The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola

Read: 30 May, 2017

I read this second due to the strange publishing choice to put Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in reverse order.

For the first half of the story, I liked Drinkard quite a bit more than My Life. The story was certainly more lighthearted (a lush encounters the supernatural while on a quest to find a palm-win tapster who could work fast enough to keep up with his alcoholic appetite vs a little boy gets lost in the supernatural world while trying to escape inter-tribal violence), and generally reads more like a trickster story. The titular drinkard gets into scrapes, then performs some feat of cleverness to get himself back out again, all the while behaving rather amorally.

But then Drinkard becomes a lot more like My Life, where the character seems to bumble through a parade of supernatural experiences, each time suffering “punishments”, before being saved or escaping by luck. Which is totally fine, but 300 pages of “and then there was a ghost with a thousand mouths! And then a ghost that was all red! And then a ghost that was all smelly!” is a little bit much. Especially without a cultural lens for understanding these different creatures.

Overall, I enjoyed both stories. I found them to be interesting and imaginative, and I really enjoyed the very oral writing style (though it was a bit of a challenge to follow at times). I only wish that I’d given myself a little more downtime between the two stories.

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My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola

Read: 23 May, 2017

For some reason, my copy of the book includes both My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and The Palm-Wine Drinkard, but in the wrong order. I didn’t realize that I was reading the second book first until I had already finished it.

I don’t think it matters too much, except that there are a few “wink at the camera” mentions of a Palm-Wine Drinkard that I assume I’ll get once I read the first book.

The story follows a young boy who, escaping from some inter-tribal warfare, finds himself in the Bush of Ghosts. There, he wanders around for twenty years among the ghosts, suffering various trials and tribulations, until he finally finds his way home.

The writing style is a bit of a challenge – it’s written in a very “oral” style, complete with some colloquial grammar. It meant that I had to slow down my reading, letting the voice in my head narrate, or I would get lost.

The narrative is very loose and episodic. Just as the main character visits numbered towns in no particular order, so his adventures themselves could have been arranged in just about any order.

I found the story very interesting. It isn’t character driven, by any means, as the main character only really serves as a vehicle to explore the Bush. But the ghosts he meets are imaginative and interesting, and it was always fun to see how he would get himself out of the various “punishment” situations.

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Lumberjanes #1-2: Beware the Kitten Holy & Friendship to the Max by Noelle Stevenson & Grace Ellis

Read: April 7, 2017

This is the high energy story of the young women of cabin Roanoke, who follow a bearwoman into the woods and are attacked by three-eyed foxes, and things only get stranger from there.

There’s very little downtime in Lumberjanes. Monsters fly out from every direction, the characters are constantly active, there’s loads of yelling… The downside to this is that the mystery never really gets time to build, there’s no pause to wonder what might be happening. It’s just action, action, action, reveal. It’s not my favourite pace, but it works.

The artwork is somewhat unrefined, but it fits the tone of the story and has a certain character to it.

Essentially, Lumberjanes is what it is, and it is that well. The reveal – which I won’t spoil – was a bit of a let down, only because I’ve seen it too often, but all the elements of the story worked.

This would be fantastic as a “baby’s first graphic novel”, for ages 7-10.

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Percy Jackson #2: The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan

Read: 13 November, 2015

Camp Half Blood is under attack. Thalia’s guardian tree has been poison, weakening the protective shield around the camp, and the only hope is to recover the Golden Fleece. With its healing properties, Thalia’s tree can be restored.

I found this book to be a bit simpler than The Lightning Thief, though I suppose that’s mostly because the exposition isn’t necessary. We get much less about Percy’s mother, less backstory, less mystery. Instead, Sea of Monsters is a very surface-level quest narrative: Percy arrives at Camp Half Blood, is charged with finding the Fleece, encounters a few perils on his way, finds it, comes home, the end. It felt very pared down, and rather short.

Don’t get me wrong, it did work as an adventure story, it just felt very straightforward. I always enjoy the way Riordan “modernizes” Greek myths, and Circe’s island was particularly interesting.

And the book does move the overall plot forward. The reveal at the end, which I won’t spoil, sets up a very interesting storyline. But it took a whole book to get there, and the story did feel very empty. I had fun, but it wasn’t very filling.

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The Kingkiller Chronicle #2: The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Read: 24 October, 2015

Fair warning: This review contains a lot of spoilers. I’ve been trying to white-out spoilers from my reviews, but there were just too many here, and it was hard to get my thoughts down without constantly spoiling something. So I’m just going to go ahead and put a spoiler warning on the whole thing.

Wise Man’s Fear takes place on the second day of Kvothe’s narration to Chronicler, in which he continues to talk about his days at the University and covers his travels to Vintas and Ademre.

I’m really loving this series. It’s well-written, it’s interesting, and the pacing has kept me in its grip for over 2,000 pages so far. I love the meta-story of how myths are formed, and the banter between characters is usually a lot of fun (it does sometimes get a little over the top, especially with Devi and Denna, but it mostly works).

Many have pointed out that the women in the series tend to be either invisible or too perfect, and I think there is something to that. We can explain some of it away by the fact that Kvothe spends a lot of his time at the University, where women don’t often get to study, but those were choices the author made (both in putting so much of the story there and in making the University like that in the first place). Then there are characters like Auri, who feel a bit like male fantasies of “strong female characters” rather than characters of substance.

Still, I think it’s a much smaller problem than many critics make it seem, and we do have to keep in mind that we are getting the story through the interpretations of a teenage boy.

There were, however, some details that started to get pretty painful – particularly around the final 1/3 of the book. When I was a teenager, I had several nerdy male friends (the kind who got together for D&D-style roleplay sessions, drew comics, and wrote fanfiction). Much of the final 1/3 of Wise Man’s Fear reminded me of their stories, and not in a particularly good way.

It starts when Kvothe meets Felurian, who is basically a Sex Goddess who inflicts death by snu snu. I think you can see where this is going. If Kvothe simply bested her with his cunning and got his magical gift, it’s be fine. Better if she weren’t the Snu Snu Fairy, but whatever. Those aren’t exactly uncommon in myths, so it would at least fit in with that aspect of the story. Unfortunately, Kvothe then decides to spend many more pages with her (one reviewer totalled Felurian’s story at around 60 pages), during which he learns to be The Best At Sex (because it wasn’t enough for him to be The Best At Music, The Best At Artificing, and The Best At Learning). That’s pages upon pages of Kvothe just sitting around learning sex moves named like the swordplay manoeuvres from The Wheel of Time.

But it doesn’t end there. Kvothe leaves Felurian only to draw the attention of a tavern waitress known for rejecting patrons’ advances, and spends several days with her in marathon snu snu.

When that is finally over, Kvothe heads off to become The Best At Fighting. A bit much, but I did really enjoy learning about the Ademre culture, and the Sword Tree was really cool. Unfortunately, Kvothe The Sexer was still in full swing, so he had to spent a fair amount of his time around the Adem having sex with his teacher (!!) and the character who is presented as basically the best fighter the Adem village has to offer (!!!). He might as well have bed Shehyn just to complete his collection!

Aside from how juvenile this all was, it was frustrating to finally see a matriarchal Amazon society only for every major character of appropriate age who was not set up as an antagonist become Kvothe’s sexual partner.

I’ve always liked Denna as a character. I know a lot of people don’t (to quote a few reviews: She’s “shittily written”, a “cardboard cutout”, a “bitch”, “bland”… you get the idea), but I really do. I’ve known people who consistently made poor choices, sometimes involving their relationships, and I’ve felt the same urge to try shaking them out of it or rescue them from the latest situation they’ve found themselves in. Denna is one of those – Kvothe enjoys the time he spends with her, she’s a talented musician, her sense of humour matches his, she’s beautiful, but she also makes terrible life choices. But you can’t save people from their own choices. Try and you’ll just drive them away, and then they won’t even have your friendship.

Kvothe understands this, and his decision to just drop it and be her friend is exactly the right one. It gives her a respite from all the crappy things in her life, and it gives her something to contrast them against. And by not acting like a condescending, judgemental hero-in-waiting, Kvothe gets to be a safe place for her. That is exactly how we must act around loved ones in abusive relationships.

Kvothe messes this up quite a bit, though. He keeps putting his romantic feelings ahead of their friendship, and the last thing Denna needs is to deal with yet another man’s romantic feelings. He has no right to keep poking them in when she has been so clear in establishing the boundaries of their relationship. For now, I think Rothfuss has done a fairly good job of making it clear that Kvothe is in error when he behaves this way, and that’s a good thing. I’m a little scared, though, that he’ll fumble the relationship in the last book by giving Denna to Kvothe (at least for a while – we know from the narrative set up that they won’t have a Happily Ever After), and I will just scream if they come together just in time for her to die of whatever her lung troubles are.

Except for two passages. The first being their big fight. Kvothe says some truly nasty things in that fight. I get that he was hurting, and that he was terrified for her safety. Heck, there was probably some PTSD in the mix there. But he behaved abominably. That’s forgiveable since he’s 16 and a character who always makes the right choices would be insufferable, but I felt like there needed to be a bit more introspection. I know it’s hard, since it’s a very fine line between introspection and wallowing, but I feel like Kvothe needed to think about what he said during that conversation more, and perhaps display a better understanding of what he had done wrong. I also feel like there should have been more of a consequence. When Kvothe and Denna find each other again, they just avoid talking about it and have a few awkward pauses in their conversations before they get back into the rhythm of their relationship. I don’t think it’s good for Rothfuss’s younger male readers to see so little consequence for such abominable behaviour, and I don’t think it fits Denna’s character to gloss over the incident so easily.

The other passage is when Kvothe rescues the Denna look-alike from bandits. This lets him play saviour to a Denna (even if she isn’t the original) and get her appreciation. Denna, despite falling into a good number of tropes, is interesting, and part of what makes her interesting is precisely that she doesn’t conform to Kvothe’s Knight In Shining Armour fantasy. Letting him act it out anyway with a pseudo-Denna felt gratuitous and absurd.

That’s not to say that I disliked the whole sequence. Having Kvothe repeat what had been done to his family but with himself as the Chandrian was a fantastic idea. Unfortunately, the execution was a bit so-so. The lead up and the act itself were both great, but then it was dropped, as if it had just been yet another of Kvothe’s adventures. He only compared the two scenes for a single moment, and that was a bit of a waste. I feel like the episode could have been used to advance the Chandrian/Amyr plot, perhaps by showing how close Kvothe is coming to evil. Instead, we just get a doctor telling him that you cut off gangrenous legs, so of course it’s a good thing to murder a bunch of bandits. End of story, introspection over. And while he does seem a little disturbed that he had left one of the men alive but fatally wounded, he quickly comes to peace with that (even worse, he smiles to think of it). The only guilt that remains with him is that he also murdered women. Even after his experiences with the Adem!

Instead of exploring the issue raised by the Amyr (the danger of “for the greater good”), the episode became little more than an opportunity for Kvothe to play saviour to a girl who reminds him of the girl he really wants to save. And that’s just annoying.

There were several scenes where Kvothe really just doesn’t seem to get it. Even worse, he always does a little pontificating to show just how well he does get it, then proceeds to completely bungle the interaction. The best example I can think of off the top of my hat is when he reveals to Alvaron and Melurian that he is Edema Ruh. As narrator, he notes how delicate the situation is and the fact that he must proceed with extreme caution. However, he introduces the topic by telling them that he murdered the travellers, making them think that the Ruh have been kidnapping girls, then reveals that they weren’t actually Ruh and that he knows this because, as a Ruh, he knows that Ruh would never kidnap girls. All of this in a conversation with a woman who already strongly believes that the Edema Ruh are thugs and rapists. Does that really sound like proceeding with caution? Does that sound like handling the matter delicately? It is, literally, the worst possible way to explain what had happened. In fact, I’d say that his description of the events practically guaranteed Melurian’s reaction.

How about, instead, he were to take the events chronologically: A group of Edema Ruh were murdered and bandits took their place for a) the writ of safe passage, b) access into towns, and c) the convenient excuse to lure girls away from their families in the middle of the night. He was staying the night with them on his journey when the bandits boasted to him of their ploy. When he found out that, in addition to stealing from communities as they pass through, they had kidnapped two girls, he killed them in order to rescue the girls, and he brought them home to their families. It isn’t nearly as dramatic, but that’s the point. Right from the beginning of the story, it’s clearly established that the people who kidnapped the girls were not Ruh, that the Ruh were as much victims as the girls had been, and that Kvothe’s actions were warranted. Melurian may still have gone into a rage, but at least then it would be because of her own prejudices rather than simply because of Kvothe’s inability to put the dramatics aside for a moment.

And may I please mention that implying Melurian had had pre-marital sex with a Ruh to her husband probably doesn’t fit “handling the conversation delicately” either?

There were a few scenes like this, and they were just painful to read. Not in the “oh no, this tension is building up and I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop” sense, which would have been wonderful. No, it was in the “holy shit, Kvothe, can you please just shut your freaking mouth?!” sense.

My final complaint comes right near the end, when Kvothe is trying to learn how to read Yllish story knots and he discovers that Denna has knotted a word into her hair, strongly suggesting that she may know how to read Yllish story knot (or at least may have some information that could advance things). Rather than talk to her about this, perhaps probe how much she knows, perhaps describe the knot inscription he’s trying to translate to see if she has any insight to offer, the subject is just dropped so that Kvothe can have some more awkward silences and then blurt out that he wants her to love him so that their relationship can get even more awkward. There was a perfect opportunity for her to have some actual involvement in the main plotline, and it’s like it just never occurred to Rothfuss. Maybe he had something else in mind for that interaction and he was too focused on his planned progression to see the natural progression forming under his nose. I don’t know, but it was frustrating.

This review is getting quite a bit longer than I intended, so I’d better wrap it up! I’m really enjoying these books, and Rothfuss definitely has a way with narrative. Despite some pretty glaring flaws in this book, I did enjoy the ride – no small feat when the ride is over 1,000 pages long!

There are a lot of loose threads that I can’t wait to see resolved, though I’m a little afraid that, given the hints we’ve seen so far, the story can’t possibly be concluded in a satisfactory way. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.

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Legendary Northwoods Animals: A Field Guide by Galen Winter, illustrated by John Boettcher

Read: 21 August, 2015

I recently found myself in a friend’s home in Wisconsin with nothing to read. This was part of the plan; I never bring more to read when I visit this friend than is strictly necessary for getting there, because she has the most wonderful book collection. Books, in fact, just like this one.

The premise is explained in the title, it is a field guide to the legendary animals of the northwoods. Except there’s no hodag, or other “established” legendary animals. Rather, Winter has just made up a bunch of legendary animals, then treated them as real, for a larf.

And a larf it is! I especially appreciated the number of slow-build jokes, where a detail mentioned early in the entry might not pay off until the very end of that entry, when it suddenly becomes clear that the name of the creature, read backwards, is the joke (for example).

While very funny throughout, I did find that it started to drag a bit by the end, and I don’t think that this book was meant to be read from cover to cover. Rather, this a book you might put on your coffee table or in your bathroom to be read an entry or two at a time.

The illustrations, done by John Boettcher, were quite beautiful. I enjoyed the wood-cut style, and they did a great job at capturing the absurd animals.

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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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The Friendly Guide to Mythology by Nancy Hathaway

Read: 11 June, 2013

After I read and loved The Friendly Guide to the Universe, I found out that Hathaway had another book out – this time about mythology. Her discussions of mythology in the Universe (how some stars and constellations got their names, etc) was interesting, so I had high hopes.

And I wasn’t disappointed.

As in the Universe, Hathaway broadens her discussion. When talking about astronomy, it meant also talking about astronomical concepts in pop culture and mythology. In talking about mythology, in means presenting not only the myths themselves, but the story of their discovery (for example, the section about Marduk contains a timeline of the composition and discovery of the Enuma Elish text), and some of the criticisms and disagreements in the study of myths.

I mentioned in my review of the Universe that there were some additions that were presented a little too uncritically. In this book, the flaw is the omission of the Abrahamic myths. Though she discusses creation, flood myths, tricksters, and other mythic themes that have parallels in the Abrahamic religions, there is simply no mention of them. In fact, there is only the briefest of notes on Sheol and Hell in the discussion of the afterlife, and a note about the conceptualizations of Pan becoming associated with Satan. It’s a shame, because she’s missing a lot of opportunity to contextualize the myths she’s discussing within a frame that her audience is likely to be familiar with.

But, as with the Universe, her set up is such that her book can easily be used to launch a discussion about the missing elements, so the omission isn’t tragic. But it brings the book short of Pure Awesome.

The writing style is very accessible and could be used for any age group (adults included). It would also make for a fantastic textbook for a class on mythology for students aged 8+, since it introduces not only the myths themselves, but issues in the study of myth.

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Watership Down by Richard Adams

Read: 8 June, 2009

When Fiver senses that a great danger is coming to the warren, only his brother and a few others believe him. Unable to convince the other rabbits, this small band leaves on a journey in search of safety that takes them through farmyards, across roads and rivers, and into warrens with very different cultures.

This is an absolutely fantastic book. The adventure story alone is well worth the read, but the amateur mythicist in me was especially impressed with the construction of an entire rabbit culture and religious system, language included. Especially impressive is how familiar and, yet, distinctly alien the rabbit culture is. This rarely felt like a book about people that happens to be set in a rabbit setting. Rather, this was a book about rabbits, only slightly anthropomorphism. The characters and their culture retain a great deal of what can only be called ‘rabbitiness.’

Most books get at least one aspect right. Some get a few things right. When this happens, the book may be called masterful, or great. But Watership Down is one of the very few books that tempt me to use the word ‘perfection.’ This is a masterpiece and I think that anyone who hasn’t read it yet is somewhat impoverished. There’s something about it that just touches the Jungian collective subconscious. This is the hero with a thousand faces pulled off in a way that feels natural.

Though marketed as a children’s book (although perhaps a little too gruesome/frightening for younger kids), Watership Down is a must read for adults as well.

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The Jesus Puzzle by Earl Doherty

Read: 27 September, 2009

Imagine if people living a couple hundreds of years from now forgot that the Harry Potter series was fiction. Imagine that they started to worship Harry Potter, to seek out relics from Hogwarts, and fought wars against those who did not believe that the historical Harry really did have magical powers.

That’s essentially the premise of The Jesus Puzzle. According to Doherty, Jesus was a mythic character, invented consciously by individuals who were  embodying the teachings of their sect in an archetypal character. But then, as the religion spread outside of this original community, the allegory was forgotten and adherents came to see Jesus as an actual historical figure. This is how Doherty explains the discrepancies between the gospels and the lack of biographical information given in the epistles of Paul.

To a lay reader, the argument is convincing. That being said, it’s worth noting that Doherty is not a scholar, the accolades on the book jacket are written by individuals (David B., Mary B., Jan K., and Rusty A., whoever they are), and he is something of a laughing stock among biblical scholars. “Mythers,” as they are called within scholarly circles, tend not to be very well received.

Indeed, even a lay reader may grasp that something is amiss after Doherty’s umpteenth reference to his persecution at the hands of academics. My own skeptical alarm bells tend to ring when authors imagine vast conspiracies against themselves or their ideas.

I’m not sure that I’d be willing to dismiss the book entirely, simply because Doherty does provide a perspective on many New Testament passages. I’ve found it useful in my reading of scripture over at my other blog, if only to have additional points of view to mull over while forming my own readings. Just keep in mind that Doherty is expressing a fringe opinion that is not taken seriously by those who know the material best.

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