Reading Railroad: February’s Reading


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This may be my slowest reading month ever. Due to my hospital visit in January, I became super behind on work, so I didn’t read as much as I normally do. I did finish 5 books in all; surprisingly, not a single novel.

Fairytale Collections

One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling by Hanan Al-Shaykh. Published in 2013. In this version of The Arabian Nights, Al-Shaykh both translates from the original while mixing in her own Arabian Nights-esque tales. At least, I think they’re her own variations, as some of the tales aren’t in the two other versions I’ve read (not that I remember, anyway). This is my third Arabian Nights translation, and while the writing is strong, I still prefer the Haddawy translation (The Arabian Nights). Haddawy combines ease of reading with the feel of an oral text, whereas this version feels designed/intentional. But also, because of that, it’s probably the most accessible version I’ve read. Certainly far more than the Burton (One Thousand and One Nights – Complete Arabian Nights Collection). 3.5/5

Poetry Collections

Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann. Published in 2014. This is a collection of YA poems about anorexia, beauty, and sex, using fairy tales as a backdrop. I like that it makes poetry accessible to teenagers using relevant content, but it’s not for me. There’s also photography, which didn’t show up well on my kindle, so I recommend buying this in print. If you have a teen girl, she might enjoy the collection. I just like my poetry a little more abstract, or timeless. I’m really not sure! You can read a poem from the collection on the author’s website. 2.5/5

The Branch Will Not Break by James Wright. Published in 1963. After reading The Delicacy and Strength of Lace: Letters Between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright in grad school, I decided I wanted to read James Wright’s poetry (already being a fan of Leslie Marmon Silko). However, it’s been about four years since then, and I’m just now reading one of his collections. That’s what happens when you have hundreds of books picked up in exactly the same way. I can only read so many! I read this collection in a single sitting, and that’s with me reading each poem two or three times (which is how I read poetry). At first, I was a bit disappointed. The poems themselves are superbly crafted, but they just weren’t my kind of poems. They often reference historical figures I know very little about; for instance, there are three poems about U.S. presidents. Even his nature poems — more to my taste — in the beginning had a tendency to be a bit melodramatic. For example, he ends the poem “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” with the line “I have wasted my life.” That got an eye roll. I guess it’s ‘telling’ too much for me. However, about halfway through there’s a slight switch in tone. More nature poems are scattered throughout, and they’re quieter than the earlier ones. Like this one:

Milkweed

While I stood here, in the open, lost in myself,
I must have looked a long time
Down the corn rows, beyond grass,
The small house,
White walls, animals lumbering toward the barn.
I look down now. It is all changed.
Whatever it was I lost, whatever I wept for
Was a wild, gentle thing, the small dark eyes
Loving me in secret.
It is here. At a touch of my hand,
The air fills with delicate creatures
From the other world.

This isn’t to say that this is a ‘mixed bag’ of poetry. The poems still connect in tone and theme and imagery, and I can see why it receives so many 5 star ratings, and why so many say James Wright is their favorite poet. While he won’t be vying for my favorite’s list, I did enjoy several poems in this collection, and respect his craft. 3.5/5

Short Story Collections

From the Stories of Old: A Collection of Fairy Tale Retellings. Published in 2016. I think people who haven’t read many fairytale short story collections would get more enjoyment out of reading this than those who read a ton of retellings (like myself). They’re fairly straight forward retellings, without many subversions or twists. My absolute favorite was “The Glass Maker” by Mckayla Eaton, a gender inversion of “Cinderella” with some cool world building. I would read more in that setting. I also quite liked “The Bear in the Forest” by Kelsie Engen, a “Snow White and Rose Red” retelling, and “The Goose and His Girl” by Lynden Wade, a unique YA “Goose Girl” short story. You can read my review of each individual short story on Goodreads. 3/5

The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin. Will be published March 14th, 2017. “When Allah created man out of clay, Allah also created the djinn out of fire.” — from the Introduction. This is a really wonderful collection of short stories about djinn. I had no idea there were so many variations of djinn — good or evil, mischievous or kind, religious or deviant, and everywhere in between. The sheer variation of interpretation is what makes this a superior collection, as well as the superior writing, of course. There’s not a single poorly written piece in this collection. They’re all nuanced, well-thought, character driven stories. It’s also a great mix of authors I know and ones I’m unfamiliar with, and I will be checking out some of the authors that were new to me to see what else they’ve written. I will post a full review this month, but needless to say, if you’re a short story reader, you should read this. Thanks to Netgalley and Rebellion Publishing for providing me a free copy in exchange for an honest review. 4/5

Individual Short Stories

“The Key to St. Medusa’s” by Kat Howard. Published in Lightspeed Magazine, October 2016. When Agatha’s parents kick her out of the house for being a witch, she finds a home at St. Medusa’s, a school and refuge for witches in a world that hates them. But when the girls hear word of a man that marries and then murders witches, Agatha and three friends decide something must be done. I really love this “Bluebeard” retelling, and could read more set in this world! If it were a novel I’d eat it up. I did feel like the ending was rushed, which was a bit sad because I was loving it up until then. 4/5

What were your favorite reads in February?

Book Review of The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis


Title and Author:  The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis

Publication Date: June 2016

Genre: Thriller, Post Apocalypse, Western

How I got it: Bought it used at the bookstore I work at

Review:

“This is a world a’ hurt and shit and blood and bullets. This is a world where a strong arm is a’ more value than a strong mind. The Damn Stupid changed up the people a’ this country, changed up coin to mean not much, changed up cities, changed up the law, it made murderers a’ all us what’s left.”

This is a weird thing to say about a book, but The Wolf Road reminds me of a Quentin Tarantino movie.

The novel combines several genres: the western in tone and setting, thriller in plot, and post apocalypse in background. I wonder if it was originally inspired by “Little Red Riding Hood,” because the novel has all the elements of the fairy tale — grandmother, child, wolf — without resembling the plot. It’s not in any way a retelling, but it does have some glimmers here and there of LRRH.

When Elka’s seven, a super storm hits and kills her grandmother. Years earlier her parents left in search of gold, so now Elka’s in the woods alone. A man she calls Trapper adopts her and teaches her wood lore and how to hunt. She loves him, and he seems to love her in his own way. His one rule: never speak of him to anyone else. When Elka’s seventeen, she goes to the closest town to pick up some supplies, and sees a wanted poster with Trapper’s face on it. He’s wanted for multiple murders, and it’s not until then that she realizes he’s a serial killer. When Magistrate Lyon sees Elka’s reaction to the wanted poster, she realizes Elka knows the man.

Elka escapes into the woods on a mission to find her long lost parents, but two hunt her — Magistrate Lyon and Trapper.

It may seem like I’m giving too much away, but you find out about all of this within 10 pages.

The setting and characters are pure western, as is the dialect. Some reviewers complain about the dialect, but for me it made the novel. I can’t imagine it written in any other way.

The thriller aspect is obvious — murder, a chase. But while the plot revolves around these tropes, Lewis twists the typical revenge plot in a unique way by concentrating on Elka’s internalization of memory. The end was intriguing and full of psychological insight.

The apocalyptic past almost seems like an afterthought, but I loved the hints of it here and there. Bombs in the water, a poisoned landscape, giant storms. They call it The Damn Stupid. Could the setting be some kind of alternate history, if the Cold War had turned into nuclear war? That’s hinted at once. I also like the bits about environmental protection: “Figured the land owed me that, but right now, looking at that land, us humans owed the wild so much more.”

Lewis also subverts some common apocalypse genre tropes — mainly cannibalism and rape. It’s a refreshing take after reading some recent, post apocalyptic novels that depend too much on cliché representations, like California and On Such a Full Sea. I also love that Lewis writes women who represent several different character types, but then these types are once again subverted, which I appreciated. Lewis adeptly manages to combine a thrilling plot with layered characters.

I’m giving this a 4 instead of a 5 because sometimes, especially at the beginning, it felt like the trials on Elka’s journey/escape were a bit contrived. I realize that’s kind of a necessity for a thriller, and maybe that’s why I don’t read those that much. Once the story got going, I no longer had those issues.

Oh, and somehow in this review I forgot to mention the wolf. You’ll have to read the novel to find out more about him!

Rating: 4/5

Suffrage History: The Triangle Shirtwaist Strike and Fire



For my current writing in progress, I’m researching the women’s suffrage movement, a movement I knew little about despite having taken at least half a dozen U.S. history classes. (Why is discussion of this movement left out of classrooms?) In my research, I came across the triangle shirtwaist strike and fire. I’d heard of it before, but never delved too deeply into it. It’s a horrifying story.

Women pledging to join the strike in November, 1909

In September 1909, the women workers of two factories went on strike: Leiserson & Company and The Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Most of these women were between the ages of 16-23. They objected to:

  • unsanitary working conditions
  • fire hazards (which would later prove all too relevant)
  • the endless fines for talking, laughing, singing, stitches being crooked, etc
  • long working hours, often until 10 at night, with only 1 break for eating
  • low wages (around $6 a week, men made $12 a week for the same work in 1907)
  • the inappropriate behavior (aka, sexual) of their bosses.
Clara Lemlich — teenage heroine — taken in 1909.

Obviously the women had good reason to strike. However, after only a few weeks, it looked like the strike might disintegrate. But at a meeting in November, Claire Lemlich, a teenage factory worker and well known striker (having taken many police beatings fighting for better conditions in factories) rallied the women together: “I am a working girl,” she said, “and one of those who are on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. What we are here for is to decide whether or not we shall strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared — now!” And with those words the women fully committed to the cause.

This strike became the first general strike of its kind, and proved that women could hold out for the long haul. Previously, women’s labor unions and suffrage organizations struggled with mass organization, but this strike proved that large numbers of women could be organized into an effective protest. Though it’s unknown exactly how many women workers across New York and Philadelphia participated in the strike, the estimates are between 10,000 and 30,000. Women picketed the factories every day, carrying signs that said “We are Striking for Human Treatments” and “We Strike for Justice,” while police rounded them up for beatings. The history of police brutality against peaceful protests is a story for another day.

The strikers, 1909.

With no pay, the strikers endeavored to survive during a harsh winter. Several labor unions organized to help the strikers financially, especially The Women’s Trade Union League, and the suffragettes also donated to the cause, trying to help workers pay for rent, medical expenses, food, and the basics of living. The courts did not rally to the strikers’ cause. According to one magistrate, “You are on strike against God and Nature, whose prime law it is that man shall earn his bread in the sweat of his brow. You are on strike against God” — to which George Bernard Shaw chimed in: “Delightful. Medieval America always in intimate personal confidence of the Almighty.”

Shaw’s biting remarks did not help the strikers. The strike was called off February 15th, 1910, with only limited material gains. The women could not hold out any longer without pay. However, it did become easier for labor unions to organize.

Firefighters struggle to put the fire out.

Unfortunately, it took a tragedy for the strikers’ demands to become realized. On March 25th, 1911, a fire broke out on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The doors had been locked so no one could escape, a common practice among factory owners to prevent their workers from going home ‘early’ or taking breaks. Locked inside the burning building, some women threw themselves from the windows, only to die on the pavement below. Others died crammed into the stairwells, desperately trying to push against the locked doors. Onlookers watched from the street, horrified, unable to help. Even once the fire department arrived, their hoses only reached the 7th floor. 146 people died, mostly women.

Charges were brought against the owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris. One was acquitted, and the other charged $20 — about three week’s pay for a single worker.

Workers forced to jump to their deaths to escape the flames.

This tragedy did bring about change. The fire was one of the most dramatic and mourned events of the year, and a huge funeral procession followed, honoring the women who’d died. More strikes occurred with better success. Public outcry led to the formation of The New York State Factory Investigating Commission, and eventual legislation that forced factories to have safer and more sanitary working conditions. Shocked suffragists rallied more forcefully as women flocked to their cause, the tragedy showing that working women needed to be able to vote, needed to have a say in their own welfare. As Mary Ware, member of The National American Woman Suffrage Association, wrote on April 1st, less than a week after the fire, in the Woman’s Journal:

“Over and over again we suffragists insist that women are citizens and should be equally responsible with men, but a frightful shock like this makes us know it as we never knew it before. It is enough to silence forever the selfish addle-headed drivel of the anti-suffragists who recently said at a legislative hearing that working women can safely trust their welfare to their “natural protectors.” We might perhaps be willing to consign such women to the sort of protection, care and chivalry that is indicated by the men who allow 700 women to sit back to back, wedged in such close rows between machines that quick exit is impossible; a ten-story building with no outside fire escapes, and only one rickety inside fire escape, with a jump of 25 feet at the bottom of it; with iron gates shutting off the staircase, and cigarette-smoking allowed in the midst of flammable material.

But we are not willing to consign unwilling women or helpless young girls to any such tender mercies. And we claim in no uncertain voice that the time has come when women should have the one efficient tool with which to make for themselves decent and safe working conditions — the ballot.”

The strike that began in 1909 only became successful once this horrific tragedy aroused public sentiment. This became a common theme in the suffragette movement (and in U.S. history in general). During the almost 10 years it took to finally win the vote after the fire, suffragettes tried to garner public sympathy with images and stories of forced feedings and police brutality, of the terrible living and working conditions of many women. It did work, though it shouldn’t have taken so long. Why does tragedy have to occur before people acknowledge basic human rights?

This is one story among many in the fight for women’s vote. I’ll post more as I research.

Sources:

Reading Railroad: January’s Reading


At the beginning of the year, I decided I would cut down on my reading so I could write more. And then I read 10 books in January — oops! Oh well. Professional writers are always saying writers needs to read a lot. 🙂

Novels

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson. Published in 2012. Adult Urban Fantasy. Winner of the 2013 World Fantasy award, Alif the Unseen is a fun mix of tech and magic, hacking and djinn. I loved the setting — contemporary Middle East — and wish there were more fantasies set there published in English. The plot’s a little hand-wavy, and I didn’t always believe character arcs, but it was a solid read.  3.5/5

 

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett. Published in 1996. Adult Fantasy. I read this during Christmas, though I finished it in January. Discworld is one of my favorite fantasy series, and I definitely recommend reading it if you haven’t before, but this isn’t the book I’d recommend starting with (check out Wyrd Sisters, Guards! Guards!, or The Wee Free Men instead). For those of you already familiar with Discworld, Death is the Hogfather — Discworld’s version of Santa Klaus. Awesome, right? And definitely my favorite scenes in Hogfather featured Death handing out presents to all the kiddos of Discworld. However, the numerous side stories weren’t as interesting or funny as Pratchett usually is. Still, it’s a good seasonal read, as those go. 3/5

In Calabria by Peter S. Beagle. To be published February 14th, 2017. Adult Contemporary Fantasy. Another new book by the famous Peter S. Beagle, famous for writing The Last UnicornClaudio Bianchi owns a farm in the small Italian village of Calabria. He’s grumpy, likes his privacy, and writes poems he shares with no one. In his late forties, his only friend is a young postman who comes a few times a week to deliver the mail. Oh, and his goat. Two things converge to break his comforting privacy: a pregnant unicorn appears on his farm, and the postman’s younger sister starts delivering the mail on Friday. Suddenly, his comfortable, isolated existence crumbles. Word spreads of the unicorn on his property, and soon the media begins to hound him, and then a mafia-type group — the ‘Ndrangheta — shows up, wanting the farm. The unicorn scenes are the most powerful. It’s Bianchi’s romantic relationship with Giovanna, the young postmistress, that gives me pause. I read Summerlong last year (full review here), where a similar middle-aged man and a just out of teen years woman form a romantic relationship. I was more receptive to the relationship in Summerlong because the girl ends up being a goddess. But…another book with this relationship dynamic? Um. And Bianchi constantly bemoans how he doesn’t deserve such a young girl, how she should leave him, and how it’s her that instigates the relationship, not him. Uh huh. ‘Sure.’ I hear you. The ending also felt…wrong for the novel. It felt like the novel was trying to be longer than it was meant to be, so the ‘Ndrangheta were added to create length and a more thrilling plot. But I enjoyed the quiet moments, and for me, the main plot was about Bianchi trying to rediscover who he is, and how he can interact with the world and rejoin society. I would’ve loved to see him publish some of those poems! Thanks to Netgalley and Tachyon Publications for providing me with an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review. 2.5/5

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Published in 2011. YA Contemporary Fantasy. Get the tissues ready, because you are going to cry a lot, unless you’re an unfeeling weirdo. Seriously, this book is so good. It’s a modern infusion of the green man (in the form of a yew tree), the power of stories, and modern pre-adolescence. I love this book.  I want to reread it just by writing up this synopsis. It’s the 2nd book I’ve read by Ness, and the 2nd one to make me cry (the first was The Crane Wife, though it did not make me cry as much as A Monster Calls). Guess I’m going to have to test a third. Will his power over my tear ducts hold???? P.S. The illustrations are great. I haven’t watched the movie yet, but even if it’s only half as good as the book, I’m going to need the tissues again. 5/5

The Boy Who Lost Fairyland by Catherynne M. Valente. Published in 2015. Middle Grade Fantasy. This is book #4 of Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland series. For the first time, the main character isn’t September. Hawthorn the troll is whisked from Fairyland by a cheeky wind, and brought to Chicago and switched out for Thomas Rood, a very human child. Hawthorn eventually makes it back into Fairyland with the help of another changeling child and an adorable, magically-sentient yarn wombat. Though I love Fairyland, I actually enjoyed Hawthorn’s time struggling being human in Chicago over the Fairyland scenes. This is one of my favorites of the series. 4.5/5

The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home by Catherynne M. Valente. Published in 2016. Middle Grade Fantasy. This is book #5 and the final book in the Fairyland series. Valente returns to September, who is now Queen of Fairyland (well, she actually chooses the title of Engineer). But in order to hold on to her title, if she even wants to, she has to compete in a race with the previous rulers of Fairyland. It’s a fun close to the series, though not my favorite. I’ll miss September, but it ended perfectly. 4/5

 

Into That Forest by Louis Nowra. Published in 2013. Young Adult. After a boating accident in Tasmania, 2 young girls — Hannah and Becky — are stranded in the bush. But they’re soon rescued by tigers. For the next four years they live with two tigers, learning how to hunt and speak the tiger language. Meanwhile, they forget much of what it means to be human. Hannah narrates this experience of being raised by tigers from the future, in dialect. Overall, it’s a good read, though it just didn’t move me overmuch. Not for any particular reason, though. 3/5

Nonfiction

Richard Hittleman’s Yoga: 28 Day Exercise Plan by Richard Hittleman. Published in 1969. This was my first attempt at yoga. Exercises are sectioned into 4 day increments, with a review every 4th day. After each day is a section called “Thoughts for the Day,” which were often quite funny, as they assumed I was a housewife. Though the written sections are dated, this is a solid primer on yoga, it seemed to me. While I will not be continuing with yoga — it exacerbated my heart problem — I did learn some stretches that I’ll incorporate into my exercise routine. Overall, the moves were easy though enough of a stretch to feel it. A few of them I never could do, and I think would be better with a partner. 4/5

Short Story Collections

The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales edited by Navah Wolfe and Dominik Parisien. Published in 2016. Speculative Fiction Short Stories. In the introduction, editors Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe express their desire to revisit the wonderful, strange, and alien of fairy tales. “In keeping with that original model of composite storytelling,” they say, “we decided to run fairy tales through a prism, to challenge our authors to look at stories from an unusual angle, to bring them back into different genres and traditions, to — if you will — return them to their cross-genre roots.” And they’ve certainly done that in this collection. Genres range from Western, to Science Fiction, to Romance, to Fantasy, to Postmodern, and each tale takes an unusual look at a single fairy tale. My favorite stories were “Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El-Mohtar and “Spinning Silver” by Naomi Novik, with close runner-ups in “The Briar and the Rose” by Marjorie M. Liu and “Reflected” by Kat Howard. Three of these are perhaps the least innovative, since they use the fantasy genre for their fairy tale settings (the closest to the original settings); however, these stories are innovative in other ways, combining tales, reconstituting romance, and especially in reinterpreting happily-ever-afters. “Reflected” is the only non-fantasy of my favorites, and is a science fiction retelling of “The Snow Queen.” This is a great short story collection for fairytale and speculative fiction fans. I’d already read stories from every single one of these authors, so I knew I was likely to enjoy this collection, and I’m glad I wasn’t disappointed! You can see my review of each story on Goodreads. 4/5

Uncanny Magazine Issue 13: November/December 2016 edited by Lynne M. and Michael Damian Thomas. I think this is my favorite issue of Uncanny Magazine as a whole. All the pieces have strong social justice themes or center around voices that rarely have a chance to speak in fiction. That’s what makes this magazine so special. My favorites were “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” by Brooke Bolander, a flash fiction piece about whose stories are told; “Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El–Mohtar, which was also in A Starlit Wood; and “Rose Child” by Theodora Goss, a lovely fairytale poem. But there were no misses in this issue. You can read my review of each story on Goodreads. 4/5

Individual Short Stories

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce. Published in 1890. During the Civil War, a man stands on a bridge about to be hanged. And that’s all I can say without spoilers. 🙂 This is the first time I’ve read Ambrose Bierce, and apparently I should amend that. This is a fantastically written short story. If I taught a creative writing class, I would use this story as an example of how to write thick, evocative descriptions that are still fast-paced and full of tension. So good! 5/5

“Fable” by Charles Yu. Published in The New Yorker, May 2016. A therapist asks a man to retell his life story as a fable. This short story explores how stories shape a life, and how if we’re able to tell our stories — allow ourselves to tell them — then we can find a path to living. 4/5

“See the Unseeable, Know the Unknowable” by Maria Dahvana Headley. Published in Lightspeed Magazine, September 2016. A woman and a cat live on the outskirts of society, escaping something. And then circus flyers fall from the sky, and her name’s on them. I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand what was happening in this one. Oh well, happens sometimes. I do enjoy the author’s fiction usually. 2.5/5

“Little Widow” by Maria Dahvana Headley. Published in Nightmare Magazine, September 2016. 3 sisters who were in a cult live in a small town after their cult commits suicide. And then a circus comes to town with a pterodactyl. I mean, this is weird, but I liked it. 3.5/5

“Hungry” by Shveta Thakrar. Published in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, 2016. After centuries of being a statue, a rakshasi awakens in the contemporary world, and she’s hungry. 3.5/5

Did you read anything good in January?

Happy reading in the month to come!

 

6 Feminist Reads for Trump’s Term


I took the image above in Nashville, TN during the Women’s March Saturday, January 21st.

As always, when something bothers me, I read. And write. So here are 6 recommendations for feminist books to read during Trump’s term. Read, talk, argue, and be heard!

1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

A dystopian novel where the U.S. reverts to rigid patriarchy and women’s reproductive rights are taken away. Sound a little too plausible right now? Many people agree. Trump’s term has been compared to the novel many times, and several signs during the Women’s March on Washington referred to the novel (including mine). If you haven’t read this before, now’s the time to do it. Hulu has adapted it into a TV series and it airs April 26th. Here’s the trailer.

2. Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay

“The world changes faster than we can fathom in ways that are complicated,” Gay opens. “These bewildering changes often leave us raw. The cultural climate is shifting, particularly for women as we contend with the retrenchment of reproductive freedom, the persistence of rape culture, and the flawed if not damaging representations of women we’re consuming in music, movies, and literature.” Bad Feminist is the most approachable nonfiction feminist text I’ve read. It combines commentary on pop culture, politics, academics, and the personal in essays that seemingly meander, yet always reconnect to some main point. As the title suggests, feminists can’t be perfect, and we shouldn’t even be trying to. I’m currently co-reading this with a friend, and may post our combined thoughts when we finish. You can also listen to Gay’s TED talk.

3. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Another dystopia. I notice a lot classic dystopians are selling well on Amazon lately, and this is one that needs to be read. It was also one of my top reads of last year. Why I think this particular dystopia is currently relevant is because it deals with race, religion, and gender, and how those intersect. Also, the apocalypse is brought on by the refusal of politicians to acknowledge climate change, and that eventually leads to economic, political, and social collapse. The main character is a black teenage girl who founds her own religion. In book 2, Parable of the Talents, the white supremacist presidential campaign is “Make America Great Again.” I cannot tell you how shocked I was when I read that last year!

4. Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics by bell hooks

This one’s cheating because I haven’t read it yet, but it is on my TBR list for this year. I have read bell hooks before, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, and I know she’s considered a must read contemporary feminist. She’s also the best-selling feminist author at the bookstore I work at. I will give my review on this blog when I’ve read it!

5. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

“I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.” Okay, if you’re a feminist, then you have to read this. Yes, it’s written in the 18th century. It’s not an easy read. But it is one of the earliest feminist texts (written before the term feminism was coined), and essential in understanding the history of feminism. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman defends women’s right to speak, and calls for equal rights in education between the sexes. It’s in conversation with male philosophers of the time — mainly Edmund Burke, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau — but you don’t need to know their arguments to read this. It stands well on its own. And fun fact, Mary Wollstonecraft was Mary Shelley’s mother, the author of Frankenstein, though Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth. Actually, that’s not really fun.

6. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection by Judith Butler

Key to grappling with feminism is understanding how patriarchy and authoritarianism subjugates and creates subjects, and our own complicity in that process, whether we desire to be complicit or not. “But if the very production of the subject and the formation of that will are the consequences of a primary subordination,” Judith Butler argues, “then the vulnerability of the subject to a power not of its own making is unavoidable. That vulnerability qualifies the subject as an exploitable kind of being. If one is to oppose the abuses of power (which is not the same as opposing power itself), it seems wise to consider in what our vulnerability to that abuse consists.” (bold my own.) This seems obviously relevant to our political climate. As a warning, this is no easy reading. Judith Butler is super smart; I never feel like I understand everything she’s trying to say. However, I always feel a bit smarter after reading her, and she definitely makes me look at the world differently.

What feminist texts do you recommend reading?

Book Review of The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden


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Title and Author: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Publication Date: January 10th, 2017

Genre: Historical Fiction, Fairytale Inspired

How I got it: Thanks to Netgalley and Random House/Del Rey for providing me a copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review:

The Bear and the Nightingale begins with a fairy tale, told on a cold Russian night around the warmth of an oven’s fire, to a little girl named Vasilisa and her brothers.

Some fairy tales can become reality.

Illustration by Ivin Bilibin in the illustrated “Vasilisa the Beautiful”

Born in the heart of winter, from the day Vasilisa Petrovna, or Vasya, is born, her family knows she’s different, though they still love her with a fierce devotion. Vasya’s mother Marina dies during childbirth, bequeathing Vasya her mystical powers. Wanting a mother for his children, Vasya’s father travels to Moscow where he finds a new wife, Anna, a relative of Marina’s. Anna, like Vasya and Marina, has the sight. They can see the chyerti and domovoi — guardian spirits and creatures from Russian folklore — that grace the Russian landscape, though when Anna sees them she believes them to be demons, while Vasya sees them for what they truly are.

Illustration by Boris Zabirokhin

When Father Konstantin becomes their village priest, Anna confesses to him that she sees demons everywhere, and the Father knows what he’s meant to do in this backward village — abolish the demons and bring the people back to God. The best way to do this, he believes, is through fear. Threatening God’s wrath, he convinces the villagers to stop leaving food out for the domovoi. However, instead of saving the village, he gives power to the evil bear god. Only the god Winter and Vasya can save the village.

Another one from Ivin Bilibin, from the illustrated “Morozko”

The Bear and the Nightingale blends a variety of Russian folklore with history from the Middle Ages. While I’m no expert at Russian folklore, I did pick up on a few fairytale references, like the fairy tales “Vasilisa the Beautiful” and “The Death of Koschei the Deathless“. In an interview, Arden also mentions the firebird, “The Twelve Months,” and “Morozko.”

Vasya is a fun perspective to read from. She’s impulsive and independent, and her interactions with the chyerti and domovoi are the most engaging aspects of the novel. Many reviewers have issues with the portrayal of the Christian priest as a villain. I didn’t necessarily have issues with that aspect, though all the characters would’ve benefited from a bit more nuance. While I like and dislike the characters I’m supposed to, a part of me feels like no one is all villain or all hero. However, that’s a legitimate way to tell stories, and keeps with the fairytale tradition.

Another minor quibble, I wouldn’t want to count the number of times Vasya is compared to a horse (this is especially annoying when her father does it. I understand it when she’s being objectified, but he’s supposed to be different, more of an ideal father).

However, overall The Bear and the Nightingale is a magical and fun read.  If you enjoyed Uprooted by Naomi Novik or Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente (both Eastern European, historical fairytale novels), or The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, you’re likely to enjoy this as well. It lacks the darkness of Valente and the romance of Novik and is faster paced than The Golem and the Jinni, but it’s along the same lines.

I wonder if this is going to be a series? I would definitely be willing to pick up where we left off with Vasya. She’s got to have some more adventures, and I want to read about them.

Rating: 4/5

Reading Railroad: December’s Reading


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Here’s everything I read in December: 4 novels, 1 memoir, 1 short story collection, and 10 individual short stories.

Novels

The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish. Published in 1666. Feminist Utopian. This is considered the first science fiction novel written by a woman. As such, I expected it to be a little more exciting, but I forgot that most Restoration literature is steeped in its political context, thus making it a bit boring for those of us not living in the 17th century. An English lady travels to another dimension. There, she finds that each animal is its own cognizant, speaking society. Thus, there are Bear-men, Worm-men, Bird-men, etc. All these societies are ruled by a single ruler, and soon the lady becomes their empress. As Empress, she investigates scientific, philosophical, and religious thought, and each of the animal species specializes in individual areas of investigation. Ultimately, Cavendish argues that it’s better to have a single head and a single entity making decisions for the whole, so there won’t be any strife. I guess she doesn’t believe in tyrants. My full review is on Goodreads. 3/5

Thorn by Intisar Khanani. Published in 2012. Fantasy fairy tale, could be YA as well. A retelling of “The Goose Girl,” Thorn examines abuse against women in its many forms. The beginning is immediately engaging; Princess Alyrra is stranded in both an emotionally and a physically abusive family and I desperately wanted to see her get out of her situation. However, once Alyrra is in a new city (I’m trying not to give any spoilers here), the plot really slows down, and it feels like a lot of nothing particularly important happens. It picks up again here and there, but overall, the pacing felt off. However, if you enjoy fairy tale retellings, particularly of “The Goose Girl,” then you should check this out. 3/5

Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was by Angélica Gorodischer. Published in 2003. Argentinian Fantasy, translated by Ursula Le Guin. Kalpa Imperial is a history of a fictional empire as told by a storyteller. The storyteller takes different periods of history and moves from broad descriptions to personal histories. Each chapter describes an entirely different period of history with all new characters. Certainly, this is a unique way of telling a story, but typically characters are what keep me engaged, and the second I finally became engrossed in a character’s story, it was a new chapter and a whole new part of the empire’s history. I never sank into the reading. But I also see that’s the whole point of the novel: how the individual stories intersect into the broader history of the empire, and how it’s made up of many singular identities, and each identity contributes to the character that is the empire. Maybe if I’d read this when I wasn’t so busy I would’ve enjoyed it more. 3/5

Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Published in 1815. Middle Grade. A cute Christmas classic. The ballet cuts much of the plot, which has a story within a story. Like many fairytale inspired fiction of its time, it can be weird. Some people in the group I read it in found it too disturbing to be a children’s classic, but it didn’t seem too dark to me. I really enjoyed Maurice Sendak’s illustrations. 3/5

Nonfiction

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston. Published 1975. The Woman Warrior combines Kingston’s memoir of growing up in the U.S. the daughter of Chinese immigrants with her mother’s story and Chinese folklore and history. My favorite chapter, “Shaman,” tells the story of how her mother became a doctor of midwifery in China and battled ghosts in a women’s dormitory. It was hard to relate this independent ghost-fighting doctor with the mother Kingston describes, who belittles her daughters, though she’s a warrior throughout. Both Kingston and her mother are warriors in very similar ways, though they never see the similarities in one another. A unique memoir. You can read my full review on Goodreads. 4/5

Short Story Collections

A Wild Swan: And Other Tales by Michael Cunningham. Published in 2015. Adult fairytale short stories. This collection modernizes eleven fairy tales. These retellings circle around love and relationships: what it means to have someone that’s always by your side, that ‘happily ever after,’ for better and for worse. But these are not romanticized versions. The first story — “Dis. Enchant” — gives a clue as to how Cunningham approaches fairy tales — he disenchants the romanticized notion of happily ever after. Excellent endings to all of these, and the illustrations by Yuko Shimizu are gorgeous. It’s a super fast read; I read this in a single sitting. You can read my more detailed review on Goodreads. 4/5

Short Stories

I read a lot of individual short stories in December. I’ve briefly summarized all of them, and every single one is free to read online, so click and read away.

“Cottage Country” by David K. Yeh. Published in Apex Magazine, May 2016. Alternates between when a man’s dog goes missing and he suspects the sidhe, to the same man as a child learning about the sidhe while playing chess with his father. 3.5/5

“Left Foot, Right” by Nalo Hopkinson. Published in Strange Horizons, May 2016. After a car accident that killed her sister, a teen girl struggles with grief, and part of that process involves buying shoes for her sister and chugging them into the water where her sister died. Then she meets a faceless child by the water. 3/5

“The Limitless Perspective of Master Peek, or, the Luminescence of Debauchery” by Catherynne M. Valente. Published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2016. This one almost defies description. Master Peek is born a girl, but poses as a boy to run the family glassblowing business. And then, as Master Peek, starts making glass eyes. This is written in 19th century style prose, highly stylized and very unique. Novelette in length, I believe. 4.5/5

“The Consultant” by Catherynne M. Valente. Reprinted in The Center for Fiction, originally published in The Bread We Eat in Dreams. A noir detective tells the story of her practice serving fairytale women. Love it. 5/5

“Her Mother’s Ghosts” by Theodora Goss. Reprinted in Mithila Review, originally published in The Rose in Twelve Petals and Other Stories. A piece about Goss’s mother told through a fictional character. 3.5/5

“Four and Twenty Blackbirds” by JY Yang. Published in Lightspeed Magazine, June 2016. This story describes an earth where bird aliens pass a virus to women that impregnates them with birds. 3.5/5

“The Men from Narrow Houses” by A.C. Wise. Published in Liminal Stories, 2016. A great, weird fox shapeshifter story. 4/5

“The Red Thread” by Sofia Samatar. Published in Lightspeed Magazine, June 2016. Sahra writes letters to Fox (one of her mother’s students) as she and her mother wander across a post-apocalyptic land, from settlement to settlement. 4/5

“Cookie Jar” by Stephen King. Published in VQR, Spring 2016. A 13-yr-old interviews his 90 yr. old great grandfather, and hears a strange story about another dimension, and an endless supply of cookies. 4.5/5

“Songbird” by Shveta Thakrar. Published in Flash Fiction Online, April 2016. A girl is told to give up singing and become a good lady, but no one can be someone they’re not forever. 4/5

Happy reading in the month to come!