Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Top Ten Books I've Read So Far in 2015

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

It's funny, I've done a lot more reading by this point in the year than in past years, but I feel like I've read fewer books that I absolutely LOVED. Maybe it's more a matter of percentage though.

1. Kindred by Octavia Butler

2. The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen

3. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

4. Pearl of China by Anchee Min

5. Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

6. Fire by Kristin Cashore

7. The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

8. The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord

9. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

10. The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling

p.s. I swear I did not intentionally make this 90% female authors. It just happened.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

My Top Ten Favorite Top Ten Topics

Say that three times fast! Happy Fifth Anniversary Top Ten Tuesday!

1. Top Ten Inspiring Quotes from Books

I'm always running across amazing quotes I'd love to share.

2. Top Ten Characters I'd Like to Check In With

I always wonder about what happened to various side characters.

3. Top Ten Books for Readers Who Like ______

Excellent way to get recommendations!

4. Top Ten Books that I Wish Were Taught in Schools

Something I think about a lot.

5. Top Ten Most Memorable Secondary Characters

I really like secondary characters.

6. Top Ten Least Favorite Romances

Okay, this technically was the opposite of what the topic was supposed to be, but I had a lot of fun with it.

7. Top Ten Best Bookish Memories (and Part II)

I enjoyed reliving these memories!

8. Top Ten Most Frustrating Characters Ever

I love making fun of silly characters. What can I say.

9. Top Ten Bookish Confessions

We should definitely do this again. It was very freeing!

10. Top Ten Posts I Think Give You the Best Glimpse of Me

This was great for sorting out how my reading life reflects me as a person.

p.s. It's the second part of the linked post!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Thinking Through Racism with Octavia Butler

I want to write more about my reactions to Kindred and encourage more people to read it. Octavia Butler has been one of my favorite authors since I read Dawn when I was in elementary school. I picked it up off the desk in my scientist father's office one day, and I just started reading. When I read Dawn, I didn't know that Octavia Butler was a black woman. I wouldn't have attached any special significance to it if I had. It spoke to me because it addressed a problem that made a lot of sense to a young girl raised on Star Trek. What would happen when the aliens came, and what if they wanted to assimilate us? It was a different take on assimilation, of course, than that of the obviously evil Borg (who became more complicated in First Contact and Voyager, but this was before that), and it fascinated me. Was it really more important to be "pure" human? What if the aliens were nice, and could cure cancer? I struggled continually with the question, and could not come up with a satisfactory answer.

I didn't connect it to race. When I grew up, I thought of us all as human, fully human. I knew African Americans had been slaves, but I didn't know that racial issues had persisted into the present day. I know this is classic white privilege, as we'd call it today. I was so insulated that I didn't even know it. I remember hearing a poem read at an assembly in middle school. It was a poem that struck a chord of dread in me, even more so because I knew it would never be directed at me. More recently, I looked that poem up. All I had remembered was the ending. I hadn't remembered that the poem is set in Baltimore, my hometown, and now that is even more heartbreaking.

But it all begins in the past. And that is what Octavia Butler's Kindred shows us. Butler uses a move here which I think is brilliant, and I think more authors should use. A black woman, Dana, from the present (1970s California) travels back in time to Maryland in the early 1800s. I love present-era protagonists traveling back in time because it allows for authentic evaluation. It feels unbelievable sometimes for characters in historical fiction to have modern perspectives. It's not necessarily ahistorical (a different issue), but time travel steps around that issue and invites reflection.

I don't have all the answers, but here are some parts of Kindred that really stuck with me:

1. As soon as Dana realizes what era she's in, she realizes that she is in big trouble. She thinks about time travel stories, and how much fun it seems to go back to historical periods in books. But for Dana as a black woman, traveling back in history, especially to the American South in the 1800s, is dangerous. Imagine, for Dana, even fantasy and science fiction are circumscribed by race.

2. When Dana's husband Kevin, who is white, travels back in time with her, she is even more worried about what he's being exposed to. And she predicts, rightly, that in some ways the experience is even more scarring to him. This observation is astute, and reminds me of how sexism and racism hurt everyone. If it's inferior to be a woman, then it's considered inferior for men to express certain emotions. If it's okay to treat some people like animals because of their skin color, where do you stop? You don't learn how to treat people, and you end up bitter and alone.

3. The arguably most complicated relationship in the book is between Dana and her white male ancestor Rufus. She is called to him when he is in mortal danger, and wields the power of life or death over him, but then, as a white man, he owns her until she can get home. What is her duty to him? She feels obligated to help him survive, so that her own family and ultimately herself will be born, but she comes to care for him and try to change him on his own account. Is Rufus a bad person or a victim of his circumstance and upbringing, just as his slaves are?

4. One of the other most complicated relationships is that between Dana and her black female ancestress Alice. Born a free woman, Alice is enslaved after trying to help a black male slave, her husband, escape. Her husband is sold South and Alice is claimed by Rufus, who has loved her since they were children. Rufus enlists Dana in trying to make Alice "come quietly" and though both women refuse, they ultimately must give in. Alice accuses Dana repeatedly of talking and acting too "white" and resents her close but platonic relationship with Rufus. Why is it that Dana's speech and attitude from the future are coded as "white"? It's also observed that she does not talk the way Rufus and his parents do either. Is it just that she is born in a free society, or that the trappings of freedom are seen, at least in this society, as having racial overtones?

5. Towards the end of the book, Dana describes her complex relationship with Rufus: one of dependence and resentment, admiration and contempt. She thought her relationship with him was unique, born of whatever tie that keeps calling her out of the present and into his past. She realizes though, that her relationship with him is similar to what he has with his slaves. It is that odd unnatural intimacy of master and slave. Why do power imbalances tend to create these types of relationships that compel the oppressed toward obedience despite their oppression? And one wonders if Rufus is even as aware of the nature of their relationship as Dana and his slaves are.

I highly recommend Kindred as a book that will make you think. It's particularly meaningful to me right now that it is set in Maryland, and it's clear that Octavia Butler chose that setting for a reason. Maryland was on the border; it was, in fact, split--half slave, half free. It is and was emblematic of the deep grey areas that penetrated slavery and race in the American South and throughout history. As Butler, through Dana, points out in the novel, many of the most famous escaped slaves, such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, came from Maryland. It's ironic that today, some of Maryland's most famous were also her most mistreated. A disturbing and hopefully instructive legacy.

More Similar Books for Your Reading List:

I thought immediately of these two books when reading Kindred, and wanted to recommend them too. They both feature a character from the present going back to a painful time in their family history. Both are aimed at children, but the ideas behind them are relevant for all.


The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen sends Hannah back in time to share her relatives' experience in the Holocaust.


One of the Magic Attic Club books, Viva Heather! sends Heather back in time to share her ancestors' experience during the Spanish Inquisition. Can you recommend any other similar books? Have you read Kindred or any of these books? What do you think? Do they help you relate?

Friday, June 5, 2015

Thoughts on Ship of Fools

If you remember, I picked up a lovely hardback copy of Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools at Gramp's Attic Books in Ellicott City. Recently, I got an e-mail from Open Road Integrated Media, which just put out an e-book version, and wanted to know if I'd spread the word. Consider word spread =) They have quite an appealing site, but I couldn't seem to find a search function, which was a bit of an issue. Most likely I am missing something obvious. (*edit* Search function is on the top right. Not sure how I missed it.)

Anyhoo. This brought me to start actually reading Ship of Fools. I read a synopsis and flipped through before I bought it, and I definitely wanted to support a long-lost classic from a female author in the early twentieth century. However...I feel quite complicated about it, now at roughly 180 pages into this nearly 500 page tome. It's very early twentieth century American, and it possesses the qualities that I both love and hate about early-to-mid twentieth century American literature. Frankly, I don't read a lot of it and tend to avoid it because I find a lot of it appallingly racist and sexist. I thought (judgmentally) that a lot of this was due to the books I'd read being by white male authors. Well, this particular white privileged woman has some of the same flaws--and gifts. What I do love about the prevailing style in that era is the big sweeping narrative with tons of characters and an omniscient narrator with wry insight into the characters' lives. And Porter delivers.

There are a lot of characters, but not too many that they're difficult to remember. The characters are of all different nationalities, genders, races, and religions, even, which is impressive in terms of diversity. The conceit is that they are all trapped on a ship from Mexico to Germany, and Porter examines the swath of characters typically found on this voyage. The whole thing is an explicit metaphor (stated in Porter's note at the front of the book) for us all being fools on the ship of life.

The diverse cast makes for equal opportunity slanders, at least. If an epithet exists, it's present in Ship of Fools. And I'm not saying, nor do I think that, Porter was racist and sexist. I don't know. In fact, I'd guess that by presenting such a diverse cast, she was trying to be open-minded and include many types of people. Most of her cast is non-American (albeit mostly European). But it's certain that many of her characters are racist and/or sexist, some explicitly and some more subtly. And, yes, Porter (or, rather, the narrator) presents them as flawed (they are 'fools' after all), but the presentation of Jews, Gypsies, Germans, and others is stereotyped in a way that has so far not been redeemed.

I read recently that a tip for writing diverse characters is to write them as if their difference is not their defining characteristic. Porter, unfortunately, commits this sin. It especially stuck out to me with how she writes her Jewish character. He thinks constantly of others as Gentiles and bemoans the fact that there are no other Jews on the ship. He worries constantly about unclean food. He sells Catholic paraphernalia, and yet reviles Catholics. I'm impressed by Porter's knowledge of Jewish dietary laws, but sad that she apparently can't see beyond her character's religion. Yes, ok, maybe he occasionally worries about kosher food in a way that a Christian character would not, but everything in his character is built on his religion (and stereotypes thereof) as if there is nothing else to him.

Porter has some insights that ring true, but I'm not really sure how I feel about the book overall. I think I'm still going to continue it, but I wonder: is it worth it to read a book so heavily steeped in stereotypes in this day and age? What redeeming qualities make such a book still worth reading?

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Top Five Books I'd Love to See as Movies/TV Shows

Happy (late) Top Ten Tuesday!

Let's see how many books I've read lately I can fit in here...

1. hypocrite in a pouffy white dress by sarah jane gilman

Sarah Jane Gilman's life story is so ridiculous it could be a TV show. And it would guest star Mick Jagger.

2. The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall

This would be a sad, yet oddly farcical Lifetime made-for-TV movie.

3. Seraphina and Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman

There's probably a good chance this will become a movie because dragons. And the plot is simple, but the world has depth. It would visualize really well, and fit with popular themes of outcast saving the world.

4. The 100 by Kass Morgan

Oh wait...but seriously. The show is so good. Better than the book, but the book ain't bad.

5. My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira

Would make a really strong Civil War movie.

And that's it. There are very particular qualities in a book that translate well to cinema imo.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Friday Finds

Received recently from Bookmooch:

Already finished hypocrite in a pouffy white dress and halfway through I Capture the Castle!

Friday, May 22, 2015

National Poetry Month

On April 1, I put two books in my bag: Lightwall by Liliana Ursu and Dispatch from the Future by Leigh Stein. Then, the April Fool's joke was on me because I realized that my random decision to read poetry fortuitously coincided with National Poetry Month. And I told myself that I was going to finish those books. Completely. In April. And. I. did.

I've been telling myself for years that I need to read more poetry. I've been trying it, and hating it, and giving it up quickly. But, finally, this time, it stuck. I'm sure it had to do with the particular poems, but I think it also has to do with how I'm growing into myself. A few years ago, I would never have willingly entered an art museum, but this year I took a trip to NYC almost exclusively to spend time at the Met. Something about the passing of years renders me more compassionate and more aware. And the more that I feel, the deeper grows my appreciation for all forms of art. Has anyone else experienced this particular transformation: an appreciation of art that grows along with age and empathy?

24. Lightwall by Liliana Ursu

I bought Lightwall directly from the publisher, Zephyr Press, at the second annual Boston Book Festival, approximately four years ago. I bought it because I wanted to support a small press and translated literature and women's literature, though little did I know at the time that I would later become more knowledgeable and passionate about all of the above. Ursu is translated from the Romanian, which also happens to be one of my ancestral tongues. I remember flipping through and vaguely liking it, but not being interested enough to continue, so there it sat on my shelf till this year. The pages are English and Romanian, facing each other, and it's been interesting to try to decipher some of the Romanian words. So far, I think I've only got place names like Belgrade and Lewisburg (Ursu was a visiting professor at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania). In her poetry, Romania tastes like blueberries, raspberries, cherries, and billberries (though I've never tasted a billberry). The imagery is full of berries, tart berries in particular, and I imagine stark winters pierced with berry brightness. There is more than one bear too and wolves, and I imagine wilds filled with predators. Her Lewisburg feels comparatively domestic, with lilacs and trees and farms and rivers. Some of the poetry is fantastical, involving transforming animals, and there are references to East European and Russian literature, the only one of which I got was Oblomov, and barely then, and many references to Ovid and Rome. In fact, one of the sections is titled "Ovid Returns to Rome."

It's difficult to write about poetry, because I can't quite grasp it, but Ursu's are lovely. My favorite or one of my favorites is titled "The Bed of Mint" and reminds me of home. It begins:

Between two houses,
Between a garage and a kitchen,
surrounded rusty chicken wire.
It's the baby of the Romanian teacher, every stem
every new leaf of mint is a letter
In Winter, they nurture words underground.
Spring, they compose sentences.
In Summer, the patches of mint are full-grown poems.

Read on.

27. Dispatch from the Future by Leigh Stein

I first saw Dispatch from the Future at the new Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago, and I picked it up because I recognized the author's name. The year before that, my mother had bought me Leigh Stein's novel The Fallback Plan, which I frankly did not care for. Maybe I'd feel differently if I read it again (don't think so, but it's possible), but I read it when I was in a similar moment to the main character--moving unhappily back in with my parents after failing to secure post-graduation employment--and the way the character dealt with it really angered me. I didn't relate to her behavior, and felt like she was basically an insult to who I was at the time. Anyhoo. That probably had a lot more to do with me than any inherent characteristic of the writing, but I picked up the poetry book with that in mind. And I was intrigued. I really related to the poetry! It felt like the kind of nonsense that I write, with lots of unexplained references, which I had fun fishing out, and a feeling of uncertainty and carelessness, but also a genuine hope and, I don't know how to express it, spark, that the novel lacked. I may not care for Stein as a novelist, but I greatly admire her as a poet.

Here's part of the Warning at the beginning:

If you read this book
sequentially, bad things may happen to you, but only as bad
as the things that would have happened to you anyway.
If, however, you do not read this book sequentially you may
find that you are suddenly aboard a sunken pirate ship,
staring into the deep abyss, and wishing you had chosen
not to chase the manatee in your submarine after all. Do not
panic. If you end up in the wrong adventure just go back
three spaces and draw another card.

Recommended especially to young adults in their 20s and 30s who have ever been a part of geek culture or the Chicago arts scene.