The Scarlet Gospels

Clive Barker, The Scarlet GospelsClive Barker
The Scarlet Gospels

My only real exposure to Clive Barker’s work was when I sneaked reading The Thief of Always back when I was probably like, twelve. And that book is super creepy. Beyond that, I somehow knew he was associated with Pinhead and the Hellraiser movies, but the closest I ever got to watching those was walking by the cover of the VHS at my local Blockbuster, not able to stop staring despite the fear that the devil would somehow get into my soul through my inability to look away. (I may have been slightly brainwashed by an extreme Christian upbringing.)

When I saw this book was available to download from the library, I figured it would be a a perfect kick-off to R.eaders I.bibing P.eril. Demons and witchcraft and talking to ghosts? Why not.

The book starts with a resurrection of a powerful witch who learns that since his death the last majority of witches have been killed off, forced to reveal their secrets to the not-so-affectionately nicknamed Pinhead. The remaining witches have brought him back in hopes of him somehow helping them escape his fate.

No such luck. Bloody mayhem ensues.

From there, Pinhead is basically trying to take over hell, with only supernatural detective Harry D’Amour and a couple friends to stop him.

I liked the descriptions of hell, and all its various inhabitants. I wasn’t sure, exactly, how Harry and his plucky team were going to be up for the task of taking down the MOST POWERFUL PRIEST OF HELL EVARRRRR, but I guess that’s pretty much any David v. Goliath book. I do want to know more about the characters, especially Harry. What is he like in Barker’s other works? I guess anytime you are wanting more it’s a sign the author has done at least something right.

Peril the First

Joining in R.I.P.

I’ve decided to join this year’s R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril challenge. I had in my head I was going to, as I’ve been wanting to read some spooky, creepily atmospheric books this season. In fact, I may have started the reading before I actually officially joined. Somehow, I don’t think this crowd will hold it against me.

I’m jumping all in, joining at the highest level: Peril the First

Peril the First: Read four books, any length, that you feel fit (the very broad definitions) of R.I.P. literature. It could be King or Conan Doyle, Penny or Poe, Chandler or Collins, Lovecraft or Leroux…or anyone in between.

I’ve already read The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker and The Forgotten Girls by Sara Blaedel. I just started Graveyard Shift  by Angela Roquet, which is already grabbing my attention and making me want to curl up on the couch and not come up for a breath until I’ve finished.

I have never read anything by Lovecraft, and have been wanting to, so maybe I’ll meet Cthulhu during this challenge. Anyone have any other suggestions? This genre is definitely out of my comfort zone.

POC Reading Challenge

Just a quick note to say I’m officially signing up for the 2012 People of Color Reading Challenge. It will largely overlap with the Africa Reading Challenge, but will involve a lot more books.

Here are the details:

Any book (by any author) with a main character that is a person of color qualifies for this reading challenge, as well as any book written by an author of color. The goal is to encourage readers have a more diverse reading experience and to support diversity in the publishing industry by reading and reviewing books by or about persons of color.

There are five levels to choose from. I’m going to shoot for the top – Level 5, which means I need to read at least 16 qualifying books. So far this year I’ve read . . . one (The Good Earth). But! I am currently reading two books that qualify, so I’m on my way. I’m planning on reading a couple more in February, especially seeing as how it’s Black History Month in the US.

If you want to diversify your reading, I encourage you to join.

Projections for This Week

My reading and blogging goals for the week:

Finish blog post for Cleopatra. I’m having a hard time writing this review, for some reason. It’s non-fiction, and it seems that I have to approach my review in a much different way than when I’m writing about fiction. I have another non-fiction post coming up as well, so I have to figure out how to deal with these.

I need to read my second book for the Art of the Novella challenge. My first read was a bit of a dud. I’m hoping the next is better. I’m aiming for the “Fascinated” level, so I’ll have one more to go.

I want to finish Season of Migration to the North. It’s part of the summer reading challenge over at arablit.

I still have five library books that I haven’t even opened, plus I’m in the middle of a book I purchased at the Border’s liquidation sale. Must get reading!

Generally, I want to write a few reviews to have ready to go when I get busy, or are in a bit of a blogging slump. Any tips, fellow bloggers?

Knowing Your Family, and Yourself

From Penguin
The Harmony Silk Factory
Tash Aw

So you think you know someone? Think again. Aw’s novel, set in rural Malaya in the beginning of the 20th century, asks us to consider if we can ever know our parents. The book is divided into three main parts, narrated in turn by Jasper Lim, Snow Soong Lim, and Peter Wormwood.

Jasper introduces us to his father, the mysterious, seemingly invincible, and recently deceased Johnny Lim. Johnny started of life as a poor peasant, and eventually grew into the most influential businessman in the Kinta Valley.  Jasper paints his father as a corrupt, cold, and violent. On page five, Johnny punishes Jasper for a perceived lie.

I told Father about this woman and how she had smiled at me. His response was as I expected. He reached slowly for my ear and twisted it hard, squeezing the blood from it. He said, “Don’t tell stories,” and then slapped my face twice.    
To tell the truth, I had become used to this kind of punishment.

Jasper has an obsession with finding out the “truth” about his father. He spends countless hours poring over old newspaper accounts that mention his father. He reads local histories to understand what life was like for a peasant when Johnny grew up. He learns that his mother, Snow, who died during childbirth, was the most beautiful woman in the valley.  Jasper never met his maternal grandparents, but blames them for forcing Snow to marry Johnny, dooming her to a lifetime of misery. Overall, the impression I got is while Johnny may be a bastard, Jasper is a petulant child who needs to grow up. He sounds more like a spoiled twenty something than the fifty year old man that he is.

Snow, Johnny’s wife, paints a very different picture of the man, their courtship, and their marriage. She meets him one day when he gets caught in a rainstorm outside of her family’s house. She decides that she wants to marry him, although she doesn’t explain her immediate attraction. It seems that Johnny is also in love with her, but is cowed by her family. Very soon after their marriage she realized that their feelings aren’t enough for her.  Johnny is shy, nearly speechless in Snow’s presence. Her story focuses in on a few days where they are sent on a belated honeymoon by Snow’s parents. It isn’t exactly the romantic getaway that a pair of newlyweds would hope for. They are accompanied by three other men – an English businessman, a Japanese professor, and Johnny’s friend Peter. During the trip, Snow continually ruminates on how she will leave Johnny, while she isn’t taking romantic strolls with another member of the party (dun dun dunnnnnnn…).

It’s hard to really identify with Snow, because her musings are directed into her diary. She doesn’t need to give herself background information, but it would be helpful to the reader. We can’t really get to know her with so much information. Of course, that’s kinda a theme here.

Finally, we here from Peter Wormwood, identified as Johnny’s only friend. Peter is some hapless Englishman who may or may not be an actor, looking for adventure in the tropics. He befriends Johnny after meeting  him in a coffee shop in Singapore. His tale is told in flashbacks as he winds down his days in an old folks’ home.  He says:

                This place is the end. Twenty-two rooms occupied by twenty-two near-fossils, little more than a halfway house in the short journey to the cemetery down the road.

Before Peter makes that short journey, he is going to wrap up our tale. Through Peter’s eyes, we get to see that Johnny really did care for Snow. He tells Peter that he just wants to get her away from her parents, and then everything will be better. Peter helps Johnny find the house that he’ll move into to start his family. This is the house in which Jasper grows up. Peter also describes a moment where he saw Johnny lovingly play with Jasper as a toddler. Most of all, though, we just realize that Peter is a jerk.  He has lived his adult life in southeast Asia, but he has nothing but contempt for the people and the landscape. Where once he relished visiting Johnny’s Kinta Valley, now he longs to bring an English garden to his group home. He has an inflated sense of his own capabilities. His grand Eden garden fantasy seems more like a pipe dream than a real possibility.

At the end though, there is a moment of clarity. He packs up a small box of his most precious possessions – his garden plans, part of an old photograph, and Snow’s diary – and heads off to Johnny Lim’s funeral. The box, of course, is for Jasper. We know, from Jasper’s section, that he throws this box carelessly in the backseat of his car, with the countless other items he received that day. I admit, I really had a bit of fun imagining his reaction when and if he opens it.

All three of the narrators state that “death erases all traces, all memories of lives that once existed, completely and forever.”  This flies in the face of what we normally think – that we can keep people alive and with us through remembering.   But when it is so difficult to know someone else, or even ourselves, then perhaps there is more truth to the statement than we’d like to believe.

Worth Taking a Visit

Jenny Erpenbeck
Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
New Directions, 2010
In a slim, 150 page novel, Jenny Erpenbeck manages to cover a wide expanse of history, geography, and individual experience, all centered around a lakeside home outside of Berlin. It is set, primarily, in the 20th century, so war figures prominently, either lurking in the background or taking center stage.
Visitation follows the lives of twelve people who are connected to the house, the book’s main character. Each chapter is dedicated to one of the twelve people. We first meet the unnamed gardener, who silently carries out the task at hand, whatever it may be:
The gardener digs the holes to a depth of 80 centimeters and then fills them with composted earth so the fruit trees will flourish. He diverts a few pipes from the underground drainage system he had set up on the original property so the young fruit trees will receive additional water. (pg. 45)
It is to the gardener that we return, constantly, between each of the intervening chapters. His story becomes the timeline against which the novel is measured. At first, I found this annoying, but about halfway through I was loving seeing how the seasons and years passed on this plot of land.
The prologue introduces us to the woods and lake via a geological, glacial timeframe, which allows the reader to place the brutal events that follow into a less immediate perspective. Otherwise, the close attention to the intertwined lives chronicled may be overly oppressive.

“The Girl,” a ten page chapter in the middle of the book, is one of the darkest chapters of the book. In it, a terrified child hides in a cupboard as the ghetto is emptied, her building is cleared out, and Nazis now search her apartment.

 “The Red Army Officer” chapter was difficult to read for several reasons. In it, a Russian army (troop? battalion?) takes over the house. The acts described are truly horrific. The men desecrate the occupied houses with excrement, urine, and anything else they can. Erpenbeck manages to put their destruction in context, so as to avoid painting them as monsters:
Only recently, now that they have penetrated deeply into German territory, has the fury of the soldiers reached such a level that they are using the insides of their own bodies to wage way. The more German houses they set foot in, the more painfully they are faced with the question of why the Germans were unable to remain in a place where nothing at all, not the slightest little thing, was lacking.
[Trigger Warning for discussion of sexual violence].
However, what bothered me the most about this chapter was a scene that took place in the closet of the house. The Red Army officer hears a noise coming from the closet and goes to see what it is. Thus commences the most disturbing, violent sex/rape scene I’ve read in recent memory.
Except it doesn’t actually happen.
But that doesn’t make it less disturbing to read. In fact, in a way, perhaps it’s worse. Is rape being used as a metaphor, as a plot device? That is incredibly disturbing, as well. I’m really conflicted how I feel about this whole chapter. Rape is used as a tool of war, so it’s not that I think it couldn’t be used appropriately and effectively. This just felt wrong, somehow. I keep going back and forth about how I feel about this.
Ultimately, despite its shortcomings, I still thought the Visitation was a great read. It was incredibly well written. I like when a book makes me slow down and read it carefully, and when I’m still thinking about it well after I’ve turned the last page.
Visitation was shortlisted for a 2011 Best Translated Fiction Award.  

Travelling to a far off island

Available at Amazon

My Urohs
Emelihter King

As I’ve mentioned, I’m currently trying to complete a couple of reading challenges. To say that getting books from Oceania is a challenge in itself would be a severe understatement. I was happy to find this poetry collection published by Kahuaomānoa Press. According to the “about the author” blurb, Emelihter King was born on Guam, and has spent much of her life back and forth between her native Pohnpei, Hawai’i and Guam. 

The title comes from the traditional Pohnpeian skirt. In a footnote to one poem King states that she is likens the uroh to Pohnpeian culture as a whole. I confess I know pretty close to zilch about Pohnpeian culture, so I was eager to dig into this when it finally arrived from Amazon.

King is at her best when describing slices of life in tantalizing detail. One of my favorites in the volume is “Kool-Aid.”


doesn’t taste good here in Honolulu
I wanna eat it sweating in the heat,
sitting on a rock,
under a guava tree
with my red-fingered friends
dip, dip our green mango
lick, lick our fingerstongues turning dark red

Gorgeous. I want to be sitting there eating Kool-Aid with her.

My biggest complaint is the gender essentialism in a couple of places. In “Ngih Kohl O” (The Gold Tooth), King talks about young Micronesian men who have gone and taken government jobs, and now come by,
“speaking English while strutting around
with that white man’s attitude…
when was the last time you
planted something in the ground
and felt like a real man?”

I understand this is a reaction to colonization – and this is a collection that speaks powerfully to the colonial experience. King is fiercely proud of her culture, and rightly so. But just like colonization is a harmful process, so is reinforcing the idea that “men” and “women” are to act in fixed ways and no one should deviate from them.

Small Stories, Big Punch

University of Nebraska Press

Ana María Shua
Translated by Steven J. Stewart

These beautiful snippets are more like poetry than traditional fiction, or even short stories.  Shua has an incredible eye for detail, and she twists her observations around in completely unexpected ways. Some of the selections are dark, some are pure fun, but all leave you a bit unsettled. Take the following piece, from the section “Monsters.”

Being a Rabbit

All day long I’m a rabbit, and it’s only at night that I recover my human form. So why did I knit you these pajamas, complains my grandma, caressing the large and useless striped earflaps.

You never know where she’s leading you, but once you get a taste for her adventures, you can’t help but follow her inventive musings.