Sunday, June 19, 2016

Review: 438 Days by Jonathan Franklin

Format/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: November 2015
Publisher: Atria Books
Length: 269 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Why I Read: Intriguing subject matter
Read If You: Like stories about people who overcome the impossible
Rating★★★★
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon 

Since reading In the Heart of the Sea, I've been interested in reading more stories about 19th century sea exploration and survival tales. 438 Days describes one man's survival lost at sea for over a year. This story, however, differs from the historical stories in which I might find interest. The lost seaman is an El Salvadorian living in Mexico. Salvador Alvarenga became lost after a storm in November 2013. I'm astonished that, in spite of all our technological advances, the world remains so vast that we can still lose entire planes (let alone one man in a little boat) and never find them.


My heart broke for Ezequiel Córdoba, a young man who accompanies Alvarenga at the last minute. He has little experience on the expansive ocean, which causes him a great more suffering than Alvarenga initially experiences. An anecdote from their third week at sea demonstrates the relationship between the two:
Day 23: Córdoba was in worse shape. He pleaded with Alvarenga, "Oranges, bring me oranges." Alvarenga stood above the prone man and assured him food was close. "Okay, I am going to the store, I will see if it is open, to bring you some food," he said with conviction as he pointed to the horizon. "I will get tamales, oranges and shrimp." Alvarenga strode with confidence for the few seconds it took to cross the boat. After waiting for five minutes in silence, he strode back with bad news. "The store is closed, but don't worry, they open in an hour and they have fresh tortillas." To his surprise, the scheme worked. Córdoba stopped moaning and fell asleep. The game of visiting the store bought Alvarenga a few hours of respite from t he cloud of fear that had seize Córdoba's mind and rarely loosened its grip on the despairing young fisherman. (92-93)
This anecdote also illustrates an aspect of the book I appreciated. Franklin interviewed experts on various subjects related to Alvarenga's journey. After relaying the story shared above, Franklin quotes Dr. John Leach, a "senior research fellow in survival psychology". Leach explains why the shop exercise was beneficial to both Córdoba and Alvarenga's mental health. Córdoba has something to look forward to and Alvarenga has "an automatic task [...] a job that gives meaning to your existence" (94) to complete. There are numerous places where Alvarenga's journey is explained and supplemented by experts in relevant fields, or by those who interact with Alvarenga.

Alvarenga's survival techniques impressed me. Likely few other men would have been able to survive in his position, without his knowledge. What most surprised me was how he could survive on raw foods, eating creatures like fish and birds whole and drinking turtle blood. I got really stressed on those rare occasions when he would spot a boat. Like, it's only day 126, you know he's not going to be rescued (131)!

Because of In the Heart of the Sea, my mind did wander a bit towards the concept of cannibalism, but it was not something I really wanted to dwell, especially given the modern context of this story. The word is mentioned once in the book (about the media frenzy as Alvarenga's story emerges). Alvarenga makes peace with Córdoba's mother, but Córdoba's brothers are unimpressed with Alvarenga's explanation (253). I can't imagine what it would be like to be in their position. I discovered while looking for news updates that Córdoba's family filed legal action against Alvarenga, suing for $1 million, shortly after the book was published.



Towards the end of the book, I began to feel a little seasick myself. I wasn't feeling so great and reading this book just made my head spin more! It's a bit like trying to fathom the size of the universe - trying to imagine how Alvarenga survived 438 days lost in a tiny boat, 320 of those days alone. I don't suppose I would survive a week. Franklin does a good job of illustrating how Alvarenga managed his time and what kind of headspace he strove for (and sometimes lost).

A cynic might say otherwise, but I'm impressed that Alvarenga chose to tell his story with a journalist who could share that story with the world. I did ponder the connection was between Alvarenga and Franklin (who is the sole author credited for the book). In the author's afterword, Franklin asks the question I wondered all along - "What else [aside from financial benefits] motivated him to spend hour after hour with me, telling all the details of his story?" Franklin quotes Alvarenga's answer at length, but here is the gist of it:
I suffered so much and for so long. Maybe if people read this they will realize that if I can make it, they can make it. Many people suffer only because of what happens in their head; I was also physically being tortured. I had no food. No water. If I can make it so can you. If one depressed person avoids committing suicide then the book is a success. (261) 
The Bottom Line: A fascinating tale of survival and resilience, unlike any other. Recommended for fans of narrative non-fiction.

Further Reading:

Friday, June 17, 2016

Response: What Does the Term Diverse Mean to You?

On Wednesday, Naz @ Read Diverse Books posted "What Does the Term Diverse Mean to You?". I'm bumping the review I had scheduled today to write a response to his post, as I've been thinking about it a lot these past two days. I highly recommend you read his original post if you haven't done so already. He breaks down what he means when he uses diverse, a popular word in the book world whose meanings and uses are not often closely explored.

Naz makes three points about diversity in his post (which he makes clear are his own opinion, and that we don't really have a universally correct way to use the term):
  1. That diverse/diversity are particularly Western terms
  2. That we shouldn't refer to individual people or books as diverse
  3. That when he says 'read diverse books', he means read books "that represent the variety of voices traditionally marginalized and underrepresented in the (Western) publishing industry".  I.E. 'Read diverse books' =/= 'Read a diverse book'
I immediately agreed with his third point. Where I got stuck was why we shouldn't call individual books (that may be found, for example, on a 'list of diverse books') diverse - I didn't understand why it might be okay to say 'read diverse books' but not 'read a diverse book'. However, I did understand and agree with Naz's point about using diverse collectively. I agree that diversity comes when you have a variety of stories together. I understand that only reading books about, for example, white trans boys would not be 'reading diverse books' because those books are not very diverse from one another. Therefore it's important to say 'read diverse books' in the collective sense that Naz defined. When you're reading diversely - when you read diverse books - you're reading books about many different people and experiences.

As I reflected on how I use the term diverse with regards to individual books, I initially thought I used it to refer to a book that gives voice to someone who experiences the world differently from me, i.e. a character who is not a cishet, white, ablebodied, English-speaking, Canadian female. In my case, this definition includes a lot of books that feature traditionally marginalized voices. Those characters are 'diverse' from mainstream literature. Therefore, what harm would I be doing in saying 'This book is diverse'? When I looked back at Naz's post last night, I saw the answer to my question. The key issue with my definition is the word differently.
Some people may use the term to mean “different” or “other,” but we shouldn’t be using it in that context or mindset because it renders exotic the experiences of marginalized communities. And as long as we keep seeing their stories as other or foreign, then we will struggle to move past the term “diversity” and into fair and equal representation. The goal should be to make “diversity” obsolete, at least in the publishing industry, and aim for all stories to be valid and valued, not because they’re “diverse” but because they reflect our world and explore universal truths.
I spent a lot of time arguing back and forth with myself about these points. I do this so I can make sure I really understand why I might change my mind on something. Suddenly, Naz's argument clicked for me. Diverse shouldn't be interchangeable for 'gives voice to an experience different from mine'. That's how I was using the term. The problem with that is, as Naz writes in the quote above, the exoticizing of others' experiences. I didn't think I was doing that. But, I'm finally starting to understand that just because I don't intend to exoticize experiences, doesn't mean I'm not. Sure, I can say that's what I mean by diverse but using that term in that way also means I'm inherently exoticizing others experiences. Am I understanding this correctly? I managed to arrive at this conclusion by working through the following thoughts: I also agree that in a perfect world we wouldn't have to use the term diverse - publishing would represent all the wonderfully varied experiences of people around the world. But...this is where I still get a bit hung up. We don't live in a perfect world right now. We still have to push for those stories to be told or to be read.To me, I imagine it's a bit like how we shouldn't need coming out videos. Nobody should have to make a statement of their sexuality in order to be a positive role model or live as their real self - but with the way society is currently, those videos can be very beneficial to (for example) a young kid struggling with their own sexuality. Then I worry, is my kind of logic part of the reason we can't move forward?? Am I actually embodying what I would rather abolish? Ahh headache. Maybe I'm finally starting to understand that this may be a more subtle distinction than I realize. And that brings me back to the top of this paragraph :P Suddenly, I thought I understood! Because diversity is a given in our world, because we want "all stories to be valid and valued, not because they’re 'diverse' but because they reflect our world and explore universal truths" (qt. Naz), this term should be made obsolete.

I went back to look at my review of What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, because I knew even when I published that post that I used diverse in an awkward way, when I really should have used different terminology. Funnily enough, I did use diverse in the collective way without consciously intending to, as I said all of the stories in the book are diverse... Here's the paragraph where I talked about diversity [newcomments in square brackets]:
All of Oyeyemi's works demonstrate diversity [Here's my use of the term in a collective sense - her books all feature diverse characters, as do the stories in this collection], and these stories feature a varied cast of characters. Just as she did in White is for Witching (which features an interracial lesbian couple),   the 'diverse' aspects  of the character's feel natural and almost incidental (not in a bad way) to the story [This whole sentence could use a rewrite, to indicate simply that the characters are not defined by one aspect of their identity]. Sexuality and racial identity are not used as token diversity markers [I think this usage is okay]. But, the stories would not be the same without these aspects of identities. I suppose what I'm trying to get at is, Oyeyemi has found the balance between writing diverse characters who are only their diversity and writing diverse characters who are wholly separate from their diversity. [Whoo, now I can cringe at this sentence :P What I am really trying to say is that Oyeyemi writes human characters with realistic identities, and doesn't just write diverse stories for the sake of diversity.]

I have spent a lot of time thinking about this. This was a tough post for me to write, because I know I'm new to this discussion and I've probably still got some things wrong. What you don't see here is the 1,000 words I deleted as I went in circles trying to make sense of everything :P I was nervous about posting this because of that, but I know I can't overcome my own misunderstandings and learn and improve without engaging in dialogue so I'm taking the plunge! Please let me know if you think I'm off track. Have I totally missed the mark with my comments on inherent exoticization? Are there are other factors we should take into consideration? I'd love to hear what you think about diversity and the use of the term diverse in the book blogging realm.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

What is Speculative Fiction? Some Thoughts on Genre


I drafted this post back in January when I was trying to add a genre label to Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day. I didn't know what to tag it, so I took to Google and came across the term specfic, short for speculative fiction. I thought, "Aha, yes, that must be right! Wait, what about the other books I've labelled scifi? Is spec fiction a better label? What's the difference..." Oops, now I find myself wading into this debate.

I didn't realize speculative is such a hotly contested word. Some say speculative encompasses anything "created out of imagination and speculation rather than based on reality and everyday life" (Wiki), some say it's a pretentious term for SF&F, some say it has a distinct meaning of its own. I fall into that last group. Speculative fiction for me means a story outside the traditional realms of science fiction, fantasy or horror. A speculative fiction book has fantastic (in the "imaginative or fanciful; remote from reality" [Oxford Dictionaries] sense) elements, but not necessarily wizards and magic, aliens and spaceships, monsters and gore. (I realize what I'm saying doesn't really have a lot to do with the actual meaning of speculative. If we take speculative's meaning at face value, I agree that it would be a catch all for any fiction. Perhaps the real solution to this labelling problem would be to find a better word in the first place! But for now I'm going to run with speculative.) Unsurprisingly, specfic is difficult to define! I feel I know it when I see it. That's why I started wondering about it after reading Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day. It's a book with fantastic stories but you won't find it shelved with SF+F and it likely won't be your first recommendation for someone who loves George R.R. Martin or Arthur C. Clarke. Catherynne M. Valente (one of my favourite authors) doesn't really like the term specfic and says it excludes her (though she's not sure about scifi or fantasy, either), but for me and my personal definition of the term, specfic better than fantasy describes a story like Palimpset or In the Night Garden.

I took a look at the reviews I've labelled scifi to see if specfic is a more accurate label for them. The only one I thought I might change is The Southern Reach trilogy. It's definitely science fiction but it's got a lot more going for it. But then I realized I had labelled it scifi and dystopia, so I think it fits my labelling system without me adding specfic. 

For myself, I'll use specfic as a catch-all term for future oddball reads, that don't fit neatly into the traditional genre categories. I've long used the term eerie in a similar way. Eerie for me replaces horror, which doesn't really fit the kinds of stories I read. Some of the books can be accurately described as terror, but a lot of them aren't even really that, they're just...spooky, or ghostly, or eerie ;P

So what have I concluded from all this? People will define genre however they like and use whatever terms they feel comfortable with. Whether this is good or bad is not something I'm concerned with. I wrote this post to hash out what I mean what I use a genre term. I know I use my own classification system (as I think everyone does to some extent) and I don't expect all readers to use all genre labels in the exact same way. Heck, I'm sure there are plenty of readers who don't even care about labelling books in such a manner.


This post has spiralled a bit beyond the two paragraphs I initially thought it would be! Ultimately, any differentiation between scifi, fantasy and spec fiction won't really impact what I choose to read. I'll still choose books based on their description or reviews. I don't think it really matters to me what genres others use to differentiate their reading. I just really like metadata and organizing my reading, so it's something I enjoy thinking about :P Keeping track of reviews by genre helps me connect similar books and find new related reads.

 Do you think about genre as much as I do? Or is it irrelevant for you?
 
 

PS - Here are the webpages I visited while researching terms:

Monday, June 13, 2016

Review: What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

Format/Source: Paperback/Purchased
Published: March 2016
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton 
Length: 325 pages
Genre: Short stories (literary/magical realism)
Why I Read: Favourite author
Read If You: Like new and fresh short stories, with a hint of the surreal about them
Rating★★★★½ 
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon 

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is Helen Oyeyemi's debut short story collection. The book contains a number of excellent tales that demonstrate her maturing talent. Her prose exemplifies this growth best. This is the first time I've followed a young author's works as they are published, and been able to experience the evolution of their writing. White is for Witching (which Oyeyemi published in 2009 at 25 years old) will always be my favourite Oyeyemi tale, but a distinct difference exists between that story and the ones in WINYINY. I feel that Oyeyemi's prose has become even more of what it was - she has grown into her style (and will hopefully continue growing).

Mr. Fox is also, to some extent, a 'short story' collection. Mr. Fox's stories strongly connect through an overarching storyline and characters. WINYINY's stories do connect, but in a far looser manner. Some characters who feature in their own story may receive a brief mention in another. My understanding of WINYINY will likely benefit from rereading - for the individual stories themselves, and for how they connect together.Overall, I enjoyed WINYINY a lot more than Mr. Fox. I didn't find myself enjoying any story less than the others.

Oyeyemi's vivid creativity impresses me. I could hardly begin to imagine stories like the ones she pens. Her writing doesn't usually take grand or unexpected turns. Her creativity exists in something more refined than that, little details or small turns in action that truly fuel the story. I thought about giving an example, but that spoils the effect. All the stories in WINYINY exemplify that creativity.  It imbues her stories with something refreshing, allowing their reader to feel like they've experienced something new (at least for this reader of few short stories).

All of Oyeyemi's works demonstrate diversity, and these stories feature a varied cast of characters. Just as she did in White is for Witching (which features an interracial lesbian couple),  the 'diverse' aspects of the character's feel natural and almost incidental (not in a bad way) to the story. Sexuality and racial identity are not used as token diversity markers. But, the stories would not be the same without these aspects of identities. I suppose what I'm trying to get at is, Oyeyemi has found the balance between writing diverse characters who are only their diversity and writing diverse characters who are wholly separate from their diversity.

On that note... If you're familiar with Boy, Snow, Bird, you may recall the problematic portrayal of a trans character. This collection contains one minor trans character in "A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society", whom I identified mostly from this statement: "Pepper wasn't always on the surface, but whether [Day] was with Pepper as Pepper or Pepper as Michael, Day had found one she'd always be young with [...]". Day initially meets and dates Michael, who transitions to Pepper. This transition is not a major plot point or a catalyst for another character's development. I think Pepper's portrayal is realistic and not transphobic, but I would be interested to hear a trans person's opinion on the portrayal of a trans character in this story vs in Boy, Snow, Bird.

The Bottom Line: Though I understand Oyeyemi's work is not for everyone, I recommend this collection for those who are curious about her writing. Her creativity and prose are at their strongest in the stories of this collection.

Further Reading:

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

In Absentia Book Haul

The book publishing world does not (alas) go on hold while I roam. My favourite authors publish books that aren't yet licensed where I'm travelling, or I find exciting new-to-me stories on foreign bookshelves. At those times my sister, who works at a bookstore and therefore gets an employee's discount, receives a text message: "Lovely sister, can you please purchase this book for me?" After a few months of this, I return home to a stack of lovely shiny new books on my nightstand! I also have suspended library holds and this time, I've brought home a few books that were gifts as well.


  • 438 Days by Jonathan Franklin (suspended hold) - I discovered this book over the holidays. I put it on hold in December but since it didn't arrive before I left, I suspended it until I got back. It became available the day after I returned. Convenient!
  • The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donoghue (suspended hold) - See above.
  • What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi (purchased) - Eee, of course a new book by my favourite author would be released while I'm away!
  • George by Alex Gino (purchased) - When I heard about this book in one of my peeks into Twitter, I knew I had to read it.
  • The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home by Catherynne M. Valente (purchased) - I can't believe we're already at the last Fairyland book! I'm really excited to read about September's parents.
  • Unbound by Neal Shusterman (purchased) - This book was released before I went travelling, but my sister bought it for me as a gift while I was away. I'm looking forward to the stories set after the Unwind dystology.
  • Best Ever Three and Four Ingredient Cookbook by Jenny White and Joanna Farrow (gift) - This was in a giveaway pile at one of my host's home. I flipped through it, thinking it was going to be a lot of condensed soup and bags of frozen mixed veggies, but it's actually more about focusing on good ingredients and whole foods. When my hosts saw I found it interesting, they wrote a birthday message in it and gave it to be for a birthday gift~
  • Japanese Pilgrimage by Olive Statler (gift) - I was happily rambling on about the Shikoku pilgrimage and some books about it that I want to read, when one of my hosts went to her bookshelf and asked, "Is this one of the books?" She gave it to me because she didn't have any plans to reread it, though she remembered in being an interesting read when she first read it years ago.
Are there any spring releases I've missed out on? Have you picked up any new reads lately?
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