Showing posts with label Book Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Book Reviews. Show all posts

Thursday, November 30, 2023

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book (2008) is a novel by Neil Gaiman about a boy being raised by ghosts in an English graveyard. Geared towards young adults, Gaiman was inspired to write this story by Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894) in which a little boy named Mowgli is raised by wolves in the jungle.

The Graveyard Book tells the story of Nobody Owens. At the beginning of the novel, Nobody is orphaned when a man named Jack murders his parents and his older sister. Nobody manages to escape by wandering to a graveyard. The ghosts in the graveyard decide to care for him and protect him with the help of a vampire named Silas who serves as his guardian. Nobody, nicknamed “Bod,” is granted “Freedom of the Graveyard.” He is able to see ghosts and learn supernatural abilities, such as disappearing or Fading, Haunting, and Dreamwalking.

Bod has various adventures and learns about the outside world from the ghosts. He befriends a ghost witch named Liza Hempstock and a young living girl named Scarlett Amber Perkins, who later moves away to Scotland. Though he is safe in the graveyard, Bod craves learning about the outer world and convinces Silas to allow him to go to school. Unfortunately, when Bod attracts too much attention to himself at school, he has to leave.

Meanwhile, the man Jack continues to pursue Nobody with the goal of killing him to finish what he started. Nobody must use his skills to protect himself, his friends, and his home from the evil man Jack.

The Graveyard Book is a coming-of-age novel with an episodic quality. The main narrative conflict is the existence of the man Jack, but he is mainly absent from the story. Jack’s reason for pursuing Bod isn’t very compelling. Still, I really liked Bod and his friends, especially Scarlett and Liza, and I wonder where life will take Bod next.

There were many quotes and exchanges that I loved throughout the story. Here are a few of them:

Silas said, “Out there, the man who killed your family is, I believe, still looking for you, still intends to kill you.”
Bod shrugged. “So?” he said. “It’s only death. I mean, all of my best friends are dead.”
“Yes.” Silas hesitated. “They are. And they are, for the most part, done with the world. You are not. You’re alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you change the world, the world will change. Potential. Once you’re dead, it’s gone. Over. You’ve made what you’ve made, dreamed your dream, written your name. You may be buried here, you may even walk. But that potential is finished.”

“That’s the difference between the living and the dead, ennit?” said the voice. It was Liza Hempstock talking, Bod knew, although the witch-girl was nowhere to be seen. “The dead dun’t disappoint you. They’ve had their life, done what they’ve done. We dun’t change. The living, they always disappoint you, dun’t they? You meet a boy who’s all brave and noble, and he grows up to run away.”

Liza could be seen now, a misty shape in the alleyway keeping pace with Bod.
“He’s out here, somewhere, and he wants you dead,” she said. “Him as killed your family. Us in the graveyard, we wants you to stay alive. We wants you to surprise us and disappoint us and impress us and amaze us. Come home, Bod.”

Bod had allowed himself no friends among the living. That way, he had realized back during his short-lived schooldays, lay only trouble. Still, he had remembered Scarlett, had missed her for years after she went away, had long ago faced the fact he would never see her again. And now she had been here in his graveyard, and he had not known her...

Then she said, “Can I hug you?”
“Do you want to?” said Bod.
“Well then.” He thought for a moment. “I don’t mind if you do.”
“My hands won’t go through you or anything? You’re really there?”
“You won’t go through me,” he told her, and she threw her arms around him and squeezed him so tightly he could hardly breathe. He said, “That hurts.”
Scarlett let go. “Sorry.”
“No. It was nice. I mean. You just squeezed more than I was expecting.”
“I just wanted to know if you were real. All these years I thought you were just something in my head. And then I sort of forgot about you. But I didn’t make you up, and you’re back, you’re in my head, and you’re in the world too.”

Nothing was said. Just a silence in reply, that echoed of dust and loneliness.

“How is she?”
“I took her memories,” said Silas. “They will return to Glasgow. She has friends there.”
“How could you make her forget me?”
Silas said, “People want to forget the impossible. It makes their world safer.”

...Mother Slaughter interrupted, “And I still feels like I done when I was a tiny slip of a thing, making daisy chains in the old pasture. You’re always you, and that don’t change, and you’re always changing, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Liza’s voice, close to his ear, said, “Truly, life is wasted on the living, Nobody Owens. For one of us is too foolish to live, and it is not I. Say you will miss me.”
“Where are you going?” asked Bod. Then, “Of course I will miss you, wherever you go...”
“Too stupid,” whispered Liza Hempstock’s voice, and he could feel the touch of her hand on his hand. “Too stupid to live.”
The touch of her lips against his cheek, against the corner of his lips. She kissed him gently and he was too perplexed, too utterly wrong-footed, to know what to do.
Her voice said, “I will miss you too. Always.” A breath of wind ruffled his hair, if it was not the touch of her hand, and then he was, he knew, alone on the bench.

“Will I see you again?”
“Perhaps.” There was kindness in Silas’s voice, and something more. “And whether you see me or not, I have no doubt that I will see you.”

Related Reviews:
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran

Purchase and read books by Neil Gaiman:

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett American Gods: A Novel by Neil Gaiman

Monday, October 23, 2023

Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda

Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda

Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda is a collection of intertwined short stories featuring living humans interacting with ghosts and spirits. Matsuda’s inspiration for each story came from Japanese folktales, legends, kabuki, rakugo, and plays. She provides synopses for the original tales at the end of the book. I read the English translation from the Japanese by Polly Barton.

The stories are unique in that the ghosts and spirits are growing, learning, and changing. The spirits are not scary, horrifying, or frightening; instead, they exist side by side with the living. The collection begins with the story of a young woman who is blaming herself after her boyfriend breaks up with her. The ghost of her aunt who died by suicide appears to the woman, reminding her not to destroy her strength. Later, the young woman’s cousin (her aunt’s grieving son) appears in other stories. Many of the stories are interconnected. Some stories are connected by the characters, others by their themes, and still others by their location.

I enjoyed the stories and wish I was familiar with the originals. In this season of ghosts, reading this volume was a good reminder that there are spirits all around us, if we just open our eyes to them.

Purchase and read books by Aoko Matsuda:

Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan Volume 6

Thursday, October 5, 2023

The Dinner by Herman Koch

The Dinner by Herman Koch

The Dinner by Herman Koch is a dark, corrosive tale about bad people doing bad things. I read the English translation of the novel from the Dutch by Sam Garrett. Set in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, the book tells the story of two brothers and their wives who meet for dinner at a fancy restaurant to discuss a family matter involving their sons.

The book’s sections are named for the dinner’s five courses: aperitif, appetizer, main course, dessert, and digestif. Paul Lohman and his wife Claire arrive at the restaurant first. They await the arrival of Paul’s brother Serge and Serge's wife Babette. Serge is a famous politician who is planning to run for Prime Minister of the Netherlands.

Paul is the narrator, and he’s an unreliable one. Beyond that, he’s a sociopath. Paul is aware that his son Michel and Serge’s son Rick have committed a heinous crime. Their violent act was recorded on video, but the boys have not yet been identified. Over the course of the dinner, their parents must decide—should they turn their sons in, or should they cover up and ignore their crime?

To any reader with a moral compass, the decision is obvious, but these characters lack morals.

Purchase and read books by Herman Koch:

The Dinner by Herman Koch Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch

Thursday, September 14, 2023

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018) is a novel by Ottessa Moshfegh about a depressed, unnamed 26-year-old woman who decides to hibernate for a year and emerge as a new person. The narrator seems to have it all—she’s young, she’s blond, thin, and beautiful, she’s wealthy and lives off an inheritance in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and she has a job at an art gallery in Chelsea.

Despite these privileges, she’s dissatisfied, dark, and miserable. We learn that her emotionally unavailable father died of cancer during her junior year at Columbia, and her unfeeling, alcoholic mother committed suicide weeks later. The narrator has little self esteem and has an on-again off-again relationship with Trevor, a cruel older man who works on Wall Street and uses her for sex. She has a complex, resentful relationship with her best friend Reva, whom she seems to judge, dislike, and tolerate. Reva’s mother is dying of cancer, but the narrator is so detached that she has no sympathy for her friend.

She says, "I was both relieved and irritated when Reva showed up, the way you'd feel if someone interrupted you in the middle of suicide. Not that what I was doing was suicide. In fact, it was the opposite of suicide. My hibernation was self-preservational. I thought that it was going to save my life."

As the narrator begins to sleep more and more, she finds relief in the emptiness. She contacts an unethical psychiatrist named Dr. Tuttle, and lies about her symptoms, claiming to be an insomniac. Dr. Tuttle barely listens to the narrator, but prescribes her a wide array of pharmaceuticals to help her sleep.

She contemplates her library of psychopharmaceuticals thinking, "Life was fragile and fleeting and one had to be cautious, sure, but I would risk death if it meant I could sleep all day and become a whole new person."

Will the narrator’s plan work? Is sleep and escape from reality really the answer?

I bought this book sight unseen from Barnes and Noble. It was a surprise book, wrapped up and labeled with the above synopsis as part of a “Blind Date with a Book” display. I don’t think I would have picked the book up on my own, and selecting it helped expand my reading.

Although the narrator craved sleep throughout this book, the story kept me awake, reading until the very end.

Purchase and read books by Ottessa Moshfegh:

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh

Friday, September 8, 2023

Late Fame by Arthur Schnitzler

Late Fame by Arthur Schnitzler

Late Fame is a novella by the Austrian novelist and playwright Arthur Schnitzler (1862–1931). In 1938, Schnitzler’s writings were saved from the Nazis and moved to the Cambridge University Library. In 2014, Late Fame was re-discovered in Schnitzler's archives and published posthumously.

Schnitzler is known writing with candor about pleasure-seeking and sex in fin-de-siècle Vienna. Sigmund Freud called Schnitzler his "doppelgänger." Many of Schnitzler’s works were censored and banned because of their subject matter. In recent years, Schnitzler’s story Traumnovelle (Rhapsody or Dream Story) was adapted by Stanley Kubrick as the film Eyes Wide Shut starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

In Late Fame, we meet Eduard Saxberger, an older man who lives quietly in Vienna and works as a civil servant. One evening, a young man named Wolfgang Meier arrives at his door asking if he is the poet of the Wanderings. Saxberger is astonished. In his youth, he published a volume of poetry, but his writing was never recognized. Like many people, Saxberger went on with life and stopped writing. But now, this young man and his circle of aspiring literary friends have rediscovered Saxberger’s writings and wish to celebrate him.

Meier invites Saxberger to join his literary society called "Enthusiasm." The group meets at a local coffee shop. Saxberger begins to attend and enjoys the admiration of the group. He explores his dusty documents, reads his old writings, and wonders if he is a poet after all. The literary society decides to put on a recital to get recognition for their works, and they ask Saxberger to contribute a new piece.

Saxberger agrees, but can he can he write a new work? Can he recapture his youthful dream? And does he fit in with this group of young writers, or is he past his prime?

Late Fame explores themes of aspiration, aging, artistic temperament, and vanity and is both tragic and comedic.

Purchase and read books by Arthur Schnitzler:

Late Fame by Arthur Schnitzler Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

You Will Find Your People by Lane Moore

You Will Find Your People by Lane Moore

You Will Find Your People: How to Make Meaningful Friendships as an Adult by Lane Moore is a memoir and self-help book published in 2023. It's a hopeful, heartbreaking, encouraging, and funny read.

When I started reading it, I was not quite sure what to expect, but when Lane Moore started talking about Anne of Green Gables in the second chapter, I was compelled to read more. As someone who's always looking for kindred spirits like Anne Shirley, I knew I shared that with the author.

I found the book compelling because it covers so many aspects of friendship that no one talks openly about like the grief and pain of losing friendships. Moore also talks about the influence of pop culture on our friendship ideals.

After finishing the book, I read a beautiful essay where Lane Moore talks about friendship and Anne of Green Gables called, "I Want a Bosom Friendship Like Anne Shirley and Diana Barry." She wrote the essay for Powell’s Books Blog on April 25, 2023. Until just a couple months ago, I used to live a few blocks from Powell’s. Moore's essay is really lovely, and I think any fan of Anne of Green Gables should read it.

Purchase and read books by Lane Moore:

You Will Find Your People by Lane Moore How to Be Alone by Lane Moore

Friday, August 11, 2023

Later by Stephen King

Later by Stephen King

Later is a novel by Stephen King that was published by Hard Case Crime in 2021. It’s a suspense, crime, and horror story with paranormal elements.

The story is narrated by Jamie Conklin, a young man who recounts strange and horrific events from his childhood in New York City. Jamie is being raised alone by his mother Tia, and the mother-son pair have a close relationship built upon trust.

Tia runs a literary agency. She took over the agency after her brother Harry was diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s disease. Tia struggles to keep the agency afloat because she and her brother made poor financial investments, and their business suffered losses. Now, due to her brother’s illness, Tia must also provide support to maintain her brother’s care.

Since his childhood, Jamie has had the unusual ability to see and communicate with dead people. In his youth, Jamie was frightened after he saw a dead man wave at him after being killed in a car accident in Central Park. Later, he communicated with the dead wife of his neighbor Professor Martin Burkett. Jamie can only see the dead for a short period after they die, and they appear in the same state as when they died (sometimes pretty gruesome). The dead eventually fade out and disappear from Jamie’s view. When he asks dead people questions, they answer him honestly. Jamie’s ability worries his mother, so the pair keep it a secret, and Jamie keeps his sightings to himself.

Later on, we learn that Tia has shared Jamie’s secret with her girlfriend Liz Dutton, a cop who works for the NYPD. Jamie is hurt by his mother’s betrayal. It turns out that Liz is a dirty cop, and Tia eventually breaks up with her. Both Tia and Liz use Jamie’s ability to save their careers. Tia uses her son to learn the plot of a novelist who dies before completing his final novel in a long, popular series.

Afterwards, Liz puts Jamie in substantial danger when she forces him to communicate with an evil serial bomber Kenneth Therriault to figure out where Therriault planted his final bomb. Unlike the other dead people Jamie sees, Therriault doesn’t disappear after a few days, but continues to contact and threaten Jamie. Jamie seeks help from Professor Burkett to rid himself of Therriault’s spirit. Then, just when you think Jamie’s got through the worst, Liz returns to kidnap Jamie and force him to participate in her latest corrupt scheme.

Purchase and read books by Stephen King:

Later by Stephen King The Shining by Stephen King

Thursday, July 20, 2023

95 Poems by E.E. Cummings

95 Poems by E.E. Cummings

Published in 1958, 95 Poems was the final book of poetry published by E.E. Cummings during his life. It’s a joyous and beautiful work that left me with a sense of joie de vivre.

The poems are about nature, the seasons, love, aging, as well as observations of people, animals, and the universe. Cummings breaks the rules of punctuation, word order, capitalization, and spacing as an artistic statement. In each poem, his word placement serves a purpose. Cummings’s way of writing is spirited, and his exuberant, unique technique of playing with words is both inspiring and entertaining.

A few of my favorite lines include:

because you aren't afraid to kiss the dirt
(and consequently dare to climb the sky)

-poem 7

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it's always ourselves we find in the sea

-poem 10

but more than all(as all your more than eyes
tell me)there is a time for timelessness

-poem 11

(when time from time shall set us free)
forgetting me,remember me

-poem 16

honour the past
but welcome the future

-poem 60

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)

-poem 92

Years ago, my husband and I lived down the street from his birthplace and childhood home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I wish I’d read this lovely volume back then.

External Link:
Cummings Archive - an archival collection of E.E. Cummings's drafts and notes curated by Aaron M. Moe, Ph.D.

Purchase and read books by E.E. Cummings:

95 Poems by E.E. Cummings 73 Poems by E.E. Cummings

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Tori Amos: Piece by Piece by Tori Amos and Ann Powers

Tori Amos: Piece by Piece by Tori Amos and Ann Powers

Tori Amos: Piece by Piece is an autobiography of the musician Tori Amos that was cowritten by Amos and Ann Powers. Published on February 8, 2005, the memoir describes Tori Amos’s childhood and musical training, her creative process, and her career and musical circle. The book also provides an enlightening look at Tori’s relationship with her fans and her family life.

As a longtime fan, I enjoyed the parts of the book that described Tori Amos’s songwriting process and creative inspirations. I also liked the chapter on her image in terms of fashion and photography. I gained a sense of what touring is like for her and her crew. It was fun to learn how she creates her unique setlists with consideration for the city she’s playing in and current events. The chapter on her split from Atlantic Records was informative. I knew it was acrimonious, but I had no idea how awful it was. She provides some great advice for aspiring musicians about the music industry.

I wish the book had sharper editing overall. Though I’m a big fan, I found it hard to read the memoir at times. The chapter titles and effort to relate Tori to archetypes and mythological characters seemed forced to me.

Purchase and read books by Tori Amos:

Tori Amos: Piece by Piece by Tori Amos and Ann Powers Resistance by Tori Amos

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Where Hope Comes From by Nikita Gill

Where Hope Comes From by Nikita Gill

Where Hope Comes From is a book of poetry by Nikita Gill. Published in 2021, Gill’s poems reflect on the coronavirus pandemic and how to find strength and hope in a time of loneliness and isolation. Her poems are divided into five sections thematically using the life cycle of a star. The book is illustrated with her watercolors and drawings.

I especially loved the poems “Letter to My Younger Self in Times of Turbulence,” “Notes on Survival,” “The Present,” “In Contemplation,” and “Spring Cleaning.” I was struck by the lines in “The Confrontation” saying, “This is what loneliness does. It acts as a mirror for who you are.” I also loved the opening lines of “Daily Mantra 2” reading, “There is still room for love. Even after being uprooted…” A few more of my favorites were “The Forest,” “Love in the Time of Coronavirus,” and “93 Percent Stardust.”

I found Nikita Gill’s poems to be thoughtful, understanding, and encouraging. Her sweet message on the book's back cover reminds her readers that they are not alone. Her poems have a universal quality, but they are also grounded in the everyday. I look forward to reading more of her writing.

Purchase and read books by Nikita Gill:

Where Hope Comes From by Nikita Gill These Are the Words by Nikita Gill

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Wildflowers: A Guide to Familiar American Flowers by Herbert S. Zim and Alexander C. Martin

Wildflowers: A Guide to Familiar American Flowers by Herbert S. Zim and Alexander C. Martin

Wildflowers: A Guide to Familiar American Flowers (2002) is a Golden Guide from St. Martin’s Press by Herbert S. Zim and Alexander C. Martin and illustrated by Rudolf Freund. The book was revised by Jonathan P. Latimer and Karen Stray Nolting with Dr. Robert A. Defilipps.

I enjoyed reading this helpful guide to American wildflowers. It has beautiful illustrations of flowering plants that we often take for granted or overlook. The book is divided into four sections that organize wildflowers by their predominant color: red to pink and magenta, purple to blue, orange to yellow, and cream to white. The top corners of the pages are color-coded in four corresponding shades, so it’s handy to flip through the guide to locate a specific plant by flower color.

I learned a lot of new things about various wildflower species and their geographic ranges. I also came to know many facts that I was unaware of before. For instance, I never knew that clovers were part of the pea family. The authors have some preferences for wildflowers that don’t align with mine. I love Queen Anne’s Lace, and I think orchids are a bit overrated.

Yellow Orchids in Wildflowers: A Guide to Familiar American Flowers by Herbert S. Zim and Alexander C. Martin

Queen Anne's Lace in Wildflowers: A Guide to Familiar American Flowers by Herbert S. Zim and Alexander C. Martin

Other than those quibbles, the book is a great reference guide for anyone wanting to learn about wildflowers.

Purchase and read books in the Golden Guides series by Herbert S. Zim:

Wildflowers: A Guide to Familiar American Flowers by Herbert S. Zim and Alexander C. Martin Trees by Herbert S. Zim and Alexander C. Martin Birds by Herbert S. Zim

Monday, January 30, 2023

Judging a Book by Its Lover by Lauren Leto

Judging a Book by Its Lover by Lauren Leto

Judging a Book by Its Lover: A Field Guide to the Hearts and Minds of Readers Everywhere (2012) is a book by Lauren Leto. It’s a collection of essays, with reflections on reading, writing, and authors. Some humorous pieces were republished from Leto’s blog. The chapters are a mixed bag of sincerity and snark.

Some of the chapters resonated with me, especially those on loving reading and finding connections with others through books. It’s clear that Leto loves reading. She knows how to succinctly and humorously describe books, genres, and literary movements. She also provides a wealth of interesting factoids about authors.

Other chapters in the book were less enjoyable to me, especially the long one titled “How to Fake It,” which is a guide to discussing well-known books you haven’t read. I’m not interested in feigning knowledge about books to impress anyone, and I have no problem being honest when I haven’t read a classic or a book by a famous contemporary author. I started wondering who the audience of the book was meant to be—those who love reading or those who pretend to be literary.

In spite of these misgivings, the book made me want to read more. As I read it, I jotted down the names of several authors and books that I’d like to explore in the future. I was glad to have some new ideas on how to expand my reading.

Purchase and read books by Lauren Leto:

Judging a Book by Its Lover by Lauren Leto Texts From Last Night: All the Texts No One Remembers Sending by Lauren Leto and Ben Bator

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath

Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath

In 1952, Sylvia Plath wrote the short story “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” while she was an undergraduate student at Smith College. Plath had recently won Mademoiselle’s writing prize, and she decided to submit “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” to the magazine for publication. The magazine rejected the story. For years, the short story was in Sylvia Plath’s archives at the Lilly Library at Indiana University at Bloomington until it was published in 2019.

Plath described her story as “a vague symbolic tale.” It begins at a train station. A young woman named Mary Ventura is there with her parents who are encouraging her to take a train ride north to an unknown location. When Mary says, “I’m not ready to take the trip yet,” Mary’s father cuts her off, saying, “You’re just getting jittery. The trip north won’t be an ordeal. You just get on the train and don’t worry about another thing until you get to the end of the line. The conductor will tell you where to go then.” Mary’s mother tells her, “It will be an easy trip. Everyone has to leave home sometime. Everyone has to go away sooner or later.”

The story is colored in many shades, but the predominant shade is red. Mary’s parents find her a red plush seat. Her mother touches her handkerchief to “her painted red mouth,” starts to say something, but then stops. She leaves Mary with a “vague, preoccupied kiss.” Mary then takes off her red coat and settles in for the ride.

Soon after, a kind, red-faced woman with blue eyes asks to take the empty seat next to Mary. Mary smiles back at her warmth. The woman is knitting a dress of leaf-green wool. She says it’s for a girl just about Mary’s size.

As the train rolls on, Mary views the “somber grey afternoon,” and the “bleak autumn fields” stretching “beyond the cinder beds.” The sun is a flat orange disc and the air is thick with smoke. The woman explains that it’s because of the forest fires and that the smoke will get worse.

The woman takes Mary to the dining cart, where she orders a glass ginger ale. It arrives in a tall glass with a red cherry at the bottom. Mary finds the dining car luxurious. The woman later treats Mary to a chocolate bar.

The railroad staff recognize the woman and speak with her confidentially. She’s made the trip several times. When Mary speaks of all the nice things in the train, the woman tells her ominously, “Yes, my dear…but remember you pay for it. You pay for it all in the end.”

Mary asks the woman what it will be like when she gets off the train. Her ticket is for the last station at the end of the line, which is named “the ninth kingdom.” The woman asks Mary if she notices anything unusual about her fellow passengers. While Mary doesn’t notice anything, as I reader, I noticed some religious symbols. The lady in the blue jacket who was carrying a child and who paused at the empty seat next to Mary symbolized Mary, the mother of God. The two squabbling brothers seemed to represent Cain and Abel.

Shortly after, a blond woman with a crimson wool skirt and red painted mouth tries to stay on the train. The conductor forces her to leave by gripping her arm. The woman says his grip “hurts” and “burns” her arm.

Mary’s curiosity about the train and the ninth kingdom grows. She listens as the woman talks with the conductor saying, “they generally don’t protest at all. They just accept it when the time comes.” Mary begins to question her destination, asking, “Accept what?” The woman explains that the passengers are apathetic and “don’t even care about where they are going.” Mary says she’ll get the next train home, but the woman explains that there are no return trips once reaching the ninth kingdom, and that “It is the kingdom of negation, of the frozen will.”

Mary begins to cry, learning that there are no more stops before the train reaches the ninth kingdom. She blames her parents, but the woman tells her, “You let them put you on the train, didn’t you? You accepted and did not rebel.”

With a spark of insight, Mary decides to pull the emergency cord on the train. The woman realizes that Mary is “a spunky one” and tells her that there is still time to assert her will. The woman gives Mary advice on how to escape. When Mary asks, “How do you know? How can I believe you?” the woman calls her a “faithless child.” The woman tells Mary that she has been on her side all along, but that Mary had to make a positive decision and make the break herself.

Mary pulls the alarm, and runs from the train and up a dark staircase where a snake winds around her ankle. Eventually she reaches sunlight, and the snake falls away like a link of metal. Mary finds herself in a city park where the woman from the train is selling white roses and daffodils. The woman meets Mary with a “blue gaze of triumphant love” saying, “I have been waiting for you, dear.”

The short story can be interpreted in many ways. It is a story about taking your own initiative and asserting willpower to choose your own way in life. It’s about leaving home and growing up. It’s about choosing growth over stagnation and choosing thoughtfulness over indifference. It’s about having trust and having faith in the right people.

I’m glad the story was published after so many years. It was a refreshing read.

Related Reviews:
Arial by Sylvia Plath

External Link:
The Genesis of “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” by Karen V. Kukil (an essay on the short story)

Purchase and read books by Sylvia Plath:

Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath Ariel by Sylvia Plath The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Ariel by Sylvia Plath

Ariel by Sylvia Plath

I re-read Sylvia Plath’s Ariel (1964) this winter, revisiting it after first reading the volume back in 2002. Plath’s book of poems is brilliant and intrepid. Her poems gut you with their rawness and honestly.

I still don’t understand many of the poems fully, but they each made me think. I’ve also been reading literary analyses of many of her poems. I find it curious to see the wildly different interpretations people have of them.

It’s hard to read this work without also contemplating the tragedy of Sylvia Plath’s death. She was hugely talented, driven, and hard-working. I was glad to read this book again because Plath inspires me to write and be truthful and open like her.

I especially loved her poems "Medusa," "Poppies in October," "Kindness," and "Poppies in July."

"Medusa" in Ariel by Sylvia Plath

Purchase and read books by Sylvia Plath:

Ariel by Sylvia Plath The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Sunday, January 8, 2023

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is a tiny, pocket-sized book by historian Timothy Snyder. It contains 20 lessons to counter tyranny. Most of the lessons are followed by a few pages that briefly describe historical moments in the 20th century.

The book is a short read, full of declarative statements. It’s not a history book. There are no footnotes or citations, and the same few authors are repeatedly quoted throughout.

The book started out well, and I thought some lessons were really useful reminders. By the end, though, I thought the author was running out of lessons and struggling to come up with a round twenty. One of the latter lessons was to use autopay to contribute to charities. This lesson fell shortly after Snyder derided the internet and suggested establishing a private life. Coupled, the two lessons felt quite contradictory.

The final lesson was to “Be as Courageous as You Can.” Throughout the book, Snyder makes remarks about Trump without naming him, as though he is Voldemort in the Harry Potter series. I wondered why Snyder failed to have the courage to name him directly. It felt like such an odd choice.

The book’s lessons all center on European history and neglect the rest of the world. I thought about this major omission when Snyder criticized Americans for not having passports. Most often, Americans who lack passports lack the means to travel. Most do not, as Snyder put it, say “they do not need travel documents, because they prefer to die defending freedom in America.” He was definitely speaking from a place of privilege, and the statement felt out of touch.

The book contains the following 20 lessons:

Chapter 1: Do Not Obey in Advance.
Chapter 2: Defend Institutions.
Chapter 3: Beware the One-Party State.
Chapter 4: Take Responsibility for the Face of the World.
Chapter 5: Remember Professional Ethics.
Chapter 6: Be Wary of Paramilitaries.
Chapter 7: Be Reflective If You Must Be Armed.
Chapter 8: Stand Out.
Chapter 9: Be Kind to Our Language.
Chapter 10: Believe in Truth.
Chapter 11: Investigate.
Chapter 12: Make Eye Contact and Small Talk.
Chapter 13: Practice Corporeal Politics.
Chapter 14: Establish a Private Life.
Chapter 15: Contribute to Good Causes.
Chapter 16: Learn from Peers in Other Countries.
Chapter 17: Listen for Dangerous Words.
Chapter 18: Be Calm When the Unthinkable Arrives.
Chapter 19: Be a Patriot.
Chapter 20: Be as Courageous as You Can.

I’m glad I checked this book out from the library as an ebook. Though it was a good read, I think I’d learn more from a more expansive historical work on the subject.

Purchase and read books by Timothy Snyder:

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder The Road to Unfreedom by Timothy Snyder

Monday, December 12, 2022

The Scarlet Imperial by Dorothy B. Hughes

The Scarlet Imperial by Dorothy B. Hughes

The Scarlet Imperial (1946) is an engrossing, fast-paced crime novel written by Dorothy B. Hughes. Born in 1904, Hughes was a journalist, author, poet, historian, and literary critic. She wrote many detective, mystery, thriller, and crime novels in the noir style. Hughes also penned a biography of Erle Stanley Gardner, who wrote the Perry Mason stories. Previously this year, I read her novel In a Lonely Place, which was a fascinating book.

During her career, Hughes received four Edgar Allan Poe awards from Mystery Writers of America. In 1951, she was given an Edgar Award for Outstanding Mystery Criticism. In 1964, she received an Edgar Award for Best Novel for The Expendable Man. In 1978, she received The Grand Master award from the organization. Lastly, in 1979, she received the award for Best Critical/Biographical Work for Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Real Perry Mason.

The Scarlet Imperial (also published as Kiss for a Killer) is the story of Eliza Williams. We meet Eliza on a grey and rainy spring day that feels like autumn. Eliza is posing as a perfect secretary in Manhattan under a false name. She’s an agent, working for a man named Towner Clay, and she’s awaiting word on how to proceed with her unknown assignment.

Eliza is a mystery at first, but eventually, we learn her story. She has struggled through life, and she doesn’t even know her real name. Eliza believes she was born in Manchukuo and that her family were Americans. As a six-year-old girl, she witnessed the brutal murders of her parents and brother because they were white foreigners. Eliza pretended she was dead to survive. Then she wandered with other refugees, passing as Chinese with her dark hair and eyes. Eliza made her way as a roadside beggar until she eventually reached Shanghai at age twelve. There, Eliza began working as a kitchen maid, and later, she got jobs in cafes and in the best hotels.

In Shanghai, Eliza fell in love with an American flyer named Thaddeus Skowa of The Flying Tigers. The pair planned to marry, but he never returned from the war. Thad died in prison, after being accused of stealing the Scarlet Imperial, a magnificent, jeweled egg that was given as a gift by Peter the Great to the Persian Shah.

When Eliza learned that Thad was dead, she tried to kill herself in her grief. She credits a man named Towner Clay with saving her. Towner, who had been in the diplomatic service, took care of Eliza for months when she was sick and brought her out of the East. After she recovered, she began to help him in return. Towner sought artifacts and treasures stolen by thieves and looters during the war and returned them to their owners. After working for him, Eliza shared the story of the Scarlet Imperial with Towner, and he promised to help her find it and return it to the Iranians. Eliza believes that in doing so, she will bring the true thief to justice and clear her beloved Thad’s name.

In the opening chapter, Eliza is handed a mysterious package. She takes possession of it, and learns the box contains the Scarlet Imperial. Can Eliza keep the Imp safe long enough to carry out her plan?

The story has many complex characters who double cross one another. There’s a handsome, sapphire-eyed, Irish man named Gavin Keane who hands Eliza the Scarlet Imperial and makes her promise to return it only to him. Gavin is shot in Eliza’s building, and she nurses and cares for him. Eliza and Gavin are attracted to each other, but neither fully trusts the other. Eliza’s boss is an attractive importer and exporter of rare objects named Bryan Brewer. Is Bry being above board in his quest to obtain the Imperial for a client, and what does he know about the history of the precious object? A glamorous woman named Feather Prentiss flits in and out of the story. Feather has the attention of all the men, much to Eliza’s jealously and dismay. There’s also an FBI agent Jones who interviews Eliza repeatedly after murders occur at her building. Finally, there’s the Iranian envoy Feroun Dekertian.

If Eliza can get the Scarlet Imperial into Dekertian’s hands safely, then will he really clear her dead fiancé’s name? The reader is left guessing about who is deceiving who and what motivates each character. The Scarlet Imperial a suspenseful and engaging story, and I think it would be fun to see it adapted as a film.

Related Reviews:
In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

Purchase and read books by Dorothy B. Hughes:

The Scarlet Imperial by Dorothy B. Hughes In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes