The World Between Two Covers
by Ann Morgan
Published May, 2015
From Goodreads: A beguiling exploration of the joys of reading across boundaries, inspired by the author’s year-long journey through a book from every country.
Following an impulse to read more internationally, journalist Ann Morgan undertook first to define “the world” and then to find a story from each of 196 nations. Tireless in her quest and assisted by generous, far-flung strangers, Morgan discovered not only a treasury of world literature but also the keys to unlock it. Whether considering the difficulties faced by writers in developing nations, movingly illustrated by Burundian Marie-Thérese Toyi’s Weep Not, Refugee; tracing the use of local myths in the fantastically successful Samoan YA series Telesa; delving into questions of censorship and propaganda while sourcing a title from North Korea; or simply getting hold of The Corsair, the first Qatari novel to be translated into English, Morgan illuminates with wit, warmth, and insight how stories are written the world over and how place-geographical, historical, virtual-shapes the books we read and write.
I first heard about this book after watching Ann Morgan’s TED Talkabout her literary adventure. She realized one day that most of the books she read were by British or American authors and wondered what she was missing out on, so she set out to read a book from every country- 196 of them- in one year. Some things were easy to find, others were extremely difficult, and in the process she encountered issues such as censorship and what makes a person a citizen of ‘Country X’ if they are immigrants or living in exile.
Morgan’s story inspired me to start reading books from other countries, and it’s been interesting (in a good way!) so far. I’ve read Ukranian satires (The Master and Margarita), dark stories about conflicts between siblings and even deeper inner conflicts from South Korea (I Have the Right to Destroy Myself). I have a long way to go, but it’s going to be a fantastic journey.
This week was an example of best plaid plans going somewhat awry. Not awry in a terrible way. More like, “I planned to do this, but I guess I’m going to do this other thing instead”. Part of it was due to the weather, which went mad with storms on Thursday and Friday, with Friday’s storm throwing hail, heavy rains, wind gusts of up to 88mph (100mph in Omaha, where several houses were destroyed), and a small tornado that touched down just three blocks from my apartment! Three blocks! And the tornado sirens didn’t go off!
Luckily, it was a very small tornado and touched down in an open field that belongs to the University’s agricultural college, so there was no damage. Around town, a lot of trees, tree branches, and power lines were downed and a lot of people lost electricity. It was not as bad as it could have been, though. No one was injured, even though this was a huge storm system that swept across the entire eastern section of the state.
Yesterday was thunderstorm-free, though it was cloudy all day and started raining off and on again. I had made plans to see the Flatwater Shakespeare Company’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor at a park near where I work, but I decided not to because of the rain. It’s an outdoor production, so lousy weather is definitely a factor. Fortunately, it’s running for another couple of weeks, so I have more chances to see it.
Hence, ‘the best laid plans of mice’:
I went to the theater to see two movies this week! That’s more than I usually see in a month! First off was A Quiet Passion starring Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle.
This was an odd movie. It had a stellar cast and beautiful locations, but it was presented and shot very strangely. The actors spoke in turn without interrupting each other, even when they were angry, like they were in a play instead of a film. And while the language was period appropriate and went right along with the costumes and sets, it sounded strange coming out of their mouths. So while it was good overall, I don’t think I’d recommend A Quiet Passion unless you are a die-hard Emily Dickinson fan.
I had to take my car in for a lengthy repair on my day off, and because Panera prefers to refrigerate their customers, I decided not to stick around and read like I had planned to do. Fortunately, there was a movie theater nearby, so I decided to go see a movie instead of slowly freezing to death while reading at Panera.
The movie I saw:
Let me start by saying that I hadn’t intended to see this when it came out. When they announced it way back, I thought, “Oh. Another superhero movie. Great”. I was going to let it pass me by, when I saw a post about it online regarding the fact that it stars a woman and is directed by a woman (and also, the screenwriter is a gay guy). The commenter stated that seeing Wonder Woman was like having the scales fall off her eyes regarding superhero movies. Finally, she said, there’s a superhero who isn’t being portrayed specifically for the male gaze. It’s not all T&A, or stick-thin actresses in corsets and stiletto heels. Here, the Amazons are powerful women with a range of skin color and body types, all of them with actual muscles, looking like they could wade into a battle and kick everyone’s ass. And who was leading them? Hippolyta, played by Robin Wright, a 51 year old woman in an action role in Hollywood where women are considered ‘old’ when they hit 30.
And can we talk about Gal Gadot as Diana? Another woman with muscles! And she’s not a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl with an All-American accent. She’s obviously from ‘somewhere else’ (aka Themyscira), and that’s the way it should be. She’s an Amazon warrior. She shouldn’t sound like she’s from Iowa. Her armor, too, fits the character. The short skirt and sleeveless top don’t seem like they’re meant to show off her body so much as to mimic the armor of ancient Greek warriors. You know, like the Spartans who held off the massive Persian army long enough to let the rest of the Greek city-states gather to defend their homeland. And maybe there were a couple of missteps in the film, but they weren’t enough to bother me. I loved Wonder Woman.
Something else notable… the battle scenes- with the Amazons on the beach of Themyscira, and later with Diana charging the German forces by herself- honestly made me cry. Not because some syrupy emotional element had been added in, or because I was scared that Diana was going to die or anything like that. It was because- finally– there is a portrayal of a woman warrior who can lead the charge, wield a weapon as well as any man, and fight for what she believes in without needing a man to speak for her or defend her. I didn’t realize how much that would mean to me, or how it really has been lacking in Hollywood. Historically, women have been warriors. Viking, Anglo-Saxon, Sarmatian, and other cultures I can’t think of right now have graves of warrior women that have been found, and more will be revealed as archaeologists and historians go back and test the DNA of the bones found in previously unearthed graves.
Diana, Princess of Themyscira, might have been an anomaly when she was first dreamed up, but history is coming to show that she is not such a lonely figure after all.
Now, onto books! I finished Dava Sobel’s The Glass Universe, Roshani Chokhi’s The Star-Touched Queen, and Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. The Glass Universe brings many women scientists out of obscurity and describes how their work- often derided as mere drudgery- was truly revolutionary and in many ways laid down the foundations of modern astronomy. Thanks to Edward Pickering, who hired the first women at his observatory at Harvard, many women were able to get their start and contribute to the study of the stars.
Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything is pretty much that. He discusses nearly every branch of science, goes into their history and talks about the various scientists (and their oddities) who contributed to their fields, and discusses the field itself. Physics, quantum physics, biology, chemistry, geology and others all get their say in this book, which is written with the same sort of wry humor as the other books I’ve read by Bryson.
I’m still working on Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale, which I had to put aside for a bit so I could finish up A Short History of Nearly Everything before it was due back at the library. I’m looking forward to delving further into The Bear and the Nightingale! I haven’t gotten any further into Glen Cook’s The Black Company. I’ll try to get through more of it this week.
My pottery class is going well. It helps that we all have a background in art and have done at least some work on the potter’s wheel, so the teacher isn’t have to start with the “What is clay?” lecture. We dove right in, and the technique mostly came back, even though it’s been years since I had a lump of clay in my hands. The next class is tomorrow night, where we’ll learn about trimming pots.
David duChemin is a photographer I’ve been following for a few years now. I’m not sure how I came across his blog, Pixelated Image, but after reading a few posts, I quickly decided that I could learn a lot about taking pictures from him. I’ve had a camera in hand to one degree or another for the past twenty years, so I’m familiar with aperture and shutter speed, while my long education in art has given me a solid grounding in things like composition and lighting. And yet, before I came across duChemin, I couldn’t find very many books or blogs that talked about more than just the technical skills I had already learned. My photography skills had plateaued, and finding someone who could push me past that was a challenge.
duChemin’s photography motto is this: “Gear is good, but vision is better”. It’s a philosophy I agree with whole-heartedly after dealing with many, many people who think that photography is all about megapixels and focal length. Yes, those are aspects that you need to learn to make successful photographs, but the technical parts aren’t the be-all-end-all. The different between a good photograph and a great photograph is the emotion it captures- how does it make you feel? what story is being told? do your photographs show what you were feeling about your subject? It’s an approach that has truly helped me to make better photographs in the past few years.
The Soul of the Camera came out recently, and after dithering about ordering a copy for a few weeks, I decided to just go ahead and get it.
I haven’t gotten very far into it, but so far, the points that duChemin has been making resonate with me. It’ll be exciting to get all the way through it and see how it affects my work in the future.
“It is we who put the humanity, the vision, and the poetry into our photographs.”
-David DuChemin The Soul of the Camera
I took this photograph last August, during my trip to Ireland. I had arrived that morning after an overnight flight, jet-lagged, giddy with exhaustion, and clueless about what to do before heading to Galway the next day. I found a little tourist attraction built around Bunratty Castle.
One of the things that duChemin encourages photographers to do while traveling is to make connections with the people you’re photographing instead of just walking up to someone, taking their picture, and then wandering off.
I didn’t catch this woman’s name, but she was playing songs from the home countries of the tourists passing by. She played ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ for me, and then invited me into the little house she runs in the Bunratty Folk Village when it started pouring rain. We chatted by the fire for a while, and she played more music for me until the rain stopped, after which I asked if I could take her picture, and she agreed. This was one of my favorite memories and favorite pictures of my trip to Ireland, and it never would have happened if I hadn’t listened to duChemin’s advice.
The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi
Published April, 2016
From Goodreads: Fate and fortune. Power and passion. What does it take to be the queen of a kingdom when you’re only seventeen?
Maya is cursed. With a horoscope that promises a marriage of death and destruction, she has earned only the scorn and fear of her father’s kingdom. Content to follow more scholarly pursuits, her whole world is torn apart when her father, the Raja, arranges a wedding of political convenience to quell outside rebellions. Soon Maya becomes the queen of Akaran and wife of Amar. Neither roles are what she expected: As Akaran’s queen, she finds her voice and power. As Amar’s wife, she finds something else entirely: Compassion. Protection. Desire…
But Akaran has its own secrets—thousands of locked doors, gardens of glass, and a tree that bears memories instead of fruit. Soon, Maya suspects her life is in danger. Yet who, besides her husband, can she trust? With the fate of the human and Otherworldly realms hanging in the balance, Maya must unravel an ancient mystery that spans reincarnated lives to save those she loves the most…including herself.
I’ve seen multiple reviews of this book here and there, always rated very highly, and so I thought I’d give it a try. After a short wait from the library, the eBook showed up on my Nook one day, so off I went into a mythology I am only vaguely acquainted with. I have encountered the Hindu mythos here and there- it’s touched upon in other fantasy novels I’ve read, I’ve heard it spoken about in the various travels shows I’ve watched, and we read a section of the Mahabharata in my Epic Tales class (Classics 389) in college. So Maya’s world wasn’t utterly unfamiliar to me.
But it was still strange. Maya’s horoscope foretold a dark future of death and destruction for her, and so the women she grew up with and around in her father’s palace treated her terribly, blaming virtually every misfortune and death on a girl who, really, had nothing to do with these things.
And yet, there was something odd about her in the way that she smiled or the fact that sometimes her shadow refused to appear when the sun was high. She would frighten her tutors away and sneak off to watch her father as he ruled his lands, content to learn about politics and perhaps someday become a scholar. One day, though, her father declares that Maya must marry, and she will do so within a few days.
The man that Maya ultimately marries is a mystery to her, and he brings her to a strange realm full of locked doors and distant voices. He treats her as an equal, with his only demand being that she must trust him.
Of course, Maya’s trust falters to her misfortune, her husband’s, and perhaps all the worlds above and below.
One of the comments I kept seeing about The Star-Touched Queen was how beautiful the commentors thought the prose was. I agree to a degree. Compared to many of the YA books I have read or tried to read over the past couple of years, the prose is more poetic. Chokshi’s metaphors didn’t sweep me off my feet, though. What kept me reading was Maya and her characterization, and later on, the mystery of the realm she became the queen of- Akaran.
That’s not to say that I didn’t have my moments of, “Maya, don’t be a dingbat… oh, there you go. Being a dingbat. Go figure”. I had several of those. Fortunately, they weren’t so aggravating that they made me want to put the book down. Amar, the king of Akaran, was mysterious enough to make me want to keep reading, if only to find out what he was all about.
From here, we get a bit spoilery, but I don’t know how to best discuss my thoughts without giving away certain plot elements, so here we go.
I realize the whole thing with Nritti was set up early on, but somehow it didn’t quite feel like Nritti’s early, unnamed appearances were part of her story. It felt like she appeared out of nowhere in Akaran.
While I’m aware that reincarnation is part of Hindu beliefs and that it was mentioned in various parts of the book, given that Maya’s realization about her own past lives and how they intertwined with Nritti’s, the occasional mentionings of this idea didn’t meld enough into the story to make Maya’s discovery of her past lives feel completely natural.
I know this is a fantasy, and it is based on various Hindu myths and beliefs, but the section where Maya is going through the kingdom as a sadhvi felt a little like it came from a different book altogether- one that was more of a surrealistic or magical realist story.
I’m not sure how the reunification with her sister Gauri was necessary to the overall, and why Maya was helping her to escape. Her conversation with the old harem-wife felt more relevant to Maya’s journey.
Overall, I did enjoy this book. It was a quick read with interesting characters and locations, but I don’t think it will leave a very deep impression when I look back at the list of books I read this year. There is a second book that just came out, A Crown of Wishes, but the synopsis indicates that it’s about Gauri, not Maya. I’m still trying to decide if I’m interested enough to read that one.
What Lies Between Us by Naomi Munaweera
published February 2016
From Goodreads: From the award-winning author of Island of a Thousand Mirrors comes the confession of a woman, driven by the demons of her past to commit a single and possibly unforgivable crime.
“The walls of my cell are painted an industrial white, like albumen. They must think the color is soothing. Where I come from it connotes absence, death, unrelenting loneliness.”
In the idyllic hill country of Sri Lanka, a young girl grows up with her loving family; but even in the midst of this paradise, terror lurks in the shadows. When tragedy strikes, she and her mother must seek safety by immigrating to America. There the girl must reinvent herself as an American teenager to survive, with the help of her cousin. Both love and loss fill her life, but even as she assimilates and thrives, the secrets and scars of her past follow her into adulthood. In this new country of freedom, everything she has built begins to crumble around her, and her hold on reality becomes more and more tenuous. When the past and the present collide, she sees no other choice than to commit her unforgivable final act. This is her confession.
This is another book I found on my public library’s Pinterest feed that I added to my TBR because I want to read more books from around the world. Given its subject matter, I don’t know if it’s something I’ll read soon. Maybe in the autumn, when it’s not so hot and I feel like tackling stories with heavy subject matter.
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas. Really. It’s been hot this week. I’m sitting here with a big fan about three feet from my face. The high temperatures might be part of the reason I devoured Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman in two days. Thinking of a snowy Norway helps keep my mind off the oncoming summer.
On the bright side, I’m taking a pottery class starting this week. I haven’t touched clay since I was in college, so I’ll be brushing up on some very rusty skills and maybe come out of it with a cup or bowl or two. I’ll keep you posted!
In addition to The Snowman, I finished up Conn Iggulden’s Bloodline and Jacqueline Carey’s Miranda and Caliban.
I am currently reading three books, and I’ll have to start another one pretty soon. I have several eBooks on hold from my library, and they usually auto-download when they come available, so I’ll be minding my business and all of a sudden a book shows up on my phone. The books I’m working on are The Black Company by Glen Cook, The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel, and The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden.Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen is the most recent download.
I’ve read fifty-three pages of The Black Company, and I’m still not sure what I think about it. The characters are certainly interesting, but the plot is flitting around a little, and it’s hard to get a sense of exactly what’s going on, what with all the “that sucked, so we’re going over there. But we found out that it sucked over there, too, so now we’re going here”. I could do with a little more description of the events and the world, honestly, but I’m probably going to give it to page one-hundred before giving up on it.
The Glass Universe is as interesting as Sobel’s other books, but there are so many names to keep track of! Also, I’d thought it would revolve around the women of the story, but there is a lot to do with the men. It makes sense, given that it’s the men who are running the program that hired the women to process and interpret all the information they gathered, but still.
I haven’t really started on The Bear and the Nightingale yet. I glanced at the first page, was intrigued, and then decided that I should work on The Glass Universe on my lunch break today. I haven’t started The Star-Touched Queen at all. I don’t mind being in the midst of four books at once, but I’d like to get my mind made up about The Black Company and get closer to finishing The Glass Universe.
In other news, I ended up with two free tickets to see A Quiet Passion tonight, so I’m taking a friend out for a movie and drinks. Neither of us knows much about it besides the facts that it’s about Emily Dickinson and it’s been very well reviewed.
Brief Gaudy Hour: A Novel of Anne Boleyn
by Margaret Campbell Barnes
originally published in 1949
From Goodreads: The enigmatic Anne Boleyn comes to life in this charming, brilliant portrayal by acclaimed British novelist Margaret Campbell Barnes.
The infamous love of King Henry VIII and the mother of Queen Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn undertook a rocky journey from innocent courtier to powerful Queen of England. A meticulous researcher, Margaret Campbell Barnes immerses readers in this intrigue and in the lush, glittery world of the Tudor Court. The beauty and charms of Anne Boleyn bewitched the most powerful man in the world, King Henry VIII, but her resourcefulness and cleverness were not enough to stop the malice of her enemies. Her swift rise to power quickly became her own undoing.
The author brings to light Boleyn’s humanity and courage, giving an intimate look at a young woman struggling to find her own way in a world dominated by men and adversaries.
I’ve been on an historical fiction tear lately, what with Conn Igguldsen’s Wars of the Roses series, my attempt at reading Sharon Kay Penman’s Falls the Shadow, and the book about Julius Caesar (also by Conn Iggulden). Once I found Brief Gaudy Hour, it seemed only natural that I would give it a shot, given that Anne Boleyn is one of my favorite historical figures.
The book opens when Anne is eighteen and has been summoned to court for the first time. She ends up in the retinue of Henry VIII’s sister Mary, who soon travels to France to marry the aging French king. It’s not long before Mary is widowed, a new king is crowned, and Anne ends up in the retinue of the new queen, Claude. After learning how to charm men and use her unorthodox beauty to set fashions and catch the eyes of whoever she chooses, Anne is recalled to England to serve in the household of the English queen, Katherine of Aragon.
Initially, Anne’s father betroths her to her cousin, a middle-aged Irishman, but Anne soon falls in love with the dashing Harry Percy and seeks to marry him in defiance of her father’s wishes. Little does she know that she has also caught the eye of King Henry VIII. Before she knows it, her marriage contract to her Irish cousin and her secret engagement to Harry Percy are canceled by Cardinal Wolsey so that Henry can marry her.
Brokenhearted that she cannot marry the man she loves, Anne seeks revenge on Wolsey. In the years that follow, Anne uses her charm on Henry to ensure both Wolsey’s downfall and her own ascension. Why should she settle for being a mere mistress when she could be a queen?
Ultimately, though, the wit and charm that made Anne desirable as a mistress makes her a terrible queen, at least in Henry’s eyes. The people are set against her in favor of the previous queen, Katherine of Aragon, and because Anne is unable to give Henry the son he desires, his wandering eye lands on one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour. Anne’s fall is swift and unexpected, and there is nothing she can do to save herself or the men who were condemned with her.
Brief Gaudy Hour is a strange book. It was written in the 1940s and the prose reflects it- almost old fashioned (yet not Victorian in style), and not quite modernist like you’d expect from someone like Virginia Wolfe. And it talks about things that you would expect from a book written in the 1960s or later. There is more than one point, for example, when Anne is thinking about her own sexuality and desirability without viewing either as a shameful thing. And unlike the women around her, Anne doesn’t really want children. She knows she’s expected to have as many as possible- boys especially- but the desire for children isn’t part of her character. What’s more is that Margaret Campbell Barnes doesn’t write about this like it’s something awful or makes Anne somehow less of a woman. It’s simply part of her character. Given that, even now, people often can’t fathom a woman who doesn’t want kids, this is a perspective I did not expect to find in a book written in the 1940s.
Throughout the story, at points where some writers would seek to moralize about Anne’s ‘bad characteristics’ (her sexiness, her quick wit, her desire for the silks and jewels and power that Henry offers her), Barnes regards them as either part of human nature that anyone could fall for (sexuality and the temptations of luxury) or a fine point of Anne’s character (her wit). She is portrayed as a full human being who suffers disappointment and heartbreak, rails against parental and societal expectations, and seeks to make a life for herself on her own terms, in spite of her world’s expectations for women.
While I enjoyed this book, there were a few things that bugged me. Barnes glosses over the religious issues that were at stake. The Boleyn family were secret Protestants at a time where being a Protestant could get you burned at the stake, and yet Barnes treats their beliefs as though it’s a minor thing, and Anne’s beliefs are barely mentioned, though she was a champion of Protestant beliefs and nudged Henry in that direction once it became clear that the Pope was not going to rule in their favor. Another thing that bugs me is how Anne and Henry both seem so content about how long it takes for him to get his divorce from Katherine of Aragon. It took something like six years, but in Brief Gaudy Hour, they’re acting like it took a matter of weeks, so patient are they.
Overall, though, these issues aren’t enough to make me dislike this book. Anne’s portrayal is wonderfully human and the changes to her character make sense from beginning to end. She has her highs and lows, flaws and fine points, and the history of the era is wonderfully accurate. Barnes’s Anne has all the wit and fire that have made her so intriguing for the past five-hundred years, and despite the passage of more than half a century, the story feels surprisingly modern.
If you’re a fan of Natalie Dormer’s portrayal of Anne on the Showtime series, The Tudors, you’ll notice a lot of similarities between Dormer’s version and Barnes’s. And if you haven’t seen The Tudors but are interested in history (or just in Anne Boleyn) for its own sake, I would definitely recommend this book.