Book Review: Spear by Nicola Griffith

“He will find you,” Elen said. “Beyond this cave and this valley he will scent you on the wind. And when he does he will come to claim what is his. I will never see you again. I loved you, child, loved you so much I did not name you, for naming calls. But now you are leaving, and I will give you your name. The four treasures of the Tuath are the word, which is given, the stone, which is hidden, the cup, which I have, and the spear. You are that spear. You are my Berhyddur, my spear enduring. You are Peretur. Know that I do not remove my ward, and under my geas will remain hidden, even from you. Know, too: you have broken my heart.”

SpearI have a long history of affection for the Arthurian myth (as, I imagine, many readers do), beginning with the random discovery of Mary Stewart’s Arthurian Legend series at my public library when I was thirteen or fourteen. My favorite retelling is Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, and I loved The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro quite a bit. I love the legend’s scope; there are so many different perspectives to the tale, so many characters to follow and stories to experience.

Adding Spear to my list of  “Arthurian Legend Retellings I Love” immediately.

This short novel is a reworking of the Percival portion of the legend, with its ties to the quest for the grail. It starts with an unnamed girl who lives hidden in the forest with her mother, Elen. Elen tells her stories of the Tuath; she teaches her about the forest, too, but she is often unsettled and wild, caught in memories she doesn’t share with her daughter. Eventually the girl must leave this situation; she wants to figure out who she is and she is drawn to find a lake her mother mentions often in her stories.

Peretur, disguised as a boy, leaves her mother and heads out into the countryside, where she has many adventures that teach her about the society she lives in and draw her ever closer to Arthur’s court.

I’ve read two other novels by Nicola Griffith, Hild and Ammonite. They are each very different (historical fiction and science fiction) but one constant is how she is able to draw the reader into the story. The setting comes to life but more importantly, the characters do. Spear proves true to this characteristic. Even though it is a short book (only 167 pages) I read it slowly, savoring the way that Peretur changes and how she discovers who she is.

For me, the story resonates with other books I’ve read. Familiar, but not repetitive. I think I like Alex Harrow’s idea about it best: “If Le Guin wrote a Camelot story, I imagine it would feel like Spear: humane, intelligent, and deeply beautiful. It is a new story with very old bones, a strange place that feels like home.”

If you like the Arthurian legend, strong female characters finding their own way, magic, the queering of an old story, and exploration of the mother/daughter relationship, you’ll likely adore this one too.


Book Review: The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones

The tragedy of death was distance. Death cleaved the world in two, leaving the living and the dead standing on either side of some impassable chasm. 

Drowned woodsSet in a fantastical version of ancient Wales, The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones tells the story of Mererid, the last water diviner. She is living on the run, having escaped from the prince who branded her, after she realized he was using her as a weapon: he had her find the sources of the wells in a community, and then he would poison them.

When Renfrew, the spymaster from the prince’s court who trained her, finds her working at a tavern, he offers her a chance to gain some of the prince’s power by stealing some of his treasure. Along the way, they meet Fane, who is an iron fetch in the control of the fey, Ivanna who is the princess of the guild of thieves, and several other characters. The story weaves into the old Welsh legends but doesn’t feel like a retelling, per se. 

I listened to this during the week of Thanksgiving and it was the perfect companion during trail runs, gardening, and all of my cooking. The narrator has a European accent that went perfectly with the story. I haven’t read any of Emily Lloyd-Jones’s other books but I am glad to have discovered her work. The Bone Houses is set in the same world as this one, so I will try it next.


Book Review: Happening by Annie Ernaux

(If I had to choose on painting to symbolize that episode in my life, it would be a small table with a formica top pushed up against a wall and an enamel basin with a probe glowing on the surface. Slightly to the right—a hairbrush. I don’t believe there is a single museum in the world whose collections feature a work called The Abortionist’s Studio.)

HappeningWhen I read about the French writer Annie Ernaux winning the Nobel Peace Prize for literature, I didn’t know anything about her work. She received the award “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements, and collective restraints of personal memory,” which resonates with me. I decided I needed to read something by her immediately, and chose Happening.

This book is a short memoir that details the back-alley abortion the author had in Paris in the 1960s, when abortion was still illegal. It relates the details of the abortion very clearly (which was hard to read) and in doing so brings to vivid understanding the reasoning for why abortion needs to remain safe and legal.

Ursula K. Le Guin (another of my favorite writers) has an essay about the abortion she had when she was at college. (It is called "What it Was Like" and is in her collection Words are My Matter.) She writes about how that abortion made it possible for the rest of her life to happen; without it, she would’ve had to leave school and abandon her ambitions. She never would have written the works that she did, nor met her husband—and thus never had the children she did have.

I thought about that a lot as I read this book. Ernaux doesn’t say the same thing, but the concept is hinted at. My mind crowded with the arguments of the pro-birth movement, which would say that the consequences of unprotected sex are the woman’s fault; she shouldn’t have had sex, she should have been more careful. The altering of her life matters less, they would argue, than the survival of the fetus’s life. (Except they would say “baby,” not fetus.)

Or, of course, the suggestion: “She should just place the baby for adoption.” So much hinges on that word, just. The simplicity it suggests. The lack of difficulty, the allusion to an easy way out. Adoption is easy and simple for literally no one. 

What this book reminded me of, over and over, was just this fact: there is no easy solution to an unplanned pregnancy. Every choice is difficult. And a woman who has decided that an abortion is the choice she needs to make? That woman should be able to have that procedure. Her life—her real, breathing, existing life—matters, and if she does not want or is not able to alter it by becoming a mother, that is a valid choice. 

But, as the book details, it is not an easy one. Ernaux, like many other women, nearly died because she didn’t have access to the medical care she needed. It was horrible and bloody and painful. 

And, as the Nobel Prize committee suggests, Ernaux writes it with such stripped-down language. She writes this story not as a quest for pity or as a dramatization of a horrible experience. She writes it, instead, as a sort of experiment with memory and with language itself. How can you write about the complicated experiences you had years ago, make them feel real to the reader in the sense of how it actually felt to her, what she saw and smelled and experienced, without manipulating the reader’s emotions? She revisits the places she went to; she rereads her journals and appointment books from that time. 

I walked along the city streets, she writes, my body harboring the secret of that night of January 20-21 as something sacred. I couldn’t decide whether I had reached the outer fringes of horror or beauty. I felt proud. A feeling not unlike that experienced by lone sailors, drug addicts or thieves, who have ventured where others fear to tread. A feeling that may partly have contributed to my writing this book.

And the ending:

I have finished putting into words what I consider to be an extreme human experience, bearing on life and death, time, law, ethics and taboo—an experience that sweeps through the body.

I have rid myself of the only feeling of guilt in connection with this event: the fact that it had happened to me and I had done nothing about it. A sort of discarded present. Among all the social and psychological reasons that may account for my past, of one I am certain: these things happened to me so that I might recount them. Maybe the true purpose of my life is for my body, my sensations and my thoughts to become writing, in other words, something intelligible and universal, causing my existence to merge into the lives and heads of other people. 

I learned as much about writing, in other words, from reading this book as I did about abortions in Paris in the 1960s. 

And I begin to understand why she won, and to think I will seek out more of her work.


Book Review: Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher

Nothing is fair. Nothing is right…Nothing is fair, except that we try to make it so. That’s the point of humans, maybe, to fix things the gods haven’t managed.

Nettle and boneWhen I first started reading Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher I came across these words and almost put it down:

Marra carried the knowledge that her sister hated her snugged up under her ribs. It did not touch her heart, but it seemed to fill her lungs, and sometimes when she tried to take a deep breath, it caught on her sister’s words and left her breathless.

Books about sisters are out right now for me…due to some recent life developments they are just too painful. But a book about a youngest sister who thinks her sister hates her? (Thinks that because her sister tells her “I hate you and I hope you die.”) Way too close to those developments.

But I pressed on, because a librarian friend had loved it so much.

And I’m very glad I did.

Nettle and Bone tells the story of Marra, who is the youngest of three princesses in a small kingdom whose power is that it includes a port city–and the two nations next to it do not. Her oldest sister, Damia, is married to the prince of the Northern Kingdom, the marriage lasts only six months, as Damia dies only a few months after the wedding. Soon the middle sister, Kania, is betrothed to the same prince, and Marra is sent to live in a convent. She likes living there, until she realizes that Kania is suffering. The prince is abusing her and only keeps from killing her because she has yet to produce an heir (but manages to get pregnant fairly often; it’s not described but you can imagine why she has so many miscarriages). Not only is Kania suffering, Marra realizes that she is the backup sister: if Kania also dies, she will be wedded to the prince.

And so Marra sets off on a quest to find a solution to saving both her sister and herself.

Very much not really a book about sisters hating each other, Nettle and Bone is a mashup of sorts of some fairy tale tropes. Namely a princess setting off on a quest to do three impossible tasks in order to earn the skill or knowledge to do something else impossible. There are godmothers, although not like the ones you already know. A dust-wife, who I think is wholly invented in this story and whom I loved almost more than Marra. A dog made of bones, a cloak of nettles. It is also a very feminist tale; it was a good follow up to The Marriage Portrait because it covers some of the same ground: too-young girls being married for political or financial reasons and the way that women are historically (and still, of course) not particularly valued as individuals or even actual people, but as vessels or coins or contracts.
Plus: it was funny.

(I am the worst reader to advise on humor. Almost everything that is supposed to be funny is not funny to me. The humor here is subtle and dry, provided mostly by one character, but I did literally laugh out loud several times.)

And the sister’s dislike of Marra? It almost becomes invisible. It’s just a thing they resolve as they grow up and have other experiences and realize they can rely on each other. Kania isn’t wholly a victim, either; her sister does save her but she also uses her own strength and wisdom to make the saving more feasible.

I loved this book and am so glad I read it. It is one of those that is full of images, situations, and characters who will stay with me.


Book Review: The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell

She is doing this: she is about to do it. She does not want to but she sees no other path open to her. If she doesn’t do it, someone else will, and she will not let anyone cut the hair from her head. If it must happen, she will take charge of it herself. It is her hair. It is her head. They can take away her pictures and her paints; they can fill her body with medicines and cold foods and other things besides; they can poke and palpate her stomach and peer down her throat; they can lock her up in her rooms, but she will cut the hair from her own head before she lets anyone else near her with shears. 

 

Marriage portraitAt this point I will read anything Maggie O’Farrell writes. (Not just read it but buy it.) One of the reviews I read of The Marriage Portrait panned the book because the reviewer thought it was overwritten—that she never just writes something one way, but always three. 

Eh.

I think that is one of the reasons to read Maggie O’Farrell’s work; I don’t find them overwritten but immersive. They are lush and detailed and the setting comes to life along with the characters. And the stories always strike me; they resonate with my reading personality.

So I definitely bought my own copy of The Marriage Portrait (I got the British copy because I liked the cover better). Set in Italy when it was ruled by the Medici family, it is a very meta book: “My Last Duchess” is a poem by Robert Browning about a painting of Lucrezia di Medici, a real woman of the time; the novel is a story about the woman and the painting and the themes in the poem.

But even if you’ve never read Browning’s poem or know the painting it describes or even are familiar with this time period, the book is excellent.

When her oldest sister dies before her wedding, Lucrezia is betrothed to the Duke of Ferrara in her stead. Lucrezia has grown up as a very different sort of child than her siblings. She is fearless; she wants to know why things happen. And she loves art. She has no desire for marriage but of course at that time she had no choice. The story is told in flashbacks to her growing-up years and her current situation: she is in a secluded hunting lodge in the Tuscan forests with her husband, who intends on killing her.

There is much I could say about this book. The images that might stay with me: Lucrezia and the tiger; Lucrezia cutting her hair; her crossing the mountains to get to her husband’s castello after their wedding. The descriptions of her art process. 

But what struck me the strongest was the absolute entrapment Lucrezia faced. The fact that her life wasn't actually her life; she existed as collateral, as a political piece to move for power and wealth. And, of course, a womb: the danger in her marriage grows and grows as she continues not getting pregnant. She was a 14-year-old girl (barely) married to a man in his late twenties. That is child molestation and rape no matter how you look at it, but it was just normal then. The scene where her wedding night is described absolutely gutted me, especially as, once it is over, she thinks “at least I’ve done it and won’t have to do it again.” 

This is one of my favorite books I’ve read this year.


Book Review: Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe

Gender queerIn June of 2021, one of the city council members of the city where I work got upset because of the library’s pride display. (You can read about it HERE.) I cannot, as a city employee, express my opinion publicly about this, but I will say it has been painful on many levels. It brought the national trend of book banning, interference in libraries by people who are not, in fact, knowledgeable about libraries, and even book burning into a very personal realm for me.

Libraries are places that share information, regardless of the subject.

My library—where I have worked for the past 14 years and where I have checked out books since 1994—has always supported the concept of Freedom to Read.

But in these strange political times, where the MAGA influences spread by the dufus are influencing actual people who live and work in our communities, the threat to books, libraries, freedom of thought and speech, and access to information is growing.

In that light, I am working on reading the books that are currently receiving the most banning threats in American society, and none gets more press than Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, so I started there. My library does not own this book (there are only two libraries in the state of Utah who do) so I bought my own copy.

I have to be honest: with the furor over this book, I expected its pages to contain some very shocking content. And, sure. There are images of menstrual blood, “the bulge” as the narrator refers to it, boys kissing boys.

But absolutely nothing that should give rise to so much anger.

It is a memoir exploring the author’s growing understanding that e (the author uses the pronouns e/em/eir) doesn’t fit within the traditional boy/girl binaries of gender. E discusses eir explorations of gender and sexuality, mostly in books and discussions but with some actual sexual experiences. As this is a graphic novel, there are images on each page illustrating how e’s understanding grows and changes as e grows and changes as an adult.

One topic in the memoir that stood out for me was e’s experience with a gynecological exam. It was a horrifying and traumatic experience for e, and it made me think of my own experiences as a woman within our contemporary society. Especially within a very conservatively-religious society. It also sparked some discussions with friends, and I was surprised to learn (although I shouldn’t have been) how common my experiences are.

Pause there. A book that examines one person’s sexual identity sparked a discussion between two other people that might not have happened otherwise.

This is why the freedom to read is important. I, personally, am not a person who struggled like Maia struggled with identity. (I am a person who has never felt like I absolutely fit within the defined roles of “woman”: I struggle in groups of women to feel like I am normal, and every time I heard a church talk about how women are naturally nurturing shame grew deeper in me, because I am NOT naturally nurturing, not in the ways the church tells me I should be.) My friends who I’ve discussed the book with aren’t, either. But that writing about eirs struggles helped all of us understand ourselves better—which is secondary to the fact that it helped us understand er better.

Through reading we come to understand how lives that are different from ours are equally valid and full of worth. Those leaps of understanding are what the book banners don’t want to have happen.

They want us to stay constrained within one specific world view, which is the one that white Christian men continue to think of as “normal.” They don’t want people to understand The Other, because of we do that we might have to accept that The Other’s way of living is valid as well. And as the book banners cannot do that. Because they cannot imagine a world different from their own perspective, they believe that allowing the existence of The Other to have value will somehow threaten their way of living. They cannot imagine that society is large enough for white Christian men and people like Maia (or other LGBTQ+ people, or people of other races, religions, or nationalities).

If you live near me and would like to read Gender Queer, let me know. I’m happy to loan you my copy.


Book Review: How to Be Eaten by Maria Adelmann

            “Or, actually, you know what?” says Ruby. “Maybe don’t even be out there, on the street, not if it’s dark, not if you’re alone, not if you’re a kid, not if you’re a woman, not without a rape whistle around your neck, not without pepper spray clutched in your hand, not, anyway, if your’e wearing that outfit.”

                “But, I mean, don’t be a prude either,” says Ashlee.

How to be eatenI love fairy tale retellings.

It doesn’t matter if they’re set in the same historical setting as the original tale or told in a contemporary setting. They can be set in space for all I care—there’s just something that works for me in a retelling. It connects me with the kid I used to be, who checked out the library’s copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales so often the librarians noticed my affection and commented on it. Who’d sit somewhere comfy and lose herself in magical stories. But retellings also appeal to me because of who I am now, a person who understands more about stories, books, narrative structure, literary history. I love seeing what authors do with the foundational tale.

How to Be Eaten by Maria Adelmann tells the story of a support group for women who have experienced a trauma in a public setting. Those kinds of experiences that happen to people and the news gives them attention for a little while, but we never, as a news-consuming public, know the real truth of what happened, and we certainly don’t know about what happens after, when the traumatized people have to figure out how to live their lives. As we dig into their stories we discover that they are fairy-tale-esque: Blue Beard, Little Red Riding Hood, Rumpelstiltskin. Each chapter is told from the perspective of each of the five women, with interludes from the narrator, who is the therapist who organized the support group. (And who has some trauma of his own.)

While I was reading this book, I loved it. I enjoyed the way the women at first hated each other, but grew to understand each other as they heard their stories. I loved the premise of the support group, which is that telling your story in honest ways can help you process and heal. I especially liked Ruby and Raina. And the chorus of dead women, made into garish furniture, in Bernice’s story. They come to some insights together about what it means to be a woman in contemporary society that were just spot on.

But now that I’ve finished it and had some time to think, I’m kind of angry with it.

In the end, it’s a treatise about reality TV. Maybe that simply doesn’t work for me because it is not a genre of TV I enjoy. But it was more than that. The sum of the five women’s stories is less about how those whose traumas are publicized are damaged and more about how everyone is damaged, in some form or another, by contemporary society. Turning the focus away from that truth and toward the ills of reality television strips the story of its power.

I’m still glad I read it. I’m still thinking about it, which is the mark of an influential book. But I can’t say I loved it. I don’t think it fulfilled the potential it created.


Book Review: The Storyteller by Dave Grohl

And there is no love like a mother’s love. It is life’s greatest song. We are all indebted to the women who have given us life. For without them, there would be no music.

StorytellerI have a weird connection to the music of the early 90s. The music of the 80s was extremely influential to me—I’d go so far as to say it changed my life, in both ruinous and saving ways.

But in the early 90s, I was a young (young) newlywed, trying to create my new life as a Good Mormon Woman. I still listened to music. I still loved music. I paid attention to new trends and new sounds and new bands. But I almost never went to concerts (Tori Amos with my friend Chris being the exception) and I felt…outside of it, I guess. Watching music instead of participating like I did when I was a teenager. Maybe because, for me, part of the pleasure of participating in music was drinking and smoking and hunting for cute boys, and clearly as a GMW I couldn’t do any of that, and if I couldn’t do any of that then what was the point?

(If I could travel through time, one of the things I would absolutely do is go to a Lilith Fair.)

So while I knew who Nirvana was, and I listened to their music, and I remember the day Kurt Cobain died, I wasn’t emotionally invested in that music trend like I was the alternative music of the 80s.

But I absolutely loved Dave Grohl’s memoir, The Storyteller.

Let’s state this upfront: this isn’t Fine Literature. It’s a story best listened to—he narrates it himself—with no uptight expectations allowed. There’s a lot of swearing, which might put some people off. There’s one bit that really pissed me off, when he tells the story of his arrest in Australia for drunk driving and plays it off as no big deal.

But overall, I loved this reading experience.

Mostly what I enjoyed were his musings on creativity, on the way that one artistic person influences someone else just starting, and how that influence morphs into something entirely new.

I loved his voice, wry and self deprecating.

I loved hearing stories about other musicians and bands.

So even though I only know five or six Foo Fighters songs, and even though he doesn’t mention almost any musicians who are beloved to me (except Bowie and Joan Jett), I highly recommend Grohl’s The Storyteller. It is some great musical fun, and he loves his mom.

PS: If you listen to it on audio—as you should—let it keep playing after the credits. He tells one more story!


Book Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

Tova wonders sometimes if it’s better that way, to have one’s tragedies clustered together, to make good use of the existing rawness. Get it over with in one shot. Tova knew there was a bottom to those depths of despair. Once your soul was soaked though with grief, any more simply ran off, overflowed, the way maple syrup on Saturday-morning pancakes always cascaded onto the table whenever Erik was allowed to pour it himself.

Remarkably bright creaturesRemarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt is a novel about a lot of different things: loss of a child, grief, loss of a spouse, ageing, friendship, the way lives intersect, taking chances on new relationships, possessions and what to do with them when someone dies. 

Oh, and an octopus.

It tells the story of Tova, a widow living in the Pacific Northwest who works nights at the local aquarium, cleaning the space. She’s friendly with all of the sea creatures, but especially Marcellus, the octopus. She lives alone, as her husband died a few years ago from cancer and Erik, their only son, died years ago as a teenager. She meets twice a month with her friends, who call themselves the Knit Wits. She’s mostly happy with her life, but when she receives word that her brother has passed away, she begins to grapple with her own mortality.

We also get the story of Cameron, an almost-30-year-old guy living in California. He struggles with holding a job and his friends are fed up with him, so when his roommate kicks up out after he can’t pay the rent, he decides to head out to the Seattle area on a tip that might lead him to his long-lost father.

And Marcellus, an extremely intelligent octopus who develops an affection for Tova and realizes he knows some of the answers about what happened to Erik.

I enjoyed this one quite a bit. It’s billed as a sort of A Man Called Ove remake, with a woman instead of a man, and while I see those connections it reads a bit differently. Tova isn’t as grumpy as Ove and the friendships are entirely different. But still with that “up lit” kind of feel.

I would say that I especially enjoyed Cameron’s story, as he gave me hope, but I really loved all of the characters’ story arcs. Especially Marcellus’s, as I have a deep affection for octupuses after reading The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. 

I’m glad I read it and would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a fun-but-not-fluffy, well-written-but-not-too-literary read. 


Book Review: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostovo

It was strange, I reflected, as we went out into the golden evening of the Byzantine streets, that even in the weirdest circumstances, the most troubling episodes of one’s life, the greatest divides from home and familiarity, there were these moments of undeniable joy.

HistorianThere’s a little accidental club at the library where I work: Those of us who’ve read and loved The Historian. In January I was talking to a new coworker and he mentioned it, out of the blue, thus joining the club. That conversation came to mind when Nathan asked me for a book recommendation, and a little while later he listened to the audio version and couldn’t stop raving about it. So I decided I’d listen to it, too. My hold took forever to come up for me, but I finally got it near the end of July.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is about Vlad Tepes, the actual historical figure behind the vampire legend, and three historians who are trying to find and kill him. It is a layered telling, composed of one generation of historian’s letters, notes, and diaries being read by another one, who then in turn write their own letters, notes, and diaries. This is one thing I love about it, as it feels scholarly and relatable to me (a person who figures things out by writing about them). The historians in question are Bartholomew Rossi, his mentee Paul, and Paul’s daughter. They each find an old, small book embossed with the figure of a dragon, and after that discovery horrible things start to happen.

The hunt for Vlad traverses much of central and eastern Europe and, it turns out, time, as there is a group in Istanbul who has been protecting the city from vampires since Vlad’s supposed death. Much of the book happens in libraries and is a reflection of how books can transcend time.  (Which is why I think so many librarians I know love it.)

It was interesting to read this sixteen years after reading it the first time, in March of 2006. I’ve changed so much since I first read it. (I wasn’t even a librarian yet!) I’ve been to a few of the places mentioned in the novel. I’ve learned more about the world and about myself. But when I went back to read my original review (after finishing the audio) what made me laugh was that I wrote almost the same thing I thought upon this reading experience:

Awesome book right up to the end, which is absolutely anticlimactic.

I’d forgotten that.

It’s still a book I’d recommend to a specific kind of reader. One who loves libraries and who loves books as much as for the stories they make as the stories they hold. One who loves the intricacies of history, the way stories change (and also don’t) over time. Who wanted to be thrilled with a very specific type of fear.

And, yes, I suppose, one who will forgive a very long build up to a meh kind of end.