Review: Tigana

18Jun14

The best part about crowd-sourcing my summer reading list is that there’s a lot of sci-fi and fantasy on it. If I were only allowed to read one genre for the rest of my life, SF/F would be it. If some nitpick pointed out that that’s actually two genres (because, well, it is), I’d cheerfully pick F and spend the rest of my days surrounded by dragons, wizards, elves, orcs, thieves, vampires, witches, werewolves, and other such creatures battling the age-old war between good and evil in settings ranging from the idealized past to the urban future.

Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana is a solid example of why fantasy fiction brings me and many others so much joy. It’s the story of a land under a curse, the grief-stricken wizard who cursed it, and the men and women trying to break the curse. A book hasn’t made me gasp out loud in ages, but Tigana did it, and if you like medieval-style fantasy, you’re going to love this story.

Several covers of Tigana

Covers from different editions, courtesy of La Casa de El. Click through to read a review in Spanish.

Tigana is one country in a world where magic exists, but most of the inhabitants are human (supernatural creatures are frequently spoken of as legends, but very rarely seen). A generation ago, the Prince of Tigana murdered the wizard Brandin’s son in combat. Unfortunately, this only made Brandin more determined to conquer the country, and his forces pretty much reduced it to rubble. As if this weren’t enough of a lesson (NEVER underestimate the power of grief), Brandin curses the land so that nobody except people who were born there will be able to hear or speak the word “Tigana.” Everybody else will hear it as Charlie Brown adult wah-wah, which means that, in a generation, it will be as if the land and its history and culture had never existed.

The few remaining  Tigana-born citizens who weren’t completely psychologically crushed by this state of affairs (most people fled to live incognito in other lands) still take it very, very personally, and have banded together to defeat Brandin and lift the curse. Posing as traveling musicians, they roam throughout the world sowing the seeds of rebellion while dodging Brandin and Alberico, another not-very-nice wizard who doesn’t give a damn about Brandin or Tigana: he just wants to be emperor someday, and to hell with everybody else. And then, in the time-honored trope of “stranger-dropped-in-the-middle-of-things,” a young singer named Devin falls in with the Tigana crew and learns that he isn’t really the person his parents always claimed he was.

And then things get…very interesting.

Like many fantasy novelists, Kay’s trying to do a lot here. What he manages to accomplish, within the framework of the traditional fantasy novel, is next to incredible, especially since the narrative pov frequently switches up between chapters (a technique that allows Kay to conceal some crucial information and set up those jaw-dropping plot twists). Tigana and the other lands of the Palm are closely modeled on Italy, and if you’ve read some Raven Grimassi in your day, certain plot elements will hit you with a shock of pleased recognition. There’s also Machiavellian politics going on mad like woah, and an official state religious structure as well as folk religious beliefs that inform the characters’ actions. Sex and relationships are somewhat fluid, though certain practices are still considered taboo (homosexuality and BDSM have their parts to play here, so if you’re easily offended, this might not be the book you’re looking for). Magic rests in the hands of only a few, and leaves behind traces of its use so that practitioners can be spotted (a dangerous prospect in a land ruled by cranky wizards who don’t want more competition). In the hands of a lesser novelist, all of these elements might make for a hot mess; Kay, however, weaves them all into a solid, action-packed narrative that will keep you turning pages long past your bedtime to see how it all fits together.

Basically, it’s the perfect book, and I plan on buying it for my home library. If you’re into SF/F, you’ve probably already read it, but hopefully I’ve inspired you to go back and read it again. My only regret about reading it is that now I can never again read it for the first time…but at least I can talk it up to other people. Five stars and much respect.

 

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By virtue of the fact that there’s something to read in every room in my house, I do manage to squeak in a few extra books each month (those 5-minute intervals add up). My most recent “bonus book” is Ellen Litman’s Mannequin Girl, an 80s coming-of-age story set in the Soviet Union.

Mannequin Girl. Click through to read publisher catalog description.

Image obtained via author’s website. Click through to read more about the book.

We meet the protagonist, Kat Knopman, the summer before she enters first grade. Kat’s parents, who are both teachers, are brilliant, attractive, and well-liked, and Kat can’t wait to grow up to be just like them. However, her pre-school physical reveals that she has rapidly progressing scoliosis, a diagnosis that lands her in a school-sanitarium for children with physical disabilities and, eventually, confinement in a full-body brace.

The bulk of the novel revolves around Kat’s coming to terms with her disability (something she manages fairly well) and her parents’ failure to do the same. Her father, well-meaning Misha, pretends that Kat’s disability isn’t important. Though he’s kind enough about it, he isn’t willing to talk to Kat at length about her (or his) thoughts and feelings on the matter. Of course, given mama Anechka’s more dramatic responses, you could argue that Misha’s got his hands full already. Determined to have a “normal” child, Anechka subjects herself to a string of pregnancies and subsequent losses that wreck her both physically and mentally. Meanwhile, Kat bumbles through school and its social challenges, trying to figure out what her strengths and gifts are, and how she can use them to convince her parents she really is worthy of their love and attention.

It’s a bleak novel, to be sure, set as it is in a crumbling Soviet landscape. Kat’s survival is not a triumph of the will or a feel-good story: it’s just how things work. You make do with what you have and play the cards you’re dealt, because nobody’s coming around with new cards. As a little girl, Kat desperately wants Misha and Anechka’s love and approval, but over time, and with age, she learns to figure out what she wants for herself, and then to go get it (friendships, sex/love, some kind of career path, etc.). Although her path is still unclear at the novel’s end, the reader gets the sense that, free of the need to please her parents, Kat will succeed in life on her own terms.

Mannequin Girl is primarily a novel about children struggling to individuate from their parents, a process that is complicated by the presence of disability, and by the setting in a time period and culture with which the reader might not be familiar. There are a lot of “isms” floating around this book, including anti-Semitism, communism, and ableism, that make for a complex narrative not easily absorbed on one read. It’s not a feel-good book, but it is a think-well book, one you’ll be thinking about long after you’ve finished the last chapter. Recommended for people who like literary fiction, as well as stories about children and teens that aren’t necessarily YA lit.


WHAT IS THIS I DON’T EVEN.

Image via Geek Girl in Love. Click for review.

Image spotted at Geek Girl in Love. Click through to read a slightly more coherent review.

Ahem. That is to say, this isn’t a book you read casually. Here’s your litmus test. Did you like Dune? Awesome. Do you want to read a book that sees your Dune and raises you Judith Butler? If your answer was “Challenge accepted,” Stars is going to be your cup of tea. If not, leave now and wait for the next review. There’s no shame in it. Life is too short to spend with a book you might not like.

Still here? You’re going to be so very, very happy to have your mind blown by this exquisite novel, which is, at its core, a love story. What makes it an extraordinary love story is the universe in which it is set, one whose cultures are richly detailed, incredibly complex, and populated with all manner of extraordinary beings, meticulously detailed in appearance and behavior.

Plotwise, we begin on a world where anyone can have the anxiety centers of the brain removed. The catch is that you become a slave, but with no anxiety centers, you don’t worry too much about it.  A man named Korga agrees to the procedure–known as Radical Anxiety Termination–and becomes known henceforth as Rat (see what he did there?) Korga.  All manner of unpleasant things happen to Korga that are very upsetting for the reader, perhaps all the more so because Korga doesn’t really understand what’s happening to him–and is no longer able to care too much about it.

Meanwhile, on another world, a diplomat called Marq Dyeth is going about his normal (which is to say, packed with cultural and political intrigue) life when he receives word from a friend that a planet has been destroyed, and that the only survivor is about as close to Dyeth’s perfect erotic match as anyone can get. Intrigued, Marq allows circumstances to be carefully nudged so that the survivor will organically show up at his doorstep. It turns out to be Rat Korga, who has been healed of his wounds, but still doesn’t quite understand anything going on around him….except that he’s just as attracted to Dyeth as Marq is to him.

That’s an oversimplification by several thousand orders of magnitude, due largely to the fact that the plot itself moves very slowly, while the descriptions of history, culture, literature, anatomy, sexual practices, gender identity, and social customs go on for pages and pages, in the most utterly delightful way. It’s as if Delany has written, not just a novel, but a guidebook to a universe. In some ways it’s a far more open-minded, tolerant one than our own; in other ways, however, it is, sadly, just as barbaric as ours. A commentary, perhaps, on who we are, and who we could be?

The novel ends on an uncertain note, and while Delany planned to write a sequel, so far we’ve seen nothing. This is both a shame and a solace, because while you can’t go on to find out “what” happened, you can go back over and over to find out how things happened, and in what context. This is the kind of book you stay up all night talking about in the diner with your like-minded friends, over coffee and fried foods (or maybe pie), trying to unpack its richness and complexity.

Make mine a double, and pass the zucchini sticks. Recommended for extremely literate sci-fi fans or extremely literate people who scoff that there’s nothing of redeeming value in sf/f…just to see the looks on their faces when they are proved utterly, irrevocably wrong.


Even though I’ve spent half of my adult life in graduate school studying literature, and the other half working in a library, there’s still a lot of classic books and authors I’ve managed to miss. Milan Kundera is one of them, so I was super-excited to see one of his titles on the crowdsourced summer reading list. Intrigued by the fact my colleague had chosen something other than The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I dived into Life is Elsewhere (thanks, random number generator!).

 

Life is elsewhere. Click to read more about Kundera's life and work.

Click through for more information on Kundera’s life and work.

The novel revolves around Jaromil, a Czech poet, and his extremely overbearing mother, referred to throughout the narrative only as “Mama.” Mama’s marriage is unsatisfying, so she channels all her love and energy into little Jaromil, which makes for some warped relationships with women as he grows up. Mama’s also convinced Jaromil is special and destined for greatness, which he tends to believe, thus rendering him, upon more than one occasion, an insufferable ass.

So, why stick with these unlikeable characters? Because Jaromil, put-upon and jerk-tastic as he is, really does have a poetic sensibility, one that manages to flourish a little despite Mama’s smother-love. His alter ego, Xavier, is a creature of pure dream, a representation of his best self. Xavier is the part of Jaromil Mama can’t warp, and from time to time Xavier’s voice makes itself known in Jaromil’s work. He’s downright annoying, and yet at the same time you pity him, because of the wasted potential.

Kundera uses examples from other places and times to demonstrate just how stilted and restrained Jaromil’s own work is. Even Jaromil’s death is stupid rather than tragic or romantic (and, arguably, his own darned fault). The world, however, goes on without him, and holds hope of other ways of being and relating, as we learn through Jaromil’s ex-girlfriend after the poet’s death (a story I most definitely will not spoil).

Through it all, the narrative voice is wise, knowing, omniscient, and filled with hope, even as Jaromil and Mama struggle like insects pinned to a card, trapped in their destructive little dance. There’s the human world, and then there’s the poetic realm, and sometimes in one we get a glimpse of the other. Which is why, in spite of everything, people still try to be poets.

Having had this reading experience, I now understand why people praise Kundera so highly, and I will definitely be trying his other works. Recommended for literary fiction fans and poetry lovers alike.


Let’s do the numbers first, so I can tell you about my summer reading project!

Due to a lot of work commitments, my May totals were down from the norm. Still, I managed to squeak out 9 novels and 4 non-fiction works, for a monthly total of 13. This brings the grand YTD totals up to:

Fiction: 36

Nonfiction: 26

Poetry: 9

Graphic Novels: 3

Plays: 2

and an overall total of 76.

Today’s June 1, though, so you know that that means…

Image taken from the New York Times Online. Click through for a summer reading list.

Image from the New York times online. Click through to read a summer reading list from 2008.

Summer reading! Okay, fine, it’s technically not summer yet. Call me an overachiever, but there are so many books to explore, I’d rather start on my own than wait for the official adult summer reading program. I’ll still sign up, though. I promise!

This year, I thought it would be a good time to compile my summer reading list from Facebook friends’ suggestions. I stumbled across the original idea at A Novel Challenge, and my digital community responded enthusiastically. So enthusiastically, in fact, that I have my work cut out for me: here’s the list of 44 book suggestions, plus the 22 alternate picks (some people got super into it and suggested more than one title).

  1. Madness, Rack and Honey / Mary Ruefle
  2. Just One Damned Thing After Another / Jodi Taylor
  3. Never Cry Wolf / Farley Mowat
  4. Paladin of Souls / Lois McMaster Bujold
  5. The Giant’s House / Elizabeth McCracken
  6. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister / Gregory Maguire
  7. Dictionary of the Khazars / Milorad Pavic
  8. Chronicles of a Death Foretold / Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  9. My Real Children / Jo Walton
  10. The Unquiet Bones / Mel Starr
  11. any book by Owen Davies [I’ve read a few, so I’ll pick from the ones I haven’t]
  12. The Road to Damascus / Keith Laumer
  13. Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore / Robin Sloan
  14. The Meaning of Maggie / Megan Jean Sovern
  15. Behind Closed Doors / Susan R. Sloan
  16. The Last Witchhunter / James M. Morrow
  17. Unorthodox / Deborah Feldman
  18. Tigana / Guy Gavriel Kay
  19. Accelerando / Charles Stross
  20. Hyperion / Dan Simmons
  21. The Rules of Inheritance / Claire Bidwell Smith
  22. Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand / Samuel Delany
  23. I Am the Central Park Jogger / Trisha Meili
  24. The Empathy Exams / Leslie Jamison
  25. The Summer I Turned Pretty / Jenny Han [1st in the Summer trilogy]
  26. Can We Talk About Something More Pleasant? / Roz Chast
  27. Horse of a Different Color / Howard Waldrop
  28. Defective / Susan Sofayov
  29. Vurt / Jeff Noon
  30. Tao of Jeet Kune Do / Bruce Lee
  31. Southern Cross the Dog / Bill Cheng
  32. Wool Omnibus / Hugh Howey
  33. Divine Misfortune / A. Lee Martinez
  34. Death and Resurrection / R.A. McAvoy
  35. The Kept / James Scott
  36. Lions of Al-Rassan / Guy Gavriel Kay
  37. The Lions of Lucerne / Brad Thor
  38. Life is Elsewhere / Milan Kundera
  39. Terrorist / John Updike
  40. The Revenger’s Tragedy / Thomas Middleton
  41. The Compleat Boucher / Anthony Boucher
  42. White is for Witching / Helen Oyeyemi
  43. Frog Music / Emma Donoghue
  44. Revenge of the Witch / Joseph Delaney [The Last Apprentice, book 1]

The alternates:

  1. Paula / Isabel Allende
  2. My Beloved World / Sonia Sotomayor
  3. The Fox Woman / Kij Johnson
  4. Fudoki / Kij Johnson
  5. Why We Broke Up / Daniel Handler
  6. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms / N.K. Jemisin
  7. Gods War trilogy / Kameron Hurley
  8. Worm: A Complete Web Serial
  9. the Maisie Dobbs series
  10. Transit of Venus / Shirley Hazzard
  11. The Central Park Five, a documentary by Ken Burns
  12. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. / Adelle Waldman
  13. The Last Policeman / Ben H. Winters
  14. Agent Zigzag / Ben Macintyre
  15. Guernica / Dave Boling
  16. Sounds of Songs Across the Water/ Rob Yardumian
  17. Body and Bread / Nan Cuba
  18. Memory and Dream / Charles de Lint
  19. The Little Country / Charles de Lint
  20. The Signature of All Things / Elizabeth Gilbert
  21. Last Week’s Apocalypse / Douglas Lain
  22. Green Shadows, White Whale / Ray Bradbury

Ambitious, I know. But (despite the fact that my to-read notebook is pretty eclectic) I would have never come up with such a wonderful list on my own, so I’m going to read as many of these as possible this summer. Sharing a book with a friend is really an act of trust: it’s like you’re handing a piece of yourself to the other person and saying, “This reveals something about me. I hope you like it as much as I did.”

Do you make any special plans / projects for summer reading? I’d love to hear about them!

 

 


Reading biography and memoir is a great way to learn about people very much unlike yourself, people whose life experiences you don’t share. By spending time with people who are very different from you, you gain a sense of just how diverse people’s lived experiences actually are. You also learn all sorts of things that you had no idea were going on, especially if you’re reading about customs and cultures you don’t share.

Precious Williams was raised by a foster mother in Sussex, England. Her birth mother, a Nigerian princess living in London, placed an ad for foster care in a magazine, and chose the woman Williams called Nanny. While Nanny genuinely cared for Williams, her unconscious, inherent racism profoundly affected the child’s sense of self. Meanwhile, Williams’s mother–by turns affectionate and distant–confused her daughter with long absences, mood swings, and emotional abuse during her rare visits. Stuck between two families that claimed to love her, but consistently bombarded her with abuse, neglect, and complete cluelessness on how to raise a black child, Williams’s struggle to figure out who she was and what she wanted was a long, slow, and frequently blocked process.

Photo obtained at the author's webpage. Click through to learn more about Williams.

Photo obtained at the author’s webpage. Click through to learn more about Williams.

This is not a comfortable read, but it’s not a miserable one either–just Very Gritty. If you’re anything like me, you’ll mostly be astonished by the things you learn, and want to know more. I found myself profoundly disliking both Williams’s mother and Nanny Taylor, wondering how two people could be so clueless, and wholeheartedly rooting for Williams to get herself together and achieve her dreams. I’ve never been that emotionally attached to characters in a memoir; come to think of it, I can’t remember getting that attached to characters in a novel (at least, not since Harry Potter).

The emotional investment comes largely from the way Williams tells her story: her tone is dry and matter-of-fact, with no melodrama, despite the fact that she has survived things that would more than justify its use as a narrative tool (trigger warning for child sexual assault). There’s no feel-good, triumph-of-the-will hyperbole, either. Instead, Williams lays it out very simply: this is what happened to me, and this is what I made of it. It is the clear, sensible prose of someone who has Figured It Out, and was able to turn around and spin the mess into a neat, narrative thread. As a reader, you are able to become emotionally attached because Williams doesn’t inflict her own emotions on you. She simply explains what was, then leaves room for you to think about it and respond.

As an American reader, I most appreciated learning more about what it means to be African and British, a constant tension that runs throughout the narrative. Nanny’s constantly saying that she doesn’t see race, which turns out to be a huge part of the problem: Williams grew up with no sense of what it really meant to be Nigerian, and even a trip there with her mother–in a rare fit of emotional largesse– couldn’t begin to clear it up for her. Though often idealized by American Anglophiles, England is just as racist as the United States, if not more so (people in the narrative tend to say things out loud that most Americans save for the anonymous internet), and as a reader you do start to wonder if there’s any hope for the world at large.

The majority of the racism in the book, however, is clumsy and born of ignorance, not malice. Nanny’s just a little old woman who doesn’t know any better, and who does the best she can with a child she truly loves. Does that make it acceptable? No, but it does make it understandable. White readers have the opportunity here to question their own unconscious biases, and the book has the potential to start great conversations amongst people trying to examine their privilege and be good allies to people of color.

Should you read this book? Yes. Will you enjoy it? Maybe. Will you learn something you didn’t know? Definitely. Recommended for readers open to learning more about racial issues outside an American context, and open to the discomfort they might experience from what they learn.


If you really want to start an argument online, bring up the topic of print versus digital in a community of readers and watch the fur fly. Though there will be a few moderate voices who agree the formats can co-exist peacefully, the conversation will most likely be polarized into two camps: those who believe a world where everyone reads digitally is inevitable, and those who believe e-reading is a huge mistake. The arguments are complicated, passionate, and enough to make a person avoid internet debate altogether, except that nobody wants to stop reading books and discussing them.

Enter Alena Graedon and her first novel, The Word Exchange. Heavily influenced by the print versus digital debate, Graedon’s characters come down on the side of slow reading, analog texts, and in-person communication, a perspective that will irritate some, overjoy others, and definitely add more fuel to the already-blazing debate about  the future of reading.

photo © Beowulf Sheehan. Click through to read interview.

Photo © Beowulf Sheehan. Click through to read an interview with Graedon.

Our heroine, Anana Johnson, lives in a world where print is already mostly dead. There are a few bookstores and libraries left, but most reading and communication takes place via Memes, highly jacked-up smartphones that are so very good at what they do, they can order a taxi for you after you’ve had a few drinks and auto-dial your favorite restaurant the minute you’re hungry. Anana’s dad, who is working hard to publish what will be the last ever print edition of the dictionary, is staunchly anti-technology, and warns Anana that she should stop using her Meme, before things go Terribly Wrong. Anana humors him and goes about her digital-saturated life…until one night Dr. Johnson (get it?) doesn’t show up for their usual dinner date, which is just the beginning of a chain of events that rapidly spirals into worldwide chaos.

The fault, of course, lies in the Memes…or, rather, the small group of greedy men (and, curiously, they are all men) who got rich creating and selling them, not realizing that they were unwittingly contributing to the creation of a virus that, after infecting all the gadgets, infected language itself. With only the help of a small group of her father’s friends, Anana must not only find Dr. Johnson, but also resist succumbing to what eventually becomes known as Word Flu, which, if it doesn’t kill you, can leave you mute and unable to write.

Far-fetched, to be sure. But if we can accept dystopian fiction with teenagers fighting to the death, why not a language virus that can strip us of our humanity? Even if you’re on board with the premise, the narrative itself is slow and cumbersome, most likely on purpose to prove a rhetorical point: contemporary eyes, used to scanning phones and computer screens, have a more difficult time with long paragraphs, meandering storylines, elevated vocabulary, and interior monologue. In fact, what little actually happens in the book is surrounded by long passages about it happening, and what people think about it happening, which is both annoying and brilliant at the same time. You can’t just thoughtlessly burn through Graedon’s book: you have to pay attention to every word, and really think about it, which makes reading this book a test of how much you actually enjoy reading.

Broken up into twenty-six chapters–one for each letter of the alphabet–Graedon’s book takes the reader on a long, meandering journey through our own culture. It’s like a novelization of The Shallows, and more than a little didactic. As someone biased in that direction, I didn’t mind, but what I honestly don’t understand is why Graedon chose to also release the novel in digital format: if she really believes what she’s writing about, wouldn’t it make sense to have it exist in print only? Or was the irony–and the chance to make more money–just too great?

You can see that this is not a book you read for pleasure. It’s a book designed to make you think first, and if you happen to have a good time along the way, so much the better. I definitely had a good time, but unless you’re as interested in the future of reading as I am, you may find this a bit tedious. And that, I’m afraid, might be the litmus test of whether The Word Exchange is a novel, or loosely-disguised prophecy. Recommended for library workers, passionate readers, and anybody who enjoys a good argument about technology and culture.