The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe

(By the way, I’ve started my very first salaried position!!)

I spent the weekend reading The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe, which should have been a quick read, but it wasn’t because I was surrounded by people all weekend. But by Jove, I finished it!

This book was recommended to me by a couple I was staying with in Philadelphia last year. I was in town for the Philly PodFest to see Overdue’s live show, and that got me and my hosts discussing books we liked. They suggested The Woman in the Dunes, as well as Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee, and I think they also recommended The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem.

So, I didn’t really care for this book too much. I mean, on the surface it was surreal, which I appreciated, but I’m not really here for existentialism. I loved the village the Man found himself stuck in. This village is located on the dunes of a beach, and is pretty much a bunch of deep pits with houses at the bottom to keep the sand from…destroying the town on the surface? Again, I was really distracted by everything else this weekend, but I think that was the jist of it. People living in pits essentially as slaves to keep a small population safe.

I liked the man’s interest in insects and his fascination with sand. I would have liked to know more about the insects the Man was studying. Sand really is one of the main characters in this book alongside the titular Woman. I could complain how the Woman wasn’t really characterized as well as I’d like, but I’m starting to think that’s just a feature of surrealism–that everyone outside the POV character’s head is just a figment. Not that the Woman didn’t have personality. She wanted a radio. She was hyper-polite. She was complacent.

I also liked the ending, where a lot of the action and character growth takes place. Kind of reminded me of the ending of 1984, which might be a spoiler in itself.

I’m glad I read it, but it just wasn’t for me.

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

I have no idea what this book was supposed to be about. I didn’t even read the summary before starting it. It was referenced in another book I was reading, so I went ahead and requested it from the library.

That being said, I sure can tell you what I experienced.

Titus Groan is, in a word, grotesque. And I mean that in the best way possible. Well…not the best, because I only gave it three stars, but it was a really really good example of medieval grotesque low fantasy. For one, all the names are a certain kind of ugly: Steerpike, Flay, Swelter, Sepulchrave, Flagg, Prunesquallor, Sourbone, and Gormenghast. That last one is the very epitome of grotesques, as though Peake invented it just for the sound of it. Engorged and ghastly. This grotesqueness, along with the general setting, makes a great backdrop for the political intrigue and the various other happenings around the castle. Gormenghast Castle is written in a way that makes me feel like I could get lost in its halls if I weren’t paying attention. And that there is no way for love or comfort to flourish in a place like that. The characters themselves are wonderful caricatures, both in appearance and mannerisms, which I really like. Again, going for the whole grotesque theme. Countess Gertrude’s flocks of birds and swarm of cats are also great details that make this world not quite historical fiction. Peake really excels at description, but I don’t really linger on description. Especially of architecture because I simply can’t imagine that kind of thing.

This world’s soundtrack would be provided by Dead Can Dance, maybe with some help from Sopor Aeternus & the Ensemble of Shadows.

The driving force of this book is threefold: the rivalry of Flay and Swelter, the machinations of ex-kitchen boy Steerpike, and the first year of Titus Groan’s life and all the ceremony that accompanies it. I was a little curious why the book was called Titus Groan though, if Titus is only a baby. Maybe this is because this book is the first in a series about this character. Steerpike is awful and sleazy and completely shameless, but it’s so fun to see whether things will go according to his plans. It was during these parts that it was easiest to pay attention. As I said in an earlier post, I’m having trouble concentrating on print books. This book took me around two weeks to finish, which is long for me.

I wish we had learned more about Sepulchrave, Titus’s father, because there’s some really interesting stuff that happens to him, and we get no explanation for it. He’s also my favorite character because he’s melancholy.

I’m also confused whether Dr Prunesquallor’s name is Alfred or Bernard.

Halfway through the year!

The year is half over (I think), and I thought it would be a good time to reflect on this year’s reading so far.

For 2017, I tried to make an effort to read more authors from more varied experiences, so: people of color, disabled, LGBTQ+, non-American/British ethnicities, different religions, etc. I didn’t include women in this list because I have absolutely no trouble finding books by women to read. I was also assisted by the Curious Iguana’s (a bookstore in Frederick, MD) Read Broader challenge. The challenge is to broaden your reading horizons by reading books about people and experiences other than your own. I’m currently reading a few books in translation, including The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector, which I haven’t written about for this blog because I want to re-read it before I do. I mean, I’m not currently reading anything in translation, but that’s where I am in the list.

I think my efforts have fallen apart slightly, mostly because of the amount of white men that I’ve been reading lately. But I’m still trying. I’m balancing a reading challenge, my Goodreads challenge (75 books this year), my own personal goals, and a huge TBR list I’m trying to decimate.

Audiobooks have been incredibly useful in keeping me on track.

Without further ado, here’s a list of all the books that I’ve read so far. Some I didn’t finish, but they took enough time for me to put down that I counted them.

  • Among Others by Jo Walton
  • Dawn by Octavia E. Butler
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown
  • Hounded by Kevin Hearne
  • The Devil on Horseback by Victoria Holt
  • For Today I Am a Boy by Kim Fu
  • The Bees by Laline Paull
  • Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
  • White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi
  • The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth
  • Goblins by Vincent Courtney
  • The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
  • Grovedaughter Witchery: Practical Spellcraft by Bree NicGarran
  • Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity by Monica L. Miller
  • Lewis Percy by Anita Brookner
  • The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela
  • Olivia by Dorothy Bussy
  • Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
  • The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
  • Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan E. Coyote
  • The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers: An Unconventional Memoir by Josh Kilmer-Purcell
  • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
  • The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss
  • Black Deutschland by Darryl Pinckney
  • Forests of the Heart by Charles de Lint
  • Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson
  • Viscount Breckenridge to the Rescue by Stephanie Laurens
  • The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  • Blood Sports by Eden Robinson
  • Sunshine by Robin McKinley
  • The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black
  • The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector
  • Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton
  • The Laughing Corpse by Laurell K. Hamilton

The Laughing Corpse by Laurell K. Hamilton

Oh hey, it looks like I’m going through this series now. Still doing so on audiobook, because no one’s reading the old books. So I’m just ripping through them. 

So, this book focuses more on zombies and Anita’s animator powers. Jean Claude makes an appearance, but vampires really don’t factor into this one. We’ve got a voodoo related mystery, which I don’t trust any white person to write about well, but I do love that fake tourist voodoo stuff on its own. Hamilton has a Latina woman as the High Voodoo Priestess, which is an interesting choice? I dunno, maybe Latinx populations practiced voodoo in addition to Santeria. Speaking of diversity, I’m actually very impressed just how many characters in the book are described as non-white. Kinda refreshing.

Still! No! Sexy! Bits!

I’m having a difficult time getting through print books at the moment. My attention is constantly being pulled elsewhere. 

What I Look For When Browsing For Books

Let’s start by saying, I don’t browse the shelves of the public library or a bookshop as much as I want to, and I hardly ever go up into the stacks at work unless it’s to fetch something. Therefore, I rely a lot on book reviews and hearsay to find out about interesting books. Podcasts like the Book Riot podcast, The Readers, the now-defunct Books on the Nightstand, and even Overdue are pretty good at uncovering at least a few books I might be interested in. I’ve also found a few books by reading the references of non-fiction books, such as Alan Gardner’s The Owl Service or Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake. Goodreads sometimes has good stuff, as does good old word of mouth. Working with co-workers who have similar book tastes to my own has been invaluable as well. I’ve also picked up books in the course of my jobs. When I worked at the used bookstore warehouse, I had to enter a huge variety of books into our system, so that got me exposed to a lot of titles (even today, seeing the cover of Cold Mountain takes me back).

But how do I decide whether something sounds interesting enough to read? Usually, I’m looking for words suggesting anything about the fey, aristocrats, Russia, the Victorian era, elves, demons, writers, anything creepy or terrifying. There are definitely words that put me off, too. Like a war, any mention of a hot place, the phrase “darkly beautiful”,  anything where I know who the love interest is just by reading the summary, etc. I will also read a book by an author I’ve heard of and want to read, even if the summary doesn’t draw me in immediately. People like Tom Wolfe or Zadie Smith or Neil Gaiman. Literary powerhouses, usually.

When I am at a bookshop or library, I usually have to rely on interesting titles or spines to pick up a book I’ve never heard of. For example, when I picked up Tobias Wolfe’s Old School, it was because the title had “school” in it, and I adore a good boarding school novel. The font was also a pretty Old English style, so it drew me in.

I think I should pay attention to how I select books and start keeping notes. That could be pretty interesting to look at the data, and see just how predictable I am.

 

 

Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton

Man, do I have context for this one! Okay, so I discovered Hamilton through her Merry Gentry series when I was a teenager scouring the internet for other fairy books that would scratch my Tithe itch. So I checked out the first in that series from the library, only, I was thirteen or fourteen, and Ma was still making sure I was reading age appropriate books. She told me to put it back.

A few months later, I see my school library has Cerulean Sins from the Anita Blake series, and I read up until after the first sex scene, after which I decided I had had enough. And for the next few years, I just knew of Hamilton as the lady with the sexy books that Fanfiction.net doesn’t allow fanfic of. I did, of course, return to reading some Merry Gentry books when I turned eighteen, of course.

So! Guilty Pleasures. I listened to this on audio, and I actually really enjoyed it. I enjoyed Kimberly Alexis’s voice and narration. I also really liked Anita. She didn’t grate on my nerves as much as some of these Strong Female Protangonists of Urban Fantasy do. I liked Hamilton’s descriptions of violence and sensuality. I do have a long-standing issue with police and detectives, or consultants for them, in urban fantasy, so that was trying, but the police for the most part stayed out of it. Woo.

There wasn’t as much sex as I expected in this book, which is fine, and I hear the series deteriorates as it goes, which is to be expected. Mostly I just know this series is neverending and the sex gets a lot more frequent.

Has anyone else read any Laurell K. Hamilton? I know she’s a big name, so I’d like to hear some other opinions.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

Prefacing this by saying I adore Holly Black (Tithe changed my life as a thirteen-year-old), and that this was a re-read.

So, I originally won an ARC of this book back during publicity (I think???) for its hardcover release, and I loved it. I had been looking forward to a Holly Black vampire novel, especially since Poppy Z. Brite’s Lost Souls had gotten me back into vampire books, and it didn’t disappoint. I lent said ARC to a friend of mine and it got lost and never returned. Oh well, those things are apparently meant to go in the recycling anyway. So then when the book was released in paperback, I happened to be at a bookstore with nothing else in particular I wanted to buy, and I actually bought the book this time.

I’ll admit the title’s kind of weird, but it does its job. It’s evocative. I also realized I didn’t remember very much from the first time I read it. Like, I forgot how cool the Dead Last Rest Stop is, and most of the plot. Therefore, I honestly didn’t know what was going to happen–a nice surprise. I think Pearl was perfectly-rendered. At twelve, still a kid who thinks sideways ponytails are stylish, and idolizes her big sister, but wanting to be adult enough to watch the Coldtown streams, which are almost assuredly rated R.

I’ll also admit that as I get older, I’m starting to have different relationships to the main characters than I did when I was a teenager myself. Like when Tana tells someone that she’s seventeen, my immediate reaction was “That’s so young.” Ha, like I’m so old! I guess it doesn’t matter to me how old Tana is–I’m certainly not getting protective or patronizing toward teenage protagonists. It’s more like, my mind doesn’t immediately assume someone’s a teenager, so it’s kind of a surprise when I read that they are a teenager.

Anyway, this isn’t my favorite of Holly Black’s books. I was always a fairy person. But it’s some high quality vampire fiction.