Non-Fiction

Non-Fiction works including: memoirs, biographies, history, cultural analysis, and naturalism/scientific works.

Books about Children’s Literature

The Geek Feminist Revolution

26114477In anticipation for the soon-to-be-published Apocalypse Nyx I thought I’d take some time and get to know Kameron Hurley (or at least her non-fictional voice). I was thrilled to see that The Geek Feminist Revolution has been appreciated by many of my bookish friends and I am no exception. I read a few feminist texts this year, and found some to be slightly repetitive. I find it interesting that a non-fictional work about a topic is greatly affected by who has written it. If another had written this exact same book I may have been annoyed at the biographical bits. However, learning about Hurley’s journey to becoming a (beloved and respected) science-fiction writer against all odds has been worth the read. It also helps to know that she won to Hugo awards. One for Best Related Work (2013), for her essay “‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative,” and the second for Best Fan Writer (2014). In addition she has published several books in the Bel Dame Apocrypha, respectively God’s War (2010), Infidel (2011), and Rapture (2012),  and the Worldbreakar Saga: The Mirror Empire (2014), Empire Ascendant (2015), and The Broken Heavens (2017) as well as lots of short fiction published across several online platforms, magazines, and anthologies.

Hurley begins by telling readers of her journey and struggle as a young writer in her teens and early 20s facing rejection after rejection in the writing industry. At the same time there was a rise of women speaking up in all fields and standing their ground. A lot of times Hurley reinforces some of the points Roxanne Gay made in her books and adds to them. She is in many ways in conversation with Gay, and mentions Gay’s work several times. What I appreciated about Hurley’s work was the way she tackled different aspects of what a ‘Geek’ feminist must endure, particularly in the Science Fiction/Fantasy world. She takes us on a journey through the history of the Hugos, the many excuses made by the crowds on behalf of successful men, the ridiculous things authors like Harlan Ellison, and Theodore Beale have said in public spaces about other writers. For instance, finding out that anyone could possibly dislike N.K. Jemisin was already a shock to me, but finding out that someone publicly wrote that she was a ‘half-savage’ and was still read and supported by readers and the industry made me lose some of the faith I had in bookish people. And that’s just it, Hurley takes on the ‘Geek’ feminist dilemma. We’re supposed to be surrounded by the educated folk, the people who know better than to be racist, and sexist. And yet… The back-end drama of the Hugos and the Sci-Fi industry is all laid bare by Hurley here and she backs every single assertion with examples, and supportive evidence. For instance, she looks at the way we look at male heroes versus female heroes from varying angles, and even relates the story of Alice Sheldon being discovered as James Tiptree Jr, pointing out that Robert Silverberg famously said of Tiptree, “it has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.”

Hurley writes:

I wasn’t the only one often confused by society’s expectations versus what I actually wanted.

Traits we love in male heroes-their complexity, their confidence, their occasional bouts of selfish whim—become, in female heroes, marks of the dreaded ‘unlikable character.’

Anything is possible But to make it possible, we must first acknowledge that none of it is normal.

Hurley also takes on Gamergate and how it looks like from the outside. And how/why did so many young men from relatively cultured and well-off places think that the appropriate response to a heartbreak/rejection/criticism of consumed media had to be met with rage, violence, and threats? Hurley writes:

“when you are promised the world and the world says it doesn’t want you, you’re left flailing and lashing out, and that’s what these guys did.”

Hurley also elaborates on her weight being a secondary barrier for her as a writer and in the way she is accepted or judged in the first seconds of meeting, or being seen in a conference, a reading, or an online video platform. She writes:

“I’d be judged on whether or not I had the ‘discipline’ to take up less space in the world.”

Her bottom line to everything however is persistence. She writes about persistence a lot:

“Persistence isn’t the end of the road, after all. Persistence is the game. The narrative that wins is the one that persists the longest, in the face of overwhelming odds…Persistence is the name of the road.”

Persistence in the name of oppression, persistence in getting your work published, persistence, persistence, persistence.

Lastly, I’ll leave you with this line that Hurley quotes from Ursula K. Le Guin, which I think is a good summary of what Hurley conveys in this work successfully:

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words”

This work certainly speaks to the here and now. It reflects present day, Western anxieties. I liked that Hurley went for the specific niche “Geek” feminist and took on the SFF world, rather than trying to encompass everything else. Whenever she zooms out of the ‘geek’ circle, she speaks of other issues in her personal experience, and because of who she is and what she has achieved, these experiences are relevant and interesting.

 

What Makes This Book so Great

17910076What Makes This Book So Great is a series of reflections and essays written by Jo Walton for Tor.com between 2008 and 2011. There are several essays where she offers her opinion and personal experience on a particular topic in a frank, and personalized way. The other essays however are specific things Walton wishes to discuss from her reading experience of particular books. They are not quite reviews, rather, they are snippets of what worked or didn’t work in a book or series for her (as a reader). She states in the introduction:

“there’s no impersonality here, no attempt at objectivity. These are my thoughts and opinions, for what they’re worth, my likes and dislikes, my quirks and prejudices and enthusiasms”

For the most part I think she has certainly achieved what she set out to accomplish with this collection. There are three essays that caught my attention, which I’d like to discuss at length here. The rest of the essays just made my TBR longer with about five new long series, and a dozen other individual novels.  I loved the ways Walton describes how she reads when she is cozy, or down, or sick, and how comforting is to be in the company of a great book that seeks only to entertain and be fun.

In the very first essay Walton takes a stand for ‘re-reading’ in favour of only reading new books at all times. There are books one would like to read, or likes the idea of knowing its contents, but not necessarily willing to put hours into reading the material itself. Certain histories and political books fall into this category for Walton, and others alike (myself included). This topic is reoccurring through the collection and becomes apparent in the ways Walton describes certain long series. She writes:

“There are readers and re-readers…when I re-read, I know what I’m getting. It’s like revisiting an old friend. An unread book holds wonderful unknown promise, but also threatens disappointment…upon a re-read one is not surprised…you have more time to pay attention to the characters.”

The second essay that caught my attention is one where Walton discusses Speculative Fiction as it stand in opposition to the mainstream. She writes:

 “when mainstream writers come to write SF, it’s normally the case that they don’t understand the idioms of SF, the things we do when we (SF readers) read SF…the mainstream writers know how to do all the basic writing stuff, stories and characters and all of that, sometimes they know how to do that really well. They really want to write SF…but they don’t know how SF works…they explain too much of the wrong things and not enough of the right things…In a science fiction novel, the world is a character, and often the most important character. In a mainstream novel, the world is our world and the characters are in the world. In a mainstream novel trying to be SF, this gets peculiar and can make the reading experience uneven”

I think this topic gave me pause, for two reasons. The first is that now I think the SFF field has its own sub-genres and its own version of the mainstream. For instance, I consider books like N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season to be so mainstream, because on Booktube everyone talks about it (or has in the past) particularly in the Science Fiction and Fantasy channels. It’s hard to keep in perspective how small this group is overall, and how within society avid readers (10+ books per month) are a small subgroup. I now pride myself on knowing the most obscure texts rather than the mainstream, and yet ‘mainstream’ Science Fiction, is not recognizable by the average person (or reader) as it is a subgenre of a subgenre (speculative). It sort of reminded me of the Jeffrey Eugenides quote from The Marriage Plot:

“College wasn’t like the real world. In the real world people dropped names based on their renown. In college, people dropped names based on their obscurity.”

Walton also made me me reflect on the ways I interact with Science Fiction, and how, compared to many other SFF readers I’m still very much a beginner. This language Walton refers to with technicalities, and knowing what needs explaining and what doesn’t is at the beginning very excluding to a beginner. When I approached this topic I felt like there was a group of smart people, a nerdy and intellectual crowd, and they ALSO told me that I can’t sit with them. It’s almost like they’ve made up an entirely new vocabulary telling the ‘norm cool kids’ or the ‘belonging to no group’ people like me: NO, YOU can’t hang out with us. It’s like being rejected by every group on the social spectrum.

In chapter 95 “SF reading protocols” Walton is in communication with Samuel R. Delany’s nonfiction works, particularly when he was attaching a vocabulary to Science Fiction in 1977 when the field was still finding its defining characteristics. She points out how other genres are defined by their tropes, i.e. romance is two people finding each other, mystery has clues, etc. But

“SF not defined by tropes. Samuel Delany suggested that rather than trying to define science fiction it’s more interesting to describe it, and when describing it, it’s more interesting to draw a broad circle around what everyone agrees is SF than to quibble about the edge conditions…look at the way people read it—those of us who read it have built up a set of skills for reading SF which let us enjoy it, where people who don’t have this approach to reading are left confused.”

Walton also considers what leaves a ‘friend’ who borrows a Sci-Fi book and returns it claiming ‘I didn’t get it’ say that they ‘don’t get it.’ They are not stupid, and they can read sentences. But Walton states that Modern Science Fiction assumes you already know how to interpret its language and:

 “It’s just that part of the fun of science fiction happens in your head, and their head isn’t having fun, it’s finding it hard work to keep up.”

The last essay (and its alluring title) is the main reason I checked this book out in the first place. The topic is “Literary criticism vs. talking about books.” All I’ve ever wanted to do: talk about books! I want to talk about the books I love, and the ones I hate, and sometimes I simply have an emotional reaction, whereas in formal discussion people want a more objective, distant analysis, which makes things very difficult. In undergrad I joined ‘writing groups,’ ‘poetry clubs,’ and all kinds of groups that weren’t quite what I wanted. They all required of me something different from pouring out my heart and soul on what a book meant to me. The way I’ve been using this platform for instance, is mainly me trying to introduce everything I’ve highlighted in a text so I can keep all the quotations I loved from a book in one place. Some turn into reviews, others just into a log of quotations, and most somewhere in-between–but at no point would I call myself a critic, even when I draw lines of comparison between other texts or schools of thought (at times). Walton writes:

“Critics are in dialogue with the text but also in dialogue with each other…I resist the term because critics are supposed to be impersonal and detached, they’re not supposed to burble about how much they love books and how they cried on the train. Most of all I resist because I hate the way that necessary detachment and objectivity seem to suck the life and the joy of reading out of the books critics talk about.”

There’s also the matter of ‘spoilers.’ Often academics go to the core of what they want to discuss in order to have a frame for their greater philosophical or historical point, that they completely forget that some people might have not read the book. The way SF assumes you know the terminology, academics assume you have read every book they refer to. Walton mentioned how a footnote from a Penguin classic of a Victorian book about three chapters in spoiled the ending of the book. This doesn’t happen in bookish circles (like on Booktube, Book Blogs, or just gatherings of bookish friends) because we are quite cautious of spoilers.

“In academia spoiler warnings are fannish and embarrassing….re-reading is forever, but you can only have the experience of reading a book for the first time once.”

The fact that a footnote, or an academic/critic can ruin someone’s first reading experience of a text is devastating, and I have a feeling this happened for lots of people who took literature courses in University, carefully choosing courses they loved, and subsequently having those books ruined for them. Finally I loved the ways Walton distinguishes herself from critics and puts herself in the category of people who love to read and just to talk about books. She writes:

“I’m not standing on a mountain peak holding them at arm’s length and issuing Olympian pronouncements about them…the lines of respectability in the SFF world, or that if something is studied it ought not to be fun, and you can only have fun with certain books…I feel as if I’m not really a grown-up critic. And I don’t want to be. It’s too much of a responsibility and not enough fun”

Yes!

Reasons to Stay Alive | Matt Haig

25733573I will do a full author spotlight on Matt Haig, particularly regarding his fictional works, where I will get into further details about my strange connection to this author, and my fascination with his work. I did want to tackle his non-fiction/memoir/self-help book independently. I will say that this blog entry is less a book review and more of a personal interaction with this work. I mostly jotted down notes of the portions of this book I enjoyed, and found striking in a way. It’s more of a ‘personal reading log.’ I would recommend this book for times when you are in a depressive state, but I think the first time you read it, I would ideally recommend this at a time when you are out of a depressive episode, and then use it as a guide to return to when it hits. I also saw this image often on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram, and I always found it wonderful, but I had no idea it was taken out of this book.IMG_20180412_104121

This work is Haig’s account of his lowest point in life when he was brought down by a mixture of Anxiety, Depression, and all other physical and psychological effects they bring.

He writes:

“We humans love to compartmentalize things. We love to divide our education system into separate subjects, just as we love to divide our shared planet into nations, and our books into separate genres. But the reality is that things are blurred. Just as being good at mathematics often means someone is good at physics, so having depression means it probably comes with other things. Anxieties, maybe some phobias, a pinch of OCD…”

Haig’s lowest point happened in Spain where he wanted to kill himself and he describes in detail the pressures and negative thoughts enveloping his days for months to follow, and the ways in which his parents and girlfriend supported him through this. He writes about the ways our awareness of death can often be both an anxiety-inducer and a life ‘activator’ and the paradoxical relationship between depression and happiness:

“It is a hard thing to accept, that death and decay and everything bad leads to everything good, but I for one believe it…that’s the odd thing about depression and anxiety. It acts like an intense fear of happiness, even as you yourself consciously want that happiness more than anything.”

What I particularly enjoyed about this work was the way Haig introduces us to his relationship to books, literature, authors (both dead and alive, both depressed and not) and often quotes another writer associating it with his immediate feeling or concern. The way he talks about books made me highlight uncontrollably:

“There is this idea that you either read to escape or you read to find yourself. I don’t really see the difference. We find ourselves through the process of escaping…So yes, I loved external narratives for the hope they offered…most of all, books. They were, in and of themselves, reasons to stay alive. Every book written is the product of a human mind in a particular state. Add all the books together and you get the end sum of humanity. Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself. But each map was incomplete, and I would only locate the treasure if I read all the books, and so the process of finding my best self was an endless quest…. the plot of every book can be boiled down to ‘someone is looking for something.’”

Haig also urges us (or challenges us in order to be happy) to:

“Read a book without thinking about finishing it. Just read it. Enjoy every word, sentence, and paragraph. Don’t wish for it to end, or for it to never end.”

A secondary point of focus of Haig is the observation on how we view the mind as separate from the body, and how in reality the two are highly connected. He looks at the psychological symptoms and physical symptoms of a mental illness and notes that there are much more on the physical side. He describes his relationship to running, meditation, and yoga and throughout this work returns to how important physical movement, physical nourishment, and physical forms of self-care influence the mental state.

Haig examines our relationship to ‘greats’ in literary and artistic history who have killed themselves. I know I am certainly one of those. But Haig takes a different approach. He urges us to admire and look up to people who certainly have depression but get out, putting aside Woolf, Plath, Sexton, Wallace, Hemingway, Van Gogh, and look at a much longer list of people who made it out. He even mentions the great long list that he keeps on hand of depressed celebrities who did make it out. There are also greats like Linocln and Churchill who overcame great depression and thrived on the lessons learned from the experience. Haig writes that maybe biographies of Lincoln and Churchill shouldn’t say that they thrived “despite” having depression, rather that they should say they thrived “because” of it.

There are moments in the book where Haig will mention something a famous writer says and in a way responds back to it with his own take. Here are two examples:

“Anais Nin called anxiety ‘love’s greatest killer,’ but fortunately, the reverse is also true. Love is anxiety’s greatest killer…forcing yourself to see the world through love’s gaze can be healthy. Love is an attitude to life. It can save us.

As Schopenhauer said, ‘we forfeit three-fourths of ourselves in order to be like other people,’ then love—at its best—is a way to reclaim those lost parts of ourselves.”

I particularly enjoyed his thoughts on time and time anxiety. This has certainly been a fixation of mine in the past I found some of his lines on time to be quite powerful. He writes:

“I was as obsessed with time as some people are about money. It was the only weapon I had…We feel an urgency to get on because time is short. Pain lengthens time…pain forces us to be aware of it…turning life into a desperate race for more stuff is only going to shorten it…in terms of how it feels.”

The whole book is also filled with advice from Haig and reminders that happiness will return, even when you are in a depressive state feeling shrouded in hopelessness:

Hate is a pointless emotion. Hate is the lack of imagination

Be around trees

we find infinity in ourselves, and the space we need to survive.

The key thing about life on Earth is Change. Cars rust, paper yellows, caterpillars become butterflies, depression lifts.

Accept. Don’t fight things, feel them. Tension is about opposition, relaxation is about letting go.

You will one day experience joy that matches this pain…you will stare down at a baby’s face as she lies asleep in your lap…you will eat delicious foods…there are books you haven’t read yet that will enrich you, films you will watch while eating extra-large buckets of popcorn, and you will dance and laugh and have sex and go for runs by the river and have late-night conversation and laugh until it hurts. Life is waiting for you…hang on in there if you can. Life is always worth it.

Lastly, as I was reading this book I took note of every quotation by other writers that Haig brought into this work that I enjoyed and each gave me pause. I jotted most of them down here to look at from time to time.

Quotations from other people scattered through the book that I really enjoyed:

“The wound is the place where the light enters you.” –Rumi

“is there no way out of the mind”- Plath

“The object of art is to give life a shape” – Shakespeare

“That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.” Emily Dickinson

“I know why logs spit. I know what it is to be consumed.”-Winston Churchill

“it did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.”- David Foster Wallace (on Advertising).

“Time crumbles things”- Aristotle

“The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. It is nothing but love and emotion; it is the Living Infinite.” – Jules Verne

“The lotus flower…grows in mud at the bottom of a pool but rises above the murky water and blooms in the clear air, pure, and beautiful.” – Buddhist Teaching

Trees and Animals | P. Wohlleben

28256439I spent a few days fully immersed in these two books by Peter Wohlleben. They are both books in the “nature” section, obviously, but they are written in the style of Thoreau’s Walden, which I referred to earlier as my ‘comfort classic.’ I absolutely loved being in the company of Wohlleben and I very much look forward to his next book which will be released this year. I believe it’s called The Weather Detective: Rediscovering Nature’s Secret Signs, which will be published in June. It sounds a lot like Tristan Gooley’s The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs, (a book I also loved) but hopefully it will add a new perspective to the conversation.

The first book written was The Hidden Life of Trees, and it sold quite rapidly. In a way it is rather meaningful because it changed the way we look at trees. He humanizes them by explaining the many ways in which they communicate with each other. I learned so much from this book, and it makes me want to start every conversation with “did you know that trees…” It made me want to learn a lot more about mushrooms and fungi in general. The way he depicted mushrooms as a social network between trees, carrying messages from a tree to another, was absolutely fascinating. The ways trees contain anti-freezing materials by self-lubricating with the essential oils in their branch tips, or the ways they contribute to bee life with their sap and sweet needles, or the function of the roots for a myriad of smaller ecosystems beneath the ground. The fun facts in this book are countless. This book heavily inspired, and informed (and featured Wohlleben in) the documentary Intelligent Trees.

9781784705954The second book, The Secret Life of Animals was published in 2016 and was recently translated into English from the German, in late 2017. In this book Wohlleben observes the life of the animals on his farm and those in the nearby forests and notes his observations. This book made me want to learn more about ravens, as they appear to be rather fascinating creatures. I particularly enjoyed how much of this book focused on squirrels and their behavior. Squirrels carry their young around their neck, they plant hundreds of trees by accidentally forgetting where they buried their acorns, and they adopt the young of another squirrel if that other squirrel didn’t make it. There was a chapter on the fun animals have for fun’s sake, rather than solely completing a behavior for survival purposes.

Again, both books are wonderful, and they have a cozy feeling to them. It honestly feels as if you are sitting by the fireplace with a grandfather-figure and he’s telling you about the forest, the trees, and the animals he has including his shy horses, his bees, and every other woodland creature. There’s something very Disney’s Bambi and Snow White about the atmosphere of these two books. Although these books are not very science-heavy, Wohlleben draws on studies and research conducted on the animals given each topic, but does not heavily rely on scientific evidence. Many times it really feels like we are learning things only about his own personal animal friends, and we are relying on Wohlleben’s observations. If you are looking for scientific books these are not it, but they certainly are reminiscent of something Thoreau would write. They are not preachy (regarding veganism), but they certainly invoke empathy and understanding regarding the fauna and flora around us. These books deepened my observation skills when walking. I see birds and trees differently now on a walk to and from places, and they forced me to pay attention to more than I would have noticed before. These books are very pleasant, accessible to a wide audience, and cozy. Ideal for nature lovers. Here are some pictures of trees I took after taking a walk recently (on my lunch break at work):

Dead Mountain | The Dyatlov Pass

17557470 (1) “an unknown compelling force should be considered the cause of the hikers’ deaths” – Lev Ivanov

On January 23, 1959 nine young, experienced hikers who loved adventure went on a passage near the elevations of what was named “Dead Mountain” in the Ural Mountains. The team actually had 10 hikers, one who happened to be forced to return due to his health on February 2nd. On the 12th of February when the team did not return as expected, a rescue team was sent out to retrieve them. When the rescue team found all 9 corpses, they found the bodies in a very odd situation. Some of the bodies were completely stripped down, one of the young women was missing her tongue, and one body was highly radioactive. The team leader’s name was Igor Dyatlov (1936-1959) and so the name “The Dyatlov Pass” was used when referring to the mystery surrounding the young hikers. I watched a mini-documentary on YouTube as well as one of Caitlin Doughty’s Morbid Mystery videos on this topic, and I wanted to learn more. I picked up this book by Donnie Eichar published in 2013 by First Chronicle Books and I was quite delighted in the amount of passion and research that Eichar conducted on this topic. He left the United States to not only investigate what tangible information can be pieced together about this mystery, but he also wanted to speak to the one ‘survivor’ Yuri Yudin, as well as family and friends of the nine deceased hikers. Eichar pieces together this mystery and almost allows readers to figure it out alone, by presenting the facts.

dyatlov-011

Rescue Team finds the tent

Eichar interviews everyone possible, he reads the hikers’ diary which was logged by one of the young women to track their journey, he looks at the forensic analysis, and tries to give as well-rounded a character analysis of each of the hikers from what could have been known about them. Keeping in mind that this was in pre-social media and pre-internet era, and these hikers were only university students, it truly is impressive how much information Eichar was able to piece together. He also had a Russian-English translator with him to help with each one of the interviews, and tangible information. At the end of the book he offers two timelines: the hikers’ timeline as he understands it day by day, and the rescue team’s timeline. He also offers a re-imagining  or “recreation” of February 1, and the early morning hours of February 2nd, using the diary entries, weather reports, and expert scientific opinion on what he believes really happened that night.

There is a lot to unpack from this mystery and I think Eichar does a wonderful job. I think telling too much of what I learned would be, in a way, spoiling the book, if you are interested in reading it. I personally found it scarier than most fictional horror books. Some of the siblings describe the state of the corpses when they saw them, and four corpses were so mutilated they had to be in a closed casket for the funeral procession. If description of such things make you feel uncomfortable, perhaps just watch one of the two videos I mentioned and linked above.

If you like reading Jon Kakauer’s books you would probably enjoy this one (both scared me a lot). It’s journalistic and research-based, but it’s also surrounding a real story with adventure, and nature in it. I thought it was well-written and it kept my attention the whole time. I also appreciated all the attached images, and maps, and the way it was structured. I think as of right now, this is perhaps the most we can ever know about the Dyatlov Pass.

In 2013 an adaptation loosely based on this tragedy (Devil’s Pass) came out featuring a very “science fiction meets horror” take on the story. It really helps to have so many perspectives on this hike and be able to appreciate the horrors of a true story.

5tDJou6

Rocket Billionaires by Tim Fernholz

35721160Ever since I started reading this book I want to grab every stranger on the street by the collar and yell at them: “We’re going to Mars!”

This book has been with me for the last two weeks and it has left me completely mesmerized by the unquenchable fires of human innovation and by how much can be achieved through mass collaboration. Rocket Billionaires, written by Tim Fernholz, follows the narrative of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and the plan to create a colony on Mars in hopes that humans can become a multi-planetary civilization.

Fernholz focuses on the competition between Bezos and Musk to realize their visions of humanity as a multi-planetary civilization by building space companies focused on reusable technology. Fernholz spends some time examining the managerial differences between Bezos and Musk and looks at how these differences affect their relationship to this project. Aside from the clash between the two billionaires, there was also a tension between military-industrial space programs and these new, self-made, space companies. Fernholz describes how NASA policymakers stepped in to save SpaceX when it was on the verge of bankruptcy. The plan as we know it, is that in the next decade there will be an attempt to place the first colony on Mars. Over time, this colony’s goal will be to grow to one million citizens so that it can get started. Supplies sent on each individual mission will include a new batch of people as well as foods, plants, technologies etc. in order to create greenhouse farms, Martian villages with hospitals and schools, and a full-on functioning civilization.

This book is exemplary journalistic work. Fernholz relates the story of these two self-made companies to the public in a non-biased way. It is evident on every page how passionate Fernholz is about this project and it really shows, yet he maintains an academic, non-intrusive journalistic voice. The narrative flows smoothly and is by no means elitist or exclusive.

Reading this book made me jot down a lot of questions. For instance, I wonder if the women who embark on this mission be under insurmountable pressure to procreate. Will future generations look back and remember Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos in a kind of Henry Ford/Thomas Edison way, or will people forget the financial struggles and remember the name of the first man/woman to step on Martian soil, the way we all know the name of Neil Armstrong? What technologies will be created as a result that could better life on Earth? After discussing this topic over the last two weeks with people at home, work, and public spaces, I was taken aback with how ‘civilians’ receive information about this project. For one, everyone ‘heard’ about this topic, and yet, they look at it both as ‘old news’ and as a ‘it’s probably not going to happen in our lifetime.’ For me, this book has been eye-opening. The project is not only on its way in a monumental way, but it will happen within the next decade.  The second comment I am met with when bringing up this topic is “what a waste of money, why not save the starving, struggling people here on Earth first?” While I agree that it is a fair point, this project is equally important. I am somewhat relieved that the people leading this project are very much focused on renewables, and reusable technologies.

Henry Ford famously said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” That is to say, we don’t know what this undertaking will accomplish for humanity yet. This book makes me see the scientific intrigue to colonizing Mars. It will be monumental on an engineering, scientific, educational, and human level—no matter how the mission will go. It will make students want to study the sciences even more ardently than before, and as Fernholz narrowed it down in this book, one of the answers to the question of “why go to Mars?” really can be as simple as: “because it’s there.”

Fernholz relates often the reality of the project to the leading figures in science fiction literature particularly that of the big three: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein, and of course Kim Stanley Robinson whose Red Mars trilogy is precisely this project (set in 2026 no less). The sprinkling of sci-fi references made this book exemplary. The sci-fi allusions act as a cohesive between the imagination found in the arts and what the great minds of scientists, programmers, engineers, and mathematicians can help bring to fruition—making readers see the beauty in humanity’s collective effort.

Would I recommend this book? YES!

Tim Fernholz is one of the leading journalists reporting on SpaceX and one of the best news commentary experts. Many of his articles have been featured in Quartz, and you may recognize him from the 2016 Quartz/Marketplace economics podcast: Actuality. Fernholz was both a Knight Journalism Fellow and at the New America Foundation in Washington D.C. He is a Georgetown University alumni with studies in Government, Theology, and Arabic, and one of the founding editors for the Tomorrow Magazine. If you’d like to learn more about his other fascinating projects, and previous journalistic work, you can find more information here.

The book is available as of Tuesday, March 20th, 2018 on Amazon, Audible, (read by Erin Moon) and The Book Depository, as well as your local bookstores (some links: Indigo, Barnes & Noble, Blackwell’s) and of course libraries.

Many thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt both for publishing this wonderful book and for sending me a review copy. The book design is completed by Graphic Artist Chloe Foster.

 

The Life of Death | Book Review

“A woman came to the funeral home looking for a job as a funeral director. When I learned that her dog’s name was Rigor Mortis, I hired her.”

36695230The Life of Death is a memoir written by Ralph R. Rossell who is the owner and funeral director of the Rossell Funeral Home in Flushing (a small town near Flint, Michigan with a population of approximately 8,400 people).

In this work Rossell narrates how he got the family business, and explains terminologies in the death industry from embalmment to caskets, and everything in between. This work is autobiographical and part memoir, part-anecdotes, part non-fiction.

First and foremost I appreciated Rossell’s honesty. Knowing he is a funeral home director I expected him to try and emphasize the goodness of purchasing certain caskets or to hide the ways in which the market profits off of people’s grief. For instance, when it comes to purchasing a casket he writes an entire chapter and in it he says:

“Purchasing a casket can be stressful because it enforces the finality of life…In mortuary school, our casket-sales training course lasted about two minutes. Our instructor walked into the classroom and told us that the way to sell a casket is to go to the casket you want to sell and put your hand on it. Supposedly, this would lead the client to purchase that particular unit; that was it. Thus, the task of training a funeral director in the sale of caskets was left to the middle man: the casket salesman.”

For me personally, this way of laying out facts even if they are ‘secrets of the trade’ or ‘gimmicks’ makes me respect the writer, because I can see that he is not trying to hide anything or convince people that certain companies are better than others, or that one should be obliged to embalm etc. I refrained from looking at what his funeral home offers in terms of eco-friendly services, or options, because as a book reviewer I want to look at this work as literature and judge it only as such.

Aside from the above-mentioned, the main contents of the book brings forward something new, and I enjoyed it immensely: the community. This book is about people. Each short chapter/section focuses on a different anecdote from the 45 years Rossell has worked in the industry. He highlights the humour that can be extracted from concentrated time spent with grieving people in a stressful time. Reading this book felt like I was observing different behaviours and takes on grief, and like I was present to many funerals, which was incredibly humbling and pleasant. The ‘pleasant’ part is a personal investment in the topic, and perhaps other readers will have a different experience. I don’t want to say he puts the “fun” in “funeral” but…kind of. To clarify, he is by no means at any point disrespectful. Rossell acknowledges many times how troubling a time it is when someone passes, and how devastating it is to the remaining living people, but each funeral brings its own story. Sometimes the people don’t fit in the coffin, sometimes no one shows up, sometimes there are very strange requests made, by both the living and the dead. Each of these stories is short, and Rossell extracted the main points of what made them memorable, which makes this book a great read. As a reader I was also able to feel the small-town lifestyle, and the spirit of the small Flushing community.

I read many books on death, funerals, and the funeral industry in the last few years, but this is the first one that uses anecdotal evidence to bring forward the experience of being present at a funeral, and how the people in a small community deal with death. It was a very interesting read, and I have to say, I was quite impressed with the humour levels given the heaviness of the topic. I think when you are in this industry, you simply must have a great sense of humour, or at least be able to see it through the darkness in order to make it out yourself. I received an eARC from the publisher on Netgalley, but I am certainly going to get a hard copy of this book. I will leave you with Rossell’s own concluding words:

“And remember I am the last to let you down”

Feel Free by Zadie Smith | Review

imagesFeel Free is Zadie Smith’s most recent collection of essays published by Penguin Press. The collection as a whole feels as if Smith has poked her head out of her isolated writing chamber and is contributing to ongoing conversations. Because these essays have been written over the course of a few years, and previously published individually (for instance one is a film review of The Social Network) some come across as dated, but their essence is still ever-present and relevant. Almost every essay in here either reminded me of another essay I have read, or another speaker I heard, but of course, Smith has an elegant style, and contributes a new perspective. Some of the essays are reviews of books and movies, and her reaction to musicians like David Bowie, or Prince, or Billie Holiday. In all honesty, the musical bits were the least interesting to me. I think that if I had a chance to have a one-on-one conversation with one of my favourite authors, their musical tastes and opinions on musicians wouldn’t be of interest to me. However, Zadie Smith’s recent fictional work Swing Time is about music, and dance, and I can see that for her, this is a very important topic, so I understand why these essays are included. In others, she offers her opinion on topics that are ongoing debates like: do we need libraries? Is Facebook good for us? In the third and last category, if I had to group them, she offers answers to more personal questions relating to her own private experience when it comes to writing, journaling, ideas, and other Smith-specific details.

I would like to unpack a few of my favourite essays in this collection and record what was interesting (to me).

The first essay in the collection “Northwest London Blues” is on the importance of Willesden Library (1894) and Willesden Green Library Centre (1989), which is sprinkled with Smith’s opinions on libraries in general: whether they are still relevant, and what is their role in an individual’s life.

She writes that even though there is a kind of obsolescence to the library as we once knew it, due to the Internet’s all-encompassing information powers, she still sees a need for the space:

“Each morning I struggle to find a seat in the packed university library in which I write this, despite the fact that every single student in here could be at home in front of their MacBook browsing Google Books.”

“Libraries are not failing ‘because they are libraries.’ Neglected libraries get neglected, and this cycle, in time, provides the excuse to close them. Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay.”

“It’s not just a matter of free books. A library is a different kind of social reality (of the three-dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal.”

Perhaps I’ve read more on libraries than most people, but to me Zadie Smith is in conversation with Neil Gaiman’s essay “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming“ and Ray Oldenburg’s essay on “The Third Place” in his book The Great Good Place (All three essays worth your time).

The second essay in Feel Free that got my attention was “Life-Writing” in which Smith explores her relationship with journaling and keeping a personal diary.  Though the essay was quite brief, Smith explains her difficulties with keeping a journal. She writes about the ways in which intimate details of her romantic encounters feel far too personal and exposing, and how the Judy Blume character voice made her feel like she had homework, and never felt genuine. She writes:

“The dishonestly of diary-writing—this voice you put on for supposedly no one but yourself—I found that idea so depressing. I feel that life has too much artifice in it anyway without making a pretty pattern of your own most intimate thoughts.”

She then tried imitating authors like Virginia Woolf who recorded only literary happenings, which according to Smith lasted only one day because a single meeting with Jeffrey Eugenides took up twelve pages and half the night. She writes:

“Who is it for? What is this voice? Who am I trying to kid—myself? I realize that I don’t want any record of my days….when it comes to life-writing, the real, honest, diaristic, warts-and-all, the only thing I have to show for myself…is my email account.”

There’s something so honest in the way she wrote this piece that went far for me. I think we all try to do things because we’ve seen them done by others, or on T.V, or YouTube channels, and refuse to admit when something just didn’t work out for us—because it just didn’t.

Lastly, the third and by far my favourite essay in this collection was “Generation Why?” in which Zadie Smith tears apart our obsession with Facebook, reviews the film The Social Network, tries to find ‘the missing thing’ within us, and concludes with a harsh:

“It’s a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore.”

I’m going to hold off on the Facebook discussion and write a different entry for it, because I think she is in conversation with Jonathan Franzen’s essay “Liking is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts” (2011)– or at least he is in conversation with her, as her piece was written a year earlier.  I would like to write a proper opinion piece on it and link it HERE.

Overall I loved this collection. I think Zadie Smith is a brilliant, Wonder-Woman figure in my life, so I would 100% recommend her essay collection to you. If you doubt whether you should invest time in her long fictional works, or this collection, I strongly recommend listening to one of her commencement speeches, or her interviews—hearing her voice, and her real-life tone, helps in fully embracing her ideas and loving every minute you spend reading her works.

 

 

Shakespeare Saved My Life | Review

14296907Shakespeare Saved My Life by Laura Bates is a re-read for me. This book made me take down lots of notes and had me wondering if I should start marking these passages and keep them safe on an online forum/reading journal. Laura Bates is a Shakespeare professor who teaches at Indiana State University. She entered a correctional facility and started a Shakespeare reading club with inmates. According to her introduction, what led her to this activity, was reading an academic paper from a famous literary scholar, who asserted that Shakespeare’s play Macbeth represented “the ipso facto valorization of transgression.” She set out to prove that “real-life transgressors would disagree.”

Bates starts off by offering inmates the soliloquy of Richard II in prison. She then asks for a written analysis. Depending on what people write, she either continues to work with them, or steps aside.  Some would participate, others would not. Over the years Shakespeare had an influence on some inmates, but none struck so hard a cord as Larry Newton. At first I thought this book focused too much on this one person but then I realized that the book is a memoir written about a person who couldn’t write it himself. I was very intrigued by what choices Bates made regarding the material she started with, and what she focused on, but I was even more interested in what Newton did with the contents of Shakespeare’s works. I got so immersed in his words that many times I forgot that he is someone who would be labelled as extremely dangerous in our society. This book made me think a lot about rehabilitation, and what it means to have committed a crime in the past, incapable to prove that you have grown as a person. I find that readers can often analyze characters on paper in all their complexity but label real humans in society so fast without giving them a chance.

I’ll give an example of something that came out of the reading group from Laura Bates and the inmates. The topic was Macbeth. I studied Macbeth many times in school and it’s one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. In class discussions, we always talk about Macbeth “becoming” a murderer and changing drastically, doing things he was never okay with before encountering the witches. But the inmates say:

“Macbeth was a killer before, they [Duncan and the society] made him into one. He was a soldier.” Before Macbeth was still killing but it was this ‘othered’ enemy, not his best friends. That was the only difference. They also paid close attention to how he killed Duncan:

 “…if Macbeth wanted to kill Duncan in the most efficient, most merciful manner, he would stab him once, through the heart…but he uses two daggers…that’s butchering”

Newton notes that in his moment of guilt Macbeth sees the dagger and the act, not the person. He relates to Macbeth and relates his crimes, explaining how he too sees the act rather than the victim, every time he thinks of it. Then there was an insight on Hamlet, which Newton calls the “prison of expectation”

“Hamlet is chasing honor for his family’s name because that is what was expected of him…His father has returned from the dead not to tell Hamlet how much he loved him, not to apologize for all the times that he worked late. He returned to make Hamlet revenge his death.”

These are just two examples of literary analysis that completely escaped me and my fellow busy students in university. Newton had only Shakespeare to work with. He had time, silence, and could focus on this one thing, while contemplating that he is never getting out, and might never discuss this with anyone else other than Ms. Bates. Many of Shakespeare’s characters are in a form of prison, whether literal or metaphorical, and most are murderers. Newton can understand all those thoughts much better than any one student in first year undergrad can even imagine. I wonder if Newton had had a richer education prior to the crime, how much would his thoughts have differed? If instead of Larry Newton it had been Dostoevsky post-solitary confinement with a larger literary corpus to compare, and philosophers to allude to, how would that differ to my reading experience of this book or to Laura Bates’s discussions?

I enjoyed the ways in which Newton almost looks down on Othello for being unable to see his faults. Newton says:

“no one can make you be anything that is not already you…accepting responsibility for one’s actions is an essential first step toward rehabilitation.”

This book covers the history of Larry Newton, the context upon which Ms. Bates arrives, some problems with the prison system, and discussions on several Shakespeare plays. There are moments when Bates compares what students at the university produce from the same play to what Newton would write behind bars. I found myself almost annoyed, as if I could see the hungover student who wasn’t reflecting, or thinking hard enough on these topics, and remembered that I too was one of them.

There are too many lines in this book that are absolutely breathtaking and notes I’d like to keep, so I created a PDF with some of my favourite quotations. Don’t worry, it’s only one page. I recommend this book if you love Shakespeare and want to learn more about one person, namely Larry Newton, and his reading experience behind bars after spending ten years in solitary confinement. I will leave you with this line from Newton if you don’t get a chance to look at the PDF:

“It is an absolute magic, and the magic has little with what Shakespeare has to say. You can memorize every cool quote and be as clueless as you were before reading. So it is not Shakespeare’s offering that invokes this evolution. The secret, the magic, is YOU! Shakespeare has created an environment that allows for genuine development…Shakespeare is simply an environment that allows us to evolve without the influence of everyone else telling us what we should evolve into. Shakespeare offers a freedom from those prisons! Your mind will begin shaking the residue of other people’s ideas and begin developing understandings that are genuinely yours!…you have nothing to lose but the parts of you that do not belong anyhow”

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living

29430716Manjula Martin collected essays by contemporary writers claiming to shed some light on what it means to struggle as an artist. Each writer approaches the topic in a different way. Some, like the more famous Cheryl Strayed, Jonathan Franzen, and Roxanne Gay offer their thoughts in interview format, whereas others take creative liberties to capture their history as a writer, their journey, and relationship with books. The overarching topic is: money. How much money do artists get and what does it mean? For instance, Cheryl Strayed explains that even though she received a large sum of money as an advance for Wild, it was given to her in installments. She had so much credit card debt, student loans to pay, and two small children. The art world is the only case in which sometimes people expect you to work for free in hopes that “the love of the public” and “followers” is enough compensation, as if you owe the gallery and the publishing house for being published, rather than being paid for your labour and hard work. It’s the only time when you could wake up one morning and think: today I could make zero dollars, or get a $50,000 advance, we’ll never know. It’s hard to imagine that while being on book tour, Strayed’s check bounced when trying to pay the rent.

The opening essay by Julia Fierro for instance focused on the ways in which she felt inferior to her classmates in university as well as at the Iowa Writers’ workshop. How she started hoarding and collecting books she couldn’t afford so she could stay in the ranks of her classmates, and how subsequently this resulted in her avoiding reading altogether for a while. She writes:

“My loan money moved from my bank account to my bookshelf, and not once did I stop myself, look around my apartment at the stacks of unread books–several lifetimes’ worth–and think of Jay Gatsby and his library of pristine uncut books. My fear was too loud. Fear that I was inauthentic, undeserving of a place among my mostly Ivy League–educated classmates who, it seemed, were more well-read than even the gray-haired authors who were our professors.”

Colin Dickey wrote a very interesting essay that was more historical and academic in nature. He cites a lot of Karl Marx, but begins his essay with the way in which Charles Dickens’s work got immediately tainted for him the day he found out he was paid by installment. He writes:

“once we’d been introduced to the economy of writing, everything was tainted….how to trust each word from that point on…money taints everything, why not writing too”

Roxanne Gay discusses how she remains in academic circles at universities, and teaches classes, just because they offer her a steady salary and health insurance. When she broke down her income, she discloses that less than 30% of her income comes from her writing.

I also found that this collection poked at a strange can of worms regarding the Jonathan Franzen-Oprah Winfrey conflict, back in 2001. When it comes up in the interview, and reminds readers about the conflict, some women are referenced (like Jennifer Weiner) who used social media to point out that critics rarely pay the same attention to women authors, as they do to Jonathan Franzen back when this conflict was happening. Franzen responds here with:

“well, I am a male animal, and there’s nothing I can do about that. I can’t stop writing and disappear just because someone chooses to project onto me her grievance with a million years of sexist human history”

What I found strange was that Jennifer Weiner is also one of the essays in here, and it’s written in essay/memoir format whereas Franzen’s is in interview format with the editor. The interview is by far the longest and I felt as if the editor was swooning over Franzen whereas Weiner was “left alone” as it were. In her essay, Weiner writes conversations she never thought she would have to have with herself like

“big-name critics will call your work ‘subliterary,’ and big-deal writers will sneer at the notion that your books deserve even a smidgen of attention in the New York Times…History ought to give me some context. Women’s work has always been devalued, seen as less. ‘commercial’ she asks for what she doesn’t deserve, says the privileged white man, who gets both sales and respect–as if privileged white men haven’t always been the ones to make those judgement, and those judgement haven’t always been in their favor.”

It’s an interesting fight/argument (which let’s face it, it’s about posterity), but it wasn’t why I bought this book.

As a reader interested in the “nitty-gritty of the writing profession” which is what I came to this book for, I did not find those answers here. For one Cheryl Strayed, Roxanne Gay,  Jennifer Weiner, and Jonathan Franzen are all best sellers who made money, got film deals, and some reached critical acclaim. The Franzen-Weiner “fight” was kind of central to me when I looked back.

My favourite by far was Colin Dickey. His essay actually focused on the topic. Cheryl Strayed’s article got my attention because of her success, but everyone else kind of fell through the cracks. For one, I didn’t find myself caring about authors I haven’t heard of, but if I did, I would have liked them to discuss the struggle more, rather than the details of biography. This was Spinster all over again, I got biographies I never asked for. I came to this collection looking for financial struggles, what did it mean, how much? What fees did you have to pay? Where did you live? How did you manage? One Goodreads reviewer put it best:

“the essayists tiptoe around pragmatic questions of money to instead navel-gaze about issues of privilege and class. Several of them explicitly repeat the problem this book was supposed to solve: they flatly refuse to discuss specific financial details.” – Amy Rogers 

Mary Ann Cotton — Dark Angel

31290822I recently got immersed in the world of Mary Ann Cotton, branded as “Britain’s first female serial killer.” Although Cotton being “the first” is disputed as there might have been many others before her, she is fascinating nonetheless. Martin Connolly wrote a short booklet on the town he lived in, titled The Potted History of West Auckland. After reading his work, many requested that he write a book about Mary Ann Cotton. Who was she? What do we know about her? Connolly decided to go to all of the possible sources to find out as much information as he can on Mary Ann Cotton. Connolly writes in the introduction:

“When I had brought together all my material and thoughts, I then turned to see what books on Mary Ann Cotton were being recommended. In this, two stood out, Mary Annn Cotton –Her Story and Trial by Arthur Appleton and Mary Ann cotton Dead, But not Forgotten by Tony Whitehead. Arthur’s account has some factual and date errors, but was a good read. It was on reading tony Whitehead’s book that I had a moment of wishing I had started with that particular book. In it, he had amassed a large number of images of birth, death and baptismal records. It would have saved me a great deal of time, energy and money.”

What I enjoy about Connolly’s book is that he frames the structure of Mary Ann Cotton’s life chronologically and in each sequence he tells us what we can know from the facts without interference. He doesn’t make assumptions or tell us what to believe. He collected so many pictures, certificates, and documents simply presenting them to us as images with a brief explanation of where he acquired them. After laying down the entirety of Cotton’s documented life, he presents to us her trial, documents from the trial, letters to and from Mary Ann Cotton whilst she was in jail, and accounts of the day she was hanged with all the details (including how long her body convulsed upon being hanged). After, Connolly tells us who survived Mary Ann Cotton (from people she knew and lived with), and subsequent rural stories that circulated about potential ghost sightings of Cotton. She entered English folklore for quite some time. He also gathered medical recordings of how the doctor examined the corpses to indicate that it was in fact Arsenic poisoning—which was used as ‘proof’ of her guilt. Connolly even covers a brief biography of all the men and women involved in her trial, doctor supporting evidence, and police officers involved in her arrest.arsenic

On one hand I liked being presented with facts/proof around Mary Ann Cotton’s life without biographer interference or flowery language. On the other hand, I found this work lacking in setting the atmosphere. Although Connolly makes a brief mention at the beginning that she came from a mining village with low wages, and death was aplenty; he didn’t quite set the atmosphere of the time. He jumps from one section of her life to the next without much more introduction. I would have appreciated a sensory experience, an induction into this Victorian life to try and understand. Connolly concludes with:

“was she guilty of murders? I struggle to answer this question. It would be anachronistic to try and look at the situation with a modern mind. In that period, many things were black and white in legal terms…to judge her then is difficult…I suppose I arrive at a place where I would bring in the Scottish legal judgment of ‘not proven.’”

That is a pretty dark note to end on (considering the woman was hanged).

DarkAngel_MasterpieceI read the book at the same time as watching the PBS three-episode miniseries called Dark Angel featuring Joanne Froggatt as Mary Ann Cotton. The show helped me with what the book was lacking which was atmosphere. The imagery, and the details in costumes and setting really put things in perspective.

What the show focused more on was Cotton’s seduction abilities. They presented her sexuality as being far more overt than any Victorian character I’ve encountered thus far, which made me think they appropriated a slightly modern take. The book tells us to assume she was at least charming because she managed to lock down four husbands but her seductive abilities weren’t notorious. Something missing from the show though, was the ambiguity and potential innocence that Connolly presented to us in the book. In the television program they pretty much show her carrying spoon-fulls of Arsenic into everyone’s tea, including her four husbands, lover, several step-children, her mother, and best friend. If you ‘judge’ her based on the show you ‘know’ she murdered everyone, whereas if you look at the documents and transcripts of what we actually can know….it’s pretty ambiguous, and certainly doesn’t make the case for a death penalty.

Both the book and miniseries kind of gloss over something kind of important. Mary Ann Cotton gave birth to 13 children, 11 of which died. I recently read The Light Between Oceans showing how much damage can be done to a woman’s psyche after losing a single living child, or even experience a miscarriage. To have lost eleven children she gave birth to is so much proof to me that Cotton was certainly not mentally stable. Postpartum depression alone will mess you up, let alone burying so many children of your own. The show and book gloss over it as if it was no big deal, as if it’s to be expected of the time; but even in the Victorian period the death of a child was not so simple. We have records of how much Dickens, and Darwin grieved over the loss of a single child (as fathers). Skipping over this concept to me, is kind of missing the point. I think when people read books on “serial killers” they are intrigued by character and the how they got to be that way. Skipping over the grieving process, and the bodily damage from each pregnancy and subsequent burial of tiny bodies completely hides from the readers and audience what messed this woman up so much (IF she was guilty at all). The presentation of economic circumstances of women at the time and their dependency on men really placed a contemporary feminist angle of how difficult it must have been to lack autonomy and how desperate things can really get.

So if you embark on this grim adventure I recommend reading something about the Victorian period first, and perhaps read the book alongside watching the miniseries so you have a full picture of Mary Ann Cotton. I really did enjoy this narrative altogether. The book is published by Pen and Sword, and the miniseries by PBS.

463729d6de4dc87bb1581849fe2caa06--movie-quotes-musicals

Ah, now I get that line from Chicago

Lore by Aaron Mahnke | Review

LORE

I’ve been trying to find ways to bring LORE into conversation, and on this blog several times without deviating from my main topic, unsure how, and then the book came out!  For anyone who doesn’t know the exact content of this “LORE” I will go into detail in the Book Review section. But first, I want to introduce you to all the formats LORE comes in. I’ve officially consumed LORE in every format.

  1. The Podcast

lore-logo-lightFor the month of October I binge-listened to the entire LORE Podcast (still ongoing) and caught up to the latest one. My new job allows for the listening of podcasts and audio books, so Aaron Mahnke has been my “coworker” for the last two months. Needless to say, I loved it. Every episode features a different macabre topic in which Mahnke weaves together several narratives that have been historically recorded and fit the topic. He does an excellent job, and the literary allusions, and pop-culture references are on point. One of the many reasons I adore this project is that it’s highly inter-textual.

LPJ1200S PSDThe podcast won best history podcast last year. The podcast is accompanied by music throughout and occasional commercials. New episodes are released every two weeks on Mondays. If you’re like me and late to the party just be happy. It’s a GOOD party, and you get to binge, which is awesome! The musical accompaniment is by Chad Lawson, who will soon release an album featuring the songs from LORE called A Grave Mistake. 

2. The TV Show

MV5BMjA3ODQwNzM0OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjY5MTczMzI@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Just as I was deep mid-podcast, on October 15, Amazon Prime Video released Season 1 of LORE which features six of the most chilling episodes. It was so much scarier seeing these tales performed with live people and seeing the settings (most are set in times different from our own). The costumes and settings really gave another dimension to these little histories. The direction of this season was excellent. The music, mixed with live demonstrations of some of these horrific things, made me far more afraid than I thought I would be (especially since I knew from the podcast how they end). Although I found some criticisms online where people dislike that Mahnke’s voice narrates throughout the show, I found his voice to be comforting when things got scary. He was the familiar constant, and I needed that.

3. The Audiobook

LOREThis was actually my favourite format of the four, which I’ll explain at length below. It maintains the ‘cleanliness’ of the book, but it also has Mahnke’s voice and some musical effects which I loved from the Podcast. I got this from Audible. Although I completely understand why in the podcasts people often take requests for placing ads throughout, it can be a little annoying while listening, but with the audio-book, it was commercial-free and the transitions between topics were so smooth. This audio-book is a reading of the book below.

 

4. LORE: Monstrous Creatures | Book Review

images (1)This book is made of the transcripts from the LORE Podcast mentioned above and edited in such a way that results in a very smooth transition from one tale to the next. The book itself is a mere fraction of what is to be a longer series, published by Del Rey. The second book Wicked Mortals is set for release in May of 2018 and the third book has been announced, but the cover has not been revealed.

The book cover and the accompanying illustrations are made by M.S. Corley whose contribution to this work gives LORE yet another layer of talent and atmosphere. His illustrations are so morbid and simultaneously whimsical. I think the two choices for colors: the red and black, relate to the section in the book “Doing Tricks, Shifting Shapes” where Mahnke writes:

“Black and red, for a very long time, were considered bad colors, so if you wanted to describe something as evil, of course it was black or red or both.” (Mahnke, 76)

The content of LORE is made up of vignettes and separate accounts of mysterious sightings, happenings, or experiments done by humans. The range is anywhere from the supernatural to the scientific. All of them are rooted in real recordings and stories, even if at times humans just ‘claimed’ to have seen or done something. Mahnke reminds us with this work, that not too long ago oral testimony is all we really had, and that a lot of people were highly superstitious.

The way he captures these stories is in the same spirit of the Grimm Brothers. He collected and compiled tales of the macabre, but roots each firmly in historical context. I found it very useful to understand why and how certain practices were done in a particular time period. Mahnke references historical figures, other works of literature, and the sources from which one can find the details of each of these records. What I found most exciting is that he brings together stories from all over the world. We are globally united in our  fear of the unknown, death, and the unexplained and Mahnke forces readers (and listeners) to look at that aspect of our human nature. He writes:

“We fear death because it means the loss of control, the loss of purpose and freedom. Death, in the eyes of many people, robs us of our identity and replaces it with finality.”

IMG_20171115_141410

Mahnke drawn by Corley

At the 200-year-anniversary of the Brothers Grimm, Harvard professor Maria Tatar—expert on folklore and fairy tales— mentioned that the reason fairy tales are so deeply ingrained in our society and why we love them so much is because they’ve been told and retold so many times that all the boring bits have been left out. What we get now is the final product of a story that has been edited through generations. I think Mahnke’s work captures the same effect through the refining of folklore, and the editing process that these tales have experienced simply by being tested in the format of a Podcast prior to being committed to text. Of course the stories and their content prior to Mahnke’s work on them were refined through oral storytelling. Mahnke sometimes even extends the use of ‘lore’ or ‘folklore’ and appropriates it to other unifying communal activities like sports and how we all share a common language like the “Curse of the Bambino” in baseball folklore for example. Mahnke constantly reminds us of the power of stories:

“no realm holds more explanation for the unexplainable than folklore” (65)

“Given enough time, story–like water–will leave its mark and transform a place.” (127)

I don’t know if I’ve convinced you to give LORE a try if you haven’t, or to experience it in at least one of its formats, but clearly I love it! No one asked me to write a review, this is just me writing about my love for this whole production, because in trying to explain what I love about it, I understand myself better, and what I enjoy about this kind of storytelling. An additional Lore-related video I strongly enjoyed was Aaron Mahnke’s speech here, on how he started out, and what brought LORE to the phenomenon it is today. If you have enjoyed LORE and want to try Mahnke’s other works, here are some of this other works:

Also, this is the official link to all things LORE.

Author Spotlight: Caitlin Doughty

 “The Order is about making death a part of your life. That means committing to staring down your death fears- whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety and terror of modern culture are not.” – The Order of the Good Death

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“The Funeral of Shelley” by Louis Édouard Fournier

Caitlin Doughty is one of the most wonderful women I stumbled upon on YouTube, and I am so glad I did. Since I was five years old, I’ve had many encounters with death. Born and raised in Romania, open casket funerals and three-day wakes in the home are followed by so many practices that I can say I was very much involved with the handling of many human corpses from death to burial. Washing the corpse, preparing food and serving it to more than half the town, kissing the corpse’s forehead, guarding it night and day for three days, and covering all the mirrors in the house in a black shroud for the whole time the corpse is in the house were all perfectly normal requests in rural Romania. Most importantly, death was (and is) very much a part of daily conversation. In the West however, bodies are hidden and even worse: death is hardly discussed. I constantly feel like a morbid weirdo (in Canada) talking about something that had been a huge part of my childhood and the many ways in which it confronted me to question my life, and prepare for my inevitable death. When I encountered Caitlin Doughty on YouTube it was like meeting a long-lost friend.

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Caitlin Doughty

Doughty was born and raised in Hawaii and after witnessing a death at the age of eight she became fascinated with the topic. She studied the medieval period at University, and after attending mortuary school, apprenticed at a crematory in Los Angeles. Becoming more and more familiar with the practices of embalming, cremation, and funeral practices in America, Doughty began to notice some red flags regarding the funeral industry. Funeral home directors taking advantage of mourning family members by pushing upon them caskets worth thousands of dollars (all to make money of course, and so the people cutting the grass don’t have to go over uneven ground), pushing embalming practices, as well as presenting these topics in a light that make the remaining family members believe it is legally enforced. Imbuing bodies with toxic chemicals, and incorporating them in non-biodegradable caskets have damaging consequences for the environment. In addition, taking bodies away and hiding them from the moment of death hardly allows the family to process the death of a loved one. Lastly, people disengaged from discussion about and around death live in a constant dread. Thinking of human remains boxed in a rigid casket six feet under as a possibility (at least for me) is really quite frightening.

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Doughty’s first book

When I heard that one could be buried in a pod in fetal position organically decomposing beneath a tree–it was the first time I got excited about my death (weird to say out loud). Just the thought that with my body I could nourish the Earth, and live in a different form in a ‘Sacred Forest’ makes me happy. But not just me, ‘many’ according to Caitlin want to become trees and have an organic death in different forms. She gave two TED Talks focusing on The Corpses that Changed My Life (which in text format–with far more details–became Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory) and most recently: A Burial Practice that Nourishes the Planet which is a summary of what she now encourages: a natural burial. Caitlin herself repeats that what she is suggesting is not ‘her idea,’ ‘new,’ or ‘an invention’ because it’s a practice that has been done in different forms all over the world, and in history. She now works on advocating for an environmentally friendly burial, a burial practice that respects the wishes of the dead person, and most importantly on educating the public about their options, their rights, and the opportunities available. Doughty became the founder of The Order of the Good Death.  If you click on the title you can find more about it from the website itself, run by a large team advocating for educating the public on ‘the good death.’ There are links there that can lead you to other books written on topics like ‘death,’ or ‘ghosts’ which are academic in nature. Caitlin’s YouTube channel “Ask a Mortician” is absolute gold! In videos ranging from 4-10 minutes Doughty tackles topics like “What happened to the dead bodies on Everest?” “How is Vladimir Lenin’s Body Preserved?” or “What’s the deal with La Pascualita?” — seriously I binge-watched 5 years of YouTube in a week.

One of my favourite lines in her book is this:

“In many ways, women are death’s natural companions. Every time a woman gives birth, she is creating not only a life, but a death. Samuel Beckett wrote that women “give birth astride of a grave.” Mother Nature is indeed a real mother, creating and destroying in a constant loop.”

511i6HQoG+L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_The support from viewers of her work for The Order of the Good Death on Patreon, and encouragement from a large number of people reading her first book, motivated Doughty to travel to several countries, and some American States to learn about their burial practices–Indonesia, Bolivia, and California among them. On October 3rd of 2017 her book From Here to Eternity was published by W. W. Norton & Company. In this book, Doughty dedicates a chapter to a different location and examines how the role of death fits into the larger conversation, how burial practices are carried through, and how/what we can learn from them.

The book is accompanied by wonderful illustrations executed to perfection by Landis Blair. His artwork is dark and highly atmospheric. Blair himself is a member of The Order of the Good Death. 

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Illustration by Landis Blair

If you are fortunate enough to live in the United States, Doughty will be going on a book tour very soon, and the dates have been listed HERE. If you are near one of them I highly encourage you to go. I must emphasize that no one asked me to review this book or promote Doughty, this is what I would genuinely recommend, and what I genuinely enjoy/believe in. I am grateful that people like Doughty exist. I highly recommend her books, her YouTube channel, and her message.

I will close off as Doughty always does on her channel:

“and remember: you WILL die.” 

 

 

The Biophilia Effect | Book Review

“Everyone feels the need deep inside to be close to nature. We have roots, and they definitely did not grow in cement.” – Andres Danzer

“The biophilia effect stands for wilderness and the conception of nature, for natural beauty and aesthetics and breaking free and healing. That is what this book is about.”

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51RnoLAew9L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Austrian writer Clemens G. Arvay wrote in this book every argument for why humans must co-exist with the natural realm.  The term ‘biophilia’ originates from Greek, meaning: ‘love of life or living systems’ and was coined by psychotherapist and philosopher Erich Fromm. Edward O. Wilson introduced the “biophilia hypothesis” claiming that it is “the human urge to affiliate with other forms of life” and that is our deeply rooted connection with nature in the web of life.

Arvay explores in this book the history of ‘biophilia’ in literature and philosophy starting with the Abbess Hildegard Von Bingen (1098-1179) who wrote “there is a power in eternity, and it is green.”

Arvay continues by incorporating medical and scientific studies which show that people who live close to a forest have stress reduced by as much as 30% living the same lifestyle as those in the cities. He writes:

“Plants heal without having to be processed….they heal us through biological communication that our immune system and unconscious understand”

He dives deeper by explaining how plants, like insects, communicate using chemical substances and we are just another cohabitant in the ecosystem benefiting from this communication.

What I enjoyed about this book was how Arvay describes nature and how he backs up each statement with a study. I never thought about the symbiotic relationship between a mushroom and tree roots for instance, and how the mushroom in turn provides the tree with water and nutrients from the soil. Arvay also presents readers with several relaxation and visualization exercises. He teaches readers how to be hyperaware when walking through a forest and take in all of the forest’s energy while telling yourself “I am a part of the woods.”

He urges readers to:

“take this visual language of your soul seriously.”

Arvay doesn’t try to sell products, services, or anything other than to encourage a love for the forest and for people to go outside and benefit from what nature has to offer. He makes an argument for the forest by presenting the history we as humans have with it, how deeply rooted our ‘biophilia’ truly is, and how we need it now more than ever.

Arvay is an advocate for clean eating and has written other works in the past on forgotten vegetable varieties, regional small-scale agriculture, and connecting philosophy with nature. I personally enjoyed this book, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading nature books like Thoreau’s Walden, or Muir’s Essays on Wilderness.

This book will be released in February 2018 by Sounds True Publishing.

Odd Type Writers | Book Review

15811570This will be a relatively short review as most of its contents would be a ‘spoiler.’ Odd Type Writers focuses on the strange habits of famous authors. Each chapter has a different theme. For instance the topics vary from: authors who write early in the morning versus late at night, what each author’s daily word count for writing is, what preference of ink colour they have, whether they write sitting down or standing up, or how many cups of coffee they had in a day. Balzac for instance would have about fifty cups of coffee per day. This is the kind of book that makes you say a lot of “did you know…” after reading it. I wish the author went in further detail on each author and habit, but the listing at the back marks this as a “reference work” which explains its presentation and quick introductory remarks. The authors covered and the quirks they had are so vast that the amount of research Celia Blue Johnson did for this book is astounding. There are eleven pages of references/works cited at the back and most of them are from authors’ papers, personal letters, and additional secondary material. The work Johnson had to do to pick out the little quirks required hours upon hours of searching. Like I said, almost anything I say could and might be a spoiler, so I will cite a few excerpts from the back of the book that got my attention when I picked it up:

“To meet his deadlines for The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Victor Hugo placed himself under strict house arrest, locking up all of his clothes and wearing nothing but a large gray shawl until he finished the book.”

“Friedrich Schiller kept a drawer full of rotten apples in his study. According to his wife, he couldn’t work with out that pungent odor wafting into his nose.”

“Virginia Woolf used purple ink for love letters and diary entries…in her twenties, she preferred to write while standing up.”

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in fun facts and wants to know some of the quirks and odd habits of some of their favourite authors. It made me realize that there is no blueprint for being an author. While some have a disciplined routine and a precise daily word count, or worked only when inspired and late at night like Kafka did, neither dictated who was more successful, or the better writer. For that reason I would recommend this to aspiring writers, because I think in searching for answers young writers turn to writing clubs, seminars, and notes or vlogs from other authors. This book is a reminder that if your habits don’t match those of other writers it is perfectly fine. And if you have a strange little path let it be and own it! It’s YOUR strange little path.

Johnson wrote a second book called Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway : stories of the inspiration behind great works of literature which may be of interest to you if you enjoy this one or like the sound of it.

Writings from the Golden Age of Russian Poetry

34889267I received this work from Columbia University Press. It’s an academic book scheduled for publication on November 28. The work itself is a translation and presentation by Peter France of Konstantin Batyushkov’s writings. France interweaves Batyushkov’s own writings with his biography presenting to readers the life of a poet and his career as a soldier with his subsequent decline into mental illness at the age of thirty-four. A mixture of depression and PTSD from his life as a soldier made Batyushkov unable to write poetry any longer in the last few years of his life. Konstantin Batyushkov (1787-1855) was one of Russia’s greatest poets. France makes it known on page one of the introduction that even though:

“To most non-Russian readers his name is hardly known… for Russians he is a classic.”

He emerged in the 1820s in a literary grouping of what was later known as the Golden Age or the Pushkin Pléiade. The introduction to this work tells us that Pushkin himself regarded Batyushkov as a master.

In terms of where in the canon one might place or discuss Batyushkov, France tells us that:

“One might see in this divided soul an expression of Batyushkov’s intermediary historical position—between the urbane sociability of Enlightenment Russia, and the rebellious Romantic sensibility that is embodied in Pushkin’s Eugin Onegin.”

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Portrait of Batyushkov

This work is relatively short but quite dense. Peter France focuses on each section of Batyushkov’s life by adding an introduction with biographical information. He then selects the corresponding poems that fit in with that time in Batyushkov’s life and illuminate his feelings, reflections, and own self-documentation. France also adds passages of close reading and analysis to Batyshkov’s poems supporting the connection to his biographical passages by adding letters Batyushkov sent to his family and friends.

Reading this work was refreshing because it felt like I was reading something completely new, but somehow reading a classic as well. I found it absolutely crucial that someone should introduce Batyushkov to the West after reading his poems. France did an excellent job not only presenting/introducing Batyushkov but also in translating his poems. I would strongly recommend this book to readers fond of Russian literature, poetry, and semi-academic works. I didn’t find it exclusive by any means, it was accessible and interesting.

Cheek by Jowl by Ursula K. Le Guin

“I have been asking for thirty years why most critics are afraid of dragons while most children, and many adults, are not”

“fantasy is not primitive, but primary”

6380284This book contains a series of essays on fantasy by Le Guin written in a highly assertive and critical tone. I think I will re-read this every year because it’s a little manifesto worth memorizing. The dominant essay in this collection is the central one (also the longest) focusing on animals in children’s literature and fantasy.

Le Guin begins the series of essays in debunking three stereotypes attached to fantasy like: (1) the characters are white (2) it’s a fantasy land in the middle ages (3) fantasy by definition concerns a battle between Good and Evil. She explores the reasons why some children’s literature is often in a pre-industrial setting, and how fairy tale retellings don’t necessarily mean changing the story, rather, poaching at it and getting into it.

“it interests me that most of these ‘lifelong’ children’s books are fantasies: books in which magic works, or animals speak, or the laws of physics yield to the laws of the human psyche.”

Le Guin questions what the making of fantasy really entails. For instance, a woman may turn into a troll in fantasy, but what does it really mean for a woman to turn into a troll? She compares it to “realist” literature like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Could one say that she has morphed into something monstrous?

Le Guin then turns her attention to the fantastic elements in other novels we consider great ‘realist’ and ‘serious’ literature like Moby Dick.

“The fantasy element of Moby Dick is Moby Dick. To include an animal as a protagonist equal with the human is—in modern terms—to write a fantasy. To include anything on equal footing with the human, as equal in importance, is to abandon realism…Melville’s white whale isn’t a real whale, he’s a beast of the imagination, like dragons or unicorns; hence Moby Dick is not an animal story, but it is a fantasy.”

In the main essay focusing on animals Le Guin examines how we used to be around animals in our earlier stages and what fantasy tries to capture:

“Animals were once more to us than meat, pests, or pets: they were fellow-creatures, colleagues, dangerous equals. We might eat them; but then, they might eat us. That is at least part of the truth of my dragons. They remind us that the human is not the universal.”

“As hunter-gatherers, our relationship to the animals was not one of using, caretaking, ownership. We were among, not above. We are a like in the food chain…each is at the service of the other. Interdependent. A community. Cheek by jowl.”

In literature we find interdependence between animals and nature, coexisting with humans in the same spaces. Lucretius’s poem On the Nature of Things shows us, Le Guin emphasizes, that “Lucretius saw no barrier between man and the rest of creation.” As we distanced ourselves from nature an animals with cities, and passed the industrial period, we separated ourselves from other species “to assert difference and dominance.”

Le Guin spends the rest of the book showing us the many ways in which fantasy as genre, found often in Children’s Literature brings us back to this imagined past where animals are integrated in society as equals. She examines Bambi, The Jungle Book, The Wind in the Willows, among many others and discusses how these points reinforce her thesis, and why they have been so successful. Le Guin uses some of her own stories and shows how she has tried to capture certain things and for what purpose.

Lastly, a part of this book that stayed with me, is Le Guin’s reaction to the Harry Potter phenomenon. Granted, this collection came out the same year as The Deathly Hallows, and didn’t examine in detail the overall effect and its subsequent ‘merchendise, Potter-world, Fantastic Beasts, and  Jack Thorne’s Cursed Child‘ but Le Guin has a bone to pick with the critics who had for years shunned fantasy and all of a sudden went along with the main crowd. Le Guin writes that she finds it normal for the public to fall in love with Rowling’s fantasy because they found something they missed out on since childhood, but she says:

“How could so many reviewers and literary critics know so little about a major field of fiction, have so little background, so few standards of comparison, that they believed a book that was typical of a tradition, indeed quite conventional, even derivative, to be a unique achievement?”

Le Guin blames the modernists, realists, and curriculum builders as well as the Edmund Wilson and his generation who labelled ‘realism’ and its various forms as the only kind of ‘serious’ literature. I love her criticism, brutal honesty, and analysis. All Cheek by Jowl has made me want to do is to read her all her essay collections and all her Science Fiction and Fantasy which is all now on my immediate TBR.

This book is one really well-written argument. The whole time I was highlighting and thinking of all the professors to whom I would like to send a copy. I think this book is perfect in how it’s written and how it delivers its argument. I was trying to think of a retort and couldn’t because her argument was that well done. Even in parts that I felt differently towards going in, I found myself converted by the end. Everyone should read this book.

Matter & Desire | Book Review

“love is the principle of a fulfilling equilibrium between the individual and the whole”

34956703Matter and Desire is not a book about navigating in nature, an analysis of the natural realm, nor a biology book in any way shape or form. I read this text as a love letter to nature. Andreas Weber is a German academic, and scholar who holds degrees in Marine Biology and Cultural Studies. In this text he explores the ways in which humanity, unity with the larger ecosystem, and love as experience connect with nature and all things around us. In the foreword John Elder writes:

“He [Weber] focuses throughout on the ways in which sensory contact with our fellow creatures, as well as with air and water, light and gravity, can deepen our capacity to identify with all of life.”

Weber connects our psychology and experience of nature with ecology, as well as acknowledging writers before him who have managed to do so successfully—like John Muir for instance. In fact, Weber brings together philosophers and writers from Antiquity to present merging their writings with contemporary anthropocenic discussions, exploring how our human identity ties in to nature.

Weber begins his book by defining ‘eros’ as he will use it in the entire text as well as a brief history of the word itself. He writes:

“The Eros of matter counterbalances the physicists’ basic assumption that ‘entropy’ in the universe is constantly increasing, meaning that everything in the cosmos is trending toward a uniform condition of the lowest thinkable level of energy. Fires burn out. Life-forms die. Our bodies break down. Even the sun will collapse someday.”

He brings together all the components of this experience: touch, desire, and death as well as separating the contextual experience of nature in terms of relativity between ‘I,’ ‘you,’ and ‘we.’  Weber also explores the poetic imagination, poetic materialism, philosophy, psychology, and freedom and the ways they fit into the discussion of desire and nature, as well as the many conversations sparked by each separate field.

This entire text is so well written and almost every line is quotable. Here’s an example:

“the feeling of the soul in ascent is the feeling that the desire for aliveness that fills the cosmos to the point of overflowing is being realized.”

Weber also includes in each section of his work an anecdote from his personal experience and relates it to the topic discussed in a theoretical way examining how it applies.

This work is a love letter to nature, and it is first and foremost an academic text. I would recommend this to readers who enjoy Carl Jung, Thoreau, Octavio Paz, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, John Muir, Sigmund Freud, and Classical Mythology, as well as new emerging discussions about the Anthropocene. This work is demanding of its readers but it is worth the effort because it’s extremely rewarding. Every line is so well written and beautiful. This will no doubt become a crucial text on nature in future literary discussions.

This book will be released on August 3rd from Chelsea Green Publishing.

How to Read Nature | Book Review

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cover of bookThis year I started my reading journey with an attempt to learn more about nature. I ended up picking Tristan Gooley’s book The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs, for which I wrote a very passionate review at the beginning of April. I also got a hold of Gooley’s book How to Read Water which has been on my TBR for a while but I got the chance to browse through it. Naturally I requested How to Read Nature as soon as I was notified that it will be published this year on August 22. I came to this book with knowledge of Gooley’s previous works and having watched a few lectures of his on YouTube. Gooley is a natural navigator and teaches classes on navigating through nature. This book read like being in one of his classes and receiving an introduction to the course. His previous works are much more detailed and go in-depth for each topic like navigating the sky, understanding fungi, trees, reading water (which has its own 400 page book) etc. I think this book will become the best place to start with Gooley’s works and an important starting place for readers of nature books.

This book very much resembles a course syllabus and gives readers a glimpse into each topic with exercises attached. Gooley focuses in this book on building a relationship with nature and the ways in which every person can begin to do so in a world that is very much detached from the natural realm. It’s almost as if Gooley is a relationship therapist here to fix the miscommunication between us and nature. He writes:

“a connection with nature allows us to see the roots that sustain and explain everything around us.”

He focuses on Maslow’s pyramid of needs and points to how lacking our society is in its foundation: physical needs. We take better care of everything else on the pyramid and neglect the most important one of all.

I learned a lot from this book about colour and time. Tristan Gooley spends a long time in this book focusing on the senses, colours, and timekeeping. One small example is the way he talks about plants:

“plants react to colours…if we are dressed in blue we can change the way a plant grows, while if we wear red we will influence its timekeeping”

What I particularly enjoyed is that the book is accompanied by images and exercises (which go hand in hand) helping the reader act on each section and practice. At the end of the book Gooley also provides readers with a bibliography of other nature books they can read on the topics he covers in this book. My reading list just grew ten-fold.

Many thanks to The Experiment for sending me an ARC. You can now purchase this book here.

 

 

Of Men and Women | Book Review

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Pearl S. Buck

Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973) was a bestselling author of fiction and nonfiction, celebrated particularly for the ground-breaking depictions of rural life in China. He best work The Good Earth which is a trilogy, received the Pulitzer Prize in 1931, and in 1938 she received the Nobel Prize in Literature for her body of work, making her the first American woman to do so. She spent most of her life in China (Zhenjiang) because her parents were Presbyterian missionaries. She was educated in the U.S. at Randolph-Macon Women’s College, then returned to China, married John Lossing Buck and moved to Nanking.

Her novels dealt with the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the changes in the East post-WWII, and rural China. In 1934 Buck left China to be near her daughter who was mentally ill and hospitalized in New Jersey. In her later years Buck started engaging in philanthropic projects. Because there were practices rendering mixed-raced children unadoptable—in particular, orphans from the war—she founded Welcome House in 1949, the first international, interracial adoption agency in the United States. She died in 1973 from lung cancer in Vermont. The Chinese government objected to Buck’s portrayal of the country’s rural poverty, and in 1972, banned Buck from returning to China.

front cover buckOf Men and Women is a series of essays that Pearl S. Buck wrote and published in 1941 where she examined the differences in relationships between men and women in China versus the United States. She writes:

“Very early, therefore, I perceived that women together led a life of their own”

“In China the home was not what it is in our country, a thing apart from men’s lives except when they return to it for food and sleep. The real life of the nation went on in the home.”

She explores the set-up of the Chinese household that would often include “three-four generations under connecting roofs” versus the American lifestyle where only the nuclear family would be found living under the same roof. Children would then grow up not knowing just one household leader/alpha, but have a multi-generational experience.

She then turns her attention to the different ways women were educated in the East versus the West. In China “women handed down to women a vast lore of history, custom, ritual, and practical knowledge which educated them and made them a part of the great national whole.”

Buck asks in this series of essays one essential question:

“Why do so many American women seem not happy in being women when they have the freedom to make what they will of themselves? And why do women and men not enjoy each other more in my country?”

Although Buck emphasises that despite everything she prefers the American way over any other, and thinks the progress done in the West is one to strive for, she noted that American women, while educated, free, and supported, were still viewed as a separate entity from men, and there was still a miscommunication between the two. Buck examines how relationships between men and women are different in every country, and it’s that difference that makes it a nation of its own. She writes that a traveler should examine how in every country men and women feel towards each other or “the reality of that country has escaped him.”

“For no human being was created to be solitary, and when it is cut off by doubt and distrust and lack of understanding from the other to whom instinctively it turns, whom nature has created for it, then strange stops and blocks and ills are inescapable.”

In the epilogue Buck writes that it has been thirty years since she wrote this book (in preparation for a newer edition back in 1971). She writes that the China she spoke of “is no more…how changed! Communism rules, and Communism has totally altered the relationship between Chinese men and women.”

Thus, I would urge the reader to remember, when reading this collection, that these essays were written in 1941, reprinted with an added epilogue in 1971, and then reprinted now in 2017 for this brand new edition. In the interim, China, and America have changed drastically.

The collection includes a brief biographical note and several images taken from Pearl S. Buck’s archive.

Many thanks to Open Road Integrated Media for sending me this work for review. This electronic edition will be published on June 27, and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon. Open Road Integrated Media focuses on publishing ebook editions of older works of literature and nonfiction.

*The biographical note at the top is a paraphrasing of the biographical note in the text.

Hunger by Roxane Gay | Book Review

22813605“This is a memoir of my body”

Hunger is my first Roxane Gay book and my introduction to the author. She emphasises in the first chapters that this book is not a diet book, or a self-help book.  This book does not justify morbid obesity as healthy, nor does it provide excuses as to why the author is not thin. Gay definitely emphasises the great shame that comes with being overweight from the pressures of society and beauty standards, to the health distresses, and the many side-effects of being obese. The author specifies that this book is a memoir or a history of her body. Alongside, she writes reflections and thoughts she has had about weight in general. As I was taking notes for this review, I kept wondering: how could I possibly criticise a book that is the history of a person’s body? It feels awfully personal,  especially when the author is so pleasant and such great company. The best I can do is tell you what it’s about.

Roxane Gay discusses in the early portions of the book the most traumatic event of her life (and body) where she was physically violated by a group of young boys at the tender age of twelve. The humiliation and trauma alone resulted in her silence for years to follow. The shattering experience and undoing of her world would have been subject to discussion. It would be her word against theirs—she would have to experience the judgement passed on women who come forward as rape victims as they are immediately questioned, doubted, and accused of lying. Women who step forward to report a crime, and instead of being aided, supported, and promised justice, they are discussed as if their testimony is debatable. Gay writes that even “the medical community is not particularly interested in taking the pain of women seriously.”

What follows is a series of chapters focusing on the struggles Gay had with weight as she used her body as its own fortress. She writes:

 “I could become more solid, stronger, safer…if I was undesirable, I could keep more hurt away.”

She describes the experience akin to being trapped in a cage where you are safe, but cannot move freely.

“The frustrating thing about cages is that you’re trapped but you can see exactly what you want”

For years the author struggled with trying to become conventionally attractive, and simultaneously trying to protect herself. What I found particularly uplifting was her description of the refuge she found in books. Certain books she said “offered a vocabulary” for her to understand what happened to her and gave her the knowledge/relief that being raped was not her fault.

She also focuses several chapters critiquing television shows like The Biggest Loser, and Revenge Bodies, the conversations in the medical community, and the way society as a whole perceives overweight bodies in discussion, books, and mainstream media.

Most importantly, she writes about her family and the people around her who claimed that they only bring the topic of weight up on a constant basis because they ‘care about her.’ No one focused on her Ph.D., on her books, or on her successes.

“I became resentful that the only thing anyone ever wanted to focus on was my body…People project assumed narratives onto your body and are not at all interested in the truth of your body…your body is the subject of public discourse.”

What I find particularly interesting is that Roxane Gay took the history of her body and critiqued the people who put her body in public discourse, under observation and discussion, as if it was a text, and in the process, she wrote this book which is in itself a text.

I hope that people who read this book don’t go in with a closed mind, and prepared to judge. I hope readers come to this text willing to understand the story of one person’s body.

I would also recommend two non-fiction companion books to this:

9780195049961The first is a philosophy-heavy text by Elaine Scarry called The Body in Pain – in this book Scarry writes an analysis of physical suffering and its relation to the numerous vocabularies and cultural forces that confront it: literary, political, medical, religious. It particularly focuses on how physical pain destroys language, and how every individual experiences pain differently on a personal level, where pain can never be shared, described, or conveyed in its entirety.

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The second is Dr. Gabor Mate’s book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. He is the first doctor who worked with heroin addicts, alcoholics, and overweight people and asked the question: why don’t doctors take a moment to understand WHY some people are more susceptible to addiction than others.

I found that Roxane Gay’s personal narrative in Hunger provided the most perfect story to support the philosophy-heavy Scarry book, and the medical book by Gabor Mate.

Many thanks to Harper for sending an ARC for early review. Hunger will be published on June 13, and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Roxane Gay’s other Works:

Links to Some of Roxane Gay’s Lectures:

This is What a Librarian Looks Like | Book Review

“‘What do we need libraries for? We’ve got the Internet now!’ FACEPALM” – Cory Doctorow

“Wherever you are in America, there is a librarian fighting to get YOU something”

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This book will be published on May 16, 2017 and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon.

Last week I recommended five non-fiction books on libraries which were mostly academic and history-focused.

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Front Cover

This book is not a history book but a celebration of libraries, and librarians, accomplished by a collaboration between photographers, librarians, publishers, and authors. By comparison to last week’s recommendations, this book is much more accessible. Kyle Cassidy published a photo essay on Slate in 2014 called “This is What A Librarian Looks Like,” a montage of portraits and a tribute to librarians. The essay had success and spread widely through social media. Cassidy expanded this project into what is now the new-coming book This Is What a Librarian Looks Like: A Celebration of Libraries, Communities, and Access to Information.

The book has three components:

  1. Brief essays on the history of the American Library
  2. Photographs of contemporary American Librarians
  3. Essays by writers, journalists, and commentators including Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Nancy Pearl, Cory Doctorow, Jeff VanderMeer, and others who discuss what the library means to them now, and what memories they have of the library from their childhood and/or youth.

The three sections are woven beautifully combining the history, interviews, and photographs according to historical periods and American geographical regions. Cassidy opens with an introduction to this book on the ideal of the library by discussing the Library of Alexandria. He writes:

“What made the Library of Alexandria great wasn’t just the collection of books, but rather, its intellectual raison d’être: the insatiable pursuit, creation, and dissemination of knowledge as a force to drive civilization.”

While discussing the leap across the digital divide and community service provided by librarians, this book urges readers not to look away while the Government is taking funds away from libraries. One such initiative is called Send Librarians to Congress, where the goal is to put a copy of this book in the hands of each member of Congress before Federal funding for libraries is eliminated as proposed in the “Skinny Budget” from President Trump. Cassidy writes:

“libraries in America today are at a crossroads, facing dangers not unlike those of the Great Library [of Alexandria] as well as an evolving technology that has the power either to make libraries exponentially more valuable or to erode their foundation if we are not careful.”

lcThe book then focuses a chapter on America’s First Lending Library: The Lending Company of Philadelphia which was opened in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin. The second history-based chapter is on artifacts and tablets interviewing Sumerologist Steve Tinney at the Tablet Room at the University of Pennsylvania, who focuses on the tablets similar to those which got us the Epic of Gilgamesh (British Museum) and Cuneiform writing.

Cassidy then turns his attention to individual library histories like the chapter “The Little Library That Tried” on M.N. Spear Memorial Library in Shutesbury, Massachusetts and “History you can Hold” focusing on the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library. There are also insights to libraries collecting non-texts like the Franklin Public Library which collects ‘The American Girl’ dolls instead. The book closes with “Archiving the Past” at University libraries in Texas and Iowa with a conversation between Cassidy and George R.R. Martin.

I really enjoyed this book with all its components, however, as a reader and librarian I was much more interested in the essays written by authors and the history parts. I wish they were longer. Some author interviews were only a paragraph long. For 220 images of librarians to fit in this large book, expect a coffee-table-style  book.  I understand the political undertones, specifically the one I mentioned above, where this book aims to put a face to the community of librarians in America for Congress, but as a physical codex, the book will become immediately dated because of the abundance of contemporary photographs. On the other hand, the same component makes it somewhat unique to preserving the ‘here and now.’ I would urge the reader to look at this book first and foremost as an art/photography book, where the histories and author essays are the supplements for the images, not the other way around as is usually the case. Nonetheless, the book advertises itself as a celebration of libraries and librarians, and in that respect, it has succeeded.

In terms of librarians photographed, this book is America-centric. Though the librarians are multicultural and diverse, the workplaces of the librarians photographed are mostly in the United States covering an array of public libraries, special collections, school libraries, and academic libraries. The authors interviewed are American, Canadian, and British. Overall this book focuses on the Western experience of the library.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in libraries, photography, and who has enjoyed blogs/books like Humans of New York which focus on individuals with an excerpt on what they do, and what they enjoy. I especially recommend this book to Congress.

Many thanks to Hachette Books, Black Dog & Leventhal for sending me a copy of this book for an early review.

I will leave you now with this excellent quotation on the importance of librarians taken from the introduction to the book :

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Travels with Charley | Review and Notes

“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch…I fear the disease is incurable.”

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Front Cover of Edition I read

Have you ever thought “I love Steinbeck! I wish I could hang out with him!” If you have, then: READ. THIS. BOOK. This journal/travelogue work is John Steinbeck’s account of his travels across the United States in the 1960s, with his dog Charley, in a trailer that he names the Rocinante (after Don Quixote’s horse). He describes what he sees, records interactions with different people he meets on the way, and this book is filled with reflective notes on what he thought of certain situation and how they relate to other instances in life or giving his opinion on his immediate reaction. There are a few literary references, and there instances of simple humour (i.e. getting stopped at the Canadian border for “dog reasons”).

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Steinbeck and Charley

I kept thinking that if anyone other than Steinbeck wrote the same travelogue it wouldn’t be that interesting. Although it’s not as high of a thrill as later written travelogues which are now quite popular, this book is interesting BECAUSE it’s Steinbeck. It seems a lot more relaxed than reading Krakauer’s Into The Wild for instance, or Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys travel literature, travelogues, journals/diaries, and those who love Steinbeck and his work because in the end it just feels like you’re hanging out with him and his dog. Interestingly enough, in 2014 Bill Steigerwald dedicated a lot of time to “exposing” Steinbeck as a fraud for this book and labelled this travelogue as a “fictionalized non-fiction” in his book Dogging Steinbeck. He elaborates on his issues with Steinbeck’s work in his blog.

 

Regardless, I enjoyed Steinbeck’s work and I thought I would share with you some of my favourite lines:

We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us (page 4)

I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation—a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something (page 10)

It was like starting to write a novel. When I face the desolate impossibility of writing fie hundred pages a sick sense of failure falls on me and I know I can never do it. This happens every time. then gradually I write one page and then another. One day’s work is all I can permit myself to contemplate and I eliminate the possibility of ever finishing (page 23)

Humans had perhaps a million years to get used to fire as a thing and as an idea. Between the time a man got his fingers burned on a lighting-struck tree until another man carried some inside a cave and found it kept him warm, maybe a hundred thousand years, and from there to the blast furnaces of Detroit – how long?…for man has to have feelings and then words before he can come close to thought and, in the past at least, that has taken a long time (page 32)

I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found (page 70)

Edition of book I read is the Bantam Pathfinder Edition and Viking Press, 1961.

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The Whydah: A Pirate Ship Feared, Wrecked & Found | Book Review

“When a ship sinks, it becomes a time capsule”

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Front Cover to the Hardcover Copy, top right image/illustration taken from Daniel Defoe’s history of Pirates

I received The Whydah, A Pirate Ship Feared, Wrecked & Found by Martin W. Sandler from Early Reviewers on LibraryThing. This book is printed by Candlewick Press and is part of the Junior Library Guild Selection. Although it’s intended for children (ages 8-14 or “middle grade”) I found this book fascinating and very informative. It revived the love I used to have for this topic and I read it in one sitting. Pirates have fascinated me for so long and I know that 14 year-old me would have loved to have this book. Mentions of “pieces of eight,” and The Pearl, brought back good memories, and just in time for the fifth film which came out this summer (though a different Pearl, it’s the ambiance that matters). I would recommend that every school library for 6th to 8th graders get a copy of this book. For that matter, I would recommend it for high school libraries as well.

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Map of Caribbean

Sandler has woven a beautiful timeline of the Whydah in this book. By focusing on one ship he dives into the details of every aspect of piracy. He begins by following our main Captain pirate: Samuel Bellamy, to whom he refers to as Robin Hood of the seas, and the history of the ship he hijacks: The Whydah. He reminds the reader that this was a time of unrestrained murder, robbery, and kidnapping and that the true stories of pirate cruelty shocked the population throughout the 1700s. He explains the Articles of Agreement (among pirates) from the notorious pirate Captain Bartholomew Roberts, and my personal favourite fun fact that the “Jolly Roger” is the name of the flag for pirates not a ship’s name (though we may know it as such because of Treasure Island and Peter and Wendy). The history of the “Jolly Roger” is fascinating and he explains why and how the flag got its name. Sandler also goes into the details of torture methods on board, punishments, as well as the good parts of pirate atmosphere on the ship such as theatrical sketches put together by the crew, and facing the wrath of the sea as well as critical weather conditions (i.e. storms, wind etc.)

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Blackbeard

The second half of the book focuses on the wreck of the Whydah and the importance of each artifact which was retrieved in 1984. The Whydah was the first sunken pirate ship ever to be found and excavated, and these findings validated what were before just stories. I guess dead men tell some tales!

The details of each artifact, its history, and importance are absolutely fascinating and throughout Sandler debunks many pirate myths.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves the history of ‘Pirates’ and ‘Piracy.’ The book is so beautiful, it has many illustrations, and (perhaps this is just my copy) the newly printed copy smells amazing. Again, this is aimed at a younger audience, but as an adult I got a lot from it, and it delivered what its title promised it would. Lastly, on a personal note, it revived my love and passion for Pirate History.

The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs | Book Review

“I do not go walking with the purpose of staying within a world of perfect safety and comfort. Personally, I would rather die walking than die of boredom reading about how to walk safely.” –Tristan Gooley, xi

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I don’t remember how I came across Tristan Gooley. It must have been through YouTube or an online reference, but somehow I was led to buy this book and his second work on Kindle. I’ve always wanted to be able to navigate through the natural realm and know exactly where I’m going. This idea kept coming back every time I remembered My Side of the Mountain, Hatchet, Robinson Crusoe, John Locke’s character on LOST, or Ron Swanson of Parks and Rec. I re-read Walden a few times and enjoyed that Nature-savvy protagonist so much and realized that as much as I like hearing about nature and surviving in it, I myself know nothing about it. I knew how to use several teas and herbs, some essential oils, but that’s pretty much it. The trigger was reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer where for the first time I realized that my idealized and romanticized notion of nature has a dark side. So I turned to Gooley.

lost artThis book is a ‘how-to’ manual but told with the storytelling skills of Thoreau. He takes breaks through the instructions to share anecdotes or personal stories of how that specific skill has helped him in navigating or explains how it would have come in handy to know before. Some of his stories really keep you on the edge of your seat.

“Sense and thought, observation and deduction, this simple two-step process is the key to transforming a walk from mind-numbing to synapse-tingling.”

The first four chapters focus on getting grounded and sorted (the latter used in this book as an acronym: Shape Overall character Routes Tracks Edges Detail). He discusses the ground, soil, trees, and plants as ways to find your bearings during the day. Chapters 5 and 6 focus on Mosses, Algae, Fungi, and Lichens (my personal favourite) as well as rocks and wildflowers (to a botanist or geologist this may be elementary but here we are learning how to navigate using clues from them). Lastly, chapters 7 through 11 focus on navigating the sky and weather. He writes about constellations to look out for, alignments, the sun, moon, and general sky details that can help you navigate if you are lost at night.

After reading this I found myself sounding like a know-it-all scout:

“did you know that grey soil is usually wetter than the red to yellow shades and is often a symptom of leaching?”

“did you know that where there is limestone we also sometimes find holes, caves, and stone pillars?”

This book made me feel like Sherlock Holmes outside. And here is where things get interesting. What makes Gooley different for me, is that he takes into consideration the things we have like GPS, and the metropolis, and synthesizes the two with nature. This way you don’t feel like you’re reading an 1800s manual, rather it feels very present and in tune with our days, our hobbies, and the tools we have at our disposal. For instance, chapter one begins with the explanation of smelling smoke on a cold morning (in the city!). I always thought something was on fire, but Gooley then explains that it’s the effect of temperature inversion and that “the smoke from factories and home fires gets trapped near the ground and spreads along under the warmer layer, giving the air a musty whiff of smoke.”

This book for me is a solid 5 stars in the non-fiction realm because it delivers what it promises in the title and it’s told with such great skill. There are sprinkles of science (i.e. Latin Linnaean terminology and classification) but it’s carefully placed among many practical, ‘how-to’ passages, and personal anecdotes. Gooley has five other books out: The Natural Navigator, The Natural Explorer, How to Connect with Nature, The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs and How to Read Water.

The book is printed by The Experiment in New York, and the illustrations within the book as well as the front cover are done by Neil Gower. Gooley can be found at naturalnavigator.com

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Book Covers for Gooley’s works with the exception of The Walker’s Guide.