Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg

Read: 26 November, 2018

Taking place in the Soviet Bloc in the 80s and 90s, this is a collection of semi-autobiographical sketches that show life in rural Poland from the perspective of a child. It was interesting to brush up against big political events, like the Pope’s visit or martial law, from a perspective that doesn’t really understand and isn’t particularly interested in trying to.

As a main character, Wiola has a powerful inner life, translating her environment into quasi-mystical interpretations that sometimes seem to have stepped straight out of a fairy tale story (such as the locked door in the seamstress’s house that takes on Bluebeardian significance).

Given the setting, this perspective makes for an interesting combination of whimsy and darkness, particularly when the story touches on themes like child molestation, drug use, and accidental murder.

Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol

Read: 3 September, 2018

I really enjoyed this. It’s your normal coming-of-age story about going to camp for the first time and having trouble adjusting, but with the special twist of coming from an immigrant experience. Vera is a first generation Russian immigrant whose language is half in/half out, going through all those painful third culture kid problems.

I really enjoyed being able to share this with my son, who is a second generation immigrant. It’s hard to explain what being a third culture kid is like, but books like these really help.

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

Read: 24 June, 2018

This is a truly harrowing story of exploration and survival in the frozen north. I’m somewhat familiar with Franklin’s expedition, but I only knew a rough outline of the Jeanette’s voyage. Given that, I found that Sides did an excellent job letting the various personalities on board come through.

I was impressed by how positively superhuman some of these people were, and how long they managed to carry those who weren’t. I was also horrified by just how terrible the crew’s luck seemed to be – over and over again, it seemed like Murphy’s Law ruled the ship.

I found the book to take a little while to pick up. The beginning provides important background, but perhaps too much of it all at once. There were a few times where I found myself getting lost in the list of names of people I hadn’t started to form associations with. Once the ship was under way, however, the cast narrowed and the individual personalities started to stand out, and I found the second half much more enjoyable.

Winternight Trilogy #2: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

Read: 9 April, 2018

It’s really quite hard to imagine how a book could be more up my alley. I love the culture and the religion, I love the historical fiction aspects, I love the fairy tales… This book is absolute literary luxury for me!

Just to make it even better, I found that the pacing and plot were, if anything, improved from the first book.

I did manage to guess who Kasyan was almost immediately, but I still enjoyed seeing how that would play out. Especially as Kasyan kept going back and forth between threatening and ally.

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Winternight Trilogy #1: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Read: 3 March, 2018

When I started dating a young Russian gent, I started dating his culture, too. I got into Russian music, I started reading Russian fiction, I started collecting bits and bobs of Russian folkart. And my poor, dear, Russian beau, who fled the USSR and would really rather put the whole Russian thing behind them, tolerantly humours me.

All this is just to say that The Bear and the Nightingale is right up my alley.

The writings style has something of a fairy tale flavour to it, which tends to keep a bit of distance between reader and character. This took some getting used to, after the intensely intimate books I’ve been reading recently. But it fit the tone of the story perfectly.

I loved how rich the world feels – at once historical and magical, fantastical and plausible. I also loved Vasya, is was such a charmingly wild thing, without it coming off like it the narrative was trying to hard.

Learn from my fail: There is a glossary at the back for the Russian terms used in the book. You don’t actually have to keep bugging your spouse with questions. Though you certainly can, if you want to.

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A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka by Lev Golinkin

Read: 24 February, 2018

My mother loaned me this book because my spouse, though not Jewish, also fled from Russia at around Golinkin’s age. Though he was an emigrant, rather than a refugee, the experiences were surprisingly familiar – particularly in the ways both families responded to the trauma of having lived in the USSR.

I love that this book paints a complex picture. Recipients of charity aren’t always grateful, threat and trauma can lead even the most sober people to make careless decisions, and acts of kindness are sometimes done for entirely selfish reasons.

I also enjoyed the humour of the book. A lot of it is a distinctively Russian humour, that fatalistic “everything is terrible, isn’t if funny?” brand of deadpan humour that I enjoy so much.

Mostly, though, I love the message of hope. In the course of its story, A Backpack presents thousands, millions, of small acts – a donation here, a smile there – that, together, build up to something so meaningful. As Canada discusses its obligations toward refugees, this was a powerful book to read.

Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller

Read: 27 November, 2017

I had a Libertarian friend in high school. While I was firmly in camp Nader, she was a Bush supporter, and even went so far as to buy me a gloating ice cream sandwich when Bush won the presidency. In the course of that friendship, I was convinced to pick up a copy of The Fountainhead.

I tend to find passion infectious. While I found the book itself a tedious and poorly-written slog, the excitement it showed for architecture really spoke to me. I gave up on the book fairly early – I’m not even sure that I made it a quarter of the way through – but I started looking up information on architecture and even considered pursuing it as a career. As it happened, however, my talking about architecture infected my mom, who picked it as her second career (an excellent fit, as she’s always had a keen eye for shapes). Once she enrolled in an architecture program, I had to pick something else to avoid falling on the wrong side of her competitive streak, and that’s how I ended up with my BA in English Literature.

The point of all of this being that Ayn Rand has had a fairly profound and wide-reaching cultural influence – even on those of us who had almost no interest in her work and found her writing unbearable. Whatever one thinks of her, or her philosophy, there’s no denying that she’s one of the last century’s Notable People.

Rand popped into my Active Interest slot again when I came across an Atlas Shrugged read-along series on Daylight Atheism. It’s a great series that I definitely recommend. Adam Lee does a great job of thinking through the implications of the book and, as Rand would love to say, “checking the premises.”

One of the sources Lee cites frequently is Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made. Since, once again, passion is infectious, I took the book out of the library.

A month ago, I couldn’t have told you anything about Ayn Rand except that she’d written The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, she was a woman, she is somehow related to the Libertarian movement, and she’s dead. So I came to The World She Made a fairly blank slate. Because of this, I can’t say how groundbreaking the research of the book is, and I see from other reviews that maybe there isn’t so much that is new here. But as a starting point, it’s perfect.

Heller moves methodically through Rand’s life – from her childhood in revolutionary Russia, to her death in New York. At each stage, Rand is the centre focus, but Heller explores the broader context of who Rand was meeting, what her living situation was like, what ideas was she exposed to…

On Rand herself, the book didn’t much improve my perception of her. In her early life, it’s easy to feel some sympathy towards her, but so much of her suffering seems to have been entirely self-inflicted. Worse, her life is, itself, the most damning argument against her philosophy.

Worse, she strikes me as a shallow thinker. I’m sure that she was a fantastic arguer, and probably quite quick and witty. She must have bowled over people in person (even if only by virtue of her stamina for argument). But it doesn’t take much thinking through to realize that her philosophy is immature at best. Over and over again, The World She Made makes reference to Rand’s popularity among teenagers and young adults, as opposed to more mature readers. This isn’t surprising.

On her emphasis on individuality, I was reminded of the ubiquity of the self-esteem movement during my childhood, and how – as a thoroughly weird kid – offensive I found it. Everywhere I turned, every school program, every TV show, ever fast food ad campaign was telling kids to “just be yourself.” And yet, the message I heard over and over again was “no, not like that.” And that’s Rand in a nutshell – her whole philosophy is wrapped around the idea of individuality and personal freedom, and yet she required that her followers only listen to certain types of music, only thought certain types of thoughts.

I was both surprised and not surprised by the cult that sprang up around Rand. While I had never heard Objectivism described as a cult, its ideas – and the reverential way in which Rand is so often talked about – certainly smell of cult.

But enough about the subject, what about the book? It’s good! It’s very readable, and it’s a great introduction to Rand and to her ideas.

What Made Them Great: Marie Curie by Mary Montgomery

Read: 29 September, 2017

This is a biography intended for children. First published in 1981 (my edition was published in 1990), the writing and artwork for this book are a little dated, but there isn’t anything too offensive to modern sensibilities.

I quite liked the emphasis on Marie Curie’s hard work, her perseverance. In fact, there was quite a bit there about her character – her generosity, her self-sacrifice for others, her dedication even when things were difficult, etc. For whatever reason, I haven’t been seeing that sort of explicit mention of character models in other biographies I’ve read with my kid. It was particularly good because some of the traits discussed are specifically things that my kid struggles with, so it gave us some nice ‘teachable moments.’

There’s also a section at the end about radiation. While not exactly cutting edge, the information is no more dated than what most high school students would be exposed to.

Long Hidden edited by Rose Fox & Daniel José Older

Read: 22 September, 2017

This is one of the more consistent short story anthologies I’ve read – there are a few stories that I really didn’t like, but the writing quality is fairly consistent throughout. Like most anthologies, however, there are some stand out great stories, some weak entries, and a lot of somewhat unmemorable middling entries.

I really liked the variety of backgrounds and settings on display, and it was great to see cultures and experiences that I really haven’t gotten to see in fiction before. I also appreciated that the editors chose a variety of authors, from the well-known multi-published, to the first time sale – without compromising on quality.

“Ogres of East Africa” by Sofia Samatar

The collection opens with an interesting idea – the “story” is actually a catalogue of ogres, with the narrative taking place in the marginal notes. The ogres are creative, reminding me of Amos Tutuola’s ghosts, though they don’t have much bearing on the story beyond the set up. The narrative is a bit bare bones. It just presents us with a few interesting characters at a single point in time.

“The Oud” by Thoraiya Dyer

This story reminded me a lot of Wolf Winter. There was the same conflict between the personal story taking place within the household and the big political story taking place at a distance yet invariably spilling into the home. There was also the same competition between the old and the new religion, the same sense of isolation, the same smashing together of peasant and royal lives… It was sad, but in a dreamy sort of way. I really enjoyed this one.

“Free Jim’s Mine” by Tananarive Due

On the surface, this is a story about a young family trying to escape from slavery. But within that setting, Due has woven a fairy tale. It’s an interesting story with solid writing.

“Ffydd (Faith)” by S. Lynn

Set in Wales in the wake of the first world war, a family deals with the aftermath of their experiences. Shoehorned into this setting we get a vampire, who appears to be feeding off the chickens. I believe the family is meant to be Quaker, which I suppose have faced some amount of religious persecution in the past, and I guess you could say the same for the Welsh, but this comes right after a story about an escaping slave. It’s hard to see where it fits in the theme of the anthology. I found the story itself to be a bit of a slog – it just kept going and going, but didn’t have the either the writing or the characters to sustain interest in a “slice of life” narrative. Even the addition of a vampire couldn’t save it. As is, it felt like it was trying to be coy about the vampirism in lieu of having anything interesting happen, and I’ve just seen far too many vampires for that to work.

“Across the Seam” by Sunny Moraine

In this story, a trans coal miner is recognized as a woman by Baba Yaga. I wasn’t gripped by the story itself – it played out a little too predictably and there was quite a bit that I think just passed me by. But I really enjoyed the core premise. Knowing a few Baba Yaga stories, it fits quite well to have her recognize the woman inside the coal miner.

“Numbers” by Rion Amilcar Scott

Mobsters meet sirens! It’s an interesting idea, coming together to become a story about loyalty. The writing is good, just not to my taste.

“Each Part Without Mercy” by Meg Jayanth

The magic in the story happens through the use of dreams, as dreams are used in the conquest of a city, and then in an attempted assassination. I really liked the story, but I didn’t think it worked too well in that format. The world building was so interesting that I wish this were a novel – with more time to develop the characters and explore their relationships. But because the story tried to cover so much ground in such a small word count, it felt like the ending came out of nowhere and story lacked a satisfying resolution. I would gladly read this again as a full length novel.

“The Witch of Tarup” by Claire Humphrey

This one is a simple little story about witchcraft in rural Denmark. There’s no great twist or insight, just a solidly written little portrait. This is another one that I could easily see as a novel, where the author could better explore the relationships and setting. But while I liked the story, I really don’t see how it fits with the theme of the anthology.

“Marigolds” by L.S. Johnson

Lesbian prostitutes in Paris. The magic system is quite interesting – bringing together menstruation and female sexuality. It’s not something that I’ve seen too often in fiction, despite how much it comes up in culture studies. And while it’s lovely to get a story about lesbians with a happy ending, I’m rather put off by the “Paris prostitutes” setting. It just comes up too much and is way too fetishized.

“Diyu” by Robert William Iveniuk

The story begins as an interesting period piece set among the Chinese workers on the Canadian railroad, then gets some good Lovecraftian suspense going when an Eldritch horror appears (particularly satisfying given what a raging racist Lovecraft himself was)… But then the story ruins all of that built up good will by over-describing both the horror itself and its backstory. It even had the alien horror chatting! After such a strong beginning, all suspense was sucked right out of the story and it fizzles to a close.

“Collected Likenesses” by Jamey Hatley

This is a story about retributive magic and generational pain, exploring the aftermath of slavery. I found the second person narrative a bit jarring, as is the glimpse-by-glimpse narration. But despite these, it’s one of the collection’s strongest stories. It’s simple – easily summarised in a sentence – yet has quite a lot going on.

“Angela and the Scar” by Michael Janairo

In the Philippines, locals are losing the fight against the Yanquis until a forest spirit (kapfre) gets involved. This was one of the anthology’s middling entries – not great, not bad. It’s perfect filler. The idea of enlisting the land itself to aid in a freedom conflict is an interesting one (particularly in the context of guerrilla warfare), but the author doesn’t really do anything with it other than have it happen. I did like the way the kapfre was represented – it’s alien, and its help is very capriciously given. There’s a sense that it could just as easily (and happily) turn against the locals as against the Yanquis.

“The Colts” by Benjamin Parzybok

Another middling entry, this time about Hungarian zombies. The story takes place in a moment in time, as the main characters continue to act out the revolution that killed them while putting to rest the remainder of the living selves. The writing is solid, but this is another story that just doesn’t really do anything with its premise.

“Nine” by Kima Jones

I really didn’t like this one. The whole story seems to be exposition, yet I never actually got a feel for either the setting or the characters. The characters are puppetted through the story without appearing to really care about anything.

“The Heart and the Feather” by Christina Lynch

The story is about a family with Ambras Syndrome, or Hypertrichosis, which is characterised by abnormal hair growth over the whole body. This story didn’t really sit well with me. It uses real people and a real condition, but doesn’t really do anything with it – making it a bit of a spectacle. I struggled to see how this story fits with the theme of the anthology. The only thing I can think of is that it deals with the enslavement of the “Other” for entertainment, but the “Other” is presented as bestial, and that’s some very dangerous ground. There seems to be a lesson that the “Other” characters are good while it is the humans who are responsible for the evil happening in the story, but that’s undercut by having the responsible human be an actual, literal werewolf. So then what is the point, other than that some “Others” are fine, some are more at home in nature living as animals, and some eat children? I think this is the only story in the collection that I really disliked.

“A Score of Roses” by Troy L. Wiggins

This is a little story about two (magical?) people meeting and having a baby, and the baby is special in some way. The writing is solid and engaging, but the story doesn’t really go anywhere. It feels more like a first chapter than a complete story and, honestly, I can recall very little of this story now that a few days have passed since I read it.

“Neither Witch nor Fairy” by Nnghi Vo

This one is another story about a trans woman (or girl, in this case) being recognized by a supernatural creature. This time, the supernatural creatures are Irish. The setting lends a bit of an extra dimension to the self-discovery story, as the main character believes herself to be a Changeling, since she never feels like she fits as the boy she is thought to be. The story doesn’t stand out as anything special or particularly memorable, but it’s a solid entry.

“A Deeper Echo” by David Jón Fuller

This story read like heartbreaking wish fulfilment – a First Nations father, recently returned from fighting for the Canadian government, comes after his children who were stolen first by the schools, and then by a white woman. Oh, and also, he can change into a wolf. I’m attracted to the subject, so that may have carried me through a story that didn’t otherwise stand out. But this is certainly a solid addition to the anthology.

“Knotting Grass, Holding Ring” by Ken Liu

This is the first original story I’ve read by Liu, though I have read a few of his translations, and I absolutely loved it! The writing is lyrical, the setting is vivid, and the characters shone through brilliantly. This was by far one of my favourite stories in the collection!

“Jooni” by Kemba Banton

Another story with a bit too much exposition, but otherwise quite solid. The story takes place in a single moment as a freed slave deals with her trauma and recovers her sense of hope.

“There Will Be One Vacant Chair” by Sarah Pinsker

Hungarian Jews fight in the US Civil War while a disabled brother is forced to stay at home. The magic in this story involves reincarnation. This is another one that I think would have worked better as a longer piece – perhaps a novella. I would have liked more exploration into Julius’s theology.

“It’s War” by Nnedi Okorafor

This is another story that shows us its characters in a single moment, implying rather than narrating all that comes before and after. There’s a girl who can fly, there are women protesting taxation, and it all just kinda gets thrown together without explanation. It had a very similar feel to Okorafor’s Who Fears Death. The writing is fantastic, but I found something lacking in it as a story. I wanted either more about the protesters or more about the girl, but the two threads just didn’t seem to fit together.

“Find Me Unafraid” by Shanaé Brown

Booker warns Charlotte that the Klan is coming and holds her door strong against them. In the daylight hours, he gives her the money she will need to get herself and her family out of the small town where the mob in white sheets prowl. I enjoyed most of the story, but found the reveal at the end to be a little obvious and forced (the dialogue exposition, in particular, was clunky – especially since I had already picked up on most of the information that was being revealed). I’m also not sure how I feel about Charlotte having magical powers as well. I understand why she did, but it felt like a bit too much supernatural in a story that was otherwise more on the pleasantly ambiguous side. Overall, though, I found this to be one of the anthology’s stronger stories.

“A Wedding in Hungry Days” by Nicolette Barischoff

This was one of my favourite stories in the anthology! It’s the story of a ghost girl in rural China who marries a living boy. It’s practical and hard, but also very tender. It’s about caring for one’s family and creating a community. The narrative voice skipped around a bit, which I don’t like much in general and especially dislike in a short story, but that’s really my only complaint.

“Medu” by Lisa Bolekaja

What if Medusa the Gorgon were a black cowgirl? On the surface, the story is about a conflict between two types of magical humans (the Medusa-like and something like a xenomorph), but I felt a strong “natural hair movement” vibe from the story as well.

“Lone Women” by Victor LaValle

Adelaide is a settler heading out to her claim in Montana. With her is a creature, locked up in a trunk. As I was reading the anthology, I tried not to look at the author names or biographies before I read the stories so that my assumptions about their identities wouldn’t colour my perceptions. But when Adelaide turned out to be pregnant from a one night stand, I rolled my eyes and was utterly unsurprised to find that the author is a man. It’s not so much what happens as how, and the way in which it’s told. The story is fine, but suffers from both too much and not enough going on. There’s the story of the four boys, but that doesn’t get the ominous buildup it should have had and feels more like sequel-baiting rather than being impactful to this story. Then there’s the sisterhood angle, that seems to be looking disability and Otherness, but concludes by implying that disabled people are okay as long as they can be useful. I liked some parts of this story, but others made me quite uncomfortable.

“The Dance of the White Demons” by Sabrina Vourvoulias

The anthology ends with a strong story about native South American resistance against Spanish invaders. The story itself is great (and I would gladly read a novel-length version), but it’s also the perfect choice to end the book. It closes the anthology with a message of hope and survival even through times of oppression.

Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin

Read: February 26, 2017

A young Russian dreams of flight, but everything crashes and burns in the familiar Soviet style.

This novel has a lot going for it. I enjoyed the absurdist imagery of the criticism – the sham within a sham that so perfectly captures Soviet Russia. A few of these images (such as the one in which Kissinger kills the bear) are haunting, and will probably stay with me.

Overall, though, I can’t say that I enjoyed the book much. I’m not sure if I’ve just been tired lately and haven’t had the concentration to read it properly, or if the translation fell short, or if the writing itself is flawed… or maybe it’s a combination of all three. But I found the narrative to be a bit disjointed. Sometimes things would be happening and it would take me a while to figure out what and why.

I also never connected with the main character. Despite the fact that we’re in his head, his voice just isn’t that strong. We’re told the story of his life, but with a remove that prevents the emotional weight from really making itself felt. Even when his mind circles around particular images, and I could sense the significance (the little trapped pilot, the bear), I never knew why these images were significant to Omon. From my bird’s eye perspective, I know that the trapped pilot is foreshadowing, and I know that the bear represents the common people in the USSR, but Omon doesn’t seem to draw these conclusions. So why does he keep the pilot? Why does he think of the bear? It’s that lack of distinction between what the reader knows and what the character knows that made it difficult to connect with Omon’s humanity.

It’s a fine book, an interesting read, another example of absurdist social commentary. The “sham within a sham” aspect was particularly biting. But, overall, this one just didn’t do it for me.

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