The Bone People (CBR11 #35)

Image result for the bone people

I don’t know if I knew what to expect when I decided to read The Bone People. I knew it had won the Booker Prize, which isn’t always a great indicator if I’m going to enjoy a book or not, and that it was an Own Voices book by a New Zealand author. Keri Hulme spent over a decade crafting a story of people of Maori heritage in the part of the country she still lives in, and she was steadfast in writing the novel in the way that made sense to her – notoriously refusing to let any publishing house edit the work and finally publishing by Spiral, a small feminist collective press in New Zealand, and eventually by the Louisiana State University Press in the States.

The Bone People is an ambitious work that uses the clash between Maori and European cultures to paint the background of its world and the inner lives of its mixed heritage characters. The book focuses on the complicated relationships that develop among its three protagonists: Kerewin, a painter, who leads a hermetic, solitary life, convinced that art is sufficient to sustain her and that relationships with anyone can only lead to pain; Simon, a mute 6 year old, who has suffered a terrible wound in the past, and his adoptive father, Joe, a laborer with a nasty temper.

In its attempts to mythicize the lives of its three peculiar heroes, The Bone People never quite lives up to the introduction. Hulme’s storytelling is vivid, backed up by some poetic and evocative descriptions of the New Zealand coastline and Maori myth and legend, which allows her to explore ideas about ownership, stewardship and cultural survival that add real heft to the book. The book is also, at its core, an all-too realistic story of abuse and trauma. The craftmanship Hulme shows in the interior monologues, and even in the seemingly disjointed narratives is very obviously building to something. Then we reach the end of the first section and the reader is left adrift.

The Bone People won the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction and the Mobil Pegasus Prize for Maori Literature and with some judicious pruning, the book might well have been the unmistakably powerful visionary fable Hulme was after and that the judges clearly saw, but in some ways escapes me. As it is, and reading it a generation later when I cannot reconcile the extreme violence against a child with the actions of the middle of the book, it is still a very good book about love, redemption, and renewal. But it is unevenly written and considerably overlong.

Advertisements

Chi’s Sweet Home, Part 2 (CBR11 #32)

Since this is only the second manga I’ve read, ever, I thought it would count nicely for the CBR11 Bingo square Not My Wheelhouse. When I read Part 1 last month I was taken with Chi and her family and since my library had Part 2 available, I requested it. Why not spend a little more time with this precocious kitten?

On the whole I’m glad I picked up the next phase in the story, we follow the family as they move into their new pet-friendly apartment and Chi is learning her way around her new home. But this one lacked something the previous installation had – there wasn’t any tension to the storylines. It was 400+ pages of what its like to live with a cat, and Chi’s personality is rendered perfectly, but other than checking in episodically to see what was next for her to explore (stairs, getting her nails clipped, handling  relationship with the dog next door) there wasn’t much in the way of forward momentum.

For those reasons I found my focus wandering. For chapter at a time I was focused far more on the art than the words, sort of passively absorbing the story. It is an old habit that has held over from the days I struggled with comics or graphic novels – I would skim and go back – process the visuals, then process the narrative. That division of attention might be why I often find visually driven books lackluster, my processing is slowed and the story doesn’t always come together organically. Am I turned off manga? No, but its still not my wheelhouse.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Her Body and Other Parties (CBR11 #31)

Image result for her body and other parties

Her Body and Other Parties is all about expectations – both the ones on the page for the characters Machado created and for the reader as they come to the much hyped but little described work. I knew going in that the book was pushing boundaries, igniting conversations (the husband stitch, for example), and refused to stick to one genre at any given time, let alone for the entire collection.

Having completed the book I understand why reviewers have, one the whole, been relatively mute on details. There isn’t an easy way to try to capture what Machado is working towards. Her Body and Other Parties is simultaneously gothic and speculative, bending the lines of realistic fiction and fantasy. Most reviews cover “The Husband Stitch” and the novella-within-a-short-story-collection reinterpretation of Law & Order: SVU, “Especially Heinous”, which are admittedly very dramatic and easy to focus on, but my favorite in the collection is a much quieter look at the end of the world, “Inventory”. Machado takes one woman’s coping mechanism (list making) to recount a component of one’s life not often so honestly and quietly spoken of (bisexual sexual history) that in turn tells the story of the collapse of civilization due to a pandemic. It reminded me of Station Eleven in all the best ways while taking the appropriate sized bite of a narrative.

Because, that is my complaint about this collection, and it pains me to have a complaint at all with such a well-written, mechanically beautiful collection. Machado swings big in this, and sometimes it feels that she overshoots what is currently within her powers. “The Husband Stitch” plays with its origin points and makes a larger point, right up until it doesn’t – the landing is missed. Once I noticed that in the first story, I noticed it again in several other places. It is such a tough line in novellas, finding the right amount of story to tell. I’m hopefully Machado continues to refine her technique, because she is one of the few people working in this medium that I know I want to read again.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Gathering Moss (CBR11 #29)

Image result for gathering moss book

I like doing reading challenges because they give me an excuse to dig deeply through my expansive to read list (668 and counting) or give me a reason to add more diverse books to that list. Native and indigenous writers are underrepresented on my to read pile as are books about nature. Read Women this year has tasks for both, so off I went to find more books. Having some success last year with Rain: a Natural and Cultural History when I stumbled across Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Gathering Moss: a Natural and Cultural History I thought I had it made.

Kimmerer writes in this slim volume about moss as the research scientist she is, with all the Latin jargon and botanical details you might expect.  She also weaves into the book a host of details from her daily life as a mother and traveler and reflections on heritage, parenthood, life – digging into herself to reflect it back out to the world. What that combined effort gives the reader is a window into her natural philosophy. Gathering Moss probably won’t teach you to identify any mosses (there’s a handful of line illustrations of different mosses, but no tips for ID) but this collection of essays will give you a view into the author’s research and methodologies on moss ecology and Kimmerer as a person. Truly, it was this holistic approach to the writing that I enjoyed and kept me from giving up on the book.

You see, I am not the audience for this book and found myself drifting off during each of the relatively short chapters. Turn out, I had misremembered my experiences with Rain last year, I had struggled similarly. The best thing I have to say about Gathering Moss is that since reading it I have been paying far closer attention to the mosses living unobtrusively around me. I could read Chapter 2, “Learning to See”, again happily,  but the rest of the book really wasn’t what I was looking for.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

When Dimple Met Rishi (CBR11 #27)

Image result for when dimple met rishi

Well, that was adorably sweet. YA that falls into New Adult Romance isn’t normally my thing, the characters are just so young (but I don’t mind them in movie format? To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was very enjoyable on Netflix but I still don’t care to pick up the book). I know most authors land their endings on HFN for just that reason, but while I’ve enjoyed books like Anna and the French Kiss I generally tend to stay away. But the description of When Dimple Met Rishi (and its adorable coffee-based cover art) pulled me in.

Dimple Shah has a plan: now that graduation is behind her, she’s more than ready for a break from her family, from her Mamma’s obsession with finding the “Ideal Indian Husband.” Dimple has her heart set on attending a summer program for aspiring web developers in San Francisco and convinces her parents to let her go and pay the fee, relieved that they seem to be more fully buying into her plans for her life starting with Stanford in the fall. Rishi Patel is headed to the same program, so when his parents tell him that his future wife will be there and he’ll have the chance to woo her, he is completely on board.  So much so that his hopeless romantic heart nearly ruins everything at his and Dimple’s meet cute. You see, Dimple has no idea who he is or that their parents have set them up.

The Shahs and Patels didn’t mean to start turning the wheels on this “suggested arrangement” so early in their children’s lives, but they seized an opportunity when they saw it. Rishi wants to be arranged, and knows that many people don’t understand his choice, and Dimple is one of them – running hard from what she feels are the heavy expectations of her family that don’t align with her goals for herself. But this is a romance book, so initial confusion and distrust turn to grudging friendship and then something much more all while they are competing hard to get Dimple’s app idea off the ground and in front of her idol by winning the contest.

I loved how this book dealt head on with its issues – classism, race relations, religion, familial expectation, social customs, women in STEM fields, and the dichotomy between pursuing your dreams or what you perceive to be the safe choice – while also being a very straightforward story about love and finding yourself at 18 once you are able to be on your own for the first time. Menon shows through her solid craft that it is possible to seamlessly do both. Her characters actually talk to each other (and not just her leads!) and get to know each other, and care deeply for who they discover themselves and the other to truly be. Dimple and Rishi have problems and lives that feel real.  The world and life that Menon creates for her characters is rich, detailed, and engrossing. You are with them at school, and in love, and in heartbreak. I was sad to see my time with them end.   

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Lethal White (CBR11 #8)

Lethal-White-Fan-Art-1-193x300

Fan Art cover to match previous in series.

It took me much longer to read this book than I thought it would. Sure, it’s a 22.5-hour audiobook and that’s a decent amount of listening time for something that absolutely could not be “background” noise listening – my brain had to be engaged – but I started this book nearly two months ago (although I did take a two-week break). Some of it had to do with the type of story Rowling is telling, there’s a lot of plot here. Some of it is also the layers of meaning she is including and the commentary on family, loyalty, fame, and pressure.

It’s not my favorite of the series, but it’s not my least favorite either (my favorite is Career of Evil despite its very violent nature) even though I found the mystery the least engaging of the four books so far. It has the potential for an interesting set up, Rowling takes on the political sphere, growing the world of Cormoran Strike  a little larger as she goes. The book picks up immediately where the previous one left off, satisfying the cliffhanger appropriately but painfully for those of us who hate Matthew with the fiery heat of a thousand suns. Then Rowling drop kicks us one year into the future where Strike and Robin are barely speaking to each other. The firm is doing well enough after the Shackleford Ripper case that they’ve been able to hire on contract investigators and slowly Robin and Strike have developed an icy gulf between them.

Billy Knight kicks off the story when he shows up in Strike’s office asking for help in ascertaining if he really did see a child murdered and buried near his home as a child. Unfortunately, Billy isn’t a reliable witness as he is deep into an episode and shows signs of living rough. Billy sticks with Strike though, and in the process of following up on Billy he meets his brother Jimmy, which in turn bring Strike int the orbit of Jasper Chiswell and the story is truly off to the races. The Chiswell family becomes the main focus and that family’s dynamics are complicated while also a bit stereotypical for fiction. There’s a gold digging younger wife, a disgraced youngest son, two loyal daughters, and the beloved dead eldest son.  Strike investigates Chiswell’s political enemies, and never lets the dead child out of his mind, wondering how it all ties in, chewing the details over and over.

I’m continually surprised with how much story Rowling tells, and I shouldn’t be anymore. The initial case Robin and Strike are hired for by Chiswell is over before the halfway point. Most authors would have wrapped things up in their narrative around this point and I wouldn’t be mad at them for doing so. There was already plenty of story to be had, but much like her other works Rowling slowly builds a world and then slowly unpacks the details, both of our two main characters and their personal lives, but also in the various characters who make up the cast of characters in this murder mystery. Because oh yes, there is a dead body and its demise must be solved.

Rowling is usually writing intricate mysteries where the clues are there in front of you, and even if you don’t catch the signs along the way, the resolution make sense after the big reveal.  This is generally the case this time but by the time the final revelations were made it also felt like the answers were overly convoluted. I felt vindicated when even Robin couldn’t seem to put together the slightly too many tangentially related clues.

But the characters are really and truly what make these books so enjoyable. They continue to feel like fully fleshed out people, whether we’ve known them for four books or they are brand new to us in this outing. Rowling is incredibly adept at giving life to her characters, and I feel as comfortable in this series as I did with the Potter books. Robin and Strike have rich internal lives that they don’t share with others and while it’s such a small detail in characterization, it has become incredibly important for establishing their unique rhythms. I wasn’t happy reading the decisions Robin was making regarding her relationship with Matthew, or what she was choosing to share or hide (she hid everything) but it all made sense in the context that Rowling had developed in the previous books: she spent three books showing how unhealthy, codependent relationships are incredibly subtle, persistent, and destructive.

So much of the novel is about relationships – Robin and her failing marriage, Strike and his girlfriend Lorelei, Strike and Charlotte, and how Robin and Strike react to each other in the aftermath of Robin’s wedding and each thinking the other is in a happy relationship.  There are multiple dysfunctional pairs of people peppered throughout, being foils for one another and yet another facet of the investigation for Strike to chew on. We also get more information about old secondary characters (Vanessa Akwenzi gets more fully fleshed out and we get updates on Nick and Ilsa, and an important few chapters with Strike’s nephew) as well as the new secondary characters, Barclay being a standout and I’m excited to see an interaction between him and Shanker in a future book, as this one was sorely lacking in Shanker (but the nature of the case precluded the kind of work Shanker is best at).

There is something else that stood out to me in the reading, something that was very obviously a sign post and left me wishing I had read more Ibsen, something I had not anticipated ever being the case. Rowling uses quotations from Henrik Ibsen’s play Rosmersholm at the beginning of each chapter in Lethal White. This is the very first time in any of the Strike novels that all the epigraphs came from a single source (although Career of Evil is all Blue Oyster Cult lyrics it isn’t quite the same thing). I did a little digging after I finished the novel, even though I was sorely tempted to do so before I finished, to double check my instinct. Rowling did indeed take the bones of Rosmersholm and send it through the blender of her creative mind and produce the narrative of Lethal White.

I won’t go point by point, there are others who have done extensive writing on the comparisons, but Rowling is continuing to play with metaliterary creations. The major plot points and locations in Lethal White are mirror images of things in Ibsen’s work, or are building off those ideas. I will say that it gave more meaning for me to the super injunction storyline, and the general fear of the press in this and the other Strike novels. Lethal White also shares imagery with Rosmersholm, the ubiquitous white horses and the hauntings of shared memory.  As an added bit of interesting trivia Rosmersholm is returning to the London stage this spring and starring Cannonball favorite Hayley Atwell and Tom Burke, who plays Strike in the television adaptation.

Image result for rosmersholm announcement

Sometimes it’s a very small world.

Image result for tom burke cormoran strike gifImage result for hayley atwell cormoran strike gif

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

Hildegard of Bingen: Mystical Writings (CBR11 #5)

Hildegard Of Bingen: Mystical Writings (Crossroad Spirtual Classics Series)

Every so often a book about faith sneaks into my reading. There was a time when I was much more involved in organized religion, but it has been a tough fit for me in the past decade or more. I have tended to hold my personal faith a little closer than that shared in a large gathering. The historian side of me is also always looking to learn more about the faith I was raised in and a couple of years ago when the ladies of the Stuff You Missed In History podcast did an episode on Hildegard of Bingen I paid specific attention. Here was a religious person from the better part of a thousand years ago who shared ideas that sound very familiar to the modern ear. I was intrigued.

I’m also embarking on the Reading Women challenge this year, and one of the tasks on that one is a translated book published before 1945. I took this as an opportunity to reach ALL the way back to Hildegard and the late 12th century and read some of her work directly, or as directly as possible when translated from Latin across 800 years. With that, Hildegard of Bingen: Mystical Writings by Hildegard of Bingen, edited by Fiona Bowie and Oliver Davies and featuring several translators published in 1990 ended up on my January to read list.

The first half of the book is a series of essays about Hildegard, her times, and the religious upheaval happening all around her both locally in Germany and stretching all the way to Rome and on to the Crusades. I am familiar with a bit of this, but it was nice to have it all packaged together as an extensive preamble to Hildegard’s own writings. The book is slim, my copy clocks in at less than 160 pages and about 60 of those were the preamble, so the writings we get are excerpts from her larger works. Hildegard wrote extensively after one of her visions instructed her to write down what she was experiencing (and she received support from local religious men). Her writings however weren’t limited in any way – she is writing about matters of state, the schism in the church with reigning popes and anti-popes, as well as the nature of faith and god, and two different medical texts.

I sat with this book for many days, pondering the nature of the divine tends to require slowing down and really absorbing what you are reading. I was also sitting on a federal petit jury during the week, weighing the evidence put in front of us and it was mentally exhausting. I don’t know that I’m any fonder of Hildegard now, but I do feel closer to a forebear in my faith. She was no nonsense in a really fun way, and I wish her books read as her letters do, I think they would be much more accessible, but I also understand the intense societal pressure to create as formal a writing as possible. Best of all to me, although they come to it from slightly different angles, she and Carl Sagan agree that we are in fact all made of star stuff.

Reading Women 2019 task 14: a translated book published before 1945

Read Harder Challenge: tasks 9, a book published before January 1, 2019 with less than 100 reviews on Goodreads, and 10, a translated book written or translated by a woman

This book was read as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.