Thursday, March 30, 2017

Book Review - The Mothers by Brit Bennett

In The Mothers, the reader follows 17 year old Nadia Turner, her family, and the church community in which her family are members, in their Southern California seaside town.  The church, called Upper Room, is led by a steady, serious, compassionate Pastor Sheppard.  His wife takes charge of the day-to-day running of the church, along with a team from the congregation.  The couple have a 21-year old son, Luke, who - at the opening of the novel - has had an experience that forced him to leave college and take work at a local beachside restaurant.

Nadia's mother has just died, and this tragedy affects her and her father in profound ways.  Her father becomes dedicated to helping out Upper Room in any way he can, because his wife loved the church so much.  He has a favorite pickup truck, and volunteers to transport/haul/etc. whenever someone has a need.  He is often out of the house, leaving Nadia to fend for herself.  In response to her mother's passing, she becomes wild and promiscuous, eventually forming a romantic relationship with Luke Sheppard.  Nadia eventually becomes pregnant, and the two must make a decision about what to do next.  The fallout from this decision follows them throughout their lives, and affects their friends, family, and ultimately all of Upper Room.

One of the interesting aspects of this novel is the author's use of Greek chorus.  At the beginning of each chapter this chorus, which is made up of the elder female members of Upper Room, comments vaguely on the action that will take place throughout the rest of the chapter.  The voice is terribly gossipy, judgmental, and quite accurately portrays the collective voice of "church ladies" who might be found in any modern congregation.

This Greek chorus is one source of the book's title.  They refer to themselves as "The Mothers" and are titled "Mother" instead of "Ms./Mrs." by Upper Room's other congregants.  Nadia herself becomes a mother during her relationship with Luke.  Nadia's deceased mother, as well as Luke's mother, loom large throughout the story, whether in memory or in the present.  There are many themes and incantations of mothers and mothering throughout the novel.

I also listened to this as an audiobook, and I would highly recommend it.  The narrator does a superb job of voicing children, men, teenagers, women, and especially the Greek chorus.  I had no problem deciphering between characters, or keeping up with the plot, because the narration was so engaging.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Mothers, and was intrigued not only by its storytelling techniques but also how the author treated the relationships between parents and children, men and women, and church culture.  It demonstrates how acutely a decision can affect not only the people who make it, but their entire community.

Librorum annis

Monday, March 27, 2017

Book Review - Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada

Trying to categorize, or even fully understand, Memoirs of a Polar Bear is an exercise in frustration and futility.  On the surface (and on the back cover) it is advertised as the fictional memoirs of three generations in a family of polar bears.  However, what is really going on is far stranger, more complex, and more muddled than I ever anticipated.

Despite the straightforwardness of the premise - fictional memoirs of polar bears - I found the actual story very difficult to make sense of.  It is organized in three sections, one for each bear generation, and each section is radically different from each other.  The first, "The Grandmother: An Evolutionary Theory", focuses on the earliest of the three generations of polar bears.  Although the bear herself is unnamed, the world in which she exists is portrayed in detail...and this is where things begin to get weird.

The "grandmother bear" is born and grows up in the USSR, raised by a bear trainer and works in a circus.  The world itself is presented in a realist way, but with one crucial difference - animals and humans live amongst each other and can hold conversations.  The way that animals and humans interact with each other is so seamless and natural, without a hint of fear or awkwardness.  In fact, the polar bear lives in an apartment complex with lots of other people, and visits the landlady for vodka.  The bear eventually leaves the circus, attends conferences around the Soviet Bloc countries, and finally decides to write her memoir.  A memoir that is published by a man named Sea Lion and his independent press.  A memoir that, when it becomes popular, allows the polar bear to live in exile in West Germany and then move to Canada.  In Canada, the bear meets her "husband", with whom they have a cub named Tosca and move back to Germany.

Part two, titled "The Kiss of Death" is about Tosca and her life in a circus.  Unlike the previous section, this is primarily narrated by Barbara, a human who works in the circus and, later, in an act with Tosca.  This story is really more about Barbara's life, and only mentions Tosca tangentially.  Although Barbara and Tosca do have some form of communication, it is not as outright and prevalent as was the case with the "grandmother polar bear".  It is clear that Tosca is a bear - no ambiguity about the species here.  The title refers to a circus trick where Barbara puts a sugar cube on her tongue, and Tosca would come and take it from her, thereby appearing as though they're kissing.  At the end of the section, Tosca talks about meeting a bear named Lars, with whom she has two cubs - one of which is named Knut.

Part three is called "Memories of the North Pole", and explores the relationship between the polar bear Knut and his handler at the Berlin Zoo, Matthias.  There is no conversation between these two at all, but sometimes when Matthias is asleep, he dreams about talking with Knut.  He devotes his life to caring for Knut, who was born prematurely and needs regular feeding and medical care.  Tosca abandoned her cub at birth, and she explains that it was done to allow her to work on her own writing.  Matthias creates a bond with Knut that is very much like a mother and her son.  Knut is at his calmest and happiest when Matthias is there, and he suffers greatly when Matthias dies suddenly of a heart attack.

My experience of reading Memoirs of a Polar Bear, especially the first section, was incredible frustration.  The presented landscape is realistic and rooted in the world as it really was, yet the characters are a mixture of humans and animals who can communicate with each other.  I kept going back and forth about whether the characters were metaphors or not.  Was the polar bear writing what I was reading?  Was any of this really happening?  From one page to the next, the reader is left unsure of exactly what is going on.  I actually wrote lots of notes (on sticky-tabs, because I read a library copy) to myself about what I thought was happening at the time, to try and figure it out.  I still haven't figured it out.

Were the characters all animals?  Were they representative of people?  Did the characters (especially in the first section) see themselves as animals, but were viewed by everyone else as humans?  Was it all of the above?  Through this inconclusiveness and intermingling, was the author proposing that animals and humans are really one in the same - not so different from each other?  Was it a treatise on animal rights?  The "grandmother bear" makes constant references to her "paw-hand" and her "snout", which would seem to indicate animal-hood, but perhaps she is a woman who sees herself in a more animalistic light.  Or perhaps the author is invoking bear imagery that is associated with the USSR.  There is no clarity or consistency with these references, so the reader is left to make his/her own conclusions.  There are so many questions, yet the author doesn't even suggest that one may be possible over another.

Where the book truly succeeds is in giving a rich, interior life to a species that are often feared and hunted.  The polar bears are shown as having desires, disappointments, needs, hopes, and love.  Through this, the reader is encouraged to feel empathy for the three main characters.  Where the book fails is in its inconsistent use of the bizarre and ambiguous.  There was a lack of internal connection and consistency that hindered the overall story and its impact.  I will freely state that I have no problem reading books where I have no idea what's going on.  What I do find problematic is where that technique is used as a trope, and doesn't serve (or even muddles) the overall story.  If the bizarre is used for its own sake, I don't care for it.  That was, unfortunately, my experience in Memoirs of a Polar Bear.

Librorum annis

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Book Review & Thoughts - Frantumaglia by Elena Ferrante

Frantumaglia is a collection of letters, interviews, and other correspondence between the author Elena Ferrante, her editors, and fans/journalists/artists.  It was at the suggestion of her editors in fact, Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, that this book even came to fruition.  It chronicles the time from when her first book, Troubling Love was published in Italy (1992), through the publication of the final installment in the Neapolitan Quartet, The Story of the Lost Child in America in 2015.  All of the writings were originally in Italian, but have been translated into English by Ferrante's exclusive English translator - Anne Goldstein.

For fans of Ferrante's work, this book gives insights into the themes she has explored, as well as some recommendations of authors whom she finds inspiring and formative.  For readers who are new to Ferrante, this correspondence demonstrates the thoughtful and precise way she utilizes language.  Her writing style isn't particularly poetic or fluid, but is incredibly well-crafted.  She puts so much thought and care into every phrase, and that is part of why I find it so addicting to read. 

Because this book includes transcripts of decades’-worth of interviews, there are some recurring questions.  The most frequent one regards the author's identity.  It is widely known that Elena Ferrante is a pen name, and the user of that nom de plume has taken great pains to ensure that her true identity is concealed.  She does not take part in any in-person or audio interviews, and requires all correspondence to be funneled through her editors.  Because of this, the media (especially the Italian literary media) have made it their mission to "uncover" the true identity of Elena Ferrante.  As recently as October, 2016 (long after Frantumaglia was published) an Italian article was published that purports to have uncovered Elena Ferrante's true identity, going so far as to obtain (through what means..?) financial documents that show unusually large transactions between a publisher, an author, and a translator - to give weight to the claim.  In what universe do people care so much about the identity of an author that they would go to such extremes?  To what extent is an artist allowed privacy and the choice of a non-public life?

This cult of discovery is troubling on many levels.  First, once one releases a work of art into the world, is that person then obligated to have any further involvement in the work?  There seems to exist, in some perspectives, an umbilical connection between a work and its creator, that the personality branding of the person who wrote the book must carry some weight on the book itself.  I also wonder how much attention there would be if the pen name of the author was masculine - Emilio Ferrante, let’s say.  There runs an undercurrant of sexism here – suggesting that this writer must be revealed because it is so difficult to believe a woman capable of creating such a vivid and expansive world.  In a culture where fame is seen as the pinnacle of a career, for someone to eschew such recognition may be difficult to understand. 

Over and over again, interviewers make comparisons between her and famous Italian authors, and ask if she and those other authors are the same person.  She never answers these questions, nor gives any particular details that might clarify any part of her identity.  In fact, she, at one point, tells her editors that she may follow writer Italo Calvino's lead and freely answer questions…but not with the truth.  That is part of what is so interesting about Frantumaglia - you can try to read the personal into her answers, but ultimately what matters is the creative process and its products.  Wondering whether characters, descriptions, or plots in any of her stories are autobiographical is a waste of energy.  She believes wholeheartedly that the author's job comes to an end once the writing is complete.  It shouldn't matter who the author is, as long as the story explores some greater truth.  

Librorum annis

Monday, March 20, 2017

The "For the Love of Classics" Book Tag

Recently, BookTuber Ang (BeyondThePages) and Yamini (TheSkepticalReader) created a book tag called "For the Love of Classics", and I couldn't resist taking it on.  Although my reading has shifted more towards new releases and modern classics, I still occasionally read more historically relevant books.  I should note that, in my education and experience, when I refer to "classics", I am necessarily referring to those of the Western Cannon.  I am working to widen my reading to areas not typically represented in this body of work, but it is most definitely still a work in progress.  With that in mind, here we go...

Question 1: Why do you read classics, and how often do you read them?

Until about 8 years ago, I read almost exclusively classics.  I didn't yet have an outlet with information about new releases, and most of the books that I found in bookshops were not the caliber of writing I was looking for.  I read them, and continue to read them, because my education told me that they were Important and in order to be well-read I needed to read as many classics as I could.

Now that I have the Internet and a wealth of riches for book info, I read classics to get a sense of what life may have been like in a society from long ago.  I read classics for the characters and the conflict, for the portrayal of relationships and real life.  I also read them, remembering that at one point in history these were new releases, and it makes me wonder what books from our modern society will be considered amongst the classics in 100 years time.

Question 2: What is a period/country/culture of which you haven't read many classics, but would like to?

Because my background in reading the classics is from a Western perspective, I would really like to read books that are considered African classics, Asian classics, and Middle Eastern classics.  Most of the books I've read from these areas have been published fairly recently, and therefore probably wouldn't count as classics.

Question 3: What modern book do you think will be a classic in 100 years' time?

I certainly hope that at least one of Toni Morrison books becomes a classic.  My favorites are Beloved and Sula, but they all speak to our modern society with its advantages and despair.  Even more recent than Toni, I hope that Zadie Smith's books become classics, because of her exploration of life, family, and the relationships that sustain and vex us.

Question 4: What was the last classic you read?

It was my first read of 2017, but the last book I read, that I'd consider to be a classic was A London Child of the 1870's by Molly Hughes.  It is a short non-fiction book, published by Persephone Books,  detailing the author's life as a young child in the later part of the 19th Century.

Question 5: What was the first classic you ever read?

I was a child before there were so many genre distinctions between children's books and adult fiction.  "Middle-Grade", "Young Adult", and other such genres didn't exist in the publishing world yet, so once I graduated beyond picture books and basic reading books, I dove headfirst into classics, mostly of the British and American persuasion.  I don't remember my first, but some of my earliest reads were The Red Badge of Courage, The Scarlet Letter, Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, and Great Expectations.

Question 6: Your favorite classic book cover

As a whole set, I just love the Penguin Drop Caps series books with their bright, colorful covers.  As individual books, I adore the Folio Society covers, with their beautiful production and attention to detail.  I don't yet own any Folio Society books, but some that I would love to have one day would be Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Question 7: What classic authors do you wish had written more books?

John Steinbeck, Irene Nemirovsky, Mollie Panter-Downes, Sylvia Plath, and Katherine Mansfield

Question 8: What is your least favorite classic?

When I read it (admittedly, many years ago) I absolutely hated The Red Badge of Courage because I absolutely despised the behavior of the main character.  I haven't re-read it, but if I did - I wonder if I would feel the same, now that I'm a great deal older and have so much more life experience than I did back then.

Question 9: What is your favorite translated classic?

I don't have a particular book, but I'm so grateful for the Russian classics that have been translated into English, so that I can have the opportunity to read them - The Trial by Franz Kafka, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakakov, and many others.

Question 10: What is your favorite modern classic (published after 1900)?

I believe that, in a century's time, the oeuvre of Toni Morrison will be studied in schools and read widely.  My favorite of all of her books is Beloved.  It explores American slavery, family relationships, and includes a bit of magical realism - truly an amazing and inspired work of fiction that speaks so much truth.

Question 11: What classic literary places would you like to visit?

I've been to London once, but I would absolutely love to go back and explore neighborhoods that were mentioned in books of classic literature.  I spent some time in/around Concord, MA retracing the steps of Alcott, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Emerson but would love to go back and explore even more.  Many of the authors' houses are open for tours, and are full of artifacts and ephemera from their lives and writings.
A beautiful day at Walden Pond

Question 12: What is the first classic you would recommend to a child?

I would recommend something that would now be classified as Young Adult - Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery,  The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.

Question 13: What classics do you think are mistitled?  What would you re-name them?

There is a feminist classic, written by Mary Wollstonecraft, called A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.  It was written in 1792, during the time of the French Revolution, but was for a British audience who were worried about the effects of such a revolution on their own soil.  Based on the title, a reader may be inclined to believe that this a a feminist polemic, in the style of the feminism of the our modern era.  However, that is incorrect.  The gist of Wollstonecraft's essay is that women, who received little to no structured education, should be educated rationally so that they can contribute to society.  The prevailing notion was that women were incapable of thinking in a rational, logical way so that it was pointless to send them to schools.  Therefore, I would rename Wollstonecraft's text A Vindication on the Educational Rights of Woman.

Question 14: What is your favorite classic that you'd like to recommend to everyone?

If you haven't read it already, go get yourself a copy of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.  You won't regret it.

That's it for the "For the Love of Classics" tag.  If you're interested in answering some interesting questions about classic books, then consider yourself tagged!

Librorum annis

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Bringing Home the Books: Strand Bookstore & A Library Book Sale

This week has been a great one for acquiring books - not only did my local library hold its quarterly book sale, but my order from The Strand Bookstore in NYC arrived!  In total, I added 10 new books to my shelves. I'm certainly excited to read them, but I'm also excited to share them with you -

  • Faber & Faber 1984 edition of T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats
  • The Martian by Andy Weir
  • Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
  • Book of the Month Club edition of Jade Chang's The Wangs vs the World
  • Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson
  • The David Foster Wallace Reader (including selections from many of his works)
  • Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

From The Strand, I placed an order for three books
  • Frances Spalding's 1984 biography of Virginia Woolf's sister, and artistic phenom, Vanessa Bell
  • Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Seeing Power, by Nato Thompson

I first heard about the Vanessa Bell biography on a Persephone Books blog post from February 1, 2017 , and knew I needed to find it...luckily at a very reasonable price.  I don't know how clear it is in the photo above, but this book has seen some life and love - the cover is quite badly ripped, but the text inside is in great condition.  I had pre-ordered Chimamanda's book, a long-form essay about raising children to be inclusive and rooted in equality, because she was doing an event at The Strand, and my book would be autographed.  Also autographed is Nato Thompson's cultural criticism of what it means to make meaningful art in the consumer-capitalist era.

Have you bought or acquired any new books recently?  Anything you're particularly excited to start reading?

Librorum annis

Monday, March 13, 2017

Book Review - To Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski

"Happy are they that go to bed with grand music, like Pythagoras, or have ways to compose the fantastical spirit, whose unruly wanderings take off inward sleepe".  So writes Sir Thomas Browne in his essay "On Dreams", and whose words accurately describe the main character in Marghanita Laski's wartime novel, To Bed with Grand Music.

Kali will go to bed anywhere, whether there's grand music or not!

When the reader first meets Deborah, she is bidding farewell to her husband Graham, leaving for WW2 military duty in Cairo.  As they are parting, Graham hopes that Deborah will be faithful to him while he is gone, but confesses outright that he will not be.  He rationalizes to her, "God alone knows how long I may be stuck in Mid-East, and it's no good saying I can do with a woman for three or four years, because I can't.  But I promise that I'll never let myself fall in love with anyone else, and I'll never sleep with anyone who could possibly fill your place in any part of my life" (pg 2).

As the first months without her husband drag on, Deborah finds herself bored and restless, so she decides to go to London to find a job, something to do, and have some fun.  As you might suspect, Deborah doesn't have much maternal instinct, and she relies heavily on the housekeeper, Mrs. Chalmers, to raise Timmy.  In fact, when she goes to London, Deborah dumps Timmy on the housekeeper during the week and only comes home on weekends to spend time with him.  Her thoughts turn to him only occasionally, and even that diminishes over time.

She first shares an apartment with a girlhood friend, Madeline, who is living an enviable life in London.  Madeline goes out most every night with different men, eating lavish meals, drinking, dancing, and enjoying the contraband gifts they can give her.  Because this is wartime, things like hosiery, perfume, makeup, alcohol, and fashionable clothing are unavailable or cost a hefty sum.  However, the men seem to be able to produce these goods without too much discernible effort.  The key is in getting the man, according to Madeline.  At first, Deborah plays the part of the dutiful wife, working her London job during the day and staying in the flat at night.  However, she has been in competition with Madeline since they were girls, and she wants to have fun and get the attention Madeline gets, yet knows that she is a wife and mother and should maybe be behaving as such.  This all changes when she meets Peter, a wildly handsome Brit.

Madeline, her beau Robert, Deborah, and Peter double-date at a swanky club.  After awhile, and after many drinks, Deborah ends up back at Peter's apartment where they share a few more drinks and, high on the attention she's getting from this man and the effects of the alcohol, they spend the night together.  She's hungover and horrified at her behavior the next morning, but not enough to make any kind of permanent change.  In fact, this begins a 2-year spree of Deborah sleeping her way around London.

After Peter, she has affairs with a few American servicemen who are temporarily stationed in London.  Joe is shockingly like her husband; his wife is expecting their first child, so he and Deborah talk a great deal about parenthood, and grow closer emotionally and physically.  They keep a pseudo-marriage relationship for month, and it is ended only by Joe's transfer.  The other American is Sheldon, a man quite the opposite of Joe.  He isn't interested in a lasting relationship with Deborah, only a companion for dining, dancing, and his bed.  After that, one of Madeline's previous men, a Frenchman named Pierre, seeks Deborah out.  They begin an affair that marks a turning point in Deborah's life.

Pierre was initially attracted to her because of her naivete and authenticity, which was different from most of his other London experiences.  Deborah, conversely, wanted him to educate her in the art of seduction.  She wanted to lose herself and become a girl who's only purpose is to please men and receive attention and gifts in return.  This demonstrates just how much she has changed since the novel began.  She disliked Graham for declaring outright that he would have affairs when he was away, and now she is being secretly, serially unfaithful to him.

Pierre, although fully disgusted with the woman Deborah has become, is willing to give her a "crash course" in the ways a mistress should dress, what she should eat and drink, and other kinds of style and form to attract a man - the way to behave as a prostitute outside of the bedroom.  He eventually breaks the affair and introduces Deborah to a Brazilian named Luis Vardas, a man who is willing to teach her the kinds of athletics she wants to learn.  Luis finishes what Deborah and Pierre began; her transition to a whore is complete.  She is, fundamentally, no longer the same woman she was.  The novel ends with Deborah meeting a young woman, newly relocated to London in search of work, much like Deborah herself used to be.  The reader is left to assume that she leads the woman down the same path of moral loss, like Madeline did for Deborah.

Throughout the novel, the author makes interesting statements about British life during WW2.  Deborah's home village is always seen as a safe place, somewhere she could escape from the complexities and stresses of life in London.  During The Blitz, many families made the difficult decision to send their children out to the country, often times staying with complete strangers or friends-of-friends-of-the-family in the hope that they wouldn't be bombed by the Axis Powers.  Deborah, instead, leaves this safety and security for what she thinks will be the excitement and adventure of London.  Her concerns are almost entirely for herself, while she leaves her very young son at home with Mrs. Chalmers.  She would rather play at the single life in the big city than accept and embrace her parental duties at home.  It's possible to think that Deborah was just enjoying herself while she was still young...she was married to a man that she didn't wholly know and accepted a life that she didn't entirely want.  But, in truth, she was ignoring her responsibilities - almost pretending they don't exist.  When she does go home to visit Timmy, she focuses on showing him a good time and devoting attention to him, but when she goes back to London, it is up entirely on Mrs. Chalmers to raise, discipline, educate, and fully raise the child.  She is much more of a mother to him than Deborah.

When reading about Deborah's various affairs, it's worth considering why the author chose the specific nationalities for the men as she did.  She and her husband are both British, and the first man she sleeps with is also British - and in many ways similar to her husband.  She is having an affair that allows her to, with some mental and moral gymnastics, to feel as though she isn't cheating at all.  It would be interesting to think if their affair would have continued, and therefore if she would have had any of the other experiences that she ends up having, if Peter hadn't been called away.  The next two men are both Americans but have very different in temperaments.  One is interested in developing a real relationship, with romance and intimacy in addition to the sex.  The other man is purely interested in Deborah in a physical way.  The next man is French, and regarded as an expert in what a mistress should be and do.  The French are stereotypically seen as being hedonistic, interested in worldly pleasures of food, wine, and romance, so it seems like the author is playing into those stereotypes here.  The next man, a Brazilian, is seen as someone with so much sexual prowess that an affair with him would be like earning a university degree in the subject.  The final man who is specifically mentioned in the cavalcade is Ken, who worked with Deborah's husband in Egypt during the war.  He comes bearing a package of trinkets for Deborah and Timmy to enjoy, and wants to get to know her because of how highly her husband had talked about her.  They spend an evening together, and she brings him back to her apartment and seduces him.  In the morning, he feels taken in by her and has a complete revulsion to her.  It seems that Ken functions as a "substitute Graham", because his response to her loose sexual behavior affects her much more deeply than have any of the other men she's slept with.  She doesn't care about their opinions, but Ken's opinion matters a great much so that she takes tremendous action (much of it using behavior she assumedly learned from Pierre) to change Ken's mind about what kind of woman she is.  He doesn't forget what she has done, but is willing to see her in a more favorable light as he departs.

One of the most interesting things that the author does in To Bed with Grand Music is  challenge the dominant and enduring narrative of what people were like during WW2, especially Londoners during The Blitz.  When modern audiences think about life during this time in history, we think of people sacrificing luxuries for The Greater Good, keeping the home fires burning, and being friendly and restrained.  This book shows that, in truth, life couldn't have been like that.  Men and women still crave attention, and some people may be willing to take moral lapses in order to obtain it.  While many things were rationed or banned, if one knew the right person you could get just about anything you wanted.  People who were selfish and self-centered before the war weren't much different during it.  There was some sense of community, but not nearly to the level that history would have us believe.

Overall, To Bed with Grand Music was a surprising and thought-provoking read.  The author tackles a subject, marital fidelity during wartime, and does so in interesting ways.  Through the women and men that Deborah meets, she learns something that contributes to her moral decline and fall.  It gives the reader pause to see if he/she would, if found in similar circumstances and of a similar age, behave in the ways that Deborah does.  She has a fantastical spirit - to almost a childish level - and her life takes many unruly wanderings.  Deborah is entirely happy to go to bed with grand music.

Librorum annis

Thursday, March 9, 2017

What Would Be In My Book Box

This past Sunday, BookRiot posted a video on their YouTube channel, asking readers - "What would you put in your book subscription box"?  There are so many different subscription boxes out there, and now most major bookshops have their own subscription boxes.  Each of these services has bits and pieces that I like, and also some things that I don't.  My ideal box would have to take publisher, genre, accessories, and frequency into unique account.


I find myself actively avoiding books on "bestseller" lists.  The more stickers there are on the cover, the less likely I am to buy it.  Part of this resistance comes from the concerns I have about the criteria that go into selecting which books appear on those lists.  Is the fact that a book is selling well a determination of its quality?  What kind of sales data are used?  Who exactly is compiling it?  Another part of my uneasiness about bestsellers is that they haven't had much time in the world.  Because most of them are brand new releases (only perennial favorites like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Handmaid's Tale seem to reappear on these lists with any frequency), all that I know about these books is based collectively on industry hype, advertising, and advanced reader reviews.  On more than one occasion I've bought into this hype and purchased a book of which I was convinced I would love, only to be thoroughly disappointed by it.  Sometimes the books are written in a style that is too simplistic for my taste.  Sometimes the characters lack depth, complication, or authenticity.  Sometimes the plot is too rigid or overly simplistic, constraining an otherwise interesting and engaging story to fit a particular mold.  Sometimes it's a combination of these things that leads me to dislike a book.  When I look at my shelves now, I see that these books tend (but are not exclusively) to be published by the larger publishing companies.

I am more often gobsmacked by books published by smaller, independent presses.  These publishers, often organized around certain ideals or missions, are more willing and able to take risks in the works they bring into the world.  I am forever indebted to Wave Books and Graywolf Press for bringing the works of Maggie Nelson into my life.  Europa Editions, focuses on publishing English translations of foreign non-fiction, fiction, and crime writing, has brought many diverse voices Melville House has published some widely-regarded and popular books, but it's their focus on the artistic, political, and social-justice works that really distinguish them.  Then, there are the micro-presses; these very small publishers, often releasing only a few books every year, who are making really interesting contributions to the literary world.  Because of their small output, these publishers are picking only the works about which they feel especially strong.  Bellevue Literary Press' recent publication Talking Back Talking Black explores a tentacle of racism that many people don't recognize - linguistic racism...the way we judge people based on how they speak, and the cultural and geopolitical history that directly impacts the language that people acquire.  These tiny publishers take special care in the making of their books, and that care translates into the quality of the written word, as well as the book as an object.

Therefore, for my subscription box I would select my books only from micro-presses.  My subscription box would strive to bring more awareness to the diverse and quiet voices that rarely get attention.


When it comes to books, I read and love books in many genres - literary fiction, non-fiction, essay collections, poetry, and many more.  One common thread is that the works speak, in some way, to the world in which we live now.  That doesn't mean that a science fiction work must include social media, or that a non-fiction book has to focus on a prominent political movement in order to be considered.  It does mean that the work should, within whatever genre the writer selects, challenge the dominant narrative in society.  Encouraging empathy through the writing would be a premium.

My subscription box would include works from any genre, but they would challenge the reader and encourage him/her to look at the world in new and different ways.


Most subscription boxes on the market today are organized around a theme.  They do not just provide the customer with a book, but also some related accessories.  Maybe it's a letter written by the book's author, a candle whose scent is meant to evoke a mental image, a piece of jewelry that relates in some way to the book, or a tote bag with a quote from the book screen-printed onto it.  Maybe the book is autographed by the author.  These are well and good, but I would like my box to include something more interesting.  A piece of art (painting, craftwork, small sculpture), commissioned from an artist in response to the selected book, would be a thoughtful accompaniment.

What about a snack?  Depending on where the box is shipped, and the season, I'd have to think about foods spoiling, melting, or freezing.  Chocolate would be a delicious choice, but not in the summertime.  Also, those with specific food allergies and/or diets may be hesitant about subscribing. Keeping these two important points in mind, I think my subscription box will not include food.

Therefore, my subscription box would contain the following accessories - a mug printed with the cover of the book, a small tin of coffee/tea/cocoa, an original painting/print that is in response to the selected book, and the author's signature on the book itself.


As many subscription services as there are in existence, there are options for how often they are shipped.  Book of the Month Club, as you might surmise, ships every month.  That kind of operation involves a lot of preparation, planning, and logistics.  With a new subscription offer like mine, a monthly frequency would be too much.  Not to mention that, with bookish subscription services, there is a pseudo-assumption at work that your subscribers are finishing the current book before the next one is received.  Giving space between the shipments is like giving your readers space to process the work, while remembering that the subscribers are people living in the modern world.  It also allows for the artisans, contributing to the contents of the boxes, time to engage fully in their artistic process.

Keeping in mind the subscribers, the authors, as well as the artisans, I believe the right frequency is to ship my bookish subscription box every four months.

The Box

Every four months, subscribers would receive a hand-selected, autographed book, published by a micro-press, along with a craft or piece of artwork that was made specifically in response to the book, a mug printed with the book's cover, and a small quantity of tea/coffee/cocoa.  Now, if only this was for real...

Librorum annis

Monday, March 6, 2017

Book Review - Relish by Lucy Knisley

This graphic memoir is made up of vignettes and stories from the life of artist and foodie Lucy Kinsley.  Whether it's her time spent helping her chef mother on catering jobs, traveling around Europe with her food snob father, or forging her own culinary world as a college student in Chicago, Lucy shares how food and family have influenced her life.   

For a reader who is a food/cooking novice, there are stories and characters with whom you'll immediately sympathize.  One of Lucy's college friends, learning to cook for the first time, makes a barely-edible concoction called Lemonade Chicken, involving basting chicken with frozen lemonade concentrate.  It ends up becoming an inside joke between them, and something that bonded their friendship for years to come.

For a reader who is experienced with foods and cooking, especially the farm-to-table/locavore movement, there are stories and character's with whom you'll connect as well.  Lucy's mother, after divorcing her father, moves upstate New York and makes the most of it by growing a spectacular kitchen garden.  She works with local farmers and producers, and together they make the Rhinebeck region a destination for those interested in artisan food products made by skilled culinary and agricultural craftspeople.  Her mother also is shown whipping up all kinds of interesting creations in the kitchen, and Lucy devouring just about all of it.  She gives her daughter an appreciation of good food, but also of the pride in making food yourself.

Overall, this is a really fun and insightful memoir of a life in and around food.  In addition to the interesting stories Lucy shares, she provides recipes for many of the foods she describes.  I'm especially interested in making the masala chai concentrate, which looks spicy and delicious.  I would recommend not reading this book on an empty stomach, because you'll definitely want a snack before it's over. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

February Reading Wrap Up

February is Black History Month, and at the beginning of the month I challenged myself to read only books written by black women.  I've been continuing to read only books written by women as part of my Winter of Women Project, and this was an added level of challenge for me...and I was mostly successful with it!  Out of the 8 books I read in February, only two were not written by black women.   One of these two books was a re-read, and the other was a poetry collection I had started reading in January, and carried over into February.

Here are the books I read this month.  If I reviewed the book on this blog, I'll link to it.  Otherwise, I'll include a brief review of it here.

  • White Teeth by Zadie Smith (fiction, ebook) - REVIEW
  • Love Is Love by various artists & writers (graphic novel compendium) - REVIEW
  • The Late Wife by Claudia Emerson (poetry, paper) - A heartbreaking portrayal of a love that has ended, with the two lovers finding new paths apart.  The poet takes up the cause of the micro-change, using incremental life adjustments to discuss greater emotional realities.
  • Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith (novella, audiobook) - Full of beautiful and emotionally charged prose, Glaciers presents one day in the life of Isabel, a woman in her late 20's living in Portland, OR.  She works as a damaged books librarian with a small group of others in a library.  The way that her life is presented through mostly flashbacks, Isabel is herself a glacier - only a small portion of who she is floats above the surface.  There is so much more to her just below.
  • Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly (nonfiction, ebook) - A beautifully written and painstakingly researched account of the lives and careers of three brilliant, pioneering, African American women mathematicians whose contributions to aeronautics and space exploration may have been otherwise lost to history.  The work frames these women and their achievements with the greater societal pressures and expectations of the decades in which these women worked, including the arcane Jim Crow segregation laws.
  • Like One of the Family by Alice Childress (fiction, paper) - REVIEW
  • Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston (fiction, paper) - A collection of 100 pieces of African American folklore and storytelling recorded between 1928 and 1932 by the author.  She focuses on the area in and around Eatonville, FL where she grew up, and New Orleans in Louisiana.
  • Freedom Is a Constant Struggle by Angela Y. Davis (nonfiction, audiobook) - Angela Davis is a leading and historical figure in the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, as well as being an outspoken Communist and Feminist.  She has inspired countless individuals to rise up and take action against injustice and in support of freedom for all.  Her book, FREEDOM IS A CONSTANT STRUGGLE, is a collection of interviews, conversations, essays, and speeches that tackle the concept of freedom in different ways.  The audiobook is narrated by the author, which lends an extra depth to the material being discussed.

Just about 75% of my February reading was by women of color, which is great, but didn't quite meet my goal of 100% women of color authors for Black History Month.  However, I read some really fantastic books this month, and found authors whose work I will definitely continue reading in the future.  I'm already looking forward to what books await me in March - Women's History Month!

Librorum annis