book review: the girl in the road

One of my coworkers recently did a display in our library called “The One With The Girl” which was full of all these books with Girl in the title (The Girl on the Train, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, stuff like that). Weirdly enough, she missed Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road. But when I spotted it on a non-display shelf the Girl display had been replaced for World Water Day, so I was standing there with a book in my hand and nothing to do but read it. Oh woe. I had to read a book.

I really liked it.

There are two storylines, set in the mid-late 21st century. One is about a woman, Meena, who is fleeing her hometown in southern India because of a snake in her bed, which she is sure was an Ethiopian terror attack targeting her.

The other story is about a little girl, Mariama, in West Africa who stows away on a transport truck taking oil to Ethiopia. She’s looked after by the drivers and by the goddess they meet on the road.

Meena goes to Mumbai to start walking to Djibouti to find the person who killed her parents before she was born. Walking to Djibouti from Mumbai is a thing that might be possible because of the Trail: a multi-thousand kilometre long chain of solar- and wave-energy collector buoys strung across the Arabian Sea. Parts of Meena’s story really reminded me of Life of Pi, but she’s way more prepared, technologically speaking than Piscine Patel ever was.

This is very much a road novel, with the protagonists having encounters and moving along. I really liked it, and the pacing between the continent-crossing and the sea-crossing worked really well for me.

The biggest problem I had with the book is that it is a story about India and Africa written by a white woman from the U.S. Byrne thanks people with names that sound like they come from appropriate parts of the world in the acknowledgements, but I haven’t read reviews of the book by people of the cultures being portrayed. It didn’t seem objectifying or exoticizing to me, but I’m a white dude. I thought it was pretty good with the hijra character from a cultural perspective. But if you are sensitive to the “bad things happen to lgbtq characters” and “lgbtq characters are haunted by loads of trauma” this may be one to avoid.

book review: the book of cthulhu

The Book of Cthulhu is a collection of short stories based on H.P. Lovecraft’s work. These are all stories that were written in the last thirty years and are the kinds of things that make me overlook a lot of HPL’s actual terribleness (inre: sexism & racism). The mythos, the secrets, the sense of foreboding are all what I like in a horrific world, and because these stories aren’t written by an early 20th century weirdo they don’t have the same kind of baggage.

Indeed, there were a number of stories in the collection that dealt with race pretty much head-on. I loved David Drake’s “Than Curse the Darkness” which was a colonialist tale of Africa in which the heroes (a British scholar and American gunman) team up with a pack of pigshit-terrible Belgian slave-drivers to stop a summoning ritual by a cult the Belgians have been feeding through their murderous disfiguring practices in the pursuit of rubber. This was a story where the Belgians are constantly using the word nigger and chopping off black people’s ears and genitals and generally being horrible human beings, but they’re also necessary. It’s a story about evil and siding with evil and fighting evil and by the end of the story you feel kind of terrible that they did manage to save the world. That’s a mythos tale for you.

Also, Elizabeth Bear’s “Shoggoths in Bloom” was awesome because it posited a world where yes, these creatures existed and were inexplicable, but that just made them more interesting to scientists. It’s a science story instead of a horror story and it worked really well. Charles Stross’ “A Colder War” was about mythos weapons and their escalation, and Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Crawling Sky” was a pretty badass western featuring more rancid horsemeat than I expect in a story.

My least favourite story in the book was the Brian Lumley one about a circus sideshow. It felt too much like a Tales From the Crypt episode. Most of the book was really quite good though.

book review: should we burn babar? essays on children’s literature and the power of stories

I read Should We Burn Babar? because I’m interested in the idea of radical children’s literature. Herbert R. Kohl’s book is a collection of essays that are about this but are also about radical education, which, I guess would be more interesting to me if I were a teacher than a librarian.

The first essay, on burning Babar, is very good at looking at the racist colonialist enterprise that Babar is enmeshed in and questioning how to read this book with kids, and if we even should. Kohl’s conclusion is that it can be read, but it must be done critically so the readers don’t get sucked into the idea that all the troublesome things that happen in the story (the bringing of European customs to the naked elephants who are left behind, the complete lack of agency that Celeste has in marrying Babar, the fact that symbols like Babar’s hat are bandied about as if they self-evidently mean something in regard to power).

There’s also an essay on Pinnochio, which was interesting because of its focus on how the real story doesn’t turn him into a good little boy. He remains mischievous and more human than Disney would have you believe.

Once the book got into educational methods and things I lost interest. He’s obviously an older guy and I wonder how much of what he discusses as radical has been incorporated into education curricula these days. I’d be interested to hear what people with more knowledge of that kind of thing have to say.

book review: akata witch

Akata Witch is Nnedi Okorafor’s novel set in contemporary small-town Nigeria. It was nominated for a 2011 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy Book (one of the Nebula Awards).

Sunny, the young heroine, is an albino girl with a couple of brothers who’ve moved around a lot in their lifetimes. They’ve lived in the US and visited Europe but now they’re back in Nigeria. Where Sunny learns she’s a Leopard-person.

Leopard people are people in tune with magic and spirits and their true faces. Most leopard people are brought up by parents who are leopard people, but there are also some who are free agents, which is what happens to Sunny (her parents are Lambs – the equivalent of Muggles). As soon as she learns what she is, she’s bound to secrecy about it by her new Leopard peers and teachers.

It’s a good book, but way more interesting for the characters and setting than the plot. There’s a serial killer in their area and Sunny and her friends have to put an end to his nefariousness, but that only really becomes important in the last sixth of the book. Most of the book is about Sunny learning about this strange new world she’s found herself a part of. There’s a soccer match, and they watch a juju fight between experienced warriors, and they undergo a bunch of trials in which the protagonists could have died, but the difference in the stakes between those things never really come through. Even though Sunny is shocked at what the adults could have let happen, it’s hard to be really pulled into what turns into the big conflict. Too much time is spent with Sunny wanting things explained to her, but the rest of the characters feel it’s better to keep her (and the reader) in the dark.

But Sunny is a great character. The worldbuilding (of both the fantastical world and mundane Nigeria) is excellent. I loved the different languages that were used and how the cultures were differentiated. I loved that leopard people are supposed to shun worldly goods and power, but some of them don’t, but everyone has to deal with each other anyway. The politics around everything are nicely gray.

I’d gladly recommend the book for anyone who likes urban fantasy type things, but wants to see some characters and cultures that aren’t already filling the bookshelves.

book review: devil’s reign

I picked up Matt Wagner’s Grendel: Devil’s Reign from the library having only read Grendel: Black White and Red before. I remembered liking it but not a lot of details. This book might not have been the best place to take up the series again.

It’s the 26th century and the plague of vampires has fractured North America. Orion I, who apparently used to be Grendel is brought in to unify the nation and [SPOILER ALERT] eventually takes over the world by blowing the nefarious Japanese off the planet. And then he’s the king of the world, has a baby boy and dies an old man.

So that’s the main story, and it’s told with the detached air of a biography. The form is very interesting: 8 panels per page and about half of them filled with text and many more as propaganda images. It’s very dense and wordy, but detached detached detached. There’s no sense of urgency to anything. Maybe I would care more if I’d read more of the previous run of the comic, or later ones to see what the aftermath of all this was, but as it was it felt like reading a biased history of a crudely stereotyped alternate world.

The other story is about the vampires who’re banished to the prison of VEGAS for the amount of history covered in the book. Because this is done in a more traditional comicbook style, it’s much less dense and more actiony than the main story. In fact I think they probably take up the same number of pages, but the density of text makes this story feel like a backup. Again, I feel like I would care more if I’d come at this book with more investment in the series.

It wasn’t bad, just not very compelling for someone reading it without previous knowledge. I wish there’d been some indication on the cover to say what volume in the series this was.

book review: the other

I’ve had The Other sitting on my shelf for a couple of months and just got to it. It’s a book of philosophical essays by Ryszard Kapuscinski about how people deal with people who are not like them. It’s not a rigorous philosophical treatise, but the thoughts of a journalist who’s spent most of his life off travelling the world and recounting tales of other lands (most notably in Africa and South America, which were places the censors back in Iron Curtain Poland wouldn’t censor too much about).

Reading this book made me want to go places again, to travel, but not as a tourist. To go with a mission, like anthropologists do, like a real journalist, going off to find out about people and what life is like in faraway places. Every time I go to China, I realize how hard that is.

One thing he talks about in regards to the dichotomy between Europe and the rest of the world which used to be dominated by it, is how that dichotomy was created in part because Europe’s first ambassadors to the rest of the world weren’t noble wise people. They were scummy ruffians who’d set sail because they didn’t have good lives back in Europe. They were misfits in an unromantic way, antisocial and greedy and were ready to take anything they could get from the people/creatures they encountered.

One of the most important things in this book, or at least a thing that resonated most strongly with me, was the idea of the self needing an Other to truly define it. You don’t know what you are until you are exposed to something else, the ways other people organize their lives. This kind of Other requires seeing these people in different places with different histories as still being human, so it’s actually historically quite a recent phenomenon. And one helped along by anthropologists.

It was a short book but very good. I’d probably read it before reading Travels With Herodotus if I hadn’t read any Kapuscinski before.

book review: travels with herodotus

Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels With Herodotus was about one of my favourite parts of life: reading books in foreign places. When Kapuscinski was a young Polish journalist in the 1950s he expressed a desire to go abroad “perhaps to Czechoslovakia.” He was sent to India, with a parting gift of Herodtus’ Histories. So the book is about Herodotus as a role model for the traveller, and about the way it shaped Kapuscinski in his travels. He tells awesome stories about going to China during Mao’s 100 Flowers Campaign and being shut up in his room, and of being robbed in Cairo by a man he saw every day before and after the robbery. He’s talking about going to Congo and all through it he’s got his Herodotus.

A lot of the book is Kapuscinski retelling stories from the Histories and wondering about the tales. He takes a very open, anti-cynical approach to these 2500 year old stories. When Herodotus says he heard that the people up the Nile eat with their feet he takes it as a wondrous kind of thing. Not that Kapuscinski believes that’s what Africans did back in the day, but that he takes the story Herodotus presents seriously, as kind of a marvel of reporting (even if it is second or third hand).

It was a good combination of tales from different times. When I go to China in July, I’m going to bring some Herodotus with me.