New Reviews! More Reviews! Reviews!

Guys! I’m writing reviews for Tangent Online Magazine now. You can find my first review (of Darcie Little Badger’s Nkást íí) here. If you like that one, click the links again when I post more. Please click the links. It’s the only thing keeping the hoards away.

For those of you who have a phobia of link clicking, or whose mothers told them never to click links from strangers, or who just don’t like being told what to do by strange women online, that’s cool, I guess. I’ll still post my normal reviews here on the blog, but they won’t be anywhere near as nice and shiny as the Tangent reviews. It’s your loss.

And for the few of my readers who stay active on the internet during the holidays, I have two more posts scheduled for 2014. Don’t miss them! (I’ll know.)

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Nov/Dec 2014: Afterthoughts

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, November/December 2014
Gordon Van Gelder (Editor)
(read on Kindle, page count unknown)
3-stars-out-of-5

 

As happens occasionally with fiction magazines featuring a range of talent, voices, and themes–especially one in a genre as diverse as fantasy and science fiction–this issue didn’t resonate very well with me. Many of the stories were disappointing, especially from regular contributors whose work I’ve come to admire. Some of the stories felt as though they were deliberately meant to be offensive, as suggested by editor Gordon Van Gelder in the introduction of one story:

There was a time … when writers turned to science fiction to explore ideas they couldn’t touch in any other medium. A fair number of stories regarded as classics today were transgressive when they first came out.

These days, however, the internet seems to thrive on posts by people who aren’t keen on tolerating viewpoints that differ from their own, and some of those posts focus on the science fiction and fantasy field. They’ve inspired us here at F&SF to give this issue an extra helping of stories that deal with touchy themes or go beyond the bounds of Political Correctness.

I’m not sure which instance (or instances) Mr. Van Gelder is speaking of–there surely has been a lot of PC controversy this year in the sci-fi and fantasy community–so I can’t speak directly for or against whatever point he is making here. All I can say is that several of the stories in this issue seem to have been given the green light to be as crass and offensive as their authors can make them, at times losing the narrative in a feel of overwhelming ‘ick’.

That said, there were other stories in this issue that were a delight to read, offering refreshing, diverse viewpoints, or contemplative plots.

For better or for worse, the fantasy and science fiction genre is a mixed bag, and while there were stories in this final issue of 2014 that I didn’t agree with, the community benefits from having them added to the archive, regardless.

F&SF Nov Dec 2014Read on ahead for uncomfortable topics and spoilers. You’ve been warned.

The Judging
Rand B. Lee
four_half-stars_0

 

This story continues Rand B. Lee’s Changes from the May/June issue of last year. While I wasn’t altogether impressed by its predecessor, The Judging takes the reader back to a very imaginative and chaotic world that I remember liking from the previous story. It ties up the plot and character arcs nicely without spending too much time in recapping. Although there were a few minor expository bumps along the way, I felt that on the whole, The Judging was a much better composed story than Changes.

After traveling through the mist with his burro Francesca and the husky, Treats, Whitsun, a circuit rider for the Fair Dealers arrives in a rustic community, surprisingly unChanged by all the rest of the reality bending chaos that has descended on the rest of the world. Sure, they’re living a much simpler life than what had once been the height of technology, but after what Whitsun has seen in his travels, the people in this community are rather unscathed. But you know what they say about the quiet, unassuming ones, and from the start the people in town are a little too normal, even by post-apocalyptic standards. There’s a mystery bubbling just under the surface–a dangerous one–but the wealfire within him won’t let Whitsun abandon the people to the fate of the coming Change-storm, even if it means the end of his own life.

 

Hollywood North
Michael Libling
five-stars

 

In Hollywood North, Michael Libling paints us a slow, dramatic picture of a small town horror through the growth and decline of the first person narrator Gus, who starts out as a curious ten year-old, and finishes as an emotionally ruined adult.

Throughout this long novella, Gus becomes close friends with Jack, a boy a year his senior whose specialty is finding things. Not the sort of, ‘I once found a five dollar bill on the sidewalk’ finding, but the finding of long lost objects that don’t want to be found–until just the right moment. When Jack finds a box of old intertitles–the bits of exposition and dialogue placed between scenes in the old silent films, he begs Gus to be the one to claim the discovery, wanting to sit out of the limelight for this one. After the discovery comes out, however, it seems the town collectively loses its mind. Suddenly the newsman, Bryan McGrath is making all sorts of ominous, vague threats, and the laundryman, Mr. Blackhurst suddenly and temporarily goes catatonic. It’s enough to spark the curiosity in even the most grounded of boys.

However, life gets in the way of the mystery when Jack is suddenly forced to move, and the rift between them only grows when it comes out that Jack and Gus’s long time friend and secret crush, Annie have been dating behind Gus’s back. As if the struggle to reconcile his friendships with his jealousies isn’t hard enough on poor Gus, Trenton, Ontario and its dark movie history aren’t finished with him. Or Jack and Annie, for that matter.

As mentioned, this is a long one, but Libling keeps it interesting with a non-linear pot and fantastic characters. The voice is natural and authentic, and the story itself skirts the boarder of reality so closely that you could almost believe something like this really could happen. It’s horrific not in what specifically transpires in the story, but that the ring of truth in it makes the reader question how much of this story is true, and how much is fiction.

 

I’ll Follow the Sun
Paul DeFilippo
two-star-rating

 

Honestly, I started out liking this one. I liked the characters in the beginning, and the plot seemed like it was going some place interesting. But then the story derails and I felt as though I was left to look at the wreckage, wondering what the hell happened.

Dan Wishcup is by all accounts a brilliant student of mathematics, under the mentorship of the equally brilliant, if a little eccentric, Professor Chan Davis. Things are looking pretty up for Dan, until he receives his draft for the war in Vietnam–a war which Dan opposes. Unfortunately, love of country and the guilt over the fate of his ancestor of the same name who died in WWI put Dan in the uncomfortable position of not being able to hide out the war in Canada until the draft ends. Davis sympathizes, naturally, and not wanting to lose a bright student (and wanting to test out his own research), he suggests that Dan not hide in a where, but a when. Specifically, he proposes to send Dan to the future to wait out however many years the draft will last, and then return to that point in history, unscathed. (Admittedly, I was a little confused as to why Dan couldn’t just step into that point to begin with, and cut out the whole waiting in the future thing, but I let it go.) Still feeling guilty about being untrue to the courage of his fallen namesake, Dan goes on a jaunt to the past to bring the ill-fated turn of the century Dan Wishcup to the 1960’s. Without many words of advice, caution or explanation, 1960’s Dan leaves 1910’s Dan in his apartment and rushes off to not miss his meeting with Davis. (Again, he can time jump as easily as some of us walk to the corner store. Why he can’t arrive at his own pace escapes me.)

Here is where the story really did lose my interest. Dan (1960’s Dan) is presented as a mathematical prodigy, one who is well aware of time paradoxes and their complications, yet not only does he pluck his ancestor out of a previous time stream and plunk him in his own present as if he were adopting a stray dog, he doesn’t bother to tell anyone about it. My suspension of disbelief suffered multiple blows at that one. It didn’t recover very much either, before the rest of the story shot and buried it once and for all.

Dan of the 1960’s doesn’t like the year 2014 very much. He finds it obnoxious and shallow and vapid, and in a stunning example of cherry picking information, asserts that humanity of the past fifty years failed to have any of the great advances on par with what his own generation achieved. (This he grumbles after spending a week hunched over an iPad on the internet, catching up with the world.)

While failing to grasp the irony of hating on the hipsters of the early twenty-first century, Dan meets and falls in love with Zinnia Wishcup, who looks startlingly similar to his sweetheart Marigold, whom he left behind in the 1960’s with nothing but a note of apology left in the hands of 1910’s Dan. Of course this must be his own daughter, but time paradoxes, incest and the knowledge that he’s leading her on only to later break her heart aside, Dan goes for it, because, ‘the power of boners’, as they say.

The story only tumbles into what felt like a rushed anti-climax from there. For a story that started so strong, and so interesting, to say that this one was a disappointment is an understatement.

 

Golden Girl
Albert E. Cowdrey
3-stars-out-of-5

 

Of all the stories in this anthology, this one bothered me the most, for reasons I’ll get to. However, subject matter aside, Cowdrey is a very talented writer, and the story itself is more or less well written.

Doreen is a young woman, as independent as she can be while attached to a nagging Catholic mother who is insistent she get married and become domestic, already. That, and her mother insists that Lucien Valois killed Doreen’s grandmother and permanently hospitalized her grandfather. It might have been farfetched, but two other tenants of the same building have died mysteriously, only to have their properties immediately bought up by Lucien. So Doreen takes a job with Lucien to organize his vast collection of rare books. Despite receiving all the signs that Lucien is a creep of the highest degree, Doreen remains stubbornly in his employ, and fumbles through all the horror movie bimbo tropes.

Of course she is caught. And raped. And raped. And raped. It turns out, not only is Lucien a crazy old pervert, but he has something of an obsession with bees and their home-made fountain of youth, royal jelly. Now that he has a queen, Lucien has no intention of letting her leave.

What bothered me most about this story is that by all accounts, Doreen starts out as an asexual, yet through a combination of being force-fed royal jelly and being repeatedly raped, she transforms into a sexually hungry bee-woman, eager for more men. Asexuals are already a hyper rare breed in media that has only recently become more inclusive to homosexual characters. As an asexual myself, not only did the story and its outcome make me feel unclean in ways I just can’t shake, I couldn’t help but read it in the same way one might read a story of a gay man ‘cured’ by being repeatedly raped by women. Maybe that was the intent, and maybe not. As I said, Cowdrey is a keen wordsmith no matter what his subject matter. I only hope that the next story of his I read doesn’t leave me feeling so molested myself.

 

Yeshua’s Dog
Tim Sullivan
five-stars

I think I liked this one from the start, from the narration to the story, to the neat little twist at the end. Everything about this rendition of biblical events made me smile.

Tim Sullivan gives us the story of Yeshua the liar. Well, storyteller really, who regales the people of his home in Kfar Nahum with the most impossible stories. Elijah is his apprentice in carpentry, and so frequently hears Yeshua’s tall tales, and, if we’re honest, is a bit endeared to the old liar. Eventually, Yeshua’s fame spreads outside of the village, throughout the Roman empire, until a Greek doctor named Lucanus pays Yeshua a visit and offers to pay him for his stories, which he intends to publish. The book becomes so wildly popular that Lucanus returns for a second volume, however the townspeople aren’t so keen on him, so that ends up being the last book.

When Yeshua finally dies of old age, his faithful dog, Judas refuses food and drink, and soon follows his master. The people of Kfar Nahum feel it’s only right to bury the dog with Yeshua, but no sooner has the dog been entombed but up pops the dog star, earlier in the year and brighter than ever before. Terrified that they have committed sacrilege by burying the dog, the townsfolk beg Elijah to go back inside the tomb and see whether or not the dog really has risen to heaven. What he finds inside the tomb will shake the world forever.

Like Hollywood North, the charm of this story is how plausible it could be as true life. Sullivan sprinkles in biblical figures casually and with enough and as much loyalty to the text as to the laws of reality for the entire story to be believable as the real origins of the story of Jesus. The lighthearted narrative was a rather welcomed palate cleanser after the previous two stories.

 

Nanabojou at the World’s Fair
Justin Barbeau
five-stars

 

As I’ve mentioned before, folk and fairy tales hold a special place in my heart. When mythology is woven into a piece of speculative fiction like Barbeau does with Nanabojou at the World’s Fair, I get a special kind of gleeful.

Nanabojou goes by many different names, depending on who you ask, but these days it doesn’t really matter. The whitemen are creeping into everyone’s lives, changing things and demanding that which is perfectly fine to begin with change as well. When they refuse to even pay Nanbojou anymore, he decides to seek his fortune at the World Fair. What a world away from the world that is! Nanabojou is instantly transfixed by the sights and sounds around him, and is eager to be a part of the fair. Unfortunately, he’s told he’s not authentic indian enough to take part in any of the shows. He doesn’t even have a headdesss! Well, Nanabojou doesn’t take no for an answer (a god isn’t without powers of his own) and one way or another, he’s going to be a part of this strange new carnival.

With themes of cultural identity and what it means to hold onto it in the rush of technological advancement carrying the story forward, Barbeau weaves a memorable and sympathetic character out of Nanabojou in a story that is as fun as it is serious.

 

Feral Frolics
Scott Baker
two_half-stars_0

 

This was another story that I wanted to like in the beginning. It has an interesting, psychopathic protagonist who, bizarrely, the reader wants to root for. The first person narration is sympathetic, even if the characters actions are horrifying. Yet, the story doesn’t do much to redeem itself beyond this point, and eventually it careens off the edge of sanity into… well, I’m going to assume that this one is meant to be serialized, because the ending itself wasn’t all that satisfying at all.

Greg doesn’t really like cats. Ok, they’re good for his business. Wrangling feral and unwanted wildlife is kind of Greg’s thing, but when he discovers that he can sell dead kitties for a much higher price than bringing in live ones, things get a little weird. Greg goes on a kitty killing rampage, electro-shocking pet cats to death and selling their corpses for top dollar. That is, until he gets caught. The photographic evidence is hard to ignore, and Greg falls hard. After a stint in jail, he’s ready to pick up the pieces of his life. Unfortunately, no one wants to hire the Kalifornia Kitty Killer. When Greg finally lands a steady job as a furniture delivery man, he’s desperate to keep it. But what do you do when you have to make a delivery to a cat cafe, when you are a cat lover’s number one most hated human ever? Yes, that does include Hitler.

I was willing to ride the wave of strangeness with this story, until it got to the end. There, it takes a turn for the surreal that lost my interest in the characters and my appetite for the story.

 

The Bomb-Thing
KJ Kabza
two_half-stars_0

 

This story disappointed me the most. It just doesn’t live up to the quality I’m used to in Kabza’s writing, and given that I was really looking forward to this story, I felt a bit let down. It didn’t help that this story was meant to be a reverse of I’ll Follow the Sun, set in the same universe at that. Everything about it felt awkward, from the shared setting, to the clunky conflict, to the sexy alien sent to study humans by boning them, as if there’s any other way. No matter what angle I approach this story from, be it the time travel device or the inter-personal relationships between the characters, I just can’t find anything in it to like, unfortunately.

 

The Old Science Fiction Writer
David Gerrold
4 stars

This is a bit of a familiar story to those who frequently read science fiction, which is probably what it was intended to achieve, so there you go. It’s an introspective piece that asks, “What will become of science fiction writers, when science has solved all the world’s problems?” While I found it at times a bit hostile to progression and progressive thoughts, it nonetheless serves its purpose.

It would be difficult to summarize this story without either giving away its ending or diving into its specific critiques of science, modernity and the placement of creative thought within both, so I’ll end with the suggestion to read it for yourself, and come to your own conclusions.

 

The next book on my reading list is Perdido Street Station by China Miéville.

 

 

The Freedom Maze: Afterthoughts

The Freedom Maze
by Delia Sherman
255 pages
four_half-stars_0

 

It’s rare for me to find a youth novel that combines good writing, thought provoking and dark subject matter, and a genuinely interesting story as well as Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze does. After The Magician’s Nephew and The Neverending Story it was refreshing to read a middle grade that had some teeth. Dealing with issues of both American slavery just before the Civil War and 1960’s expectations of womanhood, femininity, and growing pains in the American South, Sherman is unafraid to cast her protagonist into the fire, giving readers a deeply moving account of the struggles of marginalized peoples in two past eras.

The Freedom MazeBuckle up, this one could get spoilery.

The book opens with Sophie, the young, teenaged protagonist, in a car with her mother, driving through Louisiana one rainy day in May. They’re on their way to Sophie’s grandmother’s house, the ancestral home of the Fairchilds and once the site of a prosperous sugar plantation. The plantation is all in the past, now and most of the estate itself has gone to seed. To say that Sophie isn’t looking forward to the weeks she’s going to be spending with her family is an understatement, but her mother’s got a new job and her father’s run off to New York with another woman and it seems like no one’s got any time for Sophie anymore. Unless it’s to point out her faults and failings. Sophie is dumped without so much as a goodbye from her mother, into the care of her two aunts.

It doesn’t take long before Sophie is bored out of her mind with inside activities, and takes to exploring the ruins of the estate. Inside the overgrown garden maze on the property, Sophie encounters a strange talking creature, and tired of the boredom and semi-neglect from the adults in her life, she wishes it would send her on a storybook adventure.

This is most certainly a lesson in ‘careful what you wish for’.

She’s sent on an adventure all right, straight back in time one hundred years to 1860. Oh, she’s still on her ancestor’s property, except now it’s a fully operational sugar plantation, with slaves and everything! Unfortunately for Sophie, when she first interacts with her great-great-great-great kin, her skin has been so browned from playing out in the sun in 1960 that they mistake her for a slave! Fortunately her Fairchild nose gives her a slight reprieve, and after briefly convening, the 1860’s Fairchilds conclude that she is the daughter of the black sheep of the family, Robert, who’s ever had contrary notions in regard to colored people.

I should note here that I was intrigued from the start by Robert Fairchild and dearly wished he’d have more of a role in the story. He gets a bit of an epilogue at the end, but I still craved more. Ah well.

In a state of shock that she truly has been sent back in time one hundred years, Sophie dumbly agrees to the assumption that her father sent her to the plantation from New Orleans to be raised as a lady’s maid, before he ran off to France himself.

This is where Sophie’s troubles truly start.

The narrative exposes the bitter, ugly truth of slave life through Sophie’s experiences which I won’t summarize here for fear of not doing it justice. Like waking from a dream, over time Sophie begins to blur past and present and before long forgets she was ever from 1960 at all. However, much of her pluck and courage remains in her personality, which both creates trouble and solves it.

I’ll leave it to you to read it and find out what happens in the end. I wasn’t disappointed, and I hope you won’t be either.

One of the things I truly loved about this novel was the believability of the voice and the characters. In the afterword, Sherman admits that this book took eighteen years to write, and the care and attention to detail and historical accuracy are clear on every page.

As a middle grade book dealing with the highly charged and emotional subject matter of slavery, The Freedom Maze walks a fine line between white washing history and making the story inappropriate for the target age group. Fortunately, Sherman pulls off this delicate balance spectacularly, giving the reader a story that is both daring and safe, thought provoking and whimsical. Sherman accomplishes this with a great balance of the darker aspects of slavery and calmer scenes of childhood. This alternation between heavy and light at times made the book feel as though it was meandering away from its point, however the way everything ties up in the final third of the book makes it all fall into place in the end.

The Freedom Maze is one of the rare books which I feel isn’t limited to children, teens or adults. The writing, the characters and the story itself can appeal to any age. As a piece of historical fiction it is vividly, at times disturbingly accurate. As an MG fantasy it doesn’t break any molds, but it does add spice to the genre. As a coming of age story it is certain to strike a few cords in anyone’s soul, young or old. This is a book that can and should be read by everyone, and I highly recommend it.

The next book on my reading list is The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Nov/Dec, 2014.

 

My Inner Child is Sometimes Terrifying

I like coloring. I’m not talking about professional comic book or animation style coloring, the kind that takes hours upon hours of dedicated study and practice. I mean, break out the 160 box of Crayolas and have at a coloring book sort of coloring. It’s nice to sometimes re-live what it was like to be five years old. Granted, I teach kindergarten for half the week, so sometimes I can let my inner child out at work, which is awesome. (Tell me you wouldn’t like to build an epic track to send a wooden train shooting down, or spend hours on your belly playing doll house, you liar.)

Which is why I love going to toy stores in Japan, where I can find all of the stuff I desperately wanted as a child, but found in precious little abundance. Sure, I may look awkward walking into the store as a nearly thirty year-old foreign woman with no children tagging along behind me, but few things beat the giddy feeling of walking out of the store with a brand new coloring book.

Since I’ve been doing pretty much nothing else but studying for the last month and a half, and thus don’t have any book reviews or anything particularly earth shattering to share with the world, may I present instead the color explosion that is my inner child:

Warning: My inner child is sometimes terrifying.

The line art is from a coloring book for the show Puri Kyua, of which the English translation makes about the same amount of sense as the Japanese. As far as I can tell it’s a show aimed at kindergarten girls dedicated to teaching them lessons in friendship, looking pretty, and never closing your mouth. Seriously, there’s not a single picture in this book in which anyone is smiling with their mouth shut. It’s bizarre. Aside from the reference image on the cover of the book, I have absolutely zero idea what any of these girls are supposed to look like, so I just had fun with it. They’re colored in Copics and gel pens, with a few colored pencil highlights thrown in here and there. It’s amazing what some unexpected colors or lines will do for a picture.

Mostly I was messing around for practice with Copics, but I had a vision on a few of them. I’m pleased mostly with the results. I had a lot of fun with this, and I might just search out some more coloring books in the future.

So tell me, readers, do you have a favorite way to experience childhood once again?

Where I am, and Other Interesting Things

It’s been over a month since I last blogged, and I figure it’s high time I did some explaining around here.

First of all, I was scheduled to post a review of The Neverending Story about a month ago, but then WordPress ate half the post and it became too much of a pain in the ass to get it back. It wasn’t a post I was particularly proud of anyway, so I figured it couldn’t do any more harm rotting in the cyber graveyard than it could being posted. If anyone was particularly interested in my opinion of The Neverending Story, it’s ‘meh’. Nothing more, nothing less. Just, ‘meh’.

Anyway, the point of this post is that I haven’t fallen into a volcano or anything, I’ve just been pretty busy. I have another kendo exam in a week, I’ve got an editing project on my plate, and a whole bunch of reading, so once things have settled back down again, you can expect a review of The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman (I’m half way through and loving it), some more art stuff, some Japan stuff, and a general return to normal–at least until I go home for the holidays.

Tastes of Japan: Kabocha vs. Pumpkin

‘Tis the season of the pumpkin. With Hallowe’en and two Thanksgivings coming around the bend in this household, we are heartily looking forward to a nice, big, orange pumpkin or two in the coming weeks. On that note, I want to draw attention to one, very important fact:

kabokin

Kabocha is a Japanese winter squash that is commonly translated as ‘pumpkin’ in Japan. While it is true that kabocha and pumpkin are both of the Cucurbita genus, when it comes to cooking and taste, they are about as similar as an apple and a pear. Kabocha is smaller than a western pumpkin with dry, dense flesh that when cooked produces a dry, dense starchy block, not unlike a baked potato. Pumpkin on the other hand is moist and spongy on the inside, and becomes a buttery liquid when cooked. Kabocha is more similar to its cousin butternut squash than it is to the orange, smiling jack-o-lantern pumpkins that we from the west are most familiar with. Pumpkins can be bought in Japan if you know where to look, but because of their size and prevalence in Japanese cooking, kabocha are far more common.

Unfortunately, because kabocha is translated as  ‘pumpkin’ over here, all the traditional pumpkin foods that are staple tastes and smells in October and November are made with kabocha. Oh, and there’s no pumpkin spice over here either. Nowhere else is this discrepancy more stark than with pumpkin pie.

A few years ago, Alex and I attended a Thanksgiving party at the home of the mayor of Osaka. One of the biggest draws to the event was the billing of a traditional turkey dinner with real pumpkin pie. At the end of the dinner when the pie was served, the eyes of the American guests lit up with anticipation and excitement which lasted until the first bite. The pie wasn’t sweet at all. The kabocha sat like a lifeless rock on a bed of flaky filo pastry. One by one, heartbreak come over the dinner guests. To their credit, many politely fought through each bite, all the way to the end, but several plates of kabocha pie were abandoned discreetly on the table, their owners shedding a secret tear of disappointment.

This isn’t to say that kabocha is a horrible, tasteless vegetable that ought not to be eaten. Kabocha is very tasty when it is prepared correctly. Stewed with other vegetables, it makes a wonderful stir fry which is moist and flavorful in its own way. It brings a great flavor and texture to curry and rice, and when grilled in thin strips with corn and onion, it goes wonderfully with a good grilled steak. Just please, keep it out of my pumpkin pie!

The Magician’s Nephew: Afterthoughts

The Magician’s Nephew: Chronicles of Narnia
by C.S. Lewis
221 pages
4 stars

 

The Magician’s Nephew is the sixth book written in the Chronicles of Narnia series, however chronologically it is the first, so I chose to start here. I read The Last Battle years ago when I was still in grade school and remember absolutely nothing about it, and I have the most recent cinematic version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe somewhat fresh in my mind. All this is to say that while I have some exposure to Narnia, little of it is fresh enough for me to have many expectations going into this book. What I got out of The Magician’s Nephew was a bit of a mixed bag. It is, obviously, a children’s novel, and I was able to read it as one much more easily than I am with YA novels. It is also (and this should come as no surprise either) heavy on the Christian symbolism and mythology. That said, I enjoyed the first part of the book for its Dahl-esque glorification of the morality and triumph of children over adults, but the latter half of the book which is essentially an animal version of the Genesis story was much too heavy handed for me. In short, it strapped subtlety to a rocket full of dynamite and blasted it into the sun.

The Magicicans NephewEven allegory is uncomfortable being used in this comparison of Aslan to Jesus.

All right, so above I mentioned that The Magician’s Nephew is a lot like a fluffy version of Genesis, and it is, but it’s also literally the genesis of Narnia. This prequel was meant to describe how Narnia came into being and how the evil witch came to inhabit what should have been a peaceful and happy place, how the wardrobe came to be a portal, the lamp post, the talking animals, the all of it, and as far as world building mythology goes, it does a fairly good job of this in the amount of space it has.

We start the story with Polly, a young girl living in London, who meets the boy next door, Digory after spying on him over the fence. They’re about the same age, so they become fast friends and playmates. We learn that Digory is staying with his aunt and uncle because his mother is sick and is being unsuccessfully treated for a mystery disease. Polly sympathizes with him, and after a bit of a pep talk, the two of them hatch a plan to try to get into the old abandoned house at the end of their complex by moving through the connected walls of all the houses in between. It’s a great plan, except none of the children can decided on math of the whole thing, and instead of ending up in the abandoned house, they find themselves in the secret attic of Digory’s uncle, a room that is regularly off limits.

Uncle Andrew is from the start, a horrible man. He tries to get the children involved in his experiments but fortunately Polly is able to smell a rat, and insists that it is time for her to go home. Uncle Andrew capitulates and offers her a pretty yellow ring, which she happily accepts and then POOF, she’s gone. Of course, Digory doesn’t take too kindly to his new friend being winked out of existence, but Uncle Andrew insists that it was a necessary sacrifice in the name of magical inquiries–after all, the guinea pigs he’d already sent can’t come back to tell anyone what they saw on the other side. So Digory, rightly insists that Uncle Andrew bring Polly back, and Uncle Andrew insists that Digory himself go to bring Polly back, and after a lengthy history on how Uncle Andrew came to be a *ahem* magician, Digory finally agrees to go, but calls his uncle (again, rightly) a coward. So he takes the green rings, which can bring them back, and a yellow ring which flings him through dimensions to where Polly is, sleeping in a tranquil forest type marsh thing. They have a bit of trouble with memory for a time, followed by an argument about whether or not they should really go straight back to uncle Andrew, or explore some of the other pools, which are apparently portals to other places.

So after Digory and Polly get a few shots in at each other’s genders, they agree to go exploring. Using the yellow rings again, they hop into a different pool than the one they popped out of and end up in Charn, which is a bleak, cold world, devoid of people or any living thing really. The children wander around the streets of Charn until they come to a palace which finally has something interesting in it; an entire hall of wax figures. They start out looking like good and gentle people, but progressively, the deeper they go, the people start looking colder, and meaner, until they come to the final statue of a gorgeous woman who looks positively wicked and prideful. Near her is a bell and a hammer and an ominous inscription warning the kids that whoever strikes the bell may or may not bring danger upon themselves, but wouldn’t you just love to find out?

It is Polly’s opinion that the bell ought not to be rung, but Dignory is fairly itching with curiosity and after a verbal fight, he physically (and painfully) restrains Polly to ring the bell for himself. Well, not only does the bell ring, but the ringing gets louder and louder and so loud that it begins to collapse parts of the palace before it finally stops. And that’s not all. The beautiful, wicked lady? She gets up! She gets up and demands to know who woke her. Unfortunately, the whole palace is still coming down around them, so she does her only kind act in the whole book and doesn’t leave the children behind to be crushed by falling stone. She gets them out and sets upon Digory a slew of questions about how he came to be there and to wake her, and gives them an account of her own history. In short, Jadis killed everybody in Charn because she could, and also because she didn’t like her sister.

The kids obviously don’t think any better of her than they do Uncle Andrew, and hatch a plan to escape back to their own world. Unfortunately it goes wrong, and they end up bringing Jadis back as well. Fortunately she can’t use her magic in the real world, but she is still incredibly strong, which she demonstrates in going on a rampage throughout London on the top of a hansom she stole. Digory makes the brave decision to try and get her back to her own world, but this time he manages to transport himself, Polly, Uncle Andrew, Jadis, the hansom horse and the cabby into a black, world of emptiness.

Well, almost emptiness. There’s a song out there, somewhere in the blackness, and it’s calling up all sorts of things. Stars, a moon, a sun, and as the sun rises, they get their first look at who is singing the song–Aslan the lion. Jadis freaks out and throws a lamp post at him but it harmlessly bounces off his face. She takes off, and Aslan finishes creating the world in seven minutes. The whole world, including all the animals in it grow up out of the ground to Aslan’s song, and then he chooses two of each animal to gift speech to. The animals then go on their way to torment Uncle Andrew who has convinced himself that he hasn’t actually seen what he’s just seen.

Digory on the other hand tries to get an audience with Aslan because hey, if anyone can cure his dying mother it’s God, right? But Aslan isn’t entirely pleased with Digory, since it was Digory who brought Evil into the newborn Narnia in the form of Jadis. He instructs Digory to go to the edge of the world and grab a silver apple from the tree growing there and bring it back, so that he can fend off Jadis for a little while. He gives the cab horse wings to fly them to the tree, where they’re once again met with an ominous message to not steal the fruit and use it for selfish purposes. Digory does what the sign asks and gets his fruit but Jadis has gotten there before them and temps the children to eat from the Tree of Knowledge *cough* which Digory refuses to do and instead flies back to Aslan with the apple and plants it by the river.

There’s then a coronation of the first king and queen of Narnia, and Aslan agrees to send Digory, Polly, and Uncle Andrew back to the real world, with a silver apple for Digory’s mother as a reward.

Back home Digory cures his mother, buries the apple core with the magic rings and goes about his life, which involves inheriting a lot of money and moving to the country, until, when he’s an adult, he comes back to his uncle’s house and cuts down the apple tree and fashions it into a wardrobe for his country estate.

The End.

Wow, that summary is almost longer than the book! I enjoyed this story, as I said, because of the innocent triumph of the children in it. The Christian mythology I could have stomached a lot more easily if it hadn’t felt like I was being beaten over the back of the head with a bible. I also enjoyed the tip of the hat it gives to Jane Eyre in the beginning, and the nice way it ties in little things from the rest of the Narnia books. As a final volume, it would absolutely give warm closure to the series. As a first book, it allows for a simple, easy introduction into the world and its key players. Either way you chose to read The Magician’s Nephew, it is well worth your time.

The next book on my reading list is The Neverending Story by Michael Ende.

The Man With the Knives: Afterthoughts

The Man With the Knives
by Ellen Kushner
19 pages
five-stars

 

I was first introduced to Ellen Kushner’s work through her novel Swordspoint which became a quick and lasting favorite of mine. Kushner has a way of writing that carries both descriptive and emotional power without tipping into the realm of wordy or sappy. Her characters are neither too strong nor too weak, but that wonderful middle ground at which a fictional figure becomes a believable human.

The Man With The Knives

The Man With the Knives is a short, plaintive story which continues the events after Swordspoint. I won’t go into tremendous detail as to the plot, because the story is only 19 pages long and there’s too much I could ruin for anyone who isn’t familiar with this storyline. In it, we have Sofia, a spinster doctor in a small village where no one can read, and the mysterious man with the knives, who comes to her half-dead, drenched in rain, and with a terrible infection in his chest. Sofia cares for him and as he recovers they slowly become intimate. The man with the knives is an enigma to her, and to everyone in the village. He is a foreigner, who can only speak a broken portion of their language, but as strange as he is, he has knowledge that saves one of them, and makes him a local hero.

For his part, the man with the knives has things he can’t say, and things he doesn’t wish to say. There’s a painful past he’s running from, and the less he dwells on those events and those wounds the better, though that is easier said than done.

I’ve mentioned before just how amazing Kushner is with opening lines, and The Man With the Knives is no different:

Her father had told her a story about a sailor who fell out of love with the sea, so he put his oar up on his shoulder and walked inland far and far, until he finally met someone who looked at the oar and said, What’s that thing you’re carrying, friend? and there he stayed.

It’s a powerful opening, both relevant to the story and hooking on its own. The folktale feel of it is prevalent throughout the narrative and in much of Kushner’s writing on the whole. The story itself is as deeply mournful as it is tender and loving, with characters whom I’d already fallen in love with in previous works.

Another thing I want to mention is the artwork. The illustrations by Thomas Canty are stunningly gorgeous, and add to the folkish and ephemeral feel of the book.

I’ve read this short story over three times now and I can’t help but to still feel the longing and the sadness that is so engrained into each word of this book that it seems as though they were written in heart blood.

I was lucky enough to receive a copy of the book from the author, however if you can’t find your own copy of this limited run to purchase for yourself, you can read the story in its entirety on the Tor website.

The next book on my reading list is The Magician’s Nephew  by C.S. Lewis.

Robinson Crusoe: Afterthoughts

Robinson Crusoe
by Daniel Defoe
340 pages
three and a half

 

 

One of the most frequent difficulties I have with reading classic works is finding a way to reconcile historical context with reading for pleasure. Like many others, Robinson Crusoe is a book which reflects its times, and receives much of its fame for the literary firsts it accomplishes. That being said, it’s likely to be more enjoyable if read academically, rather than casually. By modern standards, Robinson Crusoe is a long drawn out adventure novel about an English imperialist with more wanderlust than common sense, told in such bland language as to nullify the ‘adventure’ part near completely. There were parts that I enjoyed, but lengthy passages of this novel are so boring that I found myself fighting a yawn every other page. It took me nearly a month to finish reading it, which I did by sheer force of will and the desire to finally be reading something else.

Robinson Crusoe

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates.”

Robinson Crusoe is a difficult character to stomach, even with the historical context. He epitomizes English colonial attitudes, racial and cultural superiority, and just plain dickish behavior. Who is he a dick to? Well, everyone, really, except for maybe the Portuguese captain and the widow he entrusts all his money to. He disobeys the wishes of his parents and runs off on a sea adventure, wherein he’s shipwrecked and told plainly by the captain after they make it to shore that he’s going to be unlucky at sea. But he doesn’t listen, and runs off on another voyage where he’s captured and made a slave for two years. Slavery, to Cursoe, is apparently too unbearable for him to deal with for longer than two years (but perfectly fine for other people, later in the book), so he escapes with a boy names Xury, and they rock around the African coast for a while, shooting lions and such, until they’re rescued by a Portuguese captain. (Well, Crusoe is rescued, anyway. He sells Xury with the upstanding promise of the boy’s future freedom if he converts to Christianity. Yay.)

The Portuguese captain then drops him off in Brazil and helps him buy a sugar plantation, which he raises up quite nicely and is, by all accounts doing quite well for himself, until it’s suggested that he needs some slaves to work his plantation. After about two seconds of thought on the morality of that, and no reflection on his own time as a slave, Crusoe agrees to sail to Africa again to pick up some slaves.

Well, wouldn’t you know it but he’s shipwrecked again, and this time, everyone dies but him. He instead washes up on the shore of an uninhabited island where he spends a dreadful few days before picking himself up and pillaging what he can from the wreck before it finally is broken up in a storm. What he manages to collect is, conveniently, everything that he needs to survive, including wood, sails, iron work, some food, seeds, guns, knives and the like. He also picks up a dog and two cats, though the later he is forced to shoot when they breed with the local wild cats and become pests. So he’s a dick to cats too.

He sets up shop in a sort of dug out cave, where he packs in all of his things, but becomes alarmed that lightning might strike all his powder, so he squirrels it around different places on the island. Then he’s nearly killed in a cave in caused by an earthquake, so he picks up his stuff and builds himself a new shelter, where, I’m pretty sure he contracts salmonella from eating a turtle, falls into fever and has a religious experience. Or rather, he realizes “Oh shit, I could die here, I better prostrate myself before God, just in case.” So he reflects on how utterly impious he has been in his life and vows to change that, and thank God for all the small blessings in his life.

For the next twenty or so years, he makes his home on the island, raising goats, grains, teaching himself rudimentary crafts like agriculture, wood working, leather tanning, tailoring, ship building, herding etc. It’s okay if we skip over these years, because the book does too. Suffice to say, he’s miserable, but manages to convince himself he’s not because God.

After these twenty-odd years of living all by himself, convinced there’s no one else around, he finds a footprint in the sand on the other side of the island, and after much hand wringing, he finally goes to spy on the spot and finds that it’s been used by native cannibals as a feast area. Well, this throws him into a panic and not wanting to be discovered he stops using his gun, and takes great caution when lighting a fire so that they don’t see his smoke. At this point I have to wonder: he’s been living there for twenty years, both him and the cannibals going about their business without care of discovery and, strangely, without ever having discovered the other. There’s a lot of contrived events in this story, but this one takes the cake.

Anyway, he waffles for a while between, “I must kill the savages” and “they don’t know any better, poor ignorant fools”, and finally decides on the latter, and resolves to leave them very much alone, until another group of cannibals arrives on his side of the island with their captives to eat.

At about this time, Crusoe begins to fantasize about how nice it would be to have a couple servants in his ‘kingdom’ and puts a plan into motion to rescue one of the captives, which he does by killing all the cannibals. Turns out, their captive is a cannibal from a rival nation, and that just won’t do. So after assuring himself that Friday, as he calls him, is well and truly bound to him in gratitude, he begins his re-education, mainly by informing him that his religion is all a bunch of hogwash meant to keep him subjugated under a ruling class of kings and priests, while Christianity on the other hand, is 100% not that.

Right. Anyway, Friday eats it up and converts and is thus finally allowed to carry weapons, is taught English (along with being taught to call Crusoe ‘master’) and is from that moment on, ordered around like a servant, because that is the natural order of things.

sigh

They live like this for another couple of years until they spot some more cannibals with captives. So they repeat the same plan, killing all but two of the cannibals and taking two of their captives, one of whom is a Spaniard, and the other is, conveniently, Friday’s father, only it really could have been any native at all, for all the point their being related has. Crusoe nurses these two back to health and the Spaniard tells them that there are a bunch of other Spaniards on the mainland who have also been ship wrecked. Seeing his escape, Crusoe convinces him that all the Spaniards should be brought back to him so that they can build a boat together and sail to a civilized port. At first the Spaniard isn’t too keen on the idea, but Crusoe reminds him that he owes him his life, so he capitulates in the end, and sails off with Friday’s father to go get the other white men.

While Crusoe and Friday are waiting, an English ship comes into view, and by God, an English ship is like, 100 times better than sailing away with those half civilized, slave owning, inquisition doing Spaniards, so Crusoe goes to make friendly with them. The only problem is that the ship has mutinied, and the captain is a captive.

Well, Crusoe by now is now well practiced in freeing captives, so he does what he does and captures or kills the mutineers and frees the captain who is most gracious and agrees to whatever plan the crazy bearded man dressed in haphazard goat skins lays before him, and before long, they’re all sailing away, happy as clams on the ship back toward England.

But what about the Spaniards, you ask? Fuck them, that’s what. Crusoe doesn’t so much as spare them a thought as he sails away for home.

When he gets there, however, he finds he’s got no money anywhere, which sucks, expect for his plantation. So he goes to see the sea captain, who doesn’t recognize him at first, but then finally does, and is told at length how he might reclaim his portion of the plantation. He does this, and rewards the captain, and the widow who was holding his money for him before, and then heads back to England. But not by boat, because he’s had nothing but bad luck that way. No, he decides to go over land, but because he’s an idiot, who doesn’t take the well placed advice of anyone around him, he decides to hike through the mountains in the middle of winter to get home and he, and Friday and all their guides are nearly eaten by wolves because of it.

But he manages to get home alive, and marries and has some kids before he ever thinks about what may have happened to the Spaniards he’d sent for with an escape plan. So he hires a boat and sails off to them, and finds them still alive, still trapped on the island. To this he thinks, “Huh. All’s well that ends well, you’re now my colony, here’s some livestock and some women. Bu-bye!” He then sails home again, leaving them on the island he has been calling up until the end The Island of Despair and ‘my prison’.

The End.

Now, if you’re like me, you may be thinking that Robinson Crusoe is a self-serving asshole who is a master at self justification and selective thinking in which, when bad things happen to him, they are well and truly evil, but when the same bad things happen to other people it’s time to take advantage of their misfortune. I would give the book more credit for having been written in the time it was (published in 1719), however Crusoe as a character is so contradictory, and so blind to his own hurtful hypocrisy that he’s just not likable. I didn’t root for his success at any part of the book. I kind of wanted him to be eaten by his parrot, whom he also abandoned pitifully. He’s arrogant, self-serving, with an admitted lip-service to religion until he very nearly dies; he’s racist and misogynistic, and above all, learns nothing of moralistic value from his hardships.

Stylistically, the book is bland. While Defoe does describe things in great detail, the parts which should have been exciting and adventurous are told in the same tone one might use to describe the weather. What is, for all intents and purposes the prologue and the epilogue are way too detailed, and drag the story out longer than it needs to be with unnecessary events that add little to the character (though if they were meant to showcase the evil morality of imperialism, I could stomach them more). The capitalization of every noun (at least in the edition I read) was also hard to get used to at first, but it stopped bothering me by about halfway through the book.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I wanted to, which always upsets me a little. I hate being disappointed by books, especially by classics, but you can’t love them all. I suppose if you take it as a political satire it’s digestible, but on its own it’s not very savory.

Read more pokes and prods at Robinson Crusoe at this nice blog:

Fighting with Fiction

and have an academic look at the colonialism and racism in Robinson Crusoe here:

British Literature 1700 – 1900, a Course Blog

The next book on my reading list is The Man With the Knives by Ellen Kushner.

Tastes of Japan: Yaki-imo

With the days shortening, the nights cooling and mellow winds bringing in the smell of farmers burning their leaves, autumn is arriving in Japan. The first bright orange leaves are a welcomed sight around here, signalling the final days of oppressive heat and unpredictable summer storms and giving the residents of Kyoto a much anticipated–if brief–reprieve between the temperature extremes of summer and winter. Seasonal dishes are also changing around now, and perhaps no other food in Kyoto is a better symbol of the coming of autumn than the sweet potato.

Sold in convenience stores all over the city, yaki-imo, or baked sweet potato is as ubiquitous a sight (and smell) as oden between the months of October and February. Wrapped in foil and baked over embers or in burning leaves, this simple, fragrant snack is incredibly popular in Japan, and a perfect food for keeping the chill out of the body. When cooked to perfection is it soft, hot and flaky, with a sweet and starchy flavor that is sure to fill you up fast.

Unsurprisingly, sweet potatoes aren’t native to Japan. They were introduced in the early 1700s and quickly became popular as a reliable crop when violent summer storms could wipe out other staple foods. They are used in the Tsukimi autumn moon festival, where they are cooked in a variety of ways and offered to the moon in hopes of a plentiful harvest for the year. They are also sometimes used in shoju liquor, and are frequently baked in pastries around this time of year. Personally, I like the caramelized sweet potatoes with the black sesame seeds best.

Japanese snack foods also capitalize on the popularity of yaki-imo during the autumn months. Calbee brand Osatsu is a light, baked sweet potato snack which is yaki-imo flavored. They are one of Alex’s favorites. It’s incredibly easy to go through an entire bag of these without even realizing it.

Autumn is a great time for visiting Japan. The weather is mild, the colors of the trees are stunning, and the food is flavorful. If you happen to be in Kyoto during this time, have a taste of yaki-imo, fresh off the embers, to warm yourself up in between the gorgeous sights of the changing of the seasons.