Blogging for Books: The Book of Esther

I’m back! And I’m starting with a long-overdue book review. But it’s ok, because I just finished this book a week ago! It was, shall we say, a slog and a half. The only reason it got finished was because I had to much plane/airport time in the past two weeks, because I was barely 100 pages in for a year. Yeah, an actual year. I put more time into wondering if I should just write the review as a “did not finish” than try powering through. But I am glad I powered through.

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The Book of Esther by Emily Barton references the Biblical book of Esther, wherein (in a gross oversimplification) Queen Esther saves her people from Genocide and lays the basis for the Jewish holiday Purim. The Book of Esther is about Esther, the daughter of a Royal Adviser, who sees the impending threat World War II poses to Jewish culture and sets out to, well, stop a genocide. The book is written in a magical realism style and plays on concepts and place names and traditions to create a kind of alternate reality.

And fails to engage.

Esther bat Josephus decides to leave her home in Khazaria and find a group of Kabbalists who will hopefully change her into a man so that she can join the fight against Germania. Khazaria references a real kingdom which historically was located between the Black and Caspian seas in an area we’d now know as “Caucus states.”

Barton explains absolutely nothing, however, and my own research into Khazaria didn’t really translate into insight when it came to reading the book. I am not Jewish by faith or heritage but I’ve felt that I have a pretty decent layperson’s understanding of the faith, especially the mystical (Kabbalah) side of things just because of my interest in studying religions. It’s entirely possible that I’m wrong about that, but I think it’s equally possible that Barton just failed to show OR tell anything about the world she was trying to create.

Another area where Barton fails is weaving in the magical realism. I am a huge fan of magical realism and that’s a genre where I do feel that I have strong footing. A magical realism novel set during WWII and focusing on a Jewish perspective sounded like a truly, well, magical, recipe to me. But more than enchanted I was confused. One of the big “characters” in the book is Seleme, Esther’s “mechanical horse.” Which is mostly described just like a motorcycle, but actually is supposed to be a horse that is mechanical?

There are plenty of interesting threads in the book that don’t come to fruition. Esther is a teenager growing into womanhood and questioning and testing her relationship to her faith and society as she grows and begins exploring her place in the world and her sexuality. This goes nowhere.

The book has a transgender* character who is intended to (I think) represent the difficulty of managing a desire for knowledge in a restrictive and gender-segregated society, but it goes nowhere. Also this character is just the absolute WORST and part of a totally useless, underdeveloped love triangle that kind of dances around Esther exploring her sexuality but just never commits to it in any capacity.

* Using the term ‘transgender’ feels a little wrong here, the character does undergo a change but the motivation is less “I was born in the wrong body” and more “these doors are closed to me unless I am a man,” which is the same motivation behind Esther’s quest to transition. I didn’t get the impression that either character, least of all Esther, would consider this kind of change in a society without those restrictions. This seems like an oversimplified (though certainly respectable, especially historically!) view of gender identity. But I cisgender so maybe I’m getting this all wrong too.

Things I did like: the pigeons, the exploration of religious devotion and sentience that was explored in the golems, the theme of uniting people from all different backgrounds to help the common good.

2 stars.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Blogging for Books: The Naturalist

Just in time for Father’s Day, Blogging for Books gives me the chance to get the daddiest of dad presents.

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This is only the second time I’ve used this platform to gift books I otherwise wouldn’t read, and it does diversify my reviews.

President Theodore Roosevelt is my dad’s favorite historical figure, and he is always looking for new TR books. Unfortunately for my dad, he doesn’t care that much about the presidency, but he is 100% here for reading about Amazon explorations and Teddy’s work creating our natural parks.

So thanks, Darrin Lunde, for saving me an awkward trip to Lowe’s!*

Lunde, a Smithsonian employee, uses The Naturalist to take an interesting look at T.R.’s relationship with the great outdoors and the impact that had on his political career.

This isn’t one of my great areas of interest so it’s hard to rate the book. Certainly it was well-written but I had a hard time getting through it because I just didn’t care that much. However, if your dad is like my dad and has tried to style their life around being Teddy Roosevelt, I think this book will be a hit.

Basically, if TR or political histories are your bag of ducks, then I think this book will be a hit. If you’re like me and you’d rather read about society ladies having seances, it’s not going to have much WOW factor.

The book retails for $28 (hardcover). It can be purchased from Penguin’s website, but I suggest you hit up your nearest brick-and-mortar bookstore to snag this one for dad before his big weekend.

 

 

*I spoke too soon, after writing that intro a bat got into our apartment and I had to go to Lowe’s and ask a sales associate “which of these gardening gloves looks like they could best withstand a bat bite?” Spoiler Alert: They don’t rate for that.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Blogging for Books: Mother, Can You Not?

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I first learned about @CrazyJewishMom from the New York Times. I’m not a Times subscriber but my bff gets the Sunday paper and I was drinking coffee on her couch and took advantage. I checked out the Instagram because of the article, and stayed because I saw a lot of my mom in CJM (despite the fact that we’re gentiles).

While I still follow the account, I quickly became disenchanted with it. CJM is a “drone parent” and the similarities between Kim Friedman and Momma IotI were too much in a negative fashion. When this book came up as an option, I expected to hate read it.

So I settled down on Mother’s Day to devour Mother, Can You Not? and it painted a far, far more sympathetic picture of Kim and daughter Kate‘s relationship than I had imagined possible. I still think CJM might need to get a grip, texting your daughter 100 times in one day is just not normal, it’s clear that this mother and daughter have a relationship that is built on love and respect, even if it’s a strange kind. Kate’s anecdotes about how her mother shaped her life are understandable even by those not familiar with the CJM phenomenon, and I think Kate does have a knack for writing and I’m interested to see where she goes next. It also really sympathized Kim, who in my mind had been cast as the villain in Kate’s life. I guess I was really projecting.

My favorite story involves stealing a cat from an animal shelter… I guess that’s when I felt like CJM was someone I could relate to.

There are stories that give me cringey, secondhand embarrassment that don’t entirely paint the relationship in a good light (Kate’s photoshoot, for example), but overall Mother, Can You Not? is a tale of two women who actually understand each other.

And I respect that. And actually enjoyed this book.

 

Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

[and in honor of my own fraught maternal relationship, here is the song I think best sums up what we have. “Nail in My Coffin” by The Kills]

Blogging for Books: The Witch of Lime Street

The Witch of Lime Street is a non-fiction book for those of us with a pretty specific niche interest: turn on the century Spiritualism.

This is the first book I’ve come across that discusses the complicated “frenemy” relationship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini.

Just in time for their new show on Fox!

That Houdini casting is on point. I am so ready to nitpick historical inaccuracies in this. So. Ready.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Witch of Lime Street focuses on Houdini, a medium known as Margery (Mina Crandon), and Scientific American’s quest to find a true medium at the height of the 20th century’s spiritualist movement. Two key historical characters in the narrative are noted believer, author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and noted skeptic, magician Harry Houdini. The two came together as friends who believed legitimate communication with the dead was possible and came apart as historical frenemies.

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Let’s first discuss that the book cover glows in the dark. It is perfection.

The Goodreads consensus seems to be “good topic, boring book” to which I heartily disagree. I haven’t technically finished the book yet, I’m too busy having panic attacks about grad school to read for pleasure, but less than 100 pages from the end and I can say that I’ve been thoroughly engaged the whole time.

That’s what makes me think this book is not for those with a casual interest in Spiritualism/the Occult. This isn’t a high-academia text, but I can’t help but wonder if I’m so engaged because I’m reading about a topic that I love and have actually lectured on. This is my jam, yo. I think it’s a well-written book, broken up into perfect little nuggets that really capture the cultural attitude towards mediums and the cult of celebrity that followed them (and also Houdini!).

One thing I really appreciated about this book was the treatment it gave Houdini. The man was a skeptic and is often portrayed as someone who simply wanted to bust some medium balls. Houdini’s relationship with the spirit world was far more complex than that, and he wanted to believe in a way Jaher makes  palpable. It was Houdini’s desire to be proven wrong himself that fueled his anti-medium campaign.

David Jaher’s biography doesn’t tell you much about his background with the subject, but I came across a Reddit AMA he did about the book and reading through that I can tell that this man has really, really done his research- above and beyond what appeared in the book.

For me, this book was the perfect intersection of academic research and relatable writing. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the Spiritualist movement.

 

 

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

 

Blogging for Books: Owls

Owls: Our Most Charming Bird by Matt Sewell

This review is basically one big gift recommendation, so sucks to me for not having it done before Christmas so y’all could absorb my wisdom.

In my defense this book arrived after we had left on our trek to visit Manbeast’s family and even though I used it as a gift for him he didn’t get it until tonight.

So this is a first: first book I’ve ever given as a gift, first book I’ve ever reviewed the night I received it!

owls

Manbeast loves owls. He would agree with the subtitle of this book, they are Our Most Charming Bird. I generally think they are terrifying. But author/illustrator Matt Sewell has charmed even my hardened heart. Each owl is given a short blurb and a beautiful illustration. I usually cannot stand to look at a barn owl because I find them so upsetting, but Sewell makes them look majestic and -dare I say- cuddly.

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The illustrations are seriously gorgeous, and the owl descriptions are factual with a dash of irreverence.

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Manbeast has already ooohed and aaahed over ever impeccable illustration in the book and loved the few descriptions he actually read. This book is a must have for any owl lover.

Owls by Matt Sewell: Our Most Charming Bird Book.

 

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Blogging for Books: The Secrets of Blood and Bone

The Secrets of Blood and Bone by Rebecca Alexander is the second book in the ‘Jackdaw Hammond Series’ and that makes it tough to review.

In order to effectively review this book, I snagged a copy of the first one (The Secrets of Life and Deathfor my Kindle app and speed read before Blood and Bone arrived at my doorstep.

This book took forever to get through, because I just got so bogged down with SCHOOL and LIFE and STUFF and it honestly has sucked pretty hard for the past ten weeks but I finally finished this book and my term.

Hooray me.

The basic plot of the series is: Jackdaw “Jack” Hammond (who is a lady) was saved from death as a pre-teen by a woman named Maggie, who is a witch. Maggie needed Jack’s reanimated blood to save her daughter Charley from leukemia, and now everyone is all grown up and Jack mostly keeps to herself with her dog (Ches) doing some small-time magical wheeling and dealing. Along the way she saves a young girl named Sadie through the same reanimation magic, meets a professor named Felix, and gets loosely embroiled with some members of the modern day incarnation of the Spanish Inquisition.  In between the main characters’ shenanigans the reader is treated to fictionalized letters of real-life figures Edward Kelley and John Dee as they deal with famous serial killer Erzsebet Bathory (who in the book is also a “borrowed-timer/revenant”).

I’m going to try to write this review without spoiling either book for you, but that might prove tricky so be forewarned.

Onto The Secrets of Blood and Bone specifically:

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“following her showdown with Elizabeth Bathory, Jackdaw Hammond is running from her past, hiding from her future, and hoping to contain her newfound thirst for blood. Buying an overgrown home in the middle of nowhere seems like the perfect place to escape…at least until she finds herself in the sights of a murderous family with a terrible secret and a penchant for dark magic. Meanwhile, her old ally Felix Guichard has gone to New Orleans to conduct his own investigation into the nature of blood magic, but is soon sucked into the intrigues of the city’s occult underworld. But Jack will need Felix more than she knows, for the battle for her soul is set to begin.
 
Her only salvation may lie with the secrets of 16th century master occultist Edward Kelley, and a dangerous mission he undertook in Venice to confront the Inquisition, the darkest deeds of his own past, and the fearsome power of Elizabeth Bathory.”

Blogging for Books: The Library at Mount Char

House of Leaves is an experimental novel that plays with the reader psychologically creating a masterpiece of slow-burn horror. It is one of my favorite books. It is perhaps unfair to compare The Library at Mount Chato House of Leaves but I think if you’ve read both books you’ll have some idea of why I’m drawing a comparison between the two. But while House of Leaves kept me up all night pondering the great ‘what-ifs’ of having a closet Minotaur Mount Char was a page-turner that just left me asking “the fuck did I just read?”

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The fuck indeed.

Let’s talk about the author, Scott Hawkins. Hawkins is a prolific writer who has published 7 books. And with the exception of The Library at Mount Char they are all computer manuals. Isn’t there some stereotype that the super technical among us can’t write decent fiction? Not Hawkins. No matter what I end up saying about this book the technical (haaa) aspect of the writing is impeccable. It’s tight, it’s well-plotted. In some ways it feels like it’s trying to be “experimental” the way House of Leaves was, but it still follows a much more linear, standardized format (not a negative, just a comment). The plot is certainly imaginative and unique, something really unexpected even though it draws for a lot of established tropes and themes. It’s a book about a library- it would be wrong if it weren’t alluding to a lot of things!

So what’s my problem?

Well one thing I feel confident in saying is that this book has an audience out there that will appreciate it for the whole picture it presents. I am not sure that I am that audience. This is a fantastical horror novel with a lot of blood and a lot of death. Things that are shocking are incorporated well into the mythos of Mount Char (so it doesn’t feel as though they are happening just for shock value), but if you are squeamish stay away. Honestly I can think of more people for whom this book is “not” for than “is” for. I guess I would say it has a niche audience.

Let me try explaining the plot: In 1977 Carolyn and her “siblings” are adopted by “Father,” a god-like figure with immense powers over time and space who acts as teacher as he molds the children into “librarians.” Each librarian is given a specific “catalogue.” Carolyn studies all the languages, Margaret studies the dead, David learns war, and Michael animal husbandry. Then Father disappears and the now-grown children are forced out of their library and into main stream America, which they are incapable of living in anymore, while they try to figure out what happened. As they quest for answer they bring in reluctant accomplice Steven, war vet Erwin, and a couple of lions. Chaos ensues and no one is exactly who you think they are (except maybe the lions). Hawkins has created a very complex version of modern earth and does a skillful job of tying everything together.

Mostly.

At one point the whole book takes a sharp turn towards “Cthulhu fanfiction” and then drops it. There are other little things that feel kind of like plot holes. Perhaps it’s because Hawkins is toying with (but not committed to) the idea of writing more books set in the Mount Char world. At a certain point I felt more confused with the text then just baffled by my feelings (and the quick pace!).

I have to assign this book a certain number of stars when I upload it to Blogging for Books and I am honestly not sure how many stars I want to give it. On technical merit alone it deserves more than one star- and I certainly didn’t hate the book the way I did Ballad of a Small Player. But I also didn’t 5-star love it. 3.5? 4?

I will sum it up as this: I cannot think of a single other book like The Library at Mount Char and so if you’re interested in the weird and wholly different, this is where you want to turn.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.