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Book Review 11: “The Fionavar Tapestry”

 

Genre: Fantasy

Have in the Library? Yes!

Reviewed by: Bill Oram

 

This is a deeply moving fantasy novel.  It’s long and it takes its time: its three volumes create the world of Fionavar with at least a dozen main characters and many other important subordinate figures.  (There’s a list at the front, and at first I had to keep consulting it.  After a while I entered the world and that wasn’t necessary.) The tapestry of the title is the world itself with the rules governing its existence, woven by a deity who has afterward given it the freedom to develop on its own—to destroy itself, if that’s the way things should turn out.  The fundamental conflict is the battle for Fionavar against a subordinate deity who would enslave it, destroying the races that have have opposed him (This is the main way in which it reminds me of Tolkien, however different it is otherwise.).  Fionavar, we are told, is one of many worlds, but it’s the principal world and if it falls, they all fall.  It encompasses four or five different cultures and races, with an extraordinary variety of character and incident.

In the opening chapter, five characters from our own world (three men and two women) are transported to Fionavar (one less willingly than the others) where they will take part in the struggle.  These five characters experience the events of the novel very differently, and the novel insists on their differing perceptions.  While they sometimes work alone, sometimes together, their development forms the novel’s center, as they all in different ways come to terms with their natures and fulfill their destinies. To speak of “fulfilling their destinies” sounds pompous, but it’s right for the novel.  Kay writes marvelously, and with a kind of absolute conviction in his world.   The book is pure romance, full of marvels—dwarves, gods and goddesses, enchanted forests with their spirits, sea-monsters, cauldrons that bring the dead back to life, magicians both virtuous and destructive, a deadly winged unicorn, priestesses, a shaman—even, in the third volume, two very different dragons.  The pleasure of the book comes partly from Kay’s constant inventiveness, and partly from the moving power of the writing.  There is a lot of action, of course, set against a world with a mythological depth, sense of events stretching back to the beginning of time.

This was written during the 1980’s, and it’s the best work of heroic fantasy I know from that decade.  It’s one of the few that doesn’t feel like a footnote to Tolkien.  That’s partly, I think, because, where Tolkien got much of his inspiration from Norse mythology, Kay looks to Celtic sources.  Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere all figure here as do a number of Celtic deities, but Kay allows himself to play with the old myths, giving them new dimensions.  In Malory’s version of the Arthur story, for instance, when the young Arthur realizes that he has begotten Mordred, who will kill him, he orders that all the young children born when he was born on be set adrift on a boat to die.  In this novel, Arthur suffers for his sin by being summoned back to life in various worlds to fight and die in the ongoing battle between good and evil.  If you’re inclined, you can trace the mythological dimensions of the novel by googling  them, or you can simply give yourself to the ongoing narrative.  If you don’t like heroic fantasy, you probably won’t like this one.  But otherwise you’ll love it. 

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Book Review 10: “In Other Words”

Genre: Biography/Memoir

Have in the Library? Yes!

In Altre Parole / In Other Words is presented in a neat bilingual version: Italian on one page and English down the other: Jhumpa Lahiri’s words in Italian, translated into English by Ann Goldstein. Two languages, two pages, facing each other. It recalls the lake she speaks about in the first chapter: the Italian language on one side, English on the other. “You can’t float without the possibility of drowning, of sinking. To know a new language, to immerse yourself, you have to leave the shore. Without a life vest,” she writes. This book is a chronicle of exactly that: after growing up, and having a successful career as a famous writer in America, Lahiri picks it all up and moves. To Italy: to learn, speak and ultimately reinvent herself in Italian.

This book is divided into short chapters in which she muses on different aspects of her language learning: from her wild obsession with Italian that she likens to “love at first sight,” to collecting words in a pocket dictionary (a book that will “always be bigger than [she will”), to the joys and constraints of trying to write in her adopted language. Her prose is characteristically straightforward but at the same time the voice more enigmatic than the novelist I’m used to. In part this could be the translation, which, for reasons she explains, she decided not to undertake herself.  Yet it is also thematic:  here for the first time, she’s exploring herself. This is “unaccustomed” territory (to borrow a phrase from one of her other works), since Lahiri usually writes “in order to hide in the background of life.” This book, which she likens to Matisse’s cutouts in respect to the newness of her artistic direction, stands out because here she “is the protagonist for the first time.” And yet she’s still exploring the same themes that haunt her fiction: migration, exile, and what it means to live between cultures.

As someone who has also navigated foreign countries, as a brown person who’s also often stuck between two worlds, and as a writer who loves words, Lahiri’s observations read like a special revelation to me. It was very worth leaving the shore.

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Librarian’s Report

This past Monday, August 14, we held our Annual Meeting at the Monhegan Memorial Library. As usual we talked all about what has happened this summer as well as plans for the future. And, we bid a fond farewell to outgoing board member Sue Bolman. Sue has served the Library for twelve years, and we will miss her. We also welcomed incoming board member Sally Boynton, and new President Miki Partridge!

It’s been a fabulous year. You can read all about it in our Annual Report . Thanks to everyone who loves our little library!

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Book Review 9: “The Underground Railroad”

 

Genre: Fiction

Have in the Library? Yes

Reviewed by: Kelena Reid

 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is an exploration into the history of bondage, racial violence, and the journey to “freedom”, told through the eyes of Cora, an enslaved woman. Whitehead tells the story of Cora’s escape using history and story telling through a non-linear and surreal narrative.  The story moves from the slave holds on the coast of Africa, to a plantation in the South, and through several portals on the “Railroad” as Cora searches for freedom. Coleson’s account does not diminish the pain and violence of slavery and I appreciate Whitehead’s use of other interrelated pieces of African American history and the history of American racial violence. For example, one of Cora’s stops on the “Underground Railroad” on her way to “freedom” exposes her to the cruel medical experimentation performed on black men and women in the South. Cora originally believes this stop on the Railroad to be a life of freedom, but slowly realizes it is another form of enslavement, and so she continues her journey and travels further North. Cora loves, and is also torn from, figures such as her grandmother, Ajarry, and Ceasar, the man who entreats her to escape. Whitehead is a talented writer. Ajarry, Ceasar, and Cora are fully human and powerful – as much as they are trapped within a system of exchange and violence. “Cora’s grandmother was sold a few times on the trek to the fort, passed between the slavers for cowrie shells and glass beads. It was hard to say how much they paid for her in Ouidah as she was part of a bulk purchase, eighty-eight human souls for sixty crates of rum and gunpowder..”

 

The Underground Railroad is an important book which contributed to my understanding of the legacy of American slavery.

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Monhegan Memorial Library welcomes Paul Doiron!

The Monhegan Memorial Library is delighted to announce a program by Maine mystery writer Paul Doiron to take place on Monhegan Island. This three-day event will consist of a Murder Mystery Party at the Partridge Cottage at 7:30pm on Friday, August 4th, an Author Talk by Paul Doiron at the Monhegan Church at 7:30pm on Saturday, August 5th and a Q & A for Writers at 10:30 am (advance sign-up required) at the Monhegan Memorial Library on Sunday, August 6th

Paul Doiron is a Camden writer and the author of the Mike Bowditch of crime novels. The first book of the series, “The Poacher’s Son,” was nominated for an Edgar Award and called “an adventure worthy of its magnificent Maine setting.” (Julia Spencer-Fleming). Often praised for his sense of place, Mr. Doiron is active in the Maine outdoors scene that his novels draw from, working as a Registered Maine Guide specializing in fly-fishing. He is also an editor emeritus of Down East Magazine, having served as Editor in Chief from 2005 to 2013.

Paul Doiron’s visit will be the second program in the MML Distinguished Writers Series, established last summer. We are pleased to announce that this year’s event is in memory of James Rubin.

 For more information, please contact Mia Boynton, 207-596-0549monheganmemoriallibrary@gmail.com

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Book Review 8: “Night Sky With Exit Wounds”

 

Genre: Poetry

Have in the Library? Yes

 

This chapbook is a welcome surprise for those (like me) who have trouble with poetry. Ocean Vuong’s collection of 35 poems are direct, simple but subtle, painful yet light. They glimmer with repeated motifs: fathers, guns, fields and bodies. Ocean Vuong writes from many intersections: as a Vietnamese immigrant in America, a war survivor, a gay man. Yet none of these elements overwhelm. Instead, they meld together into one hymn of a man trying to find his way through his own history.

The poems can be read individually at random but it’s rewarding to read the book straight through, beginning with his invocation, a poem appropriately titled “Threshold”:

“In the body, where everything has a price, / I was beggar ” he begins, and the rest unfurls from there. The stars are “what we always knew/they were: the exit wounds/of every/misfired word.” In “Aubade with Burning City,” the fall of Saigon is interspersed with verses from “White Christmas.” Like a “good son,” he “seal[s] [his] father’s lips/ with my own & begin/ the faithful work of drowning.”

Vuong’s language is wonderful. He doesn’t use arcane words, just precision: the room is “bomb-bright,” a father is “all famine & fissure.”

To me, the loveliest part of this book is hope. For Vuong, hope seems delicately balanced, more a process and less a destination. “Dear God, if you are a season, let it be the one I passed through/ to get here,” he says. And by the end it seems he has arrived at a place that is at least peaceful.  In my favorite poem, “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong,” he is soft and calming: “Ocean, don’t be afraid./ The end of the road is so far ahead/it is already behind us.”

For all its sorrow, “the refugee camp sick with smoke & half-sung/ hymns,” Night Sky With Exit Wounds is a book of healing. As he says in “Seventh Circle of Earth” : “Say amen. Say amend./ Say yes. Say yes/ anyway.”

 

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Book Review 7: “The Fifth Season”

Genre: Science Fiction

Have in the Library? Yes

Reviewed by: Bill Oram

This novel throws you into the middle of an absorbing, violent world.  The world is literally violent.  It’s rent by earthquakes and volcanoes and periodic catastrophes (“fifth seasons”) that cause decades of crop failures, interrupting and sometimes ending civilizations.  The planet itself seems an enemy, and a common exclamation is “Evil Earth!”  The book opens with two tragedies, the death of a child and the start of a fifth season.  “Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we” the deadpan narrator begins, “and move on to more interesting things.”  The more interesting things include the self-destructiveness of the world’s civilization as well as the earth’s violence.  But these large issues appear through the experiences of the three female protagonists, a child, a young woman and a middle-aged mother, each of whom features in a different plot, at a different time.  The narrative shifts between them.   

The three women are all orogones—human beings with a special capacity for identification with and control of the earth and its molten energies.  The general population fears and hates the orogones (it’s not clear if they have been taught to do this) while the government enslaves them, brainwashes them, breeds them, and uses them to stabilize the environment.  The novel follows the protagonits’ various attempts to create places of safety, freedom and dignity.  The book is partly about race, and it’s also about the relation between knowledge and power, and the need of each of the characters to come to terms with her own nature. There is also a lot of wild and fascinating invention—a sinister race of stone-eaters, mysterious obelisks and the gradually clarifying history of the past.

As with many science fiction novels, this one throws you into its world and asks you gradually to figure it out. The three plots are all related, and by the end of the novel you see the connections but, since it is the first of a trilogy, you don’t learn everything, and the novel ends with many balls in the air.  It’s a terrific book, deeply absorbing and it stays in the memory.  Its characters are vivid, understandable, and their experiences are moving.  For all its grimness, it’s full of wonder.  It won a Hugo award and was nominated for practically all the other SF and fantasy awards that count.  I loved it.       

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