Have you forgotten something?

Despite being set in two different centuries, nearly 100 years apart, the books in today’s post share one element: a blinkered Euro-centric view of life “down under”. Read on to see what I mean.

In A Town Like Alice (1950, NYPL e-book), Nevil Shute’s novel set during and after WWII (and made into a pretty damn good series back in 1981) comes in essentially two parts: In the first, Jean Paget tells her lawyer, Noel Strachan (the novel’s narrator), about the horrors of being a prisoner of the Japanese during the war. She and the other survivors of a several-hundred-mile march across Malaya — only 17 of the original 30+ women and children captured when the Japanese invaded the Malayan peninsula — finally settle in a village on the eastern shore until the war ends more than 2 years later. Back in England, she inherits a small fortune and decides to use some of her money to build a well for the women back in the Malayan village that harbored her and the others. Then she learns that Joe Harman, an Australian she thought the Japanese had killed, had NOT died, and the second part of her life — and this novel — begins. Already in love, they connect, weather many difficulties (most of which involve a modern Englishwoman adjusting to life in the outback), and settle happily on a station, where Jean uses more of her funds to vitalize the nearest town’s economy.

For an adventure yarn (based on the true story of nearly 80 Dutch civilians marched through Sumatra, with fewer than half surviving), it’s a great book, if you can remain blind to the underlying problems of racism and colonialism, of outsiders (i.e., Europeans) taking over and destroying land inhabited by indigenous peoples (i.e., the Aborigines). Jean Paget easily falls into adopting Joe Harman’s slang, using racist language around her husband’s Aborigine stockmen without any kind of awareness of their presence. She builds an ice-cream shop in the town, setting up a room in the back where the Aborigines can buy treats without mixing with the whites.

Antique botanical print, Acacia, Australian wattle

I don’t blame Jean for her behavior or lack of awareness — I blame Shute. He’s happy to make the point that the women who survived the march were the women most willing to live as Malayan women did — going barefoot, wearing lighter clothing, being subservient to and respectful of not just their Japanese captors but also the Muslim townsmen who they relied on each night of their march for food and shelter — willing, in the end, to work in the rice paddies. Jean, in fact, because she knows some of the language, becomes the group’s de facto leader — the other women, at best, have learned only enough words to give orders to their servants. Yay for some enlightened linguistic/cultural/religious views! But the first thing Jean says, when she first meets Joe Harman after 6 months of marching, is, “It’s such a relief to meet a white man again!”

OK, I get it. The book is set in the 1940s and 1950s, when racial issues weren’t a concern for white people in Australia and New Zealand. I suspect that Shute himself, having just moved to Australia, wasn’t interested in the Aborigine’s POV — he had a great story to tell, and he tells it well. I just wish there’d been even a tiny nod of recognition that Joe and Jean, and even Noel Strachan, were doing well at the expense of others.

Lady Barker’s Station Life in New Zealand (1883/1987, Viking Penguin) is a series of letters, written between September 1865 and November 1868 (and then later edited by Lady Barker for publication). The letters tell of her 3 years on a sheep station in New Zealand’s South Island, about 30 miles west of Christchurch. It’s astonishing to think of life on a sheep station in New Zealand, less than 50 years after the first British settlers had arrived. So new were the British settlements that Lady Barker considers herself one of the “pioneers”, and often writes admiringly of how well her fellow Brits have settled into Christchurch and the stations across the Canterbury plains.

Her life isn’t easy — she and her husband have to deal with floods, fires, a blizzard that kills nearly all their stock and nearly starves the members of her household, the death of an infant, illnesses, loneliness, inept servants, bad food, and non-existent roads. Every trip involves crossing at least one river (sometimes the same river several times), so to travel means to be wet throughout the day. The upside is every settler is a good neighbor — doors are always open, and even the most isolated shepherd will stoke his fire, boil up a pot of tea, and offer you his bed for the night if you show up at dusk, wet and tired.

But again I say — what about the Maori? Lady Barker hardly mentions the native New Zealanders, whose presence she first notes, briefly, just outside of Christchurch as she and her husband travel to their new home. She describes them, not flatteringly, and then refers to “some reserved lands near Kaiapoi where they have a very thriving settlement, living in perfect peace and good-will with their white neighbours.” Really? At just about the same time, on the North Island the Maori are at war with the white settlers.

And then there’s the environment. Wekas (native birds) are hunted relentlessly, because they make it impossible for pheasant and partridge to survive (the English must have their hunts!). Just 2 years later, as Lady Barker is lounging near a lake, she yelps with pain: a weka has just poked her with its beak. I cheered for the bird.

She notes that totara trees are becoming rare across Canterbury, as settlers use them for fence posts, furniture, construction. Entire houses are built of kauri wood (by the early 1900s, this tree was reduced through logging to less than 10% of its original population). Sheep outnumber people, and graze relentlessly.

Illustration of C. scoparius from Köhler’s Medicinal Plants (1887)

In The Bone People, Hulme’s protagonist worries about the Europeanization of New Zealand. Paul Theroux, in The Happy Isles of Oceania (1992), begins with a brief visit to New Zealand. He notes that the Maori set the environmental degradation in motion when they arrived on New Zealand more than 1000 years ago — introducing dogs and rats to the island (before this, there were no meat-eating animals outside of birds), as well as hunting many of the birds to extinction. The islands “natural balance was disturbed,” he writes;        “[t]he arrival of these predators produced the ecological equivalent of Original Sin.” White settlers brought additional problems: first rabbits, and then stoats and weasels to hunt the rabbits, and then deer and elk. Not to mention plants! Theroux writes, “no growing things are hated more than the rampant gorse and broom planted by sentimental and homesick Scots.”

Funny. When Lady Barker mentioned how grateful she was to see broom’s yellow blossoms on the New Zealand hillsides in the spring, I’d been thinking, how sweet. Now I know that this plant is an invasive species in NZ, crowding out native plants and changing the local ecology. Ah well.

Posted in Adventure, Am reading, Australia, Fiction, Historical fiction, History, New Zealand, Travel | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Lockdown

photo-1465056836041-7f43ac27dcb5I had scheduled some posts to go up while I’ve been traveling, and they are still on the docket. But here I am, writing in real time, to let my readers know what’s been going on.

My daughter and I arrived in New Zealand on 04 March and made our way through the North Island. All along our way, we met spectacular views of mountains, ocean, waterfalls, and hobbit dwellings; delicious food; and friendly people. World events caught up with us, however, and we had to cancel our Australian leg, deciding we’d replace it with more time in this lovely country.

Nope.

We got through 8 days in the South Island, and then NZ announced it was going into lockdown for the next 4 weeks, and possibly longer. We raced to an apartment in Christchurch, where we have settled in for the long haul.

We’re lucky, and we know it. NZ has been intelligent about COVID-19, setting early thresholds for enacting various safety measures, so the infection rate is relatively slow. We can afford to shelter here, rather than return to our extremely unsafe hometown. We are not homeless; we have plenty of food and other supplies; we have a balcony, with plants. Our biggest challenge is avoiding boredom, but we’re intelligent and can figure something out. Perhaps I’ll even get some writing done.

To all my readers, my best wishes for the safety of you and your families and friends and acquaintances, and on and on to the 6th degree of separation.

And, for a rare political statement, remember who helped and supported others, as well as those who dithered and hindered others, during these most difficult days. Reward the first group with more than applause. How the second group should be treated, I’ll leave up to you.

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Furthest south

To kick-off my themed posts over the next few weeks: I give you books set in New Zealand and Australia, many by Kiwi and Aussie authors. If you’re following me on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll know why. Here, though, I’ll just say I’ve long been wanting to reread the books I’ll be reviewing these next 2 months, and I finally have a reason strong enough to get me started.

Cover of 1986 edition, Penguin

So, first: Keri Hulme’s Booker Prize winning The Bone People (1983). I remember being wowed when I first read this just after Penguin published the paperback version (1986). The story is rough, with violence, anger, isolation, alcoholism nearly overwhelming the balms of nature, art (both musical and visual), friendship, family, love. The plot is complex, revealed through the thoughts and impressions of the three main characters:

Kerewin, estranged from her family, lives alone in a tower on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, struggling to regain her artistic vision. She comes home one day to find young Simon, mute and often wildly out of control, inside her tower. Like Androcles, she removes a thorn from the child’s foot and becomes forever his savior. When his foster father, Joecomes for him, Kerewin gets a glimpse of the loving yet violent relationship between them. They gradually win her over, gradually come to see her as their possible redemption. The back stories are complex, involving shipwreck and sudden loss of loved ones, leaving three broken people looking for what will heal them.

Joe identifies as Maori, Simon is clearly European (Pakeha), and Kerewin is a mix of the two — easing the leap to understanding the book as a metaphor for the long history of indigenous people versus European colonists. E nga iwi o nga iwi, Simon remembers Joe saying: Oh, the bones of the people (iwi = “bones”, but also “people”, i.e., ancestors, so this saying holds the key to the book’s title). Simon is convinced that the three of them belong together, are broken without each other, will die if not reunited. Does the same hold true for New Zealand? for other countries where Pakeha have outnumbered and pushed aside iwi?

Cover of 2010 edition, Penguin

Hulme’s writing isn’t easy, requiring patience and tolerance of unusual language and structure. A glossary of Maori words and phrases, which appears at the end, is helpful, but Hulme makes no other concessions to the reader. On this second reading, I found myself struggling once again to keep track of whose thoughts and impressions were being voiced, this time with a bit less patience for Hulme’s style. (Several publishers rejected Hulme’s manuscript, one allegedly noting, “Undoubtedly Miss Hulme can write but unfortunately we don’t understand what she is writing about.”*)

I also frequently lost patience with Kerewin, Hulme’s Renaissance Woman — Kere quotes from obscure (all real) ancient and modern texts, plays all styles of guitar (flamenco, folk, classical, jazz, you-name-it), sculpts and draws and paints, knows edible plants and sea creatures, is a pretty good Aikido fighter, reads the dictionary, and designed and built her tower. Too good to be true, I kept thinking, and then I had to remind myself: it’s FICTION, for goodness sake. My job as the reader is to figure out why Hulme gave Kerewin so many powers, while keeping her alone and frustrated, reluctant to let Simon and Joe into her life. What use are superpowers if they don’t make you happy?

This is a difficult read, but, in the end, worth the effort of making sense of someone else’s story. Hulme’s resolution suggests the importance of doing the hard work towards understanding the “other” and building unity. It’s a hopeful message, despite this novel’s dark, sad heart. Keep that in mind, if you pick this up.


*See footnote 4 on the novel’s Wikipedia page.

Posted in Am reading, Culture clash, Fiction, Historical fiction, New Zealand, Travel | Tagged | 1 Comment

In the near future

Lory at The Emerald City Book Review recently wondered if her readers had reading plans for the year.

Excellent question, if only because it gives me a chance to prep you for what’s to come on this blog.

My usual annual reading plan is to read as much and as widely as possible, with few themes or specific goals unless I decide to join a group read. This year, however, I’ve added my own theme because — guess where I’m traveling to!

I leave today for a big adventure (appropriate photos to appear on Facebook and Instagram). Until then, I’m soaking up history and culture and stories to set the mood. I can’t claim that I’ll read all of these before I leave, but I’m making a fair-sized dent in this stack, and writing reviews that will go up while I’m away.

Happy spring to all (it will be here soon). Keep reading!

Posted in Adventure, Am reading, Australia, Fiction, Historical fiction, History, New Zealand, Travel | 11 Comments

Quickly, now

A big trip is coming up, and before departure I’m racing through some last minute e-books from the NYPL (see below). Can’t send them back un-read! I’m also pulling out a nearly abandoned manuscript to revive/revise for a writing retreat in September — a chance to meet with two editors to discuss “next steps”. More on that in the coming months. For now, just know that the manuscript needs some major and minor tweaks, but I already know what those are. What I don’t know, yet, is how those tweaks will reverberate through the rest of the story.

As for those NYPL books:

Dogsbody, Diana Wynne Jones (1975, NYPL e-book). DWJ’s novel is utterly charming. Sirius is a violent-tempered star-being (yes, that star — the brightest one in the night sky, part of the Canis Major asterism), sent to earth as punishment for bad behavior. His one hope is to find a zoi (a powerful object that can wipe out entire solar systems) that has gone missing. Only problem is, Sirius lands on earth as a new-born puppy.

The story is narrated from Sirius’s point of view, and we watch him learn about his new world from the viewpoint of a rapidly growing dog, whose outsized feet and uncontrollable tail are constantly getting him into trouble. He gets help from a couple of astral beings, but also finds some other astral beings have arrived to destroy him and take the zoi for themselves. And, of course, humans come into his life as well, teaching him about love and loyalty and charity. Wonderful.

The Descendants, Kaui Hart Hemmings (2007, NYPL e-book). While reading this, I couldn’t help hearing George Clooney’s voice as the narrator, even though I’ve never seen the film based on this book. Set in modern-day Hawaii, this is the story of a wealthy family (Matthew King, his daughters, his in-laws) waiting for his wife, Joanie, to die. (She’s in a coma, soon to be taken off life-support.)

Hemmings weaves humor into this sad story, as Matthew debates the various moral choices he has to make over the course of just a few days: who should he sell the family land to? can he be a better father to his daughters? does Joanie’s lover (whom Matthew has just learned about) have a right to know that she’s about to die? does he still love his wife, even after learning she’s been unfaithful? who are these girls/women who are his daughters?

Flying Lessons and Other Stories, Ellen Oh (ed.) (NYPL e-book). Ellen Oh, the co-founder of We Need Diverse Books, gathered stories from 10 well-known children’s authors, including Kwame Alexander, Meg Medina, Matt de la Peña, Jacqueline Woodson, Grace Lin, Tim Federle, and Walter Dean Myers. The stories feature a diverse set of male and female protagonists — African American, Asian (both ancient Chinese and modern Indian American), Latinx, Choctaw, gay, straight, disabled.

Each of the stories is wonderful, and in no way does it seem as though the stories were created to feature diversity. Instead, these are stories about real people, dealing with with life-shattering or life-affirming events. In the Foreword, Christopher Myers quotes his father on “hospitality in writing”: Said his father, “No matter what harrowing or amazing tale you will experience in this book, know you are welcome here. Let me share what I have, and we will enjoy the sharing.”

It’s easy to see how this book will appeal to all readers. 2 of the stories are about sports, several feature families struggling to succeed, some are set in schools, another in a library, another around a campfire. Some are fish-out-of-water stories (the only black person in a small New Hampshire town), others are land creatures jumping into deep water (a wheel chair basketball team plays their first away game). Some are even about falling in love.

As a collection, this works well in meeting the goal of “hospitality in writing”. All readers are welcome, all readers will find a comfortable home here.

The School for Good and Evil, Soman Chainani (2013), A World Without Princes (2014), The Last Ever After (2015) (NYPL e-books). One of Soman Chainani’s stories is in the Flying Lessons book — about a shy teen traveling with his much older and extremely flamboyant aunt (think Auntie Mame). I saw that he’d written these books and lucky for me, they were available. I’ve only read the first, but I’m moving on to the second after I finish writing this post.

This is a clever school-setting series, but with this twist: every 4 years, 2 children are taken from the town of Gavaldon to attend the School for Good and Evil, which trains fairytale characters to create their own stories for children called “readers”. Previous graduates include Jack the Giant Killer, the Giant, Snow White, Maleficent, the Little Mermaid and the Little Match Girl (slight slip-up there, because these last two had no happy-ever-after. I blame the School for Good and Evil, who probably hired bad PR people; I don’t blame Chainani). Side note: the less successful students have futures as beasts, even plants, featured in fairytales. This is what happens when one doesn’t study! Fail this test and you’ll be Jack’s next beanstalk.

Sophie and Agatha are this year’s victims, but something goes wrong. Sophie, who trained all her life to attend the School for Good, ends up at the School for Evil; Agatha, not interested in leaving Gavaldon at all, ends up at the School for Good. Agatha discovers that none of the other students are from towns like hers — they’ve all come from fairytale families. She and Sophie are the only “readers” on the campus.

Students, wolves, fairies, teachers, plus the mysterious shadow responsible for the quadrennial kidnappings, all conspiring to hide a direful prophecy — a volcanic combo promising a rousing finish, and Chainani doesn’t disappoint. It’s great to watch Agatha and Sophie figure out what’s happening, and Chainani doesn’t stint on the gruesome details — moats filled with sludge and uniforms that are cloyingly sweet (School for Good). Put it this way: there’s a lot of bubblegum pink, and a lot of filthy sludge.

Posted in Am reading, Am revising, Fantasy, Fiction, Humorous, short stories | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

Weird combinations and scary dreams

“Little Nemo”, by Winsor McCay, comic strip published 1905-1926

Yep, I’m definitely craving odd-ball books these days. Here are 2 more for your consideration:

Fragile Things, Neil Gaiman (2006, 2013, NYPL e-book). Another collection of Gaiman’s writings, most of which come a là macabre. The book includes short stories (Gaiman’s take on horror, sci-fi, fantasy, fairy tale, gothic, etc. genres), a novella, an excerpt from The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a lecture, a verse or two, and a short sequel to American Gods. So, something for everyone.

Most of the contents were first published between 1990 and 2006. The lecture, “Make Good Art,” is a 2012 graduation speech he gave at the University of the Arts (Philadelphia). Easy to say, not so easy to do — but what a thrill it must have been for those students to hear Gaiman encourage them to go out and be fearless about their work. (YouTube carries some videos of the full speech.)

Gaiman’s fiction is certainly fearless: a sci-fi spoof of Sherlock Holmes; a collection of flash fiction, each of which represents a Tarot card — from a set designed for vampires; an end-of-the-world tale that reverses the first couple of pages of Genesis; a gothic story with a 16-word title that includes the phrases “forbidden brides”, “faceless slaves”, “secret house” and “dread desire”; a nearly fatal magic show; a sequel to the Narnia books (which addresses some of my complaints about Lewis’s series); and so on. Some are funny, some gruesomely violent, some just plain weird — but in a good way!

Some memorable quotes: From “A Study in Emerald”, the Holmes-like character quips, “If there’s one thing that a study of history has taught us, it is that things can always get worse.” From “The Problem of Susan,” a dream sequence that posits a new Mary Poppins book, Mary Poppins Brings in the Dawn:

She … reads the story waiting for her: Jane and Michael follow Mary Poppins on her day off, to Heaven, and they meet the boy Jesus, who is still slightly scared of Mary Poppins because she was once his nanny, and the Holy Ghost, who complains that he has not been able to get his sheet properly white since Mary Poppins left, and God the Father, who says, “There’s no making her do anything. Not her. She’s Mary Poppins.”

And, in “The Monarch of the Glen,” the funniest thing I’ve heard said or written about people from the Lone Star State: “He thought about saying something about Texans believing that Texas was actually in Texas, but he suspected that he’d have to start explaining what he meant, so he said nothing.”

Well, I warned you in my last post that this may be the Year of Gaiman for me (lobbying hard for The Graveyard Book as Witch Week 2020’s read-along!).

Not to worry. I’ll read books by other authors, such as:

The Organs of Sense, Adam Ehrlich Sachs (2019, NYPL e-book). How do you like your philosophy? Neat? With a twist? Shaken? Stirred into something bubbly and sweet? I’d say you get all of the above in this novel, about the sense of sight, but also about utter nonsense and the way philosophers can spend a lot of time and energy debating the most absurd questions.*

Sachs takes some true-to-life historical figures from the HRE, circa 1600, throws in Leibniz, who, in a brief tangential-to-his-career effort to understand the human mind, has visited a blind astronomer to wait with him for a solar eclipse this blind astronomer has predicted, thereby possibly proving the astronomer’s sanity.

Got that?

Let me tell you, Sachs’s book is so much more confusing. First of all, the long sentences (which rival Proust’s for complexity):

But there was, as [Leibniz] explained to the Philosophical Transactions, a fourth and presumably final possibility, a possibility as intriguing as it was improbable: that he would encounter up there in the snowy mountains of Bohemia a man of reason, a man of science, whose prophesied flash of darkness would actually come to pass, who in other words stared up at the sky with his empty sockets and saw somehow what no other astronomer in the world could see, foresaw with no eyes what they could not foresee with two.

That’s a bit below average, as many of Sach’s sentences go, but it gives you a hint of the flavor. Then there’s the frequent repetition. To quick-start his failing career, the astronomer’s father is inspired to create a clockwork head:

And how his father seized upon that head! ¶ All the faith he had put in the box now went into the head, right into that head. “He put all of his faith in that mechanical human head.” The few new commissions that still came in he declined. “Everything now depended on that head,” the astronomer told Leibniz.

The nesting of narratives within narratives is another challenge for the reader. (I’ve seen this in only one other author’s work, that of WG Sebald.) Here, the biggest box is the narration itself (Sachs as fictional narrator, telling us about Leibniz’s attempt to delve into someone’s mind). The next box, of course, is Leibniz’s writings, as published in Philosophical Transactions, although we rarely get direct quotes from those publications. The next box is the blind astronomer, speaking to Leibniz during the 4 hours they await the predicted eclipse. And the next box is — well, someone talking to the astronomer, perhaps reporting something that someone else had said (another box), quoting another person (a fifth box) — with Sachs neatly reminding me every few pages, that this is person X quoting person Y as she speaks to the astronomer, and Leibniz is carefully noting all this down for his own article.: “… I am quoting the Emperor here, the Court Chamberlain said, the astronomer told Leibniz.”

Arcimboldo, “The Water”, 1563-64

But let me also add that this book grabbed me from the start. During the 4 hours that Leibniz and the astronomer are together, the astronomer stops every few minutes to put a blind eye to his telescope and then jot down several number in his notebook (with a quill, no less). Leibniz notes each instance with almost the same words: “The astronomer pressed an eye socket to his telescope. Then he picked up his quill and wrote something down.” Leibniz wants to look at the notebook, to see what the astronomer has written; he longs to look through the telescope to see what the astronomer is looking at. More than anything, he wants to get inside the astronomer’s head, to understand his thoughts. And I want him to as well, so that he can write about it for Sachs’s narrator to find and tell me what Leibniz wrote.

There are lots of heads in this book — an Arcimboldo painting, a clock-work head that the astronomer’s father presents to the Holy Roman Emperor, the Emperor’s daughter’s constant headaches, doubts about various person’s sanity (their “heads”), children’s heads to be filled with knowledge — or plumbed for information.

In the end, that’s what this book is about — how can we bridge the chasm between our own heads (our thoughts) and others? how can we know — truly and without questions — what they are thinking? Leibniz takes a tiny philosophical detour away from positivism, and finds himself deep in the quagmire of making sense of the connections between our senses and our minds. And what a mess these minds are. No wonder Leibniz quickly abandons this quest and goes back to positivism. So much easier to handle.


*I’m reminded of the scene in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, when Kaspar is being interviewed by a professor. In response to the old riddle about the town of people who cannot lie and the town of people who can only lie. What’s the one question you can ask to determine which town a person is from? Kaspar thinks for a moment and then proudly answers, “I would say to him, “Are you a tree frog?”

Posted in Am reading, Fantasy, Fiction, Gothic, Historical research, Horror, Humorous, Macabre, Science fiction, short stories | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Flotsam and Jetsam

4 books reviewed here, and from them you’ll get a sense of my odd taste in reading these days. No particular reason for it — each one spurred by happenstance, satisfying a yen, or whatever.

Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees (1926, NYPL e-book). A character in one of Gaiman’s short stories mentions this book, and — mirabile dictu — it was available from the NYPL’s e-book collection. (I can’t say often enough how much I appreciate the NYPL’s e-book collection.) Lud-in-the-Mist is a town located at the confluence of two rivers, one of which flows out of Faerie and threatens the comfort of the townspeople. Then Nicholas Chanticleer’s son and daughter disappear into Faerie, and he must go after them. But this novel concerns so much more than just villainous fairies kidnapping wayward teens. It’s also about the qualities that reason lacks. At one point a doctor says to Nicholas, “I’d like to reason with you a little …. Reason, I know, is only a drug, and, as such, its effects are never permanent. But, like the juice of the poppy, it often gives a temporary relief.” Reason, of course, can be powerful, and not just as a drug to ease distress. But, Mirrlees’ story argues, a life that relies solely on reason is missing something critical to happiness. Faerie provides what’s missing. And for “Faerie”, read Art, Music, Literature — i.e., anything outside the realm of mere reason.

Mirrlees doesn’t shy from making startling pronouncements, such as “the real anchor is not hope but faith — even if it be only somebody else’s faith.” And this, at the conclusion of her story:

… the Written Word is a Fairy, as mocking and elusive as Wily Wisp [a trickster character in the novel], speaking lying words to us in a feigned voice. So let all readers of books take warning! And with this final exhortation this book shall close.

I can see why this is one of Gaiman’s top-ten novels.

M is for Magic, by Neil Gaiman (2007, NYPL e-book). These 11 short stories, one of which is an excerpt from Gaiman’s Newbery winning novel, The Graveyard Book, include a nursery rhyme detective story (à la Jasper Fforde’s DCI Jack Spratt series), a troll-under-a-bridge horror story, a con-man tale set in another world, a tale of alien invasion, and so much more: Horror, fantasy, science fiction — it’s all here.

In his Introduction, Gaiman says that writing short stories was “a great way to begin to learn my craft as a writer. The hardest thing to do as a young writer is to finish something, and that was what I was learning how to do.”

This may be a year of reading/re-reading a bunch of Gaiman (#WitchWeek2020, anyone?), so I’m happy to start with this collection.

Black Narcissus, by Rumer Godden (1939, NYPL e-book). This is one of those rare books that was successfully transferred to the screen. I’ve loved that film (1947, written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) since first seeing it in the 1990s, and reading the book just makes me more appreciative of what Powell and Pressburger accomplished. A brief summary of the novel: to establish a hospital and school, 5 nuns settle into an abandoned palace near Kanchenjunga in the Himalayan Mountains. The wind, the views, the sky, the mountains themselves (especially Kanchengunga) challenge the nuns:

The flimsy walls [of the palace] did not shut out the world but made a sounding box for it; through every crack the smell of the world crept in, the smell of rain and sun and earth and the deodar trees and a wind strangely scented with tea. Here the bell did not command, it sounded doubtful against the gulf …. And everywhere in front of them was that far horizon and the eagles in the gulf below the snows.

The nuns fail and, after less than a year, leave the palace for their convent in the city.

Godden, who grew up in Bengal and, as an adult, spent many years in Calcutta, doesn’t romanticize the hardships of life in this part of what is now Bangladesh, nor does she ignore the beauty. However, it’s clear that outsiders, particularly ones trying to adhere to an alien discipline, are doomed to either madness or despair. Near the end, the Sister Superior cries, “I couldn’t stop the wind from blowing!” There may be a lot of sexual tension in this novel, but for me it’s the wind that causes the most trouble.

With the Fire on High, by Elizabeth Alcevedo (2019, NYPL e-book). Emani is a single mom and an aspiring chef, living in Philadelphia. In her senior year of high school, she has to figure out what she wants for herself and her daughter, has to decide what to sacrifice and what to fight for.

In Emani, we find a young woman who masks her self-doubt with bravura and a no-boys-allowed regime. Her skills in the kitchen give her something to be proud of, with friends asking for favorite dishes. Then, when she signs up for a cooking class and finds that her intuitions don’t impress the instructor, she comes close to quitting, ready to give up on her dream to be a professional chef.

Acevedo skillfully takes us through Emani’s difficult senior year, providing insights into her history (her father lives in Puerto Rico, her part time job at the local burger joint is sheer torture, her baby’s father takes the child every other weekend) that make us root for her success. When it comes, it’s well-earned.

And that’s it. With luck, I’ll be back again in a month or so with some more highlights from my reading.

Posted in Adventure, Am reading, Fantasy, Mystery, YA Lit | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments