Shades of Milk and Honey

Every once in a while, I’ll accidentally leave the book I’m reading at a friend’s house and pick a new one at random that turns out to be exactly what my readerly heart needed. Such was the case with Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal. It’s been a couple of years since I last picked up a book in the style of Jane Austen, and Mary Robinette Kowal certainly fits that bill with the happy addition of magic. This, for me, was a stay up till two in the morning to finish it type of book. Thank goodness I’m on Spring Break.

Shades-of-Milk-and-Honey-by-Mary-Robinette-Kowal

The magic in the world of Shades of Milk and Honey is called glamour and it is considered a skill for well accomplished women on par with piano playing. Our heroine, Jane Ellsworth, is particularly skilled with glamour and adheres to the social expectations and rules for a young, eligible, woman. A lot of this story is setting up and explaining the social structure; and rightfully so, as that structure is forefront in the life of Jane. There is also significant time spent discussing the artistry that goes into glamour and those were my favorite moments. I can see the potential for so many other stories in this world utilizing glamour for more than art and other homely uses. I do believe there is at least one more book in this world and I look forward to see where Mary Robinette Kowel goes with it.

This isn’t to say the glamour aspects of this story aren’t interesting; they just aren’t really the point of the story. The Ellsworth sisters need to get husbands and being good at glamour is one more skill on the list that could attract a good husband. This is where I struggled a bit while reading. It’s the same thing when reading Jane Austen and all of the Bronte’s. I appreciate the story and I understand the confines of the world, but holy Toledo do I ever resent the confines of the world. For the most part the heroines of these stories resent those confines too, so I can be their cheerleader as fight the patriarchy. The fight, however, is not nearly far enough removed from reality for me to not be rage reading occasionally. By the end of this story Jane’s situation has changed in a rather dramatic and exciting way, and I can’t wait to see what opportunities may open up for her in the next story by Mary Robinette Kowel.

Keep reading. Keep learning. Keep listening. Keep creating.

Pym

Pym by Mat Johnson gets a little weird. To the credit of the story it warns us right out of the gates, in the preface, that it’s going to get a little weird. Anyone who has read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allen Poe will pick up on the similarities, and purposeful differences, between the two stories immediately. If you haven’t read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, don’t worry about it. You will be told, in no uncertain terms, throughout Pym what to be looking for and thinking about in relation to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (Can we take a moment and all agree that Poe did a terrible job naming his book?).

51EMcm7kteL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

The catalyst of the story is the main character Chris Jaynes doesn’t get tenure. He uses this situation to further his obsession with Dirk Peters, the black man that traveled with Pym in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. This obsession culminates in Jaynes bringing together a crew to follow the path of Pym and Peters to Antarctica. What follows is structurally a very similar story to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket with the race roles reversed. Instead of finding the black inhabitants that Poe described they found giant white creatures who they call “Snow Honkies”.

The book reads as a sort of parody of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym at the same time as satirizing the use of the slave narrative as the primary method of articulating African American history and artistic expression. A point that is made several times throughout the story is that when telling and/or living (as is the case, eventually with the characters in Pym) a story that is a slave narrative the story is forced into the confines of the system of white and black that was used to justify slavery to begin with.

That all sounds rather serious, I know, and the book certainly has serious, and relevant, points to make. Don’t mistake serious points for a sad book! This book is funny and soaked in irony. I highly recommend it if you’d like a fresh and entertaining critique of racial politics and identity.

Commonplace Book Entries

“In this age when reality is built on big lies, what better place for truth than fiction?”

Pym by Mat Johnson

“Nobody wants to give a job for life to an asshole.”

Pym by Mat Johnson

“It was depressing looking at every extra pound on him, each a reminder that we were both moving swiftly into decline with little else as accomplishment.”

Pym by Mat Johnson

The constantly rustling wind didn’t help. That was just the sound of silence moving.”

Pym by Mat Johnson

“’Goddamn global warming.’ Garth leaned forward to get a better view. ‘Ain’t our fault. It was all them Escalades in the ghetto.’”

Pym by Mat Johnson

Keep reading. Keep learning. Keep listening. Keep creating.

Beloved

Just like Justin brought sexy back in 2006, I’m bringing this blog back today (and yes I’ve rewritten half of that song in my head to be about a book blog and am happy to share upon request). I took a brief hiatus for the sake of school and sanity, but I couldn’t stay away for long because, as luck would have it, I study books at school!  I am fortunate enough to be in a class that has Beloved by Toni Morrison on its reading list and even more fortunate to have a class full of thoughtful and intelligent classmates to discuss it with. For a moment I’d like to comment that Toni Morrison is a must read. Beloved is an excellent book but if you’re not into fiction she does have non-fiction books and essays. For my class we read excerpts from Playing in The Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination and I feel lucky to live in a time that allows me to learn from such a brilliant mind.

41ayxi0eoyl-_sx300_bo1204203200_

Beloved follows Sethe and her daughter Denver eighteen years after Sethe escaped from slavery and eight years after slavery is abolished in the United States. The story begins with a haunted house, “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” Take a moment and breathe in the hook of those first two sentences and try to tell me you’re not curious what happens next. Now feels like a pretty good time to let you know that this book gets odd. It is a ghost story, the house is haunted by Sethe’s dead baby girl, but the “ghostiness” of the story is not what the story is about. In Beloved Toni Morrison is looking at slavery and its lasting harmful impact not from a historical perspective, but from a human perspective.

The story can be hard to follow if you don’t go into it expecting flashbacks and warped reality and time. The book confronts the trauma of slavery with characters that are trying their hardest not to. The past influences and grabs hold of Sethe and Denver in ways they could not predict and, arguably, could not avoid. As the story moves along and the ghost gains more and more power and influence on our main characters the readers become completely immersed in the explosion of trauma and grief that threatens to consume Sethe.

There is a section of three chapters in which each chapter is from a different characters perspective that I, as a writer and critical reader, totally geeked out about. Every moment of that reading experience mimics the experience of the narrator herself, down to the formatting of the words on the page. This is the type of care that Toni Morrison put into Beloved in addition to using beautiful language. It gets odd and is absolutely, at times, difficult to read, but it is so key to understanding slavery not as a history but as a far reaching trauma incited upon an entire race of people.

Common Place Book Entries

“Her past had been like her present—intolerable—and since she knew death was anything but forgetfulness, she used the little energy left her for pondering colors.”                              –Beloved by Toni Morrison

“It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too.” -Beloved by Toni Morrison

“They were not holding hands but their shadows were.”                                                                  –Beloved by Toni Morrison

“Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that free self was another.”            –Beloved by Toni Morrison

“It was lovely. Not to be stared at, not seen, but being pulled into view by the interested, uncritical eyes of the other.”                                                                                                                       –Beloved by Toni Morrison

“Now she is crying because she has no self. Death is a skipped meal compared to this.”       –Beloved by Toni Morrison

“God puzzled her and she was too ashamed of Him to say so.”                                                        –Beloved by Toni Morrison

“Clever, but schoolteacher beat him anyway to show him that definitions belonged to the definers—not the defined.”                                                                                                                         –Beloved by Toni Morrison

“the others do not know he is dead   I know   his song is gone   now I love his pretty little teeth instead”                                                                                                                                                   –Beloved by Toni Morrison

“…being so in love with the look of the world, putting up with anything and everything, just to stay alive in a place where a moon he had no right to was nevertheless there.”           –Beloved by Toni Morrison

“Maybe they were simply nice people who could hold meanness toward each other for just so long and when trouble rode bareback among them, quickly, easily they did what they could to trip him up.”                                                                                                                                     –Beloved by Toni Morrison

Keep reading. Keep learning. Keep listening. Keep creating.

Zoom

Sometimes, you spill popcorn and as you’re picking it up you notice the perfect book for your evening. This was exactly the case for me this past weekend when I stumbled across Zoom by Istvan Banyai. About a year ago I read and wrote about the second book by Istvan Banyai, appropriately titled Re-Zoom, my thoughts on that can be found here. About a year has gone by and enough has happened that a perspective check was exactly what I needed.

81comdeko8l

Zoom is a simple concept. With every turn of the page there is another picture that gives context to the last pages pictures. Essentially, you start zoomed in and with each page you zoom out. There are no words, but I’d caution against flipping through quickly. The art is beautiful and well thought out. The more you appreciate the page you’re on, the environment you’re in, the more exciting it becomes when you turn the page and what you thought was true and real is completely different with a slightly wider lens.

It’s hard to write about this book without drawing parallels for what the United States is experiencing politically right now. I’ll say this: this book is important, if only to remind you how much “there” there is.  It is so easy to get swept up and bogged down in arguments online, or the news, or tv, or even drama with friends. This is all important on its own level. It’s wildly important to stay informed and to be involved and to stand up for what you believe. It’s also important to practice the art of zooming in and out. Take a step back to remember the impact you might be having on complete strangers on the other side of the world. Focus in on the immediate impact you’re having on the blank piece of paper in front of you. I don’t know that one of these is more important than the other but I do believe the practice of considering both will result in more thoughtful discussions. Practicing what this book exemplifies will make it easier to figure out when and where a conversation needs to happen to get positive results, rather than screaming into an abyss and hoping for the best.

This is, I suppose, a children’s book. If all children had access to it and sat with it at bedtime then the next generation will be thoughtful, critical thinkers, that impact the world in a purposeful way. I do hope adults read it too. We’re reactionary creatures and sometimes art is what’s needed to remind us that to react with no purpose is to forget that the lens zooms out.

Keep reading. Keep learning. Keep listening. Keep creating.

Dreams From My Father

With Mr. Barack Obama (I googled how to address a former president…it’s “Mr.” though Barack Obama without “President” sounds awfully odd) officially out of the Oval Office I could think of no better book to read than one of his, for nostalgia’s sake, for escape from the present, and for inspiration. Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama was written before the former President of the United States was even a senator. It’s a book in which Mr. Obama recounts how his upbringing and his mostly absent father shaped his perspective. It’s particularly interesting to read this book with this article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in mind, if you’re at all curious about Mr. Barack Obama’s view of himself as an African American man in the United States. Ta-Nehisi Coates is also just an interesting and excellent writer in general so it’s worth the read.

download-1

I was not entirely sure what to expect going into this book. I know that most successful politicians are perfectly capable of selling a story, because that’s what all advertisement (including self advertisement) really is. Whether or not they can write a coherent and interesting story is a whole different question. I am happy to report that Mr. Barack Obama wrote a beautiful, coherent, and interesting story. He managed to balance reflection, both self and outward, with a story line that kept me turning the page.

It’s also interesting to see where Mr. Obama’s reflections match up with what we’ve heard him say and seen him do during his presidency. There was nothing majorly incongruent as far as I could tell, but this was clearly written from the perspective of someone that hadn’t yet experienced the presidency. It is worth mentioning that while I’m sure this book didn’t hurt his politics at all, this isn’t a platform on which he’s spouting off too much about where he stands on what issues. He meditates on politic related experiences that shaped how he views the world and himself, particularly in relation to his time in Chicago, where he worked as a community organizer.

Ultimately I saw this book as the perfect expression of practicing what you preach. Mr. Obama thoughtfully explores opinions outside of his own throughout. When he’s confronted with problems in his community he takes action to fix it. I’ll leave you with a quote from his farewell speech, because this book and everything after it is him walking the walk…

“If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try to talk with one in real life. If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Persevere. Sometimes you’ll win. Sometimes you’ll lose. Presuming a reservoir of goodness in others can be a risk, and there will be times when the process disappoints you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America – and in Americans – will be confirmed.”

-President Barack Obama

Keep reading. Keep learning. Keep listening. Keep creating.

Missing You

I am lucky enough to have a family that not only supports my reading habit but endeavors on reading habits of their own. In addition to a White Elephant gift exchange and the new tradition of a beer exchange (let’s take a moment and appreciate having family that is mostly overage and has good taste in beer), we do a book exchange.  It’s set up like the white elephant except instead of a combo of fun gifts and gag gifts, it’s all books. This year I picked Missing You by Harlan Coben and was told it’s supposed to be a page turner.  I have to admit I scoffed at that after reading the tag line “A nightmare is just a click away”, but then I stayed up till two in the morning reading it. What can I say? I got sucked in.

download

It’s not my habit to pick up mysteries or thrillers.  Part of why I started this blog was to force myself to expand my horizon, genre wise, but for some reason it never occurred to me to give this particular genre a try. I’d like to be able to say that snobbery plays no roll in that but, if I’m being honest, I’ve been in the academic world of reading and writing for just long enough to be a bit of a snob. Which is a shame because when it comes to writing a book that entertains, which is always at least part of the goal in writing, authors like Harlan Coben know what they are doing. By the end of every chapter there is something we’ve discovered and in that discovery there is a question that can only be answered by reading the next chapter.

Missing You follows Kat Donovan, an NYPD detective as she tries out the world of online dating and runs into an ex-boyfriend. This run in prompts several discoveries, all disturbing, some horrific, that Kat needs to tangle through in order help a boy find his missing mom and herself to figure out her father’s murder.  Basically, there is a lot packed into this one book. It never felt like there was too much going on though, if fact, I’d say any less would have left the story missing something. What’s interesting about this, is part of the appeal of this type of book is that there is constant discovery and consequence. Corben, instead of breaking genre to take time with his characters, uses a plot line of discovery and consequence to aid in explaining the characters to the readers.

My only real issue with this book is one that, I suspect, shows my age. The catalyst is a dating website and various modern technologies appear throughout the book. It drove me absolutely crazy when the characters didn’t understand some pretty common knowledge technology things. I’m not a techie by any means, but I am a 25-year old living in 2017. If I’d been handed this plot line and told to write the story, it would have been a tad shorter, if not non-existent, via basic internet etiquette and rules of thumb. It’s worth considering a few things with this particular critique: I may not be the target audience for this book (I suspect an older generation), the main character is 40 years old (though I think this excuse is a little insulting to 40 year olds), and, if only to flatter myself, that I’m more tech literate than I thought I was. Regardless this was, indeed, a page turner and it felt so good to be so involved in a story that I lost track of time.

Keep reading. Keep learning. Keep listening. Keep creating.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things

The holidays tend to be a little displacing.  Finals and school run right up to the holidays and get as close as they can to a full on collision before pulling up and out leaving me slightly shell-shocked and before I’ve recovered I’m off to celebrate with family. All sense of routine is thrown to the wind and nothing seems to be in quite the right place. This is why The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss was exactly the story I needed to read right at this moment. It’s an odd duck of a story but it is one that manages to convince you there is a chance the off-kilter can be tipped back into its cozy rightful place.

21535271

Both before and after the story Patrick Rothfuss informs the reader that this story is not a great one to start with if you are new to his world. I have to agree with that sentiment and am so happy to say that I have read the first of his Kingkiller Chronicle and you can read my thoughts on that here. The Slow Regard of Silent Things delves into the world of Auri, a character that shows up in his other books but (and I say this having only read the one) is by no means a main character.

I know I have said quite a bit now that this is an odd book but it is worth repeating just because it may aid in the reading of it. I have found that the “ride the wave” style of reading is often the best way to go into these sorts of things but this wave may not take you to the shore. Auri lives and spends her time in the “Underthing” (below the university) and this book is a glimpse into that life. There are hints about who she was before she became who she is but that is not really the point of the story.

The point of the story is to see Auri’s world through Auri’s eyes and heart. Auri spends a lot of time making sure everything is in its proper happy place. This, by itself, would not be enough to make the story enticing, or even really, a story. It is Patrick Rothfuss’s poetic and carefully chosen words that make this story such a comfort. While reading I got the impression that Auri thinks about things the way Rothfuss must think about words. Every one has its own rightful and needful spot and the world just will not be quite right until it is there. I took some time to read part of the book out loud because the words were so carefully placed it seemed the right thing to do and was rewarded in way that, until then, only poetry had rewarded me.  It rings true in a happy way, to have the words in Auri’s story cared about as thoughtfully as she cares about her world.

 

Common Place Book Entries:

“It was wise enough to know itself, and brave enough to be itself, and wild enough to change itself while somehow staying altogether true.”

-The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

“She felt…less. She felt tamped down. Dim. More faint. Feint. Feigned. Fain.”

-The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

“Some days simply lay on you like stones. Some were fickle as cats, sliding away when you needed comfort, then coming back later when you didn’t’ want them, jostling at you, stealing your breath.”

-The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

Keep reading. Keep learning. Keep listening. Keep creating.