STORK MOUNTAIN (2016)

downloadStork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov, a Bulgarian who moved to America at 18,  is a strange novel, and unlike anything else I’ve ever read. While I have a lot of criticism for it (albeit vague criticism as you’ll read shortly), I enjoyed it, and I certainly don’t regret reading it. It’s a book that I likely never would have picked up if I wasn’t specifically looking for books by Bulgarian authors, and finding books by chance encounter is one of my favorite means of discovery.

Stork Mountain is difficult to follow. Stories pick up and then lose track of themselves in other stories. There’s multiple romantic narratives, familial narratives, historic/cultural narratives, and spiritual narratives taking place in different centuries and on different timelines, but that are all woven together. It’s a book best read with as little interruption as possible (I mistakenly began it before leaving for Bulgaria and did not pick it up again until I returned and consequently struggled to keep track of the multitude of stories). It feels almost too big for itself, like it’s trying to do too much, cover too much in one novel. It’s broken up into seven parts, and I couldn’t begin to differentiate one part from another.

The best moments in Stork Mountain are the ones dealing with the long, difficult, inter-woven histories of the Turks, the Greeks, and the Bulgarians. The Muslims and the Christians. The rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, the rise and fall of communism. There’s a fascinating, tragic, deep-seeded history in this part of the world that is all but unknown to many people in the West. And while I criticize Penkov for trying to force too much into one book, its hard to blame him when the history of this region is so vast and so varied. Whether or not you choose to read Stork Mountain, I’d encourage everyone to expose themselves to more stories from Eastern Europe because there is a history there that is just as valid, just as vast, just as complex, and more ancient than anything the western world has to offer.

Links: Miroslav Penkov .com | Goodreads | Amazon

SOLO (2009)

unnamedThis post will be the first in a series of posts reviewing books that take place, at least partially, in Bulgaria. I’ll be spending a few weeks in April visiting some friends in Bulgaria and thought reading a few books that take place in the country or are written by Bulgarian authors would be a great way to learn a few things about a place I know next to nothing about. The one I’ve started with, Solo by Rana Dasgupta, was not only an amazing introduction to the history and culture of Bulgaria, but was an outstanding book in general.

Solo operates under a premise similar to An Unnecessary Woman; the protagonist, an old man, alone and with nothing to show for his long life, looks back on the different phases of his life. But that is where the similarities end. Solo is broken up into 2 parts, which can almost be seen as two separate books, but are tied together in a way that make both parts more meaningful and complete than if either stood alone. Part 1 is the story of the protagonist’s life, from child to old man. He’s born near the beginning of the 20th century, and through his perspective, the reader sees how Bulgaria changes and evolves with new technologies, through world wars, and the rise and fall of communism. One of my favorite quotes from Solo regarding the history of Bulgaria is the following:

“When Bulgaria became independent, we didn’t even know. It took weeks for the news to reach us that they had made a country for the Bulgarians and our village was not in it. We packed everything up, took all the pigs, crossed into Bulgaria and made a new village.”

Small moments like this that remind you how strange and arbitrary borders are, especially in Eastern Europe.

Part 1 of Solo was exactly the type of story I was looking for to give me some insight into Bulgarian history and culture. When Part 2 began, it took me a few chapters to get my bearings because it begins an entirely different story with brand new characters, but once I got into it, I was completely absorbed. I read it in one sitting. It was fast-paced and exciting and took the story into the 21st century and beyond Bulgaria’s borders. Without Part 2, Part 1 would have felt a little heavy and dark and pessimistic, and without Part 1, Part 2 would have felt a little meandering and directionless, but together, they balanced out perfectly. On top of this, the writing was excellent on every level. I was super impressed by this novel and will be making a point to read other works of Dasgupta’s. I can’t recommend Solo enough, especially if you have any interest in a part of the world you more than likely know very little about.

Links: Rana Dasgupta .comGoodreads | Amazon

WHO FEARS DEATH (2010)

downloadI’ve skimmed through a variety of reviews of Who Fears Death after finishing it myself, specifically negative reviews, because there are a few things I didn’t like about the book that others pointed out as well. The ending was abrupt, anti-climactic, and unfulfilling, and this was mostly because the narrative relied on a self-fulfilling prophecy plot which allowed Okorafor to conclude the story with “spirit world magic stuff” instead of with a logical or thought-provoking conclusion. I also would’ve liked a little more world-building surrounding the magic system in the book, how it works, what it’s limitations are, and what it comes from. Somewhere out there is a lecture given by Brandon Sanderson in which he says something along the lines of how a magic system’s limitations, i.e. what it can’t do, are more interesting than what it can do, and that’s always stuck with me. But despite its flaws, I still thoroughly enjoyed Who Fears Death and want to talk about what I loved.

Okorafor has a very blunt writing style that I like. She doesn’t beat around or even build up to anything; she writes authoritatively and suddenly. Time in the story passes quickly as a result of the way she writes. The story will skip forward without any real indication of how much time has passed except for occasional mentions of how old the main characters have become. Her writing highlights only the most important moments and conversations, the defining ones. I don’t mind this, and much prefer it to the opposite (spending too much time on tedious day-to-day things), but it did have the effect of making me feel slightly less attached to the characters. What I loved about Nnedi Okorafor’s writing style is her ability to say so much in a single sentence. Every sentence is somehow loaded with information or context or back story. One chapter opened with this line: “It’s a day I’ve pulled up many times in the last year to remind me life is also good.” I loved the sentence so much I wrote it down because it’s so simple but so effective.

And while the plot of Who Fears Death was flawed, the content throughout the book is incredible. You can imagine how much gender equality comes up as an issue in a book that features a sorceress destined to save the world with a male partner destined to help her in a misogynistic society. Some of my favorite moments in the book are when Onyesonwu and her lover/partner Mwita have to navigate their switched gender roles. Mwita being jealous and Onyesonwu being arrogant or lacking patience and empathy. Another thing I loved about the book is the setting. It’s easy to assume at first, because of the use of magic and sorcery, that the novel is set in Africa in the past, maybe pre-civilization, but it is actually set in post-apocalyptic Africa. Computers are a thing of the past and technology as we know it is only used or even encountered occasionally. I love the idea that magic doesn’t have to be primitive. Magic follows technology in this universe instead of preceding it. Of course race is a huge issue in the novel as well and one of the most interesting points I think Okorafor makes when discussing race in the novel is that so often, people who are marginalized or discriminated against for being different in whatever way, are called upon to do the most for the society that judges or marginalizes them. And related to that is the higher standard marginalized people are often held to and how much pressure that puts on a person in society, at home, and between friends. Overall, I really enjoyed Who Fears Death. I thought it was meaningful, thought-provoking, and relatable, and I’d recommend it despite its flaws.

Links: Nnedi .com | Goodreads | Amazon

THE OBELISK GATE (2016)

theobeliskgateAs promised, I’ve returned fairly quickly to read the second book in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy: The Obelisk Gate. As sequels go, it was perfect. It takes the narrative in new directions, but also connects back to and addresses some of the lingering questions from the previous book, The Fifth Season. I’m finding myself struggling for things to say about it beyond what I already wrote about for The Fifth Season because I have very similar thoughts on it. I considered skipping this post entirely as redundant, but decided it was worth noting that this  trilogy continues to be excellent, and if you’re a fan of world-building fantasy, this is a series you shouldn’t miss.

Links: N K Jemisin .com | Goodreads | Amazon

You’ll like this book if you like: Fantasy, Strong-female leads, innovative world-building, themes of human/environment interaction

THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL ANGRY PLANET (2014)

The Long Way to download-4a Small Angry Planet is everything I could ever want a sci-fi space travel story to be. This will be a short review because that sentence about sums it up. It’s fun, features interesting and well-developed characters, is well written, and even manages to develop romantic inter-species relationships without ever being cheesy or cringe-y or uncomfortable to read. I absolutely loved everything about it!

I saw this in other reviews and then almost immediately noticed it myself when I started reading, but The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is driven almost entirely by character development while the plot is kind of a background device. There are events that motivate the characters and give the narrative direction, but for the most part, you’re reading to learn about the individuals on the ship: how they ended up there, what their home worlds are like, and how their relationships with each other grow and evolve. As the Wayfarer (the crew’s ship) stops at different planets and space stations on its travels, you get to meet all kinds of different species with fascinating histories. If you’re worried that a 400-page novel driven almost exclusively by character development sounds boring, don’t be. It’s insanely fun while still addressing serious topics, never drags, and reflects open-minded feminist thinking (it’s awesome reading a book where you can almost forget gender stereotyping even exists!!).

Links: Becky Chambers .com | Goodreads | Amazon

You’ll like this book if you like: Character-driven plots, Space Opera, Sci-Fi, Space travel plots, Alien sex

DAWN (1987)

As a lovedownload-3r of science-fiction, I’ve been looking forward to reading Octavia Butler, a black woman and powerful voice in science-fiction, for this blog and in general. I chose to start with Dawn for no particular reason, and with little idea of what to expect from it.

There’s more than one way to make a novel engaging and interesting to a reader. The intrigue found in Dawn is in the vastness of the imagination required to envision this future, and Butler’s ability to connect this strange, imagined future with the world as we know it today. I turn the page because the things Butler comes up with and the detail to which they’re thought through is fascinating. It’s fascinating and thought-provoking, but its not the type of novel I fall in love with.

With that said, Dawn is a powerful novel. It forces you to question what makes us human, what is central to our humanity. Is it what we look like, who we love, how we reproduce?  Is it in part our capacity for violence? Our ability to lie and deceive and therefore distrust? The intelligent alien species in Dawn, the Oankali, say that humans are defined by two incompatible traits that lead to our destruction: we are intelligent and we are hierarchical, an analysis that is hard to argue with.

Butler’s writing style is straightforward and non-emotional. I would almost be inclined to compare it to science writing in how matter-of-fact it is, but it is much more than that. She has a way of explaining things both artfully and exceptionally clearly. Phrases like “strangely gentle chaos” capture a scene perfectly. While Dawn was a book that took me awhile to get through because I never became fully absorbed in it, it is also a book I doubt I’ll ever forget. It’s creative and imaginative and powerful, and I intend to pick up another Octavia Butler novel for this blog in the future.

Links: Octavia Butler .orgGoodreads | Amazon

You’ll like this book if you like: True science fiction, un-emotional writing style, biological sciences, dystopian futures

AN UNNECESSARY WOMAN (2013)

download-2Every once in awhile, I’ll pick up a book, and no more than one page in, know that I am at the beginning of something special. I’ll pause my reading and allow myself to bask in the anticipation of everything to come. Great beginnings are hard. Great endings are much harder. An Unnecessary Woman has both. A perfect beginning, a perfect ending, and perfect everything in between.

The novel opens with the protagonist, Aaliyah, a 72-year-old woman in Beirut, basking in anticipation of the new year. She is the definition of a bibliophile, and to pass her days alone, and to provide herself with a feeling of purpose, she translates. She translates novels following a strict set of rules: nothing written by French or English speaking authors, and every project begun on the first of January.

Aaliyah:

“The year is long dead. Long live the new year! I will begin my next project. This is the time that excites me most…Beginnings are pregnant with possibilities. As much as I enjoy finishing a translation, it is this time that tickles my marrow most. The ritual of preparation.”

And then acknowledging the strictness of her routine:

“Yes, I am a tad obsessive. For a nonreligious woman, this is my faith.”

I read these first pages, Aaliyah’s anticipation and her contemplation of that anticipation, just as this new year began. My first book of the new year and anticipation for a new year is the first subject!  Aaliyah is trying to explain her illogical obsession with the ritual of the beginning of a year just as I was doing the same. I love New Years Eve. I love New Years Eve as much as I am boggled by why it should mean anything to me at all. A completely arbitrary division of a completely arbitrary concept, time, and yet every year it humbles me in how monumental it feels.

And Aaliyah’s love of ritual spoke to me as well. While she follows a ritual to translate, I follow a ritual, albeit a much simpler one, to read. I have a notebook, a physical notebook because there is something satisfying in handling a physical object in which I handwrite, where I keep track of every book I read. I allow every book I read only one side of one page of the notebook, no matter how long the book or how much I have to say about it. On the first line I write the name of the book, on the second the author and the year of publication, on the third, the date I begin reading the book and later, the date I finished reading it, and then every line below left open for notes I take while reading. There’s no real reason for this repeated ritual other than it adds to the anticipation of beginning a book, it is all part of the process.

An Unnecessary Woman is full of Aaliyah’s musings on literature, books she loves, books she hates, and why. She particularly hates books with “epiphanies” ; books that explain away tragedies, giving every tragedy a purpose. And yet, An Unnecessary Woman, ends with an epiphany of its own. Not an epiphany that makes the past, or anything, okay, but an epiphany that allows Aaliyah to keep living, to keep moving forward without falling into despair.

Near the middle of the novel, Alameddine writes:

“Joy is the anticipation of joy.”

And then the book ends with the sentence:

“I take a long breath, the air of anticipation.”

A perfect beginning, a perfect middle, a perfect end.

Links: Rabih Alameddine .com | Goodreads | Amazon

You’ll like this book if you like: classic literature, books about books, reflective protagonists, beautiful sentence-level writing, historical fiction, female-led stories, middle-eastern history