like to start at the beginning, the first one is Death at Rainy Mountain. Have fun!
Suggested Companion Reads
- DreadfulWater Shows Up by Thomas King : a fabulous contemporary mystery with a traditional structure by one of my favourite Native American authors.
- So Far From God by Ana Castillo : if the Southwest setting of Murder at Medicine Lodge appeals to you, this a beautiful Chicana story set in New Mexico. It’s not as comfortable a read, but the strong female cast and touches of magical realism still made it the kind of book I love from page one.
- The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie King : it’s impossible for me to think about historical mysteries & not include the Mary Russell books, some of my favourites ever! This is the first one, in case you’ve yet to discover the series.
I found Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye to be a challenge. I thought it was a short novel (the ebook version is 180 pages), only to be discover after fifty pages that it is in fact a collection of three long short stories or short novellas. More fundamentally, the title led me to expect, well, strong female characters. The kind that triumph over adversity and while they go through hardships, come out the other end fundamentally in tact. And looking at the cover, I thought there might be some kind of magical realism involved. I suppose I imagined Marie NDiaye as a kind of French-African early Isabel Allende. I was deeply mistaken.
NDiaye is a powerful writer: her prose entranced me almost effortlessly, with a structure and rhythm that reminded a bit of Woolf, if Woolf wrote in French (I read this in translation, but many of the structures reminded me more of French than English). And her characters are compellingly weird: in fact, the first novella reminded me a bit of Helen Oyeyemi (but more straightforward). Norah, the main character, has journeyed from France to visit her estranged African father in his native country. She’s overcome her poor childhood and become a French lawyer: at first, it seems like all of the problems in the story stem from Norah’s selfish, conceited father. But as the narrative unfolds, Norah’s thoughts are clearly a bit off, becoming stranger and stranger. I loved this bit unconditionally, but it abruptly ends, and I was popped into the head of an even more disturbed character, Rudy.
Rudy is actually insane, and while I could admire NDiaye’s considerable skill in bringing his thought process to life, I absolutely hated being in his head. I kept checking to see when it would end (sadly, this novella is almost a hundred pages, and thus twice as long as Norah’s tale), as every sentence made my skin just crawl. I imagine the strong woman in this tale is his longer-suffering Senegalese wife, a teacher in her own country but now stuck as a stay at home mom in the country due to French employment laws. But the glimpses of her are all through Rudy’s twisted vision and thus don’t provide the reader any relief. The final novella/story takes up the tale of an impoverished, and perhaps mentally handicapped Senegalese woman who, being a young childless widow, is sent by her in-laws on the long, hard attempt to cross northern Africa and immigrate to France. While her story is once again powerfully told, and draws necessary attention to the plight of Africans desperate to enter Europe, legally or not, the hardships she endures made me cry. And as I was reading right before bedtime, I was then horribly concerned about nightmares (I’m prone to them) and ended up staying up for an extra two hours to calm and distract myself.
Now I hope you can see why I struggled so much with this book. In fact, I’m still not really sure what to say. NDiaye is clearly a deeply talented writer, but I’m hesitant to explore more of her books. If they’re similar to the first novella, I’ll probably love them. But if they’re more like the third, or God forbid, the second, I simply don’t have the stomach for it. The darkness doesn’t feel excessive or forced: I do think it’s essential for what NDiaye is trying to accomplish. So I’m left with a dilemma: push more out of my comfort zone, to engage with good writing that, while not problematic on a social justice level, leaves me disgusted? Or draw back? I’m not sure yet, but at least I’ll know in future not to read her work in the evening. I’d also love your thoughts/advice as to what you do when confronted with such books.
If I had unlimited funds, which authors would I want to see filling my bookshelves? That question originally arose from my musings about my home library, and I decided to start a new series to answer it. In Assembling My Atheneum, I’ll discuss the authors whose entire works I’d love to possess, as well as which books of theirs I’ve read, which I already own, and which I’d recommend to those wanting to give them a try. If you’re curious, you can see everyone I’ve featured so far.
This year, one of my favourite discoveries was Beacon Press, which describes itself as “an independent publisher of serious non-fiction and fiction.” It’s a US publisher affiliated with the Unitarian Universalists, and has been in operation since 1854. So far, I’ve mainly explored their non-fiction offerings, but I’m sure I’ll give their fiction a go soon. I love them for the progressive catalogue, full of books sure to appeal to any one interested in social justice issues. If you are at all interested in feminism, or gender/sexuality issues, or race issues (both within the US and on an international scale), or history that looks at marginalised people, or progressive Christianity, or foreign affairs analysed by international authors, and you’re looking for nonfiction authors who aren’t always white, middle class men from the US or UK, you owe it to yourself to peek at their selection. If you’re anything like me, doing a library catalogue search for Beacon Press feels like being presented with the most marvelous candy store and knowing you can choose anything; I get excited by the possibilities and overwhelmed at having to choose where to begin!
The titles I’ve read include: The Springs of Namje by Rajeev Goyal (actually the exception to the rule and one I didn’t much care for), Reimagining Equality by Anita Hall, The Iron Cage by Rashid Khalili, Kindred by Octavia Butler, The Tiger Ladies by Sudha Koul, Ruined by Reading by Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Translated Woman by Ruth Behar, Encountering God by Diana Eck, Belfast Diary by John Conroy, and more. These are all books unafraid to confront important topics, from the religious to the political to the personal, and everything in between, written by thoughtful authors for thoughtful readers. The only one of those titles I own is Encountering God, although I might have some other Beacon books without realising it (they have a very extensive catalogue). There’s no point listing the titles of theirs I’d like to read, as every single book of theirs sounds appealing to me! They’re like my dream publisher, and luckily for me they’ve already been around long enough to put out tons of fascinating titles.
Usually on these posts I suggest a title or two for readers new to the author as good places to begin. But in this case, Beacon has such a variety (from poetry to autobiography/memoir to non-fiction on tons of topics to fiction), that seems a bit impossible. I will say that of the books I listed in the previous paragraph, I had the strongest emotional response to Encountering God by Diana Eck (enough to immediately include it in my next order from Better World Books), Translated Woman by Ruth Behar, and Kindred by Octavia Butler (a novel for the nonfiction averse). Beacon also carries quite a few of Mary Oliver’s collections, one of my very favourite poets. Otherwise, I’d suggest simply visiting their website, where they’ve helpfully organised their books by category, and browsing until something gets your attention. I suspect it won’t take long!
Honestly, this is my internal monologue re: The Truth About Stories:
OMG, I heart Thomas King so, so much. I thought I couldn’t love him anymore! But now I do! So much truth telling and pathos and god damned awesomeness! But why wasn’t it three times as long?! I lurved it so much I never wanted it to end!
Ahem. But that isn’t quite the proper blogging form, is it? ;)
Thomas King is a Native American author, dual citizen of the US and Canada, and all-around incredible writer. I’ve read four of his novels and loved them all; his mastery of different styles reminds me of Neil Gaiman. The Truth About Stories is an essay collection in which King meditates on narratives, perceptions of Native Americans, and the deep power stories hold. Sadly, I had to ILL my copy, which means I had to return it ages ago and thus don’t have it next to me to refer to as I write this post. But here’s a taste:
Did you ever wonder how it is we imagine the world the way we do, how it is we imagine ourselves, if not through our stories. And in the English-speaking world, nothing could be easier, for we are surrounded by stories, and we can trace those stories back to other stories and from there back to the beginnings of language. For these are our stories, the cornerstones of our culture.
Part of what makes this book work so well is that King shows as much as he tells. Each chapter begins with the same story, told in a slightly different way by an oral story teller to a slightly different audience: watching it morph while reading the same basic thing several times was a wonderful way to feel the difference between oral and written stories. And each chapter ends with the same line, which gains power at each repetition:
Just don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story.
You’ve heard it now.
By the end, it was giving me goosebumps. Meanwhile, King looks at the dysfunctional relationship white North Americans have had with Native Americans in a way that is loving but doesn’t shy away from the hard, racist truths. He manages to analyse white privilege without alienating white readers, and thus I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to anyone, regardless of their previous awareness of race and privilege. He uses the same gift he has in fiction, to present a truth that transcends differences and unites with the reader while never losing touch with the specificities of individual humans and the societies they live in, but this time in nonfiction.
I’m aware I’m speaking in almost uselessly general sentences. But The Truth About Stories is the kind of book that deserves to be read and reread: not for its own sake but for the reader’s. I adored it, as much for the moments it made me sob as those that made laugh, and just writing this post makes me want to read it again. Clearly, I need to buy a copy for myself, since my library doesn’t have an easily accessible one. And anyone who loves stories enough to read a book blog should go read this too, as quickly as they can get their hands on a copy.