Review: A Stranger in Olondria

A Stranger in Olondria
A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Last month I read a book that took me to a futuristic Brazil. This month I read a book that took me to a different world altogether.

A Stranger in Olondria is a book you read slowly to savor every sentence. It’s about a young man who travels to a distant land and is haunted by an illiterate ghost, but really, that’s not what the story is about. It’s about the love of reading. How words are a type of magic that conjures images, embodies the heart of a person, indeed, even a person long dead, and transport a reader to a different place and time. Sofia’s descriptions lands of Bain and the Tea Islands were so incredibly rich, it felt at times like reading it was an escape, a true escape, from my real life.

This is not a book you read fast. Mundane moments are explained in rich detail: following Jevick as he learns to read, accompanying him as he travels to long-awaited Bain, experiencing, his wonder, his joy, as he explores the city. Experiencing his fear as the ghost of a young woman he met on the ship starts appearing to him. His attempts to get rid of the ghost, which takes him to an asylum. The characters he meet: The Priest of the Stone, his daughter, the melancholy Tialon, chipper Miros, who humor covers a lovelorn despair, and his uncle Auram, a fanatic who wishes to use Jevick to contact his ghost, or Angel. And then there’s the ghost herself, Jissavet, a force to be reckoned, even after her death, who demands her story to be written. And oh yes, there are stories. Many many stories, not just hers alone. (My favorite is a retelling of a selkie story that I instantly recognized, and felt extreme happiness upon recognizing it.)

There was a point where Jevick bemoans the loss one feels upon approaching the end of a book. I looked to see how many pages I had left, and I felt that loss keenly, it almost felt kind of meta. This is a book lovers book, something to read for the pleasure of reading itself, one mesmerizing word at a time.

Five books out of five, because…I can’t think of any other perfect way to rate it.
Five books out of five, because

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Book Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I brought this book with me to Viable Paradise and found myself reading it at the weirdest of times (2am, between lecture breaks). It was riveting enough that I couldn’t put it down, but I can’t say I honestly liked the book.

Mainly, I struggled with the misogynist language. I can handle swear words fine, but never could stomach characters calling women c— and p—-. Hate that with a passion. I couldn’t sympathize at all with the narrator until he revealed himself halfway through the story and gave some insights into his own past (another thing I struggled with: I thought for the longest time the narrator was Oscar’s sister. The two voices are too similar for me–I had to read carefully to figure out who was talking).

Also, I had a hard time trusting all the scifi references. Being a geek myself, I got most of them, but for the first part of the book, it felt as if the author was trying really hard to show how much a geek Oscar was by throwing in all these LotR and Akira references, which felt too…general. Thanks to the movies, everyone knows LotR, and not as many people know Akira, it is the first anime movie that broke the market here in the US. It felt to me that the scifi references was more name-dropping than actually pertaining to the story…until I reached the passage where the narrator describes a cafe kitchen worker as a grotesquerie straight out of Gormenghast. When I read that, I was like, ahhhh, so he does know his fantasy books. And from that point on, I started trusting the book.

Which is good because the story itself is heartbreaking. If you ever want to learn how to write passive characters, this is a good one to read, because Oscar is passive…and what’s more, he chooses to be passive. the scene where the roommate (and thus the narrator) tries to get Oscar to work out and he gives up, actually fights to give up, is powerful. His lonely life is balanced by the stories of the people around him, which are heartbreaking in their own right. But Oscar’s was what pulled me in; I remember those days of loneliness and reading thick fantasy novels and crushing hard on guys who never returned the favor. So most of what Oscar did in the book didn’t surprise me, at least not until the end, but even then, now that I think about it, his ending was inevitable.

So the story itself is why I’m giving it three stars. Too bad Oscar didn’t hang. A couple more years and there would have been the Internet. But knowing him, he probably would’ve become those bleak, all night WoW players who don’t interact with people except through avatars. So maybe it is a triumph he went out the way he did? ::shrug::

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Book Review: Daughters of the Dust by Julie Dash

One of my favorite movies is Daughters of the Dust. I saw it on PBS one night in my early college years. I remember flipping through channels, bored, and coming across black women in white dresses dancing and playing on a beach. Mesmerized, I kept watching. I didn’t understand what I watched, nor did I have a clue what was going on, but still, I was mesmerized, so much so I often cited it among my top 10 favorite movies.

imageMany years later, I got a chance to watch it again on DVD. I popped it in and watched it from beginning to end. This time, I had my writer’s skills to keep me company as I watched, and it kept nagging me, saying, “This is pretty and all, but where’s the plot? What’s with all the drama? Oh look, that woman is running off with that Indian. They haven’t even said one word to each other! What the heck’s going on?”

I didn’t know. The movie, other than looking pretty, made absolutely no freaking sense. I was at a loss as to why I liked it.

Back in college, I didn’t care so much. But now that we got the internet, movie ignorance simply will not do. So after the movie ended, I was on IMDB, trying to find out more information about the movie. And that’s when I learned that Julie Dash, the director of the movie, had also put out a book.

Daughters of the Dust has the unique distinction of being named after the movie it’s based on, but not as a novelization, but rather its sequel. Why Julie Dash chose to give the book sequel the same name as her movie, I don’t know, but the book follows the story of the Peazant family after several members migrate from Dawtuh Island, based off the Carolinas, to the North.  The consequences of that split is told in the story of two cousins, Elizabeth and Amelia.

Amelia is the granddaughter of Haagar Peazant, who was the main impetus behind the move to the North. Disdainful of island life, Haagar wants Amelia to succeed as a much as a black woman in the early-20s Harlem can. She has Amelia attend prestigious schools, works hard to ensure she has access to contacts with the upper-black class, and tries to weed out every ounce of Gullah influence, or even lower-class black  influence, in her household. Amelia however, wishes only to escape her grandmother’s heavy hand. Thus, when an opportunity to document Dawtuh Island for her thesis comes along, Amelia jumps at the chance, much to her grandmother’s outrage.

Returning to the land of her ancestors, Amelia meets Elizabeth, who is around her own age. Elizabeth’s parents chose to remain behind on the island, so while Amelia attended black social gatherings and teas and such, Elizabeth grew up learning about herbs and charms, helping her family with the land, and learning all she can from Nana, the eldest of the Peazant family. As much as Elizabeth enjoys the old ways, she is gripped by a restlessness she cannot name. She’s close enough to the land to know its secrets, yet she’s full of other knowledge that goes beyond what the land can offer. She becomes the island’s only schoolteacher, but is frustrated by the lack of vision in her students. To buy school supplies, occasionally she makes trips to the mainland to be a maid for a pair of white, elderly sisters. Elizabeth and Amelia take a shine to each other immediately, and Elizabeth aids Amelia in showing her life around Dawtuh Island.

imageAmelia is there to study the island’s inhabitants for her thesis, but soon she realizes the stories she collect is in reality stories of her past, to help put her own heritage together. Daughters of the Dust is built on story, or in the book “telling the lie”. Most of the stories told are history, but some can be considered magic realism. As Amelia gathers the stories, we see how the Peazants came to the island in the first place—indeed, how many of the blacks settled there. This is where the book excels over the movie—we need Amelia, an outsider, to make sense of the Gullah world. The movie gives us a glimpse, but without someone to explain why the people do what they do, all we see are pretty images without context.

The book reflects the leisurely pace of the movie but in a more intimate way. We are privy to Elizabeth and Amelia’s doubts, fears, joys and insights as we learn about the Gullah lifestyle. Elizabeth’s restlessness stirs in each scene, even when she’s at a standstill. It’s interesting to have her POV–in the movie, we see her as a girl spirit, a child not yet born, running unseen with the other children, popping up in photographs, the other characters doing a double-take as her long braids and hairbow flit across the screen. In the book, Dash takes her time in revealing the nature of Elizabeth’s conception, which in the movie caused lots of drama between her parents, Eula and Eli. In this, I truly appreciated the book. Like Amelia, we get to learn the history and the heritage of the Peazant family by walking among the characters, seeing the day-to-day tedium, but also the drama.

Everyone from the movie is here, in some form or another . We learn what caused the rift between Eula and Eli over Elizabeth’s conception, and finally see the courtship between Iona and Julien Last Child (in the movie, all they did was stare longingly at each other. At the end of the movie, as Haagar and her family ready to leave by boat to the mainland and their new life, Iona jumps out, running to Julien who awaits her on a horse. They ride off as Haagar screams and cries.) There are stories of people in the movie but not in the book, like Yellow Mary and Nana. In the movie, Nana was the lynchpin, the last tie to the old ways, and her fierce will could be felt radiating off the TV screen. In the book, Nana had passed on to the ancestors, yet her presence can still be felt over the island. There’s a lovely scene where Amelia finds a picture of Nana and presses her fingers to it, “almost expecting the figure to stir impatiently.”

Then there are others who are not in the movie, but have their own strengths and tragedy’s. One character that stood out was Ol’ Trent, a wanderer who goes around spouting Bible verses to condemn. There’s a great scene where he goes to a local juke joint and yells verses of judgment towards Toady, the “bouncer”. She, however, gives as good back, spouting out verses of her own until he slinks away in shame. Ol Trent is treated with scorn, and it’s easy for the reader to do so until Elizabeth learns about his past that casts him in a whole other, troubling light.

What I appreciate most about the book is Dash doesn’t give us clear cut, black and white characters. When we learn Haagar’s background, we see why she is adamant in putting the Island behind her and why she wants to forbid Amelia from even stepping foot on it. The white women who employ Elizabeth teaches her French and give her glimmerings of life beyond the island; are we to judge them because they are privileged and keep Elizabeth as a maid? Dash doesn’t make that clear, especially when we learn a bit about their own pasts.

The only few quibbles I have with the book is that not all stories are told. I would’ve loved to hear Lucy, Elizabeth’s sister tale, though I’m not surprised she never shared her story—that’s the way she is. Aside from the stories, the book is mainly told in Amelia and Elizabeth’s POV. However, there are times when the book switches to a cinematic omni-POV. Seeing that Dash also did the movie, I can see why. Sometimes it works—there’s a beautiful passage when Amelia’s walking with a boy, and the POV briefly switches to a fisherman watching them. Other times, it feels out of place, such as when a white board supervisor comes to Elizabeth’s school. Having only seen Elizabeth’s and Amelia’s POV, it’s jarring to switch to him and all his judgmental thoughts.

The ending, also, strangely left me unsatisfied. I don’t know why—perhaps things are wrapped up a little too neatly for my liking. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed it. But it felt like Dash overcompensated for keeping so much out of the movie that she put too much into the book. Some things could have been left dangling, such as after Amelia returns to New York to finish her thesis. If her story ended there, it would have been good, but Dash continues it instead.

I’ve been asking myself which is better, the movie or the book? Hard to say. I think the book does a better job overall of putting the reader into the world of Gullah. But I don’t want to discount the movie. Had only the book come out, I would probably discount it as just another book about African Americans after the civil war, and put it into my to-read pile, never to see the light of day. With the movie, however, what captivated me was the scenery, the clothes, the speech, and the beauty of these people that was so different from what I saw from other black movies. It sparked my curiosity to get the book in the first place. And now I know who’s who, I can watch the movie again and go, oh yeah, that’s Yellow Mary, and that’s Haagar and…

Daughters of the Dust gets 5 homemade charms out of 5. And I can’t help but wonder what the Peazant family would look like today. Would most of them still be on the island eking out an existence, or would many of them be living in New York now, ignorant of the rich past they’ve lost?

Book Review: Set This House in Order by Matt Ruff

The Wiscon book club I attend nowadays is called “Beer and Marmalade” (if you want to hear a little more about it, a couple of members were on WORT Wisconsin radio. Just scroll down to "Radio Literature" that played on January 8, 2009), and we’ve been reading some good stuff. In January, we chose “Set This House in Order” by Matt Ruff. What a glorious, wonderful read this is! The premise is brilliant, the concept original. A Multiple Personality Disorder guy who’s living a relatively normal life gets asked for help by another MPD, a woman who’s barely aware of her other personalities. The two of them embark on an discovery trek that opens the past.

Ruff does a wonderful job in not only establishing the different personalities of Andrew and Penny/Mouse, but making sure each personality is distinct and unique. There’s a wonderful part where Andrew and Mouse are at a hotel, as we see Andrew watching TV, but immediately we know it’s not him, but the more adolescent Adam, flipping through the channels. Each personality held my interest; in fact, there were several of Mouse’s personalities that I would have liked to know more history; i.e., Drone and the Brain. How did they get that way?

I also really liked how Ruff stated facts nonchalantly, facts that became very important later on. Some ways he did it was done to pull you deeper into the story. I loved the line he does in the middle of the story: "My serenity lasted about twenty hours, until Sunday afternoon, when I killed Warren Lodge." Just that sentence, coming out of the blue after having a hard talk with Penny/Mouse, was enough to make me go, "Huh? He did what?" And then he proceeded to tell what happened, and it had me on needles and pins.

That’s one way he revealed surprises in the story. Other times, he did it so subtly, that when that surprise was revealed, at first I was astonished, but then think back to something a character said, and thought, Hey, that does make sense. And yes, there are a couple of twists in the book that made my jaw drop. For instance, Andrew keeps his mind in order by imagining it as a playhouse that contains all his personalities. In the book, he happens to be talking to a personality named Gideon:

"The first floor of Aaron’s playhouse. How many doors does it have?"
"Three," I said. "Front door and back door."
Gideon nodded. "Front door and back door…and that makes three, does it?"

Brrr! That gave me the chills! Well, okay, out of context it doesn’t. But read the book and don’t tell me that when you get to that part, a tiny ripple goes up your spine.

It was a little hard to read the history of abuse done to Andrew and Penny, perhaps harder on Penny than Andrew, because there was physical violence along with the sexual abuse. But I thought the scenes were effectively done, without going into graphic detail, and it shed light on how Andrew and Penny ended up that way. In fact, Andrew’s delving into his own past as he helps Penny is heart-wrenching as he is forced to confront things he himself had forgotten. How he dealt with that made me stay up past midnight, reading this book in a mere three days.

This is probably the best book about MPD I’ve ever read. Well, it’s the only MPD book I ever read, but I’m glad I did. This gets five different types of breakfast out of five, all served at the same time. And someone will have to invent "Virtual Twister" for real. It sounds like a very interesting game.