BOOK REVIEW: Children’s Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Kimberley Reynolds

Children's Literature: A Very Short IntroductionChildren’s Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Kimberley Reynolds
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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To make an ineloquent (and possibly disturbing) comparison, what’s been said to be true of pornography is also true of children’s literature – i.e. we take for granted that we’ll know it when we see it, but trying to define its boundaries runs into difficulties at every turn. One imagines an illustrated book, simple of language and subject matter, featuring a child as protagonist, and avoiding the most traumatic or shocking subjects and themes, but none of those conditions has proven necessary and / or sufficient. Reynolds presents a landscape of children’s literature (and the debates swirling about it) through history, one that keeps in mind that the subject is slippery.

The book consists of six chapters and some ancillary matter. The first chapter sketches an overview of the history of children’s literature [restricted to English language books.] Here we see the changing face of kid’s lit over time, and learn how children’s literature only gradually became a distinct field, moving from the earliest English translation of “Aesop’s Fables” in the 15th century to the multimedia literary experiences of today.

Chapter 2 is the longest chapter and it investigates the many ways children’s books have been studied, and to what ends. As with adult literature, there are many different perspectives by which literary works can be analyzed, and many that apply to adult books are also seen here with their own child-oriented considerations: e.g. psychoanalytical, gender-centric, linguistic, stylistic, and historical. There are also some uniquely child-applicable considerations that are presented as well, such as how well adults can write in ways which optimally resonate with kids.

Chapter 3 investigates how the field has moved beyond the book to convey stories – old and new – in ways that might be more effective in reaching a diverse body of children. Emphasis is given to how the story experience can be more interactive and flexible to the needs of a broad audience.

The fourth chapter is about genre. In one sense, children’s books are considered a genre, but then there are many cross-genre books such as science fiction or fantasy books directed at a youthful readership. Special focus is given to the family story. The advantage of the family story genre is that it’s one area in which the child can be expected to have some level of experience. [Even orphans will have some sense of interpersonal dynamics by which they can relate.]

The penultimate chapter is about children’s literature as a means to prepare children for a future, from personal level considerations of mortality to societal level issues like ecological tragedy. Children’s fiction that looks to the future has become an increasing trend in the modern era.

The final chapter is where Reynolds gets to the most controversial aspect of children’s literature, which is whether (and, if so, how) subject matter should (or shouldn’t) be limited. One worrying concern is that children’s stories can become thinly-veiled means of indoctrination into political or religious (or anti-religious) dogma. It’s not just a matter of adults having greater discernment, but also that they have greater freedom to choose what books are available to them. The other major issue is to what degree children should be protected from traumatic, complex, or controversial subject matter, e.g. sex, suicide, etc.

The ancillary matter mostly consists of graphics (often historic art / artifacts of relevance) as well as a references / further reading section that is arranged by chapter.

If you’re looking for a concise overview of children’s literature and the debates and challenges that exist around it, this book provides a quick outline of the subject which references many exemplary works that can be looked into for more in-depth investigation.


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BOOK REVIEW: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

LolitaLolita by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Written in a confessional style, Nabokov’s masterwork tells the story of a middle-aged intellectual, Humbert Humbert, and his hebephiliac obsession with a twelve-year-old girl named Delores Haze — whom he calls Lolita. Early in the novel, Humbert is renting a room from Charlotte Haze (Lolita’s mother,) and Charlotte starts sending him heavy hints that she is interested in a more intimate relationship. While the Humbert that we get to know as readers is a creepy, obsessive stalker, in person the man comes across as articulate and suave – in other words, a fine marriage prospect for a single mom in the market for a husband. Eventually, Humbert does decide to marry Charlotte — not because he loves her, but because he is obsessed with Delores / Lolita and wants to stay close to the girl no matter what it takes.

One day after the couple has settled into marriage, Humbert comes in to find that Charlotte is freaked out; she has read his journal and now knows what the reader is already aware of: that Humbert isn’t right in the head, that he secretly detests Charlotte, and that he desperately wants to possess Lolita. This would be the end of the line for Humbert’s ruse, but Charlotte, in a mad flurry of preparation to get away from Humbert, dashes in front of a speeding vehicle as she is crossing the road to post letters that would have outed Humbert as a hebephiliac cretin. But Charlotte is not around to tell the story, and Humbert is handed the unopened letters (no one has any reason to think he’s anything but a loving and devoted husband, so good is his mask.)

At the time of Charlotte’s death, Lolita is away at camp. While Humbert’s obsession may have been news to Charlotte, it seemed the mother was always keen to keep her daughter at bay. In part the mother – daughter never got along, but, on some level, Charlotte seemed uncomfortable having Lolita around Humbert, whether Charlotte was just jealous of the girl’s youth or whether she had some inkling of what was really going on can’t be known. [We only have Humbert’s perspective, and he is an admittedly unreliable narrator – though he does offer his own speculations about other character’s mindset, and – as will be discussed – his unreliability is in specific domains. In some ways, he’s unexpectedly forthright.] At any rate, Humbert takes Lolita on a road trip, at first telling her only that her mother was not well, and not until an emotional outburst much later, letting the girl know her mother is dead. [Lolita seems to suspect that Humbert killed Charlotte, but seems unperturbed by it – perhaps because she never got along with her mother, or perhaps, because she’s a bit of a psychopath, herself.]

After some time on the road, a time during which Humbert both has his way with Lolita and discovers that she isn’t the innocent little girl he’d imagined, Humbert and Lolita settle into a town where Lolita can go to a girl’s school and where they aren’t known. This settling in creates a number of challenges for the possessive Humbert because he would ideally like Lolita to spend no time whatsoever with other males and as little time as possible with other females, or at least with females who might learn about their unusual living arrangement. For instance, Humbert has to be convinced to let Lolita participate in a school play via a meeting with faculty and administration from the school.

Intriguingly, shortly before the play is to take place, Lolita insists they take their show on the road again. [There are many points at which it seems Lolita is playing Humbert, but this is the most intense subversion of the power dynamic. Lolita makes clear that they are leaving, and they will be going where she wants. She has come to understand her leverage, and is willing to exploit it.]

In the second part of the novel, as they are traveling around, Humbert begins to notice that they are being followed. Humbert describes cars tailing them, and men running away or talking to Lolita while Humbert has stepped away from the girl. Of course, we know Humbert is unreliable, and even he is not sure how much he can trust some of these “sightings” as real, as opposed to being products of his imagination. As we are on the subject of Humbert’s unreliable narration, it’s worth discussing that the particular nature of Humbert’s unreliable narration is a central to our relationship to the Humbert character. One might expect an unreliable narrator to hide or rationalize bad behavior, but Humbert not only lets the reader in on his bad behavior but frequently lets us know that he knows what he’s doing is societally (and / or morally) unacceptable. Knowing that he’s behaving badly or irrationally, and still making said choices would seem like it should make Humbert more despicable, but that’s not necessarily the case, at least not fully. Because Humbert is forthright in some regard and because he is so articulate and sensible (if not rational,) one’s reaction to him becomes complicated. I should point out that Humbert does rationalize his behavior, but he does so in a specific way, by acting as though his relationship with Lolita is a loving and, at least somewhat, healthy one.

This distorted worldview can be seen in his perception of Clare Quilty, who – to the reader – is Humbert’s mirror image; but to Humbert, Quilty is a monster. On their second road trip, Lolita falls ill and Humbert must take her to the hospital. As he is taking care of business, an unknown individual takes possession of Lolita. Searching high and low, Humbert can’t discover who took her and where they’ve gone. Then one day, after years have passed, Humbert gets a letter from Dolly Schiller (the now married Delores Haze, a.k.a. Lolita) asking for money to get them through until her husband’s new job starts paying. Humbert goes to her, intent on killing the man who dragged her away from him, but – once there – he realizes that Dolly’s husband wasn’t involved in her disappearance. Humbert begs Dolly to come back to him, only to realize that he is to her as Charlotte had been to him, a relationship she put up with to get what she wanted (or, with youthfully naiveté, thought she wanted.) Humbert willingly gives Dolly some money and goes, but only after she tells him who actually absconded with her, i.e. Clare Quilty. The concluding sequence of the novel involves Humbert’s confrontation with Quilty — surreal and almost comic as it is.

This book is definitely worth reading. Nabokov uses language with masterful poeticism, and builds a fascinating character in Humbert. Reader’s who loved “Confederacy of Dunces” will recognize that one doesn’t have to like a lead character to find their life-story intensely readable. But, while everyone hates Ignatius Reilly, one’s feelings for Humbert may be more complicated. He’s both detestable and sympathetic at the same time. The version of the book that I read had a nice epilogue by Nabokov, himself. While I don’t always find such ancillary matter is useful in works of fiction, in this case I got a lot out of it because the book is quite nuanced. If nothing else, I learned that Nabokov reviled all the “symbolism” that critics liked to attribute to his works. I’d highly recommend this book. While it deals in challenging matter, Nabokov leaves a great deal to the reader’s imagination, and so it’s not graphic or explicit as one might expect from a book that’s been so often banned. [Of course, being so banned was reason enough for me to read it.]


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BOOK REVIEW: The Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark

The Art of X-Ray ReadingThe Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If one asks a group of people whether a story worked or not, one is likely to hear widespread agreement, but if one asks them why it worked [or didn’t,] one is likely to get a hodgepodge of murky conclusions. The average person will struggle to put together a coherent explanation for failed stories, an explanation which may or may not be grounded in paydirt. That’s because whether writing works or not is a matter of emotional resonance, and what delivers that emotional experience is almost as hidden as the pipes and wires in the walls that deliver water and electricity. Clark’s purpose with this book is to show the reader some of the characteristics they can read for, features which may not be readily apparent when one is lost in a good book, but which make the difference between a masterpiece and a ho-hum work.

While I referred to “story” a lot in the preceding paragraph, it’s worth noting that Clark’s book does cover the gambit of creative writing activities – including a few poets, essayists, non-fiction authors, and repeated references to one very famous playwright. That said, the bulk of the works under discussion are fiction — be it a novel, short story, epic poem, or play.

The book consists of twenty-five chapters, and the subtitle is a little bit deceptive because not all of the chapters take a single work as a focal point. Each of the chapters has a core concept to convey, using one or more authors (and one or more of each writer’s works) to do so. Some of these lessons are at the level of language, such as Nabokov’s playfully poetic alliteration and assonance, Hemingway’s sparse prose, or Toni Morrison’s effective use of repetition. Other chapters explore how intrigue can be set up and sustained: such as in Shirley Jackson’s foreshadowing of the twist in her story “The Lottery,” or the way “Sir Gawain and the Green Night” turns a non-event into unexpected chills, or how Harper Lee uses the slowed experience of time to build tension. Still other chapters present techniques such as placing texts within the text as done in “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” zooming in or out with perspective as is done in Homer’s “Odyssey,” or Shakespeare’s rejection of conventions in his sonnets. Some chapters investigate how a tone is established such as in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism, and one other focuses on intertextuality – i.e. the borrowing of ideas from past masters in a non-plagiaristic sort of way.

The authors and works selected are popular and will generally be a least familiar to avid readers of English language literature, and most readers will have read at least a few of the works under consideration. A few of my personal favorites were explored including Shakespeare, Yeats, and Hemingway, and I suspect that will be true of most readers. There was only one author of whom I had no knowledge, M.F.K. Fisher, a writer who is well-known to mid-twentieth century cookbook fans, but who is a little obscure today. Having said that, I did come away with an interest in reading the book under discussion – i.e. “How to Cook a Wolf.”

While this book is marketed towards writers, I think any serious reader would find it an interesting and worthwhile read. If you want a better understanding of what succeeds in the world of writing, you should take a look at this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare

King Henry IV, Part 1King Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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While it may be Henry the IV’s reign that is threatened during the course of this play, it’s the King’s son, Prince Hal, who plays the lead role. “Hal” goes by that name because the cast features an abundance of Henrys. Besides the King and Hal, Hal’s principal rival is also a Henry (though that one, Henry Percy, goes by “Hotspur” in the interest of avoiding Henry-based confusion. [Additionally, Hotspur’s dad is a Henry, as well.])

While one might expect that the play’s principal conflict derives from intense competition for use of the name “Henry,” readers of Richard II will note that King Richard II handed over the crown to Henry Bolingbroke (a.k.a. Henry IV) under contentious conditions. The fact that Henry Bolingbroke wasn’t the next in line of succession and that he forced his predecessor out doesn’t bode well for an undisputed claim to the throne, and Henry IV’s rule is faced with everything from passive aggressive opposition to outright armed rebellion. At the start of the play, we see an indication of this conflict in Hotspur’s unwillingness to hand over a number of prisoners that his forces had taken in battle. Hotspur’s family were allies to Henry against Richard II, and the King’s unwillingness either to meet some of the Percy family demands or to recognize their role in his current kingship has made them hostile towards Henry IV.

In the first half of the play, Prince Hal is shown to be a rascal who enjoys hanging out in the pub with the likes of Sir John Falstaff. (You may know the pudgy, cowardly, and fib-prone Falstaff from his role in “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”) While Hal tends to be the voice of reason among his pub-crawling friends, Falstaff provides a low bar against which to compare one’s virtue. One event offers us great insight into Hal’s character early in the play – not to mention great amusement. When Falstaff convinces a few friends to engage in a bit of banditry, robbing a courier to get some money for mead (or ale, or whatever they drank) Hal says he has a conflict. However, Hal and his friend Poins don their own highwaymen attire and rob Falstaff’s robbers. Later, Hal and Poins are greatly amused by hearing Falstaff tell the tale of how he and his three compatriots barely got out alive against fifty enemy bandits — the Prince knowing full well that it was just two men (Poins and he) who robbed the four, and with no violence, whatsoever. Hal gives the money back, showing he is not of the same ilk as Falstaff, but it’s telling that the Prince goes to all the trouble (and risk) of a counter-robbery just as a prank.

The second half of the play centers on a rebellion that is being carried out against the King, led by Hotspur and his father. As this is going on, Hal realizes he needs to step up his game and give up his mischievous ways. When a reconciled King Henry IV and Prince Hal approach for the Battle of Shrewsbury, both the King and the Prince make offers to the enemy that are intended to prevent the carnage of all-out war. Prince Hal’s offer is that he and Hotspur (who is not present at the time) engage in single combat (a duel) to avoid the tragedy of a battle of armies. In this offer, he speaks of Hotspur very graciously, while acknowledging his own faults. Neither offer is passed on to Hotspur by his elder, though he does learn of Hal’s proposition before the two come into combat in the melee of war (a fight that Hal wins – an important victory, given that Hal is a major character in the next two Shakespearean Histories, i.e. Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V [Prince Hal will become Henry V.]) Hotspur’s father (i.e. the Earl of Northumberland and the one who met with Henry IV and Hal) didn’t pass on the offers because he was concerned that Hotspur might take the Prince up on his offer, and that the outcome would be devastating for the Percy family. This is an informative bit of duplicity that highlights Hotspur’s apparent virtue and the duplicity of his elders (i.e. the Earls of Northumberland and Worcester.)

Because Shakespeare’s Histories follow the flow of real-world events, some are more evocative as stories than others (because some of the Kings’ stories were more engaging than others.) There’s a general consensus that Henry IV, Part 1 is among the better historical plays. The arc of the story demonstrates clear character growth in Hal. In its comedic moments, the play is quite funny, but that doesn’t diminish the tension and tragedy of the story overall. It’s definitely worth a read. Even if you only plan to read a few of the historical plays, this should probably be among them.


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BOOK REVIEW: Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen [Ill. by Marjolein Bastin]

Pride and Prejudice: Illustrations by Marjolein BastinPride and Prejudice: Illustrations by Marjolein Bastin by Jane Austen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This edition out: March 2, 2021

 

This is a new addition of an early 19th century classic. The value-added of the edition under review comes from illustrations by Marjolein Bastin, making for an aesthetically pleasing hardcopy edition for gifts or for collectors. The attractive color illustrations are of wildflowers, birds, and butterflies, and are widespread throughout – including the first and last page of each chapter. The artwork is beautifully drawn and vibrantly colored.

It’s a testament to the effectiveness of this book’s story and character development that it has withstood the test of time, becoming a widely-adapted classic. If it were being submitted for publishing today, I suspect it would face intense challenges with respect to its flouting of many popular conventions on writing. It has a pretty high telling-to-showing ratio. Description is sparse, so much so that some might find “floating head syndrome” kicks in [i.e. long tracks of dialogue detached from the setting and any action, such that they are imagined as two floating heads in a white void speaking back and forth.] That said, it may be that Austen was ahead of her time in this regard. A number of prominent later writers concluded that there was a general tendency to over-describe in novels. [Readers are going to build their own mental models of setting and character appearance, such that long tracts of description are wasted effort and ultimately hinder readability.]

The story revolves around a family of five sisters, the Bennet’s. Their father is a gentleman, but of modest means and his estate is “entailed.” [I don’t know what “entailed” means legally, but relative to the story, it means that his wife and daughters can’t inherit his estate – rather, the property must go to Mr. Bennet’s nearest male relative, who turns out to be a pompous, self-righteous, and generally irritating clergyman, Mr. Collins.] The significance of that fact is that it exacerbates concern about what will happen to the family when Mr. Bennet dies — particularly if the daughters don’t marry well and Collins decides to be a jerk and put them out on the “street.” This makes Mrs. Bennet anxious about the future and a little cuckoo about getting her daughters married.

Within the Bennet family, the story revolves mostly around the second oldest daughter, Elizabeth. When Mr. Collins asks her hand in marriage, she summarily rejects him. This, of course, is much to the chagrin of her mother, as marriage to Collins would single-handedly secure the family’s future [one can’t very well evict one’s mother-in-law, or at least one would have to be an even bigger jerk than Collins to do so.] Elizabeth soon meets a man she does find very promising, Mr. Wickham, a personable military man. But Elizabeth is nothing if not cautious, which turns out to be a good thing for her. The relationship with Wickham doesn’t go anywhere, and she ultimately discovers that all is not what it seems with the man. She immediately notices hostility between Wickham and a wealthy young bachelor gentleman named Mr. Darcy. Wickham tells Elizabeth his side of the story, which makes Darcy look like a jerk who ruined Wickham’s life. Elizabeth readily believes this Wickham because Mr. Darcy is so proud, and the fact that Darcy is also quiet and reserved makes him seem all the more aloof. [Those of us who are not highly expressive can readily recognize the point that people will write their own stories to fill in the blanks when faced with a lack of intense feedback.] So, here we have explanation of the title. Mr. Darcy is proud, but Elizabeth develops a prejudice against him not only because of his pride but also because he is not as instantaneously likable as Wickham or – for that matter — Darcy’s best friend, Mr. Bingley. This lack of bonhomie makes it easier to believe the bad than the good about Darcy, despite mounting evidence that he’s kind of a quietly great guy.

Elizabeth rejects a second marriage proposal, this one from Darcy, on the twin grounds that she believes Darcy ruined Wickham and also that she came to the conclusion that Darcy poisoned Bingley’s relationship with Elizabeth’s older sister, Jane. [Elizabeth and Jane are close not only in age but in their relationship to each other.] Reeling with rejection, Darcy hands Elizabeth a letter the next day. In it, Darcy admits that he was party to convincing Bingley to drop Jane, but only because he thought the reserved Jane wasn’t into Bingley. That is, it wasn’t that he had anything against Jane, but he didn’t want his friend to be the “reacher” in a “reacher-settler” relationship. But the big bomb regards Wickham, as Darcy’s side of the story paints the affable red-coat as flighty and irresponsible. Gradually, Elizabeth comes to see that Darcy’s is the more complete and accurate depiction of events, and she can even see how he would think as he did about Jane. After several readings, Elizabeth is mortified at her own behavior in light of this new information, but the English countryside is a small pond for the upper crust, and she will continue to run into the man she spurned wrongly.

The events that set up the grand romantic gesture that will turn things around and set up the climax revolve around Elizabeth’s [immediately] younger sister, the ugly bonnet-buying Lydia. Visiting some family friends at Brighton, Lydia falls in with Mr. Wickham and, being less cautious and discerning than Elizabeth [not to mention overeager to be married,] she sidles off with him. This is not so relatable today, but the entire family become obsessed with finding out what happened with Lydia, and fears that she’s brought disgrace on the entire family and may even keep the other daughters from finding suitable suitors. [Mr. Collins, for one, believes they should treat her as if she were dead.] This sets up Mr. Darcy to come in and secretly save the day [get Wickham to marry Lydia, a marriage which satisfies everybody – except Collins who still believes Lydia should be written off because she may or may not have had premarital sex but she certainly created the appearance that she probably did — for which she will spend an eternity in a lake of hellfire for ever and ever without end.]

There is a lot of obsession with the incomes of the various characters, and a lot of “keeping up with the Jones’s” mentality. In one sense, it seems that Austen is critiquing such attitudes – along with a lot of other peculiar attitudes of the day. Certainly, we see the sympathetic protagonist, Elizabeth, is clear in behaving in a way that suggests she is most interested in a happy future. On the other hand, critics have pointed out that the book ends with those with more wealth set to have happier futures. Elizabeth and then Jane are likely to be happy as clams with their rich husbands, but Lydia far less so with the perpetually broke Mr. Wickham. There’s also lot of rigid formality that might be being picked at by the novel as well – or, at least, it appears so problematic to a present-day reader. There is so much reserved refusal to say anything that might violate social norms, even if a person is bursting to do so and everyone would be better off if they did. One might get the feeling Elizabeth is scared as a mouse given her unwillingness to speak openly, but then when Lady de Bourgh (who intimidates almost everyone in the book) tries to get Elizabeth to agree to turn down Darcy’s proposal, Elizabeth refuses her in a very articulate and well-deployed counter-attack – despite being under the impression that there is no engagement to be concerned about in the first place (this after she rejected his proposal.)

I enjoyed reading this story. I expected it would be archaic and generally unrelatable to today’s world. However, it turned out to be a surprisingly engaging story. While I am not one to by a book for ancillary illustrations, if you are into such things, this book has some soothing and beautifully-rendered imagery. It’s definitely worth reading this classic novel.

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BOOK REVIEW: Alien Stories by E.C. Osondu

Alien StoriesAlien Stories by E.C. Osondu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: May 11, 2021

 

This collection of short stories by Nigerian author, E.C. Osondu, examines the alien life. While many of the pieces use extraterrestrial aliens as a plot device, it’s easy to see that terrestrial alienation is the topic under consideration. Most of the pieces are of the soft science fiction variety, focusing on the psychological and relational elements more than the scientific detail. That said, a few of the pieces read as purely realist fiction. Some of the pieces focus on what it’s like to be an alien (of some variety,) but many of the stories focus upon how others perceive the “alien.” I should point out that the tone of the collection tends to be lighthearted, and so while it might seem that a collection based on the theme of alienation would be a bit melancholy, that is not so much the case.

This volume is part of the American Reader Series (#36) put out by BOA Editions. The collection includes eighteen stories. The first story, “Alien Enactors,” imagines individuals trying to convey information about their native culture in a recreational setting (called “the Ranch”) that is very market driven. The enactors are obsessed with ratings and with pleasing customers and the story is a commentary on what it is like for an émigré to enter the globalized world.

“Memory Store” was one of my favorites of the collection, because it sets up a fascinating thought experiment. The premise is that there is a store where one can go and sell one’s memories, and once one has sold a memory, it is lost to one forever. [Like selling blood or other bodily fluids, it mainly attracts those in relatively desperate states.] As a sci-fi plot mechanism, it makes for an interesting idea, but when one thinks of it as being about the trade-off of loss of past as one integrates into a new cultural environment, it becomes a powerful analogy.

“How to Raise an Alien Baby” is presented as a discussion of rules aliens would need to follow to adopt a baby from Earth. The story provokes one to think about how strange it can be for a child to enter a completely new cultural environment.

In “Visitors,” an alien couple have moved into a small village, and the lead characters are a couple who are having said alien couple over. The arrival of this alien couple invites incessant questioning about why they would pick such a place. For those who’ve lived only one place, it seems to be a common thought to wonder why anyone in their right mind would choose to live there – of all places. We also see a divergence of views toward aliens. The wife is more open-minded while the husband remains suspicious.

“Feast,” which is set on Alien Feast Day, features a child’s eye contemplation of aliens, and the endless questions such a view inspires. As with the husband in “Visitors,” the children try to grasp what aliens are really like, why the are so different, and – in the process – they stumble, misestimating the differences between the aliens and themselves.

In the story, “Mark,” a grandmother imparts wisdom via a story about the “Red Planet.” The journey described in this extraterrestrial tale is an analogy intended to prepare others a different kind of travel.

“Spaceship” is another of my favorites from the collection. In the story, aliens leave a broken-down spaceship at a village, just as someone might leave a car along the highway until it can be fixed. What is brilliant about the story is its description of how the locals begin to impart meaning upon the ship’s presence. All things, good and bad, that happen in the village are linked to the whims of the broken-down spacecraft. It serves as a commentary on superstition and religiosity.

In “Sacrifice,” each year an alien spacecraft visits, requiring one village youth to be surrendered to the aliens. There’s a sort of “Hunger Games” selection processes that isn’t discussed in detail, but which arrives at a presumably random “tribute” each year. However, when an only child is selected, the mother gets up in arms about it.

“Light” is about personal transformation and how it may seem to be a magical and spontaneous occurrence to others. In the story, a light from the sky lands up on the lead character, and, with it, she experiences a profound personality change.

In “Traveler” a local and an alien (“foreigner”) converse in transit.

“Debriefing” is one of the stories that isn’t of the science fiction genre. It imagines the advice that an African would receive upon arriving in the United States. It’s sort of a “do’s and don’ts” of living in America for the alien resident. It’s amusing in some places and disconcerting in others.

“Focus Group” presents a series of comments from individuals as if they were taking part in a focus group where they were asked “What are aliens like?”

The story “Child’s Play” revolves around two children who like to play a game that allows them to disappear into an alternative dimension.

Life changes for a bickering couple when the man finds a mysterious boon in the backyard in “Who Is in the Garden?”

“On the Lost Tribes of the Black World” is a story that is presented as if it were a scholarly description of the “Konga” tribe, a people forged around the singular act of drumming.

In “Love Affair” a lesbian émigré to America from Africa, Finda, tries to navigate the minefield of human relations. On the one hand, she learns from her grandmother that being gay isn’t something Finda would be likely to be able to pull off in their homeland, but still Finda isn’t finding her sexual orientation to be any picnic in America – despite the fact that she can be open about it. This is one of the most engaging stories in the collection.

With “The Home Companion” the collection shifts back into sci-fi territory, imagining a technology that can serve to combat loneliness by providing one with an intelligence with which to converse.

“Our Earthly Possessions” discusses just what a traveler has as he or she moves to a new land. The subject of memory, addressed in the second story, is revisited in this story from a different angle.

I found this to be a fantastic collection of stories. If you have any interest in what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land, these stories will offer you insight into that condition. If you are experienced in that regard, the stories will resonate with you. It’s a smart collection of stories and will plant seeds of thought and help them germinate. If you read short fiction, I’d highly recommend this collection.

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BOOK REVIEW: Best Fairy Stories of the World ed. by Marcus Clapham

Best Fairy Stories of the WorldBest Fairy Stories of the World by Marcus Clapham
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book collects sixty-two well-known fairy and folk tales. While the bulk of the stories are European, there are a few entries from Indian, Japanese, Aussie, Slavic, and Middle Eastern folklore. There are several stories which will be familiar to all readers (often by virtue of their Disney adaptations,) such as: “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Cinderella,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Snow White.” There are others that are widely known as go-to bedtime stories, e.g. “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” and “The Three Little Pigs.” Then there are others that are likely to be – at most – vaguely familiar to any reader who is not a specialist in global oral storytelling traditions, some because they are anachronistic and relate less well in the modern world and others because they are not well-known in the Western world (e.g. Japanese and Indian stories.)

For the most part, the selection of tales is not surprising. As mentioned, the collection is European-centric with all but about a dozen entries being from Europe. However, given the book is directed toward the English-speaking market, that narrow focus is to be expected. In fact, stories from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson together make up about one-third of the included works. Some readers may take umbrage that the proposed “Best Fairy Stories of the World” includes examples from so little of the world (ignoring Africa, the Western Hemisphere, and the vast majority of Asia, altogether.)

What is strange about the collection is that there are just a few pairs of stories for which both stories in the pair are structurally identical. I’m not talking about having a common theme or moral. The common objectives of these stories often result in them having thematic overlap, but that is not necessarily a problem for readers. For example, there are several “rags to riches” type stories. However, these stories are widely different in story events and characters, such that reading them does not leave one with the feeling of having reread the same story. Instead, I’m talking about instances like the inclusion of both “Rumpelstiltskin” and “Tom Tit Tot.” In both of these stories, the lead is charged with a task they cannot complete, and some magic creature comes along and says they will do the work and, if the person can guess their name, it’s a done deal, but if they can’t guess their rescuer’s name, they will be owned by said savior. Even how the two stories’ endings unfold is identical except in the finest granularity of detail. On one hand, I can see how including overlapping tales would give readers some indication of how these tales spread and became adapted by other cultures. However, on the other hand, I would have preferred that the editor selected the better of the two and use the freed-up space to include, say, some Native American or African stories.

I enjoyed this collection. It took me back to my youth, and also exposed me to some stories with which I was unfamiliar. I do believe the title could have been better worded because to call these the best in the world and then to make them almost entirely from northern Europe could be interpreted as being pretty conceited. However, I doubt there was any such conceit, just a desire to sell stories that would appeal to a particular readership, and then to hype it in as big a way as possible.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Prague Orgy by Philip Roth

The Prague OrgyThe Prague Orgy by Philip Roth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novella is sold independently, but is also included with “Zuckerman Bound,” a collected trilogy of books written by Philip Roth that includes: “The Ghost Writer,” “Zuckerman Unbound,” and “The Anatomy Lesson.” These books center on a fictional character, Nathan Zuckerman, who is a novelist bearing some resemblance to Roth, himself. The trilogy is from the early / mid 1980’s and “The Prague Orgy” functions as an epilogue to the series, although there’s no problem reading it as a standalone story.

In this short and simple tale, Zuckerman meets with an exiled Czech novelist, Sisovsky, in New York. While they are conversing, Sisovsky mentions that his father wrote a series of stories in Yiddish. Zuckerman becomes intrigued by these stories, especially as Sisovsky suggests they are better than anything Sisovsky, himself, has written. When Zuckerman asks about the whereabouts of the stories and why Sisovsky hasn’t had them published, the latter tells him that they are with his ex-wife in Prague. Sisovsky suggests that Zuckerman could probably talk this ex-wife, Olga, into giving up the manuscripts.

Zuckerman goes to Prague to speak with Olga. As Sisovsky suggested, Olga is a bit of a nymphomaniac, and immediately proceeds to try to get busy with Zuckerman. She is also interested in a more official relationship so that she can cross the Iron Curtain. The bulk of the story revolves around Zuckerman trying to fend off advances and get his hands on the manuscripts so that he can bring them back to be published before they – like so many stories of Central European Jews – are lost forever.

Being set in Cold War Central Europe, communist paranoia and spying play a major role, and – apropos of its Prague setting – this takes a form reminiscent of that seen in the works of Kafka (there is a sense of looming danger, but one isn’t quite sure how seriously one should take it.) In its most direct interpretation, the title reflects the idea that one has a bohemian artistic crowd who have nothing to do but engage in sexual hedonism in Prague because they can’t express themselves openly under a Communist regime – i.e. sexual promiscuity is the only outlet to be shocking that’s allowed.

This is was an amusing and compelling read, and I’d recommend it for fiction readers — particularly if one has an interest in Cold War fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Snow by Orhan Pamuk

SnowSnow by Orhan Pamuk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Written by the Nobel Prize winning Turkish novelist, Orhan Pamuk, Snow is one of the most effectively atmospheric novels I’ve ever read and is as riveting a story as I’ve read in quite some time. The protagonist is Ka, an erudite – if young – poet and writer who is given a journalistic assignment in Kars, a small city in the far eastern portion of Turkey — near the border with Armenia. The assignment is to write about an epidemic of cases of high school girls committing suicide over headscarf policies, and it is amid this climate of hostility between Atatürk-style secular pro-Western reformists and the militantly anti-secular Islamists that this story plays out — and from which it draws its tension. [To further complicate matters, there are also Kurdish separatists who don’t agree with either of the others’ causes, but would like to have autonomy in their own nation. However, these are more a garnish to the story than a primary flavor.]

Ka’s arrival in Kars is followed by an extended period of snowfall which cuts the city off, setting the stage for the conflicting parties to commence feuding. An Islamist murders a bureaucrat, and an actor-cum-reformist political powerhouse stages a controversial play that results in troops firing into the audience at agitated Islamist high school boys. Throughout this period trapped in Kars, Ka is repeatedly sucked into the middle of the conflict. The reformists see him as a potentially powerful ally as he has the communicative reach of a famous poet. Being a scholarly (and modern) young man who’s been living in Germany, in the heart of the West, Ka is seen as a natural comrade. The Islamists quietly despise Ka, but also see him as one who can give them voice. When I say “quietly despise” I mean they clearly have disdain for him because he an atheist [or so they all assume] and they, furthermore, assume that he believes he is better than them. However, on a personal level they find Ka to be personable, likable, and respectful. As it happens, Ka is prone to a kind of mystical experience while in Kars. Poems flood his mind with unprecedented ease. He is amid the bliss of falling in love. It’s not clear whether his waffling on the question of the existence of god is the result of the inhabitants of Kars wearing off on him, if it’s the atmosphere of pristine snowy beauty, if it’s the joy of being madly in love, or some combination of the above. [A side question touched upon throughout the book is what spurs creativity? Is it misery? Is it happiness? Is it some combination of the two, rightly timed? Is it neither?]

Despite the description of Ka as being a young man throughout the book, in the first half of the book I pictured him as a middle-aged / older man. He seems so wise and well-reasoned, and people seem to seek him out for his opinion (granted, this has a lot to do with his fame.) However, when he finally receives some indication of reciprocation from the girl that he’s obsessed with, he immediately turns into a fifteen-year-old lovelorn boy. From that point onward, Ka succumbs to petty jealousy and becomes smotheringly needy. This will be Ka’s downfall — though not immediately. At first, this change seems to be almost flattering to the girl, turning her feelings from those of an acquaintance to those of a tentative lover. I must say, the most discordant part of this book is Ka’s transformation, but it does set up an intriguing chain of possibilities — and Ka wouldn’t be the first person to be transformed into a crazy person by way of a love affair.

The book’s approach to storytelling is quite interesting as well. It’s written as though the author, himself, is telling Ka’s story — not as a dispassionate witness but a secondary participant. Throughout most of the book this is not noticeable, and the telling comes across as run-of-the-mill third person narration, but in the latter third of the book it becomes quite prominent because of what I think of as literary fourth wall breaking, using shifts to first person narration to let the reader know that the author is actively in the story. [In plays and movies, the 4th wall break is when an actor turns to the audience and talks to them, in effect acknowledging that he or she knows they are in a movie.] The reason for these perspective shifts is that in the last part of the book, the author is trying to piece together what happened during Ka’s last hours in Kars.

If one is the type of reader who likes all outstanding plot questions tied up with a nice bow, one may find the ending a little bit trying. The author employs what I call “strategic ambiguity,” leaving certain facts unknown so that the reader is forced to draw his or her own conclusion [or to live with the lack of a conclusion.] I enjoy this approach as it gives me a little more to chew over as a reader, and, also, because it more reasonably captures the state of the real world, in which perfect certainty is a rarity. However, I do realize this tactic irritates some readers.

I was spellbound by this story. It was engrossing both on the level of the protagonist as an individual, but also offered great insight into the societal level conflict in the region. If you’re looking for a great novel, and not put off by religious-secular conflict being at the heart of a story, I’d highly recommend Snow.

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BOOK REVIEW: Shakespeare’s Sonnets & Poems by Jonathan F. S. Post

Shakespeare's Sonnets and Poems: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Poems: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan F. S. Post
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Today, Shakespeare is known as a playwright (who performed every other occupation in the theatrical world,) and while it is true that some of his sonnets are quite well-known and anthologized, few read (or even know of) his narrative poems. That was not always the case, and there was a time when it seemed probable that Shakespeare would become as well know for “The Rape of Lucrece” as for any of his plays. There’s a reason for his poetic work that we can very much relate to today, and that’s that when the Plague was in town, the theaters were closed down. Of course, there is no ironclad distinction between these two career tracks – poet and playwright. All of Shakespeare’s plays contain verse, and a couple of the histories are written entirely in verse (i.e. King John and Richard II.) Of course, muddying the waters are doubts about what works attributed to Shakespeare were actually composed by him.

In this “A Very Short Introduction,” Post offers the reader insight into the historical and cultural context in which these poems exist, offering elaborations that will help the reader to better understand these poems. The book also helps one see the poems in the larger context of Shakespeare’s work and of literature, itself. Chapter one provides an overview of Shakespeare’s career as a poet and contrasts it to his work as a playwright.

Chapter two is about the narrative poem entitled “Venus and Adonis.” This poem shows us the lovelorn goddess, Venus, continually trying to woo Adonis who is, as they say, just not that into her. Post explores the linkage between Shakespeare’s poem and the source material (e.g. Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,”) comparing and contrasting earlier versions of this Greek myth with the Bard’s telling. He also dives into the psychology a bit, asking us to consider who is the more sympathetic character. As in other chapters, Post highlights stanzas that he believes provide particular insight into the story.

Chapter three is about Shakespeare’s most well-known narrative poem, “The Rape of Lucrece.” This poem is about the defilement of a Roman noblewoman and the sad ending to which her tragedy plays out. Besides relating the poem to source material and to Shakespeare’s broader work, the author also shows how the story was portrayed in paintings, as well as discussing how pertinent parts of the poem relate to the story in Homer’s “Iliad” (the story of the war and besiegement of Troy by a coalition of Greek states.)

Chapters four and five both explore the sonnets. The first (Ch. 4) provides insight into the form of sonnet employed by Shakespeare and relates it to sonnets, generally. A section is devoted to breaking down one particular sonnet (116,) to deconstruct a typical example. Other sonnets are included in the text to emphasize particular points — as opposed to offering a generic overview. Chapter five considers themes and points of emphasis that cut across the collection of 154 sonnets. Here we get an explanation of how the “young man” and “dark lady” poems are distinct, but can be seen as part of an interrelated whole. Still other sonnets are printed in full or in part to elucidate the author’s points.

The final chapter (Ch. 6) investigates two works that are widely (but not universally) attributed to Shakespeare that might be considered the Black Sheep of his poetic family. [There is, of course, a connection between these works being atypical of form and / or content and their authorship being challenged.] The first work is “A Lover’s Complaint,” which like “The Rape of Lucrece” tells the tale of a woman used and abandoned, but – in this case – not an aristocratic woman. Its authorship is less in doubt because it was published together with the sonnets while Shakespeare was still alive, and while the content is a bit different the poem is not wildly outside Shakespeare’s body of work. “The Phoenix and Turtle” is a short, highly lyrical, love story that uses lines with three and a half feet (catalectic trochaic tetrameter.) [A metering which appears in Shakespeare’s other work, but not nearly to the extent as pentameter.]

This book contains graphics that mostly consist of artistic takes on the events of the narrative poems along with a couple title page photos. Like the other books in this series, there is both a “references” section and a “recommended reading” section. This edition also has a brief timeline that puts Shakespeare’s career into broader context of Elizabethan literature, and also shows when the poems came out relative to Shakespeare’s plays.

I found this book to be compelling and educational. I had no idea that — in Shakespeare’s time — it seemed as likely that he would become well-known for his poetry as that he would for his plays. (Apparently, the plays weren’t collectively published until well after the Bard’s death.) It’s easy to lose informational value from Shakespeare’s work when one lacks a background in history and how language has morphed. Among these “A Very Short Introduction” guides from Oxford University Press, I have found volumes that greatly rounded out my readings of Shakespeare’s works. I’d highly recommend this book if you are planning to read Shakespeare’s poems.

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