Monthly Archives: January 2010

Short Stories on Sunday: The One-Armed Queen by Jane Yolen

This short story picks up where Yolen’s Sister Light, Sister Dark and White Jenna leave off. I have read neither but have heard they are good. The Gender Wars are over, White Jenna and her husband King Carum are assumed dead and their three children are fighting to replace them. Scillia is an adopted daughter, The One-Armed Queen. This story gives the history of Scillia’s adoption, the context of the Gender wars, and Scillia’s journey to gather supporters and assume the throne. In addition to narrative the story is told through myth, legend, and song.

After publishing this story Yolen wrote it into the third book of the series.
Sister Light, Sister Dark (Book One of the Great Alta Saga)White Jenna (Book Two of the Great Alta Saga)The One-Armed Queen (Books of Great Alta)


Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambhala Pocket Classics)

Finishing this book on writing I realized that it could teach me about life as well. Writing Down the Bones is a series of short essays on writing and ways to open up and just let your voice out onto the paper-you have to practice you have to believe in yourself. I originally frantically compiled books on writing. I was having a moment of panic-well a series of moments over a span of about a week about a paper I was writing for work. I was looking for a particular book on writing to kind of get me started because as a researcher if you don’t understand something, what do you do but look up the answer. I stalked around bookstores browsing the table of contents, crept through the library reading jacket covers, and surfed online to see what other folks were reading. I rifled through a few books but they weren’t what I was looking for. Goldberg gives us funny stories about writing and life-what worked for her and what did not. So as an exercise similar to those she provides I decided to write this review-no editing, non-stop, and no fear.

Someone At A Distance by Dorothy Whipple

“A grain or two of sand can start a downward trickle on the sand-hills which eventually alters the shape of the immediate scene”

Ellen North is a loving mother and wife. She runs her home, lavishes her two children with love, is blissfully happy in her post-war English country home. It is said that her garden provides the best insight into her mood and her home is always filled with fresh cut flowers. Her husband Avery is a publisher, her daughter Anne is away at school and is crazy about her horse Roma. Hugh the oldest child serves in the Army. All things are as they should be.

We first meet the family through Avery’s mother, old Mrs. North, whose husband has died. She decides to place an ad for a companion which is answered by a young French woman, Mademoiselle Louise Lanier. Of course Louise is beautiful and old Mrs. North is smitten by her. For others, Louise leaves a decidedly bad taste. She is rude, demanding, and parades around like some sort of princess when really she is from a provincial French town and is the daughter or a bookseller. This standing in her town has ensured that she was dumped by her love interest for a woman of more appropriate standing. This fuels Louise through the book. We are never really sure what she wants, nothing seems to satisfy her-money, affection, attention, things, the pain she causes others.

“There are times in our lives when the slightest move is dangerous”

At old Mrs. North’s death Louise is given 1000 pounds and must stay in England to secure her inheritance. During this spell Louise intentionally attracts Avery’s attention. Ellen is unaware, she has never had a reason to not trust Avery. Though she does not particularly like Louise she makes allowances and convinces herself be cordial and hopes for a friendship. Initially Avery is not interested, then is becomes angry, then he he falls for Louise’s flirtations and off we go with scandal and the beginnings of a new predicament for both Ellen and Louise.

Flipping through the Persephone catalog this seemed like a pretty normal story of fairly normal interest. In fact, it wasn’t one of my first choices but since it was published as a classic it was easy to get a hold of here in the US. It of course sat on my shelf for a while. I’d heard plenty about Dorothy Whipple since coming to know Persephone and she is recommended by many. I quite enjoyed Someone At A Distance. The characters are well developed and the ordinary plot is extraordinarily written. While their reasons are not always rational, Whipple makes us equally aware of each character’s perspective. Ellen is able to maintain her relationship with her children and work out a new life for herself and generally seemed to be moving on, though she remained hopeful that Avery would come to his senses and do the right thing. She refused to be demeaned and she remained composed for her children. But I wasn’t at all expecting the ending, I think I’m mad about it!

A Teaser

teaser tuespic

It is 1899 and the Texas heat keeps most people inside but Calpurnia has decided to become a naturalist. She goes to the library to request Darwin’s The Origin of Species

    I wanted to weep with rage and humiliation, but I refused to cry in front of the old bat. I left the library in a purple froth and found Harry lounging in front of the general store. He looked at me with concern. I scratched the welts that had popped up on my neck and yelled, “What is the point of a library if they won’t give you a book?”

From The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

Sandition by Jane Austen

Sandition is Jane Austen’s last work, unfinished before her death in 1817 and originally published in 1925. Mr. and Mrs. Parker have begun a development off the coast not too far from London that they have named Sandition. They believe it will be the next ‘it’ town, it is where they have made their home and they are actively recruiting distinguished families to live (or at least vacation) amongst them and spend their money at the new settlement. One day while traveling the pair have an accident in their carriage and Mr. Parker suffers a sprain. Luckily they are met by Mr. Heywood and are cared for by his family. Mr. Parker tells them all about Sandition and invites them for a visit. The Heywoods decline, sighting that there are always towns of these shorts springing up everywhere and that they don’t particularly like to leave their home, but send along their daughter Charlotte. When she arrives she finds that there are not many families there. The Parkers also seem dismayed that they are unsuccessful in recruiting new inhabitants or at least seaside vacationers. Over the few days that she is there guests begin to trickle in. And the observant Charlotte begins to deconstruct them all in what seems to be Austen’s beginnings of a social commentary.

I suppose I am going about reading Austen’s work a bit backward. This is only my second Austen novel after having read Persuasion last year. I’ve read that Sandition has been completed by “another lady”. I have not read her completion of this work. The Hesperus edition is simply Austen’s words and it sadly ends just as the story is beginning. We don’t really know what will happen and there really seem to be no hints but it some ways it is nice to guess. There are many different characters being introduced in the 12 chapters Austen penned. All of which seem to have drastically different personalities and backgrounds. Charlotte seems like she would have been the star of this book. And then there is a Mr. Sidney Parker who we heard only a bit about and who appears at Sandition just as the snippet of a novel ends. He is of course young, handsome, and expected to liven the place up.

I received this book for review from Hesperus Press via the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. An elegant little edition with french flaps. I’m still pondering the bird on the front. I have another book The Calligraphers’ Night published by Hesperus with an equally nice design that I want to read this week.
LibraryThing Early Reviewers

Short Stories on Sunday: The Sun, The Moon, The Stars by Junot Diaz

Short stories are a quick way to break up or change the pace of your reading. Or I’ve found that this week in particular short stories have been great when I didn’t have extended blocks of time for reading. The story I read today I found in a collection of stories called The Beacon Best of 1999: Creative Writing by Women and Men of All Colors. This collection is edited by Ntozake Shange, whom I really enjoy.

The first story I read was The Sun, The Moon, The Stars by Junot Diaz. Junior is a Dominican-American man who through a hasty indiscretion with another woman is now having troubles with his girlfriend Magda. The thing is he didn’t even tell her about it because he thought it was over but Cassandra has written a very detailed letter telling Magda all about their escapades. Junior tells us that the affair happened when he and Magda weren’t doing so well in their relationship but had since improved. After this rough patch things were great between the two, they visited each other often going out on dates and visiting their parents. He thought things had blown over but he was wrong. The story is about Junior’s efforts to patch his relationship with Magda, whom he says is really the one for him.

I liked Diaz’ writing style, it felt like Junior was telling me the story like I might have known him. His descriptions of his side of the story were not really heart warming or meant to illicit sympathy but seemed to come from a person who understood that a mistake had been made.

Diaz received the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for the novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I haven’t read this one but it is on my list.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger was my first Sarah Waters novel. It is part ghost story, part historical fiction, and mostly social commentary (I can’t promise that there aren’t spoilers up ahead).

In post war Britain, we meet Dr. Faraday, a local general practitioner, as he is called to a case at Hundreds Hall. As he approaches we learn that he last visited as a young boy when his mother was a maid there. He has fond memories of his time there but quickly realizes that the glory has begun to fade. In the large and declining house lives Mrs. Ayres and her two children Roderick and Caroline. Roderick is now the head of the estate and Caroline tends to her mother’s health. The house is definitely of another time-it is large, the furnishings are grand, and the family is finding it difficult to maintain it’s splendor and run the estate in the current economy. When their normal doctor is unavailable, Dr. Faraday is asked to see a young servant named Betty who has been complaining of ailments. After some conversation it is evident that Betty is simply homesick though she is concerned about a mysterious feeling throughout the house. Let the ghostly happenings begin.

After this initial visit, Dr. Faraday, also a bachelor, begins to spend increasing amounts of time at Hundreds Hall sometimes for medical visits but mostly for personal reasons. The family comes to expect and welcome his visits and his company and things seem to be generally pleasant until a series of strange and inexplicable events begin to happen. Whether it is ghosts, paranormal activity or simply the creakings of a degenerating house, the answers (if there are any) are slowly woven amid Waters’ details.

The strongest idea in the book was that of social position. Dr. Farday was born into a family of working people where money was often in short supply. Faraday seems to resent his position even recounting an event at school where he was embarrassed by his parents even after they struggled to pay for his education. Even decades after his visits to Hundreds Hall as a young boy, Faraday still struggles with attempts to move to a higher social class. Even after establishing himself as a local physician he can never fully move. Socially he remains beneath his companions at Hundreds Hall. This is often painfully obvious to himself and the Ayres family. I think it means that cultural and social ideas die hard-that no matter how poor the Ayres’ have become they are still placed amid the good graces of their social class. The Ayres and their crumbling house represent a group of aristocrats that are disappearing during this time, yet they represent an age that refuses to leave quietly is quickly becoming out of date. As the class issues shift and people like Dr. Faraday are able to somewhat move their positions, what good are they as a separate and elite class. They just can’t seem to patch up the crumbling house and estate affairs but refuse to see that everyone is aware of their position, even going to great lengths to save face.

About half way through, I hit a wall and began to find it difficult to finish, I suppose I was having a hard time seeing the point. Waters does a wonderful job of building the suspense, not that the story is scary but there are lulls and then she builds the story exploring the characters’ motives and decisions. This exploration only happens through the eyes of Faraday and as the book moved on I wondered if I could really trust his motives, his actions, and his account of the story. Anyhow, I moved past my wall and finished and re-read the last chapter thinking: “Really!” (in a good way)

Some passages I marked

      The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all. Imagine something loosening itself from one of those corners. Let’s call it a-a germ. And let’s say conditions prove right for that germ to develop-to grow, like a child in the womb. What would this little stranger grow into? A sort of shadow-self, perhaps; a Caliban, a Mr Hyde. A creature motivated by all the nasty impulses and hungers the conscious mind had hoped to keep hidden away: things like envy, and malice, and frustration…

      But the thing in her hand as not quite silent, after all. As she raised her cup to her ear she could hear, coming from it, a faint moist susurration-as if wet silk, or something fine like that, were being slowly and haltingly drawn through the tube. The sound, she realized with a shock, was that of a laboured breath, which kept catching and bubbling as if in a narrow, constricted heat throat. In an instant she was transported back, twenty-eight years…

      She said families like ours, they had a-a responsibility, they had to set an example. She said, if we couldn’t do that, if we couldn’t be better and braver that ordinary people, then what was the point of us?

      The Ayreses’ problem-don’t you think? is that they can’t, or won’t adapt. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve a lot of sympathy for them. But what;s left for an old family like that in England nowadays? Class-wise, they’ve all their chips. Nerve-wise, perhaps they’ve run their course.

The Little Stranger was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize. I’ve read around the blogosphere that many folks enjoy Waters’ other novels and I can see why.

Wild Seed by Octavia Butler

“At these times more than any others, he felt again utterly alone, forever alone, longing to die and be finished. What was he, he wondered, that he could have anything at all but an end?”

Though it was published fourth,Wild Seed is chronologically the first book in the Patternist or Patternmaster series. It tells the story of two immortal entities. Doro, male, was born human but is able to move his spirit or consciousness into different human bodies. Being alive causes wear on the bodies he inhabits and he must constantly search for and change bodies, killing the spirit that lives within them. He wears the bodies like clothing, yet he remains himself. Unlike Doro, Anyanwu is a healer. She is able to heal herself and others by understanding the ways in which bodies function and the ways medicines work. Anyanwu is also a shapeshifter. She can take the form of any creature or person, not by killing them but by understanding their make up and the way they work and transforming her own body. Both are centuries old, both are powerful but startlingly vulnerable to the throws of loneliness yet they have completely opposite reasons for living. Interestingly these all-powerful beings genuinely need each other, even if they don’t always see eye to eye.

Th story takes place over the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries amidst the slave trade and the colonial establishment of North America. Doro has been working for years to create a perfect race of people by breeding those with desirable characteristics. Creating settlements and colonies in Africa and in the New World his settlements fear and respect him. He demands it and in some ways is treated as if a God. These are characteristics that might manifest themselves as mental illness, sensitivities and the like that are of course shunned but truly hide power. Some of his ‘children’ are his own, some are the product of inbreeding. Doro will do whatever it takes to create the perfect mix. He is not hesitant to kill if his people disobey or if they fail to produce. He has yet to succeed in breeding someone or something that is exactly like him. Many have useful powers but most are unable to successfully control them. After learning that one of his settlements has been ravaged Doro accidentally discovers and finds hope and a potential servant in Anyanwu.

Butler writes with immense insight and gives us things to think about. There is a bit of mythology, the story of creation, and filling of historical gaps. It is a story of love and family that explores tensions between gender constructions, race, religion, and ethics. I have no idea what the other stories are about or what will happen in them but whatever it is Doro and Anyanwu’s world will be shaped by the choices that are made.

Only discovering Butler last year after a suggestion from a very good friend, I’m in love. I’ve read Fledgling, Kindred, and a short story compilation, Bloodchild and Other Stories. It makes me wish I’d been blogging then so I could get down what I thought of her work. It resonates with me. Butler is able to explore social aspects that might normally go untouched. I’ve noticed (in my limited science fiction and fantasy reads) that the genre is an excellent space to explore these tough subjects, or maybe it’s just that I’ve only read the work of female authors.

Books 1,2,4,& 5 of the Patternmaster series have been compiled in Seed To Harvest published by Warner Books in 2007. The 3rd book Survivor is sadly out of print. According to the internet Butler did not like this book as it was very techy and she did not want it printed again. Thus prices for second hand copies are ridiculously high and the only copy in the library does not circulate…I’m thinking weekly reading appointments will need to be made.

  • Patternmaster (1976)
  • Mind of My Mind (1977)
  • Survivor (1978)
  • Wild Seed (1980)
  • Clay’s Ark (1984)

  • Through The Wire: The Words and Lyrics of Kanye West

    Browsing the recent acquisitions shelves in my library branch, I came across this book. About the size of a children’s picture book Through The Wire contains the lyrics of Hip-Hop star Kanye West. In addition to the lyrics of 12 songs are Kanye’s reminisces about his life growing up, explanations for the meanings of his words, and events that were happening at the time of the song. We get a glimpse of how Kanye got his start in the music business and a bit of how he sees the world.
    The book jacket describes this as a graphic memoir using the songs to tell a story. I’m familiar with all of the songs. I had Kanye on heavy rotation in undergrad, but I was more interested in his comments for each song. I enjoyed those the most and would have liked to see more. Bill Plympton provides illustrations for each of the songs.

    NAACP Image Awards-Literature Nominees

    The nominees for the NAACP Image Awards for literature have been announced. The only one that I’ve read is The Book of Night Women by Marlon James (loved it!). The complete list is here. Other categories for awards include Motion Picture, Television, Writing/Drama, and Recording. The award show airs February 26.