Mini-reviews: Visual treats

The Arrival Shaun Tan

The Arrival by Shaun Tan. Published 2007.

Recommendation from: Regular Rumination

This gorgeous book is a wordless tale of immigration in a fantastical world. The dangers of immigrants’ homelands and the cultural strangeness of the new world are portrayed using otherworldly architecture, food, plants and creatures. In some things, one can parallel to the equivalent in our own world history, but Shaun Tan does not seem to be making everything into straightforward representative symbols. There’s quite a lot of room for whimsical expansion. It’s actually quite a moving book, especially in light of today’s fraught conversations about immigration.

Delta Deep Down Burdine

Delta Deep Down: Photographs by Jane Rule Burdine. Edited by Wendy McDaris. Introduction by Steve Yarbrough. Published 2008.

Recommendation from: Maggie Reads

I’ve been intrigued by the Delta region of Mississippi since reading Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding when I was in high school. I still haven’t visited, though I plan to. The photos in this collection were taken between the years of 1973 and 2006. The photo shown above was taken in 1989. The photo subjects are a good mix of people, buildings and landscapes. The selection and ordering of the photos was carefully done so that something in the right page photo subtly echoes something in the left page photo. It might be a similarity in color, or the composition, or a pattern. This was a lovely book to page through.

To see more of Jane Rule Burdine’s work, here is a link to a tumblr site:

Cat Getting Out of Bag

Cat Getting Out of a Bag and Other Observations: A Cat Book by Jeffrey Brown

Published 2007.

Recommendation: My notes say this recommendation came from Paperback Reader though I can’t seem to find the actual blog post. Simon from Stuck in the Book also likes it.

This cute little book is a collection of comic panels about common cat behavior: zooming around the house, knocking things over, getting under sheets during bed-making, folding themselves into a tidy loaf position, etc. I especially liked one page that was labeled “She Knows” and shows the owner packing a suitcase while the cat looks on. Very occasionally, I wasn’t quite sure what an illustration depicted, but for the most part, as someone who grew up with cats and owns a cat, I saw much that I recognized and could smile over.

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Weird Books from my past

I have completed one book for March’s #Weirdathon (hosted by Julianne of Outlandish Lit) and am currently reading another, and their reviews will come in a later post.

Today I wanted to reminisce about several weird books I read a few years before I started this blog. I’m going to steal liberally from my reviews that I did on livejournal and Goodreads – the approximate vintage of both the books and the reviews is 2005 – 2007.

 

The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian

The Children’s Hospital has a premise that is incredibly strange: the world is destroyed overnight by a flood and the only survivors are the medical staff, patients, and patients’ families of an angelically-designed children’s hospital. This is just the beginning of the story. The main character, Jemma, is a not particularly competent medical student who ends up playing a pivotal role in the destinies of all the survivors.

The Children’s Hospital is a difficult (not to mention lengthy) book, and I thought of giving up several times. I’m glad that I did finish it, because the book is a work of brilliance and mad imagination that one doesn’t encounter often. It’s incredibly epic and has passages that will sweep you away.

The Children’s Hospital is a book that I can only recommend with caution – it does not shy away from the grotesque and the despairing. The book ends up ripping you to shreds and it’s hard to be enthusiastic about recommending that experience to anyone else. However, if you’re looking for a true adventure in reading, give it a shot.


 

With by Donald Harington

A young girl gets kidnapped and whisked away to a remote abandoned farm in the Ozarks. When her captor dies unexpectedly, she must learn to survive with the help of an intelligent dog named Hreapha and a ghostly-type presence called an inhabit, both of whom narrate some of the story. I really loved this one – I put it on my year-end favorite reads list. The author was an Ozark native and set nearly all of his books in and around a fictional Ozark town called Stay More.


 

The Zero by Jess Walter

A post-9/11 novel about a first responder who is hired by the government to gather together all the paper scattered in the attacks on the World Trade Center towers. The problem is that there are huge gaps in his memory and he keeps finding himself in increasingly strange places and in the middle of shady transactions, trying to piece it all together. I found this book suspenseful and clever but ultimately not satisfying in how it all ended.


 

Nice Big American Baby by Judy Budnitz

Favorite Stories (The * marks my two absolute favorite) are listed below. I didn’t care for the other stories in the collection.

Flush – A daughter takes her resistant mother to the doctor’s for a mammogram. This story showcases one of the recurring themes in this book, that of the role reversal that occurs when children become adults and their parents become like children again.

Visitors – A daughter waiting at her home for her parents to arrive on a visit keeps receiving increasingly bizarre phone calls from her mother as their trip progresses.

*Saving Face – In a totalitarian society, an artist’s love for a webbed-feet swimmer ultimately dooms her – the swimmer – to a strange kind of imprisonment.

Miracle – A woman gives birth to a black baby but maintains that her husband (who is white) is still the father.

Sales – In a barren land, a man and his wife trap traveling salesman and keep them penned in their backyard. The man’s younger sister looks on with complicity at first until she gives way to a growing defiance.

*Motherland – An island of mothers proves to be a stultifying place for their daughters who grow up with the wrong ideas about the ways of men.


 

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell

This collection of stories mostly takes place on an island, somewhere near Florida. The stories are a bit surreal, full of strange customs like a camp for kids with sleeping problems (gnashers, somnabulists, sleep apniacs) or a retirement community where the elderly are housed in old boats. Russell often explores sibling relationships, as well as kids falling into friendships with trouble-making boys. Almost all of the stories end with a feeling of isolation and loneliness and this can make it hard to really want to continue to the next one.

Best stories: “Haunting Olivia” due to exquisitely written passages on ghost fish; “from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration” – the only story that I thoroughly liked.


 

Winkie by Clifford Chase

I did not in fact finish this one but its premise is so weird I feel compelled to mention it anyway. As the Goodreads synopsis says, it’s about a teddy bear who ends up on “the wrong side of America’s war on terror”. My small review that I wrote at the time: “I can tolerate some wackiness, but this one was way out there, even for me. Didn’t get far into it before I asked myself, am I remotely interested in what happens to this bear? The answer: no.

 

 

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The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

Water Knife Bacigalupi

2015. Knopf. ebook. 384 pages.

Recommendation from: Leslie of Regular Rumination

Review:

The Water Knife is one of those dystopian novels where the plausibility sucked me in right away. As Bacigalupi unhurriedly sets up the narratives of the three main characters, the details of the world-building provide the initial feelings of frisson. Scarcity of water has wreaked havoc on the American Southwest, and powerful figures use legal and extralegal means of acquiring rights to remaining water sources.

Bacigalupi releases small revelations about this future vision, often without ceremony. Mexico has been officially carved up into cartel states. Texas is no more. Chinese corporations have moved into derelict Southwestern cities and provide some of the few means for employment. People raise aid for the impoverished Southwest, but they restrict interstate migration.

The story takes place mostly in the city of Phoenix, which is teetering on the brink of dissolution. Angel Velasquez, right-hand man for the ruthless boss of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, has been sent to Phoenix to check on another of the boss’ projects. Meanwhile, Connecticut-born journalist Lucy Monroe – who has adopted Phoenix as her home – pursues a story she knows she should leave alone. And at the bottom of the Phoenix food-chain is Maria Villarosa, a smart teenage refugee from Texas who is running out of ways to survive.

The convergence of all three characters’ storylines was perfectly thrilling because, in a moment, everything escalates very very quickly, in the best way. All the preceding character and world-building provided the stakes so that when the novel gave itself over to action, I was invested. Death dogs the characters every step of the way, and there were no guarantees on any character making it to the end.

Going back to my attraction to the plausible: I liked, for example, that in The Water Knife, the U.S. government still exists and most of the states still exist as well, and that in other parts of the country, people were not living in near-apocalyptic conditions. The whole world doesn’t need to have gone down in flames for a dystopia to exist somewhere. Certainly, we already have places in the world that resemble Bacigalupi’s Phoenix.

I also appreciated the end of the novel. In a story where “saving the world” – even “saving Phoenix” – was never a real possibility, the best one can hope for is to live another day.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Rhapsody in Books – “Bacigalupi is a consistently intelligent, prescient, and compassionate writer. If we just stand by, as we are now, and watch it “all going to go to hell,” it won’t be for want of trying by Paolo Bacigalupi.”

So Many Books – “Bacigalupi does a marvelous job at character development and it is fascinating to watch each of the three main characters change over the course of the novel as their personal beliefs and illusions, hopes and dreams, are ripped away.”

Weighing a Pig Doesn’t Fatten It – “The characters spring to life easily, but maybe Angel is a bit too much of the typical semi-invincible hard guy hero. It’s not that he’s flat (not at all even), but he’s just so good in what he does. Then again, a lot of action packed books are about guys that have all the luck in the world”

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H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk

Some time after her father’s sudden death, English writer Helen Macdonald decided to train a female goshawk, who she named Mabel. Though experienced in falconry, Macdonald had never trained a goshawk, a bird with a reputation for being difficult. H is for Hawk explores the emotional territory of her grief as well as the emotional territory involved with training this hawk to trust her. Macdonald’s book also is partly biographical, as she recounts the life and falconry of author T.H. White.

I was glad that Macdonald was an experienced falconer, as it reassured me that there wasn’t anything “stunt-like” about her training the goshawk. She is able to explain the details and history of falconry in a way that has been digested through her own lifetime of experience.

There is a lot to love about her writing. I liked this quote in particular, which I think conveyed the nature of her grief:

There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.

Macdonald also shares some great vignettes from her training of Mabel. I liked the story of her conversation with a man from Kazakhstan, who is reminded of his home country as he looks at Macdonald’s goshawk.

Macdonald is fond of descriptive passages with rich vocabulary. It can be quite beautiful, but sometimes it tipped over into being too much for me. I was reading the book on my Kindle and came across a landscape description that included the phrase “the argillaceous shimmer of tinder-fine clay.” Unfamiliar with the word “argillaceous”, I looked up the definition, and found it meant “clay-like” or “containing clay” – a pretty redundancy. It was instances like that where the writing became a little too ornamental for my tastes.

I struggled with the passages about T.H. White. I hadn’t realized they would comprise so much of the book. Once I realized that H is for Hawk was almost a dual narrative between Macdonald’s story and T.H. White’s, I tried to adjust my expectations accordingly. But I just was not very interested in White’s story, and these passages often seemed like retellings of his book The Goshawk and the journals he wrote about his falconry attempt. I started off the book thinking I was going to love H is for Hawk, but the T. H. White sections really dragged down my overall reading experience.

I can totally see why others loved it though, because it is a finely written book and others may find T. H. White as fascinating as Macdonald does.

Excerpt from others’ reviews:

BooksPlease – “This a book unlike any other that I’ve read, about wildness, grief and mourning, and obsession, which made it heavy reading for me.”

Memories from Books – “[The writing] captures the fierceness of the hawk itself; the depth of Helen MacDonald’s connection with the hawk; her despair; her single-minded focus on the hawk that deflects her grief, and the occasional moments of peace.”

Olduvai Reads – “Is it memoir? Nature writing? Literary? It’s a little of everything and it is brilliant.”

Also, I liked this review by dovegreyreader scribbles, who wasn’t getting on with the book in her first couple of tries, but ended up really connecting with it.

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My Taxonomy of Weird Books: A Weirdathon Sign-up and TBR post

Julianne of Outlandish Lit is hosting a #Weirdathon during the month of March. Sign-up post is here.

As Julianne says in the sign-up post, what counts as weird is anything that is weird to you. Like most book bloggers, I love to make lists of books. I decided to trawl through my Ridiculously Long™ Goodreads to-read list and identify all the weird books.

MONTH-LONGREADATHON copy

I quickly realized that I had a personal taxonomy of “weird” books:

Form & Style – these are the books where the form is unusual. The author has done something unconventional with the way they wrote the book.

  • I, the Divine: A Novel in First Chapters by Rabih Alameddine [consists of the main character’s attempts to write the first chapter of her memoir]
  • *Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau, trans. by Barbara Wright [consists of 100 retellings of the same plot, each time in a different style, e.g. sonnet, opera, etc.]
  • The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order by Joan Wickersham [the author reflects on her father’s life and death in the form of an index.

Short Stories – a lot of the “weird” books were short stories collections where fantastical, absurd and strange things happened to people. (Does anyone feel like short story collections often have the best titles?)

  • The Thing About Great White Sharks by Rebecca Adams Wright [featuring robotic dogs, futuristic flying circuses, and sharks of course]
  • 29 Ways to Drown by Niki Aguirre [stories influenced by Latin American magic realism]
  • *Kalpa Imperial by Angelica Gorodischer, trans. by Ursula LeGuin [stories w/ fantasy and magical realism, all presented as the history/myths of a fictitious Empire]

Narrated by Animals – I didn’t have a lot of these, but enough to see it as a trend. It’s rare for there to be adult books with animal protagonists, and so it’s kind of weird when it happens.

  • The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy [Elephant herd sets across the African plains on a quest]
  • Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis [From the synopsis – “a bet between the gods Hermes and Apollo leads them to grant human consciousness and language to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto vet­erinary clinic.”]
  • Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann [A flock of sheep attempt to solve the mystery of their murdered shepherd]

Translated Fiction – An unusual preponderance of weird books on my list happen to also be translated works. The books listed above with an * are translated works.

  • There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, trans. by Keith Gessen [These are also short stories.]
  • Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov, trans. by George Bird [A strange suspense novel involving a man and his pet penguin]
  • The Room by Jonas Karlsson, trans. Neil Smith [A government office worker discovers a secret room, which his co-workers do not see]

I had other weird books that didn’t fit into any of these categories but I thought these recurring themes were interesting. In general, with the exception of books from the Form & Style category, my “weird” books usually involve fantastical elements but are not quite fully in the fantasy genre. I would call it magical realism, but I’m not sure what that term means nowadays.

I have picked four books to be on my #Weirdathon TBR pile. I don’t know that I’ll read all four, though none are particularly long, so it’s possible I might. Three I’ve already mentioned in my taxonomy above: The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy, Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann, and There Once Lived a Woman . . . by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. The fourth is a recommendation from Julianne, host of the #Weirdathon: Hall of Small Mammals: Stories by Thomas Pierce.

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My ancestor’s journal is now a blog

As some readers of this blog may be aware, I’ve been engaged in a transcription project of sorts for the past few years. My great-great grandmother’s journal was typed up in the 1930’s and later xeroxed into many copies. I possess one of these xeroxed copies. I took the next modernization step and re-typed the journal into a Word document. As I’ve worked, I’ve occasionally posted excerpts from the journal as posts to this blog. Now I’ve made my ancestor’s journal into its own blog: The Journal of Emma Tilton Richards: 1888 to 1902.

If you want to start at the first entry, here is January 1, 1888. So far, I have all of the 1888 entries on the blog, and have started on 1889.

Emma lived in the town of Williamsburg, Massachusetts with her husband, Frank. At the start of the journal, they have five children and more children are born in subsequent years. Frank’s mother and stepfather also live with them.

The journal entries are usually very brief, and sometimes just consist of a report of the weather and the work that have been completed by the family for that day. But for me, I’ve found it a fascinating peek into that time and place.

I’ve added contextual notes to some entries, according to my own curiosity. One of my favorite discoveries was that Marion MacBride, one of Emma’s close female cousins, was a journalist based out of Boston and was active in all sorts of organizations.

I also have a page called “Cast of characters” which is an index to the names of people who appear in the journal. I don’t index the immediate family members and I don’t index people who are mentioned only once. I figure that some of the main visitors to the blog will be people conducting genealogical research and this page will hopefully help them find all the entries in which their relation is mentioned.

I’ve changed the template of the blog numerous times. I’m moderately satisfied with the current one and it’s free, so I suppose I can’t complain too much. In any case, I had decided that I would make the blog public and searchable once I had a full year posted and annotated. And that happened this weekend, so hooray! Thanks to all those who commented on the excerpts I shared, as that helped spur me to turning the journal into a blog of its own.

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East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East of Eden

1952. Penguin. ebook. 620 pages.

East of Eden was one of my favorite reads last year. I felt like Steinbeck threw his whole self into writing this epic novel. You can see where East of Eden could have become wild and unwieldy and at times it’s careening down a philosophical tangent, but he keeps this gargantuan story on course. There are two brothers (Adam and Charles) and then later two more brothers (Cal and Aron), and their stories evoke Biblical parallels. In the background the history of America plays out and its wars. Just when you think you know where you’re headed, the book introduces Cathy, and you realize – oh! this book has a psychopath. And meanwhile, into this fiction Steinbeck weaves what appears to be some of his own family history, about his mother’s family, the Hamiltons. John Steinbeck even makes a couple of cameo appearances as a little boy.

One of my favorite characters was Lee, a thoughtful, kind character who is the son of Chinese immigrants, and works for the Adam Trask. Lee’s relationship with his surrogate father and later his surrogate daughter were the main emotional touchstones for me.

The writing is magnificent. At one point, Steinbeck begins a chapter by noting that the story approached the year 1900. “In the books of some memories it was the best time that ever sloshed over the world.” This passage soon wends its way into a brief and cynical two-page summation of the 19th century:

The Mexican War did two good things though. We got a lot of western land, damn near doubled our size, and besides that it was a training ground for generals, so that when the sad self-murder settled on us the leaders knew the techniques for making it properly horrible.

This strain of cynicism, and worldly-wise is balanced by moments of gentle heartbreak, such as when the patriarch of the Hamilton family surrenders to old age and decides to go live with his daughter until the end of his days. The emotional scope and tone of the novel is as great and varied as its cast of characters.

I’d read and enjoyed short works by Steinbeck previously – Of Mice and Men and “The Red Pony” – but wasn’t expecting to love this book as much as I did. It’s got that spark of timelessness that all good classics do. I’m not a stranger to reading classics, but I still get surprised by how accessible they can be.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Owlish Reader – “The story left me overwhelmed, but in a subtle way. I can’t quite put my finger on what it was that left me with that immense feeling of contentment and fondness.”

Rivers I Have Known – “This novel is genius diluted by mediocre,  resulting in a tolerable, reasonably interesting read that will perhaps improve on rereading because I will know which parts to skip.”

Tiny Little Reading Room – “One thing that really amazed me was that, amongst all the threads, there were a bunch of little anecdotes that had nothing to do with the main story, yet they enriched it greatly.”

 

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