Monday, August 31, 2009

Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann, translated by Anthea Bell

As I've mentioned in a few places, I had not planned to finish this book so quickly. It didn't seem to be going that fast. And I had other things to do that day, like dishes, and gathering garbage, and general tidying, and running errands, and... ... and very little of it got done, because this book did.

The reason this surprises me so much is that I hadn't really thought of Three Bags Full as being a gripping read. I didn't feel like I was barreling through it. But perhaps my clue should have been that nagging restlessness I felt when doing dishes (I did get some things done), wondering what would become of the sheep, and worrying that one of them would find himself too close to the butcher for comfort, or under the not-so-loving care of a villain...

Three Bags Full is what I would call a pleasant read, but it's not something to just breeze through. What pushes it past a breezy read is that every once in a while a sheep will look at something a certain way, or say something in a sheepy way, or something will happen and be interpreted by the sheep in a completely odd way, and the reader will feel that maybe humans aren't as smart as we like to think we are, because darn it, that sheep is right. And it's a little embarrassing to be brought up short by a fictional sheep.

The basic plot, upon which these sheep-driven epiphanies hang, is that one morning the flock finds their shepherd, George Glenn, lying on his back with a spade driven clean through him. And since he was their shepherd, and most other humans seem to be somewhat useless, the flock decides that the solving of the mystery is up to them. They're lead by the intrepid Miss Maple, the smartest sheep in Glennkill and possibly the smartest sheep in the entire world, who gets help when she needs it particularly from three others in the flock: Othello, the only black sheep in the flock and a former circus performer; Zora, who thinks deep thoughts and quite likes heights; and Mopple the Whale, the memory sheep -- Mopple can remember anything.

As I write this down, I feel quite fondly towards each of them. I was trying to pick a favourite character, and I couldn't; every sheep in the flock (and outside, too) is an important character, and they all have their endearing qualities. Swann's gift here has been creating characters that would possibly be stock characters in any other context, but as sheep they're charming and well-realized. I enjoyed, too, that the whole flock was integral to the plot -- each member had something to bring to the table, and not always in a contrived way.

And this book really is a mystery, a mystery that does slowly get unravelled, revealed to us through the flock's collective memory and observations, through conversations overheard by the sheep and actions observed by the sheep -- conversations and observations the sheep don't always interpret in the same way a human observer (the reader, for example) might be tempted to interpret them. But often their interpretations fit just as well. In the end, the solution was somewhat unexpected, but fit, and I was left feeling quite satisfied if a little melancholy. George Glenn, seen through the sheep's memories, was someone who deserved an awful lot better than he got. This is one of the strange things: because of the way this story was told, the reader ends up identifying with and feeling for George far more than one often does for the victims in other crime novels.

To understand what I mean about the difference of perspective between Swann's sheep and a human, here's night from the perspective of a sheep:

Melmoth was trembling, but only with exhaustion. He heard everything, everything. The whining of the dogs and their slobbering heartbeats, the clink of moonlight on the cold ground, a night bird's wings beating, even the velvety sound of the night itself slowly moving on.

The last note I want to make is of the translation. Not able to read this in the original German, I still want to compliment Anthea Bell on her translation. It's seamless and lyrical, and I presume quite close to the original, unique voice that Leonie Swann writes with. As always, I struggle with how close a translation can possibly be to an original text, but this one just feels right.

Pick this one up if you're in the mood for something a little different, something that will make you think just a little, something to savour. Enjoy the odd feeling of looking at the human world through the eyes of a fictional sheep, and listen to what those sheep say. Because they just might be right.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Amulet: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi

After years (literally) of meaning to get to it, I have finally read Kazu Kibuishi's beautiful Amulet: The Stonekeeper. And the first thing I wrote down in my journal is: it's wonderful.

Emily, Navin and their mother move to an old family house on the outskirts of a town after a very difficult family tragedy, to try to start a new life. They attack the accumulation of dirt and dust in the old house in a determined way (this part made me laugh out loud) but their first night, things go horribly wrong. Investigating a noise in the basement, their mother disappears -- and Emily and Navin must undertake a perilous, fantastic journey to get her back. This is the first book in a series, and I believe the second book The Stonekeeper's Curse is on its way at the beginning of September. Very exciting!

And it really is wonderful. This book deals with big situations and a lot of grief and fear for young people, but it does it in a plain, understandable (insofar as big griefs are ever understandable) way. Which is not to say that this story is simplistic -- not at all. Just when I thought I knew who was good and who wasn't, I started to second-guess. One is left with the suspicion that nothing is really quite as it seems, and concerns that while Emily made the only choice available to her it might not in fact have been the right one.

I really enjoy both Emily and Navin. Navin in particular. My enjoyment of Navin made me think: why do I like him better than I like Emily? Emily is clearly the main character in The Stonekeeper, and she's very sympathetic as a sad, frightened, but determined and spunky kid. But she's got the weight of responsibility on her that makes her slightly less fun. She's focussed on getting their mother back in a single-minded, heroic way, as she should be; Navin is free to get distracted by giant pink herbivorous slugs. Navin is free to beg Emily not to take on the amulet, but Emily has to make the choice despite it's rightness or wrongness. This is something I find common to a lot of fantasy -- the main hero is more boring than the supporting cast (I'm looking at you, Garion, and you, Frodo) because they aren't free to be more interesting. They have a Quest. They have to answer to the Quest. Everyone else can be funny and charming, but the hero must Seriously Pursue the Quest.

This isn't a criticism, by the way. I do still really like Emily (and Frodo and Garion) but I thought it was interesting that I reacted in a similar way to Emily as I do to many other heroes in fantasies I've loved. There are other heroes I've loved in other fantasies, but it's not uncommon for me to feel a little bit less in empathy with the hero than I do with the characters around the hero.

Now, because Amulet: The Stonekeeper is a graphic novel, let me take the time to comment on the art. Here, have a look (these are prints from the book, available through Gallery Nucleus):

The art is just so cool. And it is beautiful, and supports the mood. It is clearly drawn, the action is supremely easy to follow, and the panels are so detailed and rich. Every panel is invested with a kind of light and energy. Kazu Kibuishi caught me with Copper years ago, and I've always loved his fantastical, almost-steampunk worlds. So to spend an entire novel in one of those worlds is a treat. The second one is coming out soon... I am quite excited to see it, and anxious to know what happens to Emily and her family. Though I have some suspicions, bred of many years of reading fantasy and fairytales, about how things are going to turn out, I also suspect that there will be surprises in store.

Highly recommended, for anyone ages 8 or so and up who likes imaginative adventure tales. Male or female; I think both are equally likely to enjoy this story.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Teaser Tuesday: Three Bags Full

I'm spending some time in the company of sheep, thanks to Leonie Swann's delightful Three Bags Full. A shepherd is murdered, and his sheep are on the case. I'm quite enjoying it, although it took me some time to fully get into sheep mode. I kept trying to see things from a human perspective, and realized not far along that it wasn't going to work; I should just go with the flock, as it were. It's interesting to look at what we might consider ordinary human things from such a different perspective, fictional as it is.

From Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann, translated by Anthea Bell, p145:

He knew that humans could make things out of wood. But why they would want to make a thing like this was beyond sheepy understanding.

Teaser Tuesdays are hosted by Should Be Reading. It works as follows:
  • Grab your current read.
  • Open to a random page.
  • Share two teaser sentences from somewhere on that page.
  • Be careful not to include spoilers!
  • Include the title and author.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Riddle by Alison Croggon

As I write this I have one of those irritating colds that flares up at night, leaving me to lie in bed pondering all sorts of things, like whether or not I really need lungs. Last night the coughing was bad enough that I had to go downstairs and sleep on the pull out couch. This is new, and therefore still a fun novelty, like building a fort in the living room and sleeping in it overnight. But I still couldn't sleep for coughing, so I read.

Or that's my excuse, anyway.

What I find most telling about Alison Croggon's storytelling capacity is that though I found the first couple of chapters of The Riddle to be tiresome recap and clumpsy exposition, I still kept with the book. And once the "last time in Maerad's life" bit was over, the storytelling took over again and I was enthralled. She still walks the thin edge between "that's unbelievable" and "that's almost unbelievable," setting up some pretty amazing magic and plot events well before they happen, making for tremendously exciting reading. Although there were a few points where I slipped a little bit past the almost-unbelieving to pretty-much-unbelieving in this book, which didn't happen in the first book. And (this is my last gripe) there was one plot hole that was big enough for me to notice it even as I galloped through the pages, which... well, it was unfortunate and a bit frustrating, but I forgave it because it was necessary for the story to unfold the way it did. Keeping the metaphor alive: though I was brought up short, I gathered myself, trotted around the gaping plot hole, shook my head at the maintenance crews, and proceeded to gallop on.

I guess, although I hate to do this, I should warn that I might not be able to avoid spoilers for the first book in the following paragraphs.

In this book, Maerad and Cadvan have escaped Norloch and are off on the next leg of their quest: finding the Treesong. Maerad is confirmed as the Chosen One, a fact that still sits very uncomfortably with her, but she reluctantly shoulders it and keeps moving ahead with help from Cadvan and the few other Bards and civilians they can trust. Ardina, the Elemental, makes a number of those almost-but-not-quite deus ex machina appearances, and we're left wondering at her motivation but trusting her because Maerad does. And Maerad. Poor Maerad. She is in pretty deep trouble: depressed, moody, frightened, confused and furious -- in other words, a typical sixteen-year-old girl. But she's crushed under a very atypical amount of pressure, and cracks are starting to show. This is very bad news, because Maerad is also possessed of a very atypical amount of raw power to do with as she will. And part of what is so interesting and refreshing about Maerad as a character is that she doesn't always do the right thing.

There was one point where Maerad did something that almost lost me entirely. I was so shocked and horrified that I almost put the book down, and that feeling didn't stop for several pages. A testament to Croggon's writing, again, that I didn't, and that I could still find sympathy for Maerad. Also, I have to admit, I was impressed with Croggon's bravery in having her main character -- the character we're supposed to sympathize with -- do something so far outside sympathy. It made me sit back and realize that despite my empathy for Maerad, I didn't completely understand her. So when she said "No one understands me!" I believed her. I wasn't impressed with her, I thought she was being childish and selfish and dangerously in denial; but she grows up a lot over the course of this book. And I hope some of that sticks with her, because I do find reading about Maerad's angst to be difficult -- I've been there, I've done that, and I'm glad it's over, and it's hard not to want to give Maerad a good shaking and tell her to get over it.

The thing with a good hefty epic series like this is that I am now halfway through and feeling both good and bad about that. I will be relieved when it is over and I know what has happened. I will be sad, too, because I don't like it when things end. Reading something like this is an undertaking, and can almost be gruelling because the length allows the reader to invest more in the characters, feel more for the characters, and become comfortably (or uncomfortably) wrapped up in the plot. It weighs on me a little. I think about this story in the shower. I want it to end so I can have my own thoughts back, but I don't because it's such a wonderful experience, being so taken with a story. I haven't felt like this for a while.

Next is The Crow and I suspect we'll be seeing a lot more of Hem (Maerad's brother) and their friend Saliman, if the preview chapter is any indication. I'm kind of mixed on that. I'm always reluctant to leave main characters behind and let them do their own thing while focussing on other characters, but the little we've seen of Hem makes me like him, and I'm looking forward to spending time with him.

Much thanks again to Darla for introducing me to this series!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ranma 1/2 Volumes 11, 12 and 13 by Rumiko Takahashi

I finished these three volumes weeks and weeks ago, and am thinking I should post about them, considering that the next two arrived at the library yesterday. I am really lucky that the library I work at will order graphic novels in from other systems. The library system I'm a patron of, here in my city, doesn't. They also don't have large chunks of the Ranma 1/2 series. So, happily, the library I work for will ask other libraries to send me Ranma and I don't have to purchase the whole series. This I would like to do eventually, but it's not a cheap proposition.

So today. In volume 11, we have more bathhouse hijinks. The Tendo household's bath seems to be out of commission regularly, which provides convenient excuses for various characters to get nekkid together. Sadly, this is not quite as sexy as it sounds, mostly because these scenes involve ridiculously unsexy battles. But funny! Nudity is definitely funny. That said, there's a tad too much Shampoo and Ryoga in this particular section for me, and as I find them both tremendously annoying at the best of times, I could have done without the first storyline involving magic soap. However, the second half of this volume has a really excellent storyline involving something called "The Ultimate Weakness Moxibustion" -- which, when applied to Ranma, causes him some serious problems. Which don't get resolved until...

Volume 12! Which I consider, along with volume 10, to be one of the highlights of this series so far. Again, it's the mix of comedy and touching romance that gets to me. And ridiculous martial arts "training" scenes. But we start to see some serious character development in Ranma especially here, and I love it. That said, there are three other stories in this volume, two of which are complete throwaways and one (involving Akane learning how to swim) which I found funny but I'm not entirely sure why.

And then there's volume 13. It was... mostly forgettable, I am afraid. I can't remember the first couple of storylines at all. However, the last, in which Ranma has gambled away the Tendo Dojo (as a child, no less) and everyone must deal with the consequences, is quite funny. The art in this story is particularly well done; it actually sticks out for me as one of the better-drawn sections in this series. I mean, the Gambling King (who claims the Dojo) is well done, but everything is clear and dynamic and I hope this is a hint of what is to come in future books.

I think I liked the Gambling King story arc so well because Nabiki features heavily, and of all the secondary characters, I like Nabiki best. She'd cheerfully sell someone else's soul if the price was right, but man she's cool. There's even some gambling arts training scenes in which Nabiki tries to train Ranma in the art of Old Maid. Fantastic.

As stated, volumes 14 and 15 are waiting for me at the library, and I'm looking forward to getting them shortly. Meanwhile, I am trying to read things with less pictures and more paragraphs, but we'll see. It is getting better.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ranma 1/2 Vols. 8, 9 and 10 by Rumiko Takahashi

I feel like I need to post something, lest everyone lose complete interest in this blog. So, three volumes of Ranma 1/2 to chat about today! After reading The Naming, I couldn't really concentrate (nor did I want to) on anything else -- but I also didn't want to finish my vacation staring blankly into space. Ranma, Akane and the rest kept me entertained. And over the past couple of weeks, light, comedic manga has been the perfect thing to read as I'm trying to relax and also get back on the reading train. Too bad it takes so long to get my hands on the next volumes...

A fair bit happens in volumes 8, 9 and 10. A new rival shows up in the person of okonomiyaki-throwing Ukyo, and Mousse (he who loves Shampoo) returns with an alter ego all his own and a nefarious plot to kidnap Akane and turn her into a duck, as this will somehow make Shampoo love him. I was a little unclear on that point. Then there's the storyline with Happosai losing - and then finding - the technique that so cows the Saotome and Tendo fathers: the Happo Fire Burst. Explosions. More characters. And then some more characters.

And at the end of volume 9, I was wondering if I was getting a bit of Ranma fatigue.

It just keeps going! my brain said. Except the plot never keeps going!

And then I took a bit of a break, and read volume 10 a couple days later -- and was much more relaxed about everything. Really, this is a comic, with all sorts of little comedic episodes interspersed between actual plot movement. And if I don't try to find the major plot thread in everything, I'm much happier. Takahashi is telling stories with these characters, throwing them into completely ridiculous situations just to see how they will get out of it. And volume 9 has one of my favourite Nabiki lines ever, which made me laugh out loud; and then we get to volume 10, which strikes me as one of the best so far.

There are clear storylines -- they're ridiculous, yes, but they're clear -- there's good action, there's lovely interaction between Ranma and Akane especially but also between other characters, and there's also several moments that made me laugh out loud. For example, trained attack lobsters that show up in a battle over hairstyles and coconuts. In the basement of Furinkan High School.

So yes, it's more of the same -- there are more than 30 volumes of the same -- but it's also so much fun. I just need to be careful not to overload, I think. Take it a bit at a time, enjoy the complete madcap, slapstick comedy, and not push things. Excellent vacation reading, I think.

And, I have just realized while writing this review -- despite the fact that there are more characters and more characters and always more characters, mostly for Ranma to fight, I can keep them straight. I know who each character is, and what part they play in the drama that is Ranma's life, what their fighting specialty is, where they work, where they come from, what their backstory is, who they're related to, what their schtick is -- I can keep this all straight in my head. Which suggests to me that Rumiko Takahashi knows what she's doing with character creation and characterization. One would think it might get confusing, but I'm not confused yet. We'll see how long it can last!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Teaser Tuesday: The Wise Heart

Okay. The one book I have been able to settle on, that isn't making me feel either crazy or guilty, is Jack Kornfield's The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology. It is possibly because reading this book is helping me work through the crazy and guilty and giving me other things to think about. I'm not reading it quickly... but I am reading it, and so the teaser will come from this easy-to-read, challenging-to-think-about, calming book. I've chosen three sentences, because three sentences form the complete thought.

From The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield, p13:

Among the most central of all Buddhist psychological principles are the Four Noble Truths, which begin by acknowledging the inevitable suffering in human life. This truth, too, is hard to talk about in modern culture, where people are taught to avoid discomfort at any cost, where "the pursuit of happiness" has become "the right to happiness." And yet when we are suffering it is so refreshing and helpful to have the truth of suffering acknowledged.

Teaser Tuesdays are hosted by Should Be Reading. It works as follows:
  • Grab your current read.
  • Open to a random page.
  • Share two teaser sentences from somewhere on that page.
  • Be careful not to include spoilers!
  • Include the title and author.

Friday, August 14, 2009


So, I didn't mean to take a hiatus this week. But apparently I have. My last posting was last week Wednesday, and today is Friday. So, oops.

I'm just having a really hard time getting into anything. I pick stuff up, read a bit, enjoy it but not enough to keep reading, or I enjoy it but it doesn't feel like a good time to be reading that particular book. It's just one of those frustrating things. I've got a Ranma 1/2 review stored, so I'll put that up tomorrow, and I'll try to get into something. The P.D. James is good, but not keeping my attention; I've got both Mort (Pratchett) and The Riddle (Croggon) waiting, as well as James Kornfield's The Wise Heart which is Buddhist nonfiction and something I'm looking forward to, but I'm pretty hesitant to start anything that is going to require deep attention right now. I know that either the Pratchett or the Croggon will keep me engaged -- I just have to suck it up, put down the other two books I've been trying to read, and accept defeat. But I always feel guilty when I do that. Especially since I've used both of those books for Tuesday Teasers and I'm not going to end up finishing them right now, even though they are perfectly good. One, Riddle-Master, is more than good; it's amazing, incredible, beautiful, superlative in every good way, but I just couldn't settle. Ever want to sit your brain down in a chair and tell it to take a time-out, after which it should apologise meekly, having come to the realization that it was being a jerk? My brain is being a jerk right now. This post has been my attempt at a time-out.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Teaser Tuesday: Time to be in Earnest

Tuesday rolls around, and I am reading something new, yes, although sadly not because I finished the last book. I love Riddle-Master, but I have decided that for that book, I need a good stretch of time to read it, not the little snatches of time I get throughout a busy work week while trying to get everything else done. Because it's too beautiful to treat badly, if that makes any sense. I think I will save it for September, when I go on vacation again finally.

Plus, I'm visiting my grandmother this week and have borrowed a book from her that I really should return -- P.D. James' diary of her seventy-eighth year, Time to be in Earnest. So today, a teaser from there. So far, I'm enjoying it, although after her very first diary entry I've decided that she and I might have had a pretty good argument about something she states at the end of it. The writing is excellent, though.

From Time to be in Earnest by P.D. James, p153:

It was impossible not to begin reading at once and just as impossible to stop once I'd begun. Inevitably one's response to the poems is influenced by the joint tragedies; how could it be otherwise?

Teaser Tuesdays are hosted by Should Be Reading. It works as follows:
  • Grab your current read.
  • Open to a random page.
  • Share two teaser sentences from somewhere on that page.
  • Be careful not to include spoilers!
  • Include the title and author.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Naming by Alison Croggon

I was utterly amazed at how wrapped up I got in this book, although I probably shouldn't have been. It's definitely my sort of thing -- reading The Naming is a bit like coming home for me. My first reading love is fantasy and though I've been reading a wide range of things lately, The Naming is where my love of reading started: a strong female protagonist on a fantastical quest to save the world. And I must, before I go any further, thank Darla wholeheartedly for introducing me to this series because I hadn't heard of it, and would probably have overlooked it for far too long otherwise. I highly recommend reading her brilliant review of this book - reading her review again after I'd finished this one, I realized she covers things I don't, and noticed things I didn't, which is part of the fun of book blogging!

Maerad (pronounced, Croggon tells us in a handy pronunciation guide at the beginning of the book, as MY-rad) is a slave, sixteen years old and facing a lifetime of bonebreaking labour and beatings in the small and repulsive "village" of Gilman's Cot. She is an orphan, and her only solace is music -- she is permitted, and forced, to play her mother's harp for the entertainment of Gilman and his cronies. Until one day, a stranger shows up in the cow barn -- and she is spirited out of the Cot and into a new adventure, one that will see her facing enemies she didn't know existed, finding friends she didn't know existed, discovering her history and her heritage, and yes, saving the world.

And yes, that is a fairly standard fantasy plot. It's a plot I actually really like, if done well, and Croggon more than does it well. Within the first few pages I was attached to Maerad, and I think Croggon's biggest triumph is in her characters. It's not just Maerad we grow fond of -- it's the supporting characters around her, even those who seem to flit in and out of the story such that we hardly get to know them before they're gone again. These characters are brave, smart, kind people we care about, who are about to be put through hell. But Maerad is the glue of the story, and she's a wonderfully courageous, practical, and intelligent character. She's also a little uneven in the way a sixteen-year-old would be expected to be uneven, with slightly irrational moods and angers, which peter out just as quickly. And she's mature enough to know when to cut it out. It's very well done.

The action is exciting too. There are battles and councils and desperate flights in the middle of the night; the reader, like Maerad, just gets a chance to catch her breath and then we're off again. This pace is fast, although not completely breakneck such that it was uncomfortable, and it's punctuated by respites that made Maerad's quest all the more urgent so that those gentle, beautiful respites could be the norm and not the exception in the future of her people. The 466 pages of the story flew by, though I'll admit to being a bit daunted by the size of the book before I started. There's a twist towards the end that I only half saw coming (I suspected one part of it, and completely did not see the other - very satisfying) and any events that might have seemed a little deus ex machina in the hands of a lesser author were skillfully woven into the plot such that they were believable. And rather than being completely thrilled with these events, the reader is left with the uneasy feeling that there is going to be a price paid, if not immediately, certainly in the future.

Though I'm tremendously enthusiastic about this book, it is a little uneven in places. There are occasionally bits of writing that are a bit jarring -- Maerad and other characters gasp an awful lot, for example, or things seem a little blunt-object-obvious. These gripes are fairly few and far between. The other thing is that though the world is well-described, with a rich and varied history, it's unfortunately in places very reminiscint of Tolkein. I say it's unfortunate because to me, Croggon doesn't quite stand up. The historical background sometimes just seems a little thin, or pulled directly from Tolkein or other fantasy masters, or expected and therefore bland. But something Croggon does pull off extremely well is poetry.

I usually hate poetry in fantasies, particularly when it's poetry that's supposed to be part of the oral history of the book's inner culture. Tolkien I could usually bear, although not always. Other authors often leave me feeling that it's boring, or bad, or at its worst completely and utterly mortifying to read. Croggon's poetry, her ballads and verses and so forth, were really good, and became something I looked forward to reading in the book, and that is a reversal I was really pleased to see. I shouldn't be surprised, I guess, because I understand that Croggon is a poet first. And I think, with the aid of her poetry and another book or two to get into the history, I will probably find that my feeling about the history changes. I expect the history will deepen, and feel richer, the more I've steeped myself in it.

As a testiment to how much I enjoyed this book, I am still considering turning right back to the beginning and reading it again, because I'm pretty sure it would be better a second run through. I'm going to control myself, though, and wait until I've read the full series, and then read the whole thing through again. They will be my own copies, because though I got this out of the library I am going to buy the books to keep for myself. I know I'll read them multiple times. Next in the series is The Riddle, and I'm expecting it to be at my library when I get there for my Friday shift...

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Teaser Tuesday: Riddle-Master

I wasn't going to do a teaser post today, because I was finding it hard to get into anything on my TBR list. I was considering making it a job for Terry Pratchett again, with Mort, and I know that will work, but I decided to go back instead to an old favourite, a book I've read many many times and that I always love. I haven't read Patricia McKillip's Riddle-Master in a while, though, and so I'm looking forward to seeing how much it has changed for me. And I'm also experiencing that slight concern that maybe it won't be as good as I remember.

Riddle-Master is an omnibus edition of McKillip's high fantasy trilogy, The Riddle-Master of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, and Harpist in the Wind. It is a timeless and beautiful piece of writing and I am so glad I picked this book up when I stumbled on it in a bookstore long ago. It was my first McKillip experience, and I was floored by how incredible this book is; I couldn't believe I hadn't heard of McKillip before.

I'm going to include more than two sentences today, mostly because the section I randomly picked makes no sense without a few extra sentences.

From Riddle-Master by Patricia A. McKillip, p181:

"The Great Shout of the body is unteachable; you simply have to be inspired." He paused, added thoughtfully, "The last time I heard it was at the marriage between Mathom of An and Cyone, Raederle's mother. Cyone shouted a shout that harvested an entire crop of half-ripe nuts and snapped all the harp strings in the hall. Luckily I heard it from a mile away; I was the only harpist able to play that day."

Teaser Tuesdays are hosted by Should Be Reading. It works as follows:
  • Grab your current read.
  • Open to a random page.
  • Share two teaser sentences from somewhere on that page.
  • Be careful not to include spoilers!
  • Include the title and author.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Overloaded Ark by Gerald Durrell

I am managing to peel myself away from my next read for long enough to write this review. It's not that I don't want to recommend The Overloaded Ark; quite the opposite, in fact. But my next book is really, really good and very gripping, and I've been having the privilege of multiple consecutive uninterrupted hours to read it.

But enough about other books.

The Overloaded Ark is the first of a great number of autobiographical tales written by Gerald M. Durrell. Many years ago, in my pre-teens and teens, I read everything by Durrell I could get my hands on. Which I am realizing wasn't that much, looking at his bibliography. I'd never heard of The Overloaded Ark, but I was feeling nostalgic the other day, so I looked up Durrell and settled on reading all his autobiographies, in publication order.

To understand this book, I think it's really important to first put it in context. Durrell went on several "collecting" expeditions for British zoos in his life. As far as I understand, this sort of expedition just doesn't happen anymore and for very good reason. It's not considered good zoo behaviour to be sending minions out to pull live specimens out of their habitat, unless it's to establish captive breeding programs for a seriously endangered species. But back in the 1940s, when Durrell's first expedition took place, it was a commonplace activity. And as Durrell says in his prologue, part of what he is trying to do with this book is set the record straight -- collecting expeditions were neither unending drudgery nor unending danger.

The time period is part of what makes this book so fascinating, but it also causes some serious cringing on my part. There's overtones of -- and sometimes overt -- racist colonialism and even hints of sexism, all of which at the time would have been considered normal for a white, British man visiting British Cameroon at the time the book was written. Much of the time I think Durrell was ahead of his time as far as racism and environmental concerns, but sometimes he'll write something really jarring in an otherwise splendid book. So my suggestion would be to read this book, but read it with the historical context in mind. It doesn't make any of the colonial overtones right, but it is an interesting historical exercise to read this book and realize just how deeply embedded some of this objectionable stuff was in society.

Moving past the issues (which I will admit was, for me, very hard to do at first; I don't read a lot from this time period and so it was an exercise in not being massively put off), Durrell is underrated as a writer, I think. His style is poetic, often quite funny (usually at his own expense), and thoughtful. He wants his readers to fall in love with the African jungle, and with passages like the following, how could I not?

The most notable feature of the forest was the innumerable tiny streams, shallow and clear, that meanered their way in an intricate and complicated pattern across its floor. Glinting and coiling around the smooth brown boulders, sweeping in curves to form the snow-white sandbanks, busily hollowing out the earth from under the grasping tree roots, shimmering and chuckling, they went into the dark depths of the forest. They chattered and frothed importantly over diminutive waterfalls, and scooped out deep placid pools in the sandstone, where the blue and red fish, the pink crabs, and the small gaudy frogs lived.

He has a turn of phrase that is both dryly amusing and wonderfully descriptive, as when describing a bicycle trip he takes with one of his assistants sitting on the handlebars, where they "shot out onto the high road like a drunken snipe." Or that section I mentioned in my teaser, with the naked ant battle. Actually, Durrell seemed to have a number of naked encounters... another one I laughed at went as follows:

It stood quite still, regarding me thoughtfully, and the tip of its tail moved very gently among the grass stalks. I had seen domestic cats looking like this at sparrows, twitching their tails, and I did not feel very happy about it. Also, I was stark naked, and I have found that in moments of crisis to have no clothes on gives one a terribly unprotected feeling. I glared at the Serval, wishing that I had my shorts on and that I could think of some way of capturing it without the risk of being disembowled.

Because yes, Durrell goes to some enormous lengths to catch his critters. It's always top of mind -- even when staring down large cats, or faced with a Gaboon Viper (a rather deadly snake, as he might say) in his living quarters, or falling down a hillside onto the back of an enormous Monitor Lizard which has already taken a nasty strips out of a dog. What amazes me most about this book, though, is that one never ever loses sight of the fact that Durrell loves these animals. He loves the forest, he loves the flowers, the beetles, the birds, reptiles, mammals -- he loves it all. And to him, capturing and attempting to keep these animals alive is part of loving them. One doesn't have to agree with his methods, but I know that love of nature. I have it myself.

He includes a couple of notes about failure, too. He's very conscious of mentioning that though he's included the exciting bits in the book, most of his time on a collecting trip is spent in animal care. And much of that is quite boring. He also tells us where things go wrong, as with animals he simply can't figure out how to keep alive in captivity; and there's one really lovely, touching chapter about Chumly the chimpanzee. It's a very sad story, and he never lays blame or points fingers for Chumly's demise, and leaves the conclusions to the reader -- and this reader came out feeling really horrified by human stupidity and laziness.

There are a lot of things about this book to recommend it, if you are aware of the time period it's written in and prepared to take that as it comes. I am going to continue with my plan to read Durrell's autobiographical works in order, but I'm also thinking I might throw his book The Stationary Ark in there as well, in which he talks about zoos and their relationship to the natural world, and his philosophy of effective and ethical zoo management. I've never read it, but heard good things.

If you're reading Durrell for the first time, I don't know that I'd start here. It's his first published novel and it's not quite as polished as some of the others, although at points it is really, blindingly beautiful. So, very recommended, with caveats.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Before I started Eat, Pray, Love I was a little worried it might be too God-y for me. I have a very complicated relationship with organized religion, and in many ways my experiences have not been terribly good. And currently, though not forever, I feel it's best to leave it at that. And so when I'm reading anything, significant amounts of God tend to turn me off. But, my mother's recommendation aside, Elizabeth Gilbert herself convinced me to give things a try, because I like the way she thinks. From her introduction:

And since this is the first time I have introduced that loaded word -- GOD -- into my book and since this is a word which will appear many times again throughout these pages, it seems only fair that I pause here for a moment to explain exactly what I mean when I say that word, just so people can decide right away how offended they need to get.

For me, just the act of pointing out that "God" is a loaded word is enough. The last part of that sentence made me laugh out loud, because she covers all of us -- those who have very specific ideas of God, and those who don't want anything to do with God, and all of us in between. From that moment on, I decided to read this book because I felt I could read it as her experience, and not feel like she was preaching at me. And it never did feel preachy. Sometimes it felt like she was gently suggesting advice -- a good friend, an older sister -- but it never, ever felt like she was trying to convert me and I got behind that 100%.

Let's get this out of the way first: the last third of the book was a bit of a letdown for me, and I've been trying to figure out why. I've come to the conclusion that it feels, overall, as though Gilbert is finally withdrawing. Throughout the first two sections, we get all her pain and all her love and all her thoughts and failures and triumphs, bared to us in almost graphic clarity. The third section seems somehow less intimate, which is interesting given that significant portions of that third section are about sex. I was going to say "which is odd" but it occurs to me that sex, physical and emotional intimacy between two people (in this case, anyway), may be one of the hardest things to write about in a clear-eyed, no-holds-barred way -- breaking that bubble of intimacy so that the world can share in it through one's writing is perhaps not something Gilbert wants to do, or can do. And that's okay. So in the third section there is more of an outsider-looking-in feeling, than the incredible closeness that one feels to Gilbert in the first two sections.

The third section didn't ruin the book for me by any means. And part of what I have enjoyed about it so much is the way it makes me think, and examine my own thoughts and assumptions as well as the assumptions of others. My mother and I were discussing this criticism from her book club when they read this book: Gilbert is too self-indulgent. Mandy also mentioned that she's read reviews calling the book narcissistic -- here's some news, critics: it's a memoir. So yes. Narcissistic, if you want to be nasty about it. I like memoirs because I enjoy getting that very personal look at the world from someone else's perspective, and I get that in spades from Eat, Pray, Love.

But self-indulgent is something slightly different, and with respect to my mother's book club, I disagree with them. I even got a little ferocious when talking about it with Mom. I know a few things about depression, and one thing I do understand is that one doesn't get over a deep depression by denying oneself healing. In Gilbert's case (which I am admittedly looking at through her writing, one side of the story and all that) I suspect anything less than what might be called "self-indulgence" would have been fatal. In fact, one of the things I was most impressed with was that she had both the clarity to understand what she needed to do to dig herself out of her hole, and the guts to actually do it. When dealing with depression, one has to be selfish. Because, as Gilbert herself says at one point, being miserable not only hurts you, it hurts and inconveniences others around you, too. But our good Protestant culture here in North America very much frowns on some types of selfishness. It takes a brave, strong, and/or desperate soul to ignore society and visit Italy for four months to do nothing but eat, talk, and nap in order to begin healing.

Gilbert has a very distinct voice, and I really, really liked it. When Mom and I were talking about self-indulgence, I realized I was beginning to defend Gilbert as I would a friend; her writing style, and the things she opens up about in her book, make her seem familiar -- someone I could call up and have a great chat with. This doesn't happen to me very often with books, and I liked it. Part of it was that I found a lot of what Gilbert had to say completely relatable. Try this:

Instead of being amused, though, I'm only anxious. Instead of watching, I'm always probing and interfering. The other day in prayer I said to God, "Look, I understand that an unexamined life is not worth living, but do you think I could someday have an unexamined lunch?"

I know that brain-busy-anxious feeling all too well.

And on a lighter note:

Before dawn the roosters for miles around announce how freaking cool it is to be roosters. "We are ROOSTERS!" they holler. "We are the only ones who are ROOSTERS!"

It almost makes me like roosters. And finally, a piece of wisdom that I think is incredibly important, coming to us from her Guru via Gilbert:

She says that people universally tend to think that happiness is a stroke of luck, something that will maybe descend upon you like fin weather if you're fortunate enough. But that's now how happiness works. Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings.

I don't think this book is for everyone, although I do wish it was. But I read it at a good time in my life to read it, a time when I am thinking about choices I have made and have yet to make, a time when I am finding myself sometimes treading water frantically just to keep my head out. It was, overall, a really interesting, beautiful, raw, and very worthwhile read for me. And I would advise trying it -- just trying it. Mom was surprised that she liked it as much as she did. My grandmother was surprised she liked it as much as she did. I was really surprised that I liked it as much as I did. But I tried it and I really enjoyed it, so I recommend trying it, and if it doesn't work the first time, wait five years and try it again. I suspect this book changes with time.