The Bear and the Nightingale

The Bear and the Nightingale: A Russian Fairy Tale

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden was a beautifully woven, medieval Russian fairy tale full of lush descriptions and dark myths.

I ended up choosing to listen to the audiobook instead of reading it, and I’m so glad I did because the narrator, Kathleen Gati, brought this story to life with her Russian accent. Her authentic accent only emerged when she spoke for the characters, otherwise, her tone was smooth and lovely. But the magic and lilting flow of all those Russian names and words were WONDERFUL and made the fairy tale come alive!

Vasilisa Petrovna is a young girl resisting the traditional female roles of the time and learning and coming to terms with the magic around her all while struggling against a loving father determined to do “what’s best for her” and a stepmother who hates her. Her beloved Dunya looks after her as do her many siblings. There’s also Morozko, the frost king, who takes a special interest …

The descriptions are wonderful, such as the traditional homes with their large ovens and the bearded domovoi who live inside them. I wanted to join Vasilisa in the stables, where she spent so much time learning from horses and the Vasilla who lived there. At times the story is told from other perspectives, such as when we travel with the frost demon and learn his nature … not to mention the unsettling encounters with the one-eyed man who is supposed to be hibernating. The reader also has the perspective of the misguided priest, Konstantin Nikonovich, who comes to the village to push Christianity and is blind to other beliefs despite an encounter with the seductive rusalka. The coldness of northern Russian and harsh winter is almost another character in this cast, a living, breathing thing. The nightingale isn’t introduced until much later in the story, but it was one of my favorite non-human characters.

At times, this story reminded me of Cinderella or other traditional fairy tales, but there was enough originality that I didn’t know what was going to happen next or didn’t care if I did know because it was so richly and pleasantly told. The tale was definitely more fable-like in the beginning and then more horror-filled and serious toward the end.

If you like strong female characters, rich foreign settings and a little romance and magic mixed in, The Bear and the Nightingale is a story you’ll devour. I did.

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The Handmaid's Tale Collage

The Handmaid’s Tale: Are You Awake?

When I heard that Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, was going to be made into a TV series for Hulu, I decided to reread it, having initially read it years and years ago. So long ago, in fact, that I really didn’t remember it. I decided to purchase the audiobook with Claire Danes narrating, and she did an excellent job.

Originally published in 1985, the novel is set in a dystopian future where a totalitarian government reigns, where women have no power and no freedom. People are sterile from pollution and STDs. The women who are still fertile are forced to become handmaids. They wear red, cover their heads and are assigned to households where their primary and only duty is to become pregnant and have a baby. The handmaids are named after the man of the house. The protagonist narrating this story is named Offred (of-Fred) because that’s who she belongs to, a commander named Fred. Wives wear blue, Marthas (women servants) wear green. Laws are rigid, trust is fleeting and it’s a lonely world for a handmaid.

Handmaids wear red, cover their heads and are assigned to households where their primary duty is to become pregnant and have a baby. The handmaids are named after the man of the house. The protagonist narrating this story is named Offred (of-Fred) because that’s who she belongs to, a commander named Fred. Wives wear blue, Marthas (women servants) wear green. Laws are rigid, class distinction loom large and trust is fleeting. It’s a lonely world for a handmaid.

Offred can remember the time before when she had a job and a child, her own bank account and a car. Now she belongs to the commander with no choices her own, from what she can wear to what she can say or who she can even talk to. It’s terrifying. And she mentions several times how quickly this change occurred, how quickly everyone adjusted to a new way of thinking.

Women aren’t even allowed to make decisions about their own body or allowed TO READ. This is huge. When people start filtering what you can read, telling you what’s true or not true, not letting you decide for yourself, that’s a red flag. I can’t help but compare it to our current political climate, where we have a president telling us alternate facts and calling news fake if it doesn’t agree with him. That’s terrifying too.

This book is more than a piece of well-written fiction. It serves as a warning. We can’t remain ignorant or asleep or complacent. We need to stay awake.

Have you read the book? Do you plan to watch the TV series?

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The Book of Speculation

The Book of Speculation

An ancient book, a house crumbling into the ocean, mermaids, tarot cards, family legacies and the traveling circus. These all set the stage for Erika Swyler’s debut novel, The Book of Speculation.

Simon Watson, a young librarian whose mother was a mermaid in a traveling circus before she drowned, receives a mysterious, old, water-damaged book in the mail. Through this, he slowly uncovers a family legacy of women who drown, always on a specific date … and as that date nears, Simon’s sister, who ran away with a circus, returns and begins to act peculiarly. Has their family been cursed? Are the women mermaids? Do the tarot cards foretell his sister’s fate?

I enjoyed reading The Book of Speculation. It was mysterious, magical and a little dark. I had to put it down at times to get away from the story, but would find myself thinking about the story line before long and pick it back up again.

 

 

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Cutting for Stone

Cutting for Stone

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese was one of the best books I’ve read in a while. It was published in 2009, but despite its popularity and best-selling status, I didn’t actually read it until this year. My younger sister said it was amazing and a huge impetus behind her traveling to Ethiopia a few years back. My mother loved it, even my grandmother read it and enjoyed it. What the heck took me so long?!

Cutting for Stone is told from Marion Stone’s point of view. He and his twin brother were born to a beautiful nun from India and a British surgeon who worked together in Missing hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The twin boys are orphaned by their mother’s death and their dad’s disappearance, but raised by the staff at Missing Hospital. This group, this family, brought together by medicine and caring, is a group of characters, who you will grow to care for and root for, despite all the odds. You follow the boys through their childhood and on into adulthood, where their decisions carry them through a touching and heartfelt story.

There is so much I liked about this book. The prose was beautiful, the characters fully-fleshed out and the amount of medical knowledge woven into the story was impressive and fascinating. The complicated and uncomplicated relationships, the Ethiopian politics and revolution, the struggles of people without good healthcare, etc. I felt like I paid a visit and grew to know the place.

After reading this book, which I really, really enjoyed, I now want to go eat a delicious plate of doro tibs and injera at  my local Ethiopian restaurant, and I’d love to actually visit this part of Africa. Abraham Verghese wrote an intelligent and feeling book with Cutting for Stone, and I recommend that everyone reads it. As a writer, I hope one day I could produce something of this caliber.

Have you read Cutting for Stone? What did you think of it?

 

cover photo from Abraham Verghese’s Facebook Page. 

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1930s World Map

Euphoria & State of Wonder

If you enjoy books with strong female protagonists who are brave enough to venture to uncivilized parts of the world with the intent to study and understand different cultures, then you’ll love these two books. Strong female authors, strong female characters and incredible adventure.

Euphoria

Set in Papua, New Guinea in the 1930s, Lily King’s Euphoria is the unique story of three anthropologists who lived with and studied tribes along the banks of the Sepik River.

American Nell Stone is a published and well-known anthropologist who is traveling with her jealous Australian anthropologist husband, Fen. They run into an English anthropologist named Andrew Bankson, who has been lonely and suicidal and living with the Kona tribe. He is drawn in by the married couple and helps them find a new tribe, the female-dominated Tams, to study along the river, and thus begins a convoluted love triangle between the three. The intricacies of their relationship, along with the nuances of living in a foreign place and learning a new culture, makes this story a fascinating read.

Cool Fact

What I didn’t realize until after I read the book, was that this story was based on the true life of Margaret Mead, a respected and controversial American anthropologist, which is pretty cool. It encouraged me to find out more about Margaret Mead, once I found that out, and I’m inspired by her life and accomplishments. Her pediatrician was Dr. Spock, and her research influenced his book on parenting, which was hugely popular when it came out in 1946 and revolutionized child care and rearing.

 

 

State of Wonder

Euphoria reminded me of another awesome book, State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, which I read three years ago and LOVED. It also had to do with westerners living with tribes. Dr. Marina Singh has to travel deep into the Amazon rain forest to search for her mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, a researcher on the verge of a major fertility drug discovery, who has gone missing. Marina finds her living with the Lakashi tribe, where women continue to get pregnant and birth healthy children long past the usual child-bearing ages.

This story is about a journey and science, and it’s an amazing adventure. It was riveting and fascinating, and I love Ann Patchett’s writing. She traveled into the Amazon for research on this novel, and you can tell that from her vivid descriptions. I felt like I took a trip into the Amazon rain forest along with the characters. And that’s one of the things I love most about reading, that ability to travel without leaving my home and to feel so transported beyond my everyday life.

Cool Fact

Ann Patchett is friends with Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love and The Signature of All Things. Turns out, Elizabeth Gilbert started a novel about the Amazon and decided not to finish it, ended up comparing notes with Ann Patchett when she was halfway through State of Wonder and they realized, when they compared notes later on, that they had eerily similar story lines! And Elizabeth Gilbert told Ann Patchett that ideas fly around looking for homes, and when the idea hadn’t worked out with her, then it had gone to Ann. I love that idea of plots and story ideas fluttering around our heads like the golden snitch, looking for the best home.

 

Have you read either of these novels? If not, does one or the other appeal to you more?

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Decidedly Delicious!

This book was a delicious read.

Never have I read such a delectable story, full of food and mystery and a complex cast of characters. You can tell the author, Ruth Reichl, loves food, and her experience as a food writer and restaurant reviewer has added a flavor to her writing like no other I have read. I could almost taste flavors and feel the texture of the food in my mouth.

Here’s the story:

A young woman with an amazing palate, but who won’t cook, leaves college to take on a position as assistant to the editor of a food magazine called Delicious! which operates out of an old mansion in New York City. The magazine staff and other people she meets in New York are all well-fleshed out and interesting, and just when you’re settling into the story, we find out that the magazine goes under, and she is the only employee left, kept on to deal with the magazine’s guarantee. In between taking on a side job working in an amazing cheese shop and answering customer calls in the Delicious! mansion, our protagonist finds a hidden room and discovers letters that lead to a fascinating mystery.

My thoughts:

I can’t express enough what a wonderful book this was. It was just such a delight, with a mystery, wonderful characters, romance, history and food that just accentuates the story line. If you want a savory feast of a read, you should check out this book. I can’t remember how I found it, I think through some rabbit trails in Amazon searches, but it was one of the best books I’ve stumbled upon this year. Delightful and delicious!

 

 

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