Autodidact: self-taught

Dec
20
2014

What I Found Out About Her

by V. L. Craven

What I Found Out About Her

Peter LaSalle has a talent for description of place. Whether it’s New York, Rio de Janeiro, the tunnels under Paris or Tunis, he brings them to vivid life.

He also captures specific moments in time in people’s lives really well and then puts them into context of their entire existence. It reminds me of films where you find out what happens to the characters after the action of the film occurs. I’ve always liked that, so this set appealed greatly.

LaSalle has chosen to follow the advice to ‘write what you know’ which is about academia, as his characters are either professors, in graduate school, or wish they’d stuck with higher education rather than venturing out of the ivory tower. This may turn off readers who don’t care about such things.

Another running theme is that people die. A lot. This is to be expected, as LaSalle has a gift for capturing entire lives in a short story and (spoiler) everyone dies, but many of his characters die whilst young or unexpectedly. George R.R. Martin had better look out.

There were no weak stories but highlights were ‘In the Southern Cone’, about an American dealing with anti-Semitism in Rio, ‘Oh, Such Playwrights!’, concerning the heyday of three New York playwrights and their waning fortunes, ‘Tunis and Time’, an edge-of-your-seat spy piece, and ‘The Manhattan Lunch: Two Versions’, in which two people have an episode of  Stendhal syndrome (though it wasn’t named as such.)

My favourite quote came from ‘Tunis and Time’. The protagonist is contemplating the ruins of Punic Carthage.

Ancient civilizations even had their massive collective dreams, of conquest and glory, and spreading out from this very hill, there had once been an empire equaled by none, what included not only this North Africa but much of Spain and Gaul, and almost the largest prize beyond that, as Hannibal marched his leathery elephants and his thousands of shivering, sandaled soldiers across the snows of the high Alps, with the City of Rome itself, for a moment, anyway, within his grasp. But maybe here was also the overlooked truth about the dreaming, that everything was gone before it started, and now contemplating what had once been triumphant, the scant rubble of Carthage corporeal, Layton realized that it yielded merely the message of nothing to nothing–or possibly nothing all along, the suspected void, because, when you thought of it, everything was inevitably heading toward nothing before it even started, before it even aspired or had the chance to be something.

Which reminds me of Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias’

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

But I Existentially digress.

I would recommend this one for fans of short stories particularly those with a bent towards academia-related stories or writers learning how to capture a believable life in a short space. 4/5

[I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Dec
14
2014

Alice in Wonderland

by V. L. Craven

Alice in Wonderland Penguin Clothbound

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass were so part of my childhood that I immediately recognised references in The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls , though I hadn’t read the books. Then, last week, this article about commonly misinterpreted books found its way onto my browser.

People typically think Wonderland is about drug use. And that’s understandable–Alice is forever eating or drinking something that makes her smaller or taller. The caterpillar is smoking a hookah, for pity’s sake. And then, with the existential questions. Only stoned people talk that the kind of nonsense. I mean, really.

Dodgson (Lewis Carroll’s real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was actually a Euclidean mathematician who was entirely against the new maths being taught at Christ Church, Oxford, where he worked. From the article:

All the weird drug-trippy stuff that’s been misinterpreted since Woodstock is, we’re sorry to say, really just an elaborate satire of modern mathematics. … in the mid-1800s,… a bunch of irritating young people invaded academia and started bringing new concepts to math. Weird new concepts. Like “imaginary numbers” and other crazy stuff.

What incensed Dodgson was that math no longer had any real-world grounding. He knew that you could add two apples to three apples to get five apples, but once you start thinking about the square root of -1 apples, you’re living on the moon. The Rev. Dodgson thought the new mathematics was completely absurd , like something you’d dream up if you were on drugs.

So he decided to write a book about a world that followed the laws of abstract mathematics, purely to point out the batshit lunacy of it. Things keep changing size and proportion before Alice’s eyes, not because she’s tripping on bad acid, but because the world is based on stupid postmodern algebra with shit like imaginary numbers that don’t even make any sense god dammit. “Alice” was the sensible Euclidian mathematician trying desperately to keep herself sane and tempered…

Alice teeeee

It’s always important to have tea when reading about people almost drinking tea.

I decided I really had to read it, armed with this knowledge.

And it’s so much fun when read through that lens!

The Hatter’s remark seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English.

Then, during the croquet match where the arches and balls and even mallets keep moving:

‘I don’t think they play at all fairly…and they don’t seem to have any rules in particular: at least, if there are, nobody attends to them…’

And Alice, the sensible one, is usually told she is silly or ridiculous, but the Duchess sees her for who she is:

‘Right, as usual…what a clear way you have of putting things!’

Poor, logical Alice. Stuck with the imaginary numbers crew.

Alice Tenniel

Imaginary numbers crew (on left) doesn’t look amused, either.

I was already quite familiar with both stories, having watched the cartoons and the live-action films many times as a child (I have still not seen the Tim Burton film somehow), but somewhere along the way I must have seen the books, as well, as the Tenniel illustrations were also well-known to me.

Dodgson was um…fascinated…by little girls and the stories were written for Alice Liddell–there is no doubt about this. But it’s possible he could have also been responding to the absurdity of the illogical acrobatics the new mathematicians wanted numbers to do. He enjoyed playing around with riddles and words, but numbers weren’t to be trifled with.

Alice Tenniel Tea party

The dormouse is based on Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s pet wombat that slept on the table. I’m not making that up.

The version I read is the one shown at the top of this post–the Penguin Clothbound Classics edition, which includes both Alice books based on Carroll’s final 1897 revisions, as well as extensive notes, the original story Alice’s Adventures under Ground, Carroll’s thoughts on the stage play ‘Alice’ based on the stories and a brief biography of the author.

It also has the answer to that infernal riddle: Why is a raven like a writing desk? In the preface to the 1896 edition Carroll wrote:

Enquiries have so often been addressed to me, as to whether any answer to the Hatter’s Riddle can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to me to be a fairly appropriate answer, viz. ‘Because it can produce a few notes, though they are very flat, and it is never put with the wrong end in front!’ This, however, is merely an after-thought; the Riddle, as originally invented, had no answer at all.

It gets right up my nose that he didn’t originally have an answer and only came up with one after being bothered over it… Still. There’s an answer now.

The notes for Through the Looking-Glass include notes on ‘Jabberwocky’ and what many of the seemingly nonsensical words mean–some were supposed to mean something, others genuinely weren’t.

I have a new favourite word now. Frabjous. Which is what this book was–the notes were particularly enlightening. If you’ve left off reading the Alice books because you’ve seen cartoons or films or whatnot I recommend doing so. They can both be snagged for free (legally and everything) from Gutenberg .

Snark Busters If you’re already a fan of the books I highly recommend the Snark Buster games. There are currently three of which I’ve played the first two. Snark Busters (sometimes called Welcome to the Club) and Snark Busters: All Revved Up. The third is Snark Busters: High Society. These are extremely well-done hidden object puzzle games that take place in a steam-punk Victorian world that also has a mirror-world where actions in one world affect the other. They’re great fun and no doubt take their name from Lewis Carroll’s poem ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ .

VladStudio also has some Alice themed wallpapers.

I particularly enjoy:

Cheshire Kitten

Cheshire Kitten by Vladstudio

 

by vladstudio

by vladstudio

 

by vladstudio

by vladstudio

 

by vladstudio

by vladstudio

Dec
12
2014

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls

by V. L. Craven

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls

 

[Trigger Warning: This is a review of a book that includes suicide, anorexia and cutting. All of these things are discussed to some degree in this review.]

Here is a wallpaper of Emilie Autumn playing the violin if you’d like a moment to decide if you’d like to continue reading.

Emilie Autumn Wallpaper wall.alphacoders

Wallpaper by wall.alphacoders

All right then.

After a suicide attempt our heroine checked into a hospital in L.A. where she was told she would be held no longer than 72 hours. What that meant was, ‘You will be held for 72 hours after we begin treatment, which will happen after we find a bed for you in the Psych Ward and bother getting around to you.’

No one told her that, though.

Whilst waiting for bed upstairs, she’s given her very own Spartan room in the ER, where a kindly nurse allowed her to have a red crayon. This makes her very happy because at least she has something to do now. (She’d arrived with a bag containing some books and her notebook and those had been confiscated, leaving her with nothing to occupy her mind. Nothing is a better idea than leaving a suicidal person alone with their thoughts.)

Asylum Red Crayon

image from asylumrevue.tumblr.com

The book is written from the notes she took with her crayons (she gets others later).

Then! She’s finally taken upstairs and given a bed in the actual psychiatric ward. Frabjous day! But there are two areas–one for the ‘normal’ crazy people and one for the criminally crazy people–the violent ones. But crazy is crazy, right? And they needed to put her in a bed. So…

Did I mention it’s co-ed, too? And the hits just keep coming.

The nurses decide to let her have her notebook, during the day, at least, and then they put it away overnight. And Emilie with an ‘ie’ begins finding letters from Emily ‘with a y’ every morning.

Emily with a y’s story remarkably mirrors Emilie’s except she lives in Victorian England and circumstances have landed her at the Asylum for Wayward Girls, which is where young women with mental illnesses wind up.

It’s nice to have something to occupy her mind, but something distinctly odd is going on. Is someone on the nursing staff gaslighting her or has the madness of the others infected her, as well?

A lot of the pages have very small text.

A lot of the pages have very small text.

Though she is confined in the genteelly named Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls, Emily with a y’s time is no less fraught. It is run by the imperious Dr Stockill, who is clearly up to something nefarious, and his straight-out-of-Dickens mother Prudence Mournington, who has sorrows of her own.

The girls–of which there are thousands–are helpless at the hands of the doctor, another one called Dr Lymer and a surgeon brought on later who has all the gentle kindness of a slurry scraper.

Emily’s story is just chock full of information about what mental asylums were like back in the day. Hydrotherapy, deplorable hygiene, forced hysterectomies (since the uterus was the cause of female insanity) and of course…

Leeches! Don't forget to bleed!

Leeches! Don’t forget to bleed!

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Emilie shares with us the anxious boredom of life in a mental ward. She shows us her diaries on cutting, suicide and drugs (she’s only ever taken prescription pills for mental disorders–not recreational pharmaceuticals).

The staff are convinced she’s anorexic and there’s a delightful foray into her trying to explain exactly why she can’t eat what they are providing her and it has nothing to do with an eating disorder. But that’s what an anorexic would say so they watch her anyway.

Her diaries are honest and I suppose they’d be heart-breaking if you’d never experienced the compulsion to cut or been suicidal, but from the point of view of someone who has it was more like reading my own thoughts finally expressed perfectly.

For this reason, I wouldn’t recommend this book for someone easily sent back down the dark rabbit hole. Autumn herself offers a disclaimer saying she doesn’t advocate suicide or self harm but that the book is meant to educate and I would definitely recommend it to a person who loves someone struggling with mental illness.

Asylum Diary pages

Speaking of rabbit holes, there are nods to the Alice in Wonderland books, as well as some of the characters of Autumn’s stage shows like the Plague Rats. I am unfamiliar with her music, though I’ll be rectifying that posthaste. Her two pet rats Sir Edward and Basil play important roles, as well, in the Victorian side of the story, where they can speak and help out Emily with a y.

There is artwork on nearly every page–drawings and illustrations done by Autumn herself. There are only a few photographs taken by other people. Many of the illustrations are placed on the page in a way that looks three dimensional.

Asylum camera

This little photography booklet, for example.

The physicality of this book is to be considered, as well. It’s described as weighing ‘nearly five pounds’ which sounds like a lot, but until you hold it and realise just how light most books are… Well, I like books that can double as blunt weaponry. The pages are heavy-weight, glossy stock that I found myself absent-mindedly stroking. I was surprised it didn’t have a sewn-in, blood-red, silk bookmark, but I’m not bothered. It’s one of those books you have to keep smelling. I molested this one quite badly, I’m afraid.

Asylum Lithium

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls is half memoir and half Victorian fantasy. It’s all wonderful. To paraphrase Nick Hornby: This book wasn’t just up my street–it was on the front step, peering in the letterbox to see if I was in. It’s a cross between Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon and Tim Burton if Burton went somewhere really dark. Like, REALLY dark. And without a torch. This dark:

I had to put a caption around this so it wouldn't blend in with my theme.

I had to put a caption around this so it wouldn’t blend in with my theme.

It’s available from Emilie Autumn’s website . On sale as of this writing, it would absolutely be worth full price. Two thumbs up and 5/5. I raise my teacup to you, Ms Autumn.

Dec
05
2014

The Cabin in the Woods by Tim Lebbon

by V. L. Craven

Cabin in the Woods

If you’ve seen the film The Cabin in the Woods (which you should because it’s awesome ) you know what happens, but because the book is based on the screenplay, you get all of the deleted scenes and cut lines (they actually played ‘Truth or Dare or Lecture’), as well as a lot of description of things you’d only notice if you freeze-framed every shot.

Some of the most interesting parts were seeing the casting decisions taken. For example, in the book/screenplay, the woman from the chem department is a six foot tall humour-free woman with a bun to rival  Lilith Sternin’s . In the film, the character has a ponytail and appears to be of average height. She also appears to have a personality.

Dana was also originally supposed to be a brunette. So glad they opted for a redhead.

They made the right decision.

They made the right decision.

There’s also a great deal of page space given over to the blossoming romance between Holden and Dana and those parts read like young adult fiction, but I suppose that was important or something. Whatever. I was just there for the monsters and Marty.

We get to see inside the other characters’ minds, as well, including Marty’s, who is a much more three-dimensional character than we see in the film. And between that and being able to ‘see’ more of the sets and learning more about the monsters, it was worth the read.

I definitely recommend it for fans of the film–5/5. As a book on it’s own, it’s maybe a 3/5–it’s sort of young adult but with a lot of pot and beer and sex. And gore. So, young adult for the people who still read YA when they’re 25.

Nov
28
2014

Locke and Key by Joe Hill

by V. L. Craven

Locke and Key Collected

The complete Locke and Key comic written by Joe Hill and drawn by Gabriel Rodriguez is now available in a beautiful slipcase  that would look fantastic beside your Sandman and Lucifer comics (and don’t tell me you don’t have them).

Joe Hill’s storytelling is inventive, his characters are believable and the Locke family are easy to root for. Gabriel Rodriguez’s artwork is beautiful–the attention to detail is particularly noteworthy and Keyhouse feels like a real place. He’s brought Hill’s character’s to life. The partnership is a most complimentary one. The comic is immanently re-readable so the slipcase is worth it.

Locke and Key 1

The first volume, Welcome to Lovecraft, collects the first six issues of the comic and introduces us to the Locke family who relocate to Lovecraft, Massachusetts after the father is murdered by a peer of the eldest child, eighteen year old Tyler. They move into the family home, Keyhouse, a rambling, Gothic pile located on a remote island. As you’d expect from such a house in such a place, the house has secrets, such as, certain doors, if opened with certain keys allow the opener to do different things or go different places.

The youngest, six-year-old Bode, is the first to discover one of these keys and doors. He also discovers someone (or some thing ) living in the well in the abandoned well house. Someone should have kept a better eye on the little one.

Meanwhile, Sam Lesser, the teenage psychopath who killed the patriarch of the Locke clan, escapes the mental institution and makes his way to Lovecraft. He’s not your run-of-the-mill lunatic, you see, he’s been sent on a mission to find a key. A very special key.

Locke and Key 2 Head Games

The second volume is comprised of the six issues in the Head Games arc and is concerned with the powers of the second key, known as the Head Key for marvellous and terrifying reasons, as well as the return of an individual who is the spitting image of a friend of the Locke children’s father. In his previous incarnation he was known as Luke Caravaggio, but now he’s calling himself Zack and has insinuated himself into Tyler’s life. All he has to do is avoid anyone who may recognise him from twenty years ago. Because if someone does, well, he can’t risk being exposed and people die every day, right?

Locke and Key 3 Crown of Shadows

Volume Three is the six issues that make up the Crown of Shadows story arc, where several more keys are discovered. Some that are quite useful and two with powers that are beyond terrifying. Zack uses one to try and find the real key he’s after and the other is used to combat him in an epic showdown.

Sam Lesser, the teenager who murdered Rendell Locke and nearly killed the rest of the family before Tyler put him down returns (as a ghost–this is one of those dead-people-aren’t-always-dead deals) and we learn more about Zack’s homicidal motivation, as well as what happens to people after they die.

Locke and Key 4 Keys to the Kingdom

The fourth volume is Keys to the Kingdom (collecting the six issues of that series) and is much more action-packed than the previous three. The third chapter in this volume is my favourite in the entire series, as it shows how the kids are becoming accustomed to living in a house with supernatural elements. It must be what living in Sunnydale would have been like.

Kinsey and Tyler deal with relationship problems–Kinsey’s stemming from choices she made regarding the Head Key. And we finally learn what is at stake if Zack finds the key he seeks.

Locke and Key 5 Clockworks

Volume five collects the six issues of the Clockworks arc and explains the origins of the magic of Keyhouse, as well as the how Zack/Luke became possessed by the evil entity that makes him impervious to death. Tyler and Kinsey find a key that allows them to travel back in time (as observers) and they witness not only their earliest ancestors’ brutal past, but also learn the truth about their father’s part in the death of a classmate.

Locke and Key 6 Alpha and Omega

Volume six, Alpha and Omega (four issues of Omega and two issues of Alpha), wraps up the series with an epic showdown involving the powers of multiple keys and a battle between darkness and light (literally). The fate of the world hangs in the balance and the Locke children are the only ones who can save us all.

As with most things these days, there is a Locke & Key wiki with all the super-spoilery information you could desire, if you need help keeping up with the sprawling amount of characters and plotlines.

If you (or someone you love) is already a fan of the series Skelton Crew makes physical versions of some of the keys.

Skeleton Keys

There’s also a game . I haven’t played this, but if you have I would love to hear your thoughts.

Locke and Key the Game

Nov
15
2014

Best European Fiction 2015

by V. L. Craven

2015 Best European Fiction

With thirty stories representing twenty-eight countries (twenty-seven of the thirty were originally in languages other than English) the scope is vast. And not just geographically. Genre-wise, as well.

There is literary fiction, which often took the form of snapshots of people’s lives. The poignant ‘Hospital Room Nr 13.54′ by Olga Martynova stands out here.

There’s magical realism like Adda Djorup’s ‘Birds’, which was lovely in that Iris Murdoch I-think-I’m-missing-something-but-I-love-it-anyway sort of way.

‘The Second-Hand Man’ by Michael O Conhaile covered the humour area fairly well in a story that was very Irish. Read it and you’ll see what I mean. There’s a church and the Devil and God and a man with two tools. And I don’t mean pliers.

If you’re looking for straight up erotic ‘Somavox’ by Christopher Meredith definitely has that one covered, as does ‘Dungeness’ by Edy Poppy, though the former is a mix of science fiction while the latter is literary fiction.

Want to have your heart broken? ‘What the Dying Heart Says’ by John Toomey. There you go.

If modern vampire fiction is your thing there’s a story for that. And other types of science fiction and eastern European dream state stories. There’s even a choose your own adventure.

What’s most impressive is that it all hangs together. There’s a story near the beginning ‘The Demise of Engineer G.’ by Rein Raud about a man who creates incredible meals out of dishes from around the world where a flavour from one dish perfectly sets off something in the following or previous dish. That’s what West Camel has done. It’s the best anthology I’ve read yet.

With its variety of genres (and not a weak contribution in the bunch), Best European Fiction 2015 has something for every taste. I would definitely recommend it for fans of short fiction or people interested in expanding their reading life beyond works written originally in English.

An enthusiastic 5/5.

[I received a free copy of this book to review, but it genuinely was spectacular.]

Nov
07
2014

The Empire of Death

by V. L. Craven

Empire of Death

Humans haven’t always tried to hide death away–it’s only relatively recently (and in Western culture)–that we’ve decided death has nothing to do with life and we want nothing to do with it. As though not thinking about something will keep it from happening. (This is something Caitlin Doughty addresses wonderfully in her book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes , which I reviewed last week.)

by Paul Koudounaris. Loggia of the Oratory of Sant'Anna. Poshiavo, Switzerland

by Paul Koudounaris. Loggia of the Oratory of Sant’Anna. Poshiavo, Switzerland

The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses by Paul Koudounaris is what it says on the tin, but it’s so much more, as well. It has 290 photographs, 260 of them are in colour. The average person wouldn’t be able to visit all of the sites he did, so perhaps the tag should have been: The Empire of Death: Koudounaris Confronts Mortality in Seventy Places Since You Couldn’t Afford to.

by Paul Koudounaris. Church of San Bernadino Alle Ossa. Milan, Italy.

by Paul Koudounaris. Church of San Bernadino Alle Ossa. Milan, Italy.

Because that’s essentially what happens when looking at the photographs. If you really take the time to look at them it has a similar humbling effect of contemplating the size of the universe. Every skull was once a person with hopes and dreams and families who fought and laughed and loved. It’s an exercise in existentialism.

by Paul Koudounaris. Ossuary Chapel of San Marino Della Battaglia. San Martino. San Martino, Italy.

by Paul Koudounaris. Ossuary Chapel of San Marino Della Battaglia. San Martino. San Martino, Italy.

Which was the intent of the original designers. They were created for people to sit in and contemplate their own mortality–to be aware that they weren’t going to live forever and so they’d better act properly because eternity was a very long time to spend in hell and/or separated from their loved ones who would no doubt be in heaven. Often there would be quotes on the walls, one of my favourites was from the Chapel of Bones of Valleta, Malta:

The world is a theater and human life is the boundary of all worldly things. Life is the personification of vanity. Death breaks and dissolves the illusion and is the boundary of all mortal things. Let those who visit this place ponder well these maxims and carry with them a lively remembrance of death. Peace be with you.

Chapel of Skulls. Valletta, Malta

Chapel of Skulls. Valletta, Malta

I’ve long been a fan of charnels–since I visited the Capuchin crypt by the Santa Maria della Concezione del Cappuccini in Rome and was rushed out before I could properly appreciate the chandeliers made of human bones. And all of the well-known sites are included including that one. Sedlec , the Paris Catacombs , etc, but many that I hadn’t heard of and quite a few that had been destroyed, either by nature or humans, were covered, as well.

Capuchin crypt. Santa Maria d Concezione. Rome.

Capuchin crypt. Santa Maria d Concezione. Rome.

People weren’t all bad, there was a resurgence in charnels in the 19th century where several were restored and some are being restored now. The Eggenberg charnel in Austria has something of a Hannibal touch, where they created an eye shape, as it was meant to be viewed from the top of a well with skulls as the pupil, looking back at the viewer.

by Paul Koudounaris. Eggenberg, Austria Charnel (Beinhaus).

by Paul Koudounaris. Eggenberg, Austria Charnel (Beinhaus).

It’s well-researched and well-written and with maps and notes galore it’s sure to please those interested in unusual facts about history or interesting sites to visit. Or people comfortable with their impending doom (or who want to become so). So if you’re looking for something for that person on your shopping list this holiday season, here’s something to consider.

by Paul Koudounaris. Chapel of Bones. Faro, Portugal.

by Paul Koudounaris. Chapel of Bones. Faro, Portugal.

Koudounaris has a website empiredelamort  that has loads more photos.
He’s also on Instagram under hexenkult.
And on Facebook .

Dahlia Jane also wrote a lovely review, with more photos, on her blog Upon a Midnight Dreary .

Oct
31
2014

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

by V. L. Craven

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Having previously waxed poetic about my love of Caitlin Doughty and her YouTube channel Ask a Mortician and website Order of the Good Death  you can imagine my glee upon learning she had written a memoir about her early years as a crematory assistant, mortuary school student and work in the death industry after graduation.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is more than just a memoir of the macabre–it’s a meditation on the way Western culture treats death with Doughty as a stand-in for the average American who wants to see dear ol’ Mother Deadest looking ‘natural’, even though the process to make her appear that way is about as unnatural as possible.

Doughty starts her journey terrified of death, of facing her own mortality, (the current response of most Westerners). She takes a job as a crematory assistant at Westwind Cremation and Burial and, due to her interactions with the decendents that pass through, her entire philosophy on death (and, necessarily, life) changes. It’s a philosophical journey that encompasses history, religion, mythology and biology, is frequently hysterical (I was laughing out loud every other page) but also deeply affecting.

Of particular interest to anthropology-types were the parts about how we’ve come to deal with death the way we do in this part of the world at this point in time, as opposed to the way other people have done. Or do deal with it but simply in different places on earth like the tribe in Brazil that practises cannibalism as part of the death ritual. They’re not having a gourmet, Dr Lecter-style feast whenever someone dies, either. It’s not enjoyable, but it’s what they do. (Next time you have to go to a wake of a family member you hardly knew be grateful you at least don’t have to eat them whether you want to or not because, ‘That’s just what we do. It’s how we say goodbye. Now be polite and finish off Cousin Martha’s foot.’)

Doughty’s writing style is personable, like chatting with an old friend, if that friend is Wednesday Addams. If you’ve watched many of her Ask a Mortician videos you can hear her voice in your head when reading, which makes the funny bits funnier and the moving bits that much more gut-wrenching.

Speaking of guts, this book is most definitely  not for the squeamish. Human bodies are organic matter and  things happen to organic matter when it begins to break down. Or when it’s embalmed or cremated. Doughty believes in lifting the veil on what death practitioners do and she’s straight-forward about everything that goes on in all its messy, sometimes amusing, human glory.

This book  is, however, excellent for fans of Mary Roach, particularly the one about what happens to the body post-mortem, Stiff . I would also recommend the poet and mortician Thomas Lynch’s wonderful Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade .

This one is definitely 5/5.

 

And because it’s Halloween, here’s Caitlin talking about the relationship between death and Halloween.

Oct
24
2014

The Forgers by Bradford Morrow

by V. L. Craven

Forgers dust jacket

 

Rare book collector, Adam Diehl, is found in his secluded home, his hands severed, his books and papers in disarray. Upon inspection, it appears he was a forger of long-dead author’s signatures, which would increase the price of already valuable books many times over. Among the suspects are his sister’s boyfriend, Will, who had been a prolific and talented forger and who is also our narrator.

Meghan, the deceased’s sister and protagonist’s girlfriend, is also in the book trade, as she owns an independent bookshop in Manhattan. She found out about Will’s little hobby along with the rest of the world and stuck by him as he paid his penance. She’s the best thing Will has ever had in his life, which is why, when someone starts threatening him, using Arthur Conan Doyle’s handwriting, no less, he keeps it a secret, in an effort to protect her.

He doesn’t know who’s sending the threats nor what they want nor why they want it, all he knows is he’ll do what needs doing in order to keep safe the one bit of happiness he has, and to keep the promise he’s made to Meghan, which is that he’d stay out of the the forging game. But someone is trying to force his hand.

On the surface this book should have been right up my street–it’s about the book world and I worked in independent bookshops for years–but it fell a little flat. The main character was a criminal, but not a very interesting one. He kept saying how solid his relationship was with Meghan and how they fell for one another at first sight, but I didn’t feel it. That could be because Will wasn’t a real person–at one point he talks about forgers also forging who they are and not being true humans, which I interpreted as a type of sociopathy. He definitely has that flat affect going on and not seeming to really engage with the world, only being concerned with protecting his own hide, as well as being close to only one person. I definitely don’t need to like a character–any of the characters of a novel, really–but they do need to be interesting. Will wasn’t.

Writing-wise it was better than most books out there, but it wasn’t up to par with Morrow’s The Diviner’s Tale, which was excellent. The text suffered from ‘had I known-itis’, which is where the narrator kept telling us that things were about to get a lot worse or that his bubble of happiness was to be short-lived. It’s something of which lesser authors are often guilty but I found it surprising in this author.

The plot was what kept me reading–needing to know who did it and what was going to happen next, which is why I read it in two days. It moved at a clip, which is what you want in a thriller. I didn’t know where things were going and, though I worked out some things before the end, I still didn’t know the particulars.

I would recommend this one to fans of John Dunning’s Bookman series and people interested in literary thrillers like Matthew Pearl’s books. 4/5 stars.

[I was given a free copy of this book to review.]

Oct
17
2014

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

by V. L. Craven

Ghostwritten

The story begins in Okinawa with Quasar, a member of a doomsday cult, who has released a nerve agent in a subway in Tokyo and is now attempting to keep from being captured. He’s following orders from His Serendipity, a man who professes the abilities of teleportation amongst others. The doomsday in question is a comet that will be colliding with Earth in a few months. It will be up to Quasar and the other enlightened ones to rebuild society.

From there we move to Tokyo and a young jazz enthusiast experiencing his first love, then to Hong Kong where a financial lawyer’s illegal activities are catching up with him, then to Holy Mountain in China, Mongolia, St Petersburg, London, Cape Clear Island (Ireland), Night Train (a radio show based in NYC) and finally the Underground.

Each section appears to be unrelated to the others, but characters from sections before makes an appearance in the current section until we get a clear view of the plot and the fate of characters from other parts. His characters often make terrible choices, but those choices make sense in their minds and to us, being there with them.

Ghostwritten is David Mitchell’s debut novel and it’s impressive in its beauty and complexity but also simplicity. Each section/character is completely believable, even when that character isn’t an actual person.  The section in Mongolia is told from a disembodied spirit that moves from person-to-person through touch. And Night Train concerns an AI obeying Asimov’s rules.

The characters are the stars, to my mind, the plot is interesting and I did want to know what was going to happen, but what person Mitchell was going to introduce next and how utterly real they were going to be was what I was most intrigued by. How was he going to blow my mind next?

I’ve read his Black Swan Green and 1,000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, both of which are completely different from this one and one another. The only thing all three have in common are a deftness with the English language readers don’t see every day, unpredictable plots and fully-formed characters. If I’d read the three books without knowing the author I wouldn’t have guessed they were written by the same person, which isn’t something you can say about many authors–that depth of imagination and versatility is rare.

Very highly recommended. 5/5

Oct
11
2014

Steering Toward Normal

by V. L. Craven

Steering Toward Normal

Diggy Larson is thirteen and smaller than his peers, but for the past four years he’s raised a steer from a calf to an adult weighing nearly a ton and entered it into the State Fair for 4-H. Last year he won a blue ribbon (the second highest honour) this year, though, he plans to win purple–Grand Champion. However, he hasn’t had his calf two days before a truck pulls up at the end of the road and out falls Wayne Graf–a boy from his class–and his suitcase falls out with him. His mother died three weeks prior and during that time it came out that Diggy’s father was also Wayne’s father, which had been something of a shock to the man who’d been married to Wayne’s mother and had raised the child as his own.

So now, on top of trying to raise the best steer the state of Minnesota has ever seen, Diggy is stuck with someone who claims to be his half-brother. All he wants is to spend time with July, a girl he likes–the one who won Grand Champion the year before and who’s left it up to him to win this year, but Wayne has arrived and disrupted his happy life.

I haven’t read a book intended for the nine to thirteen set in a few years, but Steering Toward Normal is excellent. Rebecca Petruck doesn’t shy away from some grown up subject matter–abandonment of a child by a parent, alcoholism and how difficult it can be to quit (Wayne’s father takes being widowed badly) and what impact that has on children. There’s also laughter and love and the importance of family and compassion. Every character is fully-formed–even the steers have their own personalities.

This book is the very definition of heart. Steering Toward Normal is full of heart.

The plot takes place between Diggy getting his calf and showing at the State Fair a year or so later. It moves at a clip and can feel a bit rushed at times, but Petruck probably didn’t want to saddle a nine year old with a 500 page book about raising a steer. Though, I must admit, the process was fascinating. Those kids put an impressive amount of time, energy and love into bringing up their animals.

There was one other subplot that concerned Diggy’s other hobby that seemed slightly unbelievable in terms of time–he was spending hours a day with his steer and had to do homework and presumably chores and had to eat and sleep–I simply wasn’t sure when he was working on this other, seemingly time-intensive hobby. Still, that didn’t take anything away from my enjoyment of the book and I would definitely recommend it to middle grade students, whether they were interested in farm animals or not, as they most certainly would be by the end. 4 of 5 stars.

[I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.]

Aug
29
2014

Orange is the New Black (book)

by V. L. Craven

Orange is the New Black Book cover

This review has spoilers for the book (which will be behind spoiler tags), but not the show. They’ve changed so much for the show you can read this with no worries. If you plan to read the book, here be spoilers. If you’re just curious as to what they changed between the book/real life and the show, read on.

First, in real life she was in Danbury in Connecticut, which is the prison Martha Stewart requested to be sent to, if that tells you anything. The book takes place during Stewart’s trial and sentencing so that plays some part of the plot, as it were (she was sent to a prison in West Virginia, ultimately) . The real prison was much nicer (for a prison) than the one in the show.

Second, the real life Piper is annoying like you wouldn’t believe. She’s regularly telling us about how the other prisoners are grateful for her presence and love her so. And how none of the guards can figure out why she’s in there. She also has the unending support and love from every single family member and friend (and friends-of-friends) on the outside.

People send her dozens of books a week to read. And she keeps all of them in and on her locker in her bunk (complaining about lack of space) rather than donating them to the rec room. In the second series of the show you see her going around taking all of her books back from people–even the ones she’s already read. That’s the real Piper. Who cares that you’re bored and will get yourself into trouble or fights without something useful to do like reading. Give me my books back!

Her visitors’ list is full (25 people) and then her counselor breaks the rules and lets her put on as many people as she wants. Rather than refusing this as it’s not fair to the others she just goes on and lets all the worshippers come to visit.

I’m sure it was difficult being away from her regular life for thirteen months, (she was sentenced to fifteen but got two months off for good behaviour) but if I hadn’t been reading it to try to work out who each person was in the show I would have put it down ages ago. They made an excellent decision in focusing on other characters in the show. The book would have been loads better if Kerman had spent less time talking about how great she was and more about other women. She says she learned to be less inside herself but you wouldn’t know it.

The most interesting parts of the book were about the travesty that is the criminal justice system and the real prisons, which she ends up in a couple of times during trials. It’s inhumane what’s going on, but this is not the book to tell you about it. I would only recommend this to hardcore fans of the show. 3/5 absolute tops. And I love fish-out-of-water stories.

On to:

Differences Between the Book/Real Life & the Show

Larry’s love and devotion did not waver for one second. He was there to visit every chance he could.

Piper was good friends with Pensatucky.

Piper was never in the SHU. Indeed she didn’t seem to witness any fights or actual sex.

Piper did not get furlough. (Her grandmother did die whilst she was in prison.)

Piper was not involved with any women in prison—she never told anyone she had ever been involved with a woman in the past.

Alex (in the book called Nora, in real life called Catherine) was in a different prison.

Piper knew she was going on the transport plane to Chicago. Not when, but she knew it was going to happen. She was then flown to Oklahoma to a hellhole of a prison (it’s the U.S.’s hub of the federal prison transport circuit) for several days and no access to phones. Nora/Alex was there, though for their first meeting in over a decade. As was Nora/Alex’s sister who was also involved in real life.
They were then flown to Chicago together to await their turn to testify and that prison was an even bigger hellhole than the one in Oklahoma, incredibly.

The person they were testifying against was a lower player in the group than on the show. It was someone Piper had never even met.

Characters from the show & Who they were in the book

Kerman changed the names of real people for the book and then most of those names were changed again for the show for some reason. I’m trying to work out who everyone is suppose to be. Drop me a note with your thoughts if you’ve read the book.

Piper Kerman = Piper Chapman
Nora Janson = Alex Vause
Pop = Red [In the book Pop is an enormous homophobe, which is clearly not true on the show]
Crazy Eyes = Crazy Eyes [completely different race, though]
Big Boo Clemmons = Big Boo Black [in the book she has a 200+ pound girlfriend named Trina]
Yoga Janet = Yoga Jones
Miss Malcolm = Miss Claudette [in the book she never got into a fight with a guard]
Vanessa = Sophia [she arrives after Piper in the book and isn’t accepted as well as she is in the show]
Delicious & Pom-Pom = Taystee? [it seems like this character is bits of both of those women]
Warden Kuma Deboo = Natalie Figueroa
Mr Butorsky = Mr Healy
Gay Pornstar = Pornstache
Annette = Anita
Miss Luz = Miss Rosa
Sister Ardeth Platte = Sister Ingalls [Sister Platte was one of the few people who allowed Kerman to use her real name in the book]
Joyce? = Nicky?
I’m not sure who Morello is based on, either. Perhaps Nina?

Aug
22
2014

A Study in Scarlet

by V. L. Craven

A Study in Scarlet

I’ve recently undertaken to read all of the Sherlock Holmes novels and stories in chronological order.

The first is the novel A Study in Scarlet, (1886) wherein a doctor who has been through hell after being injured in the military decides to rejoin life and needs to find a flatmate in order to remain in London. He’s introduced to Sherlock Holmes—an unusual sort, but compatible in domestic affairs—and they go in on a flat together.

Odd sorts from all strata of society show up at all times of the day and night, much to Dr Watson’s bemusement, until Holmes explains that he’s a consulting detective. He helps people with problems the police can’t or won’t handle.

Speaking of the police, Holmes is summoned by Tobias Gregson and Mr Lestrade of Scotland Yard to assist on a case. Gregson and Lestrade are in constant competition to be the better detective, which Holmes lets them get on with whilst he continues his investigations.

In brief, an American man is found dead in an abandoned house—apparently murdered, but with no visible wounds. There is blood on the scene, but it’s not from the victim—and it has been used to write the letters RACHE.

The reader is introduced to Sherlock Holmes through John Watson’s point of view, who finds him intriguing, as one would do. In this first novel we learn about Holmes’ general approach to life and how his mind works.

The book happens in two sections—the first taking place in the present day (that being 1886) and the second section going back several decades to explain how the American man came to be on the floor of an abandoned house in London. The second section was a surprise—I’d expected to remain in Victorian England the entire time, so to spend quite some time in a very different climate was something of a shock.  To have that very different climate be populated with Mormons… well… I thought some errant pages had made their way into my copy. Trust Conan Doyle, though.

Still, it was excellently written and intriguing. I absolutely recommend it for fans of Victorian literature or detective fiction. Or that show with the guy with the cheekbones and the Hobbit.

Jul
11
2014

S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

by V. L. Craven

S. 001

S. is the name of the book that you purchase, which is in a slipcase and shrink-wrapped. The book in the slipcase, however, is titled The Ship of Theseus and is purportedly by ‘V.M. Straka’. It looks like a library book from the 50s or 60s completely with stamps and the paper even looks properly aged. A friend of mine (dragornaked89) pointed out the book doesn’t smell old, though, so it wasn’t 100% authentic, but it was still a marvel in printing. (Particularly for $35US.)

Part of the mind-bogglingness of the book is attention to detail. There’s a conversation being carried out in the margins between two university students—a male and a female. The book is left in the library for the other to pick up and leave further comments on both what they’re reading and what’s going on in their lives. The book is read three times by the characters (you only read it once) and it’s easy to tell by the handwriting and pen or pencil used which pass you’re reading. (It sounds complicated but I promise it’s not.)

And there are all sorts of bits and bobs between the pages—photographs and letters and hand-drawn maps on napkins and postcards that only add to the realism. Pro tip: I found the code wheel that was meant to be used right from the start near the end of my reading—it had got stuck to the inside of the back cover so I didn’t get to play along with some of the code-breaking. Check the inside of your back cover.

It's that round thing. It was hiding from me.

It’s that round thing. It was hiding from me.

The book, The Ship of Theseus reminds me of Nabokov in a way. That story is interesting on its own—a sort of nowhere but possibly European dream-state novel. I would like to discuss it specifically with anyone who’s read the book. I have some ideas of what certain elements represented but I’d like to discuss it with other people.

The overarching theme of the entire work is the question of identity and what it is—what defines us. This is embodied in S., who has amnesia and is trying to figure out who is he, much like the students—an undergrad nearly finished with a degree she took to make her parents happy but now doesn’t know what to do with her life; and a grad student studying Straka whose work has been taken from him, leaving him with nothing to show for his years of scholarship. Then V.M. Straka may or may not be a real person but whomever or whatever it was that wrote several incredible books still made a huge contribution to the world of literature—so does it matter if he was real?

May
16
2014

Still Life by Melissa Milgrom

by V. L. Craven

Still Life book cover

Taxidermy has always given me a touch of the screaming fantods. I’m fine with dead humans in whatever form. If Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds came anywhere in my vicinity I’d be first in line. But animals… eh, I don’t know. It’s always been a little too creepy for me. I suppose I hold animals in too high regard.

Then I became friends with a taxidermist and learned just how much they have to know to excel at what they do. It’s not just cutting open a dead animal, pulling out the insides, stuffing whathaveyou in it and sewing it back up. They have to know about biology, physiology, natural habitats and a host of other things. It’s boggling.

So when I heard about Melissa Milgrom’s  Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy I was excited to be able to learn more about the history and current state of the profession. It’s along the lines of Mary Roach in terms of conversational tone and covers taxidermy from the very beginning to its heyday, through its decline and up to the present day.

Some of the most interesting sections involved Damien Hirst and his taxidermist (he doesn’t do the actual preserving of sharks, cows and sheep), Mr Potter’s Museum of Curiosities, and the differences between the US and UK taxidermy scenes. But the entire book was engaging, full of characters. Taxidermists may be solitary types, but they certainly aren’t boring.

Milgrom seems a bit more detached from her subject than Roach–more journalistic–and lends less of a sense of humour to things but it was still an enjoyable read and I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the subject.

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