May/June Book Choices

While I’m unfortunately behind on reading The Improbability of Love as I got it so late from my library, as well as struggling to get through it, I figured I should put up my choices of books anyways.

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1. Hild by Nicola Griffith

Hild is born into a world in transition. In seventh-century Britain, small kingdoms are merging, usually violently. A new religion is coming ashore; the old gods’ priests are worrying. Edwin of Northumbria plots to become overking of the Angles, ruthlessly using every tool at his disposal: blood, bribery, belief.

Hild is the king’s youngest niece. She has the powerful curiosity of a bright child, a will of adamant, and a way of seeing the world—of studying nature, of matching cause with effect, of observing human nature and predicting what will happen next—that can seem uncanny, even supernatural, to those around her. She establishes herself as the king’s seer. And she is indispensable—until she should ever lead the king astray. The stakes are life and death: for Hild, her family, her loved ones, and the increasing numbers who seek the protection of the strange girl who can read the world and see the future.

2. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons.

HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.

The journey starts in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s, her small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia — wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo. Today are stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells, East Baltimore children and grandchildren live in obscurity, see no profits, and feel violated. The dark history of experimentation on African Americans helped lead to the birth of bioethics, and legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

3. Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Prince Aleksander, would-be heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battletorn war machine and a loyal crew of men.

Deryn Sharp is a commoner, disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She’s a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.

With World War I brewing, Alek and Deryn’s paths cross in the most unexpected way…taking them on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure that will change both their lives forever.

4. A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab

Kell is one of the last travelers–magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel universes connected by one magical city.

There’s Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, and with one mad King–George III. Red London, where life and magic are revered–and where Kell was raised alongside Rhy Maresh, the roguish heir to a flourishing empire. White London–a place where people fight to control magic and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. And once upon a time, there was Black London. But no one speaks of that now.

Officially, Kell is the Red traveler, ambassador of the Maresh empire, carrying the monthly correspondences between the royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they’ll never see. It’s a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.

Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She robs him, saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.

Now perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they’ll first need to stay alive.

Poll: 

Monstress Review

Monstress was something different then our usual choices, most obviously as a graphic novel. It only took me about an hour in total to read it leisurely, I enjoyed it nonetheless. The art was pleasing, especially the details in clothing and hair, as well as the varied expressions on cat faces’, which had me smiling. I found it occasionally a little gruesome for my tastes,  however I find many graphic novels tend towards gruesomeness, so I go with it. The story itself was intriguing; the pages that appear between chapters giving some historical context did their job, but did not always clear my confusion. I suspect a second reading would fix that. Also looking back…I can’t exactly recall what the plot was; I couldn’t sum it up for you in one sentence very well. It was rather convoluted, especially for something a little under 200 pages.

I think this novel suffers a bit with an overabundance of world building in a short 192 pages. I love stories with a rich and detailed fantasy world, societies that have history and culture that have obviously been thought out, but when  you are just thrown into them, there is the risk of getting a little lost and overwhelmed. Some details I can pick up on my own, such as noticing that Monstress seems to have women in most of the positions of power; its a matriarchy. I think if the map I found after finishing the novel was placed at the beginning, and perhaps included an outline of the 5 races I might have had a slightly clearer understanding of the world. This explosion of world building I see less in books, where the author usually has more space to build and describe the world they are presenting to us. I found the stories of the shaman-empress and the old gods intriguing, would have liked to see more of them.

The main character herself occasionally irritated me. I wasn’t sure if her “I don’t care if you live or die” was a persona; it seemed to fluctuate, but occasionally just made her look like a brat and less sympathetic as a character.

This review is certainly not filled with praises, but that’s not to say I did not enjoy Monstress. The art on some of the pages was nice enough that I stopped to admire it for a while, I was pulled by this world that seemed to be dominated by women and haunted by creepy dead gods, and I will probably try to pick up the second volume when its available.

And, hey. It has talking cats!

Belated Bad Feminist Review

I could not seem to organize my ideas about this book, and although agreed with much of what Roxane Gay says, I am not convinced of the title “Bad Feminist”. I almost feel like she told me about this label, and then convinced me not to use it. I am not sure? So here is my review, as seemingly disorganized as it might be. Perhaps if I read it a second time in a shorter span of time I will have more clarity. Or not?

I am glad I chose this book; I think otherwise it would still be sitting on my shelf now, cover pristine, as I well intentionally thought “soon”. The fact that it took me so long to get through this book should reflect less on the author’s style of writing, and more on my current attention span, especially for non-fiction. I quite enjoyed how the book was set up, and found that relatively short essays were easy to read. The content of those essays, not so much at times. The author’s writing is also clear and not dry; I was interested even as she discussed the details of competitive scrabble. I think I struggled only once to really understand what she was saying, only because I was completely unfamiliar with the reference.

The book resonated with me about having “problematic faves”, because if we cut out everything that said or did something we didn’t like, would there be anything left? The sort of embarrassed ,”Yes I watch that show, but you know, I’m still a feminist .” Does the feminist part really have to be necessary? You have to defend your stance on equality because you like make up or shaving your legs? Perhaps it’s those pesky categories, Feminism with a capital F, and how society and media defines it, is becoming more rigid as a category.

I also should mention of course, that she was also speaking, writing, her experiences as a black feminist as well. The chapters on racism were interesting and educational, as well as the same time I know I won’t experience the same sort of movie going anxiety and frustration. Reading the chapter on the book The Help was interesting; I read it several years ago,  probably when I had just started university, and when I was as yet unaware of such things as the White Savior or other subtle racist tropes. Now, it was not a complete surprise to me.

This book reminded me of an essay once called “Yes, you are”. It seems to be a response, at least partially, to the “essential feminist” that Gay mentions in her book. Far as I am concerned, If we all became this essential feminist, it almost seems that our personalities would fade a bit, be taken away.

“Yes. You are. You are a feminist. If you believe in, support, look fondly on, hope for, and/or work towards equality of the sexes, you are a feminist. Period. It’s more complicated than that — of course it is. And yet…it’s exactly that simple. It has nothing to do with your sexual preference or your sense of humor or your fashion sense or your charitable donations, or what pronouns you use in official correspondence, or whether you think Andrea Dworkin is full of crap, or how often you read Bust or Ms. — or, actually, whether you’ve got a vagina. In the end, it’s not about that. It is about political, economic, and social equality of the sexes, and it is about claiming that definition on its own terms, instead of qualifying it because you don’t want anyone to think that you don’t shave your pits. It is about saying that you are a feminist and just letting the statement sit there, instead of feeling a compulsion to modify it immediately with “but not, you know, that kind of feminist” because you don’t want to come off all Angry Girl. It is about understanding that liking Oprah and Chanel doesn’t make you a “bad” feminist — that only “liking” the wage gap makes you a “bad” feminist, because “bad” does not enter into the definition of feminism. It is about knowing that, if folks can’t grab a dictionary and see for themselves that the entry for “feminism” doesn’t say anything about hating men or chick flicks or any of that crap, it’s their problem.

It is about knowing that a woman is the equal of a man in art, at work, and under the law, whether you say it out loud or not — but for God’s sake start saying it out loud already. You are a feminist.”

http://tomatonation.com/culture-and-criticism/yes-you-are/

 

Vassa in the Night Review

Another Fairy tale! I didn’t realize this until I figured out that BY stood for Baba Yaga. Fairy tale retellings are usually fun in seeing how the author incorporated the original tale and Vassa in the Night was…an interesting interpretation of Vasilia the Beautiful.

I went to read a summary of the original tale after I finished, so as to not risk any spoilers, but found that the end was different. Sort of. The ending of Vassa was a bit too open for my taste; I still had questions. I did not see how Vassa and Stephenie’s relationship would be healed by these events, although Vassa herself seems somewhat optimistic. In the original tale, Vasilia is given a magic lantern by Baba Yaga  and when she gets home, she finds that the lights have not returned and the lantern burns her half-sisters and mother to death. This is obviously a convenient way to get rid of evil step-siblings. On the other hand, attempting to repair the relationship between siblings without fiery deaths seems to fit a more modern version of the tale.

Parts of the story seemed somewhat convoluted or weighed down with extra detail. While I can go along with this at the beginning of a book, with the expectation of later explanation, I was not always satisfied in this case. For example, I was slightly confused with the interlude of the father becoming a dog, as it did not really seem to add much to the plot. It answered the question of where the father went, for sure, however that did not seem like an urgent question to me in the first place.

Recalling my review of East, and agreeing with my friends here, I was exasperated by the refusal to answer questions. It’s another traditional fairy tale element, I recognized that. But again, what’s a girl to do, sometimes? Discouraging questions, and then making her feel bad for asking them was exasperating to read about.

And to agree with Dancing Radish, I thought Vassa was written with a pretty realistic personality. Her impulsive choice to go to BY’s to prove a silly point to her sister was believable; I could see myself doing such a thing. Her inner struggles and her self-doubt did not feel contrived. We tend not to hear the inner thoughts of the traditional fairy tale heroines, they are silenced by the 3rd person narrative; and it is sometimes hard to imagine that they might be angry,  feeling lost and dispairing.

 

February Choices

  1. The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman

Some call the prize ring a nursery for vice …Born into a brothel, Ruth’s future looks bleak until she catches the eye of Mr Dryer. A rich Bristol merchant and enthusiast of the ring, he trains gutsy Ruth as a puglist. Soon she rules the blood-spattered sawdust at the infamous Hatchet Inn. Dryer’s wife Charlotte lives in the shadows. A grieving orphan, she hides away, scarred by smallpox, ignored by Dryer, and engaged in dangerous mind games with her brother. When Dryer sidelines Ruth after a disastrous fight, and focuses on training her husband Tom, Charlotte presents Ruth with an extraordinary proposition. As the tension mounts before Tom’s championship fight, two worlds collide with electrifying consequences. THE FAIR FIGHT will take you from a filthy brothel to the finest houses in the town, from the world of street-fighters to the world of champions. Alive with the smells and the sounds of the streets, it is a raucous, intoxicating tale of courage, reinvention and fighting your way to the top.

2. Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

A dark, distinctive and addictively compelling novel set in fin-de-siècle Vienna and Nazi Germany—with a dizzying final twist.
Vienna, 1899. Josef Breuer—celebrated psychoanalyst—is about to encounter his strangest case yet. Found by the lunatic asylum, thin, head shaved, she claims to have no name, no feelings—to be, in fact, not even human. Intrigued, Breuer determines to fathom the roots of her disturbance.
Years later, in Germany, we meet Krysta. Krysta’s Papa is busy working in the infirmary with the ‘animal people,’ so little Krysta plays alone, lost in the stories of Hansel and Gretel, the Pied Piper, and more. And when everything changes and the world around her becomes as frightening as any fairy tale, Krysta finds her imagination holds powers beyond what she could have ever guessed. . . .

3. Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay

A collection of essays spanning politics, criticism, and feminism from one of the most-watched young cultural observers of her generation, Roxane Gay.

Pink is my favorite color. I used to say my favorite color was black to be cool, but it is pink—all shades of pink. If I have an accessory, it is probably pink. I read Vogue, and I’m not doing it ironically, though it might seem that way. I once live-tweeted the September issue.”

In these funny and insightful essays, Roxane Gay takes us through the journey of her evolution as a woman (Sweet Valley High) of color (The Help) while also taking readers on a ride through culture of the last few years (Girls, Django in Chains) and commenting on the state of feminism today (abortion, Chris Brown). The portrait that emerges is not only one of an incredibly insightful woman continually growing to understand herself and our society, but also one of our culture.

Bad Feminist is a sharp, funny, and spot-on look at the ways in which the culture we consume becomes who we are, and an inspiring call-to-arms of all the ways we still need to do better.

4. Peony in Love by Lisa See

For young Peony, betrothed to a suitor she has never met, these lyrics from The Peony Pavilion mirror her own longings. In the garden of the Chen Family Villa, amid the scent of ginger, green tea, and jasmine, a small theatrical troupe is performing scenes from this epic opera, a live spectacle few females have ever seen. Like the heroine in the drama, Peony is the cloistered daughter of a wealthy family, trapped like a good-luck cricket in a bamboo-and-lacquer cage. Though raised to be obedient, Peony has dreams of her own.

Peony’s mother is against her daughter’s attending the production: “Unmarried girls should not be seen in public.” But Peony’s father assures his wife that proprieties will be maintained, and that the women will watch the opera from behind a screen. Yet through its cracks, Peony catches sight of an elegant, handsome man with hair as black as a cave–and is immediately overcome with emotion.

So begins Peony’s unforgettable journey of love and destiny, desire and sorrow–as Lisa See’s haunting new novel, based on actual historical events, takes readers back to seventeenth-century China, after the Manchus seize power and the Ming dynasty is crushed.

Steeped in traditions and ritual, this story brings to life another time and place–even the intricate realm of the afterworld, with its protocols, pathways, and stages of existence, a vividly imagined place where one’s soul is divided into three, ancestors offer guidance, misdeeds are punished, and hungry ghosts wander the earth. Immersed in the richness and magic of the Chinese vision of the afterlife, transcending even death, Peony in Love explores, beautifully, the many manifestations of love. Ultimately, Lisa See’s new novel addresses universal themes: the bonds of friendship, the power of words, and the age-old desire of women to be heard.

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSc_fjBb5bp8dJqu2aeCrMjawQVrwv0rnM-cjB4slEWmzEPaUA/viewform

Queen of Katwe Review

I was hesitant when starting the Queen of Katwe; I don’t have much interest in chess and inspiring stories often seem to be over dramatic or too unbelievable for my tastes. And while parts of the book were interesting, as a whole I am not a fan.

I felt like I was reading a academic essay written at 3 AM the night before a deadline, considering the amount of padding and detail that was added in around Phiona Mutesi’s story. It went into great detail about her life, her mother’s life, her coach’s life, as well as other people’s lives that seemed rather…peripheral. While there is no reason not to leave out details about key players that were important to Phiona’s life, it seemed excessive and somewhat awkward with the way that new people were being introduced throughout the book.

Perhaps it would have been better if the scope was widened, or the summary rewritten?  A book about how chess affected young people in Uganda, and focusing on a few of them specifically.

East Review

When I suggested this book I was unaware that it was based off the fairy tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon”, but I’m glad I did, fairy tale retellings are always a pleasure to read.

East was delightful to read, with the calendar folklore details,  the imagery of the arctic which seemed both beautiful and brutal at times, and the different characters that Rose meets on her way to the North. It satisfyingly invoked some of the traditional fairy tale points, while bringing all sorts of other characters to life to fill out the story. Not to mention in the original tale, Rose is nameless; here she not only has a name but a strong personality and family and friends.

My only objection is one that came up when I read the original tale as a child as well; the fact that Rose feels so guilty, and is treated as a betrayer because she lit a candle to see who her mysterious visitor is. I remember feeling protective of her when I read the original tale, and felt the same here. Rose is a smart, curious, and intrepid girl, why should she be expected to quietly go about her days and nights without questioning anything, when she has had no explanation whatsoever?

I also enjoyed the little historical tidbit that the white bear was actually a dauphin, and that the author had done some research to tie it into the french monarchy.