Ramayana by Valmiki, retold by William Buck

RamayanaRamayana by William Buck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What story has a cast of gods, demons, humans, animals and magical objects, spans thousands of years, features wars and curses and kidnapping along with tender scenes of romance and vibrant descriptive passages, and is way more interesting than you think?

Twilight.

No, I’m kidding. It’s Ramayana. William Buck discovered this famous epic poem around 1960, along with other priceless works of Indian literature, and was so captivated by it that he set himself to re-writing it for modern English speakers. Creative license was taken; the original was printed in chronological order but Buck has placed some later events at the beginning of the book, and in other places outright revamped interactions, even to the point of completely fabricating a letter which doesn’t appear in the original. Because this is my first experience with Ramayana I can’t speak to the veracity of Buck’s efforts, but I can tell you this is now one of my favourite ancient epic poems. Valmiki devotes lyrical passages to the beauty of the characters and saturates every page, body and outfit with rich colour and a wealth of ornamentation. People are by turns aggrieved, capricious, generous, forgiving, selfish, and kind. There is a handy list of characters at the front – to which I referred constantly – but no crash course in Hindu theology so if you aren’t familiar with the basics you may wish to do some light reading before embarking on Rama’s journey. It’s a very complex universe. Numerous gods reborn as different people, different gods, or whole sets of siblings. Since knowledge of this is sometimes assumed in the text it can be a little challenging to keep track of who is who. Even with the cast up front. Here’s a rundown: Ravana, the demon king, through devotion and will-power persuades Brahma to gift him with immunity from death by the gods or other demons. He then runs rough-shod over all the other gods, sacking heavenly cities and forcing their rulers into servitude. Indra, the rain god and king of heaven, after escaping from Ravana’s prison, goes to confront Brahma about Ravana’s omnipotence and how Brahma intends to stop him. Brahma sends him to see Narayana, who reveals his plan to be reborn as a man and defeat Ravana that way. Ravana saw men and animals as lesser beings and didn’t think to ask for protection from them. So Narayana, who is also Vishnu, is reborn as Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata, and Satrughna, sons of king Dasaratha’s three wives Kausalya (Rama), Sumitra (Lakshmana and Satrughna), and Kaikeyi (Bharata). Narayana’s consort Lakshmi is reborn as Sita, playing a crucial part later in the story. Despite all four of the sons being Narayana incarnate, the story revolves almost completely around Rama. Lakshmana is clearly an important supporting character, but Bharata plays only a minor role and Satrughna is practically irrelevant. Meanwhile Ravana has brothers Vibhishana and Kumbhakarna, sister Surpanakha, son Indrajit (né Meghanada), and numerous wives, spies, demons, and councillors, all of whom play roles of various importance. Anyways, through various godly machinations Rama and Lakshmana spend their youth learning heavenly weapons, Rama and Sita meet and are wed, and they all return to Rama’s childhood home of Ayodhya for a few blissful years together before political intrigue gets Rama exiled for fourteen years. Sita and Lakshmana refuse to be separated from him and join him as travelling ascetics until they cross paths with Ravana. And Ravana starts a war. In Buck’s retelling, the poem is related by a storyteller to his friend and unfolds in layers a little like 1001 Nights, where the character of one story becomes the narrator for a story within the first, and so on. It’s a literary device I quite enjoy. There are relatively minor content warnings for battle scenes and mentions of rape, plus the standard sexism you find in almost everything. Beyond that, there’s just guts, glitz, and glory. Ramayana is truly epic.

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Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs DallowayMrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One hundred seventy two pages of deceptively complex sentences are what make up this delightful snapshot into the lives of Clarissa Dalloway and her friends, as she prepares to throw a dinner party for the upper class of London. Such simple premise belies the thought and effort Woolf put in to writing this and which you, the reader, will have to put in to reading it. Paragraphs that start with one person’s perspective can suddenly switch to another’s. Pronouns point wildly every which way like some sort of befuddled compass needle. Very “James Joyce”, but with well-off characters and no onomatpaeic sound words. Which may or may not be a perk, depending on how much you enjoy puzzling through unintelligible consonant strings. Mrs. Dalloway stood up well to a second reading and I suspect it will enjoy a place of respect in the literature canon for decades hence. Woolf’s ground-breaking writing style and interesting female characters merit a read from any dedicated literary buff.

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What the Mouth Wants by Monica Meneghetti

What the Mouth WantsWhat the Mouth Wants by Monica Meneghetti
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A luscious, succulent memoir filled with sex and food that will have you craving fresh pasta, grieving lost loves, and probably wishing you were Italian. Meneghetti shares her memories, her family history, and some of her favourite recipes in this complex and layered piece. The layout reminded me of Like Water for Chocolate; most chapters were molded around a specific recipe or ingredient. Both books have abusive parents. In Like Water for Chocolate it is the matriarch, but in What the Mouth Wants the father is the toxic one. Meneghetti struggles against his restrictions. His hostility and judgement whenever she bypasses conventional social norms. She also touches on learning to accept her identity as a queer woman. Growing up in a small town in the era before gay marriage was legalized adds another layer of difficulty to the process of self-discovery we all do as we age, and Meneghetti traces her revelations bravely here. Her writing drifts gently between straightforward recounting and more poetic, almost dream-like sequences. She muses on the nature of memory and recollection the same way she muses on the qualities of the perfect risotto. It’s all very delicate. Almost baroque. If you’re in the mood for something rich and complex, this could be the book for you.

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Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest DisasterInto Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bad luck is a feature of existence. Not that luck is necessarily a real thing, but the random nature of being is such that every once in a while the wheel lines up and crushes you. I’ve heard it helps to look on the bright side. Should you be feeling down and in need of some positivity, you may wish to remind yourself, “this may look bad, but at least I am not on Everest in a hurricane.” Like Jon Krakauer. In the spring of ’96 he and numerous other mountaineers, after paying mostly exorbitant fees to various guiding groups, began a month-long trek to reach the summit of the tallest mountain in the world. Some of them even achieved it. But it’s a mountaineering truism that “getting to the summit is the easy part; it’s getting back down that’s hard.” (290) Krakauer’s expedition alone lost five people, and though you wouldn’t think enough people would want to climb Everest that there would be multiple concurrent expeditions, there were and many of those expeditions lost several people. Bad luck, bad decisions, and worse weather combined in a perfect storm of tragedy. While Krakauer honestly describes the circumstances and individual choices that likely contributed to the egregious death toll, his own actions included, he is also sure to include praise where praise is due. People were heroes. In some cases it was enough. Other cases it wasn’t. His vivid descriptions, honest portrayal, and ability to refrain from condemnation won my admiration and made this book one of my favourites for the year. I highly recommend it. Unless someone you love is a mountaineer. In that case I would bypass this book entirely.

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The Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire

Flowers of EvilFlowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Baudelaire threw himself a poetry pity party and called it a book. Now, I gather that this book was really ground-breaking at this time; it was maligned for years. Frank writing about sexual assignations, devils, and disillusionment with life, as well as the role of art and the poet in society make an appearance in nearly every poem. Much of what he wrote about was taboo at the time but is de rigueur in our world. He combines traditional poetical structure with these shocking, new subjects in a work that was scandalous when it was published. There are still poems that will appall readers – I’d love to blot The Martyr from my recollection – to say nothing of his scathing attitudes towards sexually assertive women; but overall this book makes me think of Faust. A narrator’s desperate search for meaning and novelty taking them further into depravity, though here Baudelaire doesn’t close the book by sending his poet-narrator to hell for his explorations. Some editions end with The Voyage, an homage to TS Eliot and my favourite piece from the whole book. Not quite the only poem I liked, but almost. My particular edition includes a splash of random poems after The Voyage, but you have to keep those mentally separate from the rest of the work if you’re going to really appreciate the narrator’s travel through his own personal Rubicon. This edition also includes every poem in the original French. Which is great if you’re bilingual but if you bought the book thinking the multiple translations were going to be multiple English translations by different translators so you can get a more refined sense of the original poem without having to learn fluent French you are going to be disappointed. But then once you start getting tired of all these depressing poems rambling on about death and how nobody appreciates poets these days, you’ll be relieved to discover the book is only half as thick as you think because the back end is all French. Always look on the bright side. Perhaps if someone had taught Baudelaire that his book would have been a little more cheerful.

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Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African ChildhoodBorn a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What an incredible piece of writing this book is. Noah has filled Born a Crime with stories which are almost surreal (to a white first-worlder). As if that wasn’t enough, he lards his writing with insightful observations on racism, poverty, classism, sexism, and human nature. As if it wasn’t enough of a miracle that he exists, he rises above the circumstances of his poverty-stricken childhood to become an intelligent, well-known, and (hopefully) wealthy television personality. He stomped that cycle into the ground.

Noah gives credit where credit is due, however. He didn’t achieve all this by his own will. His mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, is a powerhouse of a woman who refuses to let anything stop her from achieving what she wants. She molds Trevor into a decent human being out of willpower and…well, beatings. Noah explains and excuses it, and has a wonderful relationship with his mother, but child abuse is a thing in this story. As is spousal abuse, gun violence, sexism, and the consistent abuse of power by the police. Apartheid is so much more horrifying than I could have guessed, and it left a legacy that influenced every person in the country. Noah keeps the book upbeat even while relating stories of being arrested, hustling pirated CDs, and navigating the discriminatory culture he was being raised in. Until the end of the book. The third segment gets progressively darker, chronicling his time in jail and his stepfather’s abuse of Noah’s mother, until it will be a wonder if you are not in tears. There’s a happy ending, but trust me when I say you’ve got to walk across some hot coals to get to it. In my humble opinion, it was worth it. I’m glad I read this book.

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Seducing Abby Rhodes by JD Mason

Seducing Abby RhodesSeducing Abby Rhodes by J.D. Mason
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Here’s a hot read for those sultry summer nights. Abby Rhodes is a contractor who makes a living flipping fixer-uppers across the United States. Her most recent purchase in Blink, Texas; owned by business tycoon Jordan Gatewood comes with unexpected inclusions – ghosts. And romance. But Jordan has secrets. And an ex-girlfriend who will do anything to get rid of that prefix.

It’s pretty fast paced. I found myself flipping addictively through it, despite knowing exactly how it was going to end. I was not wrong. But you know, there are times when you just want an easy read that’s going to give you the ending you want, but still have some mystery in the details. Plus
bizarre quirks: Mason has the characters alternate between describing someone as a “fucker” and a “fucka” but almost religiously uses “gotdamn.” It got under my skin really fast. Furthermore following an f-bomb with a curse modified for palatability seemed incongruous.

There is some racism in this novel. Gatewood ends his relationship with Robin Sinclair to pursue Abby, and Sinclair does not respond well, to put it mildly. Occasionally Jordan just lets her vent, and the vitriol she spews at Abby is misogynoir in all its hateful glory. The only good point is that it’s obvious what Sinclair is doing is wrong, and the reader empathises with Abby. There’s also depictions of murder and suicide, discussions of drug and arms dealings, misuse of the justice system, and adultery. On the upside, the story isn’t about Abby saving Jordan. He’s saved himself by the time they meet. I’m delighted to read a story where the male love interest isn’t a tool who is reformed into a decent human being by the woman’s physical affection. That being said…

My copy is an advance, uncorrected proof which I won in a draw. It includes acknowledgements by the author, who comments that one of the characters, “has been emotionally abusive to me for years, but I stay because he’s my heart and soul.” I really hope that when they publish, that comment is gone. The sentiment gives me the willies. It completely justifies staying in abusive relationships because of love, an attitude which fortunately isn’t reflected in the rest of the novel. And the last thing society needs is more books muddling romance with toxic relationships.

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Medea by Euripides

MedeaMedea by Euripides
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Medea is an argument between high school students where almost everyone winds up dead in the aftermath. Hero Jason of the Argonauts and Golden Fleece fame, after marrying the woman who gave him that glory, abandons her and their children to marry a princess. Medea, understandably, is not pleased. Jason can’t quite wrap his mind around why she isn’t thrilled that he’s moving up in the world and really resents her refusal to see that he is dumping her for the good of their family. Beyond the shock value, I can’t see why this play has been so popular for so long. It’s violent, sexist, and depressing. The writing is mediocre. The ending is grasping. After having a plot set securely on the ground, Euripides has a flying, golden chariot rescue Medea, which maybe was a normal literary tool for the ancient Greeks, but seemed very desperate to me. Euripides wanted her to have her final, horrifying confrontation with Jason but couldn’t think of a way to do it that didn’t result in her death. This way they can trade verbal jabs, but Jason can’t throw spears at her. No one in this cast is likeable. No one wins. To even call Medea’s actions a Pyrrhic victory suggests too strongly that her battle of egos with Jason had a winner of any type. It did not. Content yourself with the Cliff’s notes for this bloody play, and spend your precious moments on something else.

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The Day the Sky Fell: The Yellow Hoods, Book #5 by Adam Dreece

The Day the Sky Fell (The Yellow Hoods, #5)The Day the Sky Fell by Adam Dreece
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is it. The last of the series. Do Tee and her brave friends triumph against the Lady in Red, the Piemans, the Fare, and all the other foes arrayed against them? Can a group of teenagers best experts in intrigue?
Of course I’m not going to tell you. Read the book and find out. The Day the Sky Fell had the fastest plot of the whole pentalogy, I really couldn’t put it down. I still wanted a flowchart for all the character relationships, but at least there weren’t any new ones added. Again, some violence and bloodshed, but little else. Dreece has even revealed one of the characters is gay, in the sort of offhand scene that makes me dream of one day having a society where homosexuality isn’t a big deal. It just is. I’m happy to see that Dreece agrees with me, and put his beliefs where his mouth is. Or rather, where his writing utensil is.
Despite Dreece closing The Yellow Hoods with this book, not all the loose ends are tied up. A few of the antagonists could certainly stage a comeback some years down the road, and Dreece mentions possibly starting a second series around a more mature Tee and her friends. I wouldn’t say no to that. It’s been a good run.

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Beauties of the Beast: The Yellow Hoods Book #4 by Adam Dreece

Beauties of the Beast (The Yellow Hoods, #4)Beauties of the Beast by Adam Dreece
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Maybe you thought there weren’t going to be new characters in the penultimate book. Maybe you thought you could stop updating your cast flow chart. Finally laminate it and put it up on the wall to use as a reference. Well put that frame back in the box. Dreece put in more people. Never fear, the delightful Tee, Elly, and Richy are still with us. As are many of the old favourites from previous installments. Plus all the backstabbing, plotting, and double-dealing we’ve come to expect from Dreece’s writing. But wait, there’s more! Airship battles! More explosions! Rocket packs! Here I thought shock sticks and mechanical horses were enough excitement. Dreece disagreed, and we all benefit. Something he didn’t add more of was bloodshed. The level of violence has been pretty consistent since it was upped in the second book, and there isn’t much else to warn for. This is a really decent series, and I’m looking forwards to seeing how everything gets tied together in The Day the Sky Fell. Stay tuned!

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