Of Darkness

of darkness

Of Darkness, by Josefine Klougart. I picked up this book for my Reading the World challenge; the author is from Denmark. And I flipped through it and it looked poetic. As in, it was in stanzas most of the time. Anyways. It looked avant-garde and interesting.

So this book is weird. It doesn’t have a plot line. Or recurring characters. Or really anything you can hang onto. What it does is tell a long, drawn-out emotion, rather than a story. And despite how weird that makes it, I really liked it.

Instead of telling a story, Klougart tells something like poetry—sometimes it’s verse, sometimes it’s prose, sometimes it’s just a very detailed description of a scene. And you never get any names of people, or really any characters you’re sure are the same from the last section. But what you do get is a very real sense of grief. Several different kinds of grief: grief for a dead loved one, grief for lost love, grief for a failing marriage, grief for someone in the process of dying. Grief when you discover you have a terminal illness. Grief when you realize someone you know is sick and dying. And while it’s odd at first, once you stop trying to figure out who’s talking, you just get this wave of emotion.

And when I say “wave of emotion,” I don’t mean that you’ll be overcome. It’s more like sitting in the shallow end of the pool and feeling the water move up and down. It just kind of washes over you and then leaves you remembering the feeling. It’s not a tear-jerker. And it’s not depressing, either; I’m not really sure how she does that. It’s somehow just…human. Human, and slightly uplifting.

Anyways. If you need a story, don’t read this. But if you’d like to branch out your poetry side, pick up a copy of Of Darkness. I’d like to have someone to discuss it with. ♦

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Native Guard

native guard

I picked up Native Guard, by Natasha Trethewey, on a whim. I was looking through the poetry section at Pioneer Book, and it was small enough to be easily tackled. The book is  half poetry about being a Black American generally, and half poetry about being a Black American during the Civil War. These last poems are imagined, of course, since the Civil War was about 150 years ago—but it’s a side of the war we don’t often hear about, especially that of a Black soldier.

To be honest, I don’t have much to say about this collection of poetry. It’s good, but I can’t really tell you why. It’s not overly flowery, but it’s not exactly everyday slice-of-life stuff, either. It does a good job of presenting the difficulties of Black Americans and the way their stories fit into American history overall. I would recommend it to probably anyone. 4 stars. ♥

Talking God

talking god

Talking God is a mystery novel by Tony Hillerman, one of many in the “Leaphorn and Chee” series. The series is about as predictable as any mystery series—Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and tribal policeman Jim Chee keep getting thrown together as they solve mysteries. What makes this different from a run-of-the-mill Agatha Christie is the setting: a Navajo reservation.

There are only a couple hundred thousand Navajo people (registered) in the world, so that makes Hillerman’s novels feel exotic for most readers, including myself. I mean, I’m a little closer geographically, but it’s still eye-opening to read the cultural details he puts into his novels. And while Hillerman himself isn’t Navajo, he seems to have done his research well: in 1987 he received the “Special Friend of the Dineh” award (“Dineh” means “people” in Navajo,) and his work in Talking God treats native customs with respect.

Anyway. Enough about the culture. Talking God is a good, cozy mystery novel in which a dead body is found by the train tracks—far from the stop—with no footprints nearby. The body is missing its teeth and has no identifying information on it, except for a scrap of paper with the name “Agnes Tsosie” and the name of a ritual involving the Talking God. Chee and Leaphorn end up in Washington D.C. separately— investigating the unidentified body, and questioning a White man who claims to be Navajo and has gotten into trouble with the law for grave-robbing.

The book is a fun read, action-packed, with some twists and turns I didn’t expect. I’ll probably pick up some more books in the series later on. ♦

The Bhagavad-Gita

bhagavad gita

In choosing a book for India, I went with the Bhagavad-Gita. This was partly because it’s been very influential, but mostly because I have been (sort of) taking an online course on Hinduism, and I wanted to do some homework.

So the Bhagavad-Gita is a section of a larger work, the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata is an epic story of scripture, and the Bhagavad-Gita is a smaller section, detailing Lord Krishna’s advice and discussion with the prince Arjuna. Arjuna is standing on the field of battle, having to wage war against some of his dearest friends, and his heart sickens. He doesn’t want to kill those he loves. But Lord Krishna (who is apparently a close friend of Arjuna—maybe the larger epic explains this) encourages Arjuna to do his duty and lead the battle.

This was an interesting read for me. I’m a Christian, and I’m fairly used to Christian scripture. The philosophy I’ve been raised in is that you should always do the right thing. But the “right thing” in Christian terms usually means the thing that will help the greatest amount of people. There are exceptions, of course—but if killing people is avoidable, most Christians would consider it the “right thing” to avoid it. In the Bhagavad-Gita, however, it seems that the “right thing” is the line of duty.

It also feels like the “right thing” is the one that brings most order to society. Lord Krishna repeatedly reminds Arjuna to forget about the consequences of his actions and just do what he has to. While Christian scripture (especially in the New Testament) seems to emphasize weighing the consequences of our actions, this book of Hindu scripture explicitly states that we should separate ourselves from the consequences and take no accountability for them. We should be accountable for our actions, not their results.

Any practicing Hindus out there who want to discuss this with me? This is really my first foray into Hindu text. ♦

A Night in the Lonesome October

lonesome october

Okay, so this is a Halloween book. I read it in October. But hey. I’m a little behind in my book reviews. Sue me.

Anyways.  A Night in the Lonesome October is a book by Roger Zelazny. It’s hard to find, since it’s been out of print for a while, but it’s completely worth it. Check on Amazon. You can usually find a used copy for a decent price.

A Night in the Lonesome October is a title inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe work, and the whole book is a monster mash inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, and Hollywood in general. The book follows the day-by-day activities of Snuff, the faithful guard dog of a gentleman named Jack who possesses a curious knife and an even stranger curse. Jack and Snuff join a witch, a vampire, a druid, a Russian monk, a doctor and his experiment man, and a host of other bizarre characters as they prepare for a ritual to be performed on Halloween night. The book is both dark and comical, and incredibly well constructed.

My dad read this book to me nearly every year once I was old enough to handle the spook-factor. And now I still re-read it by myself, because I love it. ♦

The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris

islamist in paris

After I left a comment on her blog, Ann Morgan sent me a book! Since she’s the one who inspired me to start reading books from around the world, I was flattered and excited.

And a little nervous, to be honest. My comment was about sex in literature; I’m quite conservative when it comes to sexual content. I prefer to keep my sexual experiences inside my own bedroom, thank you, and I’d rather not read about yours. Some of this comes from my religious background: I’m Mormon, and believe very strongly that sex should be a private and sacred thing, not thrown around casually. Some of it comes from my marriage; my husband and I have an understanding that our sexual activities should be with one another (and not with a book or computer screen,) so we avoid porn. Some of it is because I don’t have enough of a “fourth-wall” attitude; I get awkward and think that the couple is going to notice me peeping in on them. And some of it is just because I’m so sick and tired of picking up a good book and having it ruined by an awkward attempt at sex—especially when I can tell the author just threw it in there in hopes of selling more books.

Anyways. Ann sent me a copy of The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris, by Leïla Marouane. She’s an Algerian author living in Paris (I counted it for Algeria, but it could have counted for France if I’d needed it to.) The book was an odd read for me—there are no rating systems for books, so I usually play it safe by avoiding anything with a racy reputation at all. This was definitely more graphic than I’m used to. But I definitely wouldn’t consider it pornographic, either. It dealt with sex explicitly, but most of the book wasn’t sexy. Most of it was just a grown man whining about how little sex he was getting. And when it did get sexual, it still wasn’t sexy. The narrator (an unsympathetic woman) certainly doesn’t make our main character Basile sound like a catch. Just desperate and pathetic.

All in all, it’s a brilliantly written story about culture clash, sexual obsession, and insanity. Basile Tocquard, the main character, is a Muslim Algerian living in Paris. He’s changed his name to appear more French, and he uses skin-whitening creams and various other practices to hide his origin, all as a means of escaping racism. One day, sick of feeling isolated by his religion (and mother), he buys an expensive condo and decides he’s going to spend the rest of his years having lavish orgies in said condo. After several weeks, he gets increasingly obsessed with sex and increasingly frustrated that beautiful women aren’t just falling into his bed.

As his frustration mounts, so does his paranoia about his ethnic origins being found out. And his desperation for a real (unimagined) sexual encounter. And his distance from his overbearing mother. And his concern about a mysterious female author he keeps hearing about (or meeting?), who is determined to ruin the lives of men by writing about them.

The real brilliance of the book is that by the time you reach the end, he’s just about lost it, and you’re really not sure which girls were real, whether his cousin is alive or dead, what his mother is really concerned about, and whether that mysterious female author is actually Leïla Marouane.

I enjoyed the book. As a Mormon, I appreciated Basile’s struggle between his conservative traditions and the culture in which he lives. I also appreciated how openly the author addresses racism in modern French culture. And as a reader, it was a bizarre puzzle trying to figure out exactly how crazy this man is, and exactly how much input is coming from him and how much is coming from the narrator.

Again, I appreciate Ann Morgan’s recommendation—and if you haven’t checked out her blog, go do it! ♦

A Tale of Two Cities

a tale of two cities

Everything I’ve  heard about A Tale of Two Cities is that:

  1. it’s amazing, and
  2. it’s nothing like the rest of Charles Dickens’s work.

Which always struck me as odd, because this review usually came from people who already loved Charles Dickens. If it’s nothing like his other stuff, why is it so amazing?

Well, I’ve read it. I forced my way through the first hundred pages or so for book club, and then flew through the rest of it of my own volition. And I’m here to tell you that the reason it’s so amazing is because Charles Dickens temporarily transformed himself into Victor Hugo. Just for one book.

A Tale of Two Cities is a beautiful book, full of beautiful small details, and an absolutely horrifying poetry to it. Dickens describes the French Revolution (and regicide) as some kind of terrible, whirling dance that nobody can escape—at least not with their heads attached to their shoulders. It’s a very simple story, really. A good nobleman gets mixed up with the bad noblemen, and some friends try to come to the rescue. But the way he writes it is simply beautiful and terrifying, all at the same time.

If you only read one book by Dickens, read this one. Even though it’s nothing like Dickens. ♥