TRAVELING AROUND ALASKA’S COAST: TIP OF THE ICEBERG

This is the time of year, especially when we’re dealing with temperatures of 90 + degrees F, when my thoughts turn to the idea of travel, especially travel to somewhere really cool, possibly even cold. It’s in the summer that I first read the book The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (and if you haven’t read that novel, this would be the perfect time of year to read it, as it’s an excellent book and set in Alaska, I’m just saying), and it’s in the summer that I just read one of the best travel books I’ve encountered in the last few years, Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000 Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier, by Mark Adams.  Whether you’ve always had a secret hankering for a trip to the 49th State (as I have), or whether you’re just in the mood for a well-written, vivid and entertaining book about a place most of us are fairly unfamiliar with, I highly recommend Tip of the Iceberg.

A travel book, for me, is something different from a guidebook. I’ll take a guidebook with me when I go somewhere, so I can find out what the cool places to eat are, where the museums are and what the other potential spots of interest are in the area. A travel book, though, is more like taking the trip without actually leaving home, exploring and experiencing a place with someone who shares his or her insights into this part of the world. I’m pretty demanding when it comes to travel books; the person taking me on this trip needs to be someone with a sense of humor, a willingness to seek out and ask questions of the people who live and/or work in the area, and someone who isn’t too full of him or herself.  The person shouldn’t get in the way of the place, essentially. And, for someone who’s a history buff as I am, if the writer of the travel book can give me a good look at the history of the area, that’s definitely a big selling point.

Which is why I love this book so much. Mark Adams is traveling around the coast of Alaska in the modern era, using the kinds of transports (by sea and air, for the most part) any one of us could use nowadays, but he’s also retracing (to the extent possible) an earlier trip by Edward H. Harriman, the railroad magnate and millionaire (back when being a millionaire was a much bigger deal), who brought some of the best scientists in the country with him to explore the Alaska territory in 1899. The story of Mark’s modern expedition is interspersed with the story of the Harriman expedition, and the combination is magical. The contrast between the conditions of Harriman’s floating university, which included such brilliant people as John Muir and Clinton Merriam, one of the founders of the National Geographic Society, and the conditions in which Mark Adams is traversing the same coast, with a lot less luxury and far fewer intellectual heavyweights, is pretty funny, and Mark makes the most of it. He also points out the changes wrought in the Alaska countryside and especially its glaciers (which were such powerful attractants to Muir) by global climate change in the century between the two trips, not in a polemical way, but matter-of-factly, describing what they saw and experienced and what he’s seeing and experiencing.  

And then there are the characters and situations he encounters.  While this isn’t really a humor book, there are certain parts, including his discussions of bear encounters and the sort of information visitors are given with respect to bears, that had me laughing out loud.  He had a knack for finding the most interesting characters in any of the places he went, however small or large, and getting those people to open up to him. There are certain aspects of the trip which I wouldn’t want to duplicate (an expedition where he and his guide just barely managed to get to base before their transportation left in a horrible storm was one of those nerve-wracking situations that was, undoubtedly, a lot more fun to read about than to experience in person), but on the whole, if I were going to Alaska to journey the inner passage, Mark Adams is just the kind of person I would want to have as my guide and companion. He’s funny and knowledgeable, he’s willing to let people teach him things, and willing to look with a clear eye at the world around him. He writes vividly, whether about the experiences of the members of the Harriman expedition or about the people sleeping on the decks of small ferries he’s taking from one point to another, and by the end of the book I certainly felt I’d been there with him.

The best kind of travel books, in my opinion, are the ones where you feel you’ve experienced the trip yourself, but you’re still filled (or newly filled) with the desire to check the place out for yourself.  The Tip of the Iceberg certainly qualifies.  Check it out for yourself.

 

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THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ODYSSEY: CIRCE

I have to say right off the bat that from the time I first read The Odyssey, my favorite character was the witch goddess Circe, who turned Odysseus’ sailors into pigs, and would have (I always believed) turned Odysseus into one as well if he hadn’t cheated (e.g., gotten help from the god Hermes to protect himself).  When my daughter was growing up, she and I listened to the Odds Bodkin version of The Odyssey, in which Circe cheerfully sings, “Pigs, pigs, pigs, is what you are!” as she changes the people into pigs, which was simply adorable. I was always disappointed when Odysseus moved on from Circe’s island, even though Circe does show up as a minor or supporting character in other Greek myths (for instance, she cleansed her niece, Medea, from her guilt for killing her brother as Medea and Jason fled with the Golden Fleece).  So you can imagine my delight to see that Madeline Miller has a new novel, Circe, which tells the story of my favorite character from her point of view.

It’s an excellent book.  Let’s just start with that.  Circe comes across as a real person, a very complicated person who’s neither goddess nor mortal but somewhere in between, someone very different from the nymphs who were her mother’s kin and the titans who were her father’s,  someone interested in mortals but not really able to understand them.

Do you need to know the story of the Odyssey or Greek myths in general to be able to follow this book?  Not at all. Circe tells you everything you need to know in the course of the story (and there’s a very helpful index at the back of the book, explaining who’s who and how people are related to each other, because there are a lot of interrelated characters and sometimes it’s hard to keep track).  However, if you DO have some knowledge of the source material, it is a bit more fun, so that when you first meet Pasiphae, Circe’s sister, your mind immediately goes to the birth of the Minotaur and that colors your thinking about her throughout. It’s a pleasure the first time you see characters with whom you’re familiar, and to see them in a new light, but trust me, you’ll get a sense of who Daedalus was and what Scylla was like just by Circe’s descriptions.

If you do know the basic stories of Greek myths, you’ll still be carried along on Miller’s plot, which tells the stories in a new way, giving you a different perspective on well-known characters and stories, without doing an injustice to the classic stories. So, for instance, the story of the punishment of Prometheus, which normally I don’t associate with Circe, comes into play here (and we meet Prometheus himself), and while we’ve all seen Scylla in The Odyssey, here we discover what Scylla was before she became this horrible monster, and who was responsible for the transformation.  

Miller writes vividly: the scene where Circe witnesses the birth of the Minotaur is visceral and terrifying; Circe’s first encounter with Scylla in the latter’s new form is nerve wracking and powerful.  Circe’s encounters with various gods and goddesses (not to mention various titans) make those characters more than human and at the same time recognizable to us mere mortals.

Her encounter with Odysseus is, naturally enough, the heart of the book.  We understand why Circe changes men into pigs (hint: they pretty much earn it), and why she treats Odysseus’ crew that way, and Odysseus’ trick, which infuriated me and seemed unfair in the original story, is something Circe takes in stride.  Unlike some versions of the story, in this version Circe doesn’t immediately bow down to Odysseus, but treats him and his men as her guests for three seasons before he leaves, and does her best to help him and them on their way back to Ithaka, not because she’s cowed by Odysseus but because she cares about him.  He comes across as a complicated human being, manipulative and intelligent, charming and not necessarily trustworthy, someone you could see Circe being attracted to.

Of course there’s more to the story, and if you’ve ever wondered what happened or what might have happened to Odysseus after the end of The Odyssey, whether he was able to return to being a mere king in Ithaka after having been one of the heroes of the Trojan War, what his relationship with his wife and his son would be like after his return, Circe gives you some answers, plausible and entirely within the characters of the people in the story.

At about the three quarter mark, when once again Circe was trying to protect herself and those she cared about from the malice of the gods, I was beginning to worry that there couldn’t be a happy ending or even a satisfying ending for this book, but I’m glad to report that I was wrong. It’s an excellent read, a lively and entertaining rethinking of Greek myths, not exactly feminist (Circe wouldn’t understand the concept, so kudos to Miller for not getting anachronistic here), but with a different and refreshing viewpoint.

COMPLETELY OUT OF OUR HANDS: NATURAL CAUSES

Barbara Ehrenreich is a treasure, as anyone who’s read any of her bestselling books (including the wonderful Nickel and Dimed: on (Not) Getting by in America and Dancing in the Streets: a History of Collective Joy and Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, just to name a few) can readily attest.  She is not someone who takes any received “wisdom” for granted, no matter what kinds of “experts” (all quotations deliberate on my part) espouse that “wisdom.”  She’s got a great skeptical mind and a willingness to dig deeply, and I’ve never yet read one of her books without at least one “Really? That’s amazing!” reaction to something she reports.  Ehrenreich is also a good writer, funny and pithy, so you can just sail through her books without even looking at the footnotes if you like (though, if you are an inveterate reader of footnotes, as I am, you’ll find that she can and does document everything she asserts that seems surprising).  

With all that in mind, I heartily recommend her latest book, Natural Causes: an Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer. While of course we don’t judge books by their covers, in this case the cover is a perfect reflection of the contents of the book, both funny and (if you think about what she’s saying) a little horrible.

She takes aim at the medical profession first, and all the tests we put ourselves through, and whether those diagnostic tests are necessary.  This is radical enough, but then she goes deeper and suggests not just that the tests might not be necessary, but that getting these tests is actually harmful to us.  Putting her money where her mouth is (so to speak), Ehrenreich, a breast cancer survivor (who would probably hate to be so described, so I apologize), refuses to get regular cancer screenings and explains to us and to her doctors why.

She goes after a lot of the fads revolving around “wellness”, and mocks the idea of people living forever, or for hundreds of years at least.  When she starts talking about how our bodies really work, and how little control we have over anything that goes on inside us (including the absolutely amazing and terrifying fact that sometimes our immune cells actually help our cancer cells grow and spread, as if they’ve turned against us when they’re supposed to be protecting us), the book is both enlightening and somewhat disturbing, but always a fascinating read.

If you’re in the mood to turn a skeptical eye on many of the basic ideas we have about the control we have over our bodies and our futures, or if you’re a Barbara Ehrenreich fan, this is the book you should definitely read. Come in and check it out.

BECOMING (MORE) HUMAN: ARTIFICIAL CONDITION

You wouldn’t necessarily think a series of novellas about a security bot which refers to itself as “murderbot” would be my cup of tea.  Yes, I like dark writing (hello, Jo Nesbo!), and have a somewhat quirky sense of what’s interesting, but the whole military science fiction subgenre (to which a book involving security bots killing people would seem to belong) isn’t something that usually lights my fire.  

However, Martha Wells’ Murderbot series is absolutely wonderful, and I will gladly read the next book, or the next three books, or however many she chooses to write in this series. I loved the first book, All Systems Red, and her newest book, Artificial Condition, picks up where the first one left off and is a great fast and even funny read, without sacrificing any of the deeper questions her main character raises.

Murderbot is the narrator of the books, and a great deal of the fun of the series is Murderbot’s character.  A security bot with built in weapons that can kill and disable humans and bots very effectively (we see this a few times so far in the series), Murderbot disabled its governor a while before the first book, which means it cannot be controlled by outsiders, including the people who own it or rent it out.  You would naturally expect that a device built to kill would, when the governor’s no longer restraining it, turn into a classic killing machine and go rogue and destroy everything and that would be the plot of the series (think of the artificial people in the Aliens series, for instance), but you would be wrong.  What Murderbot wants to do is watch videos in private and do as little of the killing and destroying as it can. It is shy around humans, and, as we discovered in the first book, has real trouble when people treat it as an equal and not as a tool for them to use.  

Without too many spoilers (you can read my review of All Systems Red, or you can just read All Systems Red itself; it’s short and fast), by the end of the first book, Murderbot is free and capable of determining its own destiny.  It isn’t completely free and clear, of course, because if anyone knew that there was a security bot running around without a governor, the authorities would immediately go after Murderbot and at the very least reinstall a governor and wipe its memory, and at the worst, destroy it altogether.  

Murderbot knows there was something that happened to it before the mission in All Systems Red. It doesn’t remember what happened other than the vague outlines that it was involved in killing people. Whether that was the cause of its disabling its governor or the effect, it’s not sure, and obviously that makes a difference to it as a moral being (and yes, Murderbot is, despite its claims to the contrary, a moral being), so it sets out to find out what happened.  Along the way, it finds itself working with a sentient transport (whose every communication with Murderbot is, according to our protagonist, to be imagined being said in the most sarcastic way possible), and, as a matter of disguise, signing on as a security consultant to a group of humans who are negotiating for the return of some stolen files from an untrustworthy and dangerous former employer.  Murderbot takes on this job solely to get authorization to get on and under the surface of the planet where the past incident (all records of which have been scrubbed from the public interfaces) took place, but, being what it is, it feels a duty to the people it’s protecting, and ends up helping them and actually protecting them rather than just dumping them when it’s convenient.

Along the way, we have revelations about what actually happened in the “incident”, and some serious, thought-provoking scenarios that make us question the extent to which these bots are like humans themselves.  I don’t want to make this sound too heavy; there are some very funny exchanges between Murderbot and the ART (the transport), and a scene in which one of Murderbot’s clients, taking it to be human, tries to comfort herself by cuddling Murderbot, to the bot’s horror, and on the whole the mix of serious and amusing is just about perfect.

Artificial Condition, like its predecessor, All Systems Red, is a fast and fun read, and Murderbot is probably the only killer robot I’d ever be willing to follow through the galaxy.  Introduce yourself to the series, and you’ll probably agree.

 

THE WORST PANDEMIC IN HISTORY: PALE RIDER

As those of us who have been doing the 2018 Reading Challenge know, one of the categories is to read a book involving biology (which is deliberately a very broad category, encompassing science fiction, classics, books about wildlife, bacteria, dinosaurs, pretty much you name it).  I’ve just finished, and highly recommend, a new nonfiction book involving biology: Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, by Laura Spinney.

While the so-called Spanish Flu was one of the worst diseases that has struck humanity in recorded history (if not THE worst), causing casualties of between 50 and 100 million in a span of two years, most people don’t know much about it, and it’s been pretty much ignored in history books and classes over the years, not to mention popular science books.  It’s long been a fascination of mine, the way you’re fascinated by something so terrible and so inexplicable you can’t really imagine what it must have been like. Spinney does a good job of explaining it, to the extent we can explain what caused it and how it struck all over the world, how certain people suffered just the symptoms of a regular seasonal flu and others were killed within weeks, if not days.

There were a number of reasons why this particular strain of flu was so deadly and so devastating.  It was a different kind of flu strain than previous ones, so people who had some immunity to more common strains were vulnerable to this one.  It hit the world in the later part of World War I, when public health systems were already strained in dealing with the injured from the wars and public institutions were disrupted, when armies unwittingly created perfect viral mixing pools by bringing together people from all over the country and throwing them together in tight quarters for periods of time.  Because of wartime restrictions on news, details of the spread of the disease within a country were hard to find out, and officials tried to make decisions about quarantines and the like without much information. The state of medical knowledge in 1918 was fairly primitive, too; the germ theory was still fairly new, and the concept of viruses was hard for anyone to believe.  There were no drugs that could help; even the new wonder drug, aspirin, was useless in combating the ravages this influenza worked on the human body (most of the deaths were due to the victim’s body’s immune system overreacting to the threat, in what’s known as the cytokine storm).

Spinney admits when there are gaps in our information. For instance, we don’t even know for sure where the flu originated (though we can be confident it wasn’t in Spain; the reason it’s known as Spanish Flu is because Spain, as a neutral country in WWI, didn’t have the restrictions on its press that combatant countries did, so when the death toll was reported from Spain, people assumed that was where the disease started).  She lays out the arguments for its origin in France, in China and — yes — even in the United States. For a number of reasons, we don’t know who Patient Zero was, or how the disease first struck humans. We’re also guessing about the number of casualties globally, because of gaps in the records, lack of reports from some areas, and the difficulty physicians had in diagnosing the flu in places where people already suffered from cholera and typhus and the like.  We do know it struck all over the world, with India’s death toll extraordinarily high, for instance.

The book is vivid and well-researched, well-written and clear.  She avoids sensationalism (though this is one disease you could certainly be sensational about), and discusses the effects of the influenza on human history (though there were times in that section where I felt she was reaching a little to make her point).  If you have any interest in the history of one of the worst diseases that ever hit humanity, Pale Rider is a great place to start.

TOUGH GUYS, MYSTERIOUS DAMES . . .AND ALIENS: NOIR

If you’ve never read Christopher Moore, you don’t know what you’ve been missing.  His books are hard to explain, funny but kind of warped at the same time (for instance, Lamb, a version of the Gospels narrated by Jesus’ childhood pal, Biff, or The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, or Fluke, or I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings, or — a personal favorite of mine — The Stupidest Angel, a Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror).  His latest book, Noir, reads like a Raymond Chandler novel as seen through the lens of Bugs Bunny.  It’s set in 1947 San Francisco, and is populated by bartenders with dark secrets, corrupt police officers, generals trying to get into the exclusive Bohemian Grove, wisecracking beautiful women with secrets of their own, mysterious agents of some kind dressed in black suits and wearing sunglasses all the time, black mamba snakes and, of course, aliens.

If some of these things don’t sound as if they belong in a mystery novel, especially a noir mystery novel, that’s just because you don’t have the imagination Christopher Moore does. Trust me, when you read the book, everything works together in strange and bizarre, but ultimately pretty funny, ways.

The book starts with Sammy, a bartender in a seedy bar, also known as Sammy Two-Toes, who’s got a secret past his boss is holding over his head, discovering said boss dead in a back room of the bar, having been bitten by a black mamba snake that happened to be there because of Sammy.  Oops. And then we go back to the beginning of the story, when Stilton, a gorgeous blonde, strolls into the bar and steals Sammy’s heart (as dames do in this kind of story), and a U.S. Air Force general enters the bar, looking for Sammy’s boss, to see if he can get some wholesome looking women to go to the Bohemian Grove with him, and of course his boss delegates this to Sammy.  

Add in Sammy’s friend, Eddie Moo Shoo (not his real name, of course), and his uncle in Chinatown, add the corrupt cop, Pookie O’Hara, who’s looking for trouble and finds it, add in Myrtle,  a friend of Stilton’s (a/k/a The Cheese), and Myrtle’s special cross-dressing girlfriend, and a slew of other strange and quirky characters, one narrator who’s not human, and an alien, and you have the makings of a very complicated and funny story.

Between money-making schemes involving venomous snakes, racist police officers getting what they have coming to them, flying saucers seen over the Pacific coast, bizarre rituals at retreats for the rich and powerful, and cross-country chases with an alien in tow, the plot twists and turns, the cast of characters increases and becomes increasingly odd, but Moore keeps all the balls in the air surprisingly well, and fills the book with wisecracks and atmosphere, leading to a satisfying ending (with an epilogue explaining how much of the book is based on actual facts).

For an entertaining jaunt through post war San Francisco with a somewhat warped point of view, check out Noir.  Trench coat is optional.

 

JO NESBO AND MACBETH: A MARRIAGE MADE IN HELL

In the last three years, the Hogarth Shakespeare series has presented a number of books by modern authors writing their versions of different Shakespeare plays, including Shylock Is My Name (The Merchant of Venice), New Boy (Othello), The Gap of Time (A WInter’s Tale), Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew), Hag Seed (The Tempest), and Dunbar (King Lear). It’s a really cool idea, and I’ve written about those books before, but without (I blush to confess) having actually READ any of them.

HOWEVER, when I discovered some months ago (a perq of being in charge of ordering new fiction for the library is getting advance notice of what’s coming out) that Jo Nesbo, of all people, was doing a version of Macbeth, of all plays, I’m sure I started squeeing like a demented fangirl.  We all know how I feel about Jo Nesbo’s books, especially the Harry Hole series, and not only is Macbeth my favorite Shakespeare play (and yes, I know what that says about me), but putting that dark and violent play in the hands of Jo Nesbo, whose books are INCREDIBLY dark and violent, struck me as so absolutely perfect I could barely wait for the book to come out on April 10.  You’d better believe I put a hold on it as soon as humanly possible, and I was the first person to get her hands on the Peekskill copy of the book.

Now I’ve finished reading it and the obvious question is, was it everything I so breathlessly hoped it would be?

The answer is a resounding yes.

One of the interesting things about a modernized version of Shakespeare is that you know the plot. Especially with a plot-driven play like Macbeth, that means you know, the first time you see a major character (Banquo, Duncan, etc.), whether he’s going to be killed or not (spoiler: most of them are killed), which adds a certain poignance to the early scenes with the doomed character and makes the character’s death all the more horrible.

In Nesbo’s version, the setting is an unnamed city in the 1970’s, rather than in the medieval kingdom of Scotland, and most of the characters are police officers (Nesbo playing to his strengths), or criminals of one kind or another.  There are rival drug gangs, one headed by the mysterious and powerful Hecate (those of us who are familiar with the Shakespeare play are raising our eyebrows at the rightness of that), who is doing a certain amount of manipulation behind the scenes to eliminate a too-zealous police commissioner (Duncan) and replace him with a presumably more plaint former head of the local SWAT team (Macbeth). The corruption at all levels of the city’s government and police force, the recent depressing history of the city, and the hopelessness that fills the city are necessary backdrops to the machinations and murders in the forefront of the story.

It is a pleasure to see how Nesbo fills out the characters, giving them backstories and bringing them to vivid (if often terrifying) life. Macbeth here is not married, but is deeply involved with a former prostitute, Lady, who runs the biggest casino in town and who is interested in expanding her empire.  Macbeth himself was an orphan with some dark secrets in his past (one of which is only disclosed fully close to the climax of the book), and Lady has some terrible secrets in her past as well. One of Macbeth’s sort-of secrets (known to several other characters) is that he was addicted to the potent local drug Brew before he became a police officer.  When the time comes for him to kill Duncan, he can only do it under the influence of Brew, which he takes for the first time after having been clean for years (and let’s give it up for Nesbo’s terrific depiction of addiction and falling off the wagon, something we’ve seen him write so vividly about with Harry Hole). Macbeth’s gradual return to drugs over the course of the book doesn’t make his behavior any less reprehensible, but it helps us understand it a little better.

This is Jo Nesbo, and so I shouldn’t have to warn you that there is a LOT of violence in this book, depicted in bloodcurdling, graphic detail.  I personally feel that Shakespeare would have approved of some of the more gory moments in Macbeth, and would have gone that far himself if he’d been able to do so.  If you have a weak stomach or are prone to nightmares based on material in books, this probably wouldn’t be a good book for you, but you wouldn’t be interested in anything by Jo Nesbo anyway if you fell in those categories.

Noting the parallels between the Nesbo version and the Shakespeare version of the story is a real pleasure of the book; Nesbo is very inventive and clever in translating some of the details of Shakespeare’s play into his 1970’s world.  The witches, the ghosts, Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking, McDuff’s “not of woman born,” and yes, even Great Birnam Wood Come to Dunsinane all show up in altered versions in this book (Birnam Wood is especially cleverly done).

You know how the story is going to end, and Nesbo doesn’t deviate from the book there (or in any of the other murders). He manages what might, in other hands, be extremely difficult: he brings Macbeth into the modern world without sacrificing suspense or horror.

And now if he would only write another Harry Hole novel. . .

 

FAIRY TALES TURNED VERY DARK

It seems appropriate that, so soon after I put up the display, lists, and post about the adult fairy tale category for this year’s Reading Challenge, The Field Library acquired The Merry Spinster, by Mallory Ortberg, which is a collection of very dark short stories based on various famous or less famous fairy tales (and children’s stories, which I’ll get to in a minute).  It’s a quick read, but be warned: all of the stories are warped, and some of them are quite disturbing.

Do you need to know the original stories in order to appreciate The Merry Spinster? No, though you probably are at least generally aware of the outlines of such stories as The Little Mermaid (here told as “The Daughter Cells”), The Wind in the Willows (here “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad”), or “The Frog Princess” (here “The Frog’s Princess”).  As with any retellings of famous stories, you are of course better able to appreciate the new version if you’re familiar with the original, but you can read these stories without a lot of knowledge of their source material.

And what stories they are!  Some of them, like “The Daughter Cells,” just take the original story and look at it through a completely different lens: consider what a mermaid would really be like and exactly how she might view humankind, keeping in mind that creatures that live underwater might not have such a human-oriented point of view.  “Fear Not: An Incident Log,” told by an angel who had various tasks to fulfill in the time of the Bible, seems perfectly reasonable until you get to the end (the angel’s encounter with Jacob), and think about the twist in the story and what it means for the future.

Though these stories are creepy, they’re not really “horror” as I see them. Some of them, though, are genuinely scary and even haunting.  For instance, The Velveteen Rabbit was one of my favorite books as a child, and Ortberg’s version, “The Rabbit,” follows the original fairly closely and then diverges to absolutely ruin my memory of the original, turning it into something nightmarishly chilling. Similarly, I always had a soft spot in my heart for Mr. Toad from The Wind in the Willows, and “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad” here would make anyone scared of Rat and Mole and Badger and horribly sympathetic to poor Toad.

If you don’t mind having some really creepy dreams, and you enjoy looking at famous stories from different angles, and you have a dark sensibility, then by all means give The Merry Spinster a read.  Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

A DIFFERENT KIND OF FIRST ENCOUNTER: SEMIOSIS

If you would like to experience a new and unique perspective on the cliche of “humans colonizing a different world and encountering aliens there”, I heartily recommend the book Semiosis, by Sue Burke.

The colonists fleeing a dying earth and finding their way to a planet they name Pax happen to land on the wrong planet, not the one they were aiming for, but in the circumstances they decide to make a go of it here even though it’s not ideal (few of the minerals they need to keep their machinery running can be found on this planet, and the gravity is greater than they’re used to).  The world, described in great and enlightening detail, is very strange to the colonists. They’re prepared to deal with potentially dangerous and hostile animals, but it takes a real effort of imagination for them to realize that the most dangerous and potentially hostile beings on this planet are the plants, and that their only hope of surviving is to ally themselves with the right plants.

The book proceeds by generations. Each chapter is told by a different narrator, from a later generation than the one who narrated the last one, though one of the characters, Stevland, a rainbow bamboo who develops from a completely strange being into a citizen, and even a moderator of the colony, shows up in a few chapters, his* perspective changing over time and as a result of his interactions with other moderators.

The humans’ interactions with Stevland are fraught and complicated, partly because it’s difficult for humans to understand what Stevland is really trying to do. He helps them tremendously, providing them with food and with necessary supplements to keep them healthy or to help them solve some of their physical problems, but that ability to help them by adding things to their food could also allow Stevland to make them passive slaves or to change their personalities altogether.  How much can they trust him when he’s so different from them? The pull between survival, albeit in a sort of symbiotic relationship with a plant, and independence, albeit with the potential for utter destruction, plays out in different ways over generations.

One of the threads that runs through the book is the Glassmakers, another alien species which preceded the humans on Pax, developed a relationship with Stevland and then abandoned him and the elaborate and beautiful city they’d built. Who were they?  Why had they left? Are they still around? Can humans and Glassmakers live harmoniously together?

The world-building in this book is outstanding. Everything works together, even as most of the things are different in fundamental ways from their closest equivalents on earth. The intrusion of the humans (and the Glassmakers) into this ecosystem causes a major upheaval that takes generations to work out. What I really liked about this book, and why I recommend it so heartily, is the characters, the human beings (and no matter how the planet and Stevland change them, they are still recognizably and relatably human beings) and Stevland, their attempts to deal with their unusual circumstances, and their struggles to remain true to their principles as those principles are tested by a world so different from the world in which the principles were incubated.

 

*Stevland chooses his gender, as he chooses the name the humans use for him.

ADULT FAIRY TALES: NEW VISIONS, NEW PERSPECTIVES

As many of you know, I am running this year’s Field Library Reading Challenge, the purpose of which is to encourage people to get acquainted with different aspects of the library’s collection and stretch our reading horizons.  From time to time I’ll write about a category here, to give a little more information and insight about what’s good, what I love, in that category (why yes, I did choose some of the categories because they’re the types of books I love myself — why do you ask?). I already did that for Time Travel Books here, and now I’m going to talk about Adult Fairy Tales and some of my personal favorites in this category.

I could almost have filled an entire category with Neil Gaiman’s books; one of the things he’s really good at is creating his own versions of fairy tales, either new takes on old stories (e.g., The Sleeper and the Spindle, which is awesome) or stories of his own which feel like fairy tales (e.g., Neverwhere, which was also made into an excellent BBC mini series).  His collections of short stories include quirky and often dark takes on famous fairy tales, too, so if you’re a short story fan, do check out his collections.  But for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on one of my all-time favorites of his, the excellent (and surprisingly short) The Ocean at the End of the Lane.  I’m not usually a fan of the “framing story”, where the real story is being told by a character in the story, who intrudes at the beginning and the end; I usually find that a clumsy device and think the framing part could be excised easily without any damage to the story. HOWEVER, in this particular case, the framing story really works, and adds depth and poignance to the story you’ve already read.  I don’t want to tell you too much about the plot because I don’t want to spoil it for you.  A middle aged man returns to the scene of his childhood home and remembers an extraordinary period of his life, when terrifying forces converged on his family and the only people who were capable of saving him and his family were three women, a girl who’s apparently his age, an adult woman and an old woman who claims to remember the Big Bang itself.  Gaiman’s prose is gorgeous, his grasp of myth and archetype is amazing, and this is just a terrific book all around.

A very different, but equally wonderful, book is Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, which takes place in a vividly rendered New York City at the turn of the 19th century to the 20th.  Chava is a golem, created by a Polish rabbi who died while he was transporting her with him to America. Ahmad is a jinni, a fire spirit from Syria, only recently released from the bottle that imprisoned him.  The two of them meet and develop an unlikely but poignant relationship as each of them navigates his or her way through their respective cultures and tries to find out his or her origin and purpose in this world.  The book focuses on Yiddish and Middle Eastern folklore, not the usual stuff of fairy tales we’re familiar with, and brings these very different and very unusual characters to life.  

Alaska in the 1920’s doesn’t seem like a likely setting for a fairy tale, but once you’ve read Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, you’ll change your mind. The setting is unusual, but the storyline, about a couple who long for a child of their own and can’t have one the usual way until they build themselves a child out of snow, which then seems to create a real live child, is classic fairy tale stuff. The child, who seems to be a part of the wilderness herself, calls herself Faina, and Jack and Mabel, the couple at the heart of the story, come to love her as if she were their own child, born to them.  However, she isn’t really their child; there’s more to her than any of them know, and as Jack and Mabel discover, fairy tales don’t always end with happily ever after.  This is a book with a wonderful sense of place (a great book to read in the hottest part of summer, because I guarantee you’ll feel cooler just reading it) and a poignant plot with believable characters.

And then there’s Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, which is the kind of book you dive into and forget your surroundings while you become absorbed in the world of the book. While the main plot of the book concerns Celia and Marco, two young magicians who have been trained practically from birth to be rivals but who find themselves falling in love with each other (to the consternation of their mysterious mentors), it is the circus world in which they live that really stays with you after you finish the book.  The circus itself is mysterious and wondrous, appearing without warning in a place and then disappearing just as quickly, only open at night, and filled with the most amazing things, the sort of acts and displays you will never find anywhere else. There’s magic here, in the plot, in the descriptions of the circus, in the whole world Morgenstern’s created, and yes, there is a very satisfying ending (though I’m not sure I would go as far as to say it’s a Happily Ever After ending, all things considered).  A book club favorite and an absorbing read, The Night Circus is the best kind of adult fairy tale.