Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is a masterful, discomfiting tale of slavery. I didn’t like it.

It’s literary. The writing and careful arrangement of plot elements makes the reader work hard (and keep turning pages) to piece together the sequence of events. The non-linear storytelling and ambiguously psychotic or supernatural elements may strike some as pretentious, but the novel has a powerful message effectively conveyed with consummate skill.

It’s tragic. You may think the book has a hopeful ending; interpretations vary. The ending didn’t seem hopeful to me. Regardless, the pain the characters suffered is—well—painful to contemplate. Thus, reading this story was for me more of a duty than a relaxing way to pass the time.

I didn’t like it, but I’m glad I read it. Institutionalized slavery of Africans in America is over, but it left a lasting legacy. I can trace my ancestry back to one of the founding fathers of the country, but some Americans can’t trace their ancestry at all. Their desire to connect with a past free of pain and punishment—even a fictional one—accounts for the success of the Roots the book and Roots the television series, and has contributed substantially to the success of Marvel’s Black Panther.

Toni Morrison explains the need for and the difficulty in writing such a book:

The terrain, slavery, was formidable and pathless. To invite readers (and myself) into the repellant landscape (hidden, but not completely; deliberately buried, but not forgotten) was to pitch a tent in a cemetery inhabited by highly vocal ghosts.

The idea for the book came from a newspaper headline.

A newspaper clipping in The Black Book summarized the story of Margaret Garner, a young mother who, having escaped slavery, was arrested for killing one of her children (and trying to kill the others) rather than let them be returned to the owner’s plantation.

All the other details were Morrison’s own invention.

More on what I liked and didn’t like about Beloved below. Beware spoilers.

No, seriously, beware spoilers. I think the book is really better if you read it from start to finish without knowing where it’s going and where the characters have been.

Continue reading Beloved by Toni Morrison

The Third Eye by Mahtab Narsimhan

The Third Eye was written by an Indian-born Canadian woman and published by a Canadian publisher (Dundurn Books). It was supported by the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council and won the 2009 Silver Birch Award from the Ontario Library Association.

Holding this book, I immediately doubted it would be any good. You probably can’t tell from looking at images of the book online, but the cover image (and the author photo on the back cover) are pixelated. In other words, the publisher screwed up. The writing is similarly only okay. There’s much better stuff out there.

I would recommend, for example, the Indian fantasy children’s series by Indian-American author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni that starts with The Conch Bearer.

When and Why I Read The Third Eye

Passed to me by a friend.

Genre: Fiction (children’s fantasy)
Date started / date finished: 04-Mar-2018 / 07-Mar-2018
Length: 240
ISBN: 9781550027501
Originally published in: 2007
Amazon link: The Third Eye

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

Years ago (in 2011) I read Larklight by Philip Reeve. I’d opportunistically bought Mothstorm too (but maybe not the second one, Starcross), thinking I would read the whole series. I didn’t. Larklight was as dull as an old cast-iron skillet and despite its thickness not nearly as effective as a weapon.

Months ago a friend described the predator cities series to me, and although it was written by this same Reeve, it sounded interesting. When I heard that Mortal Engines is coming to theaters this year, I was excited that yet another young adult fantasy book has been adapted for film, and, with guarded optimism, I arranged to borrow the series of four books. (Turns out, I jumped the gun… the movie isn’t out until December!)

Hours ago, I finished reading Mortal Engines. Much as not finishing the series feels like quitting, I think reading the other books would be a chore for me, so I’m not going to do it.

Did Mortal Engines win awards? Was it imaginative? Was it thrillingly action-packed? Did the characters make important decisions and change as a result of their experiences? Yes. Did I enjoy it? Not particularly.

I think my issue is one of style. The premise is that centuries from now people live in mobile cities that prey on one another in accordance with “Municipal Darwinism”. That’s an interesting premise, but the writing made the characters seem like cartoony caricatures even when serious stuff was happening. There was a lot of action, not so much reflection. The inventive details seemed like so many cheap fireworks thrown out to dazzle momentarily and then fade into nothing.

See below for more comments about the writing style in addition to a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Dystopian fiction is supposedly about the future, but it’s always tied in to the fears—and the technologies—of its own time period. Although Brave New World can claim biochemistry more advanced than ours, one of its characters boasts about information stored on “eighty-eight cubic metres of card-index” which I imagine would fit comfortably on a thumb drive.

In his Foreword, written years after the novel was published, Huxley acknowledges faults in the work, but also acknowledges that trying to fix it would be senseless meddling; the novel is and will be the same novel it always was, warts and all. (Are you listening, George Lucas? Senseless meddling!)

I didn’t enjoy it overall. The imagined setting is interesting because of the detail in which it’s described, and Huxley touches on some big ideas about what it means to be human, but it’s hard to create a new and interesting setting and handle big ideas and still have room left for characters to interact and plot events to take place, all in the space of 158 pages! Brave New World felt heavy on exposition.

Still, the worldbuilding, ideas, characters, and plot taken together, are impressive enough to make this a classic.

See below for more on all that, but beware SPOILERS. And British spelling.

Continue reading Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Photographically Speaking by David duChemin

I thought I knew nothing about photography. I was wrong.

True, I have little experience making photographs the way professionals do, and I know very little about cameras, my own cheap point-and-shoot included.

Still, photography is art, and creating photographs is much like creating other kinds of art. Much to my delight, the author of Photographically Speaking often draws explicit parallels with the art of writing, with which I’m somewhat familiar.

Once he establishes the thrust of the book (the importance of making conscious choices to create art), the author goes on to highlight the kinds of choices photographers can and should consciously make. Though he has a lot of specialized equipment and knows a lot about it, he focuses more on principles and concepts that you can observe in the finished image, not on which lens or filter you attach or which buttons you press.

See more below about what made Photographically Speaking such an approachable and informative text.

Continue reading Photographically Speaking by David duChemin

Mots D’Heures: Gousses, Rames

This blue book, Mots D’Heures: Gousses, Rames is a real treasure. I was ecstatic when I found it. When I was browsing in a used book shop in Melbourne, I found it on a shelf labeled “Books on Books”, but I’m not sure that’s where it belongs—or where it possibly could belong, for that matter! The whole volume is an esoteric joke aimed at native speakers of English who have studied French.

The book purports to be the publication of a mysterious manuscript of French poems the author discovered. He has annotated the poems in English with deadpan comments on the meanings of the French words.

In fact, as the author knows full well, the poems are more or less nonsense when translated from French, but if you pronounce them in French, they sound like a French speaker reciting Mother Goose rhymes! Case in point: The title of the volume, if you read it in a French accent, sounds like “Mother Goose Rhymes”.

Intrigued? There is a wonderful rabbit-hole of related phenomena you can happily fall into if you click the Wikipedia page for Mots D’Heures: Gousses, Rames.

If you are a social person and you want to have fun with this kind of language trick using just English, try the game Mad Gab.

Example cards from the game:

sea grit dress up ease = secret recipes
ice mail ask hunk = I smell a skunk
canoe key pace he gret = can you keep a secret
sand tack laws = Santa Claus
thigh sing gone thick ache = the icing on the cake

If you’re an introverted student of French and you want to experience the joy of deciphering Mots D’Heures: Gousses, Rames all by yourself, there are used copies of various editions of the book available through Amazon and Abebooks. You can’t have mine.

My 12th-grade French teacher used to write these “French poems” in a corner of the whiteboard to challenge us. I specifically remember “Little Miss Moffat”. Years later, feeling nostalgic, I looked online for a copy of a book they came from, but buying a copy of the out-of-print volume looked like it was going to be expensive, so I shelved that ambition. In 2009, HarperCollins reissued the work, but—tragically!—it went out of print again before I even noticed. To stumble across it by accident was a fantastic stroke of luck, especially given the price (AU$7) and condition (fantastic).

Maybe you already have the book, and you’ve tried to match the “French poems” to Mother Goose Rhymes, and you’re stumped. After all, the author is quite coy. Though he credits Mother Goose in the bibliography at the end of the book, he never clearly says that the poems are actually English Mother Goose rhymes, so of course he doesn’t list the answers; you are supposed to work them out yourself. If, however, you are fed up with trying to work them out yourself, and you’re here looking for the answers, then you, too have had a stroke of luck. I’ve worked them out for you.

See the answer key below for a list of the names of the 40 nursery rhymes disguised in Mots D’Heures: Gousses Rames.

Continue reading Mots D’Heures: Gousses, Rames

King Rat by James Clavell

Here’s a favorite quote from King Rat:

Writing can be just about the most important job in the whole world. If it’s any good…. A writer can put down on a piece of paper an idea—or a point of view. If he’s any good he can sway people, even if it’s written on toilet paper. And he’s the only one in our modern economy who can do it—who can change the world.

For some thoughts on the novel, check out my post on Asian Books Blog about King Rat.

When and Why I Read King Rat

I’m re-reading this novel for Asian Books Blog. I read it in 2001.

Genre: fiction (historical)
Date started / date finished:  14-Jan-18 to 26-Jan-18
Length: 352 pages
ISBN: 0440145465
Originally published in: 1962/1983
Amazon link: King Rat

The Social Cancer (Noli Me Tangere) by José Rizal

I posted some background information and opinions on The Social Cancer (Noli Me Tangere) in my Backlist books post on Asian Books Blog.

Below are some quotes from the book and explanations for why I chose them.

Continue reading The Social Cancer (Noli Me Tangere) by José Rizal

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

What if, instead of men and women, people were all just, you know, people? That’s the idea Ursula K. Le Guin explores in The Left Hand of Darkness. The people living on the bitter-cold planet Gethen (aka Winter) can only procreate when they are “in heat”, and during such periods may become physiologically either male or female. When not in heat or pregnant, they are neither male nor female (though they are referred to as “he” throughout the book because English lacks a neutral third-person singular pronoun).

This award-winning novel challenges us to think about genders, gender roles, sexuality, and their impact on culture, but much of the plot is not actually person-against-person or even person-against-society, it’s person-against-nature. The harsh climate has shaped the Gethens, culturally and perhaps biologically as well…

Genly Ai has been sent on a solo mission to Gethen to extend the locals an invitation to join the Ekumen, a kind of intergalactic knowledge-sharing alliance built primarily on technology for simultaneous communication (rather than, say, faster-than-light travel). Genly is male in the commonly understood sense, and struggles against the tendency to assign gender to the Gethens. He also struggles with the cold. Will he complete his mission? Will he even survive the political intrigues and the climate? Who can he trust? He is terrifyingly alone.

I was surprised at the proportion of the book that consisted of a trek across an icy wasteland. I felt I’d been lifted out of the sci-fi universe Le Guin had so painstakingly created and plunged back into the dangerous world of high-altitude mountaineering, which I read about nearly 20 years ago in The Climb and Into Thin Air after watching the IMAX film about the 1996 Everest disaster. I was somewhat reminded of the depressing Jack London short story To Build a Fire, a classic man vs. nature struggle that I read in a literature anthology just last year but that I remember having to read in some long-ago English class.

When and Why I Read The Left Hand of Darkness

This book was chosen by Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club for November 2017. Previously, I read it in 2001.

Genre: fiction (science-fiction)
Date started / date finished:  24-Oct-17 to 26-Oct-17
Length: 304 pages
ISBN: 0044147805
Originally published in: 1969/1976
Amazon link: The Left Hand of Darkness