Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A lovely collection of stories set in Faerie England

The Ladies of Grace Adieu
I really loved Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell when I read it years ago in college.  But probably one of the first words used to describe that novel is "uber-long."  It's a very hefty tome.  So when I heard that Susanna Clarke also wrote short stories, I admit I was a little skeptical.  Can an author who imbues her stories with so much rich detail, who develops characters and plots over hundreds of pages, also excel at the short story format?

Apparently, yes.

As the weather gets colder and the days get shorter, I always find myself drawn to fantasy novels.  Something about magic and mischief and mayhem works so well for me as I am snuggled on the sofa with a big fleece blanket to cover me.

To be fair, I read The Ladies of Grace Adieu on audiobook in my car, so there were no fleece blankets.  But the magic still worked on me!

One of my favorite things about Clarke's writing is how she is so well able to bring in the witty, elegant style that many of us associate with Jane Austen.  This style is just as present in these eight short stories as it was in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.  

The stories traipse all over England and over several centuries of history, featuring a wide and varied cast from Mary, Queen of Scots to the Duke of Wellington to a poor charcoal burner to Jonathan Strange himself.  And there are faeries!  And many well-known folktales like Tamsin and fairy tales like Rumpelstilskin.

I highly recommend this book if you enjoyed Clarke's earlier novel - the style is the same and the witty language against the sometimes dark and creepy setting is absolutely delicious to read.  And if you think you would like Clarke but are intimidated by Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (and all its footnotes!), then I think this is a great way to dip your toes in and see if you are ready to tackle that book.  An excellent book for the RIP challenge and as we get into the Halloween season!

Friday, October 10, 2014

How to read diversely AND authentically



A little over a week ago, Trish wrote an excellent post about the difficulties of reading diversely and how you can really tell if you are doing it right.  And what's right?  How can you tell if you are reading an "authentic" story if you are not from the same group that the book is written about?

Trish linked to an article that I found particularly interesting called "Why am I brown?  South Asian Fiction and Pandering to Western Audiences.

I found this article spot on in many of its observations, and I really hope that some of you click through to read it.  I mentioned in previous posts that it is SO FRUSTRATING that most of the diverse books that  get published and publicized are ones that tell an immigrant story.  And then the words that are used to review them are so stereotypical - colorful, a bright tapestry, spicy, etc.

I originally interspersed this post with quotes from Akhtar's article because it is a long article and I feel like people won't click through to read it, and I think that's a missed opportunity.  But then I was quoting from her so much that it started to feel uncomfortably like plagiarism, so I stopped.  Suffice it to say that I related very strongly to many of the comments Akhtar brings up in her article.

Akhtar's point is that South Asia is a diverse place with many things going on besides arranged marriages, remaining baggage from colonialism, and people emigrating to the West.  However, the majority of stories that get published are about arranged marriage, colonialism, and people emigrating West.

In the comments on Trish's blog, many people were frustrated with Akhtar's article and with an essay by Roxane Gay (that I have not read, so can't really comment on) because both Akhtar and Gay expressed frustration but did not offer any solutions.  But, honestly, what do you expect them to do?  They don't control the publishing world.  They can't decide what kind of books and stories get published and which ones don't.  All they can do is express frustration and bring attention to books that focus on different aspects of life as a POC in hopes that more people read those books and more of those books get published.  From what I read, Akhtar was not expressing frustration with readers but with publishers.  (Well, and reviewers who use stereotypical language.)

 So it appears the odds are stacked up against the person who wants to read diversely and understand other cultures, partly because publishers think the only stories that will sell are those that are based on pre-existing Western stereotypes about other places and people.  So what we're getting is a single story.  And, to quote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's fantastic TED talk about the danger of a single story:
...show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become. ...The single story creates stereotypes,and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. ...The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.
There are many Indian people who had arranged marriages, moved to the United States, and dealt with the consequences of those actions.  My parents, for example.  There are also many Indians who used to own a lot of land with peasants to work it, and who got respect due solely to their caste.  And India as a country IS still dealing with a lot of the fall-out of British colonial rule and the Partition.  Those stories are all true, and just because they've been written about many times, that doesn't make them less true.  And it does NOT make them less authentic.

India is home to over a billion people and its history (like the history of every other place on earth) stretches back thousands of years.  Jabeen Akhtar doesn't get to decide what is an authentic story and what is not.  That's just a different kind of single story, and no one wants that.  Akhtar DOES have the right, though, to ask people to scratch a little deeper and look for authors who want to share different stories.

So how do you do that?  The only solution I have found is to read as widely as possible.  Don't make assumptions based on just one data point.  To use words that show up in reviews of Indian books all the time, weave your own colorful tapestry out of many different saris!  Or cook a meal with a cupboard full of exotic spices!  Read widely and see just how many different kinds of stories can be true about the same place at the same time.

For instance, do you want to learn about India?  Then don't just read The Namesake and learn about what it's like to LEAVE India, but read books that are set in India, too.  And then read books that are set in Pakistan and Bangladesh, because until 1948, those were all one country.  And read a wide variety of authors, not just your favorite author.  That will give you the power to compare and contrast, to look at what you thought you knew and compare it against what someone else says is true.

For example, I didn't love Akash Kapur's India Becoming, but I did appreciate how Kapur shed light on the life of both a gay man and a sexually active single woman in Bangalore.  I have my own pre-conceived notions about life in Bangalore (a city I visit quite often), and Kapur gave me new perspective, which was very valuable.  He never once mentioned arranged marriages or colonialism.  And he taught me new things that made Bangalore more real to me, and shared the stories of two people who it would be hard to come across in US-published novels about South Asia because they do not fit the stereotype.

That's really all the advice I have!  But seriously, just to reiterate:
NO ONE gets to decide what is authentic and what is not.  One story being true does not negate another.  But there is always more than just one story.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Late to the party, but still loving Firefly

So, after some marathon reading for A More Diverse Universe, followed by a marathon of clicking and commenting on all of your wonderful posts, I pretty much took this week off from reading and blogging.  What did I do instead?

I DISCOVERED THE AWESOMENESS OF FIREFLY.



Yeah.  Welcome to 2002, Aarti.  I'm over a decade late to this party, but what a party it is!  I made my way through the entire first season in less than a week, and then watched the movie Serenity, too.  It was amazing!

Firefly is set a few hundred years in the future.  Humans have created new earths and spread through the universe.  There was a war, and now many of the central core planets are controlled by the Alliance, a Big Brother type of government.  The Alliance basically ignores the frontier planets, though, and that's where many people (including those on the Serenity spaceship) spend a lot of their time, flying under the radar (pun totally intended).

So what you get in Firefly is science fiction with a generous dose of the romance of the Western frontier, and a lot of commentary on social issues.  And lots of very, very funny scenes.

And you get all that with a wonderfully diverse cast!

The people on Serenity come together for many reasons - often escaping their past or on a quest for adventure or on the run from authorities.  Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his first mate Zoe are the two main characters.  Both of them fought against the Alliance in a war, and their friendship is one of the highlights of the series.  It's rare to see friendship between men and women on-screen, and this is an excellent example.  They trust each other implicitly, and there is never any sexual tension between the two of them, which I LOVE.

Firefly features four female characters, all of whom are capable of talking to each other about things other than men, and all of whom excel at their chosen vocations.  I'm thrilled that this show aired over 10 years ago and got all this right, and that it was such a cult hit.  (Sadly, not a ratings hit.)

My favorite character switches from one episode to another.  Zoe is often up there, but I also am a big fan of Jayne, who is basically the muscle of the operation.  He usually has the best lines, and while he isn't portrayed as being very bright, he has a wonderful character journey and some very raw moments.

I just wish there was more!!

There IS a comic book series, Leaves on the Wind, that takes place post Serenity (the movie sequel to the canceled TV series), and the compendium comes out next month, so I will ABSOLUTELY get my hands on that.

Between Aliette de Bodard, my current read, Howl, and this Firefly series, I'm totally hooked on science fiction!  I may have to return to Battlestar Galactica and finish off that series, too.  Any other recommendations for quality sci fi from all of you?

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A More Diverse Universe: The Wrap-Up


Ohmigoodness, ohmiGOODness!  Guys, A More Diverse Universe was amaze-balls.  I haven't even visited HALF of the posts yet because you all wrote SO MANY and I have been adding SO MANY  books to my wish list and so many authors to my watch list.  And that's just so far!  I bet some people scoot in after the fact as they finish up their reading and reviewing this weekend.

So, why was I so anal about the way I had you post your reviews?  So that I could quickly dump them in Excel and analyze, of course!

130 Reviews

by

73 Bloggers

for

(about) 120 different books

All in two weeks!  I can't even count all of the tweets and Tumblrs and Instagrams that everyone has been using, but the numbers are overwhelming.  It's incredible.  If I were in PR, I would also count "impressions" in the list above and that amount would be ginormous  because it would include ALL of your followers who saw your posts or your tweets or your Instagram feed and were influenced by them.  All of whom can go out and read more diversely now, too.  Because of you!

I wish I had the time to organize all the #Diversiverse reviews into a tab so that people looking for diverse reading selections in, say, non-fiction or fantasy could easily hop over to that tab and see a full list of reviews for themselves.  Sadly, I cannot accomplish this task now, but perhaps over the long, dreary months of winter, I shall do so!  And then we can just keep adding to that list EVERY YEAR so that people can have their minds blown by how many options there are out there for them to read and enjoy and expand their minds.

Thank you so much to everyone who participated in the event!  And to everyone who didn't participate but talked up the challenge and pushed other people to participate.  I truly believe that if you want change, you need to push for it, and I think this year, book blogosphere has told publishers, loud and clear, that #wewantdiversebooks!  Good for us.  The world will be a better place for us having made our desires clear.

Most of all, I hope that, for those of you who participated, this was not a one-off thing.  Yes to participate in the challenge, you only had to read one book by a person of color, but I hope that only inspires you to do even more going forward.


Friday, September 26, 2014

More #Diversiverse Review-itas: India and China

India Becoming Akash Kapur
India Becoming, by Akash Kapur.  An uneven book about the impact of modernization on India.  Kapur doesn't say anything that hasn't been said before.  For some, opening India economically has been a boon; for others, it has only made their lives even harder.  India is a land of haves and have-nots, and while many people are coming up in the world with the new economy (particularly those in real estate), it's coming at the expense of a rich culture and way of life that had many positives.
While the caste system is breaking down, life is still difficult for women who try to balance being independent with the oftentimes rampant sexism that exists in the workplace and their homes.  Life is also difficult for homosexuals, many of whom must hide their true selves from those they are closest to.

Kapur doesn't seem to know what to make of all this himself, and it shows in his narrative.  He talks to many people about what life is like in India now, but just as he thinks all is well, he will hear a story that makes him think everything is horrible.  And the cycle repeats.  Probably a good read if you don't know much about the polarity of life in India today, but if you have read modern Indian novels or newspaper/magazine editorials over the past several years, you won't encounter any new information here.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sije

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a slim volume set in 1970s China.  Two teenage boys have been sent to a rural town to be re-educated as their fathers both ended up on the wrong side of the law.  There, they both fall in love with a beautiful young seamstress.  They also find illegal reading material by French authors like Dumas and Balzac.

The two boys are fantastic storytellers and they begin weaving stories of passion and love and revolution into the stories they share with the seamstress and the others in the village.  And, as stories are wont to do, they have great impact on the people who hear them.

Talk about diverse reading!  This book is by a Chinese author, written in French, translated into English, and then produced as an audiobook which I read.

This novel felt very episodic to me, and I don't know if it translated very well into audiobook.  In some ways (ok, mainly in that it was about two teenage boys and one girl and a totalitarian regime), it reminded me of David Benioff's City of Thieves, though I enjoyed Benioff's work more.  The humor here wasn't quite as well done, and while I think the setting was richly developed and easy to immerse myself in, the characters were not nearly as memorable.  I did love that the seamstress heard stories and wanted to expand her world, though, in a very independent and wonderful manner (hopefully that isn't too much of a spoiler).  Girl power! :-)


Monday, September 22, 2014

#Diversiverse Review: Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela

Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela needs no introduction.  When he passed away late last year, I heard a lot of news reports about how he worked tirelessly to end apartheid in South Africa and the many, many years he spent as a political prisoner.  But I wanted to know more about him as a person.  And so, like many other people the world over, I decided to read his autobiography.

Long Walk to Freedom is Mandela's account of his life, from his birth to his election.  That's a lot of time to cover, and this is a hefty book.  I did it on audio, and even with the hours I spend commuting every week, it still took me a full three weeks to finish it.  But I didn't mind one bit.  Mandela was a powerful speaker, but he also penned his own speeches, and that skill is in abundant evidence here.

Many political leaders write their memoirs to justify or explain their reasons.  Or share their thought processes so other people can understand.  Mandela certainly does that - he talks about how he was slowly won over to socialism and even communism (two political paths that he feels work very well in traditional African structure).  He was not a violent man but he was not above using violence to achieve his aims - equal rights for the black majority in South Africa.  He also had a gentle sense of humor and was cognizant of how his actions affected the people around him.  He seems to have gotten along well with everyone who knew him.  That said, he was also a very capable leader who knew when to gain consensus and when to go rogue.

In several ways, Mandela reminded me of Abraham Lincoln, another excellent leader who was well-liked by everyone who knew him (personally, that is - probably not that much by people in the Confederacy).  He never held a grudge; on the day he was released from prison after more than 20 years behind bars, he felt sad that he wasn't able to say goodbye to any of the wardens with whom he had shared so much time over the past several years.

I also didn't realize just how much work Mandela and the African National Congress did while he and several of the party's other key leaders were imprisoned.  Mandela continued to support a caseload of clients fighting for civil rights, and he challenged the prison system for better living conditions for all prisoners.  Much of this came at the expense of his own family, though.  He divorced twice and never seems to have forgiven himself for missing the entirety of his children's childhoods.

After reading this book, I appreciate even more just how strong a person Nelson Mandela was, and just how hard he worked to create a South Africa that was equal and free of animosity between its different groups of people.  He was a true inspiration, and the world is richer for his having been in it.  Highly recommended.
I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

#Diversiverse Review: The Book of Unknown Americans

Cristina Henriquez's novel The Book of Unknown Americans is
is mainly about two families. The Toro family moved to the US years ago from Panama and have assimilated pretty completely into American life. The father works at a restaurant, the older son has a soccer scholarship for college, and the second son, Mayor, is in his rebellious stage in high school, trying not to be (negatively) compared to his brother all the time. The Rivera family has recently moved to the US. Maribel, the teenage daughter, recently had an accident that caused brain damage, and her parents brought her to the US for better care.

The story is narrated by Maribel’s mother, Alma, and Mayor, the rebellious younger son of the Toro family. Every couple of chapters, there are interludes in which other minor characters share their life stories. These interludes were my favorite part of the book. I loved seeing a character in one light and then learning about her difficult life path and gaining a better understanding of what made her the way she was. I loved hearing stories of how people met and how they all decided to move to the small apartment block in Delaware in which they all ended up. And what they’ve done since they arrived there.

I also really enjoyed Alma’s voice. Henriquez wrote about her struggles wonderfully – her guilt over Maribel’s accident, her inability to come to terms with the fact that her daughter will never be the same, her terror in a new country where she feels she cannot protect her daughter from harm, and the way all of these things affect her relationship with her husband. Alma was such a well-developed character, and her fears and concerns became my fears and concerns, too. I also appreciated that for Alma, it was the white characters and the Americans that were frightening. Most of the time, we hear the other side of the story, but through Alma’s eyes, we can see just how menacing Americans can be to foreigners, especially those who don’t speak English well and have beautiful, disabled children.

I didn’t like Mayor’s sections nearly as much. I admit that I was a little disturbed by Mayor’s obsession with Maribel, a mentally handicapped girl who also happened to be breath-takingly beautiful. Would he have felt so drawn to her if she wasn’t beautiful? I think readers are supposed to believe that Mayor and Maribel are totally in love and meant to be together (at least, we are told that multiple times by Mayor), but I didn’t buy it. And Mayor’s complete disregard for Maribel’s parents’ wishes or his own parents rules were maybe true to his life stage, but again, it really felt like he took advantage of Maribel, and I was pretty uncomfortable with that. Maybe if Maribel had a voice in the story, it would have felt better. But we never hear her side of anything, and so it felt a lot like she just kind of went with Mayor because it was easy, not really because she wanted it.

Unfortunately, Mayor is a pretty key character in this book so his sections impacted my overall enjoyment of this novel. But for the interludes from the minor characters alone, and for Alma’s story, it’s well worth reading this book. I really enjoyed hearing the life stories of so many people (this is particularly excellent in the audiobook, as there are multiple narrators for these sections, all with very distinct voices).


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