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Book Review: Babel: An Arcane History by R. F. Kuang

If only one could engrave entire memories in silver, though Robin, to be manifested again and again for years to come—not the cruel distortion of the daguerreotype, but a pure and impossible distillation of emotions and sensations. For simple ink on paper was not enough to describe this golden afternoon; the warmth of un complicated friendship, all fights forgotten, all sins forgiven; the sunlight melting away the memory of the classroom chill; the sticky taste of lemon on their tongues and their startled, delighted relief.

BabelSome books make my thoughts go in strange directions, and Babel: An Arcane History by R. F. Kuang is one of those. It opens in Canton with a young, ill boy whose mother has just died from cholera. He is the last person living in his home after this epidemic has swept through it, and he expects his own death will happen very soon. But he is saved by an Englishman, who takes him out of his home, heals him with a bar of magical silver, and asks if he would like to go to England with him.

Thus begin the adventures of Robin Swift—we never learn his Chinese name—as he works to become a Babel translator. Babel is a school in Oxford, where gifted linguists fluent in several languages learn to make the magic that makes the silver bars work. The magic involves the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) differences between the meaning of words in different languages. Along with the industrial revolution, this silver-and-words wrought magic has made England the most powerful nation in the world. But Robin comes to understand that the British people will never be able to see him as something other than a foreigner and that, even with his university stipend and world-class education, he is actually enslaved, eternally in debt to the people who “saved” him and the machinations of colonialism. When a war with China over opium begins to brew, he has to decide if he will uphold the status quo or fight against it.

This is a dense book. It is written as a linguistics sort of text, with explanations of etymology and footnotes scattered throughout. This isn’t a negative for me, but I can see it dissuading many readers; you have to be dedicated to the reading experience to get through this one, and the middle quarter of it felt a bit slow to me. It’s as much about friendship and forming strong relationships as it is about magic systems or linguistics, but at its heart it is a book that explores the real impacts of colonialism. When I finished it, in fact, I just had to put my head down and wonder if white people have ever done anything other than damage, manipulate, and steal from other cultures. It is a story that made me feel despair and the weight of how no one can escape the impacts of powerful government, something that’s just as true now as it was in Victorian England.

It’s not a happy, light, fun read, in other words.

It works both with and against the tropes of “dark academia” novels; there’s a little bit of Harry Potter resonance (which might be inevitable in any book set at an English boarding school I suppose) and some A Secret History but the writing style also lets it stand on its own.

I found it fascinating, enthralling, sad, and a bit frustrating.

And it’s the frustration that makes my brain go in unexpected directions, as this book made me thing about the difference in quality (for lack of a better word) between how a book is and how I want it to be.

I think the middle part felt slow to me because it felt very…distanced, I guess. That old “show, don’t tell” chestnut; I felt very told about Babel Tower and Robin’s experiences in Oxford, rather than being immersed in it. I wanted it to be immersive but because it isn’t does that lessen the book’s literary merit? Or is it just how it is, and it can still be a “good” book in all the senses of that word?

And I had some questions. Mostly, what was the story of Robin’s and Griffin’s mothers? How did the interact with Professor Lowell? Were they fortuitous accidents or were they conceived on purpose and either way, how did it happen? Maybe that seems extraneous to a nearly-600-page novel (with a small font!) but it felt like a gap to me.

So I sat Babel down when I finished it was a sort of literary confusion. It was successful: it made me feel things and it taught me things and it changed my perspective. I loved reading it, loved the characters and the ways they change. I was devasted by the choices they had to make and the reality they finally faced.

But I also left it a bit unsatisfied, even as I know some of the images will stick with me. It didn’t give me what I wanted it to give, which is only a measure of my own needs, not the book itself.

I am glad I read it and for what I learned, even if It also left me frustrated.

Book Review: The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley

But then, she thought, looking up at the tiled ceiling to stop herself from crying, wasn’t that what growing up meant? Wasn’t it just a succession of actions and incidents where you break your childhood promises to yourself and do the very things you always said you wouldn’t do? And how many more promises would she have to break before she came out on the other side?

One of my clearest reading memories is the book Tilla by Ilse Koehn. Published in 1981, it’s out of print now (and I just checked: my library also doesn’t have it on the shelf anymore, although they did at some point while I was working there because I checked it out and reread it, maybe in 2010 or 2011); it is a love story about two teenagers in Berlin during the war.

It doesn’t stand out in my memory because of the love story, particularly, or because of the writing. It’s lodged there because it has a sexual scene with an experience I had never imagined happening between two people. But when it happened to me, after I’d read the book, I knew what to expect because I had read that scene. (I’m only not writing the name of the act because I don’t want weirdos landing on my page after googling it, not out of prudishness.)

Carnival at bray
I thought a lot about that reading experience while I reread the book The Carnival at Bray this week. I read this book in 2015 when I spotted it on the Printz Award list, and as I love books set in Ireland and is about how the music of a generation impacts one teenager’s life, I couldn’t not read it then. I enjoyed it and thought about it every once in awhile and put it on my staff recommendation shelf (when I still had one) (and while my library still had a copy).

But I decided I needed to buy a copy and reread it when I realized it’s on a list of banned books. But not just any list, a list of books that Alpine School District has. The books on this list, which you can see here, are not allowed to be in any school library in the district. This is pretty personal to me, not only because I am deeply opposed to book bans. Alpine is the district my kids have attended, the district I fought for during this year’s local election, and the district I worked for.

If you look at the list, you’ll spot many books that are currently being banned in many places. Gender Queer of course. A Court of Thorns and Roses, which does have a lot of sex. Ellen Hopkins’ and Lauren Myracle’s books, which also have sex in them.

But my brain makes that screeching sound of a needle drug across a record when I get to The Carnival at Bray.

I have to add a caveat: I tend to not really pay attention to sex scenes in books. They don’t offend me and I read them, but I don’t pay them any more attention than the rest of the story. Sex is, after all, part of being human. That means that (with exceptions like Tilla) I have gotten myself in trouble sometimes as a librarian in a conservative community, because I will heartily recommend a book and then the patron will be annoyed because it has a sex scene (or swearing) that I didn’t prepare them for.

But The Library at Bray seemed like such a random inclusion for this banned book list. All of the other books are currently being discussed as “bad” for teenagers. And then there’s this book that’s now out of print (I bought a used copy) and was published eight years ago. A book that’s literally had no negative press, until some Utah County mom got ahold of it. And for the life of me, I couldn’t remember one bit of sex in the story. It’s about Maggie, whose mom marries a man from Ireland and so they move to the small town of Bray, a suburb of Dublin. She struggles with fitting in and misses her uncle Kevin, a drug-addicted musician who had introduced her to grunge music (and changed her life, as music does in your adolescence). She runs away from Bray to attend the Nirvana concert in Rome with tickets Kevin sent her.

Rome, Ireland, a bit of romance, an adolescent girl struggling to fit in, to not hate her mother, to understand the ways adults can betray you and love you all at once, and a Ferris wheel: those were my memories of this book. (Alas, I did not write a book review about it when I read it in 2014.)

WHY would it be on a banned book list?

After rereading it I know. It’s ridiculous, of course, but someone banned it because sex happens in the story. Nothing is described in detail; one of the scenes is troubling and the other is sweet, but it is more her impression of the experiences rather than a sweat-and-blood description. But yes: Maggie has sex. She has a bunch of experiences that teenagers have: makes a tenuous friendship and then it gets destroyed; argues with her mother; listens to music her family hates; and has sex.

And here’s the thing.

Book banning is always driven by fear. It is driven by the compulsion to hide what is troublesome to some people.

But hiding it doesn’t make it go away.

The truth is, sex scenes in novels don’t cause teenagers to have sex. Teenagers are curious about it and may eventually have sex because they have bodies that are confusing networks of hormones and change and developing brains, because they fall in love or because someone makes them or because they just want to experience it.

Because they are human.

Adolescence is a wild ride. It is so full of everything that’s new and maybe dangerous and brimming with adulthood, right on the edge of it. And sex—wondering about it, flirting on its edge, sometimes actually experiencing it, is one of those experiences. Is it always the right experience at the right time? Of course not. Maybe not ever.

But pretending that teenagers don’t think about it makes it more dangerous.

Reading that scene in Tilla helped me understand. It didn’t make that experience much less weird or uncomfortable or just too vulnerable, but a bit. Enough that I was OK. And that is what books do, sometimes, if we’re lucky. Teach us something we need to know about the world before the world teaches it in harsher ways. I know whatever Mormon mom put The Carnival at Bray on that banned book would disagree with me, but I don’t really care. Her job is to raise her children, and she can do that. But thinking that she can also raise everyone’s children?

That’s not her responsibility.  

Book Review: One Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

But this is a women’s war, just as much as it is the men’s, and the poet will look upon their pain – the pain of the women who have always been relegated to the edges of the story, victims of men, survivors of men, slaves of men – and he will tell it, or he will tell nothing at all. They have waited long enough for their turn.

Last year, when I read The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, I decided that while I love books about the Greek epics, I don’t want to read them anymore. In the end they are stories of suffering and death. Troy is always destroyed. Cassandra always dies. Boastful, greedy, destructive men always fail to learn anything.

The gods always let someone down.

Thousand shipsBut one night this month I needed an audiobook to listen to while I struggled through a treadmill run, and Natalie Haynes’s novel A Thousand Ships was available on Libby, so I decided to try yet another Greek retelling.

This one tells the story in fragments. The overarching narrator is The Muse, Calliope. When the poet (whoever he is) begs her for inspiration, she tells the story of the Trojan war with the women’s voices. Some perspectives we return to, some we only hear from once.

Hecuba, Penthesilea (I must go back and look at her chapter in print, as it made me weep the hardest), Helen, Briseis,  Laodamia, the goddesses fighting over the golden apple, Penelope, Creusa, Polyxena, Chryseis, Iphigenia, Clytemnestra, Thetis, Chryseis, Oenone, Cassandra.

In putting all of these voices together into one narrative, an image begins to emerge. Men make war and some of them die, but it is the women who bear the losses. This is true of all wars, of course. These women’s voices, though, harvested out of the most liminal historical spaces…who am I kidding. I don’t ever want to read a Trojan-war story from the male perspective, but those that examine it from off of the battlefield (save Penthesilea of course) are stories that resonate with me.

What I loved best about this book was how she told the story of Cassandra. Out of any character I’ve ever discovered in all of the books I’ve read throughout my life, Cassandra is the one I relate to the most. In this telling, she is absolutely unintelligible to her family; Hecuba no longer even tries to understand her, nor do her sisters and sisters-in-law. On top of being tortured by her visions, she is utterly lonely. But when she arrives in Mycenae, Clytemnestra not only listens to her visions, she believes them. And when she kills Cassandra, she does it gently and swiftly, only because the gods demand it and not because she hates her.

Cassandra still dies. An entire culture is destroyed because of men’s pride and bloodlust. Everyone suffers. It’s still the same story.

But I am glad to have read it to see it in a different light.

(Plus the writer’s notes at the end are fascinating.)

Killers of A Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn: A Book Review

I’m a woman. Guilt is our birthright. Guilt if we want to be mothers, guilt if we take the Pill instead or choose to abort. Guilt if we stay home with our kids or guilt if we work. Guilt if we sleep with a man, guilt if we say no. Guilt if were lucky enough to survive for no good reason.

Killers of a certain ageOne day this week I had a meltdown.

It had been coming for awhile, and was sparked by several different experiences, but it all built up until I just needed a day to myself.

So I did a bit of work at home and then I spent the rest of the day not talking to anyone. Reading a book.

I don’t know how long it’s been since I read for longer than an hour at a time. And Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn was the exact book I needed.

Intelligent, but not too serious.

It’s the story of four women who were recruited in the 70s to be a part of a super-secret organization that had formed after WWII to find and execute Nazis. They were trained to become the organization’s first group of women assassins, and now, forty-ish years later, they are ready to retire.

Except the organization has put a hit on them. So they have to work together one last time to figure out who is trying to kill them and how to stop them. 

Is it weird to say that a book with a lot of dead people in it was just really fun?

Well, weird or not, it was. Fun. Not the kind of thing I usually read. I’m usually about dark & twisty, despair & depression. But while this book addresses real issues—namely, how the world discounts people, especially women, as we get older—it wasn’t too dark. The women’s friendship feels real, they travel to a few different spots in their adventures, they help each other but also aren’t afraid to call out each other’s weaknesses if necessary.

And there’s a satisfying ending.

(Plus, just this oddity: It’s the second book in a row I’ve read that was set partly in New Orleans, which I have never wanted to visit but now I kind of want to, even though I probably would be very uncomfortable and out-of-place, but I want to try a muffaletta and some beignets.)

It was exactly the reset I needed to check out of the real world for a bit.

Thistlefoot by GennaRose Nethercott: A Book Review

If a story does its job, it doesn't ever end. Not really. But it can change. This is the nature of folktales. They shift to fit each teller. Take whatever form suits the bearer best. What begins as a story of sorrow can be acknowledged, held like a sweetheart to the chest, rocked and sung to. And then it can be set down to sleep. It can become an offering. A lantern. An ember to lead you through the dark.

ThistlefootThe day I opened the speculative-fiction, kind-of-a-fairy-tale/legend-retelling, magical-realistic, puppet-themed novel Thistlefoot—which I had anticipated for months—I almost shut it again, because: the opening chapter is in New Orleans, and, I don’t know. It’s not a place of the world that appeals to me, probably because I am too uptight. But I persevered because one of my bookstagram friends had loved it and because of that anticipation I’d felt.

And I am so glad I did.

Thistlefoot is a reworking of the Baba Yaga legend from Russia. Bellatine and Isaac Yaga are siblings who have been estranged for years, but they reconnect when they receive an inheritance from their great great grandmother, who had kept the item in storage for almost a century. When they open the enormous crate they discover they’ve inherited an old house.

A house on chicken legs.

Isaac has spent most of the past decade as a wanderer, moving around the country like a tumbleweed. Bellatine is a woodworker living a very controlled and careful life in the northeast.

Each of the siblings has a unique skill. Isaac can impersonate anyone—not just sort-of, but change his body so he absorbs the person’s body shape and personality. Bellatine is deeply ashamed of her skill and tries to keep it hidden: if she touches an inanimate object she can bring it to life for a few minutes. As they grew up in a family that had a traveling puppet show, these skills have been useful, but Bellatine especially rejects hers, because it can go deeper than just giving a puppet a voice (a literal voice, along with a temporary heartbeat) for a few minutes; she can also reanimate the dead.

The siblings decide they will take their family’s old puppet show on the road, making the traveling house into their stage. But their plans begun to unwind in the draft of a menace that seems to be chasing them, which they eventually learn—via the world’s weirdest musicians—is an entity called the Longshadow Man.

Part of the story is told in Bellatine’s voice, part in Isaac’s, part in the house’s (I loved these chapters).

And that is mostly all I will say about the plot and characters, as it is best left to discover the story while you read it, but I do want to write about why I loved the book. It might, in fact, be my most favorite book I’ve read this year, even with that rough start in The Big Easy. The reasons I loved it are not universal; I think many readers could read this and just think "yeah, that was amazing!" but for me it went deeper than just liking the story, the character, or the writing (and the writing is amazing).

It held a bit of knowledge I needed to learn in order to keep moving forward.

The book is partly about generational trauma, and how when we don’t know our ancestor’s stories, we don’t understand why we react in the ways we do. As I have been going through my recent extended-family struggles, I have thought a lot about the disappointment my ancestors might feel in us, our connections broken. But the book healed a bit of that. It made me think that who I am, the weird “skills” I have inherited from the struggles my ancestors went through (and I absolutely believe this is a thing; not, of course, in magical hands that can bring a gravestone statue to life, but in real ways), and then the things I am struggling with now (or have throughout my life) are about ME. From my perspective, for my way of being in the world, who I am is just me. That is also true of my sisters. I thought what mattered was connection, and that it mattered (partly) because of the ancestry we share. I found my value, in other words, from being a part of the group. But just as the skills the Yaga siblings have manifest differently in their bodies—uniquely—I also get to have value simply because I exist.

(It is hard to write that in a way that makes sense without telling the whole story, but it isn’t a story I can tell online, for a variety of reasons.)

When I put the book down, finished, my body was literally shaking. As if I had done some really difficult exercise, which maybe I had. It was a sort of knowledge that had to work its way through my body. Like my ancestors nudging their way through my DNA to tell me a few things, to tell me they value me for myself but also to remind me that they wish they could tell me their stories.

I thought about a conversation I had once with an old neighbor, who told me she never reads fiction because she doesn’t have time to read anything that doesn’t teach her something. But what I learned from Thistlefoot—while it is personal and kind of nebulous and very hard to put into words—is of more value and has a bigger impact that anything I might learn from a self-help book.

That’s the magic of books and reading, really. At least for me. GennaRose Nethercott doesn’t know me and didn’t write her story to give me this little piece of healing. But nevertheless, she wrote it and I read it and I did heal. And it is why I will always be a reader, because truth is scattered, because stories change us, because knowledge is everywhere but you have to seek it out.

Book Review: Spear by Nicola Griffith

“He will find you,” Elen said. “Beyond this cave and this valley he will scent you on the wind. And when he does he will come to claim what is his. I will never see you again. I loved you, child, loved you so much I did not name you, for naming calls. But now you are leaving, and I will give you your name. The four treasures of the Tuath are the word, which is given, the stone, which is hidden, the cup, which I have, and the spear. You are that spear. You are my Berhyddur, my spear enduring. You are Peretur. Know that I do not remove my ward, and under my geas will remain hidden, even from you. Know, too: you have broken my heart.”

SpearI have a long history of affection for the Arthurian myth (as, I imagine, many readers do), beginning with the random discovery of Mary Stewart’s Arthurian Legend series at my public library when I was thirteen or fourteen. My favorite retelling is Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, and I loved The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro quite a bit. I love the legend’s scope; there are so many different perspectives to the tale, so many characters to follow and stories to experience.

Adding Spear to my list of  “Arthurian Legend Retellings I Love” immediately.

This short novel is a reworking of the Percival portion of the legend, with its ties to the quest for the grail. It starts with an unnamed girl who lives hidden in the forest with her mother, Elen. Elen tells her stories of the Tuath; she teaches her about the forest, too, but she is often unsettled and wild, caught in memories she doesn’t share with her daughter. Eventually the girl must leave this situation; she wants to figure out who she is and she is drawn to find a lake her mother mentions often in her stories.

Peretur, disguised as a boy, leaves her mother and heads out into the countryside, where she has many adventures that teach her about the society she lives in and draw her ever closer to Arthur’s court.

I’ve read two other novels by Nicola Griffith, Hild and Ammonite. They are each very different (historical fiction and science fiction) but one constant is how she is able to draw the reader into the story. The setting comes to life but more importantly, the characters do. Spear proves true to this characteristic. Even though it is a short book (only 167 pages) I read it slowly, savoring the way that Peretur changes and how she discovers who she is.

For me, the story resonates with other books I’ve read. Familiar, but not repetitive. I think I like Alex Harrow’s idea about it best: “If Le Guin wrote a Camelot story, I imagine it would feel like Spear: humane, intelligent, and deeply beautiful. It is a new story with very old bones, a strange place that feels like home.”

If you like the Arthurian legend, strong female characters finding their own way, magic, the queering of an old story, and exploration of the mother/daughter relationship, you’ll likely adore this one too.