6 Things I love about Sofia Samatar’s Olondria novels

I read A Stranger in Olondria last year and observed how different it felt to read it compared to other books I enjoy. Typically, books that become my favorites are those that are impossible to put down; quick, intense reads. A Stranger in Olondria is so dense with description and mythology that I was compelled to read it slowly, but found that it was absolutely worth taking the time so that the story can unfold slowly in layers and layers of detail.

This year I read Sofia Samatar’s second novel, The Winged Histories, and I cannot wait to read it again. In fact I did re-read the first few chapters almost immediately after finishing the book, just so I could linger in that world again. I’m trying to read through the stack of new-to-me novels I picked up from a used book sale, but what I’d really like to do is start from the beginning of A Stranger in Olondria and go through it all again.

Why do I love these books?

  1. They are rich with sensory detail. Every scene is crowded with information about how things look, feel, sound, and smell.
    Young Adult Historical Vault recently revisited a book I loved as a child, Quest for a Maid, which depicts medieval Scotland in gloriously vivid detail: the main character comes from an enormous merchant household that works hard and plays hard, and her narrative is packed with candies, ribbons, colorful markets, winter sports, instructions for making dresses and keeping house, and magic. I still think of this book many years later in the oddest of places, such as when I encounter marzipan, walk into a pop-up market, or sew.
    I have a feeling Sofia Samatar’s novels will be like this for me too, with its vivid peppercorn trees, the riot of noise and stimulus of the markets, the elaborate written rituals of royalty. Now that I work in a library, I look at old volumes with ornate covers and remember the first time Jevick in Stranger sees a book. When I sit down to write, despite my preference for typing I still think of the handwritten journals and letters, the writing implements, the rituals of writing space both physical and mental employed by the characters who can write.
  2. The books take place in a culturally and historically rich world. I went to all the Middle Earth movies, no matter how terrible. I followed Harry Potter up through the seventh book; I’m even going to Harry Potter Quizzo this weekend. I’ve played every game in the Mass Effect and Dragon Age universes, and in between watching Marvel Comics television and film releases I try to catch up on the original characters and their plotlines. What all of these cultural artifacts have in common is that they take place in worlds that have history, mythology, culture with layers of conflict and interrelationships, sometimes geeky ornamentation such as invented languages or social rules. These are cherished by fans in part because you can dwell in their worlds by learning their rules, languages, lore.
    A Stranger in Olondria provides that the sweeping history, the clash of cultures, the languages and lore in one novel. That is nothing short of remarkable. The Winged Histories expands on that world in a very satisfying way. In both novels, the reader becomes acquainted with the legends and history of Olondria because the characters are learning it (as with Stranger‘s Jevick, who is an immigrant) or loving and finding comfort in its tales (as is frequently the case in Histories). This is a primary factor in my wish to re-read: no doubt there are nuances and details to the lore I missed the first time.
  3. This imagined world is not just another version of the one you already know. By way of explanation, another story: I’ve watched maybe two episodes of Game of Thrones. The first episode I saw was the first episode of Season 2, where the narrative has to check in with each of the seven kingdoms. Although I was not familiar with the plot or characters, it wasn’t hard to follow: the tyrant king, here; the rebel king, there; the sorceress, over here. It is a story built on tropes which felt very familiar to me, which is one reason why I didn’t feel the need to continue. From what I hear, the show introduces novelty and surprise by crossing lines we don’t expect it to cross moreso than by introducing fresh perspectives on these old tropes.
    Olondria is not Medieval England Redux. The center of its empire is warm and lush, where spices and pomegranates grow, but the empire reaches into tropical islands, deserted plains, and snowy highlands. Olondria has tenuously united a diverse array of peoples with a variety of cultures who have a variety of appearances beyond the usual formula of “white people north, brown people south.” The Olondrian Empire doesn’t have a one-to-one parallel with real history: it draws a little from the Roman Empire, a little from the British Empire, most likely from empires whose history is less well known to me. Olondria is pre-industrial but not archaic; its social structures are sophisticated and complex. Its fashionable aristocracy would be recognizable in any time or place, but the trends they pick up and drop feel new and surprising.
  4. The imagined world engages oppression meaningfully, not reflexively. For one example: The Winged Histories explores historical fantasy sexism in a nuanced, meaningful way. It’s not all rape and slavery, as the medieval fantasies of certain male writers tend to be. Nor does it depend on exceptionalism, with just one female rulebreaker to throw the plight of women into contrast. The four female narrators each experience oppression differently based on their respective cultural and family backgrounds. When they rebel, they feel a little lonely, but not completely alone because they can refer to historical precedents and a few living examples: an ambitious queen, a swordmaiden, a sister.
    Likewise, both novels depict the colonial history of the Olondrian Empire as complex. The Empire itself is far from uniform and united; like any real-life empire, it is only tenuously held together by a preferred religion and an exhausted military. The cultures who are assimilated into the Empire have their own complicated history of triumphs and failures. The result is a thoughtful reflection on the exchange of power.
  5. Both books passionately love books. For the love of print, buy a hard copy of each. I did not, even though I knew better for The Winged Histories, but I had already started reading the free sample on my Kindle and I couldn’t wait to continue. But this is a book that benefits from being held in the hands: characters take great risks for books, plunging their hands into fires to rescue burning pages, or carrying precious volumes in their shirts even onto the battlefield. Besides, it would have been helpful to flip between the swordmaiden’s narrative and the map of Olondria to track her travels. I didn’t even know there was a glossary in the back of The Winged Histories; I just marched doggedly through, inferring words like teiva and milim from context. Which was fine, but you don’t have to.
  6. They are magical. The magical and supernatural elements build slowly. Everyone in Olondia has heard of magic, of course; many of them practice living religions and are prepared to accept miracles, spirit guides, and visions, even if those events are rare. And everyone knows the legends, of course. But not everyone experiences magic, and when it happens to certain characters, they aren’t always sure how to explain what’s happening, or why it’s happening to them. Magic enters the story through a process of discovery, making it all the more wonderful and miraculous for the reader.

I have definitely talked myself into re-reading; I may even come up with an entirely different set of Things I Love.

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A note on #readingwomen–and other underrepresented authors

As noted, I am a fan of the push to #readwomen2014. Now that VIDA has released their Count for 2013 (a breakdown of how many male or female writers are published or reviewed by leading literary publications), it’s clear that calling for change in concrete terms (such as quantity of reviews and reviewers) can indeed be effective, and considering the way the #readwomen2014 hashtag has taken off, I am very excited to see the numbers–for book sales as well as for VIDA’s count–this time next year.

But I would be remiss not to mention Roxane Gay’s count, brought to my attention again in a recent essay by Aimee Phan. In 2012, Roxane and her graduate assistant combed through book reviews in the New York Times–just the Times, because it took an enormous amount of time and energy to research–to see how many non-white writers were reviewed in that extremely-difficult-to-get-reviewed-in publication. Their results:

We looked at 742 books reviewed, across all genres. Of those 742, 655 were written by Caucasian authors (1 transgender writer, 437 men, and 217 women). Thirty-one were written by Africans or African Americans (21 men, 10 women), 9 were written by Hispanic authors (8 men, 1 woman), 33 by Asian, Asian-American or South Asian writers (19 men, 14 women), 8 by Middle Eastern writers (5 men, 3 women) and 6 were books written by writers whose racial background we were simply unable to identify.

If you need a visual, she provided a pie chart that makes the point astonishing clear. Aimee Phan’s article elaborates on the problem–reviews can play a critical role not only in publicizing a book but showing readers [at least one way of] how to read it. If writers of color aren’t getting reviewed, then they aren’t getting read as often or as well.

The bulk of my reading these recent years have been wallet-friendly free Kindle classics–my already-read-by-women-2014 list heavily features 19th century lady authors–but I really love new fiction. I love reading a book that was written in the now, and I love reading a book that is accompanied by a little splash of publicity, so I can share the experience of having read it with others. When I am looking for a brand-new book to enjoy, deliberately choosing books written by women comes easily and naturally to me. Deliberately choosing books written by writers of color sometimes requires more work on my part, as the abovementioned statistics plus my own media intake cottoned by privilege make it less likely that I will come across publicity for these books.

All the more reason, then, to share with my few readers the books by writers of color that I have loved in the last year or two.  If these books aren’t being reviewed, then let me tell you about them so that you’ll want to read them. If you’ve read them, then let’s talk about them.

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’ve raved about this book before, but since there were several commenters in a recent Toast thread who claimed that they hadn’t yet started the book due to its imposing size and subject, let me tell you what I told them: it is great fun to read. It is thoughtful and painful, but it is also engaging and accessible, with sex and romance and enjoyable snapshots of intellectual (and pseudointellectual!) life and more. (Also, as I was writing, this post in praise of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie appeared in my feedreader. She is deservedly on fire)
  • I am going to include Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi because I re-read it in the last year, and because I pre-ordered her forthcoming book Boy, Snow, Bird the second I heard about it. Her books tend to dwell in abstract, archetypal themes that are well-suited to the folklore and fairytales she draws on. Mr. Fox‘s narrative skips gleefully between mid-20th century and once-upon-a-time, and between Europe and Africa. She genderswaps characters when she feels like it (I particularly enjoyed the finishing school for husbands); the fluidity of identity is part of her point.
  • A Tale for Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I don’t usually enjoy when writers write about writing, but I do when Ruth Ozeki does. Like me, main character Ruth finds writing painful and foggy and frustrating, and she gets lost down rabbit holes of Googling for answers, but she can’t stop because when you get there, you can create something that has a measurable impact.
    I also often recommend My Year of Meats, which is a treasure box of textual and imagery gems. I’m so glad she introduced me to The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagan, and I often think about her Midwestern host family pouring two liters of Coke over a roast and her Japanese assistant preparing a light batter out of the kudzu that has conquered Mississippi.
  • Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith. This is a book of poetry but as I noted on my Books By Women post, I read it like a novel. I got interested in her work by way of this lovely simple reflection on living paycheck to paycheck, but the overall arch of the book is one of nostalgia.
  • Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorakor. You have most likely enjoyed at least one (but probably several) series of books starring a young person who realizes his or her latent magical powers and goes off to some kind of school to learn how to use them. That happens to Sunny, but her story takes place in Nigeria, and her magic is a rich mix of ideas I recognize from other magical fiction and some I recognize from research for my voodoo tour in New Orleans. This is YA fic and a fast read.
  • The Geometry of God by Uzma Aslam Khan. A Pakistan paleontologist and his granddaughter who finds a key fossil in the identification of an ancient whale species struggle to pursue their scientific passions as the Creationist party gains power.

Special mentions: I read The Book of Salt by Monique Truong (which Aimee Phan mentions in her essay) quite a few years ago, but it is one of my all-time favorite novels and was great fun to teach in class. Unrequited love and the loneliness of being an expat in Paris, cooking for Gertrude Stein! Gorgeous, gorgeous descriptions of cooking and communicating across cultural lines. I also taught Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat in that class; Danticat, like Oyeyemi, started writing fully-grown books at an insanely young age, and just about anything you pick up by her will be lovely and lonely and moving. Breath centers the struggles of a young ex-pat woman with her overbearing mother, her national identity, her eating disorder, and her sexuality–conflicts inseparably connected.

Another few special mentions. Today is International Women’s Day, the hashtag is all about celebrating women writers, and as Roxane Gay’s count shows, woman of color are being reviewed less than white women and less than men of color. But I know a fair number of my peers are interested in science fiction and speculative fiction, so these novels by gentlemen of color are worth mentioning. You’re into the genre of young people discovering latent magic or the mystical powers of the universe unseen by the average human? So what if instead of young people they are older black ex-cons and ex-addicts trying to correct the mistakes of their past, and they band up in a rich man’s house to do paranormal investigation, and then they have to save the world? I don’t know, Big Machine by Victor Lavalle is hard to explain but I ate it up. If you love Poe except for the racism, you might get a kick out of Pym by Mat Johnson. To be frank I didn’t love the execution of this book as much as I love the premise, but it does pose a tragihilarious answer to the mystery of what happens at the end of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. And if you’d like a searching, philosophical take on the zombie apocalypse or just want to read about New York City in ruin, you might enjoy Zone One by Colson Whitehead. I never miss a chance to rave about Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, an alternate history which imagines midcentury culture if the elevator had been considered America’s crowning technological achievement (with all its metaphorical resonances of rising up) instead of the automobile. That’s the kind of Big Idea book I will never come up with, and it is well-written and extremely teachable to boot.

Books by women I’ve read in 2013

At Flavorwire, Lilit Marcus explains why she only read books by women in 2013:

I’m a writer. When my book, Save the Assistants, came out in 2011, all I wanted was for other people to read it. So it seemed only logical to repay the favor. Most of my favorite writers – Iris Murdoch, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf – are women, albeit dead ones. So, with nods to Joanna Russ and Tallulah Bankhead, I vowed to spend 2013 being an audience. An audience for female writers only.

The reference to Joanna Russ is in regard to her book How to Suppress Women’s Writing; the nod to Tallulah Bankhead for the line “Don’t be an actress, darling, be an audience.”
It’s a good read; Marcus name-checks some of the books that particularly moved her (several of which I also read and loved) and describes the subtle ways this literary diet impacted her worldview, leading her to vow to read books by other similarly under-sung authors next year.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me (especially anyone I’ve dated) that reading books by women is my usual modus operandi. I don’t refuse to read books by men, but at some point in college I just got weary of the overcelebration of white male authors, and being of a contrary nature decided not to bother with the John Updikes and Philip Roths of the world. Eventually I had to read some books by them for my qualifying exams, and came to a similar conclusion as Marcus does in her piece: I wasn’t missing much. You can’t read all of the books, and I choose to primarily read books by women.

Anyone who wants to see what I’ve read and reviewed is welcome to my Booklikes shelf, but half the fun of these year-end lists is in revisiting the pleasures of reading all over again. Thus I present, in chronological order, some of the best books by women I read in 2013:

  • The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg, which I write about in more detail at my food blog.
  • The glorious Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, hot on the heels of having read Bring up the Bodies. So many retellings of Henry VIII’s reign amount to no more than a tittering reanimation of starcrossed love and political intrigue. Mantel is interested less in scandal than in what it meant to be a subject in this period–literally a subject of the king, yet also a sovereign individual self who desires and dissembles. And the writing is so precise and so good!
  • Bloodroot, by Amy Greene, was spell-binding. One tires of reading novels about domestic abuse, particular those that sanctify the victim and imagine violence an inherent quality of Southern Otherness, but this book does neither. It tells its particular story with intensity, beauty, and a little magic.
  • The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. Coming of age after environmental disasters have knocked Earth’s rotation off-kilter, causing the days to lengthen incredibly and the Earth to wither under an intense sun.
  • I loved every single short story in Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell, which is an astonishing record for me. She writes fantastical worlds and uncanny hungers that are quite realistic and compelling.
  • I re-read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights shortly after getting an e-reader several years ago, but somehow I’d never read anything by Anne Bronte until now. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a great discovery!
  • I enjoyed the final book in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, though if you haven’t read Oryx & Crake, I strongly, strongly recommend getting that one first. Much of the fun of the last book is in the loose ends it ties up for recurring characters.
  • Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker was a tough read for someone who has or is struggling with depression and/or academia. Stories of unfinished dissertations are the worst, except when they are the best. (See also Middlemarch, below.) But it’s also a story of family and love and self-definition and what we have the right to expect from others, and quite beautifully written.
  • I read Life on Mars, a poetry collection by Tracy K. Smith, as though it were a good novel: cover to cover, enjoying every minute.
  • Likewise, I was excited to get my copy of Getting Lucky, poems by Nicole Steinberg, even though I had seen many of them before; they are great fun and quite smart. Blogged about it here and here!
  • A Tale for Time Being by Ruth Ozeki had that same elegiac, pastiched feel that I enjoyed from My Year of Meats, but a little more magic.
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is epic in scope and various in texture. It encompasses the arc of Ifemelu from growing up in Nigeria to attending school in America and eventually returning home a changed woman; excerpts of her blog about race in America, in a quite different tone from the lyrical narration of her story; and the arc of her high school sweetheart Obinze as he travels to England and back, also told in a quite different tone, almost sepia as if Ifemelu’s narrator is retelling Obinze’s story from memory. This book was riveting and I cannot recommend it enough. It would be an incredible literature course assignment too, I think.
  • Finally, although I read it for the first time not long ago, I started re-reading Middlemarch by George Eliot after enjoying the banter of The Toast’s Middlemarch book club. I meant to read section by section, not getting too far ahead of the book club conversations, but I literally cannot stop. I love this novel so much.

 

 

So that the male authors do not feel left out, I read and kind of liked Freud’s Sister by Goce Smilevski and The Dinner by Herman Koch–both translations of foreign novels, interestingly–as well as The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. One male-authored book I truly loved this year was A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy O’Toole. But those guys don’t need my help in promoting them; the apparatus is already calibrated toward their advancement.

Judging books by their covers

As I’ve described, my office occasionally receives galleys of forthcoming books, usually fiction directed toward women (although last month we got something that looks like a mash-up of World War Z and Sex in the City). Sometimes they come addressed to the marketing department, sometimes to me or to the marketing assistant. Usually, publicists send galleys to potential reviewers, which we are not in the position to do (unless we do so on Goodreads, which I just quit). Instead, we make fun of the books, most of which sound like they came out of a focus group (see above example!). The arrival of a new galley therefore generates a certain amount of excitement, although probably not in the way their publishers anticipated.

My coworker brought one in this morning and read the full title, which offered a twist on the current fashion of subtitling everything “A Novel.” (In this case, it’s “A Novel of Suspense.) The cover was dark and grim, depicting a room photographed so out-of-focus as to seem abstract.

The marketing assistant began reading the copy: “‘Chasing a hot story, journalist [redacted] uncovers information that sends her back to the past–‘”

“And a kidnapping,” I interrupted. “That cover says kidnapping to me.”

“‘–to the disappearance of a close friend who vanished without a trace a decade ago,'” she continued, and laughed. “Called it!

We in the academic publishing business have our own cover conventions, certainly, but it’s a lot more fun to mock the repetitive imagery of trade books, particularly those that are marketed or shelved into “literary fiction” and yet packaged as genre fiction. Maureen Johnson’s #Coverflip is getting a lot of attention for this reason: when you take covers of books by well-known male or female authors and then redesign the covers as though the author were gender-neutral or the opposite gender, it becomes strikingly obvious how books by women are packaged as though “books by women” were a genre, featuring the same plot elements and character archetypes over and over again. The repetition of similar themes or elements in cover design, like the fashionable title constructions du jour, is a legit marketing strategy: the similarities signal to us what to expect by alluding to previous books we might have enjoyed or at least heard about. When employed less artfully by potboiler books pushed out on the market too soon and too carelessly, the allusion becomes a caricature.

Misdirected Mail

Be honest. When you hear the term “direct mail,” how do you feel?

Kind of gross, right?

But I cannot lie, it’s part of what I do now. The elaborate, extensive catalog we produce each season is a showcase that editors, sales reps, and authors can use to promote their work, but it is also a direct mail piece. I rent lists from bookseller associations and marketing data agencies to get copies of this catalog into the hands of academic librarians, department heads, and booksellers who might want to order stock for their respective dominions. I get it; our primary customers know what they want, but they may not know that what they want exists, so it’s our business to get proof of our books’ existence into their hands. The list rental and direct mailing is the most common procedure for university presses to do this. But it’s a pretty haphazard task, and hundreds of catalogs are printed and mailed to people who don’t want them, or have moved, or who already get a copy from some other source, and so forth. One of the many, many things I am doing that I am in no way qualified to do is researching ways my press can effectively and legally maintain its own mailing list of people who actually want catalogs, either to order books or to read my lyrical prose on the train.

However, I’m not just an unwanted direct mail sender. I’m an unwanted direct mail recipient!

Over the last month, I’ve been getting mailings from major presses (Penguin! St. Martin’s!) about newly released books. Not just about the books, actually–I’ve been getting copies of the books themselves. Hardcover and paperback they come, with a generic cover letter to a “young publisher” or a “young booklover” so that I know they’ve picked up my name and work address from a young publishers’ group I belong to in name only here in Philly. But why, I’m not sure. The books are about young rich women trying to get by in the city or the relationships between poor young sisters out in the country; they have broken dishes or legs capped with stilettos on the cover; one is nearly a word-for-word copycat of The Devil Wears Prada. I am not going to read them. There is nothing about me or my consumer patterns that suggest that I would read them. No, not even the fact that I am a woman and in a “young publishers” group; women are the majority buyers of all of the books, not just the ones designed in a lab for them. Considering the cost of shipping a book (which may weigh up to a pound), that’s an expensive direct mail misfire to make for a book that will probably garner very little returns.

Perspective. Anyway. While we’re talking book business, let’s celebrate the fact that I have been working for the same employer for a full year. One year ago this week, I stepped eagerly and anxiously into the world of academic publishing in the role of book exhibit and marketing assistant. One year later, I’m sitting pretty in my own office, compiling my second seasonal catalog and fighting off free books with a stick. It has not been a bad year by far, although it has been a challenging and exhausting one. Let this blog post trap the moment in amber, so that in another year I can look back and think with relief of how much easier it’s all gotten (and, hopefully, how much the free book selection has improved).