Thursday, December 25, 2014

Tuesdays at the Castle

41. Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George

Apparently, I forgot to write about Tuesdays at the Castle. I read this adorable children's book back in June, when I was preparing to teach my summer class for fourth and fifth graders. I used the book as an example for setting description, and students were so interested that a few decided to do their independent book project on it, and many more fought over the library copy in my classroom. Now, there are two sequels out: Wednesdays in the Tower and Thursdays with the Crown.

Tuesdays at the Castle is one of few books where the setting takes center stage. As such, it's great for illustrating the importance of setting to a story, but it's also just really fun. Princess Celie, our ostensible protagonist, has a special relationship with the eponymous Castle Glower. Tuesdays are the days that Castle Glower adds new rooms, turrets, or other features. Celie is the only one who never seems fazed by the castle's peculiarities, which extend to granting comfier quarters to its favorite residents and choosing successors to the throne by granting throne-adjacent bedrooms. Since the castle's influence is everywhere at work, it's at least an equal protagonist in the novel.

Anyway, a thrilling read for a detail-oriented middle grade reader, and an amusing romp for readers of any age.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Top Ten Books I Read in 2014

Happy Top Ten Tuesday! Again, I switched this week's and last week's, since tonight is the last night of Hanukkah (Happy Eighth Night, y'all).

1. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Obviously a Hugo award winner for a reason, Leckie is a new and exciting writer in contemporary science fiction.

2. Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn by Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Day Al-Mohamed

Although less widely recognized and certainly not "new," the writers' retelling of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is a compelling reflection on the ancient tale, and modern sensibilities.

3. The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir

Weir's narrative voice and methodical structuring are perfect for this most troubling of historical mysteries.

4. The Lost Girls by Jennifer Baggett, Holly Corbett, and Amanda Pressner

I read this twice this year. To any young, single woman who dreams of travel, it's irresistible.

5. The Best American Travel Writing 2013, edited by Elizabeth Gilbert

Nearly every story was perfect in its own unique and true way.

6. Empress Orchid by Anchee Min

Anchee Min has a feel for characters, and for the most outlandish yet accurate metaphors.

7. Sexual Abuse, Shonda, and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities by Michael Lesher

Not a book I necessarily enjoyed reading due to subject matter, but very well-written and researched.

8. Jane of Lantern Hill by L.M. Montgomery

The perfect amalgam of L.M. Montgomery's style, plot, and substance. Montgomery fans shouldn't miss it.

9. The Queen's Lover by Vanora Bennett

Inventive yet well-researched historical fiction on the woman who embodied the Tudors' claim to the throne.

10. Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the new Domesticity by Emily Matchar

Well-researched and thoughtful investigation of why so many women (and some men) have returned to the domestic arts.

11. Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

I'm cheating a bit, but didn't feel I could leave this off. I didn't love every story, and yet Russell's power with language transcends each and every one. My favorite was "Reeling for the Empire."

You know these are good because these are the ones I remembered, almost all off the top of my head.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Brief Reviews

39. Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Six-Word Review:

Gift for erudite academic, otherwise forgettable.

Slightly Longer Review:

A library browse find, Dear Committee Members was an entertaining read for the two hours it took me to finish. The conceit is a novel written entirely in letters of recommendation from one roguish professor. The letters are witty and verbose, and sure to bring a smile of recognition to the face of any academic. Many a faculty member will wish they had the cojones to compose such missives. Unfortunately, however, the plot is thin and plays on stereotypes without transcending them. Ultimately, Dear Committee Members is funny but forgettable, though perhaps a good gag gift for the English professor in your life.

40. The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

Six-Word Review:

Brooding artists abound; no real swans.

Slightly Longer Review:

I purchased this audiobook back in July, but due to a number of interesting circumstances, didn't get it back in my possession until December. It was still quite useful in alleviating my long commutes. It is, at heart, a book about art and psychology, and probably not something I would have read if not in need of a cheap and easily accessible audiobook. There are multiple storylines, narrated by a number of different characters, that are not convincingly told in past tense. Kostova's flair for description is such that I would never believe the narrators were not speaking as they experienced. This actually made for a very difficult suspension of disbelief, but I tried. The main conceit, centered around art, and a (fictional) work of art in particular, was interesting, and got me thinking and excited about art in ways that I honestly rarely am (When I say "art," here, I mean specifically drawing and painting, I have never had trouble valuing literature or drama!). In any case, I really want to see the Degas in the Met (and, okay, actually I've been excited about Degas since I read B.A. Schapiro's The Art Forger, a much better book about art, but still). ANYWAY. The Swan Thieves has a somewhat misleading title, intriguing characters, vivid description, and a mediocre plot. Read it if you're a fan of Impressionist art, especially if you frequent the Smithsonian, the Met, and/or the Louvre.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Top Ten Bookish and Teaching Items I Wouldn't Mind for Hanukkah

Happy Top Ten Tuesday! I'm reversing the posts for today and next week, especially since Hanukkah starts tonight (Happy Hanukkah!).


1. Paper clips

The number one item that I actually really want is paper clips. Before becoming a teacher, I never realized how valuable paper clips are. I use them all the time, and I never have enough. Plus, I like the colors and cool designs they sometimes come in.

2. Binder clips

If paper clips are useful, binder clips are indispensable. Paper clips are great for individual assignments, but if I have a whole stack? Binder clips are the only way to go. And even these come in fun designs now too.

3. Post-It Notes

Post-It Notes are so great for jotting down notes for me, notes for students, notes to anyone and everyone. They're so quick, easy, and accessible. And nobody can get mad when I'm writing on a hot pink background, right? Or lime green? You just can't take it that seriously.

4. Book Markers/Post-It Flags

And if Post-It Notes are great, well, book markers are even better! They're Post-It Notes specifically designed for books, so I can mark my favorite passages, or whatever I want to point out to students, but I'm not desecrating any books in the process. Brilliance.

5. Books on Teaching

I'm still a fledgling, and I know there's a lot more I could learn about pedagogy. I haven't had a lot of time this semester, but hopefully (*knock on wood*) I'll have more next semester, I can spend some time studying up and honing my skills. Any teachers out there have recommendations? I teach college during the year; fourth and fifth graders in the summer.


1. Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear

I know I want it. Honestly, I will probably get it for myself.

2. The Martian by Andy Weir

Apparently I should move this up on my TBR list.

3. Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

I really want to read it.

4. The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books by Azar Nafisi

I've been looking forward to this for years!

5. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

I've been saying I'm going to read it for years now.

Friday, December 12, 2014

On Sexual Abuse, Shonda, and Concealment in (Orthodox) (Jewish) Communities

38.Sexual Abuse, Shonda, and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities by Michael Lesher

Michael Lesher's Sexual Abuse, Shonda, and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities is a clear-headed, investigative account of the systematic protection of child sex abusers, and corollary silencing of child sex abuse victims, in Orthodox Jewish communities. The book is meticulously documented, and unfortunately at this point, less shocking than it is confirming of what many of us have already suspected or known.

I am not an Orthodox Jew, but I am a Jew, and many aspects of the culture depicted in this book are familiar to me on some level. While I want to stress, as Lesher does, that sex abuse is not condoned in Judaism (far, far from it), I am familiar with that paranoia that somehow "they" (the other, the gentile) will get wind that we have done wrong, and use it as an excuse to persecute and annihilate us. This attitude may sound crazy in present-day America--but coming from the history of the Jews, well, it's the attitude that has kept us around this long. And I do honestly think that the self-preserving, suspicious instincts of Jews are an attribute that have allowed us to survive as long as we have. I am not defending the rabbis and authorities who have allowed these terrible abuses to happen, who have allowed these abuses to happen to children, to Jewish children, and by protecting their abusers, as Lesher points out, effectively excluded them from the community. No, I am not defending these people--but I am explaining their logic. They have created a society that protects criminals--in response to a larger society that uses the actions of criminals of particular groups in order to persecute innocent members of particular groups. Recent events in American history ought to reinforce that lesson for anyone reading this.

As it happens, sex abuse scandals have touched even my much more liberal, entirely (or almost entirely) compliant with secular authorities, sect of Judaism. At my synagogue, there was a much-beloved rabbi. I knew him well enough, or thought I did. He was the kindest of the rabbis, and the one who paid the most attention to children. He was always with us, playing games, singing songs. Unfortunately, he was passed over for promotion to head rabbi, and left in a huff. He had many supporters, and many people were upset that he was passed over for the position. In his new position in another state, his wife left him and took the children. He returned to our area, and began work for a well-known Jewish organization. the clergy at our synagogue invited him back to promote this organization to the children in the Hebrew school. Thus it was that I had seen and spoken with this rabbi only weeks before, when he was revealed very publicly as a child molester on a popular television show. Obviously, the show had been filmed much earlier. This man resigned from his job only right before it came out, and afterward a letter was sent around our synagogue offering counseling and inviting victims to come forward. As far as I'm aware, no one did.

It occurs to me that I simply don't know what went on behind the scenes. Did the other clergy and administration have some idea of what he was capable of, is that why they didn't offer him the head position? When his wife divorced him, was this part of the reason? When should people have sat up and taken notice? This man was continually around children, until the television show exposed him. Is it really possible that he had no actual victims? This, as Michael Lesher might say, is one of the "good" cases. This man was part of a community, and enough a part of the secular community, that held him responsible and had him legally prosecuted. Even so, it was a shameful day in our Jewish community, at our synagogue, in my household. We were not only horrified that we had been harboring this man, but we felt personally embarrassed, in front of the larger secular community, that such a person existed among us. We worried how it would make "us" look.

This is the mentality that the larger community foists upon minority groups, and makes crime a particularly fraught issue. What if we, all of us, could be blamed or tainted by the actions of the few?

This is the fear that drives rabbis and Jewish authorities to attack people like Lesher for exposing the criminals in Jewish communities. We want to deal with this privately, alone, so "they" don't know, so they can't hold us all responsible. As Lesher documents, these systems, from beit din (rabbinic courts) to Jewish "patrols" in Orthodox neighborhoods (essentially, private police), end up silencing victims and protecting perpetrators, all in the name of protecting the community overall. Victims and their families are pressured into not speaking up, forbidden to go to secular authorities. And perpetrators, often rabbis and people who work with children, continue with impunity.

This, as Lesher's book demonstrates, is the real problem. There are not more child molesters in the Jewish community than in any other community. There are not more child molesters in Orthodox Jewish communities than in Catholic Churches. In fact, the number of child molesters is parallel with the proportion expected in society overall. Child molesting is not a Jewish problem, it's a human problem. But the way certain Orthodox Jewish communities have organized themselves, child molesters are allowed to operate more freely, and accrue more victims, than if they were prosecuted when initial allegations were uncovered.

In Orthodox Jewish communities, as in all communities, the larger problem is power dynamics. This is the problem of feminism, the problem of civil rights, the problem of humanity. If those in power, in this case, the rabbinate, are threatened, then those not in power will suffer. While the culture of fear may be genuine, it also serves to bolster, knowingly or unknowingly, the power of the leaders. And, unfortunately, how leaders gain power is delineating between "us" and "them." "We" are right, and "they" are wrong. In Jewish communities, especially those in Israel, this means Jews vs. Palestinians. But it could also mean Jews (specifically, the rabbinate) against anyone who dares tell them they are wrong (specifically, outspoken victims of sexual abuse). Lesher, rightly I think, links the attitude toward child victims of sex abuse to similar attitudes towards women, and towards Palestinians. Poignantly, he writes:

If we tolerate the teaching that other people's children are legitimate targets, we have no right to be astonished when the same teaching is applied to our own children.

Chilling, isn't it?

Of course, this is not pleasant to talk about, but now is a time when all kinds of unpleasant conversations are coming to a head. So, let's begin at home. How do our attitudes, our prejudices, blind us to suffering? How can we stop? How can we begin to see, and begin to heal?

For the readers who want to answer those questions, this is a book for you. And I'll leave you with another quote from Lesher:

The questions we ask are driven by what we know; and what we know depends on the questions we ask.

Received for review from LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Top Ten New-to-Me Authors I Read in 2014

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

1. Ann Leckie

I'm probably not the only one who has Ann Leckie on their list this year, and I only found her after everyone else did. But I will be following her output very closely from now on!

2. Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Day Al-Mohamed

I was truly blown away by Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn, it's definitely one of my favorite books of 2014. I only found it because the authors asked me to review it, but I will definitely be seeking out the sequel.

3. Rhett C. Bruno

I had never heard of Bruno before he queried me to review his novel, The Circuit: Executor Rising, but I was very impressed with this not-quite-dystopian space opera, and look forward to the sequel.

4. Anchee Min

Her books were some of the few of my local library's relatively small audiobook collection that interested me. Her fictional memoirs of China's last empress are exquisite, and Min herself is fascinating. I heard her speak (and sing!) at the National Book Festival in August, and she was a riot. She spoke about her personal memoirs, which I have yet to read, and shared stories of how she was chosen to be an actress in Communist China, how she trained in Chinese opera, and how she deceived her way to the States and learned English in six months, among other tidbits. I definitely plan to read more of her.

5. Vivien Shotwell

Vienna Nocturne is a novel that melts in your mouth. LibraryThing Early Reviewers introduced me to this one, but I'll be on the lookout for more.

6. Jennifer Baggett, Holly Corbett, and Amanda Presner

I read their memoir, The Lost Girls , about traveling around the world, twice this year, and dip into it when I need adventure. Sadly, I think this was a one-time deal, but I appreciate it deeply.

7. Vanora Bennett

I really enjoyed The Queen's Lover, about Catherine of France and Owen Tudor. Bennett will be another historical fiction go-to for me.

8. Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein

Her short story "Sultana's Dream" was amazing, I just wish there was more.

9. Matthew Schultz

I was very impressed with "On the Study of Physics in Preschool Classrooms," I would read more of his stuff.

10. Cole Becher

Likewise, "Charybdis" was brilliant, though the subject matter was disturbing.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Book Review: Ancillary Sword

37. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

If Ancillary Justice was an epic space opera bursting with its core concept, Ancillary Sword is the magnifying glass pulled closer, examining the implications of this universe, and this character, on just one planet.

One of my favorite aspects of Ancillary Justice was the twin story arcs, one from the past, and one in the present, that cohered to explain the narrator, Breq's, identity. The first book had an epic ending to go with its epic scope, but the second book picks up in the same place. Going forward is slower going and makes for a different, but no less thoughtful, novel. The pace is different, instead of a race to discover the corruption at the heart of civilization, this is a slower, more revealing investigation of the injustices on just one planet (okay, solar system).

Breq, now Breq Mianaai, official cousin to Anaander Mianaai, leader of the Radch empire, is sent to protect the Athoek System from the recently outbroken war. It contains the only person she longs to protect, Basnaaid Elming, the sister of her beloved lieutenant Awn Elming, whom she knew when she was a ship. When there, we see Breq behave instinctively like Lieutenant Awn in the first book, gravitating towards the lowest on the totem pole. There are plenty of social injustices for Breq to mend, and the reader gets a fuller picture of gender and social dynamics in the Radch empire. Sadly, we realize that, with or without feminine pronouns, rape and exploitation continue.

The reader receives more clues here too about Breq's body, which for me, lead to some unanswered questions--do ancillaries age, and is it or is it not possible to revive original memories after becoming an ancillary? The hints on these topics are, I think, intentionally blurred, and while I'm betting there will be more answers in the next book, I don't expect to discover Breq's actual gender, for example. The books only work on a conceptual level with certain layers of mystery intact.

If you haven't yet read Ancillary Justice, I highly recommend it. If you are a fan, you will probably like Ancillary Sword too, but you should know that it's a different sort of book. I wouldn't jump into this sequel without having read the first, because you'll miss a lot about Breq's character, though it could still work on the social injustice thread level.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Top Ten Books I'm Looking Forward to in 2015

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

These are probably supposed to be 2015 new releases, so I'll try to put a few of those, but really these are just books I hope I will get to read in 2015.

1. The Winds of Winter by George R.R. Martin


2. Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear

I intend to buy and read it by 2015 at least, if not before!

3. The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books by Azar Nafisi

It's out! I've been waiting for this book for years!

4. Get in Trouble by Kelly Link

It's time I learned what the fuss is with Kelly Link's short stories. I feel especially interested in her since I met her, once, at the Boston Book Festival.

5. Pioneer Girl by Laura Ingalls Wilder

The unvarnished story of The Little House on the Prairie books is finally being published.

6. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

This pre-and-post apocalyptic novel has garnered much praise this year, perhaps I should check it out.

7. On a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard

And speaking of stations, I've been meaning to get to this one.

8. Yes Please by Amy Poehler

I've typically stayed away from the celebrity memoir genre, but if I was going to break that trend, it might be for this book. I've really been enjoying "Parks and Recreation," and I feel like Poehler must have a story to tell.

9. Redeployment by Phil Klay

It just won the National Book Award, and it's about time we had some literature on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

10. The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

I want to read this, but I think I have to read The Wise Man's Fear first.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Book Review: Jane of Lantern Hill

36. Jane of Lantern Hill by L.M. Montgomery

Rapture, creamy, dreamily--these are the hallmark words of an L.M. Montgomery novel. Jane of Lantern Hill is the perfect amalgam of Montgomery's best plots and descriptions--refined, elevated, reified.

Montgomery is notorious for her descriptions that run off the page (especially of flowers and sunsets), her protagonists' soliloquizing tendencies, and her plots' lazily episodical nature. All of this is present in Jane , but the flowers are pruned, the protagonist is capable as well as dreamy, and the plot's episodes contribute to a clean arc.

Jane, unlike Montgomery's other famous protagonists, grows up in Toronto, with her soft-willed mother and forbidding grandmother. But of course she's magically whisked away to the infinitely divine (another one of Montgomery's words) Prince Edward Island, by the father she doesn't remember. Jane will have to reconcile her old and new selves, and heal some old wounds, all while learning to cook, bake, garden, and all the other mundane tasks her grandmother won't let her do (Montgomery really is a genius at creating these cuttingly nasty old society dames).

I will never cease to be grateful for having found this book. I remember a fellow blogger recommending it on a comments list, somewhere, and I added it to my Bookmooch wishlist. Soon enough, it arrived at my door, perfect down to its pristine condition and 1980s cover that matches all of my other L.M. Montgomery books. I've, sadly, learned to be wary when discovering the little known works of my favorite authors, especially very early works or very late works. Jane is later than Montgomery's more famous books such as the Anne and Emily series, but it wasn't her last gasp either. Here, her style is matured, ripened. (Sorry for the endless description, I'm feeling Montgomeryesque). But then, I have tended to enjoy her lesser known works, A Tangled Web is one of my favorite books of all time, and the short story collection The Road to Yesterday, is full of gems. Nothing she's written has really let me down, except for maybe Blue Castle.

In any case, I cannot praise Jane enough. Montgomery fans will love her, Anne of Green Gables junkies should check her out, and anyone who likes stories about writerly, plucky girls and fabulous descriptions of settings should set-to.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Top Ten Bookish Things I'm Thankful For

This week's Top Ten Tuesday at the Broke and the Bookish is Top Ten Books on My Winter TBR List--but I don't feel like making another TBR list I'm not going to fulfill. Instead, I want to take a moment in honor of Thanksgiving and think about all of the things I'm grateful for, and I'll attempt to make it bookish.

1. Junot Diaz, and my students

I'm thankful that many of my students really strongly responded to the Junot Diaz short story I assigned them, it's clear that they've taken ownership of the material and feel like it "belongs" to them. They've even shown interest in reading more of his work!

2. The growing popularity and abundance of short stories, sci fi and fantasy in particular

I usually read novels growing up, but I think it was less of a conscious decision than that was just what was around. Now, everywhere I turn, authors are releasing short story collections, and more and more anthologies are gaining attention. and other websites are publishing short fiction as well, and I feel like it's really led to a revival of the art, in new and exciting ways. Most of the short stories I was aware of in the twentieth century were by and for a certain literary corps of old, white American men, and I just never cared for that prevailing style or subject matter. Now, all kinds of people are writing about all kinds of people in all kinds of situations (could I get more vague? I know), and it's awesome.

3. The community of book bloggers

Reading others' posts leads me to read books I might not otherwise have read, consider thoughts I might not otherwise have considered, and inspires me to write posts I might not otherwise have written. Thank you.

4. Tanuja Desai Hidier's long-awaited sequel, Bombay Blues

This, and getting to meet her, was really an unexpected bonus this year. I haven't even read it yet (..okay, a little) because I want to save and savor it, but I am really grateful for its existence.

5. Jane of Lantern Hill by L.M. Montgomery

I have a confluence of people and items to be thankful for here. Besides the physical book on my shelf that I've just begun reading, there is the book blogger who made me aware of its existence, the Bookmoocher who mailed it to me, and Lucy Maud Montgomery herself. So far, Jane is everything I love about Montgomery's writing style, plot, and characters--it's such a neat amalgam of her typical themes and subjects, with a slight difference in setting and family arrangement, and a style that's still hers, but a bit crisper than usual.

6. The National Book Festival, and other book festivals

I'm very grateful for book festivals for bringing authors and readers together, and making an event where reading is fun and exciting. At this point, I'm most familiar with the National Book Festival, but I've been to some other great ones as well, and know there are many more (book festival tour, anyone?)

7. Book Awards

I know some book awards have spotty track records in terms of the types of people who tend to win...BUT in general, I applaud book awards for making us all aware of great books out there and incentivizing authors and readers. And hopefully, more progress will be made so that these opportunities are more open to everyone (and there should be more and more specific types of awards, the better to identify potential reads!)

8. Physical bookstores

For however long they last, I appreciate the experience. And I've tried to consciously buy in physical bookstores when I can, as a show of support.

9. Ann Leckie

Her books have really helped me through this semester. She has big ideas wrapped up in the cleanest but still human writing style (ironic, I know), and there's so much there both to dig into if you want to think, or glide through if you just want to be entertained-she is truly a literary everyperson.

10. Rules for Writers, and Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers

This book has gotten me through everything at all of my jobs. It's helped me teach, and it's helped teach me. Seriously, for a basic guide to grammar, punctuation, and the writing process, it's got everything. I am so grateful for this book's existence (as well as its many sibling books), and that it was given to me.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Top Ten Sequels I Can't Wait to Get

Happy Top Ten Tuesday over at the Broke and the Bookish!

1. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

I'm cheating, I already got it =D

2. The untitled sequel to The Circuit: Executor Rising by Rhett C. Bruno

3. Bombay Blues by Tanuja Desai Hidier

Also, already got it!

4. The Winds of Winter by George R.R. Martin

But, you know, not holding out too much hope for this anytime soon.

Sequels That I Want, But I Guess I Can Wait For (since, you know, I've waited this long)

5. The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

I was waiting for the third book...

6. Allegiant by Veronica Roth

It's complicated.

7. The Magician King and The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman

Again, it's complicated. My feelings about this series are so conflicted.

8. Son by Lois Lowry

It's not complicated. I'll get to it when I can, I just don't actually own it.

9. The King's Curse by Philippa Gregory

Not complicated, just a matter of priority. I needed Ancillary Sword more.

10. Exodus by Deborah Feldman

Just don't own it yet, but it came out recently. So.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Reading Update: Short Story Time

I have been doing plenty of reading, but more of the sort to keep me sane between work (read: bouts of grading).

Recently Finished:

Old Missouri Reviews

Years ago, an old student of my dad's got wind that he had a literary-minded daughter. She was cleaning out her closet, I suppose, but didn't want to throw out a large collection of Missouri Reviews that she had accumulated. Instead, she gathered them up, and presented them to my dad, instructing him to give them to me.

I was flattered, but overwhelmed, by the gift. For years, they sat in my closet, unread. Finally, I decided it was no good just leaving them there, and enacted a ruthless purge. I went through and took out issues with prize-winning stories, or issues with stories by authors whose names I recognized.

The issues that made it onto my shelf have provided most of my reading recently. I've read almost all of the stories now. I admit to skipping most of the poetry, I didn't care for it. The issue above is one that I've read, they're all from the early 2000s. (Don't worry, the rest of the issues weren't thrown out, they're currently in a donation pile.)

Almost Done With:

The Best American Non Required Reading 2014, edited by Daniel Handler, introduction by Lemony Snicket

Who could resist a book edited and introduced by Lemony Snicket (we all know Handler is just a front)? For me, it was almost worth getting the book just for the introduction. The stories are actually chosen by a committee of high school students, which I also found interesting. I was very impressed by the first two entries: "On the Study of Physics in Preschool Classrooms" by Matthew Schultz and "AP Style" by Dan Keane, respectively. The following entries were not as impressive, and again, I didn't care for any of the poetry (I'm picky about poetry, what can I say?).

I did really like Rachel Swirsky's story "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love," which apparently won an award. I remember her from her novella, "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window." Not in this book, but also a thought-provoking and satisfying read.

Cole Becher's story "Charybdis" made me laugh out loud more than once, even though it's just as heartbreaking as Swirsky's. The bittersweet really has a stranglehold on our national imagination right now, or did it always?

Anyway, collections that I can dip into and out of have been a boon to me lately, and I'm sure will continue to be in these saturated next few weeks.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Top Ten Characters I Wish Would Get Their OWN Book

Love this topic over at the Broke and the Bookish's Top Ten Tuesday.

1. Ismene from Sophocles' Antigone

I always thought it was unfair that Antigone gets a whole play when it's her recklessness that gets her poor sister Ismene killed. It's only fair that calmer, wiser Ismene get her own story.

2. Gustav III of Sweden from Francine du Plessix Gray's The Queen's Lover

Gustav III stole the show from Marie Antoinette a bit, and I hope du Plessix Gray writes more about him.

3. Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter

I feel like Luna's life is destined to be interesting. I'd love to learn more about her early life, but also what she went on to do.

4. Samwise Gamgee from Lord of the Rings, and his daughter Elanor

I wish there were continued adventures of Sam, and then Elanor. I'm sure that she has to go see the Elves, just like her Dad. I imagine her sneaking off to Lothlorien, and Sam having to follow her.

5. Oscar Wao from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Yes, Oscar is the title character, but Yunior is the narrator and so the reader only ever gets to see Yunior's perspective (and occasionally third person limited narration for Oscar and his mother and sister). I always wanted to get Oscar's direct version of the story.

6. Silk from the Belgariad and Malloreon

Prince Kheldar, alias Silk, is the most fascinating character in the above series. I'd read a whole series just about him, and his financial schemes and spying exploits.

7. Tyrion Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire

The books should just be about Tyrion. Honestly, I want to skip everyone else at this point. Maybe just him and Daenerys. Oh, and more from Sam.

8. Balin from The Hobbit

We know that Balin goes back to Moria after the Lonely Mountain is secure, and that he becomes king for a few years, at least. But we never get the full story of the quest.

9. Gimli from the Lord of the Rings

Gimli also has some adventures after LOTR and ends up being the only dwarf ever to make it to Valinor. I wish there was a book.

10. Jane Fairfax from Jane Austen's Emma

Jane always seemed like a much more likeable heroine, and she's got some real economic and social disadvantages to explore.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Book Review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

35. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Have you ever heard the joke that one person is a world? In Ancillary Justice, one person is a ship. It's an idea that we can all relate to, stunningly realized by Ann Leckie in crisp, simplistic diction.

This idea, of a ship that is a person, is what makes this story sing (literally). Ancillary Justice is a compelling example that great science fiction is essentially the literalization of metaphors (according to Seo-Young Chu in Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep?), or a cognitive estrangement from the mimesis of reality (a wordier but not more complicated idea from Darko Suvin's criticism).

Breq, the narrator, is the last remaining "piece," if you will, of a vast artificial intelligence network that controlled an enormous troop carrying star ship, which led ominous "annexations" for thousands of years. To complicate matters more, Breq is actually a human body, that hundreds or thousands of years ago was wiped of its memories to become an "ancillary" of the ship, one of many ancillaries imbued with the same artificial intelligence. In a sense, Breq was (is) the ship.

Talk about an identity crisis.

It's this concept that captivated me most about Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, but it was not the concept that was the reason I read it in the first place.

All the characters in Ancillary Justice are referred to as "she." The language of Breq's empire, the Radch, does not distinguish between genders. Biological sex exists, it simply is not reflected in the language. When I read reviews that mentioned this phenomenon in the up-and-coming novel that was nominated for, and went on to win, the Nebula Award and also the Arthur C. Clarke Award, I thought, that is a book I should read.

But like another reviewer (can't remember who, sorry) said, referring to all characters as "she" makes very little difference to the novel. It's distracting, at first, when one realizes that a character described as "an old person with gray hair and a close-cut gray beard" is probably not female, but it's ultimately irrelevant. As it should be. That's the point. Just as Kathryn Janeway's captaincy of a star ship is a non-issue, so is the use of feminine pronouns for all characters in Ancillary Justice. And so, it's not the Janewayean language that makes this story tick.

After you've gotten used to the pronouns, it's this line that really throw you:

"Nineteen years, three months, and one week before I found Seivarden in the snow, I was a troop carrier orbiting the planet Shis'urna."

I had to read that line several times. And refer back to it later on.

Ancillary Justice is meticulously crafted, with a hard kernel of non-fantastic truth. Identity is a phenomenon that, despite the eons we've spent struggling with it, we still don't understand, but that the nature thereof, both individual and collective, can tear us apart. And in Leckie's universe, we won't be able to take our eyes off the unraveling. I've already bought the sequel, Ancillary Sword, and I can't wait for what comes next.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Top Ten Characters I Would Want to Be for Halloween

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

True story: I have dressed up as most of these characters at one point or another.

1. Hermione Granger from Harry Potter

I never actually dressed up as Hermione, but I always thought I looked way more like her than Emma Watson did. For one thing, I have DARK brown hair, and for another, my hair is/was actually messy most of the time.

2. Jo March from Little Women

I have dressed up as Jo. With a patch on the back of my dress. Nobody got it.

3. Eponine from Les Miserables

I did this in middle school. Suffice it to say, NOBODY got it.

4. Arwen from Lord of the Rings

I've been told I look kinda like Liv Tyler?

5. Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation

So, not a book character, but I acquired a Data mask at a Star Trek exhibit at a young age, and my sister and I went trick-or-treating as Worf and Data respectively. The best, most appropriate costumes for elementary-schoolers.

6. Captain Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager

Also not a book character, but when I reprised my role as Data for a Science Theme Day this past summer at camp, a fellow teacher told me she had once dressed up as Janeway. And I wish I had too.

7. Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter

I'm not a blonde, but I've definitely got the dreamy, far-off stare. And then I could wear really weird things like griffin hats.

8. Elphaba from Wicked

From the book, before it was a musical. I painted my face entirely green, and there's a prominent photo in my high school yearbook. The only time I was ever pictured outside of the standard photo. Not to brag, but the next year, I saw a couple of younger girls with green faces and witches' hats. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

9. The Wizard Samarkar from the Eternal Sky

Haven't done this yet, but a strong woman in wizard's robes sounds up my alley.

10. Hrahima from the Eternal Sky

I'm not sure how I would do this, but it would be cool to be a tiger-woman.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A South Asian Feminist Sci-Fi Utopia: You're Welcome

Today I saw an article from that had me nearly jumping out of my skin with anticipation.

The Tor newsletter described it as Utopian. Sci-Fi. From the Subcontinent. Three of my favorite things! In one! And as you can see above, it's actually FOUR of my favorite things in one.

So, go read this rad introduction at Tor, and then immediately read "Sultana's Dream" by Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein.

My only disappointment is that it's so brief; as a book, it could be the South Asian Female Man (except better, because science. And South Asian.).

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Top Ten New Series I Want to Start

Happy Top Ten Tuesday over at the Broke and the Bookish.

Not to mention series that I want to finish...

1. The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

2. The Uplift Trilogy by David Brin

3. The Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde

4. A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

5. The Promethean Age series by Elizabeth Bear

6. A Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

7. River of Souls by Beth Bernobich

8. The Dreamblood Duo by N.K. Jemisin

9. Glamourist Histories by Mary Robinette Kowal

10. Dies the Fire series by S.M. Stirling

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Fragrant Message

34. Messenger by Lois Lowry

"It was a quick and fragrant touch to his lips that gave him courage."

-Messenger, Lowry, p. 113

Lois Lowry's prose is stark. As opposed to the pyrotechnical language of Catherynne Valente, Norton Juster, or even Suzanne Collins, Lowry's stories feel almost naked. And yet, it is their barrenness that highlights what is truly important.

When I read The Giver many, many moons ago, I long recalled the definition of "apprehension" that Jonas mentions in the first few pages. It is that particular word that captures Jonas' state of mind, and the reader's state of mind for most of the book. Likewise, in Messenger, the word "fragrant" is distinguished among its more simple compatriots. It is important that the lips are fragrant, because they stand in contrast to the growing corruption in Matty's town. (Matty, a character first seen in Gathering Blue, is the protagonist in Messenger).

Messenger is not as iconic a book as The Giver, perhaps because the secret has already been given away. We know there is "something rotten in the state of Denmark," even in the (more genuinely) utopian-like community Jonas has fled to. My "Hamlet" reference seemed appropriate there, but it's actually the far more disturbing (in my mind) "Macbeth" that is referenced in the book. "All my pretty ones? All?" will echo in your mind when it is done. Though not quite as captivating, this is the more realistically somber book that Lowry teased us with at the end of The Giver.

I read it in a day, and yet it's a book that lingers in subsequent weeks. It's not like the experience of savoring Shakespearean puns or Valentean tongue-twisters, but it's like a subtle perfume that remains even when other scents overpower it. A message. Quiet, but fragrant.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: My Fall TBR List

My fall TBR list is quite short this year:

1. Whatever I feel like reading.

I've taken on quite a workload this fall, and so anything outside of work will be purely auxiliary.

Probably, a lot of articles, short stories, re-reads, and impulse library grabs will abound.

However, it would be nice if I read some of the yet-to-be-read books on my shelf, namely:

1. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

2. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Top Ten Authors I've Only Read One Book From But NEED to Read More

Thank you Top Ten Tuesday, I feel like this is always happening to me!

1. Karen Lord

I read The Best of All Possible Worlds almost two years ago now, and I still need to read Redemption in Indigo. At least I'm not too far behind!

2. Marge Piercy

I really loved Woman on the Edge of Time, I imagine I would enjoy her other works as well.

3. W.G. Sebald

I really enjoyed The Rings of Saturn, have been meaning for years to check out his other work.

4. Elizabeth Gilbert

I found Committed to be a very thoughtful read, and The Signature of All Things is sitting on my shelf. Maybe I'll even get around to Eat, Pray, Love one of these days.

5. Karen Joy Fowler

The Jane Austen Book Club is one of my favorite books, but I wasn't really riveted by the idea of the next couple of books she put out. The latest sounded interesting though.

6. Philip Pullman

Not sure if this counts exactly, since I did read the whole His Dark Materials trilogy, but I haven't read anything after that and I really want to read The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

7. Carlos Ruiz Zafon

I read The Shadow of the Wind, but haven't read the other books, though The Angel's Game is in my collection.

8. Catherynne M. Valente

I read the first two Fairyland books, but I need to read her adult novels.

9. Deborah Feldman

Unorthodox was one of my favorite books of 2012, and she just came out with Exodus this year. And-again, yay!-I'm not too far behind.

10. Tanuja Desai Hidier

Until last month, Hidier only had one book out, Born Confused, one of my favorite books of all time, but which I'd long since given up on a sequel to. And then, magic, the end of last month, the sequel came out and I got to see her at the National Book Festival. And Bombay Blues is tucked away until a someday soon when I need it!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

As Good As New by Charlie Jane Anders

Although I've been reading more collections of short stories, I'd stopped reading as much individual short fiction as I did last year. My primary source has been, and for a while I wasn't very impressed with the offerings. But I decided to take a chance on "As Good as New" since I recognized the author name, and the plot description intrigued me.

"As Good as New" is one of the cleanest, most satisfying short pieces I've read in a while. Marisol, a playwright turned medical student, is possibly the only person to have survived the end of the world. Holed up in a panic room, she eats frozen dinners and watches "The Facts of Life." And then she finds a genie in a bottle.

Read it if you like classic, thoughtful stories. It's pared down, with just two characters, and just one clear plot with a couple of underlying ideas that underscore the whole piece. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Book Review: Rav Hisda's Daughter: The Enchantress by Maggie Anton

33. Rav Hisda's Daughter: The Enchantress by Maggie Anton

*Published Sept. 2, 2014*

Hisdadukh is a charasheta, or enchantress, who is learned in the ways of healing and protective magic. She is the daughter of a historical Talmudic scholar, Rav Hisda, who is himself learned in priestly magic. In Anton's world, the wives and daughters of Talmudic scholars have an equivalent brand of magic that they use to protect their families and communities. It's an interesting portrait of feminine power in a highly misogynistic era.

Anton is known for her earlier historical novels on the daughters of Rashi, arguably the best known Talmudic scholar. The Enchantress is the sequel to Rav Hisda's Daughter: The Apprentice. Although I have not read the first book, I was able to get into the story fairly easily. That said, I think my knowledge of the eponymous viewpoint character would have been deeper if I had read it. Many of the events in the earlier book are referenced here.

The book is heavily steeped in the apocrypha of Judaism and Talmud. I recognize some of it, but I'm not knowledgeable enough to judge the historical accuracy of it. In any case, the presentation of demons and angels as real entities is grounded in Biblical and folkloric representations, though in this day and age, it comes off as fantastical. The interactions with these creatures and the numerous discussions of Baraitot, rabbinic teachings, were the most captivating sections of the book to me.

Early in the book, Hisdadukh teaches a Baraita to her prickly love interest, Rava (also a historical scholar):

"What is taking vengeance and what is bearing a grudge?" I asked. "Revenge is when one man asks another to lend him a sickle and the second refuses, then when the second man asks the first to lend him a shovel, the first one says, 'Just as you wouldn't lend me your sickle, so I will not lend you my shovel.' This is taking vengeance."


"a grudge is when one man asks another to lend him a sickle and the second refuses, then when the second man asks the first to lend him a shovel, the first one says, 'Here it is. I am not like you who did not lend me your sickle.' This is bearing a grudge."

The content of the Baraita cleverly references Hisdadukh's awareness that Rava bears her a grudge for long ago refusing to marry him. In this new novel, she hopes to re-capture his interest, for she realizes it is their fate to be together.

I understand that many people will be repulsed by the nature of their relationship and by both characters', though notably Rava's, misogyny. What I would say is that this book is rooted in a historical period and in a religion, and furthermore particular interpretations of that religion, and to both of them, their relationship is perfectly consensual. It may not be what a modern woman longs for, but in Hisdadukh's context, a man who respects her arcane practices and even trusts and consults her learning, is a lot to be thankful for.

While there is an underlying plot throughout the novel, it's almost an excuse for this fictional biography. Once past the drama of Hisdadukh and Rava's reconciliation and marriage, the book slows down. Anton skips and glosses over years and events, but the events she does show don't necessarily relate to the underlying threads, and she seems to feel the need to mention events that she didn't think worth portraying. This makes for a lot of telling rather than showing, and oddly jarring moments.

For example, Hisdadukh's slave Leuton is a recurring character who features in many events. She braids Hisdadukh's hair, advises her, and accompanies her in difficult moments. Though the character is never fully developed, it's very off-putting when she is finally disposed of in a a couple of afterthought sentences:

"Leuton, who'd served me loyally since Rami's death, had died after a distracted carter crushed her against a wall, and I couldn't replace her."

Goodness, what a violent death! You would think there would at least be a scene to describe it, and a scene of mourning. But that's it. Leuton is never mentioned again.

The Enchantress is, at best, an imaginative investigation into what a Jewish sorceress' life, if she really existed, might have entailed. At worst, it is a dragging, improbable, misogynistic Talmud-era riff on the far more engaging The Red Tent. It really depends on your view. Personally, I'm intrigued enough to try one of the Rashi's daughters novels, and I would recommend The Enchantress if you have a strong interest in the period or in Judaism.

Note: While a number of obscure Hebrew words are scattered throughout the book, there is a thorough glossary in the back.

Received for review from LibraryThing Early Reviewers

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Top Ten Books I Want to Read But Don't Own Yet

I'm a little late with Top Ten Tuesday...

1. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin

2. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

3. Marriage, A History by Stephanie Coontz

4. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

5. Messenger (And Son) by Lois Lowry

6. Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

7. Wild by Cheryl Strayed

8. Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

9. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

10. The End of Men and the Rise of Women by Hanna Rosin

(Now the real question is how many books do I want to read that I DO own...)