Smoke and Mirrors

There is nothing better than a collection of short stories to get me out of a reading slump. I’ve recently been having a little bit of trouble focusing on any one book or story, but Neil Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors contained stories too short for me to possibly loose focus and too interesting for me to bother with putting it down after one story. Gaiman came through, as usual, with the perfect amount of weird and relatable. I have read one other collection of his called Fragile Things, his novel American Gods, and, of course, his comic books, The Sandman: The Kindly Ones. I loved those, especially the Sandman Series, but there was something particularly satisfying about Smoke and Mirrors.

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I have officially gotten to the point in my own writing where I’m a little bit obsessed with finding out about the process various writers go through. So I was extra thrilled to see that in my copy of Smoke and Mirrors there is a little note from Neil Gaiman about each story. Some of them are explaining why the story exists, which, a lot of the time was someone asked for it, and some of them explain the various iterations the story went through before arriving in Smoke and Mirrors. This extra bit of context for the stories, while exciting for me as a writer, are also helpful in grounding the stories a bit. If you sit down and read a bunch of these at once it is easy to feel as though the worlds you’re being pulled through are too fantastical to keep up with. Flipping to the front of the book and putting some familiar reality around the fantasy was a helpful way to keep my feet on the ground.

The stories themselves were, in true Gaiman fashion, all surprising in their own ways. They ran the spectrum of spooky, scary, funny, and downright odd. It is so easy for me to get caught up in a reading list of books that I need to slog through. Picking up Smoke and Mirrors every once in a while to, for five minutes (sometimes less), be surprised by what would come next in this book of little oddities was pretty delightful. That’s not to say all the stories were happy ones, this is Gaiman after all, but they were all well crafted snippets that made me think a little harder about what reality actually is and could be. I like a book that does that, and one that can do it in easily digested bits and bobs is even better!

Common Place Book Entries:

“You want to know the future, love? Then wait:”

Reading the Entrails: A Rondel from Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman

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

Zong!

Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip is unlike any poetry I’ve ever read before both in content and style. If you are a fan and avid reader of experimental poetry then I recommend going straight to the book rather than reading this as there is no way to write about it without spoiling some of the experience of reading it. However, if you don’t have a ton of experimental poetry experience then I would still recommend it but proceed with the expectation of disorientation. Don’t be surprised if you start it and have no idea what’s happening because, for some of it anyway, that’s the point. It may help you to know the backstory of both the real life story these poems are drawing from and how the Philip went about utilizing that story.

Cover of Zong. A leg bone with a red dot at the knee in front of a body of water.

Zong! is based on the true story of the slave ship Zong. In November of 1781 the captain ordered about 150 Africans thrown overboard so the ship could collect insurance money off of their deaths. The only repercussion of these horrendous actions was a court case not for murder but for insurance fraud. The transcript of that court case is the only historical record of this mass murder. Philip uses the transcript to tell the story through poems. She confined herself to using words only found in the transcript of the court case for her poems. Because the court case was not extensive or even about the murder of 150 people she got creative with the form and structure of the poems. Many of them can be read in different directions and many them are hard to decipher.

I found it to be a bit of a frustrating reading experience but this is an occasion where I think frustration in reading may be the point. Zong! is about a tragedy that is nearly impossible to fathom. Philip was not just trying to tell the story, she was trying to give a voice to those that died. If you walk away from these poems feeling disoriented, frustrated, and confused imagine how these feelings would have been intensified for those thrown off the ship to drown. I was left with less of the story and more of the emotion, which is, I think, a quality particular to poems. Poetry is usually going for maximum emotional impact and Philip’s poetry is doing it’s job in an effective and unique way. Even if you don’t particularly like experimental poetry the book includes a little history of Zong and M. NourbeSe Philip’s writing process which I also found quite fascinating.

Common Place Book Entries

“the order in destroy”

Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip

“Some–all the poems– need a great deal of space around them — as if there is too much cramping around them, as if they need to breathe…”

Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip

“Within the boundaries established by the words and their meanings there are silences; within each silence is the poem,”

Zong! by NourbeSe Philip

“I deeply distrust this tool I work with — language.”

Zong! by NourbeSe Philip

“The disorder, illogic and irrationality of the Zong! poems can no more tell the story than the legal report of Gregson v. Gilbert masquerading as order, logic and rationality.”

-Zong! by NourbeSe Philip

“This language of the limp and the wound.”

Zong! by NourbeSe Philip

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

 

 

Kafka On The Shore

I am graduated, no longer in Ireland, and completely partied out after my grandma’s 80th birthday party. It is about darn time I finish reading and talk about Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. I started this book when I was in the thick of my last semester in college and was, perhaps, over ambitious in thinking I could read a book for fun along side reading several for school. I spent a few days when I got home from all the hullabaloo that was my month of May sitting on my couch with a glass of whiskey (thank you, Ireland) and reading this puzzle of a book.

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This is not a book to read when you have a lot going on or would like to just turn off your brain for a little bit. Sometimes reading it feels like you’ve got a patchwork quilt under a microscope and you’re trying to figure out which square each thread is in while trying to figure where each square goes and how all the threads and squares are connected. This book is the epitome of show, don’t tell. It follows two main characters. There is Kafka Tamura, whose real first name we never discover but it is his real last name, and Nakata, who can talk to cats. Nakata and Kafka never meet but their stories are intertwined. We meet Kafka as he has started his journey running away from home, the reasons are not made explicitly clear but you do get the impression he is better off not at home. Nakata’s story starts with him as a child in a mysterious accident that left him a little mentally disabled but with ability to chat with cats.

The magical elements of the book are written in casually. They are not an accepted element of the world, we get scenes of policemen, newspaper headlines, and news reporters astounded at leeches and fish falling from the sky, but the elderly and simple Nakata and depressed and impressionable Kafka take most of these occurrences as a fact of their non reality. Murakami keeps the readers constantly guessing what is real by writing scenes only to, chapters later, reveal they could have been dreams, but never quite confirming either way. This forces the reader to not only question what is real within the story but question whether it matters if it is real or not. By the time we are thrown completely into a clearly magical scene we no longer really care if it’s real, we’re caught up with the substance of the story and the reactions of the characters. What does it matter if it’s real or not if the characters are reacting to it? What does it matter if magic exists or not if you still haven’t found the reality that you’re looking for? Murakami is an insanely talented writer who shows you bits of the quilt and let’s you decide what it actually looks like.

Common Place Book Entries

“Silence, I discover, is something you can actually hear.”

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

“Nothing’s going to disappear just because you can’t see what’s going on.”

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

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

Old Man’s War

Over and over I tell myself, “Emma, stop buying books. You’ve no time to read them all and you live a mere three blocks away from a library, no need to stock up in your apartment. Speaking of apartments, do you remember the last time you moved? Was it fun to carry all the books? No. No it was not.” Then on a trip I stop in at a bookstore or I accidentally (totally an accident…every time) click on a link to Amazon and more money leaves my bank account and more books enter my To Read Pile. But then, once in a blue moon, a totally legitimate justification for all future purchases of books presents itself. On Saturday, John Scalzi, author of Old Man’s War and many other books, came to the Madison Central Library for a reading and Q and A. I’ve known who John Scalzi is for a while now and have owned Old Man’s War for almost as long so I was delighted to have an excuse to sit down with his book all day before going to the reading.

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Often when you pick up the first book a well written author has ever written you do so with a little bit of trepidation. It may not be their best. They may have learned a lot between the first and the second. I haven’t read any of John Scalzi’s other books, but I can say that his first is well worth reading and very well done. The story follows John Perry starting on his 75th birthday. He visits his wife’s grave and joins the army. More specifically he joins the Colonial Defense Forces or as I called it in my head sometimes while reading: Space Army. The rumor on Earth is that once you join up they make you young again so you’ll be in fighting shape. They’re fighting for planets that Earth wants to colonize or has already colonized and alien forces are trying to take.

Generally a book as out there as what I just described would have me a little worried going in if only because world building with these sorts of things has a lot of potential to go wrong. John Scalzi set it up in a way that eases the reader and our main character, John, into the world and the changes. It helps so much that it’s all done with a 75 year old man. Everybody knows a slightly curmudgeonly, sarcastic, wise cracker that’s about 75 years old. There is a very specific humor that comes with age and John Scalzi allowed himself to fully utilize it. This humor follows through a sort of transition period and all the way until John Perry is fully in the Colonial Defense Force (I genuinely wrote space army and had to delete it…old habits die hard unless you join up with CDF, then they may live to die another day).

The army days open up a lot of super interesting potential story lines and ethical problems within the society that John Perry is now immersed. This is not to say it’s all set up, the reader also gets pulled along for the fantastic war story Perry is currently facing. I was so relieved when I found out that Old Man’s War is just the first in the series because this book was a page turner and left me wondering so much about Perry’s future!

Common Place Book Entries:

“The problem with aging is not that it’s one damn thing after another—it’s that it’s every damn thing, all at once, all the time.”

-Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

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

The Underground Railroad

I have been slowly (think glacial) picking my way through Ulysses by James Joyce. In that book every single word, nay, every single syllable, has at least one, if not five, references, meanings, and points. The search for purpose that is required of my reading experience in Ulysses has infected how I read every other book I pick up. Sometimes this can lead to disappointment and fraying loose ends, not so with Colson Whitehead’s, The Underground Railroad. In fact, I think this is a rare story that can be both easily and critically read.

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The underground railroad in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is literally underground. This is the most obvious difference from a typical escaped slave narrative story that Colson Whitehead makes in the telling of Cora’s search for freedom. There are plenty more. The very first chapter of the book is a very cut and dry telling of how Cora’s grandma ended up a slave on the cotton plantation in Georgia where Cora grew up. This fact driven, historical tone of a tragic story being told in an almost bullet point manner eases the reader into a setting that we are all too familiar and comfortable with. Colson Whitehead proceeds to pull the soft rug out from under us and wrap us in the rough underbelly that was always there but never seen.

The harsh truths of history that he presents are mixed together and jumbled in a sort of state line divided time warp. In each place Cora ends up, there is a new system to navigate. Throughout the book there is a constant sense of disconnect and unease sometimes for both Cora and the reader, but even when Cora is most comfortable the reader is struck with a sense of knowing something will go wrong. This is a virtue of having learned the history, but it also speaks to Colson Whitehead’s fantastic writing. Throughout the story Cora remains distant from the reader. There are moment in which the reader can relate to and empathize with Cora and her experiences but she also, often, holds us at arms length. This, in many stories, could be disconcerting and off putting. This, however, is a story about a women that grew up as a slave with no family. She has no reason to trust people and for her own survival she keeps all at arms length. If the reader were to feel connected to her, Cora’s story would lose it powerful impact. Ultimately, this is a horrifying, beautifully written, and important story.

 

Common Place Book Entries:

“The cabins radiated permanence and in turn summoned timeless feelings in those who lived and died in them: envy and spite.”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“The words from across the ocean were beaten out of them over time. For simplicity, to erase their identities, to smother uprisings.”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“The only way to know how long you are lost in the darkness is to be saved from it.”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“The night was his opponent, Cora decided, the night and the phantoms he filled it with.”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“Fear drove these people, even more than cotton money.”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“Whether in the fields or underground or in an attic room, America remained her warden.”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“They were ghosts themselves, caught between two worlds: the reality of their crimes, and the hereafter denied them for those crimes.”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“Being free had nothing to do with the chains or how much space you had.”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“She’d learned to walk with irons. It was hard to believe it had taken this long.”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“She didn’t recognize the Declaration of Independence the day she joined them in the meeting house.”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“There’s room enough for different notions when it comes to charting our path through the wilderness. When the night is dark and full of treacherous footing.”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useful truth.”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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.

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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?).

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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.