Friday, 15 November 2019

Friday Friyay: Susannah Cahalan's 'The Great Pretender'

I didn't manage to actually hop around much at all last week, which is a shame, but I promise to do better this week.

Let's get started with Book Beginnings at Rose City Reader, hosted by Gilion Dumas, and Friday 56 at Freda's Voice, hosted by Freda. This week I'm featuring the amazing The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan. My review for it went up earlier, it's an amazing deep dive into psychiatry and very well written. 

From "one of America's most courageous young journalists" (NPR) comes a propulsive narrative history investigating the 50-year-old mystery behind a dramatic experiment that changed the course of modern medicine.
For centuries, doctors have struggled to define mental illness-how do you diagnose it, how do you treat it, how do you even know what it is? In search of an answer, in the 1970s a Stanford psychologist named David Rosenhan and seven other people -- sane, normal, well-adjusted members of society -- went undercover into asylums around America to test the legitimacy of psychiatry's labels. Forced to remain inside until they'd "proven" themselves sane, all eight emerged with alarming diagnoses and even more troubling stories of their treatment. Rosenhan's watershed study broke open the field of psychiatry, closing down institutions and changing mental health diagnosis forever.
But, as Cahalan's explosive new research shows, very little in this saga is exactly as it seems. What really happened behind those closed asylum doors, and what does it mean for our understanding of mental illness today?
I decided to skip the preface and share the beginning of Chapter 1, 'Mirror Image'. 

'Psychiatry, as a distinct branch of medicine, has come far in its short life span. The field has rejected the shameful practices of the recent past - the lobotomies, forced sterilizations, human warehousing. Today psychiatrists boast a varied arsenal of effective drugs and have largely dropped the unscientific trappings of psychoanalytic psychobabble, the "schizophrenogenic" or "refrigerator" mother of yesteryear who had been blamed for triggering insanity in their offspring. Two decades into the twenty-firs century, psychiatry now recognizes that serious mental illnesses are legitimate brain disorders.' 1%
I know that's quite a lot, but I wanted to share the whole paragraph with you as it kind of sums up a lot of what The Great Pretender discusses, namely how psychiatry has changed, just what was done before, and how the change came about. What this opening doesn't quite show is just how readable Cahalan's writing is.

'When the promises of community care - first championed by JFK - never materialized, thousands of people were turned out from hospitals (where some had spent most of their lives) and had nowhere to go. When Rosenhan conducted his study, 5 percent of people in jail fit the criteria for serious mental illness - now it's 20 percent, or even higher.' 56%

Again, not the most cheerful quote but then this isn't an exactly cheerful topic. Realizing how bad the situation is for many is one of the hard truths of the book, but there is also a lot of hope and faith. 

And finally there is the gem that is Book Blogger Hop, hosted over at Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer.

Book Blogger Hop
Do you think that overall work morale would be improved by having a "Book lunch", sponsored by the company at least once a month, or perhaps once a week? (Participation would be voluntary) - Maria @ A Night's Dream of Books

This is such an awesome question! The Women's Society at my company started a Book club about a year ago, which I know isn't quite the same thing as a book lunch, but I still love it. It's not a big group, but we meet once a month and it's lovely connecting with other people at work over something I enjoy so much. (One and the other women in the group and I have actually split off into a second little group called 'Book Snobs' where we discuss books and articles we've read on a more frequent basis.) It has definitely added to my relationship with some of my coworkers, especially when I got my whole team hooked on one of the books we read.

I think it could definitely add as long as it is voluntary and there is no unspoken pressure either. We have a lot of other "social" things at our company like lunches etc. and they can be really fun but can also feel forced.

Review: 'The Great Pretender' by Susannah Cahalan

According to NAMI, 1 in 25 American adults experience serious mental illness each year. That's an enormous number and it's even more shocking when you consider the state of mental health treatment. I haven't done a lot of reading around this topic as it makes me sad, but I found that The Great Pretender was a great starter. I also once again owe thanks to LitHub for a great excerpt from and article about this book which brought it to my attention.
Thanks to Grand Central Publishing and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 11/5/29019
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

From "one of America's most courageous young journalists" (NPR) comes a propulsive narrative history investigating the 50-year-old mystery behind a dramatic experiment that changed the course of modern medicine.
For centuries, doctors have struggled to define mental illness-how do you diagnose it, how do you treat it, how do you even know what it is? In search of an answer, in the 1970s a Stanford psychologist named David Rosenhan and seven other people -- sane, normal, well-adjusted members of society -- went undercover into asylums around America to test the legitimacy of psychiatry's labels. Forced to remain inside until they'd "proven" themselves sane, all eight emerged with alarming diagnoses and even more troubling stories of their treatment. Rosenhan's watershed study broke open the field of psychiatry, closing down institutions and changing mental health diagnosis forever.
But, as Cahalan's explosive new research shows, very little in this saga is exactly as it seems. What really happened behind those closed asylum doors, and what does it mean for our understanding of mental illness today?
Over the past few years the conversation around mental health has changed drastically. Amongst my friends and peers, seeing a therapist is no longer something you need to hide or be ashamed off. Suffering from anxiety or depression is not just accepted, it is something friends will try to support you in as well. However, there is still a very long way to go when it comes to enough support and treatment being available. It means people are suffering with no recourse, especially in countries where healthcare doesn't receive enough funding. Books such as The Great Pretender, which dig into the history of psychiatry, the different forms it has taken and the studies that have shaken it up, is a great start to educate more people, while also sharing the deeply personal stories of those suffering from mental health stories.

Cahalan prefaces this book with her own story of hospitalization for encephalitis (She wrote her first book, Brain on Fire, about her experiences) and how the drastically the treatment she received changed once her diagnosis became physical rather than mental. She begins her research into why mental health issues are treated so differently from other physical ailments by looking into asylums and those, like Nellie Bly, who tried to expose them for their treatment in the 19th century. From there she discovers Rosenhan's study 'On Being Sane in Insane Places', a study that shook psychiatry and contirbuted to American institutions being closed and psychiatric diagnosis becoming more rigid and impersonal. As she digs in deeper and deeper, Cahalan frequently makes segues to explain more of the history of psychiatry in the USA. The story of Rosemary Kennedy absolutely broke my heart and the knowledge that what happened to her happened to countless of other people against their will is chilling. It is what makes the end of The Great Pretender very important. Towards the end, as she uncovers more and more oddities about Rosehan's study, Cahalan addresses both the revolutionary discoveries being made and the skepticism towards scientific studies that has grown more prevalent. She doesn't take the easy road and solely blame scientists, not at the end or at any point in the book. Rather, Cahalan uses her own experience and that of others to show how necessary medicine and good care is, while not shying away to show the darker spots where greed and complacency have wrecked lives. The Great Pretender is a read that packs a punch and that has had me thinking for a while now.

Susannah Cahalan is a great writer and her experience in journalism shines through in The Great Pretender. She ties all her research, her data and her conversations into a personal odyssey to find out everything she can about the study that had an enormous impact on her as well as the field of psychiatry. Cahalan manages to make this journey exciting, frustrating, eye-opening and truly emotional, which means that the 400-odd pages of The Great Pretender flew by for me. It's meticulously researched but written almost like a thriller novel. Cahalan's own frustration and pain is very clear, but so is her hope and trust in the improvement of the industry. I will definitely be reading Brain on Fire next and keep an eye out for furthering writing by Cahalan.

I give this book...

5 Universes!

The Great Pretender was a great read and one that has resulted in a big list of further reading. Cahalan's writing is engaging and her research detailed. I'd recommend this to anyone with an interest in psychiatry or looking for a good non-fiction read.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Review: 'Humiliation: Stories' by Paulina Flores, trans. Megan McDowell

I've been overjoyed the past few years with all of the amazing short story collections being released, especially those released my young, female first-time authors. I think part of it is the thrill of discovering your own emotions and experiences in fiction, perhaps not for the first time but definitely in a way that feels truer than ever before. Thanks to Oneworld Publications and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 11/7/2019
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
An uncompromisingly honest collection of short stories, examining with unique perspicacity the missteps, mistakes and misunderstanding that define our lives. 
A father walks the streets of Santiago with his two daughters in tow. Jobless, ashamed, and blind to his older child's adoration, he unwittingly leads them to the scene of the greatest humiliation of his life. 
A woman catches the eye of a young man outside a library. The pair exchange a cigarette and a few brief words, but what should have been nothing more than a brief flirtation soon takes a darker turn. 
Throughout the nine tales that make up this astounding debut, Paulina Flores narrates with astonishing clarity the moment in which her characters stumble from an age of innocence to the harsh reality of disillusionment. 
Written with uncompromising honesty, tenderness, and a Carver-esque attention to detail, Humiliation establishes Paulina Flores as one of the most exciting new voices in Latin America today.
In Humiliation women of all ages abound. Girls who love their fathers, girls who lie, mothers who leave their sons, women that love, women that despair, women that question, women that give selflessly, women that crave, women that learn. Although the collection isn't solely about women, I was fascinated by the wide variety of female experiences shown in Humiliation. The same is true for the stories with male narrators. Each is forced to reckon with a moment where, seemingly, everything changes and they have to become aware of the real world. There is a cruelty to how Flores unveils to her characters what the "real world" is like, with its disappointment, consequences and loneliness. This may sound to some like Millennial complaining about why the world is so hard, but what Flores shows is that universal moment in which, as the blurb suggests, innocence is lost. Almost all of the stories focus on young children on the verge of adulthood, experiencing their first real taste of both excitement and desperation, caught in a moment that might forever define them or turn out to mean nothing. Flores masterfully captions the importance children attribute to small things, while missing the larger picture.

The stories in Humiliation are incredibly acute, almost painfully so. The first story, the eponymous 'Humiliation' perfectly encapsulates the pure adoration children have for their parents, as well as the constant fear of disappointment that surrounds that adoration. As the first story, it sets the perfect tone for the rest of the collection.  In multiple stories Flores shows the quiet desperation of the adults in the background. Frequently it is unemployment, an unequal share of the work at home, or poverty. It grounds the stories in a harsh but recognizable reality. 'Forgetting Freddy' is one of the most fear-inducing stories I have read recently, as we see a woman trying to get over the end of her relationship. The final story of the collection is perhaps the strongest, and longest, one. 'Lucky Me' tracks two seemingly separate narratives, one that follows the hesitant friendship between two school girls from different backgrounds, and one that follows a lonely young woman who spies on her neighbours' having sex and feels, quite simply, lost.

This is Paulina Flores' first short story collection and it was first released in Chile in 2015. Her writing is somehow both restrained and deeply emotional. There are no bells and whistles here, Flores doesn't over-exaggerate and doesn't get lost in detail. And yet the world she writes about is easily recognized, as are her characters. There are moments of dark humour, of affection, of dread, but hardly any moment of release. The sense that it all keeps going, that there is no escaping what is happening, suffuses these stories to me and makes it, at times, quite difficult to read. Megan McDowell does a brilliant job at translating the tranquil and sparse prose and I can't wait to read more of Flores' writing in the future.

I give this collection...

5 Universes!

Humiliation is a brilliant short story collection that captures disillusionment, hope, seduction, fear and everything in between. Truly human and yet somehow above it, I would recommend this short story collection to everyone.

Friday, 8 November 2019

Friday Friyay: Paulina Flores' 'Humiliation'

It's finally Friday. This week has felt like a year for some reason. Work really has been a lot for the past few weeks so I'm really looking forward to a weekend of nothing. Well, not nothing! Hopefully there'll be plenty of reading and blogging. So let's start the weekend off right with some blog-hopping fun!

Let's get started with Book Beginnings at Rose City Reader, hosted by Gilion Dumas, and Friday 56 at Freda's Voice, hosted by Freda. Today I'm featuring my latest read: Humiliation: Stories by Pauline Flores, which was actually released yesterday! My review is coming tomorrow.
An uncompromisingly honest collection of short stories, examining with unique perspicacity the missteps, mistakes and misunderstanding that define our lives. 
A father walks the streets of Santiago with his two daughters in tow. Jobless, ashamed, and blind to his older child's adoration, he unwittingly leads them to the scene of the greatest humiliation of his life. 
A woman catches the eye of a young man outside a library. The pair exchange a cigarette and a few brief words, but what should have been nothing more than a brief flirtation soon takes a darker turn. 
Throughout the nine tales that make up this astounding debut, Paulina Flores narrates with astonishing clarity the moment in which her characters stumble from an age of innocence to the harsh reality of disillusionment. 
Written with uncompromising honesty, tenderness, and a Carver-esque attention to detail, Humiliation establishes Paulina Flores as one of the most exciting new voices in Latin America today.
Humiliation: '"Are we almost there?" moaned Pia. "I'm tired." Simona watched her younger sister panting and dragging her feet. "Shhhh," she said, "quit whining."' 1%
This is from the collection's first tale, 'Humiliation'. I found its representation of the relationship between two sisters incredibly poignant but was also blown away by how artfully Flores' crafted the bonds between the different family members. It is the kind of story that your mind continues to ponder over after you read it and my thoughts on it have only gotten more complex.

Laika: 'What I'm going to relate here happened the last summer of my childhood, or what I understand to be my childhood, a sort of instinctive or unconscious state that came before my life changed and took on a definitive direction.' 56%
This is the opening line of the story 'Laika' and it's a great start. I think we all have a moment like this, that we look back on as the moment where childhood ended. It is usually a very ambiguous moment, one that brings both good and bad memories back with it. Reading this story, Flores beautifully showed that moment of awareness we all have at some point, that we are now at a crossroads and that things, that we, will be different.

I've also rediscovered the gem that is Book Blogger Hop, hosted over at Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer.

Book Blogger Hop

Can you stop reading before the end of a chapter? (submitted by Elizabeth @ Silver's Reviews)

Ooh that's a hard question! It reeeaalllyy depends! Usually, the answer is no. The ending of a chapter is the perfect point at which to take a break from a narrative. However, in some genres the end of a chapter is often a cliffhanger, which means that it's even harder to stop. That is how I find myself reading until 4am! 

The only time I stop midway through is if, for example, a paragraph ends on a particularly poignant note or carries some weight. Sometimes I end on a particularly squeal-worthy moment or on the very brink of a moment of action. I usually read during my lunch breaks and just before bed, so the excitement of ending on the cusp of something then carries me through the rest of the day or night.

Do you finish end of chapter-only? Or do you change it up sometimes? And let me know what you think of the quotes from Humiliation!

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Review: 'Written in History: Letters that Changed the World' by Simon Sebag Montefiore

When I was a kid, I always felt like we had tons of "coffee table books". Those books that you don't read in one go but that you peek into when you've sat down with a cup of coffee and when you're looking for 10 minutes of quiet. Anything can be a coffee table book. A book on art, a puzzle book, maybe a comic strip or even a collection of letters. As such, I felt right at home in Written in History. Thanks to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Vintage and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for a review.

Pub. Date: 10/15/2019
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing; Vintage
Written in History: Letters that Changed the World celebrates the great letters of world history, and cultural and personal life. Bestselling, prizewinning historian Simon Sebag Montefiore selects letters that have changed the course of global events or touched a timeless emotion—whether passion, rage, humor—from ancient times to the twenty-first century. Some are noble and inspiring, some despicable and unsettling, some are exquisite works of literature, others brutal, coarse, and frankly outrageous, many are erotic, others heartbreaking. It is a surprising and eclectic selection, from the four corners of the world, filled with extraordinary women and men, from ancient times to now.
Truly a choice of letters for our own times encompassing love letters to calls for liberation to declarations of war to reflections on life and death. The writers vary from Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great to Mandela, Stalin and Picasso, Fanny Burney and Emily Pankhurst to Ada Lovelace and Rosa Parks, Oscar Wilde, Chekhov and Pushkin to Balzac, Mozart and Michelangelo, Hitler, Rameses the Great and Alexander Hamilton to Augustus and Churchill, Lincoln, Donald Trump and Suleiman the Magnificent.
In a book that is a perfect gift, here is a window on astonishing characters, seminal events, and unforgettable words. In the colorful, accessible style of a master storyteller, Montefiore shows why these letters are essential reading and how they can unveil and enlighten the past—and enrich the way we live now.
Sebag Montefiore isn't the first to recognize the power of personal letters. Alongside many published diaries, you can find the published letters of countless of authors and important figures in bookstores. Reading Written in History I was reminded of how much I loved writing letters and postcard when I was younger. Writing emails doesn't have quite the same feel to it since it somehow, and illogically, feels more ... impermanent.  As such, Written in History is something of an ode to letter writing, celebrating what some call a dying art. This collection shows how much of ourselves we show in our letters and how our writing can be the start and end of something. This is also why it feels like a "coffee table book", because Written in History lets you dip into all kinds of feelings, whether it's excitement, sadness or nostalgia. It doesn't require a lot of attention and focus, but it is the perfect starting point for quiet contemplation or exciting conversation.

The only thing to really complain about with Written in History is that it's subtitle is a little dramatic and misleading. In their own way, many of those who wrote the letters in this collection did change the world, but these letters themselves often didn't. Most of the letters in this collection are fascinating. Although not all readers will find each letter equally fascinating, there is something for everyone here. Written in History is divided into different sections, such as 'Love', 'Family' and even 'Goodbye'. It's a nice way to group together letters from across the ages. We get a sassy response from a Pharaoh, a frankly disgusting if hilarious letter from Mozart, Churchill's lovely farewell letter to his wife, and even Trump's letter to Kim Jong-Il. Some of the letters showed me a whole new side of these people, usually for the better but occasionally also for the worse. Sebag Montefiore prefaces each letter with a short introduction, relaying some of the context of the letter and background to those that wrote it. His writing style is very pleasant and this made me curious to seek out his other books.

I give this collection...

3 Universes!

Written in History is a lovely collection of letters from across the ages. There will be something for everyone here and some letters are truly touching.

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Review: 'Best Critical Writing' ed. by Nora Rawn & John Grafton

One of the things I enjoyed most about studying English Literature was reading literature criticism. I know that sounds a bit dry, but there's nothing as fun as reading what writers have to say both about their own craft and the writing of others. Dover Publications has been my go-to for a lot of critical writing and compendiums of writing, so I was very excited to read Best Critical Writing. Thanks to Dover Publications and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 7/17/2019
Publisher: Dover Publications
In "The Critic as Artist," Oscar Wilde declares that the critic's artistic capabilities are as important as those of the artist. Wilde's passionate defense of the aesthetics of art criticism is among the wide-ranging and thought-provoking essays of this original collection, in which noted writers discuss the role of criticism in English and American literature. 
Contents include Edgar Allan Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition," in which the author draws upon his most famous poem, "The Raven," to illustrate his theories on writing; Matthew Arnold's "The Study of Poetry"; and commentaries on Shakespeare's plays by Samuel Johnson and Wordsworth's poetry by William Hazlitt. Walter Pater, whose work was highly influential on the writers of the Aesthetic Movement, is represented by an essay on style. Other selections include Mark Twain's satirical "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences" and the "Preface to Leaves of Grass" by Walt Whitman. Brief introductory notes accompany each essay.
The first thing that drew me to this book was the cover. I loved the image of the pen turning into a sword, dripping not ink but blood. A lot of critical writing can be beautifully vicious, which is something many people forget about. No one is quite as dramatic or gifted than a writer with something, or someone, to criticize. Careers are both forged and tanked this way, which is why it is such a joy to read. However, critical essays aren't just about grandstanding between authors. Rawn and Grafton preface each essay with a short, very short, introduction which is definitely helpful for those not familiar with everyone in this collection.

This collection starts with Edgar Allan Poe's essay 'The Philosophy of Composition', in which he lays bare his own method of crafting his famous poem 'The Raven'. It is a miracle that he not only makes poetry composition seem easy, but that he also makes reading about it fun. Oscar Wilde's 'The Critic As Artist' is typical of all his writing, and that is meant as a compliment. It overflows with beautiful phrases while seriously discussing the role and skill of the critic and why they're important in the creation of art. I also found Mark Twain's 'Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences' a hilarious read It is a more typical example of an author using a pen as a sword, but it also gives some insight into Twain's own ideas on writing. Walt Whitman's 'Preface to Leaves of Grass' is beautifully written, if at times a little hard to follow. It is more of a doctrine than a critical essay, but it brilliantly reveals the role of poets in society. Not every essay in this collection will be equally, or consistently, interesting to every reader. I found Samuel Johnson's commentary on Shakespeare mostly interesting, for example, while Walter Pater's essay on style wasn't quite my cup of tea. But in general, Best Critical Writing is a great collection of brilliant writing that will enrich anyone's understanding of the tradition of literary criticism.

I give this collection...

3 Universes.

Although definitely intended for a niche market, Best Critical Writing is a great collection, very competently edited by both Nora Rawn and John Grafton. This will make an excellent resource for anyone with an interest in literary criticism.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Review: Faces in the Crowd: 36 Extraordinary Tales of Tianjin' by Feng Jicai , trans. by Olivia Milburn

I've been trying to read more and more Chinese literature while I live in Shanghai and it has really enriched my experience here. Many of them were set in Shanghai, so I decided to branch out when I saw Faces in the Crowd, which has given me a fascinating insight into a city I'm yet to visit: Tianjin. Thanks to Sinoist Books and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 11/2/2019
Publisher: Alain Charles Asia Publishing; Sinoist Books
In a series of beautifully illustrated short stories, author and artist Feng Jicai introduces some weird and wonderful characters from the port city of Tianjin in northeast China where he was born and raised. They include a miracle doctor, a master chicken-thief, an ill-mannered mynah bird, a smooth-talking restaurateur and an educated gangster.
In the gateway city, only the best stories survive
The port of Tianjin is where the ancient Chinese empire met the sea. The turn of the 20th century was a tumultuous time for the city, with the Qing dynasty on its last legs and the Boxers unleashing their ill-fated rebellion against the European trading concessions that had colonised its streets. 
For Tianjin’s inhabitants, daily life carried on. These hardy people were shaped by the bitter earth from which they sprang, and every once in a while, there would emerge someone so remarkable that a new name would be inducted into Tianjin’s hall of fame.From a miracle doctor to an ill-mannered mynah bird, they came from every walk of life and in all shapes and sizes. Together, their stories make up the rich tapestry of a city that the modern world has washed away...
Born in Tianjin in 1942, Feng Jicai is a contemporary author, artist and cultural scholar who rose to prominence as a pioneer of China's Scar Literature movement that emerged after the Cultural Revolution. He has published almost a hundred literary works in China and more than forty internationally. He is proficient in both Chinese and western artistic techniques, and his artwork has been exhibited in China, Japan, the US, Singapore and Austria. He has had a major influence on contemporary Chinese society with his work on the Project to Save Chinese Folk Cultural Heritages and his roles as honorary member of the Literature and Arts Association, honorary president of the China Folk Literature and Art Association and adviser to the State Council, among others. He is also dean, professor and PhD supervisor at the Feng Jicai Institute of Literature and Art, Tianjin University.
Faces in the Crowd presents the reader with 36 short tales, taken from the streets of Tianjin of the 19th and 20th century. This collection of stories feels like walking down the streets of old-school Tianjin, dropping in here or there to pick up a story. It's like sitting down in a restaurant or tea house and just listening to the conversations going on all around you. There are stories about food, business, reputation, disaster, and just stories about good old fun! Part of Feng Jicai's work is in preserving the old stories and traditions of China as it roars its way towards the future, and there's stories are a key part of that. Getting to know an enormous city like Tianjin through its people and its history is fascinating and Jicai's tone throughout makes it feel like a gentle, friendly visit.

My favourite story probably came towards the end and was called 'The Yellow Lotus Divine Matriarch'. It was a story about the Boxer Uprising, and especially about the Red Lanterns, the women's fighting groups, as the village women weren't allowed to join the men's groups. There is something very mythical and powerful about this story, the women and their leader, the titular Yellow Lotus Divine Matriarch'. It is also a story about resistance and the magic these women said to hold. Some of these stories, like 'The Swallow, Li San', felt very fable-like. Most of the stories, except three, are about men which was a little bit of a disappointment. However, there is still plenty to enjoy as Jicai excels at drawing character profiles despite the brevity of the stories. These stories made me curious to read his larger works and explore all he has to offer as both a writer and an artist.

Each story is prefaced by a small drawing, done by Jicai himself. He explains how after writing the stories the characters were still with him and that drawing them was like a final farewell. The drawings are simply but incredibly evocative and I really enjoyed revisiting the drawings after each story and rediscover it all anew. Jicai is unsentimental and direct in his stories, there is no pretense at trying to make anything appear better than it truly is. These stories are humorous and offer a whole new insight into what Tianjin was like in the previous centuries. It is so important to get these kind of insights and this kind of enjoyment into other kind of cultures and countries.

I give this collection...

5 Universes!

Faces in the Crowd is a brilliant collection of short stories, introducing the reader to the Tianjin of yore. Combining his stories with his drawings, Feng Jicai almost recreates this Tianjin for his readers and makes them hungry for more from them.

Friday, 1 November 2019

Friday Friyay: Book Beginnings, Blog Hops Friday 56

The Bluest EyeI am not as consistent at posting on Fridays as I used to be, but here I am, doing my best once again. I actually get so much joy out of visiting new blogs, revisiting old ones and seeing everyone thriving! 

On Fridays we go to Book Beginnings at Rose City Reader, hosted by Gilion Dumas, and Friday 56 at Freda's Voice, hosted by Freda. This week I'm featuring a read for the book club at work: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. She sadly passed away last month and this is my first experience reading her writing.
The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison's first novel, a book heralded for its richness of language and boldness of vision. Set in the author's girlhood hometown of Lorain, Ohio, it tells the story of black, eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove. Pecola prays for her eyes to turn blue so that she will be as beautiful and beloved as all the blond, blue-eyed children in America. In the autumn of 1941, the year the marigolds in the Breedloves' garden do not bloom. Pecola's life does change- in painful, devastating ways. 
What its vivid evocation of the fear and loneliness at the heart of a child's yearning, and the tragedy of its fulfillment. The Bluest Eye remains one of Tony Morrisons's most powerful, unforgettable novels- and a significant work of American fiction.

Let's get to it! For BB I'm cheating a little and sharing the beginning of the Foreword rather than the novel, since it really stuck with me. 

Book Beginnings:
Foreword - 'There can’t be anyone, I am sure, who doesn’t know what it feels like to be disliked, even rejected, momentarily or for sustained periods of time. Perhaps the feeling is merely indifference, mild annoyance, but it may also be hurt. It may even be that some of us know what it is like to be actually hated— hated for things we have no control over and cannot change.' p.ix
Yes, that'll do it. I think everyone can recognize themselves in the feelings Morrison describes. In the Foreword she continues on speaking about the damage done when that rejection or dislike is internalized and this foreword definitely prepped me for the gravity of what The Bluest Eye describes, even when her tone in the novel seems very kind.

Friday 56:
'Except for Marie’s fabled love for Dewey Prince, these women hated men, all men, without shame, apology, or discrimination. They abused their visitors with a scorn grown mechanical from use.' p.56
This phrase is part of a larger argument, made about prostitutes. I haven't actually gotten this far in the novel yet, so I'm not quite sure what is happening. However, I'm very intrigued by their backstory, their role in the plot and what they might end up doing with their anger. I can't say it's probably not justified.
Have you read The Bluest Eye or any of Toni Morrison's other works? Leave a comment with the link to your Friday post and I'll be happy to drop by!

I've also rediscovered the gem that is Book Blogger Hop, hosted over at Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer.

The question for today is: Do you read classics? If so, what is your favourite?

Isn't this just the most perfect question for me to come back to?! I have a whole page dedicated to the 100 Classics I'm reading/want to read/have read, inspired by the Classics Club. It's really hard to pick a favourite, but below is a small list because I can't pick just one:
There are so many more, but this is a fair start! Can't wait to see what Classic recommendations I'll pick up from this week's hop!

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Review: 'Imaginary Friend' by Stephen Chbosky

I have never read The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I watched the movie, but only distractedly. I could see, however, why for many it could have been a defining teenage read. Chbosky seemed to get to the nitty gritty of being a teenager, addressing some difficult topics while also occasionally romanticizing things. I was hoping for something along those lines in Imaginary Friend, but I'm not entirely sure what I ended up with. Thanks to Grand Central Publishing and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 1/10/2019
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
A young boy is haunted by a voice in his head in this acclaimed epic of literary horror from the author of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.Christopher is seven years old.Christopher is the new kid in town.Christopher has an imaginary friend. 
We can swallow our fear or let our fear swallow us.Single mother Kate Reese is on the run. Determined to improve life for her and her son, Christopher, she flees an abusive relationship in the middle of the night with her child. Together, they find themselves drawn to the tight-knit community of Mill Grove, Pennsylvania. It's as far off the beaten track as they can get. Just one highway in, one highway out.At first, it seems like the perfect place to finally settle down. Then Christopher vanishes. for six long days, no one can find him. Until Christopher emerges from the woods at the edge of town, unharmed but not unchanged. He returns with a voice in his head only he can hear, with a mission only he can complete: Build a treehouse in the woods by Christmas, or his mother and everyone in the town will never be the same again.Twenty years ago, Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower made readers everywhere feel infinite. Now, Chbosky has returned with an epic work of literary horror, years in the making, whose grand scale and rich emotion redefine the genre. Read it with the lights on.
Since writing The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Chbosky has focused on screenwriting, making Imaginary Friend his first novel since 1999. It forms a major departure in both genre and style. Horror is a hard genre to nail. Although we all share certain deep fears in our Unconscious, we still all have different fright levels. Over the decades of his career, Stephen King has risen to the very top of the genre due to his ability to find those deep fears and play with them masterfully. He nails the slow build up of dread, the horror of a wise-before-their-age child, the monsters that hide in the dark, and above all, the cruelty of a grown up world. Each of these are frequently mimicked, but hardly ever truly surpassed. Imaginary Friend plays with many of the same themes: lost children, dark woods, cruel adults, the question of what is good and what is evil. Chbosky's novel left me truly torn, as I did enjoy it, but only finished it through sheer stubbornness and perseverance.

The set-up for Imaginary Friend is brilliant. A young boy and his mother arrive in a quiet, solitary town and shortly after, he disappears into the woods for days. When he returns he has changed and slowly the town around him begins to boil over. This roughly describes the first 2/3rds of the Imaginery Friend, at which point the novel seems to lose focus and becomes messier.  An ending is difficult, especially if you're trying to imbue your scary story with the larger imagery of religion, conflict, Good vs. Evil, the Final Stand, etc. What this results in is that Imaginary Friend drags on. You can't help but lose interest after the second 'Do or Die' moment, which just ends in setting up the next 'Do or Die' moment. The twists and turns also keep coming, asking more and more suspension of disbelief from the reader. The stakes simply aren't high enough anymore at that point because you can only take your reader to the breaking point so often before it stops being dramatic or, well, good. I also had an issue with how cliche some of the imagery and character development is. My issue isn't that the tropes or characteristics are recognizable, it's that they're passe and never mined for anything deeper than their surface. The women in this novel are subjected to some truly horrible experiences, suffering both physically and mentally in a way the male characters don't. It is undeniable that unfortunately violence is a part of many women's lives, but Chbosky does nothing with these topics in his novel, which means that it comes across slightly antiquated and, again, cliche. The same is true for the religious imagery and themes in the book. You can see them coming from a mile off, but in the end they fell flat for me.

The novel's main problem is that it's way too long. Stephen King is the master of the genre because of how convincingly chilling he can be in few words. Imaginary Friend doesn't seem to stop. It gets more and more elaborate in its hundreds of pages which only weighs the progress of the narrative down. The cause for this is that Chbosky seems too enamored with his own mythology to cut out what was unnecessary. There are frequent repetitions of images and even language that become eye-roll inducing rather than scary. Many of the ideas and themes in Imaginary Friend are truly scary and could have a lot of impact, but being repeated so frequently they lose all their power. This means that, unfortunately, the payoff at the end is not really worth the journey. This also plays into the novels other problem: the many points of view. Much of it is told from Christopher's perspective, which means we're viewing Chbosky's world through the eyes of a 7-year old.. Christopher is a well-written character and the reader does start to genuinely care about him. However, too much is placed on his shoulders, both within the story and as a narrative device for the story itself, which means he becomes rather unbelievable towards the end. Aside from him, there is a whole array of characters, each of which has their narrative described in detail, which slows the whole novel down.

I give this novel...

2 Universes.

Imaginary Friend is both an homage to Stephen King, as well as an attempt to dethrone him, it seems. Chbosky goes to great lengths to create a mythology of his own and thereby loses the plot and the reader. At over 700 pages, Imaginary Friend asks too much of its reader without offering enough in return.

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Review: 'Into Captivity They Will Go' by Noah Milligan

I have been on a major true crime kick lately, largely inspired by my devotion to the My Favourite Murder podcast. I share a fascination of cults with one of the hosts, which means that when I saw the blurb for Into Captivity They Will Go I was gripped immediately. Combining two highly controversial topics, family and faith, I had very high expectations going into Milligan's novel. I'm glad to say he lived up to all of them. Thanks to Central Avenue Publishing and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 10/1/2019
Publisher: Central Avenue Publishing

Set in rural Oklahoma, Into Captivity They Will Go tells the story of Caleb Gunter, a boy whose mother has convinced him he is the second coming of Jesus Christ and that together they are destined to lead the chosen into the Kingdom of Heaven. Believing the Seven Seals detailed in Revelation have been opened, he and his mother flee their home to join a tongue-speaking evangelical church and to prepare for the end of the world. But after tragedy ensues, Caleb must rebuild his life without the only support he has ever known—his mother and the church. An exploration of familial bonds and extremist faith, this is a whirlwind bildungsroman that reveals the fragility of a child’s identity. It is at once a study of guilt and redemption and a book of how shattered trust can lay the foundation for an entire life.
As I wrote in my review for Sonja Livingston's The Virgin on Prince Street, religion and faith are difficult topics to write about. Whereas Livingston took a very personal and autobiographic approach, Milligan's approach is personal in a very different way. His bio reveals he grew up in the Bible Belt and his theological knowledge does shine through in the novel. In Into Captivity They Will Go he chooses a fictional approach to the the dissection of faith. Many aspects of the novel's plot will remind the reader of sensationalist news pieces and the less savory aspects of devout religion. The novel's title itself is taken from the Book of Revelation (13:10), which is hardly standard fare for many Christians. What Into Captivity They Will Go really shows is faith can become extreme and dangerous, and how far people are willing to go for what and who they believe in. Religion isn't the only focus, or even the main focus, of Milligan's novel though. Family and childhood are just as crucial. The vulnerability of children to their parents, the endless burden of shame and guilt, and the difficulty of overcoming abuse. These are heavy topics, but Milligan handles them carefully and directly, resulting in a compelling read.

Into Captivity They Will Go is split into three "acts": The Book of Genesis, The Book of Judges, and The Book of Revelations. Without giving too much away, the first act shows us Caleb Gunter's start in life as an ordinary boy, with an admittedly quite religious background. In the second act we, and Caleb, are confronted with tragedy. The final act, 'The Book of Revelations', finds his adjusting and coping to a world suddenly strange to him. As the name of each act suggests, Caleb goes through major emotional and psychological upheaval during these times. Milligan masterfully crafts Caleb's character throughout these three acts. On the one hand he sounds like a normal boy who wants to play with his friends, who loves his mother, and who cares deeply for those around him even if he can't quite verbalize that. On the other hand Milligan always makes the reader aware of this shadow that clings to him, that heavy weight of "something" that he can't quite shake. It's a difficult balance to strike but Milligan does so brilliantly. It's not just Caleb that is written with insight, though. Milligan's own childhood growing up in America's Bible Belt shows in his portrayal of the cast of characters around Caleb. The way religion inspires people, supports them in their day to day life, but can also lead them astray, is shown with a sharp kindness in Into Captivity They Will Go.

I hadn't read any of Noah Milligan's writing before, but I had heard of him. As such, I had high expectations of Into Captivity They Will Go. As I wrote above, I was amazed by his portrayal of Caleb. he captures the awkwardness, determination and confusion of growing up. In the middle section of the novel, many pages are dedicated to the theological underpinnings of the Book of Revelation, and therefore the Church of Seven Seals Caleb now belongs to. I found this fascinating myself, although it may not be the same for every reader. Milligan also excels at describing Caleb's surroundings, which means that the more action-packed scenes are riveting. There is a slow ratcheting up of tension during the second act which, upon its conclusion, leaves Caleb and the reader floundering in the final act. The question of 'Now what?' hangs over him and as he slowly comes to grips with what happened the reader find themselves once again engrossed by his story.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

Into Captivity They Will Go is a fascinating read that engrossed me. It is a highly compelling and immersive read that tackles some very challenging topics without ever loosing its way.

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Review: 'Through the Water Curtain', edited by Cornelia Funke

Aaah fairy tales! I think I have spoken about my love of fairy tales countless of times on this blog, but it remains true. I adore them and they were the first step in my lifelong journey through literature. They are the first step for many children and in that way they are something we all share. Through the Water Curtain sees Cornelia Funke bring together a range of different fairy tales. Thanks to Pushkin Press and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 10/9/2019
Publisher: Pushkin Press

A delightful, diverse selection of fairy tales from around the world by one of our most beloved children's writers.
International bestselling children's author Cornelia Funke has long been inspired and fascinated by fairy tales. This wonderful anthology is Funke's personal selection of fairy tales from all around the world - not just from her native Germany but from Russia, Japan and the Native American tradition. It's the perfect Christmas gift for any young reader wishing to discover the wider world of fairy tales.
This wonderful selection of 13 tales includes:
  •  The Tale of the Firebird (Russia)  •  The Boy Who Drew Cats (Japan)  •  The Frog Princess (Ukraine)  •  The Six Swans (Germany)  •  The Girl Who Gave a Knight a Kiss out of Necessity (Sweden)  •  Kotura, Lord of the Winds (Siberia)
In the introduction to this collection, Cornelia Funke describes how her love affair with fairy tales has always been a double-edged sword. On the one hand they are not very deep tales. The characters are often very flat and many of the tales reinforce stereotypes we now consider, at the very least, not great. On the other hand, they are incredibly imaginative and have some stunning imagery. I myself read the unedited tales Grimms' tales, full of murder, death, incest and violence, as well as the deeply sad but beautiful tales by H.C. Andersen. There are some truths children learn through fairy tales, that they later as adults forget, or smooth away. There are dragons, but dragons can be defeated. You may be abandoned in a wood, but if you're smart you'll find a way out. There can be a high price to pay for even the smallest transgression. In Through the Water Curtain, Funke collects 13 tales she thinks veer away ever so slightly from the usual, slightly sanctimonious tone of many fairy tales, showing just why so many of us, herself included, have been inspired by them.

Many of the tales in this collection were new to me. 'The Boy Who Drew Cats' is a wonderful little tale that shows that survival doesn't just depend on strength, but also on passion and art and, just sometimes, listening to the advice of others. 'The Girl Who Gave a Knight a Kiss out of Necessity' is hilarious, and a great tale to put some in their place. 'Through the Water Curtain', the tale after which the collection is named, is also fascinating, as it really plays with the readers' expectations. 'The Areca Tree' is a heart-breaking story about brotherly and matrimonial love, whose power lasts lifetimes. One of my favourites was 'The Maid of the Copper Mountains' from the mine workers in Russia's Ural mountains. It was very different from what I am used to in fairy tales and had some great images. It is also a tale that is very clearly shaped by its surroundings and those who shared it. 
'The Six Swans' is one of Funke's favourite fairy tales and I completely agree with her. Although the iteration in this collection differs slightly from the one I knew, it is still full of stunning imagery, set pieces and characters. A story of sisterly love, it shows the power of perseverance and belief. Some stories didn't quite hit the spot the way the ones above did. For example, 'The Story of the One Who Set Out to Study Fear' felt like the odd one out and the tone seemed somehow off. 

Each tale is followed by a short paragraph from Funke, explaining why she chose this tale and how it has inspired her. I really enjoyed seeing her takes on the stories, but wasn't a major fan of how she continually tied it back to her own, current series of books. Perhaps it's because I didn't majorly enjoy its first installment myself, but I could have done without those references. I couldn't entirely tell from the introduction whether Funke herself had re-written these tales or whether they were taken word for word from other sources. However, they're clearly aimed at children, which means that readers with a more advanced taste might be turned off by that. Overall, however, this is a stunning addition to any fairy tale shelf!

I give this collection...

3 Universes!

Through the Water Curtain is a lovely collection of fairy tales that are slightly unusual and feature unusual heroes and heroines. It's a great introduction to the wonders of fairy tales for younger readers.

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Review: 'The Virgin on Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion' by Sonja Livingston

Faith is a tricky thing. And it's a tricky thing to write about as well. People can get very defensive about their own faith because it is a deeply personal topic. I was first turned on to The Virgin of Prince Street by an excerpt from the book on LitHub. I was struck by Livingston's tone and writing style so requested the whole book. And I was very pleasantly surprised. Thanks to the University of Nebraska Press and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 9/1/2019
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
With organized religion becoming increasingly divisive and politicized and Americans abandoning their pews in droves, it’s easy to question aspects of traditional spirituality and devotion. In response to this shifting landscape, Sonja Livingston undertakes a variety of expeditions—from a mobile confessional in Cajun Country to a Eucharistic procession in Galway, Ireland, to the Death and Marigolds Parade in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Mass in a county jail on Thanksgiving Day—to better understand devotion in her own life.
 The Virgin of Prince Street chronicles her quest, offering an intimate and unusually candid view into Livingston’s relationship with the swiftly changing Catholic Church and into her own changing heart. Ultimately, Livingston’s meditations on quirky rituals and fading traditions thoughtfully and dynamically interrogate traditional elements of sacramental devotion, especially as they relate to concepts of religion, relationships, and the sacred.

I am, deep down, quite a spiritual person. I was raised a Protestant and went to church every Sunday. As such, faith and organized religion were a very big part of my upbringing, but in a very individual and free way. There are many things considered "typically Christian" which I don't believe in, and yet the Domkerk in Utrecht fills me with a sense of home and belonging. I love the hymns, admire the sanctuary that a church can provide and do believe. Moving away from Utrecht removed me, in many ways, from the locus and practice of my faith, yet my belief remains as present as before. In what exactly I believe I still can't exactly define, but this is why The Virgin of Prince Street was such a fascinating book for me. Although Livingston is trying to find her way back to her Catholic faith, rather than my Protestant one, her struggle to combine the failure of organized religion with the beauty of individual faith was still something I recognized and found inspiring.

The Virgin on Prince Street is full of personal essays, all tied together by their author's journey. Many of them, eight in fact, describe her efforts to hunt down the statue of Mary which used to grace her church. This strand of the book is also somewhat of an elegy for the Catholic Church and especially its small-level existence. The tight-knit communities that lived out their whole lives within the walls of a church are slowly fading away, meaning that many parishes are being joined together. On the one hand this enriches a church community, but it also alters it. Livingston adored this statue of Mary, especially in hindsight, and is determined to track it down somehow. During her journey she meets all kinds of people who are devoted in their own way, reaching out to others who may be unsure. The other essays describe other types of devotion. In one, which was excerpted by LitHub, she describes the process of canonization as well as the death of Sister Lilian. In another, she visits Brigid's Well in Ireland. In each essay she expands what we think of as faith or devotion, showing the many different shapes it can take. The Virgin of Prince Street is not a book meant to convince anyone of the rights or wrongs of religion. Rather it is a very person account of one woman's journey towards her own personal devotion.

Sonja Livingston's writing is incredibly honest and open. Whether it is her almost desperate search for the Mary of Prince Street or the emotions roused by a mass held in a jail, Livingston infuses each essay and moment with her own personality. This is also what keeps the essays from becoming overdone or missionary. When Livingston tells of her admiration for a priest and his endless devotion to his community you can feel that her words come from a place of personal need, respect and longing. When she describes her fear of the confessional, something I as a Protestant don't really "get", Livingston avoids getting into the canonical nitty-gritty of the why and how, but rather focuses on our very human distaste of leaving ourselves vulnerable. More than any other book, perhaps, The Virgin of Prince Street has made me appreciate why so many do flock to Catholicism and its rigot and tradition. It has also made me re-examine my own approach to faith and my own need for stability.

I give this book...

4  Universes!

I was sucked in by The Virgin on Prince Street almost immediately. Sonja Livingston is incredibly honest about the difficulties of believing, of returning to faith and of confronting your own fears and doubts in the process. For anyone interested in faith, or struggling with it, I'd recommend this book.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Review: 'Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction' by Lisa Kröger, Melanie R. Anderson

I'm a sucker for a good book recommendation. I love curating my ever growing 'to read'-list on Goodreads, so naturally I'd be intrigued by a book meant to introduce me to a whole range of female authors. Ok, admittedly it was the title that got me first, since I simply cannot resist a Frankenstein reference, especially if it goes hand in hand with a Murder, She Wrote reference! Thanks to Quirk Books and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 9/17/2019
Publisher: Quirk Books
Meet the women writers who defied convention to craft some of literature’s strangest tales, from Frankenstein to The Haunting of Hill House and beyond. Frankenstein was just the beginning: horror stories and other weird fiction wouldn’t exist without the women who created it. From Gothic ghost stories to psychological horror to science fiction, women have been primary architects of speculative literature of all sorts. And their own life stories are as intriguing as their fiction. Everyone knows about Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein, who was rumored to keep her late husband’s heart in her desk drawer. But have you heard of Margaret “Mad Madge” Cavendish, who wrote a science-fiction epic 150 years earlier (and liked to wear topless gowns to the theater)? If you know the astounding work of Shirley Jackson, whose novel The Haunting of Hill House was reinvented as a Netflix series, then try the psychological hauntings of Violet Paget, who was openly involved in long-term romantic relationships with women in the Victorian era. You’ll meet celebrated icons (Ann Radcliffe, V. C. Andrews), forgotten wordsmiths (Eli Colter, Ruby Jean Jensen), and today’s vanguard (Helen Oyeyemi). Curated reading lists point you to their most spine-chilling tales.
Part biography, part reader’s guide, the engaging write-ups and detailed reading lists will introduce you to more than a hundred authors and over two hundred of their mysterious and spooky novels, novellas, and stories.

For those looking for an academic deep dive into the way female authors originated and developed the horror genre, turned it to their own benefits and used it as a form of self-expression, Monster, She Wrote is not the book for you. However, if you're looking for a reference guide that will allow you to explore all of the above independently, Monster, She Wrote is a perfect starting point. Starting with the "Founding Mothers", Kröger and Anderson track the wide variety of female authors who have expressed themselves through Horror and Speculative Fiction. Many authors in this book will be familiar to lovers of these genres, but there are also plenty of new discoveries to be made, especially once it explores the different offshoots of the Horror genre as well as the lost authors of the Pulp fiction era. Of course some authors you're looking for will not be featured, just as some you'd never expected will be. Considering the constraints on a book like this, Kröger and Anderson have done a great job at presenting a topical and chronological overview. (For some more unusual Speculative Fiction by women I also recommend Sisters of the Revolution.)

What I adored about Monster, She Wrote was the fun, almost conversational, tone. Sometimes reading this book felt like having coffee with a literature devotee who pleasantly but passionately told you about all these amazing people you've never heard of. Each author gets her own list of recommended titles and further reading, which means that if any of them catch your eye you can hit the ground running. The ways in which the authors featured in Murder, She Wrote took inspiration from each other, built upon each others' groundbreaking work and pushed boundaries wherever they could, is not just interesting but also inspiring. Much of the work done and art created by these women has gone on to inspire the male authors we hear so much about like H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. The fact that these female authors aren't as well-known is a shame and books like Murder, She Wrote are a great first step in correcting this error.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

Murder, She Wrote will be the end of your dreams of downsizing your 'to read'-list. Kröger and Anderson have written a great reference book for anyone looking to expand their knowledge of female authors in Horror and Speculative Fiction.

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Review: 'A Nail, A Rose' by Madeleine Bourdouxhe, trans. by Faith Evans

I was first drawn to A Nail, A Rose by its cover and especially the image central to it. It feels so French. It also immediately gives of a 'frustrated housewife' vibe, which I found intriguing. Although you'll definitely find that vibe in the stories contained in A Nail, A Rose, I'm happy to say that Bourdouxhe goes a lot deeper. Thanks to Pushkin Press and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this collection in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 10/1/2019
Publisher: Pushkin Press; Pushkin Collections

Enchanting stories of women's inner lives by the rediscovered Belgian author Madeleine Bourdouxhe
The seven stories in A Nail, A Rose confirm Madeleine Bourdouxhe's status as an under-appreciated master of the form. Like her critically lauded novels Marie and La Femme de Giles, these stories tunnel into the conflicted hearts of their female characters in fluid, beautiful prose.
These are stories of longing and dissatisfaction, of mundane lives ruptured by strange currents of feeling. A woman, wandering alone and heartbroken, is first attacked and then romantically pursued by a stranger, who returns to her house to offer her gifts. A maid wears her mistress's expensive coat to meet her lover, but finds herself more preoccupied with fantasies of intimacy with her mistress. With piercing insight and candour, Bourdouxhe offers seven unforgettable portraits of the expansive inner lives of ordinary women.
Pushkin Press, under its 'Pushkin Collection', has been steadily providing me with some brilliant, translated fiction, much of it written by women. As Faith Evans states in her introduction to these stories, Bourdouxhe had been almost forgotten. Born in Belgium, she was deeply engaged with the oppression of the war, the occupation of France and the effects of repression on a creative mind. She was also writing for Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre's magazine Les Temps moderne. All in all, she was a fascinating woman and I find it fascinating, and saddening, how many of such people have disappeared from our awareness over time. So I'm very pleased that publishers like Pushkin Press and people like Faith Evans continue to put their time, effort and money into returning such jewels to us from the past.

A Nail, A Rose contains 7 stories, all of which are about women, but one of which is narrated by a man. Bourdouxhe looks at the interior lives of women, their secret frustrations, the blindness of those around them to their suffering, the restraints of society, the deep love and compassion they are capable of. Evans points out the lushness of Bourdouxhe's descriptions, how similar to Surrealist artists it is. There is definitely a Surrealist tinge to to Bourdouxhe's stories, whether it is the odd juxtaposition of images or the deep connection to the unconscious many of her female characters exhibit. The stories are, mostly, named after their main characters. 'Irene' is lost after the end of love and then attacked; 'Anna' feels disconnected from her life, husband and body that allow her no mental exercise; 'Louise' is a maid who dreams of understanding her mistress and the world more; 'Leah' is torn between a fantasy and reality; and 'Blanche' has shut herself off from the world around her to survive it. Meanwhile, 'Clara' is a story about silence and death and 'Rene' about an angry young man and a woman he can't impact.A standout story is 'Sous Le Pont Mirabeau', which is divided into small chapters and chronicles a chapter of Bourdouxhe's own life when, shortly after giving birth, she flees Nazi-occupied France. It is a beautiful story of motherhood, the kindness of strangers and the futility of war.

Each of Bourdouxhe's characters is a fully drawn, yet elusive portrait. They each leave a mark, have an impact, yet not even Bourdouxhe can entirely capture them, which seems on purpose. These women, who everyone seems to assume they can know, possess or overpower, are their own creatures, with thoughts often thousands of miles away. There is a dreamlike quality to Bourdouxhe's writing, which is perfectly captured by Faith Evans. Her translations follow the hazy yet insistent tone of Bourdouxhe's writing, the beauty and freedom of nature and dark night. There are some absolutely beautiful passages in A Nail, A Rose which stuck with me. I will definitely be exploring more of Bourdouxhe's oeuvre, especially as more of her works are apparently available in translation now.

I give this collection...

4 Universes!

Bourdouxhe's stories are far from gentle and yet they seem to exist on an unconscious, almost dreamlike plane. They hold harsh truths, beautiful moments and messages worth considering. Anyone interested in exploring both writing under oppression as well as early feminist writing should absolutely give A Nail, A Rose a go.

Thursday, 3 October 2019

Review: ‘Frankissstein: A Love Story’ by Jeanette Winterson

Frankenstein is one of the first novels I fell in love with. I adored its language, I adored Mary Shelley, and I was fascinated by the novel's provenance and message. I wrote university essays about it and my copy of Frankenstein was annotated on almost every other page. It also let to my love for Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. So I knew that I wanted to read Frankissstein from pretty much the moment I heard about it. Thanks to Grove Atlantic and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 10/1/2019
Publisher: Grove Atlantic
Since her astonishing debut at twenty-five with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson has achieved worldwide critical and commercial success as “one of the most daring and inventive writers of our time” (Elle). Her new novel, Frankissstein, is an audacious love story that weaves together disparate lives into an exploration of transhumanism, artificial intelligence, and queer love.
Lake Geneva, 1816. Nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley is inspired to write a story about a scientist who creates a new life-form. In Brexit Britain, a young transgender doctor called Ry is falling in love with Victor Stein, a celebrated professor leading the public debate around AI and carrying out some experiments of his own in a vast underground network of tunnels. Meanwhile, Ron Lord, just divorced and living with his mom again, is set to make his fortune launching a new generation of sex dolls for lonely men everywhere. Across the Atlantic, in Phoenix, Arizona, a cryogenics facility houses dozens of bodies of men and women who are medically and legally dead… but waiting to return to life.
What will happen when homo sapiens is no longer the smartest being on the planet? In fiercely intelligent prose, Jeanette Winterson shows us how much closer we are to that future than we realize. Funny and furious, bold and clear-sighted, Frankissstein is a love story about life itself.

Frankenstein, as originally written, is far removed from the way it is portrayed in most modern media. No bolts, no nonsensical words, no Igor, almost no horror. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a meditation on the effects of unchecked progress, on the megalomania of some creators, and on the consequences of creation. Frankissstein is a story about what happens when our creations get away from us. It's also about the rapid progress of creation, of happenstance, and maybe fate, that leads us from one step to the next. At times highly philosophical, while also focused on the small details of human, physical life, Frankissstein asks us who we are. As the reader you find yourself wondering, are we just bodies or are we souls? Could we imagine our lives without bodies? And if yes, would that be preferable? Winterson doesn't provide answers, but she does show us how language, gender, technology and politics all come together to shape our future.

In Frankissstein, the future of our world seems to rest in the hand of two men who are almost polar opposites. Victor Stein, a mysterious, maybe mad, scientist, is hoping for a world in which humans are released from their fleshy prisons. He is fascinated by Ry, by their very existence and at times his fascination with Ry edges into cold, analytical interest. His ideas, and his willingness to see them through, are when the novel edges into something almost akin to horror, and yet Victor is a fascinating character. At times his philosophical arguments suck some of the tension out of the narrative, but they are great food fro thought. Ron Lord looks at the future in a different way. Rather than wanting to "free" humans of their bodies, he is looking at technology and AI as a way to support our (read: men's) physical desires. His sex robots are both a hilarious and strangely sad presence in the Frankissstein. In one scene I found particularly memorable, we catch a short glimpse of what a sex robot's life might be like if they developed any kind of conscience or memory. It was heart-breaking and the casual way in which he dismisses the fact many bots are returned with their heads smashed in is chilling.This will also be part of our future, Winterson warns; not just the high-minded scientists striving for next-level humanity, but also the opportunists who support our most brutish instincts.

Winterson confidently moves between 19th century Europe, where Mary Shelley is creating her masterpiece, to 21st century Brexit Britain, where an array of characters is looking into the future, each in their own way. It's Ry, once Mary, who is one of the standout characters of the novel. They are a transgender man, but also considers themselves a 'hybrid', both man and woman. They have created their own body in their own (mental) image, and this engenders both fascination and confusion in the people around him. A doctor themselves. Ry is surrounded by those who are trying to shape the future, yet they are oddly sidelined from these attempts themselves. They was able to shape themselves, but the future seems out of their grasp. Similarly, the novel tracks Mary Shelley as she writes Frankenstein, argues with Byron, and faces loss after loss. Mary's scenes are some of the most beautiful, evoking the language of her own novel, and analyzing with acuity and gentleness the effects of loss and restraint.

A lot can be said about Frankissstein and I haven't said half I thought. It will take some time to let it all sink in, and as the world changes so might my thoughts on this novel. But it is a great addition to the original Frankenstein, and much more in line with Mary Shelley's idea than most other media.

I give this novel...

4 Universes.

Frankissstein is a fascinating novel full of ideas that are innovative and thought-provoking. Anyone with an interest in Frankenstein, AI, robotics and the question of our souls, will find Frankissstein an interesting and rewarding read.