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!

Reading Railroad: September’s Reading


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Everything I read in September. I didn’t finish much this month!

Novels

The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco. To be published in March 2017. Tea discovers she’s a bone witch after raising her brother from the dead, but bone witches are both powerful and feared. Her life won’t be an easy one. While some teens will probably like this, for me, much of it became too obsessed with clothes and training and lost sight of plot. You can read my full review on Goodreads. Thanks to NetGalley and Sourcebooks for providing an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review. 2/5

 

Nonfiction

The Leaping Hare by George Ewart Evans and David Thomson. Published in 2001. Want to know more about hares? Well, this is the book for you. The study begins with a natural history of hares (did you know their young are called leverets? that they build ‘forms,’ or nests, on top of the ground as opposed to burrowing beneath the earth?), then it moves to human interaction with hares, and ends discussing myth and folk beliefs about hares. I originally believed it would mostly be a folklore collection, since I’d previously read one of the author’s works which was entirely folkloric (The People of the Sea: A Journey in Search of the Seal Legend). While that’s not what I found here, it’s even more useful for the current creative project I’m working on. 4/5

Short Story Collections

Uncanny Magazine Issue 12 edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas. Published in September 2016. Collects 6 speculative fiction short stories, 4 essays, 3 poems, and 2 interviews. Read (free) fiction about creatures in the form of doppelgangers, fairies, and ghosts, witches, ogres and a brain. The essays pay homage to Star Trek, my favorite TV show (along with Dr. Who), and my favorite piece in the issue is a discussion of Alice in Wonderland Syndrome. So interesting! Good issue overall. I’m going to go support the magazine by purchasing a subscription for next year now. You can read my review of the entire collection on Goodreads. 4/5

Individual Short Stories

All of these are free online, so click the links if you want to read them!

“The Second Bakery Attack” by Haruki Murakami. When newlyweds awake in the night starving, an unusual decision is made. Hilarious short story, and my first Murakami! Will have to read more. 4.5/5

“The Quidnunx” by Catherynne M. Valente in Apex Magazine (April 2016, reprint). Novelette. A forest and a meadow fall in love, one builds a village, the other builds forest creatures. The quidnunx is one of these forest creatures who just so happens to like the taste of humans. And, oh, the humans also like the taste of quidnunxes. As always with Valente, absolutely unique world, and prose with an ear toward sound. 4/5

 

 

“La beauté sans vertu” by Genevieve Valentine in Tor.com (April 2016). 19-year-old Maria is a model in an industry where model’s arms are replaced with looser, younger arms. She’s known as the Princess of Roses and Diamonds, and hints of the fairy tale Diamonds and Toads interplay with the hottest fashion show of the season. It’s an interesting read. 3.5/5

 

 

 

“Left Behind” by Cat Rambo in Clarkesworld Magazine (May 2016). A woman programs mind palaces for the elderly in a space ship, so their descendants don’t have to take care of them. A brother and sister bring in their elderly mother who isn’t exactly keen on the idea of living in a mind palace, and the programmer discovers the mother has a wonderful imagination and memory, far more complex than she’s ever experienced before. Interesting concept. 4/5

 

 

“Mine-wife” by Karin Tidbeck in Words without Borders (January 2015). Letters and artifacts are exchanged concerning an archaeological dig where dolls, or mine-wives, are placed at the entrances of mines. A village once disappeared there, and the archaeologists are investigating why. I like how this story is told in artifacts — letters and notes. Not sure I get the ending, but it’s still worth reading. 4/5

 

 

Response to Censorship, and a Joint Book Review of Between the World and Me and Kindred


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Title & Author: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Publication Date: July 2015

Genre: Nonfiction, Journalism

How I got it: Bought used from McKay’s 

Title & Author: Kindred by Octavia Butler

Publication Date: 1979

Genre: Science Fiction

How I got it: Bought used from McKay’s

 

Review:

“The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a Man.”

This line from Between the World and Me gave me chills when I read it, and still does. Yesterday, when I tried to post a review of this book to Amazon, which included the above quote, Amazon rejected it because it failed to “adhere to the following guidelines.” While Amazon did not specify which guideline I broke, I believe this is the one:

 

Hate Speech & Offensive Content – We don’t allow reviews that express intolerance for people belonging to identity groups including race, gender, religion, sexual preference, or nationality. Customers are allowed to comment on products and question the expertise of authors, sellers, or other customers as long as it is in a non-threatening manner.”

 

Anyone moderately familiar with Between the World and Me knows that it’s a treatise on racial intolerance in the United States. What I did to deserve censorship was to quote directly from the book. But if a book concerns “intolerance for people belonging to identity groups,” then how can I or anyone else quote from it without using the ‘offensive content’ the book discusses?

Here’s the quote again:

 

“The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a Man.”

 

By censoring the review, Amazon has unintentionally proven Coates’ point with this passage: that to be a bitch, a nigger, a fag, is to exist on the borderline of what is human, is to be offensive, and thus in need of censorship. Notably, there are no derogatory terms for Amazon to censor for being a white man. Bastard? White Trash? These terms lack the horror of bitch, fag, and nigger because they lack the societal implications of these terms—much as Coates argues that being ‘black’ is a social construct, a status society has arbitrarily given to specific people that is otherwise meaningless.

 

“But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”

 

Between the World and Me is ostensibly a letter from Coates to his 15-year old son exploring what it means to be a black man in America, where your body can at any time be taken, beaten, and/or killed. But it’s also much more than a letter—it’s a philosophical treatise, memoir, investigative journalism. In addressing his son’s distress over Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, Coates describes his own internal struggle when, in his twenties, a friend dies after a police officer shoots him, and his struggle to answer Why, both in terms of the death but also in broader terms, why there’s race at all, why the black body can be taken, used, destroyed. More than anything, Coates wonders how to raise a black son under these conditions and have him still be him.

 

“So I feared not just the violence of this world but the rules designed to protect you from it, the rules that would have you contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give the police a reason. All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to “be twice as good,” which is to say “accept half as much.” These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile.”

 

I have mixed feelings about Amazon’s censorship. I want to read reviews that engage critically with a text and give accurate portrayals of what I can expect from a book. It would be impossible to write an engaged review of Between the World and Me without writing about how it confronts “intolerance for people belonging to identity groups.” Obviously, there’s a difference between hate speech and discussing a book about hate, a difference Amazon does not distinguish between. At the same time, some guidelines seem appropriate. If Amazon hypothetically eliminated their guidelines, how many racist comments would this book receive? Given the current Republican candidate for president, I fear the number would be far higher than I can imagined. Yet, part of me still thinks there should be no guidelines, that everyone should have the right to say what they want about a book, even if it’s hateful.

Interestingly, my review posted without issue on Goodreads, even though they have a similar policy, and are owned by Amazon. Goodreads must be doing something Amazon isn’t. I’m sure both use a computerized system to catch offensive language, but perhaps Goodreads adds a human element to it? Does someone actually read a tagged review before it’s rejected?

On a similar note, immediately after reading Between the World and Me I picked up Kindred by Octavia Butler. Butler is considered a grand master of sf, and Kindred to be one of her most beloved novels. Goodreads also says it’s the first science fiction novel written by a black woman, which seems almost impossible considering it was published in 1979. That’s less than forty years ago. Wow. As Coates argues, we are still living with the repercussions of slavery.

Kindred relates to many of the same themes addressed in Between the World and Me; primarily, the physicality of the black body and the legacy of slavery.

The novel begins in 1976 as Dana—a black woman—unpacks with her husband—a white man—in their new home. Then, suddenly, Dana’s not there. She’s time traveled to the worst possible time for a black woman: early 1800s America, though she doesn’t know that yet. What she does know is that a boy is drowning, so she saves him, and when his father puts a gun in her face she time travels again, back home and to her own time of 1976.

She’s not finished with time traveling. She fazes back and forth in time over the course of a month, to the same boy, each time having to save his life even as she’s forced to work as a slave on his father’s plantation. At one point her husband grabs her as she fazes out of the present, traveling with her, but when she returns to 1976 he fails to reach her in time to come too, and is stuck in the 1800s for 5 years before Dana returns to the past after what’s been only 8 days for her.

Kindred asks, how would you survive if you were a slave? (I would not have been as strong as Dana, I know that.) What would you do now if you were suddenly a slave? How did some good white people come to condone or manage to ignore the horrors of slavery? It’s a compulsive read, full of bodily danger and horror.

While Between the World and Me addresses the physicality of the black male body in current society, Kindred looks at the physicality of being a black female slave. Not only is her body owned as a slave, but in order to return to her own time, her body must be put into danger. She must believe that she could die. Thus Butler depicts the many ways the black body was abused: rape, whipping, suicide, violence. (Disgustingly, my used copy came with some art work—the previous owner had drawn a penis right after a rape scene.) But even outside of Dana’s horrific experience, Kindred depicts how the black body was owned: families are torn apart on the whim of their owners, children sold to keep people ‘in-line.’

Reading both Between the World and Me and Kindred  back-to-back was emotionally wrenching, but so worth it. They’re both tough reads, ones I want everyone to tackle. I’ve passed on my copies to a friend, and hope they both keep on passing.

 

Rating for Between the World and Me: 5/5

Rating for Kindred: 4/5

 

What are your thoughts on censoring reviews, as Amazon does?