Books by my bedside 2021/April

I’m a little shocked by how long it’s been since I last posted about what I’m reading. Considering the rather desperate way I escaped into fiction during the pandemic, I might’ve been more forthcoming in sharing what I read for that release.

Now, back to my boilerplate:

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least make a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

Non-Fiction

History

Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia by Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia, Olga

Writing (Short Story as Literature)

A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by Saunders, George

Fiction

Young Adult

Akata Witch and Akata Warrior by Okorafor, Nnedi

The Real Boy by Ursu, Anne

African/Feminist

Nervous Conditions by Dangarembga, Tsitsi

Mystery/Thriller

Billionaire Blend by Coyle, Cleo

A Deadly Influence by Omer, Mike

All the Devils are Here by Penny, Louise

Water Memory by Pyne, Daniel

Open House by Sise, Katie

After Alice Fell by Taylor Blakemore, Kim

Science Fiction

Shift by Howey, Hugh

Reading Notes:

Exploring the world via fiction in a year without travel

The young adult novel, Akata Witch (like its sequel, Akata Warrior), is set in Nigeria. Please see my footnote about the derogatory term in these titles if Nigerian languages are new to you as they were to me. As I have no wish to offend anyone, I will not repeat the word except within the context of the titles chosen by the works’ creator.

Like the author—Nnedi Okorafor—herself, the heroine, Sunny, is American born. Sunny is a teen living in Nigeria, an outsider due to her foreign birth, albinism, and then… all the usual stuff that sets apart the protagonist of a fantasy novel. This is not a cookie-cutter, Western fantasy! I found Okorafor’s created world fresh and fascinating, and the heroine and her friends richly detailed, complex, and very capable of keeping my middle-aged attention. My heart does tend to ache for the girl’s worried mother, however, as Sunny undertakes dangerous quests typical of the genre.

I enjoyed being immersed in the African setting of these titles. Missing my usual travels, this scratched my itch for adventure and “seeing” new places. The American-born teens in the story helped this reader make the transition to a better understanding of Nigerian culture from a perspective with which I’m more familiar.books I read April 2021 - Okorafor fantasy novels

Of course, the bulk of the story involves magical powers and the unseen world. Even if I made it to Nigeria, I doubt I’d encounter most of the creatures or powerful wizards Okorafor brings to life on her pages. As the pandemic has taught me, living through historically exciting events is not always easy or desirable.

Aside from an enjoyable young adult narrative, I appreciate Okorafor’s thoughtful approach to her craft. Regarding her success in a genre whose “great men” were often virulent racists who may well have shunned her, Okorafor wrote on her own blog:

“What I know I want is to face the history of this leg of literature rather than put it aside or bury it. If this is how some of the great minds of speculative fiction felt, then let’s deal with that .…as opposed to never mention it or explain it away.”

I believe this contemplative attitude helps explain why she opted to use a word with heavy connotations in her titles. I use her original titles as opposed to the less racially-charged British ones in an effort to show respect to the author.Copy of softbound library copy of Nervous Conditions by Dangarembga

Also set in Africa but half a continent away, I recently dove into Tsitsi Dangarembga’s masterful Nervous Conditions. It takes place in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the mid-20th Century. I devoured the novel in just a couple of days, perhaps identifying so strongly with its protagonist, Tambudzai, because of her intelligence and drive to get an education against all obstacles.

Tambu reflects upon a new school with: “Most importantly, most wonderfully, there was the library, big, bright, walled in glass on one side and furnished with private little cubicles where you could do your homework, or simply lose yourself…in…books…”

I was a girl just like that.

Quote from page 199 about the wonderful library in a girl's school

Nervous Condition is the kind of book in which I highlight multiple passages. For the library’s sake, I do that these days by photographing myself pointing to the relevant spot on the page. Less typically for me, I even highlighted some of the author’s comments in the “book club” discussion section at the back of this novel.

Tambu’s story isn’t light or easy. Colonialism, racism, sexism, and poverty all conspire against her success, though she’s quite young when the story begins. She’s complex and complicated, and Dangarembga has drawn her beautifully. Even better, the entire novel is peopled by fully dimensioned, believable characters. Dangarembga writes with a deft hand.Quote highlighted from Nervous Conditions page 183

“Marriage. I had nothing against it in principle. In an abstract way I thought it was a very good idea. But it was irritating the way it always cropped up in one form or another, stretching its tentacles back to bind me before I had even begun to think about it seriously, threatening to disrupt my life before I could even call it my own.”

I finished the book quite eager to read its successor, 2006’s The Book of Not. It was unavailable at my local library, though the third volume, 2020’s This Mournable Body could be had. I couldn’t even find book two in our statewide searchable catalog for inter-library loans. Resigning myself to an Amazon purchase, I discovered that a new edition of The Book of Not is due to be released in May of this year. Used copies from 2006 are selling for about $50 each, which is more than I can bear to spend on a paperback. The vagaries of international publishing, perhaps?

I opted to purchase the Audible audiobook version of This Mournable Body—Dangarembga’s only English language audio release, so far as I can tell—because I wanted to directly support the author of a powerful novel that moved me so profoundly.

Also, no lie, it drove me crazy that I still don’t know how to pronounce many names from the story. Unlike European languages and concepts, I struggled to search out definitions for unfamiliar terms, photos of garments about which I was curious, or quick phonetic pronunciation guides. I’m hoping that the audiobook recording will offer me the chance to hear these names spoken by a more educated narrator.

I’ve heard people argue about a lack of rich cultural heritage outside of their narrow conception of the “civilized world;” it’s hard to appreciate what you can’t see because your back is turned!

Segueing not very neatly from far away in distance to far away in time, I must comment on Hugh Howey’s sequel to Wool: Shift. They’re both part of the Silo Saga. These are really good books—if you can tolerate a dystopian future.

My librarian friend The Priestess recommended Wool to me during a weekend away together. I was complaining about how poorly most algorithms do in offering me literary recommendations. I don’t know if that’s true for anyone else, but Amazon and Good Reads do not get me at all. She’d heard good things about it, but not read it herself, I believe.

I enjoyed Wool. It was a fun read, I finished it… then I didn’t think about it again for several years. Somehow, during the pandemic, Shift came to my attention. I think, since Mr. Howey originally self-published via Amazon, that it may have been free to read with Kindle Unlimited. I was definitely hunting that source much more actively than usual in the early shutdown days when I lost weekly library access.

Here’s why I absoluely must mention Shift: I have never before read a sequel and been so much more impressed by it than I was by its precursor. If anything, I’m used to being disappointed by middling follow-ups to novels I loved. That sounds strange, because Wool was a good book. Shift struck me as an even better one, and much more profound.

Consider the Silo Saga if you enjoy Sci Fi and don’t mind reading about the end of the world in the middle of a pandemic disaster.

Myriad mysteries

The string of casual flings I carry on with light murder mysteries continues. Thankfully, our local library opened for pre-ordered, curbside lending after a month or two of darkness, but I have also relied more heavily on the monthly free titles for Amazon Prime members (most of which are mediocre, but they do pass the time) and digital psuedo-purchases, which I loathe on principle.Two Kindle ebook readers, one labeled kids, the other says Mom's

No, if I don’t have a copy of a book or song I can pass to my heirs when I die, I have not purchased it. I’ve rented a license to use my copy during my lifetime. There’s nothing wrong with the model, if it’s what people want, but calling these transactions a purchase strikes me as fraudulent! Stepping down from soapbox…

A Deadly Influence made a pretty fun read, but a single sentence late in the book stopped me cold, prompting me to check the author’s name and confirm that he must be a man. It was a description of an outfit that the protagonist put on to go out and meet a date… and it was so laughably bad, I guessed right that moment that a non-fashionable male had written its description.

The storyline there involves a professional police negotiator, Abby, the calm presence who talks down the guy on the ledge or the hostage holding one with a gun to someone’s head. She (the protagonist) was very believable, except for her dressing up scene, realistically, lightly flawed, yet still likeable. Peeking inside life in a modern cult or two also made this novel stand out from my crowd of similar whodunits. It’s one of the few Amazon freebies I’ve read where I will watch for sequels. I’d like to see Abby’s character develop, and A Deadly Influence ended on a bit of cliffhanger though one I admittedly saw coming, but I didn’t mind.

Better writing through considered consumption of literature

Finally, I can’t leave this post without some discussion of Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. I’m so in love with this book at the moment! Full disclosure: I’m only 4/7 done with it as it was due back to the library and had holds so I couldn’t renew.

George Saunders teaches creative writing at Syracuse. The premise of the book is to explore seven classic works of Russian short fiction, then tease out lessons to improve our own writing from literary greats Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol.

The stories are magnificent. So are Saunders’ essays!Section heading for Tolstoy's Master & Man (1895) from the book A Swim in the Pond in the Rain

Perhaps the author selected just those few stories which are truly special. More likely, I have failed to read enough of the Russian masters. Technically proficient? Yes. Moving, emotionally rich? Definitely. Yet, somehow, this book is also a great deal of fun. I wish Saunders were my teacher though I’ve already spent far more time in Syracuse than I ever wished to.

I picked this up in order to plan a literature unit for my home educated teen. I thought it would complement the Russian History we’re doing this year. Note to home schoolers: it really, really does! I planned to peruse it, make some notes, then set the child to work on Saunders’ readings and my assignments over the summer term. Instead, I fell into the book myself, only reluctantly returning it on time because I’d foolishly let it sit too long on our library shelf before starting in.

Consider pairing A Swim in the Pond in the Rain with viewing the Great Courses video offering History of Russia: From Peter the Great to Gorbachev taught by Mark Steinberg. Lesson 21: Peasant Life & Culture is particularly apropos, but everything from Lesson 8 (The Decembrist Rebellion) to 25 (War & Revolution) will enhance your appreciation for the context of those stories Saunders offers.

† IMPORTANT NOTE: Please be aware that the unfamiliar word—if you only speak English—in the title, Akata Witch, has derogatory connotations for some Africans and African Americans.

The first book was given a new title for publication in the UK and Nigeria for that reason (What Sunny Saw in the Flames.) My internet research was cursory, of course, since I know no African languages. In spite of many contradictory definitions across the web, my best understanding is that the word is Yoruba—or possibly originated from the Fanti tribe—and is literally defined as an animal (maybe cat or fox.) The emphasis is on an uncivilized creature living outside his/her/its appropriate milieu. I’m not qualified to explain the term beyond this attempt at literal translation.

I wanted to discuss this book, but I hesitated to blindly post a sensitive phrase without this acknowledgement. Read about the term’s slang usage on Urban Dictionary if you’d like to learn more.

Passage from Leave the World Behind epitomizes 2020’s key lesson

Like any sensible reader for whom Christmas triggers profound grief over the death of a holiday-adoring loved one, I began Christmas morning 2020 by finishing up a dystopian novel, Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind.

You can find a proper review from NPR or the New York Times, but I agree with the positive opinions that Alam crafted an unusual and interestingly written work of fiction. It isn’t an easy book to read due to the subject matter, but it wasn’t off-putting to me for the usual gruesome reasons I dislike most horror. Gird yourself for a downward spiral of darkness if you dive in, but Leave the World Behind is well worth reading.

Leave the World Behind book coverWhat follows is a quotation from near the end of the novel, but I don’t believe reading it out of context constitutes a spoiler for the plot. I’m putting it “below the fold” in case any reader feels differently and prefers to stop here.

Continue reading

Books by her bedside: a novel unfinished though the reader’s life is done

The smallest tragedies keep haunting one after a loss.

Mom was not quite halfway through a novel when she died. I found it in her nightstand today as I began the process of sorting through her closet to donate what my sisters-in-law and I don’t want to keep.Paperback novel with bookmark in the middle

Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast is a wonderful read, too, though a surprisingly gritty choice for Mom. She tended to prefer a comedic or cozy murder mystery. If it had been a Mary Daheim or Elizabeth Peters caper, I bet she would’ve finished it.

Books by my bedside 2018/04/18

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least make a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

books library German Europe - 1

library shelf 2018 April

Non-Fiction

Culture & Geography

The Alps: a human history from Hannibal to Heidi and beyond by O’Shea, Stephen

Austria (juvenile non-fiction) by Sheehan, Sean

Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands (juvenile non-fiction) by Needham, Ed

Europe by Eurail 2018 by Ferguson-Kosinski, LaVerne

Germany (juvenile non-fiction) by Coddington, Andrew

Let’s Visit Liechtenstein by Carrick, Noel

Switzerland (juvenile non-fiction) by Rogers Seavey, Lura

The White Stallions: the story of the dancing horses of Lipizza by Van der Linde, Laurel

History

Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century (Kindle book) by Graham, Peter

The Orient Express: the history of the Orient Express service from 1883 to 1950 by Burton, Anthony

Language

Pimsleur

Pimsleur German

Pimsleur French I (audio CD)

Pimsleur German II (audio CD)

Memoir

Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass (Vintage International Kindle edition) by Dinesen, Isak

Plays (Theatre)

The Collected Plays of Neil Simon, Volumes I – IV by Simon, Neil

50 Best Plays of the American Theatre.selected by Barnes, Clive

The Glass Menagerie by Williams, Tennessee

book 50 Best Plays of the American Theatre - 1

Fiction

Heidi by Spyri, Johanna (also film directed by Alain Gsponer)

New Zealand Stories: Mansfield Selections (Kindle book) by Mansfield, Katherine

The Star of Kazan by Ibbotson, Eva

books library Alps Vienna Europe Kazan - 1

Reading Notes:

Rumination on women authors sojourning in strange lands

Though my trip to New Zealand is in the past, I’ve continued to dwell there just a little by reading more of its authors’ works. Specifically, I’ve become enamored with Dame Ngaio Marsh’s Detective Alleyn mysteries, and with the short fiction of Katharine Mansfield.

Both were born in New Zealand, but also spent significant portions of their lives in Britain. I find their work tantalizing as it relates to both the work of women in a different, less egalitarian era, and also for the way it reflects the effects of colonization, sometimes explicitly, but always in the shadows.

The other, the outsider, by sex or by accident of birth. Hmm…

Reading about an infamous murder in Christchurch, New Zealand committed in part by a teenage girl who would grow up to write bestselling mystery novels under a new name, Anne Perry, belongs to this thread, too. She was born in England, but clearly her sojourn in the colony was consequential.

See Peter Jackson’s film, “Heavenly Creatures,” to get the story without cracking a book. Make it a double feature with sweet family film “Her Majesty” and see if you find them as weirdly complementary as I do. Girlhood, good & grim; Christchurch, paradise or perdition?

My mind hitches these works by this insider/outsider woman/writer kind of thinking to the copy of Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass that I’ve been reading, s-l-o-w-l-y, for the past couple of months.

It was a “take in small doses and mull it over” read for me; a not-every-night to-lull-me-to-sleep read, but a can’t-sleep carry-me-away type of thing. I was also compelled to research Dinesen online for biographical information from a less biased than herself source when I was done with her memoir.

Though flawed like the rest of us and a product of her age and station as a European aristocrat, she sure strung together some beautiful words. I’ve enjoyed many of her short stories, too. Recommended for those who like some literary with their fiction.

The Alps, the Orient Express, Vienna, and European micro states

It may be a surprise to see a stack of children’s non-fiction books on my library shelf. I could just attribute them to my boys, or the younger son in particular, but they’re really for my edification.

It’s true that I always hope my kids will pick up one of my enthusiasms and/or delve into a similar self-directed unit study of something else, but I find these slim volumes a handy way to grab a quick overview of a place I’ve never been.

This time, the big boy and I were thinking about European micro states, and particularly the several who use German as an official language. It ties in with his studies, and my attention got grabbed. I requested half the books in the library, and in we dove.

Yes, I’ve heard of Wikipedia, but I have a thing about big maps and full color photos on heavyweight gloss. If I don’t have to spread a map out on a table in front of me, it doesn’t delight half as much. Most of my adventures begin with the unfolding of a paper map. Opening a book and flipping through pages of pictures offers me the same kind of thrill.

The Europe by Eurail book made a nice start for trip planning, but that work really is better done online these days, even if you have Luddite tendencies… but only if you also have that all important large map showing major railway lines to help you get your bearings. Maybe you won’t need this if your grasp of European geography is stronger than mine, but I suspect a map will always be vital for me regardless of how well I’ve studied.
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Find up to the minute train information and all the basic “how to’s” for rail riding neophytes on the incredibly helpful and shockingly complete site The Man in Seat 61. Borrow Europe by Eurail from your local library instead and save the $23 for a simpler, lighter weight folding map and a few more cups of espresso.
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Both Rick Steves Europe and Streetwise Europe were well under $10 on Amazon.Though nothing I’m even considering planning approaches the Orient Express for grandeur and romance, I found the history book of the same name wildly inspirational. There may be a night in a modern NightJet sleeper car compartment in my future just because I read this.
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Well, that, and because I love trains…

My favorite bits of this photograph- and fact- filled tome had to do with the preposterous pomposity of Kings Ferdinand and Boris of Bulgaria. Each exercised abused the royal authority by demanding the right to drive the train personally as it passed through his demesne. The latter crazy bastard actually killed someone through his recklessness and arrogance. How, though, does a railway company argue with a hereditary sovereign monarch?
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Another trivial tidbit I liked: that most famous train became embroiled in European politics over and over again as it rolled across so many national boundaries during tumultuous decades.
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The Germans seized the prize plums that were Orient Express carriages during WWI. Restaurant car #2419 served up helpings of crow when the French accepted German surrender therein at Compiègne in 1918, but Hitler made the French do the same in the same car in 1940. He ordered #2419 blown up when it became clear that he would lose his war lest he receive the same treatment.
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Warmongering and atrocities aside, it seems clear today that the Germans also lacked a feeling for foreign tourist marketing when they changed the famous name of the luxurious Orient Express sleepers from “Wagon-Lits” to “Mitteleuropäischeschlafwagengesellschaft.” I speak a little German, and I can’t get my lips to form that mouthful of a compound noun. Eventually, even they saw sense and shortened the name of their stolen cars to “Mitropa.” Phew!
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And, for the record, there is an “Orient Express” service one can take from London to Venice today for ≅£3500 per passenger. A crop of murderous fellows in adjacent compartments not guaranteed.
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Still thinking historically, the family friendly audiobook, The Star of Kazan, should inspire any reader/listener to wish to visit Vienna, Austria. Set around 1900, the young heroine and her friends do some international traveling by train, but certainly not enjoying a standard such as the Orient Express came to offer. I wasn’t tempted to visit the Spanish Riding School in Vienna to see the famous Lippitzaner stallions until I got into this story with my little guy.

And, when speaking now of Austria, how can one avoid pondering The Alps?.Though one could be forgiven for never having heard of the book by the same name. O’Shea’s cultural history/travel narrative is an easy to read, enjoyable road trip through a series of the storied mountain range’s high passes.

I haven’t finished sharing this journey with O’Shea yet, but here’s the best bit so far: Musée de l’horlogerie et du décolletage. I and my infinitesimal iota of French translated it just like he did, but, if you want to know what it means without reading his book, you’ll have to ask me in the comments!

If we’re in the Alps, how can we fail to recall the classic by Joanna Spyri, Heidi. While I didn’t re-read it this month and he’s a bit old for it, I made DS1 acquaint himself with the book. I can’t imagine a childhood without it. As a family, we watched a lovely modern (2015) film adaptation available to us in the USA in its native German. Don’t worry: there are English subtitles, and I think its offered dubbed as well.

It was awesome, though, for a chance to hear some spoken Swiss German. Even a beginning level student of the language like me could recognize obvious differences between Swiss and Standard or Hoch German.
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The live action film was a lot closer to the charming original narrative than the Hanna Barbera animated version, “Heidi’s Song,” that came out when I was a little girl.
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Preparing to host a theatrical reading at home

Now we’ll skip from the cinema to the theatre. I’ve spent a huge amount of time since I finished preparing and filing my taxes reading plays.
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Why, you ask?
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I’m planning to host a party or two.
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While it’s not even unusual for me to jump up and grab a book from the shelves to entertain a guest with something I find fascinating, this time, I’m inviting them over on notice: we’re going to read a play. Yes, all of us. Together!
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But which one? Approaching a script as an evening’s pastime for a group forces me to evaluate it differently. I’m sure it’s a wonderful mental exercise, but it has been time consuming.
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I’ve attended a few of these events hosted by friends, but never with my husband. He’s mildly horrified, but a good sport. He doubts everyone will share my enthusiasm. Pooh-pooh! I think if there is wine, and perhaps cake, people won’t mind participating.
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This started out as an idea for a home school assignment for DS1, and I’m working on that teen-oriented gathering, too. But, it quickly became apparent that I should also schedule a more mature work to read with my own favorite grown up friends. Why should the kids get to have all the fun?
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I had a few friends over for a short notice “Ladies’ Lit” night just yesterday, and one person opted to bring an excerpt from Lysistrata to share. I loved it. Perhaps I also over-acted a bit more than the others. It has been far too long since I’ve gotten enough attention on the stage! I did receive a hostess gift of these beautiful flowers, granting me a moment of rêverie for my youth in the spotlight.
Flower bouquet floral - 1
Even this mere taste was every bit as much fun as I thought it would be. Also, now, at least those lucky participants are forewarned as to what to expect next time I send an invitation.

That unforgettable Sci Fi story about a man who rediscovers how to perform calculations by hand

One of those works of fiction that I read innumerable years ago but I’ve never been able to forget was Isaac Asimov’s 1957 short story, “The Feeling of Power.” Set in the distant future when computers perform all calculations and design new technology without further input from man, it is the story of a humble technician who rediscovers the process of doing math on paper, by hand.

I had forgotten its author and the title, and was delighted to come across it in an old Science Fiction anthology I packed for pleasure reading on a trip.

While the narrative gist of a handful of stories and novels linger on in my memory, very few titles do the same. I’m one of those annoying people who says:

“You know, it’s that book about the guy who…”

Sometimes I follow up that gem with:

“I think the cover might have been blue?”

I may intrigue you, but I’m unlikely to be an efficient resource for putting the work into your hands. Unlikely, that is, unless I still own the hard copy, and the cover is, in fact, blue! If I find it (probably while you’re sitting at my dinner table), I’ll send it home with you, then promptly forget to whom I’ve loaned the book.

Returning to “The Feeling of Power,” I recommend it. It’s a short ten pages, and a quick read. I can see why it stuck in my mind so many years ago, but I also found much more to appreciate this time around. I remembered very strongly the tone of the ending, but had forgotten many details of the narrative.

It should be particularly appealing to anyone who loves math–or perhaps to those who find it hateful who would like to imagine it forgotten!–and to anyone who likes Sci Fi in general and Asimov in particular.

Here’s the particular anthology I brought on vacation. It was published in 1985.

Asimov was a prolific writer, and I’m certain “The Feeling of Power” appeared elsewhere in print. I actually thought I’d originally read this story in one of those elementary school reading textbooks full of disjointed works by a variety of authors. If anyone knows whether Asimov ever published in such volumes, I’d love to hear about it!