In search of something light

Looking for a book to lighten my mood, I tried and discarded a number of candidates, from contemporary and historical rom-coms to fantasies to classic mysteries. Nothing held my attention for long: too crude, too contrived, too anachronistic, too dated. Would I ever find something to brighten up my reading life?

A couple of tried and true favorites came to the rescue: Margery Sharp (the appropriately named Something Light) and Barbara Pym (Jane and Prudence). Compared to the plodding and half-literate writing I sometimes come across in popular fiction of today, these two ladies always write with real style and distinction, but not a touch of pretention. Perfect light reading that does not insult the intelligence, if you can look past the mid-century assumptions about gender roles.

I’ve taken a long break from Jane Austen retellings, but I also tried a couple of those — and found  Unmarriageable to be a worthy entry in this overcrowded genre, as well as an addition for my Reading All Around the World project. Soniah Kamal has updated the story of Pride and Prejudice to twenty-first-century Pakistan, a setting that is in some ways very far away from Austen’s and in other ways very close, with a similar pressure on women to marry, rigid social rules and codes, and tension between outer wealth and inner moral worth. The updates of the characters are fun to follow; even their names are entertaining.

Just a few things felt off to me: what was perhaps meant as sardonic wit from Alys, the Lizzie Bennett character, came across as too harsh and angry; the Mr. Collins character was too positively portrayed, being wealthy, successful, and generous instead of a sycophantic creep; and it was beyond the bounds of belief that Alys, a high school English teacher who opens the novel with a lesson on P&P, would not notice that her life has started to uncannily resemble her favorite book.

Otherwise it was a literary romp that also gave a fascinating view into life, and especially marriage customs, in Pakistan. I especially loved how at the end every single female character got her own business or profession at which to shine. That’s the kind of update I like to see!

Have you found any light reading lately to lift your spirits?

Coming through: Recent releases about trauma and recovery

Lately, I’ve read a number of books about trauma, abuse, and the therapies leading to healing and recovery. I find this such a fascinating and important topic, because (as is pointed out in The Body Keeps the Score), even if we are not personally victims of abuse, when it is not properly treated, it ripples through society and causes damage on every level. It affects every one of us, and only through raising our awareness and compassion can it be addressed. The following books, with their personal narratives of difficult experiences, can help with that.

Catherine Cho, Inferno (Henry Holt, August 2020)

I find it amazing that Catherine Cho is able to so eloquently describe such a traumatic experience: her descent into postpartum psychosis, and her involuntary hospitalization when she began to hallucinate and hear voices saying her baby had to die. With remarkable self-awareness, yet conveying powerfully the fragmented state of psychosis, she takes us through this terrifying story, a difficult but necessary one to hear.

Moving back and forth in time, we also learn of her past abuse by her father and a former boyfriend (not her current husband); her suffering through the societally sanctioned abuse of  a medicalized birth; and of how her in-laws continue to burden her with their anxiety, fear, and criticism. Pregnancy and birth is a precarious time, not well carried in our society, and previous unhealed trauma can make it a dangerous one — although, oddly, nobody in this book seems to attempt to look into Catherine’s past, or make a connection between these experiences and her psychosis. Drugs and waiting for time to pass are all they have to offer. I do not know much about this field in particular, but it seems to me there is a large gap in understanding to be filled here.

After her harrowing journey through hell, Catherine comes to a tenuous recovery at the end, but there seems to be more healing needed for her, and I hope she will find it. No story of recovery is ever really over; given the brilliant writing in this book, it would be good to hear more about this one.

Catherine Gildiner, Good Morning, Monster (St. Martin’s Press, September 2020)

This is an inspiring and humbling book — five stories of people who came through childhood neglect and abuse, repairing a damaged sense of self and bravely reconnecting to the world and other people. If I get upset about anything that happens to me, I just have to think of what they endured, and try to emulate their strength and courage. Written by a therapist, this book gives an interesting glimpse into the therapeutic process, including failures and setbacks along the way, and the path to recovery and renewal.

While this can be extremely valuable for those going through similar issues, it also made me a little uncomfortable at times. There is a voyeuristic element in looking through the private window into someone’s life, witnessing such horrible things. We are meant to empathize with them, but there is also a kind of distancing that can be disturbing. How can we truly understand another person’s suffering, how can we possibly treat it with enough reverence and respect? This includes the author’s own abusive upbringing, which she reveals at the end in an oddly naive way, not seeming to fully realize how much it mirrors her own patients’ inability to recognize what they have been subjected to. It made me wonder if she herself needed therapy more than she realized.

That said, this is a fascinating, compulsively readable book which gives a glimpse of true heroism, of the noble side of humanity that lurks in the darkest places. We need such images today.

Julie Andrews Edwards, Home (Hachette, 2008)  and Home Work (2019)

The word “abuse” may not be immediately associated with the name “Julie Andrews” in your mind. Her sunny, joyful soprano voice seems made to banish darkness and pain, not born out of them. Yet her youth was not easy, as she reveals in her first memoir Home. At an early age her parents separated, and she was taken away from her beloved “Dad” to live with her mother and an alcoholic, sexually predatory stepfather. The couple were aspiring performers, and when young Julie’s amazing voice manifested she became part of their act. In fact, her success soon outstripped theirs and as soon as she was legally able to leave school her mother put her to work full time, regardless of her wishes.

Andrews relates all of this with frankness but also without malice or resentment; she seems to have accepted her role of supporting the family, both financially and emotionally. She gives a fascinating picture of her early life and first successes as a performer  — in the shows The Boy Friend, My Fair Lady, and Camelot. For those who are interested in backstage theatre stories, hers are priceless.

The second volume, Home Work, was the one I actually read first, after I glimpsed the new hardcover last year in a bookstore in Gstaad, Switzerland — a place that Andrews fell in love with when she visited it many years ago, and that she has made her home. It’s not as compelling, but still interesting, as it goes into the Hollywood career, the time of Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, and her second marriage to the mercurial director Blake Edwards. Andrews seems concerned to protect her family here, and one senses there are difficulties that she does not describe. Her hectic rushing to and fro in the way of movie stars is quite painful to read about, and must have been hard on her children.

But one does still get a sense of her as a person of great integrity who has gone through suffering (assisted by therapy, which she credits with saving her life) and brought out of it beautiful art. Not an egoistic prima donna, she is modest about her own abilities and grateful to many who helped her along the way. We can be thankful to her in turn for sharing her story with us.

Inferno and Good Morning Monster were received as e-galleys from the publisher for review consideration through Netgalley. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.

Around the World Update

How’s it going with my Reading All Around the World project? At the beginning of the year, I was really inspired and read more than my goal of one per month. Lately I’ve drifted away from these international reads, but I’d really like to get back to them.

Here’s the list so far — in reverse order of my reading, starting with a new release this month.

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith (Sweden) — I requested this new book by the bestselling Swedish author from Netgalley because I thought it would be perfect for my project, but it turns out there is not much local color to it other than some jokes about “Stockholmers.” Still, I enjoyed this funny and character-full novel that starts off with a bank robbery gone wrong and romps a screwball comedy sort of path through some serious subjects, like divorce, suicide, depression and mental illness, and manages to be heartwarming rather than flippant or trivial. I’ll be looking for another book by Backman that may give me more of a sense of Swedish life.

Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye (Israel/Palestine) — Nye, an accomplished poet who is the daughter of a Palestinian father and American mother, drew on her own adolescent experiences for this novel about a girl whose family moves to Israel. Liyana’s adjustment to her new life and culture and her first experiences of friendship-turning-to-love with a Jewish boy are sensitively and poetically portrayed.

Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor (Ireland) — A historically inspired drama that moves back and forth between the famine-ridden Ireland and a ship taking emigrants away to America. To learn about the tragic history of that era was fascinating (though horrifying), but I was less impressed by the sometimes contrived and pretentious “literary” trappings. The “document collection” premise did not work so well as in O’Connor’s Shadowplay, which I loved; it was too unbelievable, which distracted and annoyed me rather than being a playful enhancement.

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain (Switzerland) — As I wrote already in my monthly review post, “I’ve no idea what connection British author Rose Tremain may have with Switzerland, or why she chose it as a setting for her novel, but from my foreigner’s point of view I think she did a good job at capturing some of the character of the Swiss, their strength and their vulnerability, and the conflicting realities behind the surface image that they like to present.”

In Pursuit of Disobedient Women by Dionne Searcey (various countries of West Africa, especially Nigeria and Senegal) — An interesting glimpse behind the scenes of a reporter’s life — the author was the West African bureau chief for the New York Times and was involved in covering the Boko Haram atrocities, among other fascinating but often overlooked stories. I was less taken with the portions about Searcey’s personal life, which I think could either have been given more consideration and thoughfulness, or left out altogether.

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sunya Massey (India) — I was not that impressed by this popular historical mystery about a woman lawyer in 1920s Bombay. There were many interesting things to learn about this era, but the characters fell flat for me.

Married to Bhutan by Linda Leaming (Bhutan) — A memoir by a woman who fell in love with the tiny mountain country and ended up spending her life there. Interesting as an outsider’s perspective, though it would be good to read more from a native-born writer.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Iceland) — Beautifully written, harrowing, and full of a sad awareness of the fragility of life, this left me with a real sense of what it would be like to live in 19th century Iceland — and extremely glad that I don’t have to.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (Korea/Japan) — Usually I try to choose books that primarily represent one country, but this one is about the intersection between countries and cultures, linked by war, cultural dominance, and emigration. I didn’t know about Korean immigrants as an underclass in Japan, and this multigenerational saga brought that history to life.

All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes by Maya Angelou (Ghana) — As part of her full and amazing life, Angelou spent some time living in Africa, looking for her roots and a sense of home there. This proved elusive, but her experiences are, as always, told in a marvelously colorful and humanly embracing way.

The House of the Spirits (translated by Magda Bogin) and My Invented Country (could not find the translator) by Isabel Allende (Chile) — Allende’s first novel is the one that put her on the literary map, a semi-autobiographical tale of a Chilean family in turbulent historical times, written in a dreamy, fanicful style known as “magical realism”. I actually enjoyed her memoir more, as it revisits some of the same settings and people as the novel but with a personal (and non-fantastical) perspective.

It’s been quite a trip! Have you read any of these? What other books from  countries I’ve not yet visited would you recommend?

Adventures in Reading: Three from Slightly Foxed

Do boys read differently than girls? There is lots of controversy and research on the subject, which I will not go into here. However, with my own boy-child I have found that even though I was determined that in our reading together he would not be limited to stereotypical “boy books,” and he has in fact enjoyed some of my childhood favorites including Anne of Green Gables, Heidi, and The Little White Horse, what he really loves are books about boys having exciting adventures and fighting bad guys. In spite of zero encouragement at home, an attraction to military tactics, weaponry, and large, powerful vehicles appears to be innate, so the best I can hope for is to guide this interest into as positive a direction as possible.

Fortunately, Slightly Foxed has come to the rescue, with some books that are absolutely perfect for his reading interests, and on a more elevated literary plane than Asterix and Obelix. (Girls may certainly like them too, but finding books for girls is not currently my problem.) As often happens, I started by reading to him but then he took them away from me because he couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. As long as his hunger for reading is stimulated, I don’t mind giving him a jump start.

The Little Grey Men by B.B. was a big success a few years ago. A group of gnomes leave their home on the banks of the Thames to go in search of their missing brother, giving rise to excellent opportunities for adventure. Stories about small beings braving the dangers of a hostile environment, with cleverness and persistence out-doing brute strength, are very appealing to children, and the little men amply satisfy that need.

Though a story about gnomes may sound fanciful, it is firmly grounded in the world we know; the book provides a vivid depiction of the natural setting and an unsentimental attitude toward the harsh realities of life, along with the humor and magic that children also adore. The Slightly Foxed Cubs edition, published along with two companion books, includes the indispensable illustrations by the author himself, which bring this enchanting world to life in exquisite detail. The set would be a marvelous addition to any family library.

Right now, having crossed the Rubicon into teenagehood, we are reading The Silver Branch by Rosemary Sutcliff, a brilliant writer who may be unfairly ignored by snooty adults who look down on “children’s books.” It’s my firm opinion that any truly great children’s writer is worth reading at any age, and Sutcliff is a case in point. Her subjects are fascinating, her evocation of the historical past incredibly convincing, her characters alive and vibrant, and her writing beautifully crafted. All that, and an exciting adventure story, in this case about two young Legionaries confronted by treachery and conspiracy in the fading days of Roman Britain — I could not ask for a better way to shape my young reader’s literary taste and experience.

Sutcliff writes of how human beings in all ages have wrestled with the great moral quandary, the question of how to live — where to direct our loyalty and our enthusiasm, how to use our inner forces in the right way. She does not give easy, pat answers, but points a way through the gift of narrative, the ongoing story in which we all share. It’s wonderful that this and the other three “Roman novels” are being reprinted as Slightly Foxed Cubs — the first two are now available, with two more coming in September. With the usual quality binding and design, and incorporating the splendid original illustrations by C. Walter Hodges and Charles Keeping, it’s a set to cherish for all lovers of good literature, young and old.

From the Slightly Foxed Editions series of memoirs came Going Solo by Roald Dahl, which lasted only a couple of chapters for us as a read-aloud before my son seized it and stayed up late to finish. I knew it would be a success, with Dahl’s trademark dry humor joined to a real-life tale of adventure from his own youth, first going to work in Africa for an oil company and then as a pilot in the RAF, but I didn’t know he would devour it quite so quickly.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Stories of lions and snakes, air battles and plane crashes hold irresistible appeal for my adventurous boy, and though Dahl may not stick entirely to the humdrum facts, when he writes in such a witty and engaging style, who wants to complain? Anyone who relishes a good story well-told will be charmed by Dahl’s memoir, and by its companion volume, Boy — both now available in the lovely uniform binding of Slightly Foxed Editions.

So if, like me, you are always searching for good books to read for a boy in your life, there are a few ideas for you — and if you just want something good to read for yourself, or for another adventurous reader, they will be splendid for that too. Thanks again, Slightly Foxed, for always delivering the very best reading adventures.


Summer Shorts

My attention span this month is not up to long reviews, but I did read some notable books  that I’d like to mention at least briefly.

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Going in with high expectations for this generally acclaimed retelling of The Tempest, I found it disappointing. Re-setting Shakespeare’s tale of captivity, revenge, and freedom in a modern-day prison acting program was clever, but I found Atwood’s short novel was too dependent on such ingenious ideas and not enough on real, convincing characters. And the denouement was way too fast; what might work on stage feels hasty and contrived in a novel.

While there may be some narrative re-castings of dramatic originals that are successful, I think it’s a hard thing to do, and much rarer than those that go in the other direction (from page to stage or screen). In this case I’d be interested to see a screen version. Where I found Atwood’s descriptions falling flat, some well-done visuals and strong acting could bring her vision to life.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Lately, some historical novels have set my teeth on edge with their sloppy use of language and other period details. I don’t know quite what it is, because I’m certainly no expert on such things, and often other knowledgeable readers and reviewers seem bothered not at all by the things that make me cringe. But I do know when there’s a book that gets past my own personal alarm bells — and I’m glad to say that The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was one of these. First-time author Gowar rings some charming changes on familiar motifs in a tale of merchants, courtesans, and mermaids in eighteenth-century London. While some narrative threads were left hanging, in general Gowar moved deftly between high-, middle- and low-life settings, and wrote with a zest and originality that makes me very interested to read whatever she comes up with next.

Fantasy lovers, as well as those allergic to magical elements in fiction, will both want to know one thing: is the mermaid real? Yes, and no, and maybe. Dealing with this question is one of Gowar’s achievements, and you’ll have to read the book to see how she does it.

Death of a Unicorn by Peter Dickinson

The work of the late Peter Dickinson was never a great favorite of mine, but in latter years I have come to appreciate it more and more. Now I have finally gotten around to reading one of his crime novels with this, a recent reprint from Small Beer Press. Not exactly a detective story, it’s a psychological drama in which the narrator (an aristocrat who has found success in writing romance novels to save her estate from financial collapse) looks back at an incident from her younger days and finally puts together the puzzle of what happened to her first lover, killed inexplicably in South America after a few short months of happiness.

There was lots to enjoy in the Mitford-esque trappings of a stately home with a dysfunctional family, and the setting within the publishing world. The one weakness that really bothered me was the trope of a smart, talented woman being caught up in a relationship with an unattractive, abusive man, a relationship that indelibly shapes her life even after he’s gone. The male fantasy that women will adore them whatever crap they pull is one that I wish could be overcome, in literature as in life.

No Name by Wilkie Collins

I’ve enjoyed several of Wilkie Collins’s suspenseful novels, and this is considered to be another one of his best. Written between The Woman in White and The Moonstone, it turns on a legal peculiarity: the status of illegitimate children in nineteenth-century England. When a series of unfortunate events robs a couple of gently-brought-up girls of their inheritance, they deal with it in very different ways. As one patiently suffers her fate, the other is determined to get her own back, at whatever cost.

The premise is ingenious (and considered highly immoral at the time of publication), the characters promising, but I could have done with less overt moralizing of the “Now she must decide between her good and evil sides!” variety. The psychology of the corrupting effect of vengefulness was clear enough without beating us over the head with it. The novel also dragged on too long for my taste, then wrapped up with a hasty romantic ending of the most unabashedly coincidental and melodramatic sort. An enjoyable romp overall, but lacking in subtlety and with uneven pacing.

Dover Newbery Library

These books were received from the publisher for review consideration. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.

A while ago, I posted about some of the wonderful reprints available from Dover Publications. I’ve had several more sitting on my shelf for some time, and now I’ve finally gotten around to reading them. (Thank you for your patience, Dover!) These are all older Newbery Award or Newbery Honor books that are not so well known today, but worth a look.

The Windy Hill, a Newbery honor book by Cornelia Meigs (better known as the author of Invincible Louisa) is a brief but enjoyable tale of Medford Valley, a New England farming community that’s come under threat due to a family feud. The mystery is slight, the villain’s redemption too sudden and unfounded, but the teenage protagonists are engaging and the setting attractive. Readers must have patience for the interpolated historical tales that interrupt the main narrative, but their relevance does eventually becomes clear, and they provide much of the atmosphere and depth in the story.

Next I read It’s Like This, Cat, the Newbery winner for 1964. Oh, for the New York of yesteryear! A fourteen-year-old boy, alienated from his lawyer father, roams the city along with his alter ego, Cat. It was great fun to follow him from Coney Island to the New York Public Library to the Fulton Fish Market, while watching him grow up and find his own voice. Nostalgia was obviously not the main attraction when this was first published, but it’s a big part of the appeal now — although young readers may be perplexed by many of the outdated cultural references. Still, let them read the terrific opening line and see if it grabs them:

My father is always talking about how a dog can be very educational for a boy. This is one reason I got a cat.

I then leaped into sixteenth-century Portugal with Spice and the Devil’s Cave by Agnes Danforth Hewes, one of her four Newbery honor books. This is a historical adventure story based around the search for a sea route to the Indes, set in the Lisbon of Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama, and other famous explorers. Hewes’s leisurely, florid style hearkens back to a bygone age of historical fiction, but the tale is lively and colorful overall, and allows readers to enter into a fascinating, highly volatile era. Clashing cultures were a key feature of the age of exploration, and there are some interesting perspectives on that story here, though some groups are treated more sympathetically than others. When seen as individuals and not as racial types, the characters have so much energy and passion for their quest that it pulls us along as well.

Finally, the gorgeous Newbery honor book The Heavenly Tenants brought together the mundane and the transcendent, in a simple but lyrical story of how some visitors from the heavens come to take care of a Wisconsin farm while its family is away. This is a lovely introduction to the constellations of the zodiac for children, and readers of all ages will be enthralled by the evocative scratchboard illustrations. The Dover production is a high-quality hardcover on heavy, slightly glossy paper, a beautiful book to treasure for many years.

Once more, thanks to Dover Publications for bringing these gems from the past to my attention. I’ll be looking for others in their “Newbery library” to enjoy in the future.

Jungian explorations

During a previous era of my life I became interested in Jungian psychology. I think it started after college when I fell in love with the novels of Robertson Davies, which reflect his own interest in the work of the Swiss psychologist. (One of them, The Manticore, is even based around the main character’s sessions with an analyst in Zurich.) The acknowledgment of the importance and reality of symbols, dreams, and archetypes strongly appealed to me, along with the overall vision of a mythic dimension to life. This chimed with the way I experience the world, and with what has brought healing and integration to me in my own path.

I started to look at some non-fiction works that explored these ideas further, and I’ve been going back to some of them lately. The books of Robert A. Johnson are very accessible and were helpful to me in learning how to use dreams and the associated method of “active imagination” to work through difficulties in my life, along with considerations of masculine and feminine psychology. I think that Owning Your Own Shadow was the first one of his books that was recommended to me, and I still find it a brief but very useful introduction to this important concept.

Our dominant white American culture strongly resists going into the shadow, as we prefer to project it elsewhere (especially onto other races and countries) so that we don’t have to acknowledge our own “dark side.” As we can see from current events this causes immense problems, yet action can only really start with the individual. It’s a task that every thinking, caring person should take up, lest the darkness in our souls overwhelm us.

Also helpful to me in going down this path have been the fairy tale studies by Marie-Louise von Franz. With my lifelong interest in folklore and mythology, I found these absolutely fascinating. Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales and The Feminine in Fairy Tales have been particularly thought-provoking. Again, through considering these stories we learn how important it is to bring to light what is overlooked and downgraded in our modern, patriarchal culture. In this unconscious realm are buried the treasures and gifts we need to bring wholeness into a shattered world.

Some other favorites include Here All Dwell Free: Stories to Heal the Wounded Feminine by Gertrud Mueller Nelson, a wonderful in-depth exploration of the tales “The Handless Maiden” and “Briar Rose”; and The Kingdom Within: The Inner Meaning of Jesus’s Sayings by John A. Sanford, which gets at the heart of Christianity’s archetypal wisdom by revealing it as an inner path.

Have you read any of these books, or do you have any others to recommend on the topic? Are there other approaches to psychology that appeal to you?

Vacation reading: Two duds and a winner

As promised, I took along some newer books on vacation recently, and managed to finish three of them. Alas, two were not much fun to read, but the last was as entertaining as I’d hoped! Read on to find out which one…

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss had a premise with great potential: a mash-up of female “monsters” and daughters of monsters from various nineteenth century novels and stories, solving a mystery in Victorian London along with Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, this potential was not fulfilled in my eyes. The device of having one of the characters write the story while the others chime in with interpolated dialogue (“Hey, don’t write that!” “Excellent description, my dear”) could have provided a clever metafictional touch, but I found it just clumsy and banal, not adding anything to the story. But most unforgivable in my eyes was the total lack of any sense of the language of the era. I don’t think historical novelists have to be slavishly imitative of the language of the past, but their writing should have a period flavor. Here, a profusion of American slang phrases like “Okay,” “Whatever,” and “No big deal” made me roll my eyes and almost put the book down, though I plodded through it for some reason. I’ll stick to reading the originals — I really want to read Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde now — or appreciate even more the authors who do manage to write convincingly with some historical style.

I picked up Lover by Anna Raverat because I read rave reviews of her first novel, Signs of Life, but this one was more easily available. I’m still interested in tracking down the other book, but Lover seemed an example of sophomore slump. Narrated by a woman who has just discovered her husband’s secret love life, while jumping around to various locations for her job with a hotel chain, I found it disjointed, dull and pointless. There was nothing interesting about the relationship it depicted — the husband was a jerk, she kicked him out, it took her a while to come to terms with that, the end. I was actually more interested in the hotels, and if she had stayed in one place and developed some interesting relationships with the denizens or employees, the narrative might have come to life. But no, there was no continuity there either. Two cute daughters had some good lines, but were not fully realized as individuals either.

Sighing with disappointment, I picked up my third choice, Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, a genre-bending YA mystery-thriller-paranormal-sci-fi-fantasy. When a penniless orphan is invited to a huge, mysterious mansion by an acquaintance of great wealth and charm, you know some capers are going to ensue…and they do, in five different directions set off by different choices made by the main character, Jane. At first it was hard for me to follow what was going on, but as the same situation was cleverly re-imagined through various fictional lenses and with different potential outcomes, it started to come into focus. Jane’s obsession with crafting umbrellas into unique works of art also appealed to me; though some find it silly to be passionate about parasols, I found it a great new take on the creative process. Comparisons to Diana Wynne Jones are not amiss — the multiverse she so enchantingly explored is given another twist here.

Have you read anything particularly noteworthy this summer? Or anything you wish you hadn’t bothered to finish?


New release review: Stellar stories from Tachyon

This season, three fantasy masters have story collections out from Tachyon Publications — a splendid opportunity to feast yourself on a rich assortment of weird, funny, whimsical, lyrical, dark, thought-provoking tales that beautifully explore the full range of our imaginative landscape. If any of these are among your favorite authors, you will surely want to pick up their latest offerings — and if you’ve not yet had had the pleasure of making their acquaintance, this is the perfect opportunity to do so. Whether you devour all the stories or just sample the ones that are to your taste, there’s a good chance you’ll find something that interests you here.

I’ve already mentioned Jane Yolen’s The Emerald Circus, which Tachyon kindly allowed me to offer as part of the Witch Week giveaway last November. I described it then as “a master storyteller’s riff on various well-known tales including The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and of course the Arthurian legend. Three Arthurian stories are included, of which my favorite is the novella Evian Steel, a striking re-imagining of the forging of Arthur’s sword in connection with the power of women’s magic. If only Yolen had been able to fulfill her intention of making this the central portion of a novel … perhaps one day she will? A new introduction by Holly Black gives a tribute to Yolen by the next generation of fantasy writers, and each story has an endnote about its creation and original publication, paired with a thematically related poem — quite a unique feature!”

Other standouts for me were “Blown Away,” which imagines an alternative fate for Dorothy from the point of view of one of the Kansas farmhands (including a stint in the Emerald Circus of the title), and “Sister Emily’s Lightship,” which makes the unlikely pairing of Emily Dickinson and an alien visitor seem almost inevitable. Yolen has made me look asquint at all the classic books and authors on my shelves now…what antics might be going on just beyond or around those hallowed pages?

From Yolen’s literary extravaganza I moved on to The Overneath by Peter S. Beagle. His first collection in some years, it includes uncollected work along with several stories previously unpublished in print, and many of them are dazzling. The title comes from the breezily inventive “The Way It Works Out and All,” in which Beagle himself appears as a character along with fellow fantasy author Avram Davidson, who’s discovered a way into the mysterious “plumbing” behind the ordinary world. I love this image, and it could be taken as a metaphor for the uncertain and sometimes dangerous ways the author has to tread in bringing the gifts of the imaginative world to us. Beagle casts himself as being more reluctant in this endeavor than his intrepid friend, yet I suspect he’s no less of an adventurer at heart.

Such sly humor is only one of the narrative tones at Beagle’s disposal, though, as he brings us a couple of stories about the wizard Schmendrick (from his famous novel The Last Unicorn); tales of three other very, very different unicorns; a melancholy fairy tale resonant with themes of aging and forgiveness; tales of technological magic that comes via laptops and wireless transmitters; and much more — as a former Seattle resident I was especially pleased to see the Fremont Bridge Troll get his very own story. Beagle’s notes at the head of each selection further illuminate their origins and his creative process.

Jo Walton is a newer addition to the fantasy and science fiction scene than either of these two long-established names, yet has quickly proved herself as one of the most versatile and inventive writers around. In Starlings, her first collection of short works — mostly not exactly stories, but chapters from unwritten novels, fragmentary fiction, writing exercises, poems, and even a play — her experimental spirit is strongly in evidence. Readers looking for a polished set of conventional short stories may be disappointed, but those who can take each piece on its own terms will find much to enjoy.

Actually, I thought that Walton spent way too much time apologizing for not writing “real” stories. I found many of her “non-stories” delightful, from the first, a trio of twilight tales that reminded me strongly of Joan Aiken, to the last, a play based on an Irish legend (and where does one get to encounter something so highly non-commercial these days?). A selection of poems completes the volume, many of which are also based in myth, legend, and pop culture — “Godzilla Weeps for Baldur,” anyone? If one piece doesn’t do the trick for you, just move on; at the very least you’ll encounter a wild and wonderful imagination at work along the way.

Thank you, Tachyon, for these bursts of magic to enliven some cold winter nights. I hope you’ll give them a look.

Around the World project so far

This project is an open-ended one, with the intention to read books from or about at least fifty different countries of the world. Here’s what I read this year so far:

  • War Diaries by Astrid Lindgren (Sweden) – January 2017
  • I Was a Stranger by John Hackett (Netherlands) – January 2017
  • Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan (China) – March 2017
  • The Praise Singer by Mary Renault (Greece) – June 2017
  • The Gilded Chalet by Padraig Rooney (Switzerland) – July 2017
  • The Last Gods of Indochine by Samuel Ferrer (Cambodia) – July 2017
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria) – July 2017
  • An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (Lebanon) – August 2017
  • Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan (Mexico) – September 2017
  • One Half from the East by Nadia Hashimi (Afghanistan) – September 2017
  • Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Sahil (Sudan) – November 2017


I reviewed Bronze and Sunflower already, and I’m a little unsure whether to count The Praise Singer (a historical novel about ancient Greece) but here are mini-reviews of the other books on my list. It’s been a truly wonderful tour!

I started out with two first-hand accounts of World War II. I Was a Stranger, British Brigadier General Hackett’s memoir (one of the lovely Slightly Foxed series) is a moving and harrowing account of his escape from German hands through the bravery of Dutch resistance workers and their families. Meanwhile, in War Diaries (elsewhere titled A World Gone Mad) we have the journal author Astrid Lindgren kept as a young wife and mother in neutral Sweden. She provides a record of the up-and-down thoughts and feelings of someone on the edge of the action, enjoying the benefits of not being in a country torn by war, while deploring its evils. For anyone interested in the time period, these two books will bring unique insights into the authors’ experiences. (I was a bit disappointed, though, that Lindgren’s diaries contained little reference to the genesis of Pippi Longstocking, which occurred during this period — but she considered other things more important at the time perhaps.)

Another neutral country is covered in The Gilded Chalet. Looking at books that were written about or in Switzerland (including Frankenstein, Ulysses, The Magic Mountain, A Farewell to Arms, and Tender Is the Night, along with a good many spy novels and noir fiction), longtime resident Padraig Rooney gives us a dark-edged view of a land that is more complex than its popular image would suggest. Rooney makes no secret of his prejudices and blind spots (the Chalet school books and Rudolf Steiner are rudely dismissed, while Heidi is barely mentioned) and blithely admits to not bothering to finish books or visit museums when he doesn’t feel like it. His use of outdated pop culture references made me roll my eyes at times as well, and I wouldn’t take his opinions for gospel. Still, I enjoyed this quick slalom through a certain subsection of Swiss literature and history, particularly the seamier side.

Moving on to more unfamiliar territory for me, The Last Gods of Indochine draws on the real and imagined history of Cambodia, focusing on the mysterious temple complex of Angkor Wat and alternating between two streams of time. Ferrer imagines the granddaughter of a real-life Victorian explorer who goes on her own journey of discovery in 1921, becoming strangely intertwined with a boy from centuries earlier who is caught up in religious and political turmoil. There were some especially strong passages about mystical experiences that convincingly got into the mindset of an earlier age, but an unnecessary and non-historically-based love interest, and an abrupt “hooray for science!” ending somewhat marred for me what otherwise was a very interesting trip into the past.

Back to the present with Americanah, a book that was mentioned several times when I asked for contemporary fiction recommendations. This is another journey, away from and back to the heroine’s country of Nigeria and her childhood love, along the way sharing with us her brutal, enlightening, comical, destructive, empowering experiences. An annoyingly didactic tinge crept in at times, but Adichie’s beautiful writing and powerful sense of place pulled me along.

The title character of An Unnecessary Woman, meanwhile, journeys mainly within the walls of her Beirut apartment, obsessed with creating Arabic translations of world literature that no-one will ever read, and circling through memories — of childhood and war; of her detested former husband; of his sister, her best friend; and gradually of long-hidden secrets that break open into a new chapter of her life. This rambling, chapter-less book is more an extended personal essay than a novel, and takes patience to follow, but may reward a patient reader with its insights into this neglected woman’s world.

After these dense and somewhat heavy books Esperanza Rising, a well-received children’s book about migrant workers, was a much quicker and lighter read that also tackled some difficult issues. The title character (based on the author’s grandmother) is a young girl displaced from Mexico to California during the Depression, and having to adjust to the loss of wealth and family. This is a thoughtful, beautifully observed book for young readers that will help them understand some of the difficulties faced by immigrants.

One Half from the East took me into the world of another young girl, this time in Afghanistan, whose family is also rocked by tragedy. When Obayda’s father loses his legs in a bomb explosion, she is transformed into a bacha posh — a temporary boy — to bring luck and hopefully a new male baby to the family. The exploration of gender roles was fascinating and timely, as Obayda at first hates her disguise but then embraces the freedom it brings her and dreads losing it. No easy answers are to be found, but these are questions we must explore with girls (and boys) from a young age if we are to move into a more equitable future.

Finally, Season of Migration to the North was a true classic in translation, a rare book available to us from Sudan — the author worked closely with the translator to produce a work that is as beautifully written in English as in Arabic, the language in which it was originally published in 1966. An unnamed narrator, returned from study in the West, meets another former expatriate who confides in him a mysterious and brutal past life, then disappears. Coming to terms with this strange encounter forces the narrator to wrestle with the challenges and contradictions of post-colonial life, and we as readers are enriched and shaken by his journey.

I’ve absolutely loved this journey so far, and will look forward to visiting more countries next year. Have you traveled around the world in books? What places have drawn you most?