RHC 2018: An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a romance novel by or about a person of color.

In some ways, romance really is the other side of the horror coin. A novel basically consists of bad things happening to good interesting people who are desperately trying to get something they want. Horror beds down in the “bad things” part of that equation, while romance concerns itself with the “want” bit. Horror, like romance, is also a rather maligned genre, though I’d argue that the criticism of romance has a much more sexist tone (which is maddeningly unsurprising, considering most romance is written by and for women), and so I’m always ready to take up for it.

I was especially interested in this task because of the controversy surrounding the Rita Awards and the significant barriers thrown up for romance writers of colorAn Extraordinary Union was a blockbuster title last summer, and for very good reason. I tore through it in a couple of days earlier in the summer. The heroine Elle is a Union spy posing as a slave in order to uncover a Confederate plot. The hero is also a Union spy posing as a Confederate war hero. That all makes for a short, explosive fuse, and both characters are smart, grounded, and easy to root for. And sure, in the hands of a lesser writer, this interracial Civil War era relationship (with a happy ending, no less!) could have gotten into Capital P Problematic territory faster than you can say power differential. That amazingly doesn’t happen, and there’s a rich and well-researched backdrop to the proceedings to boot.

The first book that came to mind reading this wasn’t any other romance novel I’ve read (I haven’t read many though) – it was Kindred, which I read earlier this year. Like Kindred, An Extraordinary Union approaches slavery through the eyes of someone forced to pretend to be a slave. It’s a device that does an incredible job of getting across the absolutely disgusting humiliation of slavery in addition to its physical horror. An Extraordinary Union manages to give its characters the happy ending that’s pretty much a requirement of the genre, but man do they have to fight for it. Kindred’s ending makes a very vivid statement about the continued impact of slavery on the present, but An Extraordinary Union’s concluding scenes actually express a little hope. Frankly, here and now, it’s hard to resist that kind of catnip.

RHC 2018: The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a sci fi novel with a female protagonist by a female author.

I feel like I completed this task with honors, since Kameron Hurley’s book not only features a pair of female protagonists, but is set in a corner of the universe where not only do men not exist, at all, but their absence isn’t remarked upon a single time. It’s a sweeping bloody love story complete with massive wars, terrifying machinery, political intrigue, and freaky fetuses.

I haven’t read a pure sci fi book in years. I’m not even particularly sci-fi literate, really. I’ve read some of the big stuff, like Dune (which I found pretty annoying, honestly), Stranger in a Strange Land (which *really* annoyed me, for reasons I can’t even remember), Ender’s Game (which I loved and taught me a hard lesson in the difference between the creator and the creation), and the expected dystopias, but I’m admittedly not automatically excited about seeing a space ship on a cover.

[Caveat caveat caveat: nothing wrong with a spaceship on the cover! Read what you like to read!]

That said, I did enjoy The Stars Are Legion more than I thought I was going to. It’s set in a solar system of organic shipworlds (in one language in the book, “ship” and “world” are the same word) – planet-sized systems that may or may not be synthetic. The ships require organic material for fuel, which means that characters make grim comments about how the ships eat everyone in the end and that the word “recycling” takes on a much more threatening term. The ships absorb their own waste (and their own residents), and most are suffering from world-sized cancerous rot.

The dedication – “for all the brutal women” – is a great point of entry into a violent, surprising, and, um, squishy tale that feels more Alien: Resurrection than Star Trek. Protagonists Zan and Jayd both have blood on their hands, but there’s never any need for them to balance their warlike ways with their femininity or whatever like you see in a more typical “strong female character” situation, since there are no dudes in the damn galaxy. It’s a nonissue.

And yet pregnancy plays a surprising role in the very body horror-inflected plot. “The ship produces what it needs,” is a constant refrain. Pregnancy is a great central image for Zan’s story, too, since most of her narrative trajectory involves her crawling from the very center of the world back to its surface.

So, overall, this was a really fun and inventive (and really gross and violent, so your mileage may vary) book. I found some of the world building to be a little convoluted and it felt like there was an awful lot going on for a single 400-page volume, but that might be a failing on my non-sci-fi-reading part. I would definitely read a sequel.

RHC 2018: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry Mildred D. Taylor

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a children’s classic published before 1980.

This is such a damned good book, and it was every bit as gripping this time around as it was the last time I read it a quarter of a century or so ago.

I’m usually bothered by nostalgia when it comes to libraries (just stick with this train of thought for a minute). I work in a busy public library, and I know the value of what I do. However, I’m not sure that people with fond library memories who don’t actually use the library today quite get what my actual profession entails.

Don’t get me wrong, any children’s librarian worth his or her salt should give a child an impression that our days are spent being kindly and putting exactly the right book in young people’s hands at exactly the right moment. And we do that, for all ages. It’s one of most of my colleagues’ favorite types of library interaction. Buuuuuut there’s more to it. A LOT more to it.

First of all, we’re not all children’s librarians. Over on the adult side, the job involves anything from providing community tech support to helping schedule visitations with incarcerated family members to genealogy research to legal and medical self-help and research to handling mental health and substance abuse issues professionally and compassionately. The truth is, most of us love books as much as you’d expect, but at its heart this is an information profession, and our razor sharp book recommendation game is only one blade in the Swiss army knife of our skill set.

RHC 2018: My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a comic written and drawn by the same person.

Just stop what you’re doing and go read this comic right now.

 

Okay, great, now that you’ve called in sick to work or whatever other obligations you may have and devoured this enormous and gloriously messy jewel of a book in close to one sitting, let’s continue. Comics make up a decent percentage of my reading diet, and this is one of the best if not the best I’ve read in a really long time (I read the first two volumes of Monstress recently, too, so there’s fierce competition).

Plenty of comics get lots of energy from being produced by a creative team, and I don’t mean to suggest that single writer-artist-produced work is intrinsically superior, but this is definitely a book that I think is stronger for being entirely housed in one person’s brain. The writing and the art both feel incredibly personal, and it’s not like anything I’ve ever seen before.

I don’t really know where to start here. Karen Reyes is growing up in 1960s Chicago, she is obsessed with monsters (specifically, transforming into one), and is trying to solve the murder of the Holocaust survivor who lives upstairs. The book takes the form of Karen’s sketch book, complete with notebook paper lines and doodles in the margins. It’s staggeringly gorgeous colored pencil art (I particularly admire the chapter breaks, which take the form of splendidly rendered pulp magazine covers), and it’s more or less panel-less. It doesn’t follow many of the conventions one expects from a comic book, and it’s so so so damn good as a result.

There is a lot going on here. Karen is gay, with Mexican, Irish, and Cherokee branches in her family tree. She loves her single mother and worships her older brother Deeze. She has trouble at school, mostly because she is an intensely odd little kid (to drive the point home, she draws herself as a furry little monster wearing a trench coat, complete with an adorable underbite revealing her tusks). The book is part murder mystery, part coming of age story, part character exploration of her Uptown Chicago neighborhood, part flashback to murdered Anka’s past. It’s full of monsters and magic and all the heartbreak and senselessness of the world that even monsters and magic can’t completely distract Karen from.

It’s not precisely a horror comic, but it’s also not not-a-horror-comic, if that makes sense. It is absolutely worth your time, even if you don’t have a special place in your heart for B-movie monsters, comics, and weirdos. If you do have that heart space reserved, though, this is one for your permanent collection.

RHC 2018: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: The first book in a new-to-you YA or middle grade series.

I adore middle grade books. These are the books that come to mind when I imagine my happiest reading moments and that I’m probably the most excited to share with my daughter once she gets old enough. For starters, The Trumpet of the Swan (Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web too, but TotS doesn’t get nearly enough love), The Borrowers, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Julie of the Wolves, The Giver, The Yearling, all of the horse books, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Little Women, Madeleine L’Engle, all the books where the dog dies horribly, etc.

These are the books that I think about when I think about peak childhood summer afternoons. Before puberty complicated everything, it was hard to beat the pleasure of stretching out on the couch in the living room with a good book and a bag of Lays sour cream and onion potato chips, occasionally tipping my head back to watch benign cumulus clouds float overhead and occasionally get between me and the sun, making the room go comfortably dark for a few minutes. 

Tornadoes!

overshare, writing

This is part of an assignment I wrote for Gemma Files’ Litreactor course, also known as Installment 3 of “Anne Picks Horror Writers Who Are Dedicated and Wildly Supportive Teachers and Also Wonderful Humans,” after Brad Carter and Stephen Graham Jones – two other professional writers I greatly admire who gave me some kickass guidance.

We were asked to really drill down into three to five moments in our lives in which we were genuinely afraid. This was the fear that I wound up working with for my story, which has since jumped right on over the reasonable word count of a short story and is barreling toward being a full-on novella. 

It’s been an odd couple of months in which I’ve spent most of my free time either working on the story or watching Youtube videos of ballet dancers and tornadoes (both for story purposes). I hope I’ll be able to point you toward that finished piece soon, and that I’m not jinxing it by sharing its seed.

Anyway, here’s the fear.

I spent a good chunk of elementary school convinced I would die in a tornado. It seemed impossible that those things could exist in the world and not destroy me, or at the very least my house. I also have a very specific memory of being confused by the closed captioning icon that would flash in the upper right corner of the TV screen when a show came back from commercial, which I’d somehow convinced myself was a symbol for “tornado watch.” 

This wasn’t exactly a rational fear – the climate I grew up in did occasionally produce tornadoes, but I was in a mountain town tucked up in the Ozarks (in a house with a perfectly sound finished basement, no less), not a farmhouse out in the middle of the Kansas or Oklahoma prairie. We did get lots of thunderstorms, though, and when the Weather Channel told me to watch for tornadoes, I was on. the. case.  

I remember Mom packing us all downstairs – my brother and sister, the dog, and whatever cats we could round up. I also remember the sirens going off once or twice. That sound and the feeling it gave me are what jumped into my mind at the third blast of the Night’s Watch horn in A Song of Ice and Fire – the thing I always knew was lurking out there had finally arrived, and this was not a drill. 

A few years ago, I saw the aftermath of the 2014 Vilonia tornado in central Arkansas where it had crossed I-40. It looked like a giant monster had stomped through the area. Crazy angles in the metal guiderails, trees stripped, crumpled like toothpicks, thrown all around the place, billboards and heaps of sheet metal lying around liked used Kleenexes. But the thing that was somehow even more upsetting about it was that it was such a short diameter of destruction. Maybe a half mile or so. Its path was so incredibly well-defined – a strip of the world torn off revealing absolute chaos underneath.  

When my reptile brain tries to conceive of something touching the cloud-level sky and the ground at the same time, it feels like grabbing some kind of mental third rail. It’s just so cosmically awful. Lightning bolts trip that wire too, but at least lightning is brief. Tornadoes hang out and move around, in unpredictable directions. And they’re not really made of anything except motion. They’re such a perfect kinetic symbol of how completely out-of-control the world is, and how little bargaining power we have with our own fates.   

I don’t panic about tornadoes anymore, but it doesn’t take much climate change science reading at all to make me sick to my stomach.  

Here’s my favorite Youtube tornado (no one gets hurt). 

RHC 2018: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry and The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task 1: Read a western.

Task 2: Read a book of colonial (Lonesome Dove) or postcolonial (The Inconvenient Indian) literature. 

I’m getting behind with my posting! Weirdly not with the reading itself, just with the odd “write a brief term paper” requirement I’ve tacked on to this challenge. I guess I’ve sort of been putting off this post, because it’s a complicated one.

Back in April, I didn’t just read a western, I read the western – all 843 pages of Lonesome Dove. Truthfully, I haven’t had quite that much fun reading anything in quite some time. Lonesome Dove tapped into a part of my reader brain that I sometimes worry I’ve outgrown – that state of being completely engrossed, up way past my bedtime, and just wanting everyone to get out of my way so I can read.

There are going to be major caveats on this, so bear with me.

RHC 2018: Kindred by Octavia Butler

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a classic of genre fiction.

Before I read Kindred, I had a lot of guilt over not reading more Octavia Butler. I don’t have that guilt anymore, because she just got moved off the “I should read” list and onto the “now now now” list. I’m not going to be a person who hasn’t read a ton of Octavia Butler for very much longer.

If you suffer from Octavia Butler-related guilt, Bloodchild (feminist body horror at its squicky, squelchy finest) is online, and you should stop what you’re doing and go read that right now.

Kindred is the story of Dana, a woman who lives in Los Angeles in 1976, who finds herself transported to Maryland in the early eighteen hundreds. Here’s a silly bit of ignorance from me – I did a double take at hearing Maryland repeatedly referred to as the antebellum South. “Isn’t that New England?” I kept asking myself. Nope, and I need remedial geography and history lessons, apparently.

RHC 2018: Nick Cave: Mercy on Me by Reinhart Kleist

overshare, Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: A comic that isn’t published by Marvel, DC, or Image.

Alternate: A comic written and drawn by the same person.

This post got a little out of control in terms of length and amount of navel gazing. It also has very little do to do with the comic. So buckle up.

Reinhart Kleist’s graphic biography Nick Cave: Mercy on Me was the comics equivalent of a pint of Cherry Garcia for me. And I enjoyed a large portion of it during my daughter’s nap with a literal pint of Cherry Garcia (it was a wonderful afternoon).

This is a treat if, and possibly only if, you’re enough of a Nick Cave fan to immediately recognize his lyrics after being translated into German and then back again into English, grin every time Kleist’s art perfectly renders Cave’s constant vampire pout, or enjoy seeing characters from his songs loose and mouthy on the page (though I was disappointed that Kylie Minogue’s blandly virginal Wild Rose made an appearance instead of PJ Harvey’s infinitely more interesting murderess).

I am this target audience.

RHC 2018: Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book about nature. 

I love rainy days. Obviously, there’s nothing like a downpour to compliment a good mope, but rainy days are wonderful for good moods too. Nothing short of winter precipitation makes an interior cozier than the sound of rain on the roof and the sight of it running down the window panes. Imagine the perfect summer afternoon spent with a favorite beverage and a good book and tell me it isn’t raining outside.

Cynthia Barnett’s book Rain is beautifully written, and I had the good luck of reading it during a very rainy early spring week. The book is organized into five sections – Elemental Rain, Chance of Rain, Capturing the Rain, American Rain, and Mercurial Rain. My favorite section was the first, particularly the chapter on rain in religion (“Praying for Rain”). It included all kinds of fascinating interpretations of rain, including a hilltop temple goddess whose three day period kicks off monsoon season. Crowds gather to dip cloth in her sacred menstrual fluids at the Ambubachi Festival. It’s wonderful to see a period get celebrated, you know?

RHC 2018: The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book of true crime. 

My second job post-college was a part time circulation clerk position in the library where I’m now a fancypants real live librarian. That was where I first encountered Ann Rule’s books–lurid titles and book jackets that caused a hopeless mess over in 364.1 as patrons constantly picked through them trying to figure out which ones they’d already read.

I didn’t think much of them. They looked tacky.

But after my fourth challenge read this year, I realized I had accidentally read four male authors in a row. I wanted to restore some balance. Ann Rule isn’t the only female true crime writer out there, but she was the first name that came to mind, followed by a deep sigh of resignation. Fine. I’d read her. It would indeed be pushing my own boundaries and “reading harder.”

But I’d never heard of The Stranger Beside Me. I did not know that Ann Rule had worked a suicide hotline next to Ted Bundy. I didn’t know that they’d maintained a friendship even as Rule landed a book contract for several of his unsolved murders before Bundy had surfaced on anyone’s radar as a suspect. I didn’t know that she had sent him money for his commissary almost up to the day of his execution. This book was fascinating.

RHC 2018: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book published posthumously.

Alternate: Read a book set in one of the BRICS countries (Russia).

There is so much to love in this book–anthropomorphic gun-wielding cats, gloriously unrepentant witches, mass public nudity, vampires, pirates, hellish torment in the form of involuntary chorales, literal blood baths, etc. Woland and Co. are some of the finest emissaries of the Pit since Goethe’s Mephistopheles, and I spent most of the novel thusly:

That said, in spite of how damn funny the book is, I was painfully aware of how little of its satire I was able to unlock. I got some of the low-hanging fruit, like the poor bastard who asks Satan for an attendance certificate proving he was at a Walpurgis ball with all the company of Hell (even Satan himself bows to bureaucracy). I could chuckle at the ongoing sendup of the Moscow literati. I thoroughly enjoyed the bizarre episode in which a man is packed off to Hell (presumably), leaving behind his suit, which continues handling business from his desk. But there’s clearly so much more happening that I don’t have the context for that makes it such an enduring favorite in Russia.

That didn’t stop me from having a wonderful time reading this, but I feel like I should acknowledge how much likely went flying over my head. And speaking of flying, I knew there was an anthropomorphic demon cat, which I’m always happy to show up for, but I did NOT expect so many little spikes of what certainly appeared to be feminism. I’m also pretty sure that a lot of academic ink has been spilled on this topic, and probably in a much more nuanced fashion.

But here’s my hot take anyway. When Margarita finds herself transformed into a witch with powers of flight, I assumed that we’d be headed toward a storyline in which the Master sought to rescue her from Satan’s clutches.

Nope. Margarita decides that flying around in the nude wreaking (fairly nonviolent) havoc is a blast, and she quite happily agrees to perform hostess duties at “Satan’s ball.” While there, Margarita meets a woman condemned to hell after strangling the baby that resulted from a rape. “And where is he?” she asks pointedly.

She never repents, either. For anything. And things end well for her (peace, if not light, which isn’t half bad). It’s delicious to read.

RHC 2018: Leonard by William Shatner and Vacationland by John Hodgman

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a celebrity memoir.

This is my second year doing this challenge, and I’m off to a great start. I’m only two months late getting started (compared to four last year), and I accidentally read and thoroughly enjoyed two books that fit the task I was least excited about. It’s gonna be a great year.

Leonard by William Shatner (chosen for the book club I facilitate at work) made me finally feel like I have a handle on Star Trek. I hate to admit this, but I have only the barest cultural-consciousness-level understanding of Star Trek. I mean, I like the idea of Star Trek, but Star Wars wins out for me on the technicality that I’ve actually watched the original Star Wars trilogy. Star Trek felt like a project on the level of learning Tagalog–the kind of thing that would require substantial dedication, time, and repetition to get a true handle on.

And so I just sort of know character names, that there were whales in one of the movies, and that I have to be careful to remember that Patrick Stewart and William Shatner are different people (I KNOW, stop throwing things at me!).

RHC 2018: The Devourers by Indra Das

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book set in or about one of the five BRICS countries (India).

Oh my goodness. This magnificent beast of a book. This beautiful, stinking, terrifying love story. Just go read it right now.

Okay. A college professor named Alok is approached by a mysterious stranger at a baul performance in Kolkata. The stranger claims he is “half werewolf,” and wants to share his story. After a tantalizing tale, he gives Alok two manuscripts and asks him to transcribe them.

If you’re thinking, oh, cool, an Indian werewolf version of Interview with a Vampire, you’re not exactly right, but if that sounds fun to you, you will enjoy this. Greatly. It’s hard to avoid Anne Rice comparisons. This, like Rice’s work, is a book where you see, smell, touch, and taste something in every sentence (and often something very unpleasant, at that). It is a very different sensory palette than the one that Rice uses, though, and Das has a very distinct style. It’s also a much more measured story than Rice’s sprawling multivolume epics, clocking in at just over 300 pages with generous amounts of white space.

That sensory palette includes a lot of excrement and rotting meat, incidentally. Das’s werewolves are messy.

Read Harder 2017 Challenge – My Finished List

Read Harder Challenge 2017

I did Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge last year (okay, fine, and the first two months of this year), and I can’t recommend it enough. For me, it was a way to keep my adult brain at least intermittently online during our Planet Baby year, but it also pushed me out of my comfort zone and introduced me to a lot of stuff I might not have encountered otherwise.

You should try it (2018 tasks here).

There are plenty of normal ways to track your progress that don’t involve, say, personal blogging like it’s 2007 for a total of some 22,000 words, but here we are, if you have some time to kill and a high tolerance for lengthy tangents.

  1. Read a book about sports: My Losing Season by Pat Conroy
  2. Read a debut novel: American War by Omar El Akkad
  3. Read a book about books: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Carlos Ruiz Zafón
  4. Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author: The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa
  5. Read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative: My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci
  6. Read an all-ages comic: Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur Volume 1: BFF
  7. Read a book published between 1900 and 1950: Cane by Jean Toomer
  8. Read a travel memoir: An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie
  9. Read a book you’ve read before: Maus by Art Spiegelman
  10. Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location: Lightning Bug by Donald Harington
  11. Read a book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location: Touching My Father’s Soul by Jamling Tenzing Norgay
  12. Read a fantasy novel: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
  13. Read a nonfiction book about technology: From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty
  14. Read a book about war: On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill on War and Society by Dave Grossman
  15. Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+: Lizard Radio by Pat Schmatz
  16. Read a book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country: And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
  17. Read a classic by an author of color: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  18. Read a superhero comic with a female lead: America Volume 1: The Life and Times of America Chavez
  19. Read a book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey: Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese
  20. Read an LGBTQ+ romance novel: The Sublime and Spirited Voyage of Original Sin by Colette Moody
  21. Read a book published by a micropress: Beneath the Surface of Things by Kevin Wallis
  22. Read a collection of stories by a woman: A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
  23. Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love: Victims of a Map: A Bilingual Anthology of Arabic Poetry
  24. Read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color: Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

RHC 2017: The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017(ish) for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author.

Okay, technically I finished this in February 2018. But this challenge isn’t graded, so I’m counting it. No one can stop me.

The War of the End of the World is a kaleidoscopic novel about the War of Canudos in the sertão region of Brazil near the turn of the century. It includes a staggeringly large cast of characters, a slippery timeline, and rich, dense writing. The translation I read was beautiful, but man was it chewy. I shot myself in the foot by being in a hurry to finish this in order to finish the 2017 challenge (which literally no one asked me to do, and no one even more emphatically ever asked me to write twenty-four term papers while I was at it). This isn’t the kind of book you can read in a hurry, and I wouldn’t recommend tackling it on a deadline.

In case you’re as unfamiliar with this history as I was, the War of Canudos was a bloody civil war fought between the thirty thousand or so followers of Antônio Conselheiro and the nascent Brazilian republic from 1895-1898. Antônio Conselheiro, simply the Counselor in the novel, was a charismatic religious figure who managed to amass a huge following by wandering around rural and extremely economically depressed regions of the state of Bahia. From there, an armed encounter between a small group of soldiers and a band of the Counselor’s followers led to a rapidly escalating conflict between the government desperate to quash anything remotely monarchist-leaning and a huge doomsday cult waiting for a prophecy involving King Sebastian of Portugal returning from the dead to be fulfilled.

RHC 2017: Victims of a Map: A Bilingual Anthology of Arabic Poetry

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love. 

Okay. This selection of fifteen poems each by three of the most prominent modern Arab poets is wonderful. I’ve read it several times since I ordered it in May 2017, but I haven’t had any idea where to even start with this post.

I’m going to try to write out some of my thoughts about this, but I feel a little bit like a gerbil trying to explain Shakespeare (and working from a translation of Shakespeare’s English into Gerbish, for that matter). Oh, and in this analogy I’m a gerbil that knows absolutely nothing about the social context of Elizabethan England, or, like, what a stage is.

But here’s what I’ve got. The poems of Mahmud Darwish and Samih al-Qasim, both Palestinian, ache all over the page. Both poets tackle personal and cultural displacement and shattered identity. Darwish’s imagery is very physical – soil, seas, sky. The phrase “the country” is frequently repeated. He also repeatedly uses the land as a medium for birth and death, and several of his poems call forward and backward across generations.

al-Qasim’s style, on the other hand, is incredibly spare. Several of his works are extremely short–some are only two lines long. While the dominant emotion I picked up on from Darwish was profound grief (“We Are Entitled to Love Autumn”), al-Qasim’s work read to me as defiantly hopeful (“Don’t Waste the Tickets”).

Adonis appeared to me to be the most formally adventurous of the three, and the most (technically) challenging. Dreams and mirrors are frequent figures, and several poems are structured as dialogs. His range also includes very brief poems (“Worries” was one of my favorites) and one quite long poem “The Desert” that reminded me a bit of Walt Whitman.

Most of the books I read for this challenge made me really chatty. This one didn’t. I strongly recommend it–it’s powerful stuff. But this was a listening read for me rather than a talking one, if that makes sense.

How I ‘Became a Writer,’ or alternatively, Buckets of Unicorns

overshare, writing

I decided to be a professional writer in kindergarten. Inspired by the Whisper the Winged Unicorn series, my best buddy and I made a pact to produce books of interest to both kids and adults. I would be responsible for the words and she for the illustrations. At the time, the pictures were the much more salient portion, and I remember feeling grumpy about being stuck on serif duty. But you couldn’t have a book without words, and she was the better artist, so I went along with it.

Whisper the Winged Unicorn combined the two most desirable traits of my My Little Ponies (favorites here and here and here and here). Who knew what other worlds could be imagined in a universe of such infinite possibility?

So, yeah, writer, speculative fiction, early on. Settled.

RHC 2017: Beneath the Surface of Things by Kevin Wallis

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book published by a micropress.

I put this task off for a long time, until I was basically down to a couple of comic books, three poems, and a really long Mario Vargas Llosa book that I’m still not sure I’m going to finish by the end of the year. I’m ashamed of the reason. It’s not that I think micropresses don’t publish incredible work. They do. Frequently. But I have an unfair bias toward them involving me being afraid of assuming more risk in my reading selections. Bluntly, I didn’t want to read something awful.

I know, I know. This is a terrible attitude that’s hurting markets willing to take risks that more commercial enterprises can’t or won’t, and that’s hurting me by limiting my reading pile. I’m working on myself. Bear with me.

I’m happy to report that I did not read something awful. I read Kevin Wallis’ collection of short stories, Beneath the Surface of Things, which was not awful. I somehow missed in the book’s description that these were straight-up horror short stories, and as such it made a wonderful warm up exercise for my upcoming course on writing horror fiction through the University of Colorado.

I particularly enjoyed the first story in the collection, which had some legitimately freaky imagery involving a dead jogger and an unexpectedly upbeat ending. There was also a Lovecrafty story involving geocaching gone terribly wrong that I thought was quite a bit of fun, as well as a very sweet Civil War ghost story that opens with a severed foot in a stocking (seriously, it’s a sweet story), and a spooky possession/haunted house tale. There’s a theme of failure to protect loved ones running throughout the book. It’s not the cheap chauvinistic “protect the women and children” trope that horror so often uses as such a cheap crutch, either. It includes brothers, best friends, and other loved ones all over the spectrum of human relationships. So points awarded there.

I did wish that the author hadn’t mentioned in his author notes which stories had been rejected, which stories he wasn’t confident in, etc. It’s so easy to influence a reader’s opinion. The same story can be eye-rollingly bad when it’s freshly yanked out of the slush pile and mind-bendingly amazing when it’s nicely formatted and headlining a major journal. There’s no reason in letting a reader in on the writer’s uncertainty about a piece, because it colors the perception of a story that the reader might have liked the best otherwise.

More generally, I feel weird about author commentary on short stories. Sometimes it’s nice background information, but sometimes it’s deeply unnecessary and uncomfortably narcissistic. If it’s important to the author that I know something, it needs to be in the text itself. The commentary in this book wasn’t overly navel-gazely or anything, but there were a few where it felt like Wallis was shooting himself in the foot for no good reason.

So yeah. I’d like to get a little more comfortable with small presses and micropresses, because I know there’s a ton of interesting stuff happening there that I’d like to explore. This book was a solid start.

RHC 2017:My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration theme.

I attended a Montessori school through first grade. One of the most hotly contested activity stations involved tracing and coloring enormous maps, and I have strong sense memories of sitting on the brown carpet, laboriously outlining Paraguay. Unfortunately, my sense of world geography remained strongly rooted in those memories, which were made in the mid-1980s before the U.S.S.R.  and Yugoslavia dissolved.

I recently started trying to be a less terrible American and one who generally knows where things are in the world (Seterra is the site I used – it’s fun, if humbling), and I was shocked to find myself in better shape with the Middle East and Africa than I was with Eastern Europe. I remember reading Zlata’s Diary in fifth or sixth grade and being profoundly shaken by the thought that a fellow child diarist of the waning twentieth century could be in a war zone. That horrifying realization that universe could randomly drop someone into a violent conflict like that stayed with me, but unfortunately the details of the Bosnian War or the larger sociopolitical landscape of the Balkans did not.

I’m an adult and I’m embarrassed by how much googling I had to do to piece together the context of this Finnish novel, though I am glad to have been prodded into nailing down very, very broad strokes. My Cat Yugoslavia consists of two narrative strands. One is told from the perspective of Emine, a young Albanian woman in Kosovo, and follows her from the abrupt end of her childhood through her marriage to a difficult, borderline abusive husband to her family’s emigration to Finland, where they find a less than warm welcome as Balkan refugees.