Tag Archive | book review

What I’ve Been Reading: Christmas Edition

Merry Christmas! It’s the last Wednesday of the year, so if I was going to get in any more blog posts in 2019, it was going to have to be today. Here are a few things I’ve read and loved recently:

“Away With the Wolves” by Sarah Gailey: This short story in Uncanny features a beautiful, tender, already established best friendship between two girls who understand each other and look out for each other in large and small ways and love each other deeply. Its triumphant ending shows how sometimes you can break free from self-imposed restrictions and dare to seize everything you want. I read it twice this fall, and I can see it being a story I return to again and again.

“As You Know, Bob” by Jeannette Ng: There were many bits I liked in this Uncanny article about the place of telling (vs. showing) in speculative fiction, especially for authors writing from a culture their readers may not be familiar with. I particularly appreciated this line about how, say, writers of Chinese heritage may not be explaining things just for a Western audience but also for each other: “We don’t all have the same story, the same traditions, nor the same cultural touchstones, despite sometimes sharing a nominal sourceland.” This rang so true to me. I’m Chinese, and I have friends who are Chinese, but our Chinese cultural heritage is not always the same, and so I’ve learned many things from them. Similarly, what I write about being Chinese-American may not be familiar to all Chinese-Americans. I also like the part about how we often engage in telling not to convey new information but rather to build a story and a relationship. It can be lovely to reminisce with friends about past shared experiences, and families often tell the same stories over and over again, sometimes because people clamor to hear them once more.

“Windrose in Scarlet” by Isabel Yap (who I first read on The Book Smugglers): I loved this dark and violent and tender and hopeful fairy tale mashup in Lightspeed. It’s about finding love and fighting curses and taking care of each other and also just…recognition. I think I want to read this one again too.

The Stars and the Darkness Between Them by Junauda Petrus: I usually can’t resist YA novels set in Minnesota (Minneapolis, in this case), and I loved the vibrant community Petrus brings to life in her début. The families and the friends are so great. Also, I thought I saw this book described as a romance (maybe I’m mistaken?), but it didn’t really feel like one to me. It is about romantic love, sure, but what stuck out the most to me, in a good way, was the focus on all the gestures, small and large, of deep friendship. This book is partly about how to be there for someone through the worst days of their life. It will probably make you sad and happy.

The Dark Is Rising

There was a point in elementary school when it seemed like everyone was reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence, and somehow I never did. The other week, I decided to rectify that. I was at the library, and The Dark Is Rising caught my eye. Only later did I realize the first book in the series is actually Over Sea, Under Stone, but The Dark Is Rising works as a standalone.

A few things struck me as I was reading. First, The Dark Is Rising is a great snow book, and more specifically, a great Christmas book. I really read it at the wrong time of year (and in the wrong climate). Second, it was rather extraordinary that so many Old Ones should just happen to be around in this one village in Buckinghamshire. Everyone from the lady of the manor to the smith to the farmer down the road…

Third, and most significantly, The Dark Is Rising really reminded me of Madeleine L’Engle. Both she and Susan Cooper published their most famous books around the same time (the 1960s and 1970s). Both authors write about special children in warm, well-adjusted, close-knit families. In both The Dark Is Rising and L’Engle’s Time Quartet, there is a cosmic battle being waged between Good and Evil, but it’s not very clear why or why Good is Good and Evil is Evil. The protagonists are sort of swept along in events they mostly don’t understand, guided along the way by mysterious adult figures who speak cryptically of a vague, larger context. Also, Cooper and L’Engle both draw on various mythologies to enrich their worlds.

The Dark Is Rising felt like an older kind of fantasy for children (which it is), a kind that I find in some ways unsatisfying. Will never seemed to struggle to master any of his new powers. He would be attacked by some force of the Dark and manage to overcome it just by holding up his collection of Signs. As for the Signs themselves, they just kept getting dropped into his lap. He doesn’t have to solve any puzzles to find them; he hardly even has to seek them out. He also doesn’t seem to direct much of the action. Old Ones just keep showing up and telling him, or taking him, where he needs to go next. On the other hand, I gradually found myself really enjoying the book, especially Will’s relationship with his family. Of course, it might just have been all the snow.

What I’ve Been Reading: End of Summer Edition

eleanor

My talented friend Ann (a fellow linguist and Georgian chorister) drew this for me!

Scattered thoughts on some books I’ve read in the latter part of the summer (if you want to know what these books are actually about, this is probably not the post for you):

Hild by Nicola Griffith

A tour-de-force. That is all.

Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire

This book strikes me as being truly suitable for all ages, which I think is a rare thing. It would also lend itself really well to being read aloud. Family road trip or bedtime reading book? Here is a pair of quotes I particularly liked:

“One should see the world, and see himself, as a scale with an equal balance of good and evil. When he does one good deed, the scale is tipped to the good — he and the world are saved. When he does one evil deed, the scale is tipped to the bad — he and the world are destroyed.’”

“Interesting. Who said that, your grandmother?”

“Maimonides. The great Jewish scholastic.”

“I didn’t know you read Jewish philosophers.”

“It is said, ‘You must accept the truth from whatever source it comes.’”

“And who said that?”

“Also Maimonides.”

A conversation between Brother Uri and the Tsar

“As an old friend of mine once said when I brought him some interesting brownies, ‘You must accept the truth from whatever source it comes,’ she replied. ‘Haven’t you read your Maimonides?'”

Baba Yaga to Brother Uri, in the presence of the Tsar

All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry

I really liked this book, but I was distracted by the mechanics of Judith relearning to talk. How much of her tongue did she have left? Was it really realistic for her to recover the ability to make coronal sounds?

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

Wow, this was so good. It reminded me of In the Shadow of Blackbirds and A Northern Light, both books I love.

The Birthmarked Trilogy by Caragh O’Brien

This exceeded my expectations and was really enjoyable. The dystopia(s) felt more realistic and stretched credulity less than most. I also liked that the heroine was a midwife instead of a natural fighter who spends ages training in martial arts.

A Georgian Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year was last Thursday, and we ushered in the Year of the Sheep (or Goat, depending on your preference). I spent the early evening at our Georgian chorus’s arch sing, which was a sort of public rehearsal to generate interest in our upcoming concert. We sang under a vault in the arcade of Royce Hall, one of UCLA’s venerable Romanesque buildings. I don’t know how many passersby we attracted, but it was fun to sing in an arch, even if the unfamiliar acoustics sometimes wreaked havoc on our ensemble.

Afterward, my roommate and fellow Georgian chorister and I went home and cooked a large batch of fried rice with peas, egg, and Chinese sausage. Then we unearthed some haw flakes her parents had brought her from Singapore a rather long time ago and called them dessert. I have nostalgic feelings toward haw flakes because I associate them with my great-grandmother feeding them to me.

Speaking of Chinese culture, I recently finished The Three-Body Problem by Chinese author Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu. (Look at me, reading adult science fiction!) It was excellent. On the whole, it is not a funny book, but there were two passages I found very amusing. The second (up first, because it’s less funny) appears when Newton and Von Neumann are about to witness the first test of the human computer they helped Emperor Qin Shi Huang create (it makes sense in the book):

The guard knelt and handed the sword to the emperor. Qin Shi Huang lifted the sword to the sky, and shouted, “Computer Formation!” (214)

The first, possibly spoilery, is from declassified documents about China’s attempts to contact extraterrestrials:

Message to Extraterrestrial Civilizations

First Draft [Complete Text]

Attention, you who have received this message! This message was sent out by a country that represents revolutionary justice on Earth! Before this, you may have already received other messages sent from the same direction. Those messages were sent by an imperialist superpower on this planet. …We hope you will not listen to their lies. Stand with justice, stand with the revolution!

[Instructions from Central Leadership] This is utter crap! It’s enough to put up big-character posters everywhere on the ground, but we should not send them into space. (171)

 

Pancakes and Greenglass House

These are the pancakes we ate last night for Shrove Tuesday. (If I’d made crêpes, I would have called it Mardi Gras.)

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The other day I finished reading Kate Milford’s middle grade mystery Greenglass House. I loved it and highly recommend it. Among other things, it’s definitely earned a place among my favorite snow books. (Those of you in the Northeast may not feel like reading a book about a snowed-in inn just now, but I have to enjoy my snow vicariously.)

Greenglass House is the name of the inn run by the Pine family. It stands on a cliff above the town of Nagspeake, overlooking the river Skidwrack (those names!), and it is mostly frequented by smugglers. Milo Pine, who is adopted and Chinese, is just beginning his winter break and expects to spend a quiet Christmas holiday in an empty inn with his parents. Instead, five guests arrive in quick succession on a snowy evening until Greenglass House is positively crowded. And then it keeps snowing. And sleeting. And snowing.

This book combines two great premises: a household snowed in and a collection of eccentric characters who are all harboring secrets. Mysterious things start to happen right away, and Milo, along with Meddy, the daughter of the inn’s cook, follow clues that lead to revelations about the various guests, the history of Greenglass House, and the most famous smuggler of Nagspeake. Meanwhile, the snow is beautiful, the house is cozy (at least until the power goes out), and the characters drink a new mug of hot chocolate in practically every chapter.

Greenglass House reminded me a bit of The Seventh Cousin by Florence Laughlin, a book I suspect is out of print. Like The Snowstorm, it was one of my mother’s Weekly Reader books from when she was a child. In The Seventh Cousin, three children living in an apartment building called the Tower Arms investigate a mystery related to the heiress of the building. It has a similar feel to Greenglass House in that the action is confined to a single house whose residents form the cast of characters, and the young protagonists interact a lot with adults both benevolent and duplicitous.

Dragons Upon Dragons

I just finished reading two very different dragon books, one right after the other. The first was Rebecca Hahn’s A Creature of Moonlight. What a gorgeous book! It’s a quiet novel with rather little dialogue, which you’d think might make it a slow read, but instead it reads like water, if that makes any sense. The words just flow by. It’s poetic without being flowery.

There was a notable passage that struck me as directly addressing a certain pressing issue in our world. See if you can guess which one I mean:

“Do you know what it is, lady, that’s…making the woods close in on us?”

I shake my head. “I don’t know.”

“It’s just–it seems no one actually cares. Everyone talks of it, sure, but the next moment it’s gone clean out of their heads, as if it doesn’t exist. And if the dragon’s really coming, well, we’ll all be sorry for it, won’t we?”

She looks so concerned, so sure that something ought to be done about this, and sure that I am the one who’ll know what to do. “In my experience,” I say, “there’s nothing we’re better at than pretending things don’t exist. We think if we pretend long and hard enough, the things will disappear. …We can push it out of our heads again and again, but it won’t make no difference in the end. The woods will keep on coming. The dragon will appear. We’ll walk half blind, thinking we’re safe, and one day we’ll turn and he’ll be there, right beside us, waiting.”

I don’t know if this exchange was intended to be commentary on climate change, but it certainly lends itself easily to such a reading. That said, the novel as a whole is not, to me, an environmental parable. It’s a story of self-knowledge and self-determination.

The second dragon book was The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim by E. K. Johnston, a 2014 Morris Award finalist. It was fantastic. And hilarious, while still being heartfelt. I loved the dragon-inflected alternate history. Basically, this is our world but with dangerous dragons. Everything from the lives of Eloise and Abelard to the history of 20th century music is shaped by dragons, and, you know, Shakespeare “ignored dragons for the most part and set his plays in bizarre alternate universes where dragons were imaginary creatures of significant rarity.” When I got to the following passage, I almost laughed out loud on the bus:

Canada managed to retain a portion of its traditional music, largely thanks to a statute that mandated 40 percent of everything on the radio had to be written by a Canadian [this is apparently true!] or feature a dragon slayer. This allowed for the success of songs like “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which told the story of the attempted rescue-by-dragon-slayer of a tanker’s crew after they were attacked in the middle of Lake Superior.

I have one more thing to say, but look away now if you wish to avoid spoilers! So, throughout the book the characters slew (Johnston uses “slayed,” but it just sounds wrong to me) a number of dragons. Each time it seemed surprisingly easy, and there were no permanent consequences for anyone involved. Thus I was mildly shocked by the extent of Siobhan’s injuries after the climactic last dragon slaying. She is a musician (piano, winds, a bit of brass), and her hands are seriously damaged, so much so that she herself believes she will “never play again.” As a cellist, I found this nightmarish, and I wasn’t expecting Siobhan to end up paying such a high price for the success of their mission.

 

The Language of Food

I just finished reading a Christmas present, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu by Dan Jurafsky. Dan Jurafsky is a linguistics professor at Stanford whose work I had previously read in a research context. The Language of Food is a delightful and highly readable exploration of the history and etymology of various foods. It was less linguisticky than I was expecting (computational analyses of online menu and restaurant review corpora and an introduction to front and back vowels notwithstanding), but this was not a disappointment because there was just so much to savor. Like recipes gleaned from almost every era in history, from a description of how to brew beer from 1800 BCE to Emily Dickinson’s recipe for “Cocoanut Cake”. If you’re someone who likes to discover the connections between words (and if you like to eat!), you’d probably love this book. You can get a taste for Jurafsky’s approach in this New York Times piece.

A few tidbits I found particularly interesting: I started The Language of Food right after finishing Ancillary Sword, in which the characters drink an alcoholic beverage called arrack. I thought Ann Leckie had made it up. So imagine my surprise when a mere 2 pages into Jurafsky’s book I encountered a reference to arrack, the liquor, which is very much of our world. I also learned that ketchup is originally Chinese (both the word and the condiment, though it might be a stretch to say that about the condiment). I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised; isn’t everything originally Chinese? (Aside: I used to think catsup was a general term and ketchup a brand name that had been genericized, though in retrospect this doesn’t make much sense.)

Jurafsky talks about the confusion over the bird we call the turkey. Though I knew the French word for turkey was dinde, I didn’t realize this was from d’Inde, meaning “from India”. And then when I read that Europeans mixed up the American turkey and the West African guinea fowl, it struck me that there had to be a connection to the fact that in French “guinea pig” is “cochon [pig] d’Inde”.

Jurafsky also devotes a chapter to sound symbolism and food names, specifically brand names. Sound symbolism is the idea that there is some inherent, possibly iconic, link between the forms of words and their meanings. The most commonly discussed pattern is the association of front vowels (like [i] in see, [ɪ] in thin) with smallness and back vowels (like [u] in moo, [o] in go) with bigness. I once went to a talk by the linguist and fieldworker Claire Bowern on this very topic in Australian languages. Coming back to food, Jurafsky found that names for ice creams (think rich, creamy, heavy) tended to have a lot of back vowels while names for crackers (think light and crisp) tended to have a lot of front vowels.

Anyway, just reflecting on this book is making me hungry, so I’ll stop there.