Ten days in Egypt
Incredible. Ten incredible days. Action-packed and mind-blowing from beginning to end. I saw and did things I never thought would be possible. And I don’t think I stopped grinning the whole time.
I had an incredible opportunity to visit Egypt--which I never thought I'd get to see--thanks to my dad, who arranged the trip to celebrate my and my brother’s 40th birthdays (mine was November 2021, and Mark’s is in March 2023). Our cousin Heather joined as my plus-one, and she turned 40 just a few months before I did, so it was a celebration for her too! I’m also grateful that my mom came up to Columbus to help my husband with our daughter while I was gone.
The four of us took a Globus tour that involved planes, water taxis, coaches, a river cruise boat, vans, horse carriages, feluccas (sailboats), and camels. Every step of the way, our phenomenal tour guide, Shereen, led us safely and confidently and answered all our questions. Our wake-up calls were as early as 2:30 am, but we filled each day with awe and magnificence. I liked every bit of the food I tried (mango ice cream with cinnamon? Yes!), loved the Egyptian people I had a chance to meet, and took more than 1,200 photos. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.
This piece attempts to describe the indescribable in as few words and photos as possible. Click the photo collages below to see the top 10 or 20 pics I selected for each activity.
Saturday, 12 November
We land in Cairo at 10:30 pm, after a full 24 hours of travel from Columbus via Atlanta and London. (Pro tip: Heathrow has a paid lounge where you can take a shower and enjoy hot food and cold drinks!) Dad, Mark, Heather, and I all find our luggage and a Globus rep, who herds us together with other tour-goers while managing a missing-bag meltdown with aplomb. We pile into a van and travel to our hotel, giving me my first view of the Nile, in darkness but lit by water taxis and the reflection of chaotic Cairo. It’s 2:30 am before I collapse into bed for a few hours of sleep.
Sunday, 13 November
Early the next morning, we meet the rest of our group, and our wonderful guide Shereen, and load into a coach. The four of us snag the very back row of seats, which became our default seats for every ride. Our first stop is the Egyptian Museum*! This building has a very 1940s feel, with artifacts in simple wood and glass boxes, some cracked, and hand-written labels on yellow paper in multiple languages. Many artifacts have no labels at all, just numbers, and others are stacked up in hallways and corners. We see ancient papyrus, mummies, sarcophaguses, canopic jars, statues, and so much more. AND we see Tutankhamun’s mask, gold sarcophaguses, and other items from his tomb! (No photos allowed of the mask, unfortunately.) To say that my dad and I are excited to see all this would be a vast understatement, but this is only a small sample of what awaits us.
*The new “Grand Egyptian Museum” will open in 2023, but I’m glad we got to see the artifacts in this older one. I hope the new one isn’t too slick, losing the utterly unique charm of the old one.
After the museum, our group heads to the pyramids and sphinx in Giza! This is truly something I never thought I’d experience in my whole life, despite wanting to since I was a kid. But not only do we get to walk around the pyramids… we GO INSIDE the Great Pyramid! We crawl up a very dark and narrow passage, at times sweating and on our knees, and emerge into the burial chamber of King Khufu. His stone sarcophagus is still there, and otherwise the room is a tall, stone, windowless box. Instead of dreary, the mood is pure giddiness! Not just my family, but other people as well, all just half-stunned and thrilled and walking in circles with silly grins on our faces.
Outside, Heather and I hop on some friendly camels to ride between the pyramids and across the desert (briefly). If you’ve never ridden a camel, it’s a lot like riding a horse, just much taller. After the ride, we join our group to visit the Sphinx as the sun sets and the bustle of Cairo encroaches on land that was desert not too long ago. Near the Sphinx, we have our first experience with the ubiquitous market stalls and negotiating prices with the vendors. We get better at that throughout the trip, but it definitely takes practice and tenacity!
Our next stop is a Egyptian cotton department store (fixed price, happily), where we all get some comfortable clothes perfect for the desert. Back at the hotel that evening, the four of us eat at a Moroccan restaurant, watching the show of boats and fountains in the Nile. Our hotel happens to be hosting an opening night event for the Cairo International Film Festival, I'm a little embarrassed that I told some probably famous actress how pretty her dress was in the elevator.
Monday, 14 November
Starting with a 3:30 am wake-up call, our group heads back to Cairo airport to catch an Egyptair flight to Luxor. The airport is no more chaotic or confusing than Heathrow, to be honest. I happen walk next to a tour director from Viking Cruises, who had gotten so little sleep that she gets disoriented stepping onto a down escalator. She screams and starts to tip down the whole flight! Luckily, I'm able to grab her arm and pull her back to solid ground. Tragedy averted!
In Luxor that morning, we first visit Karnak temple, a huge complex that was one of the homes of Amun-Ra. Karnak is connected to Luxor temple with a long street lined with small sphinxes that have been “edited” throughout the centuries to show different rulers’ faces or cartouches (the special way to write a name in hieroglyphs). Each year, the king or queen would come to Karnak to commune with the god and recharge their “ka” so that the people would continue to believe they were gods. Naturally, everyone wanted to leave a mark on the temple, so the result is a huge complex with art and structures from multiple centuries.
Next, we visit a papyrus “factory” (a small shop run by artisans) to see a demonstration of making and painting on papyrus. We also board our cruise ship, which will be our home for the next four nights. There are about 300 of these on the Nile these days, and they’re similar to Mississippi river boats. To my amazement, these ships dock right up next to each other, so you may walk from shore through two or three other ships to get to yours.
Later that evening, we watch the sunset from Luxor temple, Karnak’s smaller cousin down the Avenue of the Sphinxes. While we don't walk the whole avenue, we venture far enough down to find a replica of the “solar boat” the ancient Egyptians used to carry the image of Amun-Ra, concealed, from one temple to the other during festivals. After dark, we walk back through town to our cruise boat, and then began our cruise down the Nile.
Tuesday, 15 November
When I was in 4th grade, I played Howard Carter in a video school project, complete with wig and moustache. At that time in the 1990s, Egypt didn’t seem too safe, so I never thought I’d ever actually be able to visit. And even during this visit, I never dreamed I’d be allowed inside King Tutankhamun’s tomb. Well, friend, I went inside Tutankhamun’s tomb, and I saw his mummy!
Visiting the Valley of the Kings rivals entering a pyramid for the most mind-blowing part of this trip. In addition to King Tut's, we visit three other tombs, all covered inside with gorgeous paintings and carvings: Rameses IV, Rameses III, and the joint tomb of Queen Tausert and King Setnakht (he kinda stole it from her). The photos tell these stories better than my words, because the colors and artwork just aren’t believable when described. Not even the photos do them justice. I admit to crying a little in Tutankhamun's tomb, standing there next to his actual body. Outside the tombs, it's real desert—hot, cloudless, and sandy—and we see several worksites. Archeologists are still digging, and still uncovering new treasures.
eeLater that day, we visit Queen Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir El-Bahri, just on the other side of the mountain ridge from the Valley of the Kings, a stunningly huge building cut right into the mountainside around 3,500 years ago. And if the temple isn’t impressive enough, from its great height you can clearly see the lush Nile valley contrasted with the Sahara. I won’t go into detail here, but Queen Hatshepsut was a pretty interesting historical figure worth learning about!
Next, we stop at an alabaster “factory” run by the Morssey family, which offers a fantastic show for us. One man sings/chants in clear English about alabaster and why his family makes the best statues, complete with visual aids and call-backs from his family as they worked. Shereen told us later that he could give the same presentation in Arabic, German, Spanish, Japanese, and a couple other languages, but he couldn’t read or write in Arabic. After that, we visit the Colossi of Memnon, huge statues of Amenhotep III that used to “sing” just before dawn.
That's a lot for one morning, so we take the rest of the day to lounge on our cruise boat as we sail down the Nile. (Throughout the trip, we occasionally just look at each other in disbelief and say, "Hey, we're cruising on the Nile!") While we're chugging along, a small rowboat ties onto the side of our boat, and two men spend hours selling clothes and souvenirs to our passengers by throwing bags and money back and forth. We enjoy an onboard cocktail party that evening, during which Shereen wrties Dad’s, Mark’s, Heather’s, and my names in hieroglyphics and tells us what the letters indicate about us (eerily accurate). I stay on the top deck late that evening and watch as we navigate through a lock at Esna.
Wednesday, 16 November
The next morning, we cruise to Edfu to visit the Temple of Horus. But to get to the temple, we take a horse carriage ride through the town that's more like Ben Hur’s chariot race than a ride through Central Park. Speeding through the dusty streets, we see a little more of everyday life in Egypt, good and bad.
The impressive Edfu temple still has its main pylon intact, covered with enormous carvings of gods that truly feel superhuman. Further, the ceiling is still there, albeit pitch black from campfires lit by the Coptic Christians and others who moved in once the “old gods” were no longer so popular. On the walls as high as those ancient people could reach, the gods’ faces and legs are chiseled away, and the marks still look fresh. They also added new carvings—Coptic crosses mixed in with the hieroglyphs. Not only are the surviving decorations and hieroglyphs beautiful, but also practical, as the temple includes a counting table with symbols up to one million.
We take another daredevil carriage ride back to the ship and witness a horse collision, but no one's hurt and everyone goes about their day. We have the afternoon to rest on the boat as we cruise slowly down to Kom Ombo. I relax up on the deck, adding on layers as it gets darker and colder, until we arrive to visit the joint temple of Horus and Sobek.
Certainly a unique temple, half of it honors Horus and the other symmetrical half honors the crocodile god Sobek. Because we visit at night, the lighting adds an eerie effect. On the Horus side, there had been an ancient hospital, and the walls are carved with inventories of medical instruments and procedures. In between the two, there was a false wall where priests apparently hid to hear questions from Greek colonists and answer on behalf of the gods themselves (regular Egyptians weren’t usually allowed inside temples because they truly were the houses of the gods, not places for everyday worship).
On the Sobek side, the priests kept live crocodiles caught from the Nile to serve as the incarnation of the god. Logistically, I have no idea how this worked, and I’m glad feeding them wasn’t my job. When the captive crocodile died, it received death rituals befitting a god, including mummification and a stone sarcophagus. At the Crocodile Museum next door, we see just a few of these massive beasts. Compared to the size of human mummies, it’s beyond impressive that they were able to capture, care for, and then mummify these creatures so well!
That evening on the cruise boat, we celebrate “Egyptian Night,” in which all the food is Egyptian and we all dress in more traditional Egyptian clothes. (Every meal on the boat, there are options for Egyptian food, but also a lot of European and American food as well. I stick to the Egyptian food and am never disappointed.) There's music and dancing and a fun time had by all. Since we were on and off the boat so often, I've combined some photos of the Nile and the cruise into one album.
Thursday, 17 November
I’ve had a lot of great birthdays, but this one is going to be pretty tough to beat! It starts with a 3:30 am wake-up call, which allows us the opportunity to watch the sun rise over the Sahara while on a 4-hour bus trip from Aswan to Abu Simbel. If you think that was boring, you haven't experienced Egyptian highways. We arrive on the banks of Lake Nasser to view two of the eight temples relocated before the Aswan High Dam flooded an area with ancient temples and Nubian communities.
Ramses II was not known for his humility. Carved into the side of a mountain (yes, they moved the whole mountain from lower ground), the façade of this temple features four enormous reliefs of seated Ramses, each 72 feet tall, covered in Greek and Victorian graffiti. His figures serve as columns along the short hallway inside, and every wall is covered in stories of his glory. The next mountain over features a temple for Ramses’s favorite wife, Nefertari, which is a slightly smaller version with what I thought were six standing female figures on the facade. On closer inspection, four of these figures are humble ol' Ramses II again, and only two are Nefertari. (She really deserved a bigger temple for putting up with him!) Shereen was kind enough to extend our time here to give us all a chance to explore both, given the crowds! Sitting in the desert on the banks of a huge lake, these temples are just breathtakingly beautiful.
After another 4-hour ride back to Aswan, we watch the sunset over the Nile from a felucca circling Elephantine Island, the ancient source of the Nile and home to the god Hapy. Along the side of the sailboat, a few young boys on surfboards sing folk songs for a few pieces of candy. The ride is smooth and beautiful, and the sunset (like all sunsets over the Nile, I expect) is flawless.
That evening after dinner, the restaurant staff presents birthday cakes to me and another member of our tour group also celebrating his birthday (and also an author)! They call us up to one end of the dining room and bring out instruments to sing "Happy Birthday" in English. Then they sing it in Arabic. Then they sing another, much more danceable, song in Arabic that just goes on and on, verse after verse. Each time a verse winds down and we reach for the cakes, they launch into another verse. And of course we dance for each one--Scorpios are not shy about dancing!
Friday, 18 November
We start another action-packed day at the Aswan High Dam, admiring the Soviet construction that replaced the smaller British-built dam to control the Nile flood waters. Then we hop on a motor boat to visit the (relocated) temple of Isis on Philae. This gorgeous temple is another rescued before Lake Nasser flooded its original home, which was the burial place of Osiris (though the low dam in the early 1900s had already flooded it somewhat). The pylon is still intact, as are the unique columns ridged with vertical lines from the millions of people who have rubbed them in search of Isis’s blessing. Being a popular destination throughout history, the buildings show a mix of styles and remnants of trend changes, like the chiseled out gods and Christian altars.
We boat back to the mainland and then get a demonstration of essential oils at the Essence of Life AlFayed perfume store. Next, a short trip over to the unfinished obelisk, which quarry workers abandoned 3,500 years ago when the granite began to crack before they got it pried out of the bedrock. After all this, we finally stopped for a shish kabob lunch at Makani Restaurant on the banks of the Nile.
Our cruise officially over, we take another boat to our hotel on Elephantine island. We rest a bit and enjoy the reliable WiFi, then walk the expansive grounds to watch the sunset. That night for dinner, Dad, Mark, and I zip back across the Nile into Aswan to have a feast at Café Misr, a local restaurant with just enough English for us to manage. We all (even Mark!) love the food, though it's way too much for anyone to reasonably eat. On the street, everyone is friendly, but we don’t blend in well, so we're quickly swept into the Al Attar spice shop. We enjoy the big sales pitch and spend way too much on way too many spices, but still leave happy with what we got!
Saturday, 19 November
A 4:30 am wake-up call gives us another chance to witness a beautiful sunrise over the Nile as we head to the Aswan airport. Security there takes so long that half of the passengers are late... so they just hold the plane. On the way back to Cairo, we see the dramatic Nile valley from above and watch the landscape shift as we near the delta. Back in the city and with a handful of others from our tour group, we brave the wild Cairo streets on foot for take-out lunch at local favorite Al Agha.
Dad, Mark, Heather, and I decide to take another walk to the Egyptian Museum and enjoy it again without the whole group. Mark and Heather hit the gift shop and rest in a café. If the museum didn’t have closing hours, Dad and I might still be in there calling, “Hey, did you see this? Whoa, look at that!” Without the tour group in tow, it’s much less crowded and we have more space and time to revisit some of the items we saw the first day as well, including the King Tutankhamun treasures.
We join back with the group at the hotel that evening for a farewell dinner, drawing our tour to its official close.
I haven't said enough here about how fantastic our guide, Shereen, has been throughout the trip. She has advanced degrees in ancient Egyptian history and mythology and answers every question we threw at her--even the very silly ones ("Why don't any of these tomb paintings have anyone, you know, walking like an Egyptian?")--with grace and patience. She's been giving tours like this since the 1980s and knows all the tricks about when to arrive and where to stand. She helps us 40ish non-Arabic speakers navigate airports, restaurants, horse carriages, markets and stores, camel rides, and so much more without losing a single one of us! Having Shereen's voice in my ear through my "whisper" device is incredibly comforting, and she deserves a ton of credit for making this trip so incredible.
Sunday and Monday, 20 and 21 November
Our wake-up call comes in at 2:30 am. Poor Heather has been up with an upset stomach for a couple hours already by that time, so she hardly got any sleep at all. And that’s a rough way to start out 30 hours of travel! She toughs her way through it all and does great, despite feeling terrible.
We leave Cairo at 7:00 am local time and fly back to Heathrow, though we’re already so off schedule that we don’t know whether to get coffee or cocktails with lunch! After a few hours there, we fly to Atlanta. Dad and I say goodbye to Heather and Mark and then fly back to Columbus together.
We finally arrive home at 1:00 am Monday morning. I get to hug my husband and daughter before taking a much needed shower. I then collapse into bed and sleep like a mummy!
There's no good way to wrap up this trip, and my words and photos here fall despareately short of expressing the impact this trip had for me. I leave you with a bit of my journal passage from the plane between Cairo and London.
It will, naturally, take me a while to process all I saw and experienced in Egypt, as it did for Japan. The pyramid, the sphinx, going inside the Great Pyramid, a camel ride, Egyptian Museum and King Tut’s treasures, Valley of the Kings and Tut’s tomb, the clear and colorful paintings in the tombs, the temples at Karnak, Luxor, Philae, Abu Simbel, Edfu, the horse carriage rides, cruising down the Nile, Aswan dam and High Dam, the unfinished obelisk, views of Cairo, Edfu, Luxor, and Aswan, walking through the streets as an outsider, the markets and vendors, cotton store, fragrance store, papyrus store, spice store, the music and calls to prayer, the honking and shouting, horse carriage crash, dancing to Arabic and Egyptian versions of Happy Birthday, Egyptian night on the cruise, relaxing and chatting and reading on the deck of the boat while the farmlands and ancient stoneworks roll by, Lake Nasser, the boats tied up to ours to sell goods, the surfboards with young boys along the ferry boats, the Nubian boat pilots, the felucca ride at sunset, the chaos—seemingly—of the streets, the local lunch stop in Aswan and the dinner spot, dining and traveling with the other tour group members, Shareen’s “Habibi!” so quickly full of anxiety relief, view of the Nile Valley—impossibly narrow—from the sky and from higher ground, the temple of Queen Hatshepsut, the temple of Horus and Sudok, the crocodile museum, the Greek and Coptic and Victorian vandalism on the temple walls, the avenue of the sphinxes, Ramses II’s narcissism, the long bus rides, sunrise over the Sahara, luxurious hotels, dinners on the boat, cinnamon on ice cream, om ali dessert, all the breads, every interaction with an Egyptian and their culture so different than my own that I’m certain I made many faux pas but also overpaid sometimes, navigating the airports, seeing Dad’s excitement and sharing it while seeing and experiencing things we never thought we would.
Thoughts on The Haunting of Hill House
What I liked
I don’t want to be overdramatic, but, everything? I got this from the library on audiobook (a lot of my reading is done via library audiobook during my daily commute). It’s completely absorbing. By the time I finished (on a walk, luckily, given the final actions), I’d already asked my local bookstore to order a print copy for me. I’ve been rereading it with pencil in hand, making notes on every paragraph, every word.
The characters are believable in a shockingly familiar way. Jackson paints Eleanor’s thoughts so honestly—I thought I was the only one who thought that way. And even when Eleanor’s actions don’t match her thoughts, the reader can understand why.
And the tension! It just builds and builds. Until the print reread, I hadn’t noticed that they don’t spend the first night in Hill House until about 1/3 of the way through the book, and not much even happens that night. Except that Eleanor gets her first good night’s sleep in years, which somehow comes across as sinister.
Jackson tells us right up front that Hill House is evil, “not sane,” “holding darkness.” After that, in a passage so beautifully crafted that it both opens and closes the novel, she hardly has to explain the why or how. We believe it. We see what it does to Eleanor. While there’s always a sliver of a doubt about how far gone Eleanor’s mental state was before she arrived, there’s no room for doubt about the experiences that all the characters share. Hill House is terrifyingly evil, and like real-life evil, it will never make complete sense.
What I didn’t like
There were a few interactions between Eleanor and Theodora that confused me a bit, but I suspect this has more to do with how female friendships have changed since the 1950s. Since the character interactions rely on the reader’s understanding of how human relationships work, this made them dependent on a particular point in time, with the existing social norms.
FWIW, I don’t think of that as a problem with the writing. It’s just something that took me out of it briefly.
What I can learn
Be honest inside a character’s head. They’re not writing a diary that others might find. These are their most intimate, irrational, reactionary, hateful, fearful, generous, delusional thoughts before they edit them into speech or behavior.
Trust the reader’s emotional and social intelligence. We’ve all been there. So sketch a scene with behaviors and dialogue and let the reader figure out what’s going on under the surface.
Include only the right details in the right places. Which is way easier said than done, but relies a lot on the previous point.
Use “telling” sparingly for the greatest effect. Show everything else through someone’s eyes, subjectively.
A lot more… I’m certain.
Thoughts on The Library Book
What I liked
The descriptions and characterization of suspected arsonist Harry Peak, especially as seen through the eyes of other unreliable characters. His sister especially dropped a few details that made the reader realize she either doesn’t know the whole truth or doesn’t want to.
Similarly, I enjoyed the characterizations of historical staff members at the Los Angeles Public Library, including those fascinating directors. Although the book focused on an event in a place, it’s the people that make the story relatable.
What I didn’t like
The lists, mostly. Granted, this is coming from someone who loved Moby Dick. But listing out the types of garbage strewed along a fence line, the books being transferred from one library branch to another, the history of bookmobiles, and on and on… didn’t contribute to my understanding of the topic. It didn’t keep me engaged in the narrative.
And why do they ever let authors read their own audiobooks?
Given my day job, I know more about libraries than the average bear, I suppose. But I found myself fluctuating between “Duh, of course,” and “No, that’s not right.” I found several instances in which she listed a “fact” that was simply incorrect, including some about the place where I work. Which was frustrating.
What I can learn
Stay on task. It’s probably impossible to write a book about a contemporary topic that you don’t live and breathe that will be accepted without issue from people who do live and breathe it. So it makes more sense to me to stay on a topic that very few people live and breathe. If this book had focused just on Harry Peak and the fire or even the history of the LA Public Library staff, and less about what libraries are like today, I would have stayed more engaged.
The Red Garden
What I liked
This is my first exposure to Alice Hoffman. I found her while browsing for magical realism authors in my library, and I got this particular book because it was immediately available. After reading a few other short story collections recently, I was pleasantly surprised that these stories shared a common thread—the town of Blackwell, Massachusetts.
In many of the stories, the “magic” is subtle or is simply coincidental. But in my favorite story, “The Fisherman’s Wife,” it’s right up front and a key ingredient of the story. I found more solid footing on the clear break with reality rather than the myth-infused stories of real life.
What I didn’t like
While the stories feature a wide range of characters, I found them (especially the women) to be too same-y from story to story. They might have intentionally been similar—many are from the same few families in town—but their predictability made the stories somewhat indistinguishable. It’s been a couple months now since I read it, and I only have clear memories of a handful of characters and plot points.
What I can learn
Modern magical realism doesn’t require the sweeping epic tales that Gabriel García Márquez’s stories have. The Red Garden has some similarities to his work, especially One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I wouldn’t really consider them comps. (That is, if you loved One Hundred Years, I can’t guarantee you’ll like The Red Garden.) That’s good news for my WIP novel.
Lincoln in the Bardo
(Note: This blog is the first in which I'm trying out a new format. It ran longer than expected. I'll continue to play with this to figure out what works best.)
For me personally…
I see a lot of similarities here between what Saunders is doing and what my WIP novel does. Which is unfortunate for me, I think, because this isn’t a “comp.” (Comp: A comparative title to give agents and editors and, eventually, readers an idea of what to expect. Next time you read a book blurb, notice how often you see something like, “For fans of The Time Traveller’s Wife with the driving tension of John Grisham’s best work.”)
Saunders and I both have talking ghosts. But lots of books do. My ghosts know they’re dead and want to stay that way. Saunders’s ghosts have mostly decided to forget that they’re dead so they can hang on to some semblance of life and hope. Mine look and act more or less like people, his are more monstrous.
I include interstitial chapters in the POV of the ghosts describing how they died. In Saunders’s book, the ghosts are compelled to repeatedly tell their stories to each other, gathering some new mutation every time they do. (American Gods includes interstitial chapters about the gods coming to America that are much closer to mine, although I’d already written mine when I read that book.)
I also include interstitial chapters with information about the world in various formats—blog posts, academic papers, news articles, etc.—but I wrote them all. I include fake citations as well. Saunders includes interstitial chapters with short citations from real-world primary sources, and he uses these to explore what President Lincoln is thinking.
Although we’re using these techniques in slightly different ways for different purposes, I recognize that my work will be compared to this. And Saunders does these things pretty well. So I worry that people will read my work with the assumption that I was trying to emulate (or was at least inspired by) Lincoln in the Bardo and judge me as failing at that goal.
But of course, that wasn’t my goal. I started this novel almost 10 years ago, and I finished the first draft (in which I nailed down these format choices) well before Lincoln was published. This is one of the really frustrating things about how long this whole process takes, especially when your day job doesn’t support working on your novel all day. What a privilege that would be.
What I didn’t like
Format similarities aside, I really struggled with the way the narrative is structured. Partly, it was difficult to follow, bouncing irregularly between narrators with only their names to differentiate them. The voices are pretty similar, except for the exaggerated ones that aren’t. As the novel progressed and I got more used to this, it became easier to keep up with.
But it is non-traditional, and so partly, I felt frustrated knowing that this only gets published because Saunders is part of the establishment. Publishers (editors, agents, readers) will allow him to take risks because he’s already been established as good, as respected, as intellectual. He no longer has to prove that he’s good. I cannot imagine this as a debut novel. I cannot imagine this as a novel written by a woman. And I cannot imagine this as a novel written by a person of color.
One could make an argument that the female and non-white characters are treated the way they might have been at the time. Fine. The novel opens with—and sticks with as a main narrator—a ghost who has a giant erect penis sticking out in front of him, so large he trips over it. Other ghosts have spectral orgies, one female and three or four males. Black characters and poor whites speak ridiculously. There’s a wet, dripping penis and a woman who was repeatedly raped, and some female ghosts who continue to be raped after death… And just, no. Enough. I’m so sick of this privileged white male description of the world. At least this book didn’t last as long as Ulysses.
Also, I was almost exactly at the halfway point before I figured out what the main conflict of the book was and got a rough idea of how the ghosts “worked.” This is frustrating to me too after hearing from early readers of my work that they needed the rules of my ghost world spelled out more clearly. And everyone knows that if you haven’t hooked your potential agent/editor/publisher/reader in the first two paragraphs (or, you know, ten words) with your main conflict, then they’ll never read on. And yet, there’s some built-in trust in the establishment that allows this work to thrive. Like once an author has made it, needing those things reflects poorly on the reader, not the book.
What I liked
By the time I got to the end—had figured out the plot, themes, techniques, and characters—I could more easily see how well this was put together. Problems above notwithstanding, it is well done. Using real-world citations to fill in President Lincoln’s memories was a clever way to both set the context and get the reader to believe in this world.
A good time for change
Let’s start by acknowledging that this blog doesn’t have many regular readers.
It started mostly as a place for me to talk about the things I’m reading, and so the lack of a regular readership (and the expectations they may have) isn’t a bad thing, IMO.
But am I getting the most out of this blog, for me?
I think not.
I’ve modeled the posts after book reviews—professional ones and the better ones on Goodreads. I did that because I thought that’s how book reviews were supposed to sound.
And I thought that my mental processing of a book could best be expressed in a review.
The truth is that I don’t want to be a book reviewer. Not for pay, and not for fun. I don’t even read book reviews until after I’ve finished the book.
What I want to do is to read as much as possible. I want to learn from other writers. I want to churn on their work to recognize what they do well, what I can emulate, and why I hate the parts I inevitably hate.
And a traditional book review doesn’t really allow me to do that.
So I’m going to be rethinking this space. I have a new structure in mind (I like structure), but I want to give myself freedom to scrap that structure if I have something else to say.
First thing to go is the star ratings. If I can sum up an entire book—a whole world or multiple worlds with lives and relationships and choices and consequences—on a scale of 1 to 5, then I didn’t read it honestly enough. Next, I want to focus on what I liked, what I didn’t like, and what I can learn from each work. There won’t be plot summaries, but there might be spoilers.
If that doesn’t feel right? Then I’ll adjust. Because this blog is meant to give a window into my headspace, not to mold my thoughts around what I think others what to hear. I do enough of that kind of writing for my day job.
And to you, dear reader who has stumbled into this monologue, thank you. Thank you for being curious enough to stick with me. To see where this chewing and cogitation leads us. While I’d be happy to hear from you, it’s ok if you stay quiet too. Because I’ll just keep reading and processing and trying to learn. And I hope you’ll learn along with me.
Review of The Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad tells the story of a slave who escapes a Southern plantation and makes her way North, facing a variety of tension-filled challenges, cultural observations, and threats from both well-meaning and ill-intentioned people.
I wanted to like this novel so much more than I did. But I got really hung up on the way the author distances the narrative from any sort of lived experience. Most every aspect is told, not shown. The most pivotal, dramatic moments—including the violent climax—exist through flashbacks after the reader already knows the outcome. And it’s not a dialogue-heavy flashback, in which one character explains his or her first-person experience, full of emotion and reflection. It’s more of a textbook description of the action. The only emotion comes from the horror of the action itself, not from any connection to the characters experiencing it.
And, okay. The railroad. I try hard not to read any other reviews (just the book-jacket-type summaries) before I start a book. So when Cora and Caesar climb down into a tunnel and end up on a subway platform… what? I had to ask someone. “Have I misunderstood this my whole life? It *is* a metaphor, right?”
The literal railroad underground throws this novel into a different category, at least for me. It’s no longer historical fiction. Something closer to fantasy fiction. And then I don’t know how much to believe from the rest of the story. That might not have bothered me so much if the novel was on a topic besides American slavery. But there are so many untold stories on this topic already—dramatic, emotional stories that need to be shared, even as fictionalized accounts—that I can’t find a place where this horrific fantasy version fits.
I can see why so many people liked this novel. Obviously, take it all with a grain of salt—although I have no idea how big a grain to recommend. And if you find you’re not engaging with the main character in the first few chapters, it’s okay to give it up, because that’s not going to get much better.
Review of A Manual for Cleaning Women
The only excuse I have for waiting so long to draft a review of this short story collection is that I was too busy telling everyone I know about it in person. I stumbled across A Manual for Cleaning Women based, I think, largely on browsing algorithms in my library’s app. I’d never heard of Lucia Berlin, but these stories evoked the same response in my heart as hearing John Prine for the first time. An enthusiastic, “Where have you *been* all my life?” after a deep itch has been scratched.
I loved every one of the 43 stories in this collection, although I can admit that some are stronger, more emotional, than others. “Macadam” has become a common word in my house now. I think often of Sally and her children, of Melina and César, of Bella Lynn. Sometimes, I think of Jesse, Amelia and her pobre mojito, Dr. HA Moynihan’s toothless mouth, and the narrator’s mother, but that’s more painful.
The one story that set me weeping above the others—the one I listened to on audiobook multiple times and the one that forced me to sit in the parking lot after I’d arrived to work just to pull myself back together—was “Stars and Saints.” It begins, “Wait. Let me explain…” and tells a story of terrible circumstances all piled together outside of anyone’s control in a way that inevitably result in each character making the worst decisions for everyone. I can’t say more about it. If you can spare 15 or so minutes, read this story. And you might want to be alone and give yourself 5 or so extra minutes to clean yourself up afterward.
Did anything other than sexism keep Lucia Berlin’s largely autobiographical stories away from me until now? She does a wide range of unladylike things. But I enjoyed her stories of addiction and sex and blue-collar jobs much more than any of the Bukowski we read in college. Because she doesn’t try to make it seem glamorous or even that fun most of the time. She manages to enjoy herself despite the terrible situations she gets into, not because of them. She shows all the dirt under her fingernails and shrugs. Isn’t this the way life is, she asks? Messy and full of life and hope and heartbreak?
If you have a pulse and empathy and can read, check out A Manual for Cleaning Women. And behold humanity.
Review of Master and Commander
There’s a line within the first paragraph of Moby Dick in which Ishmael tells us that he heads to the sea “…whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever … it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off.” That line marked the first time I laughed out loud at the novel and convinced me that I was going to love it.
Although heading to sea occasionally is within my grasp (see my August 2017 adventure with Jubilee Sailing Trust, incredible although expensive), the more reasonable alternative may be to pick up the next book in the Aubrey-Maturin series. To send my mind to sea instead of my whole body.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed Master and Commander, the first book in the series, I hesitate to recommend it without hedging. It’s always great when books teach you something about yourself, and I learned that I love hearing ships described. I love the talk of sails and lines and decks and masts. I love the incredible danger these sailors faced so regularly and how it brings them together as a family unit.
But as a single novel? It’s middling. The events that happen are more like vignettes rather than a cohesive arc. Because it’s the first in a series, the reader knows that Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin will survive, no matter the odds. And this series nature also prevents the plot and the characters’ relationships from evolving dramatically.
And still, I enjoyed it. I listened to it on audiobook in the car—steering my own ship through the highways of central Ohio—and I can’t tell you how many turns I missed that month because I was wrapped up in an epic sea battle. So, if you also like tales of watery adventure, piracy, and ropes (a lot of ropes), give this one a try. I’ll likely revisit these characters when I next feel like knocking random people’s hats off.
Review of Awake
In this fantasy novel, the first in a series, a teenaged girl comes of age in a world that’s suddenly not the one she thought she knew. It’s way more interesting.
I don’t want to reveal too much, but watching Kendra realize that her hallucinations are actually a view into the world as it really is—full of magic and creatures and alternate realities—is a delight. The reader cheers for her throughout the story as she discovers more and more people in her life are in on the deception, and she faces down threats without fully understanding her own power or theirs.
There’s no way to avoid being drawn in to the world with her, watching her figure out the rules, possibilities, and limitations while learning to trust her own instincts.
The author (who, full disclosure, is a personal friend of mine) does a great job at revealing this magical realm slowly, giving readers the outline of its hierarchy and purpose without delving too deep into the mechanics. I don’t often read series—too much of a commitment—so this slow reveal confused me at first. I finished the book with question marks still around what this all means for Kendra and what she’s ultimately capable of. But, of course, I’ll have to read the next two or three forthcoming books for that part of the story!
And I will continue with this series. Kendra is too likeable, and the world too threatening, to abandon her after Book One. I look forward to enjoying Book Two as much as I enjoyed Book One!
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