Most of us feel miserable as teenagers, but we often don't understand the depth of those feeliReview originally posted on www.christinavasilevski.com.
Most of us feel miserable as teenagers, but we often don't understand the depth of those feelings until adulthood. This is one of the things that intrigues me most about Jo Walton's Among Others. Mor is aware that she's isolated (being a working-class, Welsh, crippled girl in a posh British boarding school will do that to you) but will the depth of her isolation become truly apparent to her later on as an adult? Among Others is all about Mor's isolation, her roiling thoughts, and her one coping mechanism: Reading a ton of science fiction and fantasy books.
Walton has structured the book in an unusual way. There are no chapters; instead, the book is presented as the diary Mor keeps during her first year of attendance at Arlinghurst, a boarding school in England. What's more, the catastrophe that has shaped Mor's circumstances - the castastrophe that tends to take centre stage in the books she so loves to read - is in the past, and due to the diary-like nature of the book is never presented in flashback.
Instead, we learn the following: Mor is the survivor of a pair of twins. Both of them, like their mother, were able to practice magic and converse with the fairies that lived in the ruins and forests surrounding their community in Wales. Her sister, also named Mor (one being short for "Morganna" and the other being short for "Morwenna"), died the previous November in a car accident that left the surviving Mor crippled.
Immediately before the accident, both twins had been involved in a fight against their mother. Mor is vague with the details, and says only that the fight was a magical one done to prevent their mother from turning into a "dark queen" - to quote Lord of the Rings - and gaining even more power. After the accident Mor ran away, and custody over her was not awarded to her extended family in Wales, but instead to her father, a man who abandoned the twins when they were children.
Now she's been packed off to Arlinghurst by her father's overbearing older sisters. Her only solace is reading loads of (now classic) science fiction and fantasy books from the late 70s - books by LeGuin, Zelazny, Heinlein, and Vonnegut, for example.
The omnipresence of science fiction and fantasy literature in Among Others accomplishes several things:
- It establishes the time period: Mor's diary takes place from 1979 to 1980.
- It makes the narrator's voice feel natural: Mor's opinions about the books she reads are the kind of hyperbolic, righteous ones that are endemic to teenagers. I like to imagine that when she's an adult, she'll look back on her diary entries and cringe with embarrassment over how amateurish she sounded.
- It reinforces one of the key themes in the book: That the magic that Mor reads about in her books is not like the magic she practices.
This last point is the most important. In many ways, Mor is looking for validation in what she reads, but she knows from her own attempts to practice magic - the consequences of which often scare her - that it's much messier and less systematic in real life than it is in fiction. This also prepares us for the climax, when Mor finally confronts her mother again and manages to subdue her permanently using both her magic and her love of books.
However, the use of the diary format makes the final magical fight less immediate and rather anticlimactic. This is one of my biggest problems with Among Others. While I admire Walton's consistency - magic in books isn't like the real magic Mor knows, so why should the final battle read like something that came out of a book? - it's not psychologically satisfying.
Perhaps this subversion of standard fantasy plots is why the book won the Nebula award for best novel, and why it's also up for the Hugo award. However, I fear that the major reason for the book's critical reception is precisely that it praises so many books that are part of the genre's canon.
As an interesting parallel, think of how many Oscars The Artist won earlier this year. I haven't seen it myself, but I understand the reservations of others who think the The Artist won because it praised the magic of movies and kept telling Hollywood how beautiful and pure it used to be. A similar strain of "Wasn't sci-fi and fantasy fiction in the past just grand?" nostalgia threads itself throughout Among Others, and this became extremely grating. In essence, I worry that it's going to win the Hugo because it gave the genre a hand job.
With all this in mind, did I enjoy Among Others? Yes. But do I think it deserves the Hugo award? As I said with Leviathan Wakes, no. Crafting a protagonist so eminently real as Mor is one thing. But trying to gain access to the Critically Praised Genre Novel Club just by invoking past members of said club is another....more
About the book: Alison Bechdel's father Bruce was a high school English teacher, a funeral homReview originally posted on www.christinavasilevski.com.
About the book: Alison Bechdel's father Bruce was a high school English teacher, a funeral home operator, and a man who worked tirelessly to restore his Victorian-era home to its original glory. He was a husband and father of three children. On the outside, the Bechdels were a functional nuclear family. However, soon after Bechdel came out to her parents, she learned her father was also gay and that he had sexual relationships with his students.
Months after her announcement, her mother filed for divorce - and two weeks after that, her father got run over by a truck.
Was it an accident? Was it suicide? Bechdel thinks it was the latter, and in Fun Home, she analyzes her memories, books, and family letters in an attempt to understand who Bruce was and why he chose a life that dissatisfied him so deeply.
What I liked: Bechdel's analysis of her and her father's lives, and her ability to wed it to distinct visuals, was inventive and involving. I remember one page in particular where she mapped out the places where her father was born, lived, and died, and circumscribed the area within one tidy circle to reveal that all of these important things happened within one mile's distance of each other. The narrative loops back and forth upon itself, and parcels out new information at a measured pace, showing the readers new facets of the same story as it progresses. I appreciated Bechdel's depth of focus in both her writing and her visuals - nearly everything is in its right place. I admire how much effort went into writing and drawing something so emotionally painful, and how much more effort went into making it all look seamless.
What I disliked: I don't know if this trait was also visible in her long-running comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For" but Fun Home's authorial voice was depressingly distant. The language Bechdel used to describe her family, her thoughts, and her experiences was detached and clinical. I understand that this is supposed to reflect her own experience of growing up within such a singular household - indeed, Bechdel herself is quite aware of how distant she sounds - but it still left me uneasy. On top of that, all of the interwoven references to the canon of Western literature were so dense that without the author's explanations on how these stories fit into her own life I would have been lost.
The verdict:Fun Home genuinely challenged me in a way unlike nearly any other book I've read so far in 2012. Part of me was grateful that my family was never that repressed and dysfunctional. Part of me couldn't fathom how another person could feel so detached from their father's death. But another part of me was acutely aware of how little I knew and understood about classical literature. I was intimidated when I read it, because it felt chock full of references both visual and textual that were extremely cultured and beyond my comprehension. This was the first book I read this year where I put it down feeling that I needed to read it over again to truly understand it....more
About the book: Carmen Aguirre was born in Chile, and lived there with her family until PinocheReview originally posted on www.christinavasilevski.com
About the book: Carmen Aguirre was born in Chile, and lived there with her family until Pinochet's coup in 1973. After the coup, they fled to Vancouver and supported Chile's resistance movement from afar. A few years after entering Canada, however, Aguirre's parents split and her mother started a relationship with a Canadian political activist.
Ultimately, Aguirre, her sister, and her stepfather left Vancouver (and Aguirre's father) behind and returned to Latin America, travelling between Bolivia, Brazil, and Argentina to support the movement against Pinochet. Something Fierce documents the reality of living a double life - bourgeois importers and teachers on one hand, and underground revolutionaries on the other - as Aguirre shuttles back and forth between Canada and Latin America and lives in a state of perpetual uncertainty.
What I liked: This book provides a rare and detailed glimpse into the life of being an underground revolutionary, and the stresses that such a life entails. Imagine being tailed by a government operative - how do you move around in a supermarket so as to avoid suspicion and evade capture? Suppose that your parents have been absent from your hotel room for over 24 hours, and you have to notify the other members in your underground cell by dialing a phone number you don't know, speaking a strange code, burning all evidence of the paper the number was written down on, flushing the ashes down the toilet, and waiting for your rescuer to pick you up - could you remember what to do or say?
Aguirre doesn't flinch from discussing the hazards of underground life, like wallpapering a safe house in newspaper so that any revolutionaries detained by the police wouldn't be able to give a meaningful description of what it looked like inside. The riotous life and colour in La Paz, and Aguirre's happiness to be there, are thoroughly evoked. Amazingly, Aguirre doesn't play the my-childhood-was-miserable game that so many other memoirists do. I was constantly surprised by how little anger she directed towards her family for dragging her into a world so full of danger, violence, and fear.
What I disliked: Despite the vivid detail Aguirre includes about the demands of being a revolutionary and the excitement of living in Latin America, I still never got a sense of who the characters were as people. Aguirre mentions several times that Bob Everton, her stepfather, had a temper that could flare up at a moment's notice, but this is described rather than experienced, and his outbursts are never explained - was he a naturally angry man, or was he reacting to the stress of living a double life?
In addition, I also wanted to know more about Aguille's sister, Ale. It's hinted throughout Something Fierce that Ale wasn't nearly as accepting of the family's political activities as Aguirre was. The author acknowledges at the end of the book that Ale wanted her story to remain private; Aguirre does her best to fulfill her sister's wishes, but that comes at the expense of sidelining her. I think it would have been interesting to see more clearly how Ale's opinions and desires dissented from those of the rest of her family.
Other pivotal events in the story were discussed, but felt underdeveloped and glossed over. These include Aguirre meeting and marrying her compañero Alejandro, the revelation that that her seemingly pro-Pinochet grandmother was also part of the resistance movement, and the family's subsequent decision to alternate routinely between living in Vancouver and living in Latin America.
Finally, because this is a book about Latin American politics, it contains a lot of information needed to get the reader up to speed. If you know a lot about 20th-Century Latin American history already, you'll breeze through the summaries Aguirre inserts, but otherwise, it gets a bit infodump-y.
The verdict: Although there were flaws, I enjoyed Something Fierce. Its strengths lie in evoking a time and a place and in describing the various subterfuges needed to participate in an underground resistance while living a "normal" life to avoid suspicion. I have a profound respect for Aguirre's tenacity and her continued love for her family despite the danger that her mother and stepfather exposed her to....more
About the book: In the mid-90s, Bidini’s band, The Rheostatics, was the opening act for The TraReview originally posted on www.christinavasilevski.com
About the book: In the mid-90s, Bidini’s band, The Rheostatics, was the opening act for The Tragically Hip on their “Trouble at the Henhouse” tour. On a Cold Road is Bidini’s memoir of the tour, compiled from the journal entries he wrote during it. However, the book also aims to serve as a collective history of touring across Canada, and includes anecdotes and recollections from Canadian musicians from the 50s, 60s, and 70s.
What I liked: In this book, Bidini captured the allure of travelling and performing on the road, and made it comprehensible to us non-musicians. He made me feel the urge to pack up, get in a van, and drive across the country to visit all of the little hole-in-the-wall places that I could – despite the fact that I still don’t have a driver’s license.
His emotions became my own. I felt the frustration he did when The Rheostatics kept on encountering the rising popularity of The Tragically Hip in unexpected places and comparing it to their own lower level of success. I felt the sadness and alienation he did when he thought he became friends with Joey Ramone, only to meet Ramone at an autograph signing and find out that the other musician looked worn out and didn’t remember him at all. His realization made a cold wave of sadness wash over my stomach: “He had no idea who I was. I left the store. Outside, the rain felt like spiders.” Is there anything else one can say after that?
What I disliked: The book’s structure was disjointed, and the anecdotes provided by other Canadian musicians about the growth of the Canadian music scene in the 50s, 60s, and 70s didn’t mesh with the framework provided by Bidini’s own writing. The stories that the other rockers provided were grouped together by theme, but I often found it hard to detect a throughline between what everyone else was talking about compared to Bidini’s narrative frame.
More egregious, though, was the huge gender imbalance between the number of male musicians that were quoted compared to female musicians. Given the context (Canadian rock in the mid-20th Century) I understand that there probably weren’t a lot of women in the industry. But the number of times that women musicians were quoted or mentioned absolutely pales in comparison to the number of men. I bet that Greg Godovitz had more space in the book devoted to him than all of the women in it combined.
On top of that, most of the men who did mention women in music in any sort of context talked about the wonderfulness of having groupies. I didn’t need to know about how some musician in the 60s got a tongue bath from a willing groupie, or how some lovely angel of a young woman rehabilitated some hapless rocker by taking him in and doing his laundry. Women as sex objects? Rock on! Women as maternal caregivers bringing hope and cleanliness? Great! Women as equals and musicians in their own right? Meh.
The verdict: Bidini is obviously skilled with words, and some stories he captures, like the experience of performing at Maple Leaf Gardens, are imbued with magic. It also helps that I’m a huge Tragically Hip fan, and that I have a copy of “Live Between Us,” their live album made from the same tour that Bidini was part of. However, On a Cold Road still didn’t “spark” to me very much. While I was reading this book, I had some money in my iTunes account, and it never occurred to me to buy a Rheostatics album with it – instead, I spent the money on some Neko Case music. I think that’s pretty representative of my stance towards the book – interesting enough, but not so interesting as to encourage further investigation....more
About the book: Part memoir and part instructional manual, On Writing ties together King's career as an author with more personal facets of his life.About the book: Part memoir and part instructional manual, On Writing ties together King's career as an author with more personal facets of his life. In an unusual move, the instructions about writing - arguably the biggest draw - are placed towards the end of the book, and On Writing instead devotes its first half to King's childhood, adolescence, and attempts to break into the publishing world.
What I liked: From the start of this book, I felt that I was in the presence of someone who made me comfortable and welcome. More than that even, I felt a tremendous sense of self-assurance when I read it. King's been there before, knows the pitfalls, and is happy to steer you around his memories with confidence. Every time I finished a section or chapter in this book, I told myself, "OK, it's time to put the book down now." And then, of their own accord, my eyes would snake down or over to the next page, and I would be held fast once again. This was, literally, the first book of the year that I could Just. Not. Put. Down.
Throughout the book, I got the sense that although writing was something he put effort into, he didn't fall into the pretentious Byronic-hero hole that so many other authors, both beginning and established, fall victim to. (It's a hole that I'm only now learning how to crawl out of.) Instead, he made it feel as natural, physical, and vital as chopping wood. If you have enough wood, your house stays warm. If you crank out enough words, you stay warm.
A lot of the time, I judge a book by how vividly I recall the images later, and no matter how hard I try, I can't expunge from my mind the scene that King describes of having an ear infection as a child - one so intense that his eardrums had to be repeatedly lanced with a needle to drain the pus. I have tried and tried, with no avail, to stop imagining the looming needle coming closer to perforate my own eardrums. That is strong writing.
In the instructional section on writing, King unpacks the metaphor of a "writers' toolbox" and runs with it. The advice inside is fairly commonplace - know your grammar, remove adverbs, etc - but they're relayed in such a matter-of-fact manner that they acquire additional heft. He also provides an extremely useful glimpse into the revision process by including a "before and after" sample of his own writing, and then going step by step through the changes he made to tighten up his prose. Revision is an extremely important part of the writing process, but seldom is it actually demonstrated instead of discussed.
Besides all that, look at the cover. It's got a Corgi on it! I love Corgis. Knowing that Stephen King owns them just makes him even more awesome in my book.
What I disliked: The length - it's too short! I could easily have read another 200 pages. In particular, the move away from the memoir section was too abrupt, as it stopped nearly right after the acquisition of Carrie, his debut novel. King did write about his substance abuse problems, but I would have appreciated greater insight on what led him down that path and why he felt he needed to self-medicate. Yes, it's not a topic that really lends itself to a discussion of the writing craft, but it is something that a lot of writers end up dealing with anyways.
The verdict: I originally gave this book 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. Then I started reading Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, and that book paled in comparison to this one so much that I retroactively bumped it up another star. Whenever I read this book, I felt I was in good hands. What better can be said about an author than that?...more