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LaurenBDavis

LAUREN B. DAVIS

Author of AGAINST A DARKENING SKY, THE EMPTY ROOM, OUR DAILY BREAD, and others. Find out more at www.LaurenBDavis.com. I read as if my sanity depended upon it.. . . oh, wait, it does! Snort.

Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells: An Anthology of Gaslamp Fantasy - Ellen Datlow, Terri Windling, Jeffrey Ford, Genevieve Valentine, Maureen F. McHugh, Delia Sherman, Kathe Koja, Elizabeth Wein, Elizabeth Bear, James P. Blaylock, Kaaron Warren, Leanna Renee Hieber, Dale Bailey, Veronica Schanoes, Catherynne M. Valente, Ellen Kushner, Car

Loved it. Wonderful collection. There might be one or two stories that aren't quite as strong as the rest, but it hardly matters. They are imaginative, well-constructed, and a great deal of fun. I particularly enjoyed the stories who owe a debt of inspiration to the Brontes, Austen and Trollop. I'm a big fan of most things Datlow and Windling (the editors) do, and this is no exception. 

Untie the Strong Woman: Blessed Mother's Immaculate Love for the Wild Soul - Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Although I am not (officially) a Catholic, I have always been impressed how Catholicism embraces the feminine. This may sound odd, considering the way the boys in the Vatican treat women, but I don't think it is. There is something older, wilder, more female and, dare I say, more deeply attuned to Spirit than the rules, regulations, glitter and power of Vatican city. Many of the nuns I've met get this.

Estes brings this older, darker, more vibrant female to the fore, and she does it with great respect to the goddess who those of us who feel at home with more earth-borne and yup, pagan, roots can identify with. Did not the Lady of Guadalupe appear on a site sacred to the Indigenous people of Mexico? She did. Not, I contend, to displace her, but to assure those who believed in her that a simple change of name really changes nothing. She is still here, among us.

That's an experience I've had at a number of Christian sites in France and Wales; sites built upon much older sacred sites. The power of the sacred transcends shifts in religious fashion.

So, all this to say that Estes works hard in this book to reconnect us to that timeless and powerful female energy and she does a hell of a job, incorporating stories, poems, prayers, visual art and song to draw us in.

If this sort of thing interests you I urge you to put aside any prejudices you may have (and we all do) and take a wander. I think you'll enjoy it, and it will enrich you.

Bird, Blood, Snow - Cynan Jones

I'm a fan of Jones' work, and admire what he did with this difficult tale. Peredur is perhaps the least accessible of Mabinogion tales and doesn't, as Jones admits, stand up to the tale of Percival, its twin-tale, if you will. But, my, the threads Jones plies here. What a complex web of forms. I'm not generally a fan of work that is more meta, more about form than character and plot but I make an exception for this work. He's a lovely writer (although be warned, there is much violence and gore here) and has clearly thought a great deal about how to approach this challenging text. It's a gift to the reader.

If you're not familiar with the Peredur tale, before your read the book you might wish to read the afterward, where the original version of the myth is told, and Jones' comments concerning his approach.

Thoroughly enjoyed it. Recommended.

The Green Fairy Book - Andrew Lang Ed.

One of the classics. Read all the colours!

The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life - James Martin

An absolutely terrific book. Fr. Martin is funny, practical and inspiring. Not just for Jesuits... not just for Christians... fine thoughts here on the art of living in kindness and connection.

I Stand at the Door and Knock: Meditations by the Author of The Hiding Place - Corrie ten Boom
I have enormous respect for Corrie ten Boom, and certainly she's one of the most inspiring figures of 20th c. Christianity. This book, however, although full of her quiet, solid, faith, exposed a dogmatic approach that I find too narrow. This is entirely personal, and shouldn't deter anyone who is of a more conservative bent.
 
 

 

Wild Gestures - Lucy  Durneen

These are beautifully crafted stories of loss, yearning and missed opportunities. Durneen -- whom I am delighted to call my friend -- has a gift for interiority. There is something of Henry James in the depth of insight here, written in luscious prose. The dialogue is perfect, and full of wit, but perhaps what remains unsaid speaks loudest. The layers of subtext are masterfully done and leave the reader haunted and inspired. I can't wait to read whatever Durneen chooses to write next.

My being the author's friend in no way corrupts my praise. It's a fantastic book.

Bad Blood - Lorna Sage

Fascinating memoir of respected British academic Lorna Sage's family, their (especially given the times) rather shocking behaviors and how those behaviors affected the author. There's much to be found on the net about Sage, who sadly died much too young at 57, seven days after winning the Whitbread award for this book. There's an excellent review of this book on the Guardian website, here:

 

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/sep/09/biography

 

A highly affecting read. Recommended.

An Unnecessary Woman - Rabih Alameddine

Last night I dreamed I wandered the streets of Beirut. That's the power of this novel; it creates a world so complete, a character so alive, they become part of the reader's psyche.

 

I'm generally not a big believer in back-of-the-book blurbs (which can be more politically motivated than authentic responses to the text), but these capture the nuances of this novel so well, I offer them here in lieu of a review.

 

“An Unnecessary Woman dramatizes a wonderful mind at play. The mind belongs to the protagonist, and it is filled with intelligence, sharpness and strange memories and regrets. But, as in the work of Calvino and Borges, the mind is also that of the writer, the arch-creator. His tone is ironic and knowing; he is fascinated by the relationship between life and books. He is a great phrase-maker and a brilliant writer of sentences. And over all this fiercely original act of creation is the sky of Beirut throwing down a light which is both comic and tragic, alert to its own history and to its mythology, guarding over human frailty and the idea of the written word with love and wit and understanding and a rare sort of wisdom.”—Colm Toibin

 

"The extraordinary if “unnecessary” woman at the center of this magnificent novel built into my heart a sediment of life lived in reverse, through wisdom, epiphany, and regret. This woman—Aaliya is her name—for all her sly and unassuming modesty, is a stupendous center of consciousness. She understands time, and folly, and is wonderfully comic. She has read everything under the sun (as has her creator, Alameddine), and as a polyglot mind of an old world Beirut, she reminds us that storehouses of culture, of literature, of memory, are very fragile things indeed. They exist, shimmering, as chimeras, in the mind of Aaliya, who I am so happy to feel I now know. Her particularity, both tragic and lightly clever, might just stay with me forever."—Rachel Kushner

 

"There are many ways to break someone's heart, but Rabih Alameddine is one rare writer who not only breaks our hearts but gives every broken piece a new life. With both tender care and surgical exactness, An Unnecessary Woman leads us away from the commonplace and the mundane to enter a world made of love for words, wisdom, and memories. No words can express my gratitude for this book."
—Yiyun Li

 

What an extraordinary book. Can't recommend it highly enough.

Between - Angie Abdou

Angie Abdou is a deceptive writer. On the surface, her novel might be thought of a domestic drama, a novel of sexual frustration, marital disappointment, the stresses of childrearing and finding the right nanny, but such a reading would miss the political, cultural, and economic subtexts. Her language is lovely, and she uses wonderful, earthy, enfleshed imagery.

 

Here's what the review from the Winnipeg Free Press had to say. I couldn't say it better myself:

 

"Reviewed by Julienne Isaacs

Angie Abdou is a boundary-pusher. Whether it’s emotional pain or physical exertion, she brings her characters to the limits of human endurance. 2006’s Anything Boys Can Do, a collection of short stories, explores female sexual politics. Her first novel, The Bone Cage, a finalist in CBC’s 2011 Canada Reads, is the story of two athletes training for the Olympics. The Canterbury Trail (2011) follows a troupe of skiers journeying up and over a mountain.

Between is a natural follow-up to all of these themes, and one way or another, it tackles them all again: sex, politics, athleticism, even mountains, if you can count entitlement, consumerism and cultural barriers as metaphorical mountains.

Vero and her husband Shane are average middle-class Canadians: she’s an editor for a vehicle manufacturing company, he’s a pharmacist. They live in a large home in middle-class mountainous Canada with their two children, two cars and too many bicycles, which Shane rides compulsively. All seems normal on the outside—but Vero is on the breaking point, overwhelmed by the challenges of balancing career and motherhood, her sense of personal worth almost smothered into nonexistence. In an attempt to save their disintegrating marriage, and Vero’s sanity, they hire a nanny—a Filipino woman named Ligaya—who carries secret burdens of her own.

The potential political pitfalls lining Between’s pages should already be clear. Middle-class Canadian couple struggles to embody middle-class Canadian ideal, hires third-world import to do the dirty work while they attempt to revitalize their marriage might be the novel’s subtitle—and at first glance Between seems to be granting legitimacy to this highly problematic crisis.

But Abdou is shrewd: while Vero and Shane’s (hashtag) First World Problems are readily apparent, they cannot be written off, for Abdou attends to them with an intense emotional realism. And no attitudes in Between are easy to summarize or critique—let alone condemn or defend. Everything is simply laid bare to the reader: Ligaya’s loneliness and culture shock, Vero’s depression, Shane’s helplessness. And the overarching consumerist philosophy that unites all three—if I had this my life would be fixed—makes them makes them familiar to readers also struggling with consumerism.

Vero, pre-nanny, is a hot mess. Some of Between’s edgiest passages, emotionally speaking, can be found near the beginning of the novel, as Vero folds laundry, cleans up after her three-year-old, Eliot, and baby, Jamal, and tries to remember why her life matters at all. At the limit of her energy, she retreats to a closet with two bottles of wine and sits in the darkness, leaving voicemail messages for her friend:

She thinks of saying, I’m drunk on the pantry floor. “Parenting’s hard,” she says instead, her tongue slow and heavy. “Whatever made us do it? I mean, really, imagine trying to sell this experience to someone, if we hadn’t all bought it already. Here’s the pitch: You’ll get pregnant. Your body will warp in ways you hadn’t thought possible. It’ll never be the same again. You’ll pee your pants for months afterward, maybe forever. Delivering a baby will hurt until you think you’ll die. You’ll wish for death …”

Ligaya—or LiLi, as the family renames her—isn’t the ideal solution Vero and Shane have hoped for: granted, she keeps everything perfectly clean and the children tidied away, and puts food on the table. But she resists Vero’s efforts to befriend her, to get close to her. To put it another way, a part of Ligaya refuses colonization. Vero can see grief close under Ligaya’s efficient surface, but when entrance to it is denied, Vero lapses into daydreams of an idealized friendship: “They could talk about loneliness, not like sisters, maybe, but like friends. Even good friends. LiLi would admit, Yes, yes, I am lonely. Vero imagines them having this conversation cross-legged on LiLi’s single bed, under the posters that LiLi has never taken down.”

Ligaya’s personal struggles are revealed, in slim occasional chapters, in their own right. And she is, indeed, lonely. When Vero and Shane go away on holiday—part of the marriage-revitalization project—she takes the boys into her bed so she can fall asleep close to their warmth: “They are good boys, these two. She puts her nose close to Eliot’s hair and lets the scent of baby shampoo carry her to sleep. It is a luxury, she knows, an indulgence. But she takes it.”

Vero’s white-washed, polite Canadian complicity in a culturally-acceptable system of social hierarchy, is a dark spot staining her conscience that Ligaya prevents her from eradicating through friendship.

But the chief crisis in Between comes when Vero and Shane escape their everyday reality for a fantasy vacation to a Jamaican swinger’s resort. Their resulting, slow-but-steady forays into sexual hedonism mark the novel’s most disturbing passages.

It’s a cliché of literary fiction that writing detailed sex scenes is dangerous and can put the writer at risk of receiving some Bad Sex Writing award or other, but Abdou ignores it. And her fearlessness grants the writing a kinetic power—as when Vero, on Shane’s urging, hooks up with a stranger in a public pool at the resort, before all eyes. But the brief resulting satisfaction—as much performance as pleasure—sends Vero spiraling: “when her body stops waving and spinning, she slides into the water, wanting to go right under, to sit at the bottom with her nose plugged and her eyes clenched tight. Looking at anyone now would be to own what has just happened. She would rather disappear.” Complete sexual satiety is the final frontier in Vero and Shane’s quest for a complete life: but it cannot be purchased without a cost.

Part of Abdou’s achievement in Between is in her avoidance of the terms “transaction,” “consumption” and “entitlement,” when these are driving themes behind nearly every page. To Vero and Shane, and even, to a certain degree, Ligaya, everything can be purchased if the purchaser has enough capital. Every pleasure is deserved. And everyone, whether or not they are in a position to seize it, is entitled to every pleasure. The consequences of seizing it, however, go deep: deeper than a resort pool, as deep as an ocean—maybe deeper.

Between’s descriptive passages are beautifully evoked, magnetic, even hypnotic. And Abdou pulls no punches: she does not avoid the difficult. She plunges right in. While its conclusion pushes too hard for resolution that is unlikely—or even impossible—Between remains complex to its final pages. Interpersonal tensions, for Abdou, are mountain ranges dividing people. Whether or not we can scale the heights depends on more than tenacity—more than empathy, even. It depends on our ability to truly see the other as more than a site of exchange."

 

The Natashas: Inside the New Global Sex Trade - Victor Malarek

A more harrowing book I can hardly imagine and yet it's such an important book. How many of us truly understand the vast, interwoven complexity of the international corruption and collusion into the human trafficking trade? How many of us understand that although some women enter the sex trade willingly, thousands upon thousands (yes, that's the kind of numbers we're dealing with here), are kidnapped, repeatedly raped, beaten and murdered... in fact, many of the women who work in strip clubs, massage parlors, brothels and hotels/motels worldwide? How many of us understand the hypocrisy of ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel lining up to abuse sex slaves while denouncing these same women as subhuman, not worth defending? Or members of the high-ranking UN peacekeeping forces (Canadian, American, French, German...) in Bosnia-Herzegovina sent in to help rebuild after the war, being frequent visitors to slave-populated brothels? Or these same UN peacekeepers shutting down investigation after investigation?

 

Kirkus reviews says:

"Canadian broadcast journalist Malarek exposes the international traffic in sex slavery.

He begins with the graphic story of a young Ukrainian woman smuggled into Israel and sold as a prostitute. Her story, he claims, is typical of the new traffic in Eastern European women who, lured abroad with the promise of lucrative jobs, are forced into prostitution. The collapse of the Soviet Union has left the economies of its constituent republics in shambles; organized crime is in the driver’s seat, and an attractive young woman can be sold for $10,000 or more in some of the countries where the sex trade flourishes. Malarek goes on to detail the gruesome realities of the traffic in human bodies, some as young as 12. The women are held prisoner, beaten, tortured, even murdered if they fail to satisfy their customers, typically ten or more men a night. They are found in almost every nation of Europe, the Middle East, and America, though the trade flourishes especially in areas like the former Yugoslav republics, where the institutions of government are precarious and occupying armies provide a nucleus of customers. The women can look for no help from law enforcement, which is simply bribed (typically with freebies) to look the other way. The US cannot feel superior; despite its lip service to fighting the sex trade, some of the most brutal brothels are in camp towns just outside its bases all over the world, and the military authorities turn a blind eye to them. Malarek interviews people from several of the groups working to fight the traffic, third only to guns and drugs as a cash cow for organized crime. His conclusion is straightforward, if not encouraging: only a genuine effort by all parties can bring an end to sexual slavery.

A scathing indictment."

 

That it is, and we can't afford either to look away or refuse to help.

Bird Box - Josh Malerman

This book unnerved the hell out of me! (How I wish there hadn't been this flaw thing...)

One of the drawbacks of being I writer, is, I suspect, dissecting most books as I read, which interferes, at times, with the visceral impressions. But not so BIRD BOX.

Malerman's structure is terrific, braiding timelines to create layer upon layer of terror. What have we got here to up the ante? Creatures who have perhaps invaded earth, or perhaps come from some other dimension. It's uncertain. What's certain is that if humans see them, humans go mad and grotesque murder/suicides result. Really grotesque. So, if one is to survive, one must not see them. Blindness. Blindfolds. Curtains over all the windows. Can you imagine resisting the impulse to look? to peak? Just for a moment? And what's that scratching noise at the front door?

Do the creatures want this death cycle to continue? Are they complicit?

Civilization fractures. Services like water and electricity simply stop. Do you stay where you are? Leave? How? Oh, and by the way, you're pregnant. And there's that whole KEEP YOUR BLINDFOLD ON thing, regardless of what you hear (the click right beside you), what you smell (decaying just about everything), what you touch (or did it touch you?).

If one of the tools of fiction writing is to get your character up a tree and then start throwing rocks at them, then BIRD BOX is a masterwork.

I couldn't stop reading. So, why not five stars? Well, a couple of plot things don't quite add up, unless there's a twist not contained in this text... which brings me to.....The ending. It didn't satisfy and I suspect that's entirely the intent. It couldn't scream FIRST IN THE SERIES! ABOUT TO BE MADE INTO A FILM! any louder. Most books so expressly written with a film deal in mind aren't well written, but this one is. Malerman has the chops. I wish he'd thrown everything he had into it and written us the ending the rest of the book promised and deserved.

LaRose - Louise Erdrich

Highly recommended. A masterfully written, successfully ambitious book of extraordinary power. The view is expansive in terms of both characters and time. In fact, there is a sense that time is an always/eternal-yet-now entity, a thing of both memory and immediate effect. The prose is so beautiful there were passages I read over and over again. Read the book. READ THE BOOK.

Kindred - Octavia E. Butler

The first book of Butler's I've read. A fascinating writer who breaks new ground, especially for the time in which the book was written. She brings a black feminist aesthetic to her work and uses it to expose cultural, sexual, and racial biases, all the while offering the reader a gripping tale.

While this work might not be as shocking now as it was in 1979, it's well worth a read. Classified as a 'science-fiction' work due to the time travel, it stands equally in 'literary fiction', as does the work of Ursula LeGuin, and 'African-American literature'.

The Crocodile Bird - Ruth Rendell

What fun! I can't believe this is the first book by Rendell I've read. What I've been missing. A terrific literary psychological thriller that kept me glued to the text. The sinister, creeping subtext of horror is so damn plausible. Shudder. 

Knockemstiff - Donald Ray Pollock

Oh, darker than dark, and with written by a writer with an unflinching gaze, but also by one with enormous compassion. The level of my care and empathy with these characters is due to the brilliance of Donald Ray Pollack.

Tom Waits might well shy away.

Risky. Powerful. Ugly. Painful. Worth it.