I love urban fantasy, and I especially love when it incorporates myths/legends/theologies from other cultures. So I couldn’t resist Japanese-Canadian authors Hiromi Goto’s Half World, which is structured around East Asian philosophy. The title refers to Half World, a kind of halfway house for souls between our world/human life and the realm of the spirit. In the usual course of things, souls spend time their purifying themselves of their human experience before moving on. Unfortunately, one soul has become so twisted and powerful he’s taken over & frozen each of the realms in place, and he spends his time torturing the souls in Half World.
Against that background, Melanie Takami is born: she’s lived in Toronto all her life, with her single mother struggling to support them. But after her mom disappears, she learns her parents are actually souls from Half World and to save them from eternal torture, she’ll have to go to Half World herself and destroy the twisted soul who’s ruined everything.
As you expect, this is a dark novel, really as much horror as fantasy, and as such I didn’t completely fall in love. I don’t have much stomach for gruesomeness, and Goto’s descriptions of the thing Melanie sees and endures in Half World called to mind Tibetan paintings I’ve seen of Buddhist demons: intricate and lovely in execution, which provides all the more contrast to the disturbing subjects. That being said, I did still really like it: the characters are all strong and believable, even the secondary ones, Melanie’s quest moves at a good pace, and Goto’s incredibly good at bringing worlds to life. And while the book is horror, it is not unremittingly sad or violent: there are little things that allowed me to keep going and really connect with it (including jade animal pendants that come to life!).
My favourite scenes were actually the bits set in Toronto, the book ends to Melanie’s adventure. I was moved by Goto’s depiction of Melanie’s life living on the fringes, with her mother in the kind of poverty that means one or both of them regularly go hungry, while at the same time Melanie tries to keep up appearances in front of her classmates. Also, Ms. Wei is in those scenes! She’s my favourite character, and I love Goto for making her not only a strong elderly woman but also a lesbian! Yay for an acknowledgement that not everyone in the world is heterosexual! I suspect most bibliophiles will instantly connect with Ms. Wei, who is a deep lover of books as well.
Another of the book’s strengths is Melanie herself. She’s not your usual teenage protagonist. She’s not particularly smart or athletic or determined or happy. I suspect if her teachers were more likely to call her mopey than feisty. And that makes her journey all the more powerful.
I’m not sure I’ve sufficiently conveyed just how good this book is. Goto writing is excellent: strong, imaginative, deft, she’s able to go from funny to touching to blood curdling and back at the drop of a hat. If Half World was a little too horrific for me to fall straight in love with, it was certainly well worth reading, and has made me want to read the rest of Goto’s work sooner rather than later. I recommend Half World, and I imagine Sandman fans will be especially happy with it.
I’ve had great fun with Wodehouse in the past and am well acquainted with both Jeeves and Psmith, so when someone suggested him as a good bedtime audiobook option, I searched my catalogue. The title currently available was A Gentleman of Leisure, which turned out to be a standalone novel featuring Jimmy Pit, a hero very much in the Jeeves rather than Bertie mode. Sadly, though, I didn’t enjoy this one as much as other Wodehouse books I’ve read. It was good but not great, at least for me.
In part, I’m sure, this is due to the facts that several of the key characters are American and the audiobook has a British narrator (Frederick Davidson). I find most Brit’s attempts at American accents so painful that they ultimately leave me feeling distracted and cranky (in both audiobooks and BBC shows); in fact, if I’d realised there were so many American characters, I wouldn’t have begun this.
Aside from that, Molly Peats, Jimmy’s love interest, drove me insane. She’s such a little goodie two shoes, all sweetness and light; the kind of thing I might expect in a Victorian novel but I feel Wodehouse could have done better. Once again, the narrator exacerbated this, with the cloying faux American falsetto he used for Molly’s dialogue. It’s funny, usually experiencing the audio version of a book really deepens my experience of it, but in this case I think I should have stuck to paper!
Grumbling aside, there’s still lots of zany Wodehouse antics, and I often found myself laughing at one scene or another. I enjoyed it enough to stick with it, and it’s not by any means a bad book. It just lacks that Wodehouse magic (perhaps because of the narrator? or just because with such a prolific author, some books are bound to be stronger than others?), so in future I’ll definitely stick with Jeeves and Psmith, especially in audio format. I’m also eager to explore his Blandings Castle books, which are entirely new to me. Luckily, my library has many Wodehouse audiobooks, with a variety of narrators!
Oh y’all. I’ve been home for ten days, and I’m not sure how I managed to not blog before now. Well that’s not quite true: most of this week was spent helping with my niece who was home sick from school. And the rest of the time was spent inwards: a bit of settling back in, a bit of pouting, and a lot of mulling, while my hands kept busy knitting socks.
Ecuador was magical and demanding and fun and effortless and the trip of a lifetime and a bit mundane; in other words like regular life but magnified. It was also full of people who were so open and charming and curious that I made friends everywhere I went, some connections deeper than others, but all will stay with me. I am so grateful I was able to go: the trip confirmed some truths about myself and deeply challenged others. I’m home now and hope to making my regular life a bit more like travelling: I want to be more open, make more connections, push myself more. I don’t think I realised how self-contained and emotionally protective I’d become until I suddenly found myself reaching out and taking chances whenever they appeared. So there’s that. And I left my heart behind in the Amazon, scattered between the endless stars and towering trees and surprisingly comfortable hammocks and leaf cutter ants and sunset swims and complete lack of mosquitos and the effortless idyll of the lodge and the wild life playing out all around and the people I was there with, tourists and guides, and our instant, playful, true connections with each other. I find myself in a strange place, filled with dreamy determination but even in my daydreams and musings taking care to step carefully around the emotionally raw areas. I’ve barely glanced at the photographs from the trip, worried seeing them will be more bitter than sweet.
And for a little bit I was afraid to read. I knew I couldn’t handle anything confronting and harrowing but even my usual comfort authors seemed suspect: all of those stories about women my age changing their lives and living happily ever after were not what I needed. Nor did I want keen characterisations with powerful, genuine emotions: I had more than enough of my own. Somehow even rereading seemed dangerous: I’d be reminded of my past selves on every page. But after three days passed and I began feeling a bit, well, frantic, I knew that reading would save me. So I opted for comfort as far removed from my situation as I could imagine: Anthony Trollope (I still haven’t finished my Middlemarch reread but quailed before George Eliot’s keen eye). The Eustace Diamonds, the next for me in the Palliser series, proved a suitable cure: while I love Trollope for his gentle humour and dedicated world building, I rarely see myself reflected in his pages. I’ve since read Oliver Sack’s Hallucinations and most of Leslie Marmon Silko’s essay collection Yellow Woman and the Beauty of Spirit. Then I picked up Tayari Jones’ Silver Sparrow: what a powerful, stunning novel. Not the best choice for my current fragile state, though. I ended up going for a two-hour evening walk in a nearby park, just to get some breathing space.
While there, I was surprised to discover autumn: the bucks have returned, nonchalant despite their fresh antlers, everything is green after the annual summer wilting, and I even stumbled upon the occasional mushroom. I write this with my windows open; thanks to a storm last night, the temperatures have dropped enough for me to turn off the air conditioning for the first time since May. I have begun a historic fantasy novel (The Golden Horn by Judith Tarr) featuring deliciously conflicted characters in gorgeous settings, which I trust will be a bit more of what I need at the moment. And just like that, things have clicked back into place. Writing about my fears and hopes and sadnesses, sharing them with this community which has so shaped and supported me, bringing them into the light, has shrunk them to a manageable size. It is my favourite month, and I trust that I can once again reshape my life, and it is good to be home.
Next time I’ll write about more bookish things. Promise.
Sadly, I haven’t been able to blog the last month: between offline responsibilities and preparing for my trip to Ecuador, something had to give. And this is just a quick pop in: I leave for my trip tomorrow morning and will be gone for four weeks! But when I get back, I will do my best to give my blog and all my bloggy friends the attention they deserve. In the mean time, what better place holder than an annotated book list?
Reading for Ecuador turned out to be a bit different than reading for Mexico or Canada: it was very difficult to track down books by Ecuadorian authors and even books about Ecuador. This will thus be a short list: by the time I realised I’d have to interlibrary loan to get my hands on much, it was too late. Hopefully I’ll be able to read it after my trip at least!
Fire on the Andes is a short story anthology featuring women from Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru. I read the Ecuadorian short stories and found a few authors I’d like to get to know better: Monica Bravo (knitting! death personified! hers was my favourite story), Alicia Yanez Cossio, Eugenia Viteri, and Nela Martinez. While I was glad to be able to peek into various Ecuadorian brains, I’ll admit to being disappointed that all of the authors featured seem to have quite privileged backgrounds (with perhaps one exception). Still, definitely worth picking up if you’re going to the region, and it fills a sad hole. The only other Ecuadorian author I’ve read is Edna Iturralde, who primarily writes for children. I read her picture book Conoce a Simón Bolívar which despite being aimed at children was definitely on a higher level than my Spanish afforded! I persevered though and with context clues and my pocket dictionary figured it out. I only wish my library had some of her fiction work for me to get to know her better.
To learn more about Bolivar, I also read Bolivar: an American Liberator, a recent biography (in English this time) written by Marie Arana (whose mother is American and father is Peruvian and who grew up in both countries). It was an engaging look at him, and I’m glad to know so much more about the revolutions that sent Spain out of South America, but ultimately I didn’t much care for the man or so many military engagements and was relieved when I finished. Worth reading if you want the background or if you enjoy more traditional style history (aka focused on important people and war). I rather hope Arana is working on a book about Bolivar’s paramours, as they seem fascinating women, and I think that’d be more to my tastes!
My other history reading was Charles Mann‘s two books 1491 and 1493, which are very general looks at the ‘New World’ but include a lot of information relevant to Ecuador. I’m glad to have read these, and I found much of the material intriguing while Mann’s style is very readable (both are over four hundred pages but I could breeze through one hundred pages at a sitting), but they are not without their flaws. I found his patriarchal viewpoint throughout both books frustrating: women are a footnote if anything in his histories and little things gave away his impression of women as lacking agency (off the top of my head, in 1493 he both refers to a man as ‘owning’ his mistress and to rebel men stealing cows, mules, and occasionally women, as if these three things are somehow in the same category). It’s subtle, and not a reason to discount the marginalised male stories he brings to the forefront, but disappointing considering Mann’s fairly zealous anti-racist tone. In 1493 I was also annoyed fairly regularly by his presentation of neoliberal economic theories as if they’re true and not simply one economic paradigm. Despite these problems, as I said at the beginning, both books are well worth reading and I’m so glad I read them before my trip: I’ll certainly be experiencing the landscapes and people I meet through different eyes than if I’d only known conventional historical accounts.
I also read a wonderfully inspirational travelogue: Along the Inca Road by Karen Muller. Honestly, it’s one of the best travel books I’ve ever read, and having so much of Ecuador featured was just the icing on the cake! Muller is a young, thoughtful, deeply open woman who set out sort-of-solo (she has a camera man as PBS sponsored her) to follow the Incan road. Along the way, she connects with people everywhere: she’s made sure she’s fluent in Spanish before she’s left and she just seems utterly fearless at diving into new cultures. She is definitely one of my new life role models and she has a couple of other books for me to devour. Can’t recommend her and this book enough to anyone! I hope my journey is even one tenth so enriching.
My other favourite read was by anthropologist Ann Miles: From Cuenca to Queens. I almost didn’t pick this up since the subtitle An Anthropological Story of Transnational Migration made me think it was just about an Ecuadorian in the US, but I’m so glad I gave it a go this past weekend! It’s a rich, enthralling portrait of a family from Ecuador’s rural south who moved to Cuenca to better their lives. Miles first got to know the family in 1988 and she spent more time with them on each of her subsequent visits to Ecuador, so that this book, published in 2004, follows the fortunates of the family over more than a decade (the bulk of the book goes through 2000, but there’s an epilogue covering through 2002). She does a great job of portraying the different family members without dehumanising them and I loved the context of Ecuadorian culture and political and economic events she provides as background. It’s all just wonderfully done and as I have quite a bit of time scheduled to spend in Cuenca myself I feel so fortunate to have read this. I definitely recommend it to any reader curious about daily life of people in a different society.
During my time in Ecuador, I’m also going to the Amazon. As such, considering my interest in nature, I knew I wanted to read some scientific books about it. Imagine my surprise when none of the books I turned up in catalogue searches about the Amazon seemed to be in the naturalist style I wanted! I did reread Sy Montgomery’s Journey of the Pink Dolphins (see the fan girl love it provoked in me the first go round), but it’s more of a travelogue than naturalist account. I ended up trying and abandoning quite a few of the books the Amazon search turned up, but one gem stood out: Entangled Edens by Candace Slater. This is a sociological, not biological, look at the region, but I loved the way Slater examined our Western perceptions of the Amazon (and all it’s come to symbolise, particularly in the conservation movement) vs the realities of the people who live there. That awareness of Western biases helped me greatly and I’m sure will be a boon on my trip. I then turned to the children’s section for more information on Amazonian ecology and made it through quite a few informative picture books that have me even more excited!
Eventually, just a couple weeks ago, by looking at some of the terms the picture books were labelled with I figured out that instead of searching for the Amazon I should have been searching for neotropical rainforests (you’d think this would be cross-referenced). This turned up three absolutely wonderful books, in just the kind of down-to-earth, wide-eyed wonder mixed with arcane factual knowledge style that I love. They are, in the order I read them, Tropical Nature by Kenneth Miyata and Adrian Forsyth, Portraits of the Rainforest also by Adrian Forsyth (and despite its seeming format as a coffee table book, full of the same kinds of essays as Tropical Nature, just with photographs), and A Neotropical Companion by John Kricher. Loved and recommend them all, although I do think you should also read the Slater book since all three touch at least a bit on conservation and it’s good to be able to evaluate the authors’ Western biases.
Wow: for not many books I’ve managed to type a lot! Clearly I’ve missed blogging. I know I’ve barely touched the tip of the iceberg of this topic, and I wish I’d asked my readers to share their recommendations earlier, but I’m content that I’ve read enough to have a bit of context for my journey. Feel free to share your suggestions in the comments and I can read them when I get home!
And with that, I’ll see you all when I get back!
I’m quite curious about movements such as voluntary simplicity and minimalism, although I think of myself a more of an ‘enough-ist.’ I’ve no interest in only owning one hundred things, or even counting all of my things, or living ‘off the grid,’ but I do have a lot of interest in opting out of hyperconsumerism, making sustainable choices, and finding contentment with what I have instead of constantly desiring new or better things.
Usually, when I’m interested in something, I read about it. Often times, I read lots of about it. But strangely enough, I haven’t been able to turn up that many relevant books that look like thoughtful, philosophical explorations rather than self help. Perhaps I’m not searching the correct terms in my library catalogue? I found Epicurean Simplicity by Stephanie Mills with the subject ‘simplicity,’ and placed it on hold without really looking into more detail.
It turns out it’s an essay collection, shaped around a year in Mills’ life; I do love it when books are tied in to the seasons. Mills lives in a small, self-sufficient house on a plot of land in the Midwest, close enough to a town but with enough trees and space to feel a bit removed. She’s chosen to live a simpler life, and this book is about that life and her choices. As such, it’s quite idiosyncratic, and while there was much I liked about the book, there were also enough thoughts that annoyed me that I can’t say I loved, or even really, really liked it. Honestly, I don’t even have very clear memories of it, although I read it perhaps three weeks ago, which is quite telling, isn’t it?
I’m not sure exactly why I didn’t connect with this more. I don’t think it was the personal aspect; while I’m not a memoir fan, I do love essays, and this fell more into that camp. And I’m sure it’s not because Mills is an opinionated older women; many of my very favourite authors are such women. I suppose that’s just the way of reading, isn’t it? Some books reach out and grab us while others, although well written and about appealing topics, don’t. I believe she references Thoreau, as do many authors writing about voluntary simplicity, and as I am not a fan of Thoreau that might have something to do with it. But ultimately, there simply wasn’t a spark. I can’t see myself pursuing more of Mills’ work, but I wouldn’t discourage others from reading her.
For once, you can judge a book but its cover. The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore has the same compelling-yet-disturbing, dark atmosphere as its cover art, and it is a wonderful ghost story.
These are surprisingly hard to find, which makes me treasure The Greatcoat all the more. I adore ghost stories and gothic fiction, but in both cases I both end up searching for ages to turn up a handful of promising titles and also end up disappointed more often than not by the books themselves. I’m not sure why there aren’t more offerings, since it seems like both would be fairly popular with readers, but there you have it. But back to The Greatcoat.
It is set in post WWII Britain, which was a more for austere place than its American counterpart, and just to increase the austerity Dunmore brings her heroine to rural Yorkshire in winter. A young woman, newly married but brought up as an orphan, left at a home on the edge of a village while her doctor husband works long hour, Isabel is ripe for a ghostly experience. But she never feels like a one-dimensional authorial tool; Dunmore imbues her with a such strong sense of life and humanity that she becomes a completely convincing, if at times frustrating, character. Her experiences with Alec, a RAF pilot who turns up outside her window one night, are of the subtle kind, imbued more with a sense of mystery and wonder than fear. There is, though, a tiny bit of dread the Dunmore expertly weaves throughout the story, and the whole book has an almost claustrophobic feel to it that enhances the atmosphere wonderfully. The plot moves slowly, carefully, and features an ending that’s wonderfully powerful and even a bit unexpected.
Often times the best ghost stories tap into not only personal fears but cultural ones. Dunmore does so magnificently: while this is very much the story of Isabel, a person faced with confusing, heartwrenching circumstances, it is also an exploration of post-war Britain, a nation that has to come to terms with what it lost during the war years. That mix, along of course with Dunmore’s prose expertise, is what makes The Greatcoat such an excellent piece of literature.
In other words, I adored it. If it had a fault, it would be its slimness (about two hundred pages), not because it’s not well constructed, but because I selfishly wanted the reading experience to last longer. This is my second Dunmore novel, and the second time I’ve been won over both heart and mind. Clearly, I will be reading more of her back list! If you love character-focused fiction and prefer your ghost stories to be quietly atmospheric instead of of full of Exorist-esque pyrotechnics, you should definitely pick up The Greatcoat. Just writing this post makes me want to pick it up again!