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Field Notes, vol 17

March 9, 2015

field notes

We’re nine days into March, and spring has suddenly arrived. The songbirds know it; despite a snowfall on Saturday, they spend their time chittering in bushes and trees, especially the evergreens. The icicles know it, dripping in the brighter sun and temperatures above freezing for the first time in ages. Even the clocks know it. I seem to be the only one who cares about the vernal equinox, which gives us another eleven days of winter. Let’s not rush things.

sprig

Taken quite recently, but on today’s walk I noticed most of the snow is gone from this hedge.

This outer shift is mirrored by an inward shift; it began in the latter part of February and has now begun to unfurl. After a couple weeks spent dreaming and scheming about a grand European adventure, I did some soul searching, and realised that I was falling back into old habits. One of my coping mechanisms when I was younger, and my illnesses took away most of my choices about life, was to plan epic trips I’d go on one day. A fairly innocuous coping mechanism to be sure, and as a result I can chat with you about the best games parks in Zambia or the night markets of Bangkok, but I don’t need it anymore. I am living just where I want to be, for the first time since I was twenty-two. I don’t know how long this good fortune will last, and it seems a shame to miss out on a month of my first Northeast spring, especially May, when presumably we’ve gotten over the slush and to the good bits. The world will always be there, changed, but still. Such romantic adventures can wait a bit; for now, I’d like to go adventuring closer to home. After all, I moved to upstate New York because I love its natural world and sense of history (both bigger and personal; my mother’s family is descended from immigrants who came to farm in this region). I also love being within a train ride of big cities, big enough to be known worldwide, that I’ve yet to explore. And of course, I love my new, smaller city, and have just begun to scratch the surface of what it has to offer.

One of my favourite moments of my daily rhythm is my afternoon snack, which somehow gives my apartment the air of a coffee shop and makes me feel oddly decadent.

One of my favourite moments of my daily rhythm is my afternoon snack, which somehow gives my apartment the air of a coffee shop and makes me feel oddly decadent.

It took several days of wrestling with myself, but once I’d made the decision to spend my spring here, I felt at peace. I began to turn my attention to the here and now; instead of future adventures, I spent time and energy sorting out the apartment. I’ve put hung decoar and pictures and art on the walls (including a quotation by one of my favourite authors; any guesses who?), rearranged the cupboards and closets, and in the process begun to put down those first delicate roots. A lifetime of moving has made me hesitant to put nails in walls, but I pulled out a hammer and got to work. I’m amazed at how much my mood is lifted by decorated walls, and how much easier the reorganising has made my daily life, with what I need most frequently is just within reach. I did some early deep spring cleaning, and the sparkling result makes to easy to keep up with weekly cleaning maintenance. I’ve loved my apartment since I saw it, but now it feels like an organic part of me, and I feel deeply happy and content every time I walk through the door. Every aspect of daily life is just a bit sweeter, and I’m so glad I put forth the effort and energy. Of course, it’s still a work in progress, but isn’t everything? The trick is to enjoy the process, I suppose. And yes, I’ll be inviting you on a photographic tour soon!

I had an arts and crafts afternoon last week and dyed this yarn, wool from a sheep called the Blue Faced Leicester, with Koolaid! Now I'm knitting it into a pair of socks.

I had an arts and crafts afternoon last week and dyed this yarn, wool from a sheep called the Blue Faced Leicester, with Koolaid! Now I’m knitting it into a pair of socks.

I am still going on a spring adventure, in case you’re curious. It will just be to Baltimore, D.C., and New York City, and done via train instead of plane. I’m still terribly excited and will still be putting my backpack to good use. Feel free to share any suggestions, bookish or otherwise, for any of those cities! Or e-mail me if you’d like to meet up.

The Seeker by R.. ChestertonMarch has so far turned out to be a more organic reading month too; being bookish feels effortless again. First I read The Seeker by R.B. Chesterton as an audiobook, finishing it over the course of two days (apartment sorting lends itself well to audiobooks). It’s a suspense novel that pays a bit of homage to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw: told entirely from one point of view, it’s never quite clear to the reader whether the ghosts are real or in the narrator’s head. Did I mention the narrator is a literature grad student who took a cabin for the winter to work on her dissertation? Who can resist a bookish heroine? If you’re looking for a solid evil ghost tale (that includes creepy dolls! I love creepy dolls!), with a wonderfully wintry New England setting, souther Gothic undertones, and a smattering of Thoreau and the Transcendentalists for fun, you should definitely try this out. There are a few uneven bits, the ending felt a touch too abrupt, and there were several instances of hugely problematic depictions of mental illness (minor to the overall story but no less icky for that), but in my opinion it lives up to the promise of its cover! I enjoyed the audioversion too; I came across it while randomly browsing Hoopla. I decided to try it out, but wasn’t expecting too much, so I was pleasantly surprised. I’ll definitely be reading more of R.B. Chesterton’s books (a pseudonym for the author’s creepier novels) when I’m in the mood for a good, old-fashioned scare. And she’ll definitely be on my R.I.P. list this year.

Forests of the Heart by Charles de LintI next picked up a hardcover version of Forests of the Heart by Charles de Lint, part of his Newford series. I discovered de Lint in 2007, when I first began book blogging and joined the Once Upon a Time Challenge. I loved him, and the way he creates distinctly North American urban folk/fairy tales and began working my way through the Newford series (not a traditional fantasy series, but all books set in the same fictional city inhabited by the same characters, who might be major characters in one and minor in another, sort of like Trollope’s Barsetshire & Palliser books) in published order, but somehow I fell out of that habit. I think what happened is I read the two books he published under a pseudonym, which were both much darker, and they left me with so disturbed I ended up with a bit of an aversion to him. Luckily, last year I read his Jack, the Giant Killer retelling, as I’m treating myself to all of the Fairy Tale Series, edited by Terri Windling (I have yet to read a bad book from that series, all written by different authors, so if you’re a fantasy lover as well, you ought to look it up), and it reminded me of how much I love his regular books. So I popped over to his section on one of my library visits, and chose this one based mainly on the title. My heart has a forest too. It turned out to be a real treat, combining First People/northern Native American folklore with that from the Southwest’s traditions (both pre- and post-Spaniards) and Irish legends; in other words, a cultural mixing similar to the immigration that’s shaped my country and de Lint’s Canada. It felt wonderful to see that diversity valued and respected, and nothing in his various depictions set off any racist/stereotyping alarm bells for me (granted, I’m a white woman, so that’s the judgement of an outsider, albeit who has read a smattering of Native American and Latin@ authors, including nonfiction about cultural appropriation/privilege issues), and I was certainly concerned about such possibilities when I began it. Of course, any fantasy book is going to invoke certain mythic or folklore figures, and play up cultural differences for the sake of the story, but all of the characters are individuals, and all of the belief systems felt equally valid, if that makes sense.

It’s tricky to talk about such issues without a hundred disclaimers, isn’t it?But I think it’s important to try to do so, however clumsily. The novel itself is what I think of as classic de Lint: most of the characters are outside of mainstream North American society (musicians, artists, etc.) and poverty of various kinds is depicted. I really love that, to be honest; it’s nice to break out of the middle class mode. There are lots of strong women, several of whom have curly hair and big eyes and tiny bodies that they are prone to dressing in oversized men’s clothes (lol; if authors have a type, that’s de Lint’s). People make mistakes, which they can sometimes fix, and sometimes they can’t. Love and respect are powerful forces, although the darker sides of human nature are powerful as well. There are wonderful descriptions of folk music. And the intersection between the magical world and the real one is just around every bend. Oh, and there are trees. I do love trees.

If any of that appeals to you, and you’ve yet to discover de Lint, definitely give him a try. If the sheer amount of options in the Newford books overwhelms you, you can always start with a standalone. Both Jack, the Giant Killer and The Little Country are my favourites that I’ve read so far, but I haven’t read them all yet. ;) If you’re already a de Lint fan, rest assured that Forests of the Heart is very satisfying. I’ll be picking up more of his books, and sooner rather than later. Especially since the OUaT challenge is just around the corner!

Oh dear. I’m at 1600 words already; I’ve been working on this off and on between running down to switch out laundry loads. I’ll talk about just one more book tonight then; tomorrow I’m off to stay with my grandmother, who has no internet, and I’m not sure how long I’m staying. So this is likely my only chance to blog this week, unless I get better at blogging from my phone. So feel free to read this post in chunks if it’s too long for one session. ;)

the night counter by alia yunis4If my first two reads fell into fairly obvious genre categories, my third, The Night Counter by Alia Yunis, falls squarely into the ‘magical realist, immigrant epic family saga’ one (I also read it as an ebook, so it provided yet a third format for reading to my month). I say that with affection, as I find that genre irresistable. ;) Yunis, like most of her characters, is Lebanese American. I believe The Night Counter is her debut, and I really loved it; I know that sometimes, like any genre, these books can feel stale or too stereotypical, but this one manages to have all of the expected tropes but still be engaging and touching. I had a great time getting to know Fatimah Abdullah, an octongenarian who immigrated from Lebanon to the US upon her marriage at eighteen, and went on to have ten children. 992 days ago, Scheherazade appeared to her, and Fatimah knew she had 1,001 days to tell stories of her life, and then she would die. The book follows the last few days, and in between Fatimah’s stories, Scheherazade peeks into the lives of the children and grandchildren and occasionally great grandchildren Fatimah mentions. The reason this works is that Yunis is fabulous at making each character’s narrative voice distinct; a pet peeve of mine is when a novel has multiple narrators who all sound the same, even if their thoughts are different. I want each narrator to have their own rhythm and style of speaking; Yunis delivers an impressive range! And while they certainly span a spectrum of US destinies, they all feel real, instead of like the products of a writing workshop (you know what I mean if you’ve read much contemporary ‘literary’ work). There’s a lot of humour in the book, including bits that had me laughing out loud, although there’s pathos as well.

Ultimately, it’s the kind of book that uses its wide range of characters to delve into how we create our lives, and the stories we craft out of whatever raw material we’re given, although it does so in a lighthearted way. All of the characters felt terribly real to me, and they made the book a real joy to read. I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, but I definitely want to pick up more of Yunis’ work and would recommend The Night Counter to any story lover. This is her only novel so far, but she’s making a documentary about olive oil and Middle Eastern women that I hope I’ll be able to watch.

As you can tell, I’ve had a really wonderful reading time so far this month. Circumstances have currently slowed down my reading, and made me more likely to reach for a novel than nonfiction, but when I am able to pick up a book, I’ve had nothing but good experiences so far.

What about you? Has March been full of favourites? Anything you’d especially recommend?

The Bride’s Story, vol 1 & 2 by Kaori Mori (thoughts)

March 5, 2015

When I first began book blogging, back in 2007, I learned that “graphic novels” was not the euphemistic phrase I’d interpreted it as, but instead a category of books that combine art and words, like comics. Many of my favourite bloggers were big fans of graphic novels, and I enthusiastically began to the explore. Somehow over the years that enthusiasm fell by the wayside, and I haven’t picked up a graphic novel in a couple of years, at least.

Now I must admit, though, that I am not a terribly good graphic novel reader. I don’t get along well with the traditional comic style art, which means series like Fables or Sandman drive me nuts. I want the story, but I can’t get past the aesthetics. I recognise this is a personal problem, and not some cosmic failure on the part of comics (…except for the ridiculous way they draw women…that part is a definite failure…), but trying to force myself to read them doesn’t seem to work either.

I’ve had much better luck with other kinds of graphic novels, that include different types of art. In fact, I’m not sure why I stopped seeking these types of books out, as I can easily name all kinds of fabulous ones (…Aya,  Castle Waiting, Bayou Love, The ArrivalGray HorsesPyongyang…that’s off the top of my head). They combine the visual and text mediums to add up to truly fabulous storytelling.

But manga? I tried one volume of manga awhile ago, the first of Mori’s Emma, and it made me feel almost illiterate. I couldn’t figure out which order to read the frames in, which gave me a constant feeling of being jarred. I never read comics as a kid, which might be why I was confused (I have this problem with Western comic-style graphic novels too, just not so extreme). Once again, I recognise that the problem is me, not the books, but I decided I was too old to learn new tricks and would simply have to miss out on manga.

Then my dear friend Debi and I had a library expedition last month during her Comics February. She came armed with an extensive list, and I followed her along, browsing the shelves as any book lover would. I saw Kaori Mori’s The Bride’s Story in the manga section, which reminded me that NK Jemisin (one of my favourite authors) recommended it, and I decided to get the first two volumes to try out.

And the verdict? I will definitely be seeking out the rest of the series.

It’s set in the central Asia of the 19th century, that land of steppes and silk roads, and the amount of loving detail that goes into each page creates an irresistible sense of place. I still get confused as to which order to read the frames in, but I’m getting better. Each volume includes a section that focuses on different handworks of the culture (first it was wood carving, then embroidery), which are my favourite bits. I can pore over those drawings, just wishing that they were in colour!

Now, I still have my reservations about the books. The bride in question is twenty and married to a twelve-year-old, who is drawn as very young looking, which creates some uncomfortable moments. She’s also so much of a paragon that at moments I’m tempted to roll my eyes; I don’t think we’ve come across something she’s not good at yet. ;) And generally I found the story and characters a bit more shallow than ideal. But already the second volume has added some nuance, and so I think I just need to adapt to the episodic nature of manga. And if the heroine occasionally feels idealised, I can’t fault how many female characters there are, each displaying strength in different ways. Meanwhile, the setting is certainly rich enough as it is!

If you enjoy folk culture, or get a faraway look in your eyes when you hear ‘silk roads,’ or are looking for an adventure series with a heroine instead of hero, you should give The Bride’s Story a try. If, like me, you’re new to manga, it will probably take you a volume or two to adapt to the new medium. But Mori must be winning me over: on my last library trip, the next volume wasn’t on the shelf, and I found myself quite disappointed. Good thing Debi’s did round-ups of all of the graphic novel reading done in February: the lists should keep me busy for awhile, as I rediscover this category of books!

A Brief Look at February’s Reading

March 3, 2015

 

Well, February definitely included less reading than is typical for me, for both good and bad reasons. :) Let’s play a bit with the numbers, shall we? Just for fun.

Of the 18 books that I read…

  • 13 were fiction
  • 12 were by authors I’ve read before
  • 9 were novels set in historical time periods
  • 7 were by authors of colour
  • 6 were part of a series (not the same series)
  • 6 were by UK authors
  • 6 were by US authors
  • 6 were by authors from other countries (Trinidad, France, Japan, Canada, and Israel)
  • 5 were written by men
  • 4 of those books written by men were nonfiction
  • 4 were audiobooks
  • 4 included supernatural elements
  • 3 were graphic novels
  • 2 were rereads
  • 2 included mysterious murders
  • 2 could be shelved in the romance section of the bookstore
  • 1 was written before 1900
  • 0 were ebooks (I have no clue how that happened, but my hands are not pleased)

I shall have more to say about analysing reading and my wishes for a bit more focused reading for the rest of the year soon, but for now, I’m amused to discover that historical fiction has taken over my novel reading! Here I thought I was a fantasy & mystery girl for my genre reads.

Let me know if you have questions about any of the books, even if it’s just that the cover caught your eye & you’d like to hear more about what’s inside. :)

I have high hopes for March, on both the reading and blogging fronts. It’s the 3rd and I’ve already read two books, both started this month, and both regular length novels. That seems like a good sign! I’m off to snuggle under a blanket with Thistle, and see if I can’t continue that reading streak.

Reading Snapshot: February 19th

February 19, 2015

P1150683It turned out last week’s enthusiasm about ending my reading slump was premature. Instead I shifted from the bad kind of slump to the good kind, in which I neglected books in favour of my other hobbies! But that shifted on Monday night, which saw me read Kaoru Maori’s The Bride’s Story vol. 1 before bedtime (it’s a manga, so it only takes as much time as I spent staring at all of the little detailed drawings) On Tuesday, I spent the afternoon reading The Innocents by Margery Sharp in one sitting. Yesterday afternoon I repeated that experience with Keep Still (an Eleanor Taylor Bland mystery), before feeling a craving for nonfiction that saw me (finally) finished The Morville Hours before a blessedly early bedtime (I’ve been having sleeping problems).

All of which meant that this morning, I had no problem cracking my books open as soon as my first pot of tea was brewed. First I read some of Atul Gawande’s latest book, Being Mortal. I adore his two collections of medical essays (Better and Complications), but this one has taken me aback a bit. I actually started it last week, and the first sixty pages were so upsetting that I’ve decided to ban it from nighttime reading. I assumed from the title that was going to be a philosophical exploration of death, from both a doctor’s and human’s perspective. Instead, it’s about the aging process, specifically about all of the ways our bodies will break down as we get older, and how the current nursing home system in the US dehumanises the frail and elderly while the medical establishment also fails to provide help for the chronic (vs urgent) health issues that come with aging. I’m about 120 pages in now and it’s terribly depressing. I keep expecting Gawande to bring in more positive aging stories, but so far it’s been pretty unrelentingly focused on how the older you get, the smaller your life becomes, and that nursing homes take away so much autonomy you’ll end up depressed even if your physical needs are met. I’ve really enjoyed getting older, and am looking forward to my 30th birthday (it arrives next year), but this book is almost singlehandedly changing that. Gawande is a wonderful writer, and I live in hope that he’ll eventually get to the good aspects of aging, so I’m sticking with it for now, but it’s a very different book from his previous essay collections. An important book, one that’s clearly aimed at changing policies and achieving more social justice for the elderly, but just be prepared.

My other read, Bosnia and Hercegovina: a Tradition Betrayed by Robert Donia & John Fine, is a scholarly summary of Bosnia’s history, written in 1992/3, that sets out to debunk the media stereotypes about Balkan ethnic violence. I like this perspective, and that it’s providing a big picture overview of a region with such a detailed, complicated history, but the writing style is not particularly engaging. If you already have an interest in the area, you’ll be good, but if you’re looking for a ‘popular history’ approach, you’ll probably be bored. I’m quite happy to be reading it myself, and I’m planning to put together a reading list for my upcoming trip very soon!

I don’t actually have an audiobook going at the moment (other than my bedtime one of The Warden); I finished The Voyage of the Narwhal (and must talk about it; so much goodness to deconstruct!) and podcasts have taken over my listening time. But I do plan to get one started in the next couple of days. I’d like to begin a nonfiction one, but the last two that I tried (A History of the World in 6 Glasses and The Divide) had both annoyed me enough to abandon within the first hour, so I’m a bit gunshy. For now, I’m thinking of giving another Nancy Goldstone book a go, since I really enjoyed Four Queens, or I have Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood out on CD from the library. I’m just not sure I’m up for two depressing, potentially nightmare inducing nonfiction books at once! Any nonfiction audiobook suggestions would thus be well appreciated. :D

The Dreaded Reading Slump (and a brief January retrospective)

February 12, 2015

Today, I updated my books read page with my February list. Although we’re almost halfway through the month, it went quite quickly: I’ve only finished four books, and that includes my bedtime audiobook (as opposed to my regular audiobook, I only listen to this one to help me fall asleep and it has to fit strict ‘no nightmare inducing’ criteria; lately Georgette Heyer has been fitting the bill but now I’ve discovered some Trollope audiobooks and plan to reread the Barsetshire Chronicles). Considering I usually read twenty to thirty books a month, I think it’s official: I’ve been in a reading slump.

On Monday, I was feeling a bit despondent, for no apparent reason. And then I realised I’d barely been opening books at all, and that I couldn’t point to much else I’ve been doing instead, other than trip planning and some knitting. But certainly nothing solid enough to account for only reading four books over almost two weeks! No wonder I felt a bit lost and disconnected.

I have no idea what causes reading slumps: they can certainly be related to my health, as during flare-ups my brain finds it more difficult to read and I can’t always physically hold a book. But I tend to realise this nowadays and opt for lighter or more engaging books during those times, and my ereader fixes the second problem. This time, I just seemed to feel antsy whenever I sat down to read, and found myself reaching for my phone and some internet browsing instead, in between the little daily tasks of living, and then suddenly my day had disappeared.

So I did the only logical thing on Monday night: I went to my bookcase and picked up Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolo Rising. I only fit in fifty pages before bed, but I woke up on Tuesday wanting nothing more than to get back to the book. I finished it yesterday (leading to a later than usual evening walk for Thistle), and I believe it’s broken my slump and helped turn around my mood. I can’t get back the potential of the lost days of early February, but I hope to read as much as possible during the rest of the month! This experience has reminded me to check in with myself; hopefully in the future I’ll notice more quickly when a reading slump has begun, so that I can reach for a trusted author to break me out of it. After all, what’s a reader without books? In my case, a dissatisfied, restless, touchy sort of creature who focuses on improving everything in sight, thus overlooking the quiet richness of her life. Thank goodness the remedy is so simple.

Do reading slumps affect your moods, or vice versa? I genuinely seem to become a sadder person if I go without at least an hour or two of reading a day.

To end on a more cheerful note, do all of you WordPress bloggers know about the ‘gallery’ feature? I’m using it on my books read page this year, and it’s so fun (and easy) to see a collage of covers representing each month! Here’s a pictorial representation of January:

 

It was an interesting month for me, with a mix of new authors and old favourites, but definitely heavily weighted towards fiction. I realise I didn’t blog about many of these books, so this is your chance to ask me questions about any that might catch your eye!

Reading Snapshot: February 7th, 2015

February 7, 2015

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To be honest, I haven’t been doing much regular reading over the past few days. Instead, I’ve been taken over by planning my next adventure! On Thursday I went to the library, walked straight to their travel section, and gathered giant piles of guidebooks to sort through over a hot chocolate from their cafe, eventually winnowing the pile to a reasonable few to bring home with me. So my coffee table is full of guidebooks, and my notebooks are full of scribbled potential itineraries, and my mind is full of dreams.

I had actually hoped to go somewhere in Asia next, as I’ve yet to visit that continent, but I’m not sure if my body could handle the twenty four plus hours required to get there. Europe is about half of that distance, so it seemed a good compromise and way for me to tell if a future Asian flight is in the cards. Then I thought about Turkey, which I’ve dreamed about for ages, but it’s one of my mom’s dream destinations too. So I’m putting that on hold for a couple of years until we can go together. That doesn’t mean I have to give up the entire Ottoman empire though! As you can see, I’ve narrowed my choices down to Hungary or the Balkans or a bit of both. My primary interests for the trip include folklore, forests, cafes, and oodles of history; this area offers all of that and more in spades. Now my only problem is trying to narrow my focus down to fit comfortably in four weeks. All suggestions warmly appreciated as far as wonderful places you’ve been in this area, especially outside of Budapest and the Adriatic Coast, which seem to be the focus of most guidebooks and travel blogs.

Funnily enough, writing this post and updating my Library Loot post with book titles (and the second video with my nonfiction selections, if you were waiting for that) has me itching to get back to ordinary reading. It’s snowing again, so I think I’ll go curl up on my couch with a book; it’s time for me to pick a new novel to start. I love surveying my bookcases, full of potential new favourites, before settling on just one to read next. It’s the same type of thrill as choosing a new country to explore. And certainly cheaper and simpler besides. ;)

Library Loot: January 2014

February 2, 2015

Fiction

Nonfiction

It’s a snow day here! All I want to do is gaze admiringly out of the window, sip tea, and go for occasional bundled up walks. Luckily, last week I recorded and uploaded a video about my one trip to the library in January! So I can share that with you and not have to spend a long time at my computer, without the magical view. I’m living in a snowglobe, and it’s blissful.

Tomorrow I’ll add a list of the titles mentioned so you have that for reference. For now, hopefully you can note down anything that looks interesting while viewing! And there should be a second part to this video following just as soon as Vimeo resets my weekly upload limit. Enjoy!

ETA: I should know better than to put a deadline here; it simply tempts fate too much. But a few days later than intended, here is the second video and that list of titles. I’ve copied & pasted from my library account, so it’s in no particular order. And just tidying up the library formatting has upset my hands, so I can’t italicise or put them all in neat bullets today.

All About Love by bell hooks
Spirits of the Ordinary by Kathleen Alcala
Keep Still by Eleanor Taylor Bland
The Phoenix Guards by Steven Brust
Babel Tower by AS Byatt
Stories by Anton Chekhov, trans. by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky
Maybe This Time by Jennifer Crusie
Love Marriage by VV Ganeshananthan
Beyond the Limbo Silence by Elizabeth Nunez
Ru by Kim Thuy
Niccolo Rising by Dorothy Dunnett
The Languages of Love by Sara Maitland
After Tupac & D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson
The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett
Bosnia and Hercegovina by Robert J. Donia
Ghosts in the Middle Ages by Jean Claude Schmitt
Heavens Unearthed in Nursery Rhymes and Fairy Tales by Matt Kane
Home and Exile by Chinua Achebe
The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift
Mr. Bloomfield’s Orchard by Nicholas Money
Naming Nature by Carol Kaesuk Yoon
Present Darkness by Mall Nunn
Runemaker by Tiina Nunnally
Temptations of Power by Shadi Hamid
Women in Purple by Judith Herrin

These Works Opened My Heart

January 31, 2015

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photo credit

From childhood on, I found many of my angels in favorite authors, writers who created books that enabled me to understand life with greater complexity. These works opened my heart to compassion, forgiveness, and understanding.

-bell hooks, All About Love

With the Lapps in the High Mountains by Emilie Demant Hatt (thoughts)

January 30, 2015

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It’s snowing outside my window, and Thistle and I just got back from a delicious wintry walk, which makes me want to write about something seasonally appropriate. So let’s talk about With the Lapps in the High Mountains by Emilie Demant Hatt. Hatt was a Dane born in the late nineteenth century with an adventurous soul. In her early 30s, she went with her sister on a train trip across Lapland, which sparked her interest in the native Lapp people (nowadays called Sami, in accordance with their own language, so that’s what I’ll use from now on). She arranged to live with them for a year, from the summer of 1907 to 1908, and in 1913 published a book about the experience. 100 years later, Barbara Sjoholm published her translation, so that English speakers could go on Hatt’s adventure with her (Sjoholm also has a website with more information about Hatt if you’re interested).

Usually, when reading historical travelogues, you find yourself making all kinds of apologies for the racism or sexism or colonialism you encounter therein. With the Lapps in the High Mountains is stunningly free of such prejudice; Hatt was writing at a time when most Scandinavians considered the Sami dirty, lazy people whose reindeer got in the way of honest farmers and whose children should be sent to state sponsored boarding schools in order to become civilised (sound familiar?). Hatt confronts these beliefs head on, demonstrating in the account of Sami daily life how mistaken they are, and occasionally explaining how destructive state policies were to their traditional, nomadic lifestyle. There is a shade of pastoral idealism at times, but no more than you would find nowadays, in a blogger waxing lyrical about the simple pleasures of farm life, and Hatt never minimizes the challenges of such a life.

This genuine curiousity and respect for the Sami makes for a wonderfully engaging travelogue. No detail of daily life is too small to escape Hatt’s observations, and she easily transports her readers into a Sami tent, drinking coffee around the smoking fire after climbing into your furs, or into the great northern woods in winter, skiing in pursuit of the reindeer herd. At one point, she’s trying to sew a new dress in time for a gathering and finding it difficult in winter conditions (little light, except what the smoky fire provides). She shares the following moment, which illustrates a major difference between Lapp life and her own background:

One day when we were going to set off on trek, and all was in order, the tent taken down, the sleds packed, and we were just sitting outside waiting for the pack reindeer, Sara said, “You must take out your needlework, you don’t have time to sit idle if the dress is going to get done.” That was true enough and you could just as well, if you didn’t freeze, sit outside and sew under the open sky in winter as well as summer. I hauled out my sewing bag and got far with the hemming before the reindeer came.

For tha Lapps, the wilderness, forest, and mountains are their ordinary living room. Their home is where they happen to find themselves. They don’t need four walls to feel secure or to work at household tasks.

I’m going to share another passage, so you get an idea of her capacity for scenic description:

The string glided slowly upward, steadily over the snow to the high mountains. Everything was so strangely shapeless and unreal that night. We went forward in a numb white-gray darkness that could never lighten. A sharp wind blew around the top layer of fine snow; in circles and streams it glided over the endless expanses. No other sound was heard than the fine crunching of the snow and the footsteps of the reindeer. Something soft, half unseen, once came brushing closely past, rapid and ghostlike up from the mountain slope. It was a pair of white foxes.

Of course, such passages are actually Sjoholm’s translation; I don’t read Danish, so I can’t actually compare her to Hatt’s original, but reading the book, I always got a strong sense of narrative voice that ‘felt’ right for the period and place. So I feel comfortable praising the translation! This is a real gem of a book, and Sjoholm did us all a favour in making it available for an English reading audience (she did me the more personal favour of sending me a review copy almost two years ago, which didn’t influence my love for the book except to make me happy I had a copy for my own shelves).

There are not a lot of classic travelogues to begin with, and especially there are not many that are sensitive portrayals of a culture and environment different from the author’s own. This makes With the Lapps in the High Mountains all the more valuable, but it also stands on its own merits. Emilie Demant Hatt was an excellent story teller and the kind of quietly adventurous woman who I just love. Anyone curious about how others live, or who enjoys travel lit, or Scandinavia, or reading ‘forgotten’ classics will have a grand time with this. Really, I can’t imagine a reader who wouldn’t enjoy it!

The Fairyland Series by Catherynne Valente (thoughts so far)

January 20, 2015

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A quick blog search revealed that I haven’t talked about another of my favourite new author discoveries from last year: Cathrynne Valente (it was a banner year for speculative fiction). As I treated myself to The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two to start the new year off right (the third in a series), this seems like a good time to mention her. I prefer discussing series as unit, so this post will generally address the first three in the Fairyland series, as the final two haven’t been published yet, and I haven’t yet read the prequel. I doubt I’ll include any plot spoilers, but if I do they’ll be clearly marked, so you can read on safely.

The first in this series is The Girl Who Cirvcumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. I remember hearing about it when it was first published, but the title made me think it would be too twee for me. So I waited for ages; I can’t remember what made me decide to pick it up last year, but I almost immediately realised my mistake. While nominally children’s books (I think they’re marketed as ‘middle grade’), these function perfectly well for the adult reader too; they reminded me of a lot of Neil Gaiman’s work this way. Only instead of veering towards the creepy/horror side of the genre (a la Coraline or The Ocean at the End of the Lane), these are firmly in the fantasy/adventure in fairyland mold. I don’t read many children’s/young adult books, so I don’t make concessions to the ones that I do read; from that perspective, I think any adult reader will be fully engaged with these novels.  In other words, imagine the best possible novel to come under that title, and you’ve got a good idea of the series.

I absolutely adore stylised writing and Valente has that Victorian omniscient, slightly paternalistic narrative voice down. I’m going to quote the first paragraph of the first book, as it gives you an excellent idea of the feel of the entire series.

Once upon a time, a girl named September grew very tired indeed of her parents’ house, where she washed the same pink-and-yellow teacups and matching gravy boats every day, slept on the same embroidered pillow, and played with the same small and amiable dog. Because she had been born in May, and because she had a mole on her left cheek, and because her feet were large and ungainly, the Green Wind took pity on her and flew to her window one evening just after her twelfth birthday. He was dressed in a green smoking jacket, and a green carriage-driver’s cloak, and green jodphurs, and green snowshoes. It is very cold above the clouds in the shantytowns where the Six Winds live.

Oh! Just writing that out made me want to run away with the Green Wind again on his flying leopard and follow September’s adventures. Anyway, this style could easily tip over into smarminess or mockery or purple prose in the hands of a lesser author. Luckily for all of us, Valente has her talent firmly in hand: the narrator maintains an even keel throughout the book, bringing the story to life with a tender love for all of the little details.

On a minor note, I love that Valente pays attention to dress; I happen to love textiles and clothing and dressing, but it’s a rare novelist who shares that passion. Valente does: in each book September has at least one piece of magical, comforting clothing. And who can resist the preciseness of the Green Wind’s outfits?

Each book of the series so far has a slightly different setting, although all are ‘in Faerie,’ as one might say. That means there are always new places to stumble across, and different types of challenges for September to meet, which is nice. The first two books also stand alone, with self-contained stories. The third, The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, which I just read, has a self-contained story but then a cliffhanger ending that put me in a bit of a snit since the fourth one isn’t available yet. Luckily I only have to wait a few months!

While the settings are lush, and the writing delightful, the novels’ hearts are in the characters: September herself will easily win a reader over, precisely because she doesn’t fit into the ‘Mary Sue’ mode. She’s not the strongest or the cleverest or the bravest or the best behaved; instead she finds those qualities within her (except for the last one) as she needs to. She is stout and loyal and equipped with a strong moral compass, which makes her eminently suited for fairyland adventuring. And she has such a wonderful name; it’s probably a good thing I don’t plan to have children, because otherwise I’d be tempted to name them all for months or days of the week, a la Valente. Along the way, she picks up some wonderfully loveable friends (including one who believes his father was a library), and her relationships with them morph over the series. I love that Valente doesn’t present friendship and love as all smooth sailing; instead she captures the confusion and ambiguities that can appear in any relationship, but particularly when you’re undergoing a change as dramatic as growing up (by the third one, September is fourteen). Even though I’m in my late twenties, I easily identified with September. I think this is because she’s always presented as a subject in her own right, rather than objectified as can sometimes happen in children’s lit. Despite the pseudo-victorian narrative voice, nothing is dumbed down for either September or her friends or the reader. They must make heart-wrenching decisions and live with the consequences, and while they experience the joy and magic of adventuring, they also feel terror and loneliness as well. In other words, they teem with life.

I’m rambling again, aren’t I? This is the problem with talking about books I truly love; I have far too much to say to fit in one blog post, so I tend to just gush incoherently instead. The themes in these books are rich and reflective of human problems at all stages of life. Each of the books has made me laugh and cry, as scenes shift, and throughout I’ve been entranced. I know I’m speaking in generalities, but I want each of you to discover these for yourself, like I did. I can’t recommend the series highly enough: each book is the whole package (plot, characters, writing style) and gleams like a precious jewel. Reading these books will be especially satisfying, I suspect, for those of us who have always been bookish; they felt like a homecoming, for me at least. I cannot wait to discover what the next book brings for September and her friends.

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