Claire of The Sea Light is an ensnaring, beautiful, and evocative novel by Hatian-American author Edwidge Danticat. I was immediately drawn into the n...moreClaire of The Sea Light is an ensnaring, beautiful, and evocative novel by Hatian-American author Edwidge Danticat. I was immediately drawn into the narrative by the first paragraph, and did not put it down until I was done, four hours later. Claire of the Sea Light is less about the titular character and more about the intersecting lives of members of a small seaside town/village in Haiti, Ville Rose. It’s also about the legacies parents leave their children, in both presence and absence.
Claire Limyè Lanmè Faustian’s mother died the day Claire was born, a loss both her and her father have carried for years. At the open of the novel, the town’s wealthy fabric shop owner, Gaëlle, has just decided, finally, that she will take Claire and adopt her, as her father has been hoping she would for several years. He wants Claire to have a better life than what he, a poor fisherman living in a shack by the sea, can give her and this is the only way he knows how. Just when Gaëlle accepts Claire, Claire disappears. That this happens in the first chapter provides the reader with a great impetus to keep reading, even as new characters are introduced seemingly out of nowhere. What follows is a portrait of a town and its varied but connected inhabitants. We do not return to the night that Claire disappears until the final chapter, but readers who skip ahead just to find out what happens will miss out on all of the nuances of emotion and characters that lead to what happens on the beach that night. In other words, they will miss out on what makes this such a beautiful and engrossing novel.
If at at first the novel seems more like a collection of loosely related short stories, the reader should keep reading. It becomes more and more obvious that the town is a character like the others, and it is what binds them all together. However, perhaps because of this, the coalescence of characters and events is less coherent than one might like. One of the story lines I was most interested in was simply dropped, and in the end, the reader is left not knowing the fates of characters she has been invited to invest quite a bit of emotion in. But that is the purview of fiction showing lives in progress, lives that are unfinished or only just begun. Like the radio show Louise George hosts, Danticat shows us the moments where people’s lives change for the better or worse, and leaves us with the hope that everything will turn out all right for these people whose stories we have come to love.
Danticat’s writing is precise but not spare, and highly evocative. In one paragraph, she conjures Ville Rose with master strokes of description and detail. It takes other authors pages, sometimes chapters, to accomplish what Danticat does in a single paragraph. Critics have compared her style in this novel to that of a fable, but I’m not sure I agree. Her writing is timeless, as are her themes, but there is also a slow yet perpetual movement that comes across more strongly than that of the staid fables she sometimes invokes. It is the choices that these characters make that propel them forward or let them slip backward in their circumstances. While reading, I was reminded of Behn Zeitlin’s quietly amazing film Beasts of the Southern Wild because of the tenderness, frankness, and pride with which Danticat simultaneously treats and gives to her characters. Both the movie and Danticat’s novel deal with issues of pride, place, family, poverty, death, circumstance, and the legacies parents leave their children.
I have not read any of Danticat’s other work. I know it will be different in some respects, but if all of her writing is as lush and evocative as Claire of The Sea Light, I can’t wait to start reading. This is one of the best novels I have read this year and I cannot recommend it highly enough.(less)
This book is kind of amazing. It deals with weaponized rape in a thinly veiled African country set in the not-too-far future. But it also has magic an...moreThis book is kind of amazing. It deals with weaponized rape in a thinly veiled African country set in the not-too-far future. But it also has magic and love and humanity. Full review to come, but I highly recommend this novel if you are looking for strong female leads and are tired of white-washed fantasy. Excellent book.
My foray into the fantasy section of the bookstore was due entirely to the arresting cover art of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart. I saw it, opened to about the middle and began reading. I stood there for at least an hour. I couldn’t put it down, and I couldn’t afford it at the time. When my shoulders began to ache from my heavy backpack, and I finally noticed the odd looks the salesgirl was giving me, I reluctantly put the book back, determined to come back for it as soon as I got my next pay check. I cam back about a week and a half later, hoping that it would still be there, not knowing what I would do if it wasn’t. It was. I bought it stuffed it into my already overstuffed bag and went home. I read the whole thing in one sitting. It was my First Book in the adult fantasy genre, and I’ve been trying to recapture that thrill ever since.
I read some YA fantasy as a kid, sure. I even managed to find some of the good stuff, like Tanith Lee. But SF/F was not a section I usually bothered with until Carey rocked my little world. I’ve of course read all of her other books and can’t wait to get my hands on her latest, Agents of Hel: Dark Currents, which comes out tomorrow (once again, I’m broke and thus have to wait till my library reservation shows up). I’ve also tried to find more heroines like Phedre, more writers like Carey. There are few out there. It’s no secret that both the Science/Speculative Fiction and Fantasy genres are dominated by male writers and male protagonists. This is not to say that there aren’t excellent female writers in the genre, or that a male writer can’t write a strong female lead (though, off the top of my head I can’t think of any in the latter category). Only one author thus far has come close to Carey and her heroines: N.K. Jemisin. Her excellent Inheritance trilogy quickly became a favorite (I’ve written about them here, here, and here), and I devoured the Dreamblood duology. Like Carey, Jemisin has written both male and female leads. Unlike Carey, Jemisin’s worlds aren’t stand-ins for some version of Europe. Carey is a good enough author to not completely white-wash her alterna-Europe, but it wasn’t until the third trilogy in the Kusheline Legacy series that the lead could be considered a Person of Color. Race has been a larger focus and theme of Jemisin’s novels, but not necessarily a blunt point of them.
It was only after reading Jemisin’s work that I added People of Color to my fantasy novel criteria, whether it be the author or the characters depicted. I wanted novels written by women of any race that had strong female leads of any race, but I didn’t want novels that upheld or depicted the status quo regarding race relations. I wanted novels that subverted them or challenged them. It’s harder than you might think to find such a novel, especially when you don’t know how to search for what you want. I was aware of Octavia Butler of course, but I also kind of wanted an author who wasn’t American or British, an author who wasn’t from a colonial power. That’s why I love sites like Io9.com, or when authors themselves recommend novels.
I really don’t remember how I discovered Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (who is Nigerian-American), but doing so changed many things for me. Who Fears Death is the coming-of-age story of Onyesonwu, an ewu child born to a desert wanderer. To be ewu is to be scorned by everyone, to be feared by everyone, to be hated by everyone. To be ewu is to be a child of rape. Onyesonwu is marked as such by her sand-colored skin and hair and her tiger’s eyes, her biological father’s eyes. Onyesonwu’s mother, like the rest of her people. the Okekke, have dark brown skin and the physical characteristics of indigenous African people. The takes place in a post-apocalyptic Africa, though the exact place is not disclosed until the author’s afterword. In Onyesonwu’s world, rape is a weapon wielded by the ruling race, the Nuru, who have yellow-brown skin and straight black hair. Okekke and Nuru religion teach that the Nuru were sent from the sun by the goddess Ani to rule the Okekke people, who in the darkness of the world grew monstrous and destructive. Onyesonwu not only has to confront the everyday racism from nearly everyone she encounters, she also has to confront the everyday sexism of her people. Add to that the fact that she is a sorcerer prophesied to rewrite the Great Book (the religious text that justifies Okekke subjugation and self-hatred), and she’s got a lot to deal with. With the help of her friends, she’ll learn to face anything that comes her way as she journeys toward her past and her future.
Onyesonwu is wholly likable and a sympathetic character, and her world is horrible but inhabitable. That’s probably because her world isn’t that different from the place that inspired it. There is magic, yes, and Okorafor does an excellent job describing it, and using it. Okorafor doesn’t shy away from the harsh reality of Onyesonwu world, but neither does she relish in it. Rape is often used as a piece of scenery, something common that happens in the background in high fantasy novels (here’s looking at you George R.R. Martin). Okorafor does too good a job at bringing the horror of rape and its accompanying shame and rage to her readers. This is no casual rape either; it’s weaponized, meaning that the rape that occurs in this novel is part of a military campaign to further break the spirit of the Okekke people. Magic may be pure fantasy in the novel, but this is not. Fantasy and science/speculative fiction have long been an arena to talk about the current societal ills and injustices, and can in many ways be more powerful than seeing the images or the faces of people victimized on the news. It’s the power of a good storyteller to make you care about her characters, to care about what they care about, and Okorafor is a good storyteller. I haven’t yet read any of her young adult novels, but I just got two of them from the library. I am incredibly excited to have discovered Okorafor, and I would highly recommend Who Fears Death to anyone who is tired of the usual fantasy tropes. But be warned, this book is hard to read at times, as only the best books are.(less)
On a planet with two suns, two nations have been at war with each other for almost as long as each has existed. Centuries of war have affected each co...moreOn a planet with two suns, two nations have been at war with each other for almost as long as each has existed. Centuries of war have affected each country differently, though both continually loose generations of men to the endless war. In Nasheen, women rule; The Queen's word is God's word, and her laws are carried out by highly skilled female assassins known as bel dames. In Chenja, women are the veiled property of men who are to be cared for by fathers, brothers, or husbands. Each country has specialized breeding compounds to provide a continual stream of fresh bodies for the war, but In Chenja, a woman doing anything other than staying at home and veiled is considered indecent and punishable by laws seemingly based on Sharia law. The women in Nasheen at least get to choose what they will do with their life: breed or fight. Nyxnissa so Dasheem has chosen the latter. A stint at the war front left her half dead, but she was "reconstituted" and joined the law and order of the bel dames, carrying out government-contracted bounties and assassinations. The book opens with her crossing from Chenja to Nasheen after a failed contract kills her partner, selling her womb (quite literally) for a ticket across the border. She is broken, bleeding, and completely out of options.
It's a situation Nyx will find herself in many times throughout God's War, Kameron Hurley's bloody take on religious wars and the damage they inflict on those who suffer them. The titular god bears significant resemblance to the god of the Qur'an, which in Hurley's world is called the Kitab (which means book in Arabic; kitabullah is also used in the book, and this is a direct reference to the Qur'an as kitabullah means "the book of God" in Arabic). No one remembers why the war started, but it continues to be fought over religious and ideological differences (different interpretations of the Prophet's words) between the two nations. None of this really matters to Nyx; the only thing that matters to her is bringing in her notes, assassination contracts handed out by the bel dame council and sometimes even the Queen herself. The main story takes place several years after the opening sequence and concerns a note handed out by the latter behind the back of the bel dame council. Nyx takes the note in hope of redemption, but instead opens a can of worms that could obliterate Nasheen's enemy, Chenja or even Nasheen itself.
Speaking of worms, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the tech on this world is mostly organic and relies almost entirely on the use of bugs by magicians and others who can manipulate organic matter. Cars have organic, living hoses and are powered by red beetles. Organic filters surround entire cities and act as doors, but are tailored to let only certain organic matter through. The war is largely fought with organic bursts, biowarfare that unleashes plagues, disease, and other contagens on anyone not inoculated or caught outside the filters (God help them if something explodes inside the filters). Nyx's world is harsh, and anything organic is profitable, including, and sometimes especially, genetic material or body parts (hence the womb). Also on this world are shifters, people who can shape-shift into various animals. Explaining some of this is worth while because like any good SFF writer, Hurley drops you into the middle of Nyx's world and you had better hit the ground running if you want to make heads or tails of anything. She also uses exposition only when necessary, and parsed out in as little space as possible. A line or three here and there, rarely a whole paragraph. And yet it's easy to inhabit Nyx's world; Hurley is thorough without being pedantic. Nyx is a completely likable yet frequently feckless anti-hero. In this she reminds me a bit of Mal from Joss Whedon's excellent but short-lived tv series, Firefly. She's a lot harder than Mal, but just as bumbling sometimes. She's aslo pretty damn kick-ass; just the kind of SFF heroine I like.
While I wouldn't feel comfortable saying that gender politics is a main point of Hurley's story, it plays a significant role. But the novel isn't as skewed as one might expect as she gives voice to the Chenja view of women and the world in the character of Rhys, a Chenjan magician hiding out in Nasheen. The narrative form used allows for Hurley to explore multiple perspectives, and while the novel is certainly tilted in favor of Nasheenian views of women and the world through Nyx, it was nice to be given multiple views. If Hurley can anywhere be accused of too much exposition, it's in the sections from Rhys's POV, mainly because he frequently comments on the differences between Chenjan women and Nasheenian women.
This book stayed with me long after I finished it, and I frequently found myself thinking of Nyx's various horrible situations-how she could get out of them, etc. After I finished God's War, I immediately downloaded the next in the Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy, Infidel. I just finished God's War today, and I'm already half-way through Infidel. The third book in the trilogy will be released in early November, but I've got a NetGalley advance of it, so come back for a review of the next two books soon. This is exactly the kind of hard SF with a female heroine I look for and rarely find. I highly recommend the Kameron Hurley's Bel Dame Apocrypha. (less)
I'm not much of a poetry reader for pleasure, but I've studied enough of it to know what's good. I hadn't encountered Millay's poetry before however,...moreI'm not much of a poetry reader for pleasure, but I've studied enough of it to know what's good. I hadn't encountered Millay's poetry before however, and I sincerely wish I had. Her poetry is simple and beautiful and highly recommended. (less)
Andre Dubus is my favorite American short story writer. In fact, he is one of my few favorite American writers period. He has the realism of Cheever a...moreAndre Dubus is my favorite American short story writer. In fact, he is one of my few favorite American writers period. He has the realism of Cheever and Carver, but more warmth than Carver and Hemingway. His prose is understated and never unnecessary; he is one of the few writers I have read where every word in every sentence, and every sentence is not only necessary, but meaningful as well (Tom Robbins and Virginia Woolf are others). He is worth reading for his prose alone.
Many, if not most, of his stories take place in the New England area, and as such allow for an interesting portrait of that area. I used to want to live in Maine, before I wanted to live in Savannah, GA, so I have some interest in the area itself. Dubus was apparently born in Louisiana, but spent his later years in Haverhill, Massachusettes.
The characters are humanely and fully realized, as if they could be someone you pass on the street. The stories seem like briefly opened windows into the characters' lives. As I said above, Dubus has the realism of Carver and Hemingway, but his prose and his treatment of his characters is much warmer than Hemingway's sparse dialogue or Carver's post-modern coldness. The characters do struggle with how to connect to one another, but it doesn't feel cold, cut off or lifeless; it doesn't feel bleak (even though some of the subject matter certainly is). I don't need warm fuzzies to make me a happy reader, and Dubus offers few of these, but I do need a certain level of humanity to be present in what I read. And it's this, the variety of humanity, that Dubus offers us. (less)
This book is my bible. I first read it for a college class as an undergrad. One of the first books I remember reading was the Symposium. I ended up dr...moreThis book is my bible. I first read it for a college class as an undergrad. One of the first books I remember reading was the Symposium. I ended up dropping that first philosophy class for various reasons. When I came back to school at a different university, I decided to try philosophy again. Synchronicity must have been at work in my choice of professors, as the one I chose became my mentor and my friend. It was in his class that I delved back into Plato and fell in love with them. It would be a massive undertaking, and one I am not prepared to do, to summarize the contents of this book. Instead I will point out notable books, and perhaps a few the general or beginning reader should tackle first.
It would be a very goo idea to start with the Apology. It will give you a sense of who Socrates is, what Athenian society is like at the time, and for the feel of Plato's style. I strongly recommend that readers stick with these translators: Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Their translations is lively and captures Socrates' wit and sometimes subtle humour. After the Apology, the Laches would be a good place to go, as it's centered around the single question of courage, and will give readers a feel for the structure and style of his argument. In general, there are six parts and then the release or conclusion. One interesting thing I've noticed is the importance of the middle section of any given book. This is especially noticeable in the Euthydemus and the Phaedrus. However, I would not recommend trying these two books until you have made it through several of his others. The Symposium is a beautiful book and pairs nicely with the Phaedrus. The Republic is fairly standard reading for many schools, but there is much to be discovered in this lengthy text besides what he says about philosopher kings. The Republic offers a fairly concise presentation of the Forms, or the eidos that are the central tenant of Plato's philosophy. Many people, including the other father of western philosophy, Aristotle, have mistakenly believed that Plato desired to separate the mind and the body, the ideal from the sensual. In the context of the Symposium and the Phaedo, I do not think this is the case at all. I will not however, try to tell you what to think. All I ask (if I can do such a thing) is that you read mindfully, carefully, and critically.
The Euthydemus is perhaps one of my favorite books; it is also the most demanding and existentially terrifying. When reading this book, one must be very aware of language and the meaning of words, for the brother's arguments often turn on a single word. It is also in this text that you can find much of, if not all of the ideas presented in the later dialogues. Perhaps the most difficult book of all however, is the Phaedo because it is in this book that Socrates attempts to describe most directly his concept of the Good--what it is, how we reach it--and a proof for the Forms. This is where we find the argument that "each is in all, and always all." This was one of the last books we covered and it made me feel as if I had lost all the understanding I previously thought I had. It really brought home the other oft quoted piece of wisdom: "wisdom is knowledge of one's own ignorance."
I would highly recommend the dialogues for people who are searching for answers to questions they don't know how to ask. The beautiful thing about Plato's philosophy is that it truly is a philosophy for living. While other philosophies or religions will tell you what steps to take at each and every turn on the path, Plato instead shows you the goal, the ultimate Good, and lets you find your own way there. For those who may think that eastern and western philosophies only and always oppose each other, I'd encourage you to consider Plato in light of Buddhism, and visa versa. (less)
Sebald's work is haunting. There are images and passages that will stay with you forever after reading them. It is very difficult to summarize Sebald'...moreSebald's work is haunting. There are images and passages that will stay with you forever after reading them. It is very difficult to summarize Sebald's books as they cover so many different things in a meandering, seemingly ramdom manner. With Sebald, however, nothing is ever random. This is perhaps more apparent in The Rings of Saturn, which starts and ends, in a way, with Thomas Browne's Urn Burial. The Amazon.com summary will tell you that this is a story of a man named Austerlitz who was put on a train in 1939 in Prague to escape Jewish persecution and was adopted by a Welsh family, who told him nothing of his true identity. The book is Austerlitz's discovery of himself, his past, and his parents told through the lens of an unnamed narrator. All of that is true. But this book is so much more than that. Instead of summarizing Austerlitz, I'll give some of the topics, which are generally common themes in his work.
The first is memory; how it changes, what it is, what it means, and tied directly to it: loss. In a more general sense, Sebald is concerned with the past and its role in our present. One of the most beautiful sections of this book deals with a train station and a WWII Jewish ghetto in Antwerp. Another common theme of Sebald's is walking and experiencing the land. In Austerlitz, Sebald describes (though this is really an inadequate term for what he does) an area of Wales, along the British coastline. One main feature of this area is a house which becomes, in essence, a natural history museum. Another section, near the end, deals with the Bibliotheque National of France, which has just undergone an enormous transformation and relocation. His description of the housing and accessing of the past is both lyrical, and for lack of a better word, heartbreaking. Thinking about it now, I am reminded of the architectural scenes in Terrence Malick's Tree of Life. There is an air of great melancholy and great loneliness in Sebald's prose; yet it is achingly beautiful. All of Sebald's books incorporate photographs; some relate to the material being discussed in the given passage, others do not. The most haunting of these, in Auzterlitz, is a still of a film which shows a blurry image of a woman's face half in shadow. Austerlitz believes this may be his mother.
This book will stay with you, it will haunt you. It will touch your jaded, modern, cynical, heart. It may make you want to weep. He is one of the most powerful writers of this century. Let Sebald take you on a journey; I promise you, you will not regret it. (less)
I received an ARC of this book that came with a little wrapper and a vellum letter, folded and sealed with a wax-seal sticker inside of the book. The...moreI received an ARC of this book that came with a little wrapper and a vellum letter, folded and sealed with a wax-seal sticker inside of the book. The letter was one of the letters written by the main character's father to her mother. The presentation is what primarily interested me in this book (I still have the ARC with the letter, and never bothered to buy another edition). The narrative itself is compelling, even if it does drag a bit in the section on the cyrillic alphabet. It feels more like Kostova wanted to include some really awesome research she had done for a Doctoral thesis, but couldn't figure out how to work it into the main narrative well enough, so just stuck it in instead. This seems to be a fairly common complaint.
That said, the depth of research is one of the novel's strengths. I was intrigued by the historical figure of Vlad the impaler, and this is one thing that kept me reading. I was also entranced by the descriptions of Budapest. I generally enjoy nested narratives, and this was no exception. Due to the way they were presented in the text, I never got confused as to which storyline I was in. The mix of letters and central narrative aided in overall cohesion, where Stoker's Dracula seemed almost too choppy (I realize that this may be one of its points, but there are limits, and Stoker comes close to them). The romance between Paul and Helen is believable, but the romance between their daughter and a fairly random Oxford boy feels thrown in. That the mystery is started by and centers on, to a degree, an unassuming book was aslo a draw for me. In general, this is a wonderful book and one that I will treasure, safe in the knowledge that I read it and enjoyed it before the current vampire craze. I'm old school, you see? (less)
I picked this up at random because it looked interesting and I had some book money saved up. I ended up using part of it in my English 1101 class. My...moreI picked this up at random because it looked interesting and I had some book money saved up. I ended up using part of it in my English 1101 class. My students really enjoyed the section I gave them and really seemed to engage with the style of the writing (we used it during our description/narration unit). The writing is accessible and highly engaging.
The stories themselves are terrible in their simplicity, brutality and beauty. I thought I would just peruse the book and then come back to it later, but I read one entire section in one sitting because I became so wrapped up in one of the stories. I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in American history, but also for anyone who has an interest in human history--in the human cost of racism discrimination, no matter what your skin color or ethnic heritage. This is a wonderfully written and researched book. (less)
This is, hands down, one of the most frightening books I have ever read. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Although it is set in the near future, o...moreThis is, hands down, one of the most frightening books I have ever read. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Although it is set in the near future, one can already see the beginnings of the dominant mentality presented in this book in our own society. What Atwood describes in the end matter is already becoming realized, as far as women's rights regarding their bodies is concerned. Planned Parenthood, birth control, and a woman's right to reproductive health are being attacked by "conservatives" with more and more force today. This book is a warning from the past about the death of our future.
The novel is set in the first-person narrative of an unnamed woman who holds the position of Handmaid in a near future society known as the Republic of Gilead, in which a fundamentalist religious society has taken control of the formerly United States. Part of the horror of the novel is discovering exactly what this society's power structures are and the different, but limited, roles women have to play. The narrator describes both her current situation and her past, which is terrifyingly close to current American society. Part of the wonder of the novel is discovery, so the plot summary must end here. I will say that it is absolutely necessary to read the end matter, or the appendices.
For all of it's terror, the novel is beautiful as well, and there is a pervasive feeling of lightness, of hope throughout. All of Atwood's novels that I have read have this quality, but it is nowhere more apparent than here. You don't have to be a "feminist" or even a woman to read and be terrified by this book. It is a book that everyone needs to read, so that we can recognize the trends that produce this near-future dystopia and stop them before it becomes to late. (less)
I first picked this up mainly based on the cover; I am one of those people who judge books by their covers, and this book's cover is lovely and intrig...moreI first picked this up mainly based on the cover; I am one of those people who judge books by their covers, and this book's cover is lovely and intriguing. I am happy to say that the book did its cover justice. The world is fully realized and well described; I was easily and completely sucked into it. The pacing is fast--by the second chapter, the main character, Yeine, has already left her homeland and arrived at the city of Sky. The pace keeps the story moving and I was never bored. Jemisin's prose is easy and accesible, and her world is quickly but completely sketched.
The characters themselves are easily relatable, even her gods, who are sometimes painted with more humanity than some of the other characters. While the prose, characters, and world may sound rather simple, each is actually fairly complex. There are multiple layers of politics at work in the city of Sky, and I would have like to have stayed in this area for the next book (I am currently reading it, and all I can say thus far is that it takes place several years after the events in the first book, though I know the main gods, at least, return at some point). Even the gods, who are eternal and at times indifferent, are complexly drawn by Jemisin. The build up to the ending felt bigger than the ending itself, but was still satisfying and left me wanting more with these characters.
There is a strong, but not overpowering, element of romance, but the heroine is no sucker for a pretty face (well, that maybe a lie, but you'll have to read it to see what I mean). This is definitely fantasy, but romantic fantasy at its best. I would place it in a category of Jacqueline Carey's Kusheline series, but maybe not quite in that league. However if you want a good, strong female lead, those seemingly rare creatures in fantasy, this is a good book to pick up. (less)