The Naturalist by Alissa York

Read: 11 February, 2017

After the death of the titular naturalist, his wife, her companion, and his half-Brazilian son from a previous marriage decide to complete the planned expedition to Brazil. As they travel, all three must work through their grief – their grief at the naturalist’s death, as well as the long ignored griefs of their past.

Reading the set up, it’s hard to imagine a book more perfectly tailored to me. We have a Canadian author writing about a 19th century Quaker exploring the Amazon. It’s like York specifically set out to write a novel just for me!

And, for the most part, it delivers. I loved the sprinkling of Portuguese dialogue (and was surprised by just how much I could understand, thanks to my background of French and two years of Spanish classes in high school!), and the descriptions of the jungle were really interesting.

Where it fell a little short was in the characters themselves. Rachel is set up to be torn between her very conservative religious background and the freedom offered her by her bold mistress, but the conflict seems largely resolved by the time the story starts. We get a bit of it in flash backs, but that’s about it.

Paul should be a very interesting character. He is mixed-race, and severed from his mother’s culture through her death in childbirth. In addition to this, he is the son of a passionate naturalist but not being particularly into biology himself (a conflict that becomes even more interesting when we discover that his father’s passions had put him in opposition to his own parents as well). It all should be very compelling. And there are glimpses, but he ends up spending so much of his time passively reading his father’s journal while we get too little of how he is processing what he learns.

Iris is mostly kept at arm’s length, but I’m okay with this. It would have been nice to see her journey more intimately, but we only ever see her through the eyes of others. Still, given her importance to Rachel’s character arc, this does somewhat work – especially since evidences of Iris’s own arc are present in how she is described. She’s left up to the reader to translate, just as she is translated by Paul and Rachel. She could easily have been the main character of this book, but I’m okay with the way she is distanced and, to an extent, objectified by the others. It works.

This isn’t a book with a big climax or epiphany. It’s a journey, characters grow in the course of it, and then it ends. My only complaint is that, while the journey part was interesting, it overwhelmed the character parts. We saw too little of our main characters, too little of how they react to experiences and discoveries, and we don’t get to see much of their growth. While some of that is because York chooses to imply their feelings through descriptions of their physical actions, a lot of it is because it just doesn’t happen. Too much of their development happened off-screen, before the plot began, and we only learn about it after the fact. That, combined with an over-reliance on flashbacks near the beginning of the book, holds it back from shining.

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On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers

Read: 29 February, 2016

John Chandagnac was a puppeteer-turned-accountant on his way to Jamaica to reclaim his birthright from his thieving uncle. On the way, however, his ship was captured by pirates. Chandagnac must become the pirate Shandy to defeat the magic-wielding pirates, save a magician’s daughter, and claim his family fortunes.

I really enjoyed most of the book. As with Anubis Gates, the writing style is tremendously exciting, and this time he’s got swashbuckling pirates to work with instead of just Romantic poets. I tore through the first 80% of the book, hardly able to put it down. But then, as with Anubis Gates, it just lost me. The book seems to lose focus toward the end. When I read Anubis Gates, I got the sense that Powers had just become bored with the story and was trying to end it quickly so he could move on. On Stranger Tides seems to have suffered from the same problem. The killing of Blackbeard, a terrifying character throughout and the prophesied goal for our main character (according to Woefully Fat, the bocor who infodumps the information Shandy will need to accomplish his goals) is over in a flash, and his character lacks all the menace that had been cultivated throughout.

The saving of Beth Hurwood felt rushed, and the reclaiming of the Jamaican estates is just dropped entirely – despite being the stated goal from the very beginning and despite Shandy’s uncle being narratively brought back from the dead in order for it to happen.

The magic system itself is a bit of a touchy subject. There are, of course, real Vodun practitioners, and they are not typically the kids of people who have a lot of social power. The taking and using of their religious beliefs for the entertainment of outsiders is a problem. That said, the magic system worked quite well in the context of the story, it paired well with the plot.

There were some gender issues with the book as well. There are very few main characters, with only two who are meaningful to the plot. One of those is dead, and the other is a helpless, even catatonic damsel through most of the plot (though she does have some potential when she’s conscious). Other female characters include the mother of a bad guy with an Oedipus complex, and a few women in the pirate camp who are either sexually available or attached to a male pirate (or both). Even more offensive, one of these latter women is named Ann Bonny. That’s right, one of the most famous female pirate captains is here reduced to a pirate wife and potential sexual distraction for the main character. The erasure of women in fiction and history isn’t exactly uncommon. Whole worlds are constructed where women just don’t seem to exist at all, or they exist elsewhere, or they hang around in the wings to provide goals, distractions, and the next generation of characters. It’s annoying, but at least Powers has the excuse that he’s grown up in a culture where this is normalized. Naming one of these background characters Ann Bonny, however, just feels nasty. Better to pretend she doesn’t exist than to remake her as little more than a wife and potential sexual conquest.

I still found the story gripping, and it was full of wonderful ideas and creepy imagery. But aspects of it, particularly on the gender side and how the baddies were constructed, made it feel very dated.

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Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Read: 3 December, 2013

Fat Charlie’s father died while singing karaoke, and that was only the start of his troubles.

I’ve been listening to people recommend Gaiman for years and finally gave Sandman a try recently. I was unimpressed. But, I did want to give him a second shot, so I picked up Anansi Boys, and I’m very glad I did!

This book is wonderful, pretty near perfect. The use of mythology is, of course, right up my alley, but that alone wouldn’t have sold it. Anansi Boys is also clever and hilarious. The narration was a joy to read, and the characters were entrancing.

I was really blown away!

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Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Read: 10 April, 2013

When we read Jane Eyre in my Victorian Lit course in university, the professor mentioned Wide Sargasso Sea as an interesting further exploration of Bertha Mason and her relationship with Rochester.

For some reason – perhaps because I’d associated it with Jane Eyre – I assumed that Wide Sargasso Sea would be a large tome, something that would require a substantial investment of time, so I put off reading it for years. But when it came up in my search for books to read for my Reading Around the World project, I decided it was time to just bite the bullet and get ‘er done.

It’s a very interesting story, covering Bertha Mason (or, rather, Antoinette Cosway)’s childhood as the child of white former slave owners – rejected by the English as “Other” and half savage, yet rejected, too, by her black neighbours. She is hated by all as her mother, after a series of tragedies and mistreatments, loses her mind.

The story continues in Rochester’s voice after their marriage, as he struggles to understand this mysterious woman who is so different from the English women he is familiar with. Recovering from a fever, confused, frightened in an unfamiliar environment and with unfamiliar people, he turns against his new wife.

It’s an interesting story, and a very interesting companion to Jane Eyre. It’s a short read and interesting, though rather feverish in its stream of consciousness (it does, after all, show a descent into madness), but I found that the added perspective greatly enhanced my relationship with Charlotte Brontë’s work.

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By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño

Read: 26 February, 2013

The set up of the novel is as a death-bed confession from Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, called Father Ibacache once he enters the priesthood. He recalls important moments of his involvement with the literati, Opus Dei, and Pinochet’s government.

Written as the ramblings of an old man, the book has no chapters or paragraph breaks, and few full stops. It made it a long and hard read, particularly since, with a toddler, I don’t always have the luxury of a sustained reading session. But, at only 130pages, a reader without a toddler could probably get through the whole book in one or two sittings, so don’t let that necessarily put you off.

I found the book disjointed, which makes sense given the narrative context, but it was still rather frustrating. Characters are introduced, plot lines brought up, and then both are dropped – never again to be taken up. There’s some pretty subtle-yet-scathing criticisms of the literati, literature’s place in a messy and political world, and the Church, but they seem more thrown to the wind than built.

I think that there was something lost in translation. The book read as though the writing should have been poetic, but instead just felt overwhelmingly bland. I’m willing to give Bolaño the benefit of doubt and assume that the narrative reads much batter in the original Spanish.

Overall, I just wasn’t very impressed by this novelette. The ending was quite interesting, and the final line is probably one of the best I’ve ever read (“And then the storm of shit begins”), but I never felt gripped. And while my background and knowledge base allowed me to appreciate the jabs at the literary/artsy scene, many of the criticisms of Opus Dei and the politics just went way over my head. It didn’t help that Urrutia is such a frustratingly passive and dense character, and thoroughly unlikable.

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Carnival Music in Trinidad by Shannon Dudley

Read: 4 August, 2007

The book begins with a discussion of carnival and its place within Trinidad’s society. From there, it discusses the various settings for carnival music (including “on the road” (or during the masquerade march) and in the tent) and some of the more popular artists. Calypso is discussed a great deal, as is the multiplicity of Trinidad’s cultural heritage (including those of European, African, and Indian ancestry). Several musical styles are described. The book includes a CD with samples from various artists and styles discussed, as well as activities that include listening to certain songs on the CD while paying attention to certain elements.

Certainly not an exhaustive exploration, this book is best for where it was intended – in the non-Trinidadian classroom to give students their first exposure to a foreign culture and musical style. It is a great book for musicians looking to expand their stylistic influences and for students of culture looking for a starting point in their research. The inclusion of a CD adds much to the experience of reading the book and helps to bring the text to life.

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