September 19th, 2018

dungeons & discourse // no. 6, frost haven.

Note: This is the tentative conclusion to Osiria’s story as this particular campaign has disbanded irl — I will soon be posting from a different POV because we’ve started something new. // Part of a series: (no. 1, saltwater // no. 2, avian // no. 3, reunion // no. 4, poison heart // no. 5, the greenwylde)

It was cold. A soul-biting frigidity that settled inside her bones as soon as she stood on the deck of the Kraken’s Tooth. They’d arrived in Frost Haven — the bluish tinge of the barren landscape was unmistakable, leftover magic from an elder race that could no longer be identified. Their final destination, achieved at last. “It’s a hive-city,” the captain had told her, “filled with outsiders and devoid of regulations.” People could worship their gods freely and without censor, merchants traded black market goods openly and without laws. To his credit, the captain had tried to warn her off her plans, but Osiria had already made up her mind — she was going to stay in Frost Haven.

Still, it seemed unbelievable that only a few days prior she had disembarked in a different place, for a distinctly different purpose.

Osiria’s mind traveled back to the Starstone Cliffs, shimmering and sparkling like so many uncut gemstones, where she crouched in a skiff in the company of a goblin, a half-elf, a human, and a mountain dwarf, intending to seek the healing power of the Moon Sisters. The ship’s crew was wounded; they’d never make it to Frost Haven without help.

Naturally, nothing they sought was easily gained.

A hard battle, made significantly harder by Duma’s insistence on lighting everything on fire and the fact that the cave was underwater, left them in possession of several cave spider eggs, the goblin’s debt to the Moon Sisters — it also left them in possession of a lingering cough.

The plan had been in and out, a simple heist, but Heph’s armor had drawn the attention of a brooding female arachnid. An errant arrow, shot in haste, arced carelessly into the mother’s nest. The screams of the remaining egg sacks, wrapped in highly flammable webbing and burning helplessly, still lingered in the periphery of Osiria’s memory and haunted her meditations. The fire had forced her to retreat and now more innocent deaths weighed on her conscience.

It was at that moment when Osiria recognized her urgent need to disentangle herself from her current traveling group. She emerged from the ocean, shivering and bitter, with hardened resolve — her decision was made.

Back in the goblin-controlled province of Basket Town, a dwelling of woven shelters and rigging, dipping lazily from trees over the sharp, craggy face of the Starstone Cliffs, the group proffered the hard-won eggs and gained access to the Moon Sister’s. Although it was not the typical woodland landscape that lent her soul succor, Osiria felt safe there. Her hawks bonded with the great albatrosses that hunted and guarded the Moon Sister’s cavern. While she waited for a bargain to be struck, she watched the man-sized birds dip and dive into the breaking waves.

“Arcane birds,” Archimedes complained to her later, “they’re always a little haughty.”

“But the hunting is good,” Artemis added, her eyes closed in silent appreciation.

Days passed without an answer from the sisters. They were coached in patience by their goblin friend. Osiria foraged at night with the local goblin-folk. She hunted moon moss, a seaweed-like plant whose neon blue iridescence caused the moss to shimmer under the moonlight with false stars. She listened, learned goblin plantlore, and, by the end of the week, she had filled a canvas sack with a healthy haul of moon moss and cloudberries. Fermented cloudberries could make an excellent wine, just a few were strong enough to flavor an entire bottle.

In the end, the Moon Sisters asked too much of them.

“Defeat our foe, free our magic, and we will heal your wounded!” They spoke their command in unison, three voices as one, their milk white eyes blankly searching, but truly seeing nothing.

Osiria knew four adventurers could not defeat a Twilight Queen of the fae realm and her charmed forest grove. However, they could not say no.

It took a half day to travel to the woodland grove where the queen held sway. Unsurprisingly, the Twilight Queen showed herself a temptress, a charmer — a typical fae. She attempted to seduce them, to drown them in her pool of magic, to return with them to the fae realm.

“Burn the forest!” Heph had commanded, his militaristic voice raised.

Duma obediently nocked a fire arrow. Roondar crouched into an attack stance.

Osiria, unwilling to participate in the decimation of an entire woodland, loosed the newly discovered Greenwylde from her fingertips. “Save us,” she whispered as the wavering, crossing lines of green tendrils took shape into tangible vines. Without consulting her companions, she used her control of the vines to grapple and pull down the knotted branches of the canopy, exposing the queen and her minions to midday sun.

Roondar, in a burst of barbarism, savagely grappled the fae queen into the sunlight. Her arms smoked and ashed, her shrieks echoed through the forest — but the charm dropped. The forest freed them. They left her screaming by her dwindling pool of magic, Osiria’s scheme buying them only enough time to escape relatively unscathed.

“You would burn an entire forest to save yourself?” Osiria murmured, as they ran. There had been a small chance the fire would break the charm, but a much larger chance that the Twilight Queen would have simply retreated and let the mortal world burn in her place.

In the end, free from the charm of Twilight, the Moon Sisters held up their side of the bargain. Their magic renewed, they gladly healed those wounded on the Kraken’s Tooth and bade the sea-travelers welcome, should they need a port of call to shelter them once more.

Afterwards, Osiria took to her her stateroom. She left only to exercise her hawks and take light repasts at odd hours. No one took note of her absence. The merchants were glad to finally be within reach of Frost Haven and its marketplace. The soldiers and sailors were simply glad to be back at their normal posts, no more supernatural oddities to contend with. Osiria quietly studied, she made tinctures, she played music, she let the hawks roost in the corner of her room, which pleased them far more than the frigid belowdecks bestiary.

And now, she was here, breathing the freezing air, looking out at the vast expanse of unending blue ice. Somehow, the cold was familiar, comforting, rather than off putting. She knew most of the structures were underground and small fires dotted the horizon, confirming her assumptions.  In the distance other, larger structures populated the neighboring islands like so many habitable icebergs. People milled about near the ship, offloading goods, animals, crates. Someone nodded politely in her direction, his hair was white like her own and pulled back in an austere top knot. She returned the nod, gamely, and set her furred boots into the Southern ice for the first time.

The elf ranger disembarks alone, her head covered, her flowing, green cowl a noticeable contrast to the snowscape. She is accompanied by two crimson hawks and, drawn behind her, a furry Glaciatic pony. Her saddlebags are packed full of maps, tomes, tinctures, and the remnants of an herbalist’s forage. She carries with her an elven longbow and a lute. Most importantly though, she is smiling.

September 17th, 2018

these things that changed my life // pt. 1

Do you ever look back at your life from a year ago, two, five, and realize you don’t quite recognize yourself — but in the best way? I’ve been doing a lot of that lately, that introspective burrowing that comes from a place of contentment. How could I have ever been anything but this? So, I decided to write about it.

Three years ago, I couldn’t land on a certainty regarding my career. I felt stifled. Uncreative. Languishing. So, I started researching publishing jobs. I applied to be a publishing assistant at a center for translation, focusing on translated fiction and memoir. In the end, I didn’t get the job (I did get one at a different high school, a job I deeply love), but the literary research involved during the application process had led me into a rich and previously undiscovered world.

In college, I’d read Madame Bovary, Crime and Punishment, Candide — and I never really thought about the fact that what I was reading wasn’t the original version as opposed to my slogging through Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales with an old English guide. What I was reading was in fact a hybrid, something else, words passed through a human sieve. In that whole year of lingering uncertainty, I read and I realized that I’d been missing the point of translation entirely.

Usually, when I begin to talk translation, someone will say that to read a translated book is to miss the point, to lose something. I tend to disagree. To read a book in translation is to read a collaboration, a carefully choreographed dance performed between two artists. It’s accepting that what you’re reading is something new. Are you reading Madame Bovary as Flaubert precisely intended it? Probably not. You’re reading a classic piece of literature filtered through Lydia Davis’ lens.

Translation is a glass refraction, a prism. And, monolinguist that I am, I find myself reading side-by-side new / old translations, abridged versions, even making small attempts at my own understanding in the intended tongue (though this usually only happens successfully with poetry), and it has changed my understanding and appreciation of literature as a whole. Translation has exposed me to writers I never would have experienced (Natsume Soseki, Kim Thuy, Herta Muller, Clarice Lispector, Elena Ferrante, Han Kang, Valeria Luiselli) and worldviews I could not have accessed had I only read the Anglocentric fiction pushed on me as a literature major (and public school teacher, for that matter).

So, I read. My mind expanded, pulled like taffy, for the first time in what seemed like a long time. I became a student again, led only by the pointed interest of my own inquiry rather than any set curriculum. I learned. I extrapolated what I had previously understood as the single narrative of a culture. Now, I find myself seeking translations before anything else. Judging a bookstore by its Japanese fiction section. “Only Murakami? What a shame.”

This year, I set a goal to read Japanese authors in June, to read female translations in August and, now, I am seeking more Icelandic and Norwegian fiction for my burgeoning collection. I follow other Goodreads and Instagram users who read translations and glean suggestions from them, but Boxwalla also helps with my intense curiosity — it’s a subscription service that sends a curated book box of translations every other month, sometimes from countries I would have never thought to research on my own simply because I was unaware of the author or title. For example, this month included Ali and Nino by Kurban Said, an author from Azerbaijan. Additionally, Kurban Said is a pseudonym and the real identity of the novelist still remains a mystery. Fascinating!

With translated fiction, I feel as though the entire world is opened up to me and I will never lack for adventure. Who knew I would wind up feeling so incredibly passionate about an art that so many forget even exists?

August 22nd, 2018

book talk // women in translation month.

August is Women in Translation Month, which honors women authors in translation, primarily in the English-speaking world. I consider myself a student of translated fiction — I am passionate on the subject, but I know very little, and what I do know is only what’s made available to me in my own language. However, I would like to take a few moments to acknowledge the female authors that have blown me away recently.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky / Translated by Sandra Smith

Irene Nemirovsky was a Jewish novelist and biographer born in the Ukraine, who lived and worked in Paris prior to and during the Nazi occupation. She was eventually sent to Auschwitz, where she was killed at the age of 39. Suite Francaise consists of the first two parts of a planned five-part novel that she began in a small village in Central France, while attempting to hide from the Nazis. The handwritten manuscript was taken by her daughters into hiding and published sixty years after Nemirovsky’s death.

Still, weeks after finishing it, I keep thinking about Nemirovsky’s ability to paint an empathetic portrait of German soldiers, knowing that they were killing her people, knowing that she was likely to die at their hands herself, and yet she was still able to look at them as humans,.

Suite Francaise is the most tender depiction of war I’ve ever read. Nemirovsky’s interweaving of characters and narratives truly blew me away. A masterwork. An incomplete masterwork. She looked into people’s souls and told the truth about what she found there.

Rating: 5/5

  The Appointment by Herta Müller / Translated by Michael Hulse

Herta Müller was born in Romania. Her family was part of Romania’s German minority and her mother was deported to a labor camp in the Soviet Union after World War II. Müller is also the recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature.

In The Appointment, Muller tells the story of a young female narrator, a garment factory worker, who is being questioned by the authorities for treasonous activity, in this case writing notes that say ‘marry me’ and sewing them into clothing in an attempt to escape Romania. She is no longer a patriot, no longer trustworthy. But this is a world where no one trusts anyone and betrayal is simply the order of the day.

The Appointment is written in stream-of-consciousness prose and an elliptical style that sends the reader off on memories from the past, the history of the post-WWII camps, and then brings us back to the tram where the narrator is headed for her interrogation appointment. This book was a shock to read, it really makes 1984 seem like a walk in the park. The Nobel committee said Muller writes ‘the landscape of the dispossessed’ and I find myself agreeing with that assertion.

Rating: 5/5

  Hotel Silence by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir / Translated by Brian FitzGibbonHotel Silence won the Icelandic Literary Prize 2016 and was chosen Best Icelandic Novel in 2016 by booksellers in Iceland. I have been trying to read more Icelandic translations lately, and this one in particular was a joy.Jonas Ebeneser is a 50-year-old handyman in crisis. He is divorced and in possession of a secret that has deeply affected him.

Tattoos cover up scars — he leaves Iceland with a waterlily over his heart and a toolbox with a drill, embarking on a journey to a war torn country (not named) with the intention to end his life.The people Jonas encounters after checking in to Hotel Silence are in want of help, fixing, they are in possession of scars as well. Olafsdottir also translates bits of poetry as epigraphs, mirroring, in many cases, Jonas’s own thoughts.

Hotel Silence is introspective, and mostly focused on the daily lives of the characters, there is no real plot. But it turned out to be just the type of book I like to read as well. Simple, silent, thoughtful, maybe a little quirky.

Rating: 4/5

July 25th, 2018

book talk // the gate.

In The Gate, Natsume Sōseki manages to elevate the banal circuitousness of daily life into something transcendent that caused me to question my understanding of happiness, self-contentment, and taking control of one’s own life.

Sosuke and Oyome have spent their adult lives living with their heads down, guilty and filled with a self-imposed shame. They take so much of what appears to be in actuality random chance onto their own shoulders, letting it seep into their lives so deeply that it defines their very souls (Oyome’s miscarriages, Yasui dropping out of school — even though it seemed like he planned to anyway). In their martyrdom, I wonder if they give themselves too much credit for the misfortunes of both their own lives and the lives of others. How much is fault and how much is fate or chance? Ultimately, their life of quiet monotony is one of their own making, and, though they do possess the ability to break out of it, simply can’t, or won’t.

It’s interesting, because I have seen many readers assume initially that they are an elderly couple, but it’s revealed they’ve only been married for six or seven years. This is shocking, I think, as they live such unimpressive lives. They also deeply resent the upsetting of their routines. However, their relationship is still one that invites a certain envy. “Sosuke and Oyone were without question a loving couple. In the six long years they had been together they had not spent so much as half a day feeling strained by the other’s presence and they had never once engaged in a truly acrimonious quarrel. … They dwelled in the city as though living deep in the mountains.” 

Not much happens in the novel, but the meandering narration and carefully described backgrounds carry the story along. Later, Sosuke, in desperation to figure out a solution to a social problem (one that preferably involves his continued method of avoidance) spends ten days at a Zen temple attempting to clear his mind. However, he emerges with no greater enlightenment. Sosuke determines that he is not brave enough to walk through the metaphorical gate and gain a different perspective of the possibility of his life, and walks out the literal gate of the Zen temple without any ill feeling for this reality. “He was someone destined neither to pass through the gate nor to be satisfied with never having passed through it. He was one of those unfortunate souls fated to stand in the gate’s shadow, frozen in his tracks, until the day was done.”

Thus, the book ends much as it began, with the couple companionably sitting together, watching yet another change of season, the sun glimmering with the promise of still another tomorrow where nothing terrible will happen, but nothing interesting either.

Rating: 5/5
Recommended for:
 fans of Japanese literature / classics in other languages

July 4th, 2018

book talk // japanese june.

I am lucky. I teach, therefore I get summers off, therefore I can set arbitrary reading goals for myself. This summer, I decided to take on the bookstagram-inspired idea of #japanesejune — essentially reading a pile of translated Japanese literature. I didn’t set a numeric goal, but I ended up reading ten total books in June, six of them were Japanese fiction. I also used this goal as an opportunity to shop my own bookshelf, I had accumulated quite a glut of translations, and try out some new authors.

Confessions by Kinae Minato

What happens when a middle school teacher’s daughter is killed by her students? Revenge, of course. Confessions is essentially a literary tale of revenge — something between horror, crime, and mystery, though we know from the first few pages what happened. Slowly, the author unveils detail after detail by utilizing alternating POVs, an unspooling of various confessions. There are some very surprising twists, I audibly gasped more than once, and a lot of well done dramatic tension. Dark and twisted, with sparse prose and unlikeable characters, this is the Japanese novel I never knew I needed.I finished this book with about two days left in the school year, which gave it a weird synchronicity.

Rating: 5/5

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami

I was already a fan of Kawakami and had been meaning to read another book of hers. I already owned Manazuru and The Nakano Thrift Shop, but chose the latter for my reading project. The Nakano Thrift Shop is a quiet, slice of life book about a character named Hitomi and the people she works with at the Nakano Thrift Shop — a secondhand store filled to the brim with knick knacks. Aside from Hitomi’s POV, we never really see the characters outside of their connection to the shop. They are all defined by their relationship to love: Mr. Nakano has two ex-wives, a wife, and a mistress, Masayo (his sister) is a hopeless romantic and a sensitive, creative soul, Takeo is taciturn and doesn’t trust those around him, but Hitomi is drawn to him all the same. The seasons pass, there are conversations and simple meals. It is a deceptively simple book. And, as with Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo, I was swept away.

Rating: 5/5

Kokoro by Natsume Soseki

Amusingly, I already owned a copy of Kokoro that was an earlier translation, however, when I spotted the new translation by Meredith McKinney (she has also translated Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book) at Half Price Books, I grabbed it. Translation is so interesting because, unlike books in my native language, people are often offering updated versions with current vernacular. At any rate, I wanted to read a Japanese classic and this was my first pick.

Kokoro is divided into two halves, the characters into two selves, and at the core are the complications of the heart. It tells the story of a student befriending an older mentor he refers to simply as ‘sensei.’ Sensei remains opaque to the student as he grows from boy to young man. Eventually, Sensei entrusts him with the story of his life, confessing his own secret guilt and pain, as the student struggles to understand it.

I finished this book with an audible, “woah.” It was such a powerful and emotional narrative that I felt both enraptured and depleted. A classic for a reason.

Rating: 5/5


Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa

I’d heard good things about The Housekeeper and the Professor by Ogawa, so I picked this one up for a beach trip because it was described as an unsettling story in a crumbling seaside hotel — and that sounded charming and a little creepy. What it turned out to be was a BDSM summer romance story between a 67 year old man and a 17 year old girl written in a minimalistic style. This is the first book I’ve read by Ogawa, and perhaps it wasn’t a good place to start. Her prose is simple, fluid, and descriptive (the writing was 5 stars, for sure), but the subject matter alternated between being quite racy, sweet / unassuming, and incredibly dark. The subject matter just wasn’t my jam, but she’s definitely my kind of author.

Rating: 3/5

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

I loved this short, quirky gem of a book! It epitomizes much of what I enjoy about Japanese literature in general. This was also  the most recently published (in English) book I read.

Keiko Furukura is a 36-year-old, part-time convenience store worker. The convenience store hums like a life force around her, she stays fit to be a good worker, she is comprised of food from the store. She is a part of it. For her whole life, Keiko has tried to fit in to societal norms, and failed dramatically. People are outwardly kind to her, but, as she discovers, they secretly regard her as some kind of broken, useless object. A woman past her expiration date. The judgments passed on her are not new to any unmarried, childless woman in her 30’s, but Keiko is so sweet and unassuming — I wanted to throttle the rest of the judgmental characters! The part where she discovers her co-workers go out to drink without her especially made my heart break a little. As a result, Keiko experiments with fitting in, but ultimately discovers her own path to happiness.

It’s a life-affirming character study and the writing is lovely. Also, the author is still a part-time convenience store worker, which added another level of unexpected charm.

Rating: 5/5

The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima

This is my first time reading a work by Mishima, and his style surprised me. I expected pretension, but there was none. This is a novel of youthful love and naïveté, but it’s also a coming-of-age story about a boy who goes from shy youth to confident man. I truly loved Mishima’s description of the island and the islanders, especially the bath house and the diving women (though he definitely had a thing for breasts — there’s a lengthy breast contest scene between the divers). I kept anticipating tragedy, as is common for star-crossed lovers, but he mocks the concept openly. Like I said, it kept surprising me. I want to read more from him.

Rating: 4/5

June 20th, 2018

book talk // kudos.

When I closed the cover to Kudos, I also reached the end of Rachel Cusk’s creative trilogy — or, perhaps to call it a trilogy is misleading, really it’s a reinvention of the form itself. The books flow together into one continuing conversation; they are one. Cusk herself has referred to this as a “project” and, to me, that makes sense. It’s something else entirely, though I don’t presume to know what.

Kudos finds Faye back on a plane, tied to another male seatmate, practicing her intrinsic skill for listening. The narrative takes the reader through a book panel, interviews, and a literary festival. However, the main theme seems to be, in this iteration, suffering. Suffering of the feminine, suffering of the sensitive mind, suffering as an opportunity.

A writer, at the festival, states: “I am one of those people who believes that without suffering there can be no art, she said, and I have no doubt that my love of literature in particular stems from the desire to be confirmed in that belief.”

I wonder if that’s not true of all of us. We believe that in order for great literature to exist, first the soul must be tortured. And, in turn, we take pleasure in devouring the product of a tortured soul, seeking to find proof that all of life is suffering.

Faye also observes: “Suffering had always appeared to me as an opportunity, I said, and I wasn’t sure I would ever discover whether this was true and if so why it was, because so far I had failed to understand what it might be an opportunity for. All I knew was that it carried a kind of honour, if you survived it…”

The key to this record of Faye’s travels is that there is always one more conversation. Always one more person who wants to share their story, perhaps after the bottle of wine has been sufficiently depleted. She is a conduit, a sieve, for other people’s thoughts and observations. She contributes a bit more in this book, and she never outright disagrees with people, instead she often poses her disagreement as a question (“I wonder if that’s true?” — very teacher-like). But still, she is dissociated and separate.

The other thread that wove through this narrative is that of the feminine. Faye is a woman, married again, with two children; she is wife, mother, and also herself. However, she lets men greedily pour their needs into her and then she in turn transcribes them. In a sense, despite their obvious need to be heard, she is the one who has the final word.

The novel ends with a perfect scene — one that I would never have described as perfect in any other context — a man urinating into the ocean as she is swimming nearby. “He looked at me with black eyes full of malevolent delight while the golden jet poured unceasingly forth from him until it seemed impossible that he could contain any more. The water bore me up, heaving, as if I lay on the breast of some sighing creature while the man emptied himself into its depths. I looked into his cruel, merry eyes and I waited for him to stop.”

As with suffering, she must simply push through and wait it out. But she is borne up, unpolluted by his transgression. She will endure. And thus, the novel left me feeling both utterly hopeless and foolishly hopeful.

Rating: 5/5
Recommended for: people who liked Outline or novels that aren’t really novels in trilogies that aren’t really trilogies.

(Read my review of Outline & review of Transit)

May 24th, 2018

book talk // love and ruin.

This book centers around the life of Martha (Marty) Gellhorn — it chronicles her journalistic rise, beginning with the months following a tepid reception of her first novel, What Mad Pursuit (I read a bit about the novel here, where it was described as the “futile lapping of a surgeless lake, the procession and recession of climax and anti-climax, fraught with emptiness”). After a failed love affair and a failed novel, Gellhorn returns home to see her father on his deathbed, lick her wounds, and begin writing a collection of short stories, The Trouble I’ve Seen, based on her time with FERA during the Great Depression. She worked with Dorothea Lange to document the struggles of the American people during this time period, gaining access to places often barring women, and, in turn gaining Eleanor Roosevelt’s respect.

Eventually, she meets Hemingway in Key West. They agree to go to Spain together and report on the Spanish Civil War, where, amid the shellings and air raids, their friendship (he initially calls her “daughter,” which made me cringe a little) becomes a romantic affair. Gellhorn is no stranger to love affairs with married men, having had another while living in Paris, and seems to lose little sleep over the fact that Hem is already married. Theirs is a relationship set against tragedy, a safe place for those seeking comfort, and neither of them anticipate it will last.

Gellhorn is drawn to Hemingway’s magnetism, she admires him, and they begin to live together on and off for several years. However, she also chafes against his domineering nature, his need to control her and be constantly in the spotlight. While Hemingway seemed to admire her aspirations and bravery in the abstract, after she agrees to marry him, he becomes petulant and needy — she won’t give him a daughter, she selfishly leaves him for weeks at a time to pursue her career, she wants to explore more widely than his go-to fishing spots, she neuters the tomcats. The timeless struggle of females who seek to posses an identity independent of their husbands echoes loudly.

Are you a war correspondent, or wife in my bed?

When she refuses to stop reporting during World War II, Hemingway takes over her job at Collier’s, usurping her masthead and expense account, attempting to use his clout to block her travel. Despite all this, Gellhorn was the only woman at Normandy on D-Day and she was among the first correspondents to report on Dachau.

We know from the beginning that the relationship will end in “ruin,” but Gellhorn was the only one of Hemingway’s wives who chose to leave him, rather than the other way around — and it seems he never forgave her for it. Gellhorn also resisted publishing under the Hemingway name and hated when publications conflated their writing styles, implying she was the second best Hemingway. Her inability to live in Hem’s shadow, and the fact that when she left on assignment for World War II he immediately found a new woman to marry, allowed her to cleanly walk away and pursue her own path — and I found myself breathing a loud sigh of relief.

In moments, I’d been kicked out of love and was alone again.

I related quite a bit to Marty Gellhorn. She was flawed, she made mistakes, but she was also resilient, ambitious, career-driven, and very empathetic with a relentless wayward spirit. She knew this wouldn’t make her a good wife or mother, but she loved Hemingway and wanted to try. The settings in McClain’s novels are always lush, but her description of the Finca in Cuba made me long for such an escape. A writer’s paradise complete with daiquiris and a saltwater pool. I was more heartbroken when Gellhorn had to give up her beautiful home (which she bought) than when the relationship inevitably crumpled.

I loved being in Marty’s head, her first-person accounting of war was interesting, as was her unconventional (for the time) perspective on love / relationships. I found it odd that McClain focused in so closely on her relationship with Hemingway, even providing passages from his perspective, when Gellhorn was, arguably, more interesting than him. I suppose her coming-of-age in the literary world did happen in tandem with the rise and fall of this particular romantic entanglement; but, it’s important to note that she did not rise because of Hemingway, rather in spite of him.

I like McClain as an author. The Paris Wife wasn’t my favorite, but I really enjoyed Circling the Sun and will probably ready anything else she publishes in the fictional memoir genre.

Rating: 4/5
Recommended for:
those who enjoy historical fiction or have more than a passing interest in Hemingway, strong women, or strong liquor.

May 1st, 2018

dungeons & discourse // no. 5, the greenwylde.

This is part of an ongoing series: (no. 1, saltwater // no. 2, avian // no. 3, reunion // no. 4, poison heart)

Osiria sat cross-legged on the cushions in her new state room — well, the state room that had previously belonged to a pair of recently dispatched ship’s musicians. They had, unenviably, turned out to be sea hags rather than bards. It was unfortunate, Osiria thought, because their music had really been quite good.

In their absence, her own status as amateur dinnertime performer had been distinctly elevated. The middling pan flute skills that had secured her passage on this not-particularly-musically-discerning vessel were in need of some polishing. It also did not escape her notice that all the bards she had thus encountered turned out to be evil.

“Thank goodness I chose not to join the Bardic College,” she mumbled, poking the area where the scorpion’s poison had seeped in. The wound was healed now, but it reminded her that wily bards were perhaps not to be trusted.

Despite the haunted origins of her state room acquisition, Osiria was grateful for the solitude, away from the constant preening and prattling of the sailors. She knew the rest of her traveling companions were employees of the guard — she had been offered a similar post based on her warrior’s merit, but refused — and anticipated they’d be too busy with menial labor to interrupt her self-imposed isolation.

Additionally, the previous occupants had left behind several sheets of harp music, a small lap harp, and walls draped in layers of strange and gauzy tapestries. There wasn’t much else of worth, but Osiria had moved in her own meager belongings, including the two druidic texts and a growing collection of local herbs, which she intended to spend the next two weeks at sea studying in earnest — well, that, along with the harp music. If she was to be the only musical accompaniment on board, she needed to practice.

She plucked one of the harp strings. It produced a satisfyingly harmonic sound that resonated somewhere outside of her musical abilities. She exhaled, then set herself to the task at hand.

In the corner, a samovar boiled hot water for herbal tea. Her Elvish drift globe floated just over her shoulder giving off an effervescent blue light, as though underwater, and illuminating the never ending pages of Frogon’s tight, cramped writing and accompanying etchings, filled with all the detail of a master druid.

Hours bled into one another as night passed into dawn several times over. She heard her hawks crying happily, racing one another across the open ocean. The bestiary had taken good care of them, but they were anxious in her absence. She wished, quite desperately, that she could accompany them on a hunt. But there wouldn’t be another chance like this, a chance for uninterrupted study. “Soon, my loves,” she whispered.

On the fifth day, her room was a mess of hastily taken notes, strewn about music sheets, and several flowers (origin unknown) laid out in a neat line across the low table. Pinned to the walls were various herbs in different stages of the drying process. Saltwater and humidity affected the leaves differently and she was still experimenting. The small port window was covered with a sheer tapestry and the room possessed an ethereal glow, further enhanced by the lingering drift globe. The samovar was long empty, but a strangely sweet smell permeated the still air.

Osiria’s head was bent in deep concentration, her fist clenched tight, her lips whispering barely audible incantations. Any additional light in the room surrounded only her, as though she were pulling it toward her on a thousand silken threads. Suddenly, her fingers sparked green and blue. Osiria jumped back, eyes open in alarm. Then, with even more focus than before, she seized upon the air, clasping her hand over nothing.

Her eyes closed and she slipped into a peaceful reverie, almost like the Elven meditative state she was so used to relaxing into, the sense of ease covering her entire body like warm bathwater. Her hand sparked again, then flickered — a firework that gradually calmed itself into a steady flame. This time Osiria didn’t react. In fact, the crease in her forehead had disappeared entirely.

When the azure sparkling ceased, she opened her hand. There, in her calloused bronze palm, was a single, perfect bloom.

“The Greenwylde,” she whispered. “I did it.”

April 27th, 2018

book talk // audiobooks.

Let’s talk audiobooks.

For years, I assumed that audiobooks were “cheating.” I suppose I was mostly thinking in terms of the page count, or my Goodreads challenge — I wouldn’t count a podcast in my overall book count, but I also wouldn’t count an article in the New Yorker or a single short story collected in an anthology. I will also wholly admit that my English professors would never have encouraged me to “listen” to Madame Bovary, so perhaps it was also a bit of lit major snobbery. On the other hand, I use audiobooks to engage my students all the time, so why am I resistant to listening myself?

This year, I have a three hour (total) commute every day. I don’t drive, I take public transit, and that’s a lot of time for me to just be sitting with myself and trying not to listen to other people’s conversations. I decided to join Audible and use my 1 credit a month to download a tome of massive proportions — something 24 hours in length, preferably — and I narrowed my focus to nonfiction. I want to spend those three hours learning!

But, the niggling question remained: is it cheating?

According to the “simple view” of reading, there are two basic processes happening when you’re engaged in the task: 1) decoding, or translating strings of letters into words that mean something and 2) comprehension. University of Virginia psychologist, Daniel Willingham, explains “simple view” and further asserts in his blog post that “according to the simple model, listening to an audio book is exactly like reading print, except that the latter requires decoding and the former doesn’t.” So, if the point of listening to an audiobook is indeed to practice decoding, then yes, it’s cheating because the decoding has been done for you. However, if you identify as an adult, typical reader, and are reading in your native language, that is probably not the point and you are simply listening to enjoy the story. Therefore, it doesn’t matter what method (print or audio) you used to obtain said enjoyment, the differences are negligible.

Furthermore, hearing a book read aloud can enhance understanding through prosody, or intonation, tone, stress, rhythm, etc. A speaker can evoke an emotional state, enhance comprehension of sarcasm / irony, or choose where to place emphasis — these are things a reader might miss while reading text. Consider stand-up comedy — would it be funnier to hear or read the jokes? Not to mention listening helps with the correct pronunciation of difficult words (part of why I use them in teaching), something I’ve especially appreciated in the audiobooks I’ve chosen as most have had some selections written in a foreign language.

The audiobooks I’ve listened to, and their accompanying reviews, are as follows:

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert Massie was my first audiobook, and I listened to this book in hour long chunks during my workday commute. That said, I thought the author did a great job of reminding the reader (listener) where we were picking up in the historical timeline. Parts of this book were very interesting to me — Catherine’s childhood, her marriage to Peter, her ascension to the throne. Parts I found incredibly dull — the wars, the cataloging of her numerous “favorites” (see also: boring, but beautiful and younger men she was sleeping with), and the very detailed account of the French Revolution.

The French Revolution and ensuing moralistic argument about the guillotine and capital punishment was a fairly glaring digression. Also, I thought the author spent a LOT of time discussing who Catherine slept with and I wonder if the same attention would have been paid a male monarch — most of whom had far more lovers than Catherine did. The narration was okay, but not particularly riveting. I dozed off once or twice.

Rating: 3/5

As with Catherine the Great, I listened to Marie Antoinette: The Journey during my commute. I will say Antonia Fraser definitely casts a forgiving and benevolent light on Marie Antoinette while making, what could be rather dry material, quite readable — er, listenable. It’s dense, not textbook dense, but there’s a lot of information.

I really enjoyed the depictions of Marie Antoinette’s happier days, but I appreciated that Fraser extrapolated on what happened after the Revolution, even up to modern times. The queen’s life was tragic — not just her end, but the lack of love (both emotional and physical) and trust in her relationship with Louis, the constant mocking slander she dealt with via the press, the poor health she endured for her whole life (most likely due to a gynecological mishap during her first birth), the deaths of three of her four children, her husband, and ultimately her own untimely execution.

The narrator sounded like a kindly British grandma, and she was quite soothing to listen to after a long day. Some Audible reviewers have said she possesses a halting, grammar-school French pronunciation, but, honestly, I couldn’t tell the difference because I know even less French than she.

Rating: 3/5

Cooney begins her biography of Hatshepsuit with a framing question — why are we so willing to forgive male leaders their excesses but unable to appreciate honest, naked female ambition?

“Hatshepsut had the misfortune to be antiquity’s female leader who did everything right.”

Hatshepsut was, by all accounts, a female king (yes, king!) who did everything right — she was so conventional as to almost be boring. She believed in the divinity of the gods, commanded military campaigns, and oversaw immense archaeological undertakings. She sacrificed her sexuality, even depicting herself without breasts and (as far as we know) never taking a lover, in order to be the divine pharaoh for her people. Her one mistake, the mistake that would erase her from the obelisks and cause mass desecration of her images, assuming the throne that “rightfully” belonged to a male heir. Her successor later demolished much of her funerary temple and her mummy was eventually lost to the desert sand. Cooney actually hypothesizes that this was a political rather than vengeful move, but who knows.

“Many historians will no doubt accuse me of fantasy: inventing emotions and feelings for which I have no evidence. And they will be right.”

The only downside to this book is that there is a lot of “perhaps” and “would / could have” — there just isn’t much known of Hatshepsut and thus a biography lends itself to a certain level of conjecture based on what is known about Egyptian culture at the time. Without a diary or correspondence, we can’t know what she was thinking or how she felt, so the picture is more of a ruler than that of a woman.

I’ve been waiting for an audiobook to really impress me and this was definitely it. It was narrated by the author, whose voice I happened to really enjoy, and you could tell she was pronouncing everything correctly and putting emphasis where she deemed necessary. Gamechanger! Prosody!

Rating: 4/5

April 16th, 2018

book talk // circe.

“Later, years later, I would hear a song made of our meeting. I was not surprised by the portrait of myself, the proud witch undone before the hero’s sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime for poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”

Circe by Madeline Miller is a feminist retelling of an ancient story. For most readers, The Odyssey was taught in freshman English class, and that’s where it has stayed; but, for a freshman English teacher (namely, me) the epic poem takes up my whole world for at least six weeks every year. And, excitingly, this past year has been a big one for the Greek epic, both with the release of Circe and Emily Wilson’s new, and first ever female translation of The Odyssey. Wilson describes Circe as, “the goddess who speaks in human tongues,” a phrase that resonates within Miller’s own work, as Circe is often criticized by the gods for her squawking, mortal voice.  On the other hand, her voice is the very thing that makes her an accessible goddess, she is already more human than the rest.

There are no spoilers here — we have known the outcome for centuries — but the lush rendering by Miller creates everything anew. Aeaea is reborn as a utopia of flora and fauna, both tamed and wild. Circe braids back her hair, hikes up her skirts, and makes use of the endless time inherent in her immortality to learn the spells of witchcraft already lingering in her blood. Miller weaves Grecian myths together as though she is Penelope at her loom — we hardly notice that millenia have passed. We bear witness to the creation of the Minotaur, to Icarus and his wings, to Medea, to whom Circe attempts to provide advice (it doesn’t go well), and we discover the fate of Odysseus after he returns to Ithaca.

It also dissects the dichotomy of the witch / goddess archetype that has always embodied her characterization. Witch, a word with a typically negative connotation, has often been ascribed to Circe and her pig spell, to the Moly that stops it, to her animal taming. But, she is still a goddess, beautiful and seductive and filled with divine power beyond the comprehension of mortals. A female character can indeed be both, she can be flawed and compassionate and empowered by her beauty.

Circe is a novel of femininity, sisterhood, and a woman’s search for independence in a time where men were heroes and gods ruled your fate. Can one gain the ability to alter one’s destiny by force of will? Or must one always submit to the gods? As Circe later tells Penelope, witchcraft is “mostly will.” And with that willpower, a woman can change her destiny.

“You threw me to the crows, but it turns out I prefer them to you.”

Truly, this is one of the best books I have read this year — it may have already taken my number one spot. I could talk about it for ages and if you happen to see me anytime soon, I will undoubtedly be recommending it to you.

Rating: 5/5
Recommended for: fans of Greek mythology or re-tellings of old stories.