Mysteries of the Universe & of the Heart: Romance, Black Holes, and Poetry

Since I haven’t been in the mood to write posts on individual books, I decided to do a list of the stuff that I’ve been reading in the recent past!

old fashioned girl betty neelsAn Old-Fashioned Girl by Betty Neels: I loved this one. Partly it’s because of the heroine, Patience, who while not exactly unflappable, has an equanimity that’s not very common to Neels’ heroines. I also realized why Neels is such a comfort read for me—her descriptions evoke this feeling of utter soothing-ness that I can’t help but love! The first third of An Old-Fashioned Girl is set in a small village which is beset by a snowstorm, leaving our hero, heroine, and the housekeeper trapped inside for days on end. The pages that followed were some of my favorite—I really liked the description of the minutiae of  their snowbound lives. (Which is why I think enjoyed Longbourn so much—because of the minutiae I mean). Then there’s the staple food and furniture renditions which is such fun to picture in the mind’s eye.

Light Years, Memoir of a Modern Lighthouse Keeper by Caroline Woodard: I’m making my way through this at a glacial speed. I like picking it up when I’m in the mood for it, generally before going to bed, and reading maybe half a chapter at a time. Like the Neels, I find the descriptions of the barely-tamed Canadian wildness very soothing, and also very liberating. Joy and solitude co-exist in this one.

Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase: I can see why this is such a reader favorite. It would have been very easy to thoroughly dislike Sebastian Dain, except that we keep getting glimpses into his inner workings, and the reasons why he does what he does, and in that process it’s easy to feel sympathetic towards him. Plus, Jessica! What a wonderful heroine! Another woman, who while not exactly unflappable, knows how to keep her head. Thinking back, it occurs to me that Sebastian is a hero who has all the feels but didn’t really know what to do with them!

The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, A Wedding in St. Roch, The Big Box Store, The Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All by C.D. Wright:

In a Word, a World

I love them all.

I love that a handful, a mouthful, gets you by, a satcheful can land you a job, a well-chosen clutch of them could get you laid, and that a solitary word can initiate a stampede, and therefore can be formally outlawed—even by a liberal court bent on defending a constitution guaranteeing unimpeded utterance. I love that the Argentine gaucho has over two hundred words the coloration of horses and the Sami language of Scandinavia has over a thousand words for reindeer based on age, sex, appearance—e.g. a busat has big balls or only one big ball. More than the pristine, I love the filthy ones for their descriptive talent as well as transgressive nature. I love the dirty ones more than the minced, in that I respect extravagant expression more than reserved. I admire reserve, especially when taken to an ascetic nth. I love the particular lexicons of particular occupations. The substrate of those activities. The nomenclature within nomenclatures. I am of the unaccredited school that believes animals did not exist until Adam assigned them names. My relationship to the word is anything but scientific; it is a matter of faith on my part, that the word endows material substance, by setting the thing named apart from all else. Horse, then, unhorses what is not horse.

The Outskirter’s Secret by Rosemary Kirstein: I decided to take a break while I was mid-way through the fourth in the series but I can say with utmost certainty that it’s this second in the series that shall remain my favorite. The outskirts in the second book are akin to endless grasslands, and Kirstein’s superb at bringing its inherent harshness to life. The tribes that inhabit these prairie like regions that are not exactly human-friendly have a rich culture. Kristein’s intricate details of their daily life and its routines, their society and its hierarchical structure, their modes of communication, their myth and lore, is magnificent in both its breadth and its depth. The plot moves slowly but steadily as the reader comes to know more about these outsiders. It’s also in this second book that the reader comes to have a sure sense of the nature of the magic in this world. Though to be fair, the third the in the series which by the way is VERY WEIRD—enough so that I made it a point to not read it before sleeping—did make me wonder if perhaps there was more going on in this world than what I thought I understood! So, ANYWAY! I’d strongly recommend this series. It’s one of the best SFF that I’ve read in a while.

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin: I should mention that one of my dream vacations is camping in the middle of the Atacama Desert in Chile while I gaze my fill at the astounding brilliance of the Milky Way, and make treks to the European Southern Observatory, to peek through their giant telescopes into the vast beauty of our Universe (and if possible wrangle an invitation to the other-wordly and yet so utterly inviting ESO Hotel). This is a compulsively readable account of the events and the characters who shaped the events that led to the discovery of gravitational waves late last year. It’s fascinating because till I started reading it, I realized I too had thought of the stars and the interstellar dust only in terms of the visible and not the auditory.

So that’s it for me! Which books made a strong impression on you in these past few weeks? Would love to know!

Rosemary Kirstein, The Steerswoman

I think what I love the most about this story is the way it takes for granted that there’s no inherent power imbalance between men and women simply because of their respective genders. The women of this story are soldiers, innkeepers, sailors, warriors, farmers, poets, and have the freedom to do as they please sexually. In a delightful twist, the eponymous steerswomen of the story derive their “power” from observation, deduction, logic, and knowledge of mathematics.

The protagonist, Rowan, is a steerswoman too (with an impressive spatial sense!). Her companion on the journey, Bel, is a woman as well. In this, it reminded me of Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy which also features two women as its main POV characters. That’s the only similarity between these stories though. One of the biggest divergences is the way Kirstein treats magic (at least in this first book)—it’s shrouded in mystery given that it’s the domain of wizards who just don’t share their secrets with anyone. There are gnomes, and goblins, and dragons in the story and yet the few glimpses we get of magic definitely made me wonder about its source and brought to mind Arthur C. Clarke’s postulation that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

the steerswomanOne of the most fun aspects of the story is watching Rowan piece things together. She does this again, and again, putting her mind to the situation at hand, thinking, deducing, and arriving at the best possible options. In a way it’s watching the “scientific process” at work, and it’s extremely satisfying! There’s also some thoughtful and thought-provoking philosophical bits scattered throughout the story and the amazing thing is that they are so tightly interwoven with the actual plot that it took me a while to notice the depth of what the characters were thinking.

The Steerswoman is a story that has BOTH page-turning AND  quiet, subtle moments of storytelling. My only quibble is a minor character that appeared in the beginning, and was part of some scenes that led me to think that he’s going to be instrumental later on but wasn’t. My quibble isn’t that he did not appear again—but that he seemed to have been used to simply extend a few pages. However, this is a VERY MINOR QUIBBLE!

This, again, is an example of a book that does the whole magic-science (magic vs. science?) thing SO MUCH BETTER than Charlie Jane Anders’s All the Birds in the Sky. The series is available in e-book format for a very reasonable price (apparently the rights reverted to the author, and she chose to self-publish), and I’d definitely urge you to give the first one a try!

Kirstein has two more books planned for the series but really the first book is so self-contained, albeit with some bigger questions left unanswered, that I don’t at all mind having started it! I’ve only read the first book so far but the structure seems similar to the Harry Potter books in that there are two parallel narratives arcs at any given point of time—one is the series wide unfolding with each successive book, and the other a book-length story that is resolved within the book itself. I could be wrong but I’m definitely going ahead with this series!

To end—

“I’m sorry, Bel, don’t misunderstand me. I don’t necessarily respect other people’s religions, or any religion. But the people—I respect them, and I give them the honor they deserve, whatever they believe.”

Super Mini Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

I loved the first half, and while on-the-edge-of-my-seat for the second half, didn’t really enjoy it that much.

All my favorite bits were in the first half, especially the magic, the description and workings of which I loved! I’m referring to Agnieszka’s brand of magic here by the way. I just loved, loved the way she “feels” her way to magic—and how the instructions that make sense to her seem to be vague, kind-of, sort-of pointing towards the destination, but letting the way to that destination to be one of her own making. If I were a witch, this is EXACTLY how I would go about it too! Just sayin’!

I also very much enjoyed how Agnieszka’s intuitive approach when combined with the Dragon’s more logical approach leads to more! Yes! I wish All The Birds in the Sky had done something like this right from the start rather than making a message out of it at the end!

As for the second half, I quote LizMc2 whose thoughts about this book have an eerie similarity to mine! “It’s like super hero movies: I like the origin story/discover your powers part, and then it’s all giant special effects action scenes and I get bored.” Yep, the second half was one mad rush of action, and while not bad, wasn’t as good as the first half. Plus, I found the story ended on a note of whimper for me. The whole “evil wood queen” genesis story felt weak, and unconvincing.

On the whole, I have to agree with LizMc2, The Princess Curse was just more satisfying!

Mini Review: All The Birds In the Sky

This is a weird book. And I mean that in a value-neutral way. Anders’s writing, and the things she imagines. . . I couldn’t stop this sense of being an outsider looking into a totally different, alien-ish world.

Patricia is a witch, and Laurence is a super-genius engineer. She can turn herself into a bird and he can build super computers. They’re both interesting kids who face some REALLY ugly bullying and cruelty in school.

The trouble begins when we meet them ten years later.

Patricia’s desire to save everyone, and everyone admonishing her not to become an “aggrandizer” soon became tiresome. The weirdness had stopped being interesting, and all the details had started boring me enough to make me skim and skip paragraphs. The only reason I persevered was because I wanted to know how the “vision” that a sort-of-villain had early on in the book was going to play out. By the way, this sort-of-villain was probably my favorite character in the book. He is an assassin who becomes a counsellor and his ongoings had just the right hint of buffoonery in them for me to stop believing that he was really a villain.

The last one-third of the book would have been much better except that Patricia and Laurence have a Big Misunderstanding. Romance readers, you know what that means. Non-romance readers, that’s basically when an author uses miscommunication between the protagonists to further the plot. (or is there a better way to say that, romance readers?) It drives me nuts. Patricia becomes this cold bitchy person and Laurence a sad, sad man. It did not help that the post-apocalyptic world that Anders describes is. .  . meh. The misunderstanding IS cleared up a little later but by that time we were nearing the end and I just did not have the patience for it.

Then comes the end. Which was a little too. . . twee for me. Don’t get me wrong, I actually DON’T think that rationale/logic and intuition/perception are incompatible but I just did NOT like having this particular ending to the journey that Anders had been promising all along. To be fair, if I’d enjoyed the book more I can see how I would have totally argued FOR such a “simple” solution but it is what it is, reader!

Ok, rant over! I definitely want to hear from those who enjoyed the book!

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is the kind of book that I want to read more of. While big conflicts are quite possible at some point of our lives or the other, isn’t it the day to day, moment-to-moment choices that really make up the bulk of our lives?

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is what I call a quiet story for all that it’s set in space and is a science-fiction. It doesn’t really have any main protagonists but instead is about a whole ensemble of characters, namely the crew of the ship Wayfarer. The captain and the crew have, what I guess must be, one of the most boring jobs in the galaxy.

The story starts with the induction of a new crew member, a human, into the Wayfarer’s crew. Rosemary has never been out in the vast openness before and this nicely sets things up for the reader, alongside Rosemary, to get to know about the space that this story is set in, the history of this space, and the species that populate this space.

the long way to a small angry planetThe structure is episodic with each chapter focusing on a specific crew member. I’ve got to say that I really enjoyed Chambers’ imagining of each of the species, and their particular quirks. Funnily enough, reading this story I’ve somehow ended up expanding my zone of comfort about unexpected appearances. I mean really, some of the species she describes are TRULY bizarre, and yet, it’s weird only when you look at it from a human perspective; it’s weird because it’s different from what I’m used to! I really love this visceral sense that started stealing over me, of being ok with all these STRANGE looking creatures who despite, what I think of as, their peculiar-appearance are SAPIENT! This is a Universe populated by variety—where one species beauty is another species ugly, where one kind’s highest joy is another’s absolute and utter squirmy mortification. All this to say that the world-building is absolutely fantastic!

Which brings me to a favorite story line. And this is spoilery, so I’m putting it in white. Highlight, if you want to read! So, Rosemary and Sissix!! I really thought for quite a while that it’s going to be Ashby and Rosemary, since, well, they are both humans—yes! Bias much?! But turns out Chambers had BETTER things in mind! Their coming together romantically, while being of different species, with different cultural cues, and rules, and definitions about love and sex and family is just such a pleasure to watch unfold!

The peeps in this story are NICE. Yes, even the resident curmudgeon has a sort of reason to be curmudgeony—not that that EXCUSES his behavior, but you know what? The reason does make me look at him with more understanding! And I LIKE this. I would RATHER cultivate a kinder world-view than its opposite, and stories like The Long Way to a Small Angry definitely do their bit in forwarding that.

There is no guns-blazing, seize the evil villain by his horn action in this story. Heck, even the conflicts that the crew runs into are dealt with in a pretty ordinary fashion. I give you evidence. Conflict One becomes steerable because of one of the crew members’ ability to communicate in a different language. Conflict two is handled by figuring out a loophole in the law. Conflict three is about each of the members doing the best they can in that moment. Don’t you love that? I mean isn’t this “ordinariness” how we generally deal with the crap of our lives? It’s so good to see this channelled into an actual story.

I can go on and on about more things I liked—the ending, for instance. It’s ambiguous, talks about BOTH sides of the equation, and is the sort of political question that the story touches upon again, and again, often eschewing a neat, clean answer in favor of highlighting the merit in each of the arguments.

Let me leave you with this.

GC space had plenty of neutral markets that welcomed spacers of all species, but the Port was something special. Even if you didn’t need to stock up, the spectacle of it was well worth the trip. Sprawling streets stuffed with open-air shopfronts, overflowing with clothes and kitsch and sundries. Grounded ships, gutted and transformed into warehouses and eateries. Towering junk heaps lorded over by odd tinkers who could always find exactly the part you were looking for, so long as you had the patience to listen to them talk about their latest engine mod. Cold underground bunkers full of bots and chips, swarming at all hours with giddy techs and modders sporting every implant imaginable. Food stalls offering everything from greasy street snacks to curious delicacies, some with rambling menus of daily specials, others with offerings so specific that the only acceptable thing to say at the counter was ‘one, please.’ A menagerie of sapients speaking in a dizzy array of languages, shaking hands and clasping paws and brushing tendrils.

And also this.

The memories reached out to Dr Chef, trying to pull him away from his safe observation point. They tugged, begging for him to give in. But he would not. He was not a prisoner of those memories. He was their warden.

. . .

Rosemary started to nod, then shook her head. “That’s not the same. What happened to you, to your species, it’s . . . it doesn’t even compare.”

“Why? Because it’s worse?”

She nodded.

“But it still compares. If you have a fractured bone, and I’ve broken every bone in my body, does that make your fracture go away? Does it hurt you any less, knowing that I am more in pain?”

“No, but that’s not—”

“Yes, it is. Feelings are relative. And at the root, they’re all the same, even if they grow from different experiences and exist on different scales.”

Hello!

I’ve been AWOL for a while, and that state of affairs might very well continue for some time—and yes, this is happening while we’re in the middle of a Middlemarch readalong which I am supposed to be hosting! A proper hostess, I shall not make, it appears. BUT I am so, so SO appreciative of both Laila and Valancy who have continued to read and post their reviews despite my AWOL-ness! I love thinking that maybe that’s because they’re both enjoying the book too much to let anything interfere with it! THANK YOU BOTH SO MUCH!

You can read their reviews of Book 4, Three Love Problems and Book 5, The Dead Hand at the following links:

Valancy
Book 4
Book 5

Laila
Book 4
Book 5

As for me, things have been really busy offline. Happily so, I might add! I’ve hosted family and friends, visited the west coast (I live on the east), driven to Niagara Falls and back, attended a friend’s wedding in another state, discussed some big life changes with husband, and all of these since just my last post! To be honest, I’m just not feeling like reading/writing that much these days.

I’m still continuing with Middlemarch and hope to write a little bit about that even though I am way behind the schedule. I’m just about to finish book 4 even though by this time I was supposed to be nearing the end of book 6! The funny thing is that I kind of don’t mind this “falling behind-ness,” you know? This break feels right.

I also finished a category romance that I LOVED, Shanon Kendrick’s The Greek’s Marriage Bargain (thanks Sunita for the recommendation!), a historical romance that I didn’t (Elizabeth Hoyt’s The Leopard Prince—I had such high hopes for it but it felt. . . too. . . over-the-top-ish to me), and that’s about it.

I have returned most of the library books, and put all my holds on freeze for the near future. Basically, I don’t have any reading plans for the next few weeks, and I’m quite ok with that! I LIKE this ebb and flow!

What about you guys? I’m sure you must have had/have your phases too, don’t you? What phase are you in right now? Do you have any specific plans in the offing? I’d love to know!

Middlemarch Book Three: Waiting for Death

Laila’s review: Middlemarch, Book Three: Waiting for Death
Vacancy’s review: Middlemarch, Book III, Waiting for Death (or knee deep in the provincial life…)

What an ending! My heart’s thumping! Turns out it was Fred Vincy, Papa Vincy, and Mama Vincy who were waiting for Mr. Featherstone’s death, who dies just about at the end of Book 3.

Of all the characters we’ve met so far, the one that I have the least patience for is Fred Vincy. He’s sweet natured, selfish to the utmost degree, and completely oblivious of his selfish nature. He’s surprised when Mary Garth calls him out as one. His chief occupation in life is to wile away his time in schemes of utter foolishness while he waits to inherit all of Mr. Featherstone’s wealth and property. That his schemes are idiotic, and that he might want to re-think them, doesn’t occur to him even once, despite one spectacular failure after another. All his problems would be solved were he to come into money, is what Fred Vincy thinks. While he waits for Mr. Featherstone’s death he chooses to borrow money from Caleb Garth, “the poorest and the kindest” of his friends (and Mary’s father), thus marking himself out as a coward as well. His only redeeming quality is that he loves Mary Garth who seems to have a sound head on her shoulder. In fact, the whole lot of Garths is like that—kind, loving, and with a sensibility that does not blind them to the faults of the persons they love. Mrs. Garth for instance,

never committed herself by over-hasty speech; having, as she said, borne the yoke in her youth, and learned self-control. She had that rare sense which discerns what is unalterable, and submits to it without murmuring. Adoring her husband’s virtues, she had very early made up her mind to his incapacity of minding his own interests, and had met the consequences cheerfully.

The Garths, unlike the Vincys, lack in money and connections, but are just SO MUCH better off.

Which brings me to the Vincys. Specifically, Rosamond Vincy. All along, I’ve been thinking of her as an ensnarer but reading Book 3, I realized, that Lydgate is as much of an ensnarer as Rosamond. If anything, he’s an idiot, and deserves whatever is coming his way, for thinking:

The preposterousness of the notion that he could at once set up a satisfactory establishment as a married man was a sufficient guarantee against danger. This play at being a little in love was agreeable, and did not interfere with graver pursuits. Filtration, after all, was not necessarily a singeing process.

What an ass! I can’t help wondering whether all his flirting aside, Rosamond is going to be as lonely in her marriage as Dorothea is in hers. Yep, I feel a little more sympathetic towards Rosamond even though she does have a streak of manipulation running right through her.

Eliot keeps shifting POVs to give the reader a sense of the place from where each character is coming. And this understanding in turn makes one a little less harsh on the said character than one would otherwise be.

And so, even though Casaubon continues to be a git of the first order, Eliot’s insertion that “Mr. Casaubon was nervously conscious that he was expected to manifest a powerful mind” in response to Dorothea’s, and perhaps his own expectations, makes one view him a little more charitably than one would otherwise be inclined to. Then there’s this bit that made me both understand Casaubon and also laugh at him:

To know intense joy without a strong bodily frame, one must have an enthusiastic soul. Mr. Casaubon had never had a strong bodily frame, and his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: it was too languid to thrill out of self-consciousness into passionate delight; it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying.

This following piece too jumped out at me. Eliot mentions this in relation to Casaubon but it’s true for all of us, isn’t it? (Eliot is SUCH A PRO at inserting these sort of universal truths throughout her story!) (Also, it made me feel a little sorry for Casaubon!):

It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self—never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transform into the vividness of a thought, the ardor of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.

The way the latter half of this paragraph is framed reminds me forcefully of Will Ladislaw, and his “attitude of receptivity towards all sublime chances.” What a contrast!

And what of Dorothea in all this? Celia’s nickname for her, Dodo, becomes more applicable than ever. There’s this sense of Dorothea “shrinking,” and sliding more and more into a state of stasis, and lethargy, as a prisoner would. She hasn’t given up yet—her moral core will not allow her to give up on either her marriage OR on Casaubon despite the latter’s efforts to quell her at each and every turn. And yet, I have hope for her, simply because it feels to me as if Casaubon’s actions stem from a fear of Dorothea’s energy and spirit, more than anything else.

Other things that I loved in book 3:

  • There’s this scene in book 3—just two pages long—between Mrs. Bulstrode, and a friend of hers, that reminded of the ways small town busybodies impart so much information without really alluding to the subject that they’re imparting information about.
  • Caleb Garth’s philosophy that he arrives at through “the sights of his youth [that] had acted on him as poetry without the aid of poets, had made a philosophy for him without the aid of philosophers, a religion without the aid of theology.” Also, his “unconquerable indifference to money.”
  • That Mr. Garth advises Mary against Fred as a marriage prospect even though he likes him
  • That a character called Mr. Borthrop Trumbull makes an appearance towards the end, and that I kept reading his name as Mr. Borthrop Turnbull
  • Mrs. Garth! What a woman! Though her strictness towards her own sex while being lenient about those same things with that of the opposite one do make me wonder how much of that is colored by Eliot’s own view of the two genders
  • All the epigraphs! They are such good foreshadowers of what is to come in the given chapter!
  • Mrs. Farebrother—she’s unstoppable! Rumors abound that Lydgate is a natural son of Bulstrode’s, given the way he is pushing Lydgate forward. When her son reminds Mrs. Farebrother that “Lydgate is of a good family in the North. He never heard of Bulstrode before he came here” she replies, “‘That is satisfactory so far as Mr. Lydgate is concerned, Camden,’ said the old lady, with an air of precision. ‘But as to Bulstrode—the report may be true of some other son.’”
  • And this, that had me grinning:

    There are answers which, in turning away wrath, only send it to the other end of the room, and to have a discussion coolly waived when you feel that justice is all on your own side is even more exasperating in marriage than in philosophy.

So at the end of Book 3 it looks like we have three main story arcs to follow—Dorothea’s and Casaubon’s, Fred Vincy’s and Mary Garth’s, and Rosamond Vincy’s and Lydgate’s. Interspersed through the saga of these three couples are the goings-on of Celia and Sir James Chetham (they become engaged! that makes me so happy!), Mr. Bulstrode, Mr. Farebrother, and Mr. Vincy. Oh, and Mr. Brooke—now that he’s invited Will Ladislaw to reside with him, I think? That ought to be VERY interesting. I wonder how Casaubon and Dodo are going to react to that! Also, what will happen to Fred Vincy? Mary Garth doesn’t think he is going to inherit and I trust her opinion of the now dead Featherstone. So much to find out!