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Nonfiction November: Fiction and Nonfiction Book Pairings

November 10, 2015 11 comments

I was looking forward to this week’s theme of Nonfiction November the most, because one of my favorite parts of being a librarian is “reader’s advisory.”  Reader’s advisory is when you chat to a person about what they enjoy reading, what they’re interested in, what they’re looking for, and recommend a few books to them as books they might enjoy reading.  (I don’t get to do this a ton as an academic medical librarian, but it does still come up sometimes).  I view this as a book blogger version of that.

For this, I thought I would select out a few of my favorite fiction books and seek out nonfiction books that would pair well with them.  If you read and enjoyed the fiction, consider checking out the nonfiction.  Of course it will also work the other way around!  If you’ve read the nonfiction book and enjoyed it, consider checking out the fiction.

First Pairing: Sled Dogs

Wolf howling at moon.The Call of the Wild
by:

Jack London
Fiction
Blurb:
Buck is a spoiled southern dog enjoying a posh life when one of the family’s servants steals him and sells him away to be a sled dog for the Alaska gold rush.  Buck soon goes from an easy life to one of trials and tribulations as the result of humans fawning over a golden metal, but it might not be all bad for him in the wild Alaskan north.

covergoldrushGold Rush Dogs
By:
Jane G. Haigh
Nonfiction
Blurb:
Dog lovers and history buffs will delight in this collection celebrating the beloved canines that offered companionship, protection, and hard work to their masters in the Far North.
Why pair it?
Buck, the main character (and dog) in The Call of the Wild is trained to be a sled dog for the gold rush (not the Iditarod).  This nonfiction book is about the gold rush dogs.

Second Pairing: Women in Ancient Japanese Court Life

A Japanese warrior woman's face has the shadow of cat ears behind her. The book's title and author name are over this picture.Fudoki
By:
Kij Johnson
Fiction
Blurb:
An aging empress decides to fill her empty notebooks before she must get rid of them along with all of her belongings to retire to the convent, as is expected of her.  She ends up telling the story of Kagaya-hime, a tortoiseshell cat who loses her cat family in a fire and is turned into a woman by the kami, the god of the road.

coverdiaryDiary of Lady Murasaki
By:
Murasaki Shikibu
Nonfiction
Blurb:
The Diary recorded by Lady Murasaki (c. 973 c. 1020), author of The Tale of Genji, is an intimate picture of her life as tutor and companion to the young Empress Shoshi. Told in a series of vignettes, it offers revealing glimpses of the Japanese imperial palace the auspicious birth of a prince, rivalries between the Emperor’s consorts, with sharp criticism of Murasaki’s fellow ladies-in-waiting and drunken courtiers, and telling remarks about the timid Empress and her powerful father, Michinaga. The Diary is also a work of great subtlety and intense personal reflection, as Murasaki makes penetrating insights into human psychology her pragmatic observations always balanced by an exquisite and pensive melancholy.
Why pair it?
Fudoki features tales being told by an aging empress that illuminate women’s lives in ancient Japan.  This nonfiction period piece is a diary by a real woman with an insider’s view of the same court life.  Although not written by an empress, she was an empress’s companion.

Third Pairing: We’re Living in the Future the 1800s Scifi Imagined

Simple cover image containing a broad off-white background on the top third of the cover and a red background on the bottom two thirds. The book's title and author are printed on the background.The Time Machine
By:
H.G. Wells
Fiction
Blurb:
Nobody is quite sure whether to believe their eccentric scientist friend when he claims to have invented the ability to travel through time.  But when he shows up late to a dinner party with a tale of traveling to the year 802,700 and meeting the human race, now divided into the child-like Eloi and the pale ape-like ground-dwelling Morlocks, they find themselves wanting to believe him.

cover_inthebeginningIn the Beginning…Was the Command Line
By:
Neal Stephenson
Nonfiction
Blurb:
This is “the Word” — one man’s word, certainly — about the art (and artifice) of the state of our computer-centric existence. And considering that the “one man” is Neal Stephenson, “the hacker Hemingway” (Newsweek) — acclaimed novelist, pragmatist, seer, nerd-friendly philosopher, and nationally bestselling author of groundbreaking literary works (Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, etc., etc.) — the word is well worth hearing. Mostly well-reasoned examination and partial rant, Stephenson’s In the Beginning… was the Command Line is a thoughtful, irreverent, hilarious treatise on the cyber-culture past and present; on operating system tyrannies and downloaded popular revolutions; on the Internet, Disney World, Big Bangs, not to mention the meaning of life itself.
Why this pairing?
Wells and Stephenson are both considered masters of the scifi genre.  In this nonfiction piece, Stephenson explicitly draws comparisons between modern culture and the one envisioned by Wells in The Time Machine.

Fourth Pairing: Scandinavia Is Perfect….Or Is It?!

Silhouette of a person standing in a white hall.The Unit
By:
Ninni Holmqvist
Fiction
Blurb:
In the Sweden of the near future women who reach the age of 50 and men who reach the age of 60 without having successfully acquired a partner or had children are deemed “dispensable” and sent to live in “a unit.”  These units appear at first glance to be like a high-class retirement home, and indeed they have all the amenities.  The residents, however, are required both to participate in medical experiments and to donate various organs and body parts up until their “final donation” of their heart anywhere from a year or a few years after their arrival in the unit.  Dorrit arrives at the unit depressed, but accepting of her fate as the result of her independent nature, but when she falls in love, she starts to question everything.

fixedcoverThe Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia
By:
Michael Booth
Nonfiction
Blurb:
The whole world wants to learn the secrets of Nordic exceptionalism: why are the Danes the happiest people in the world, despite having the highest taxes? If the Finns really have the best education system, how come they still think all Swedish men are gay? Are the Icelanders really feral? How are the Norwegians spending their fantastical oil wealth? And why do all of them hate the Swedes?
Michael Booth has lived among the Scandinavians, on and off, for over ten years, perplexed by their many strange paradoxes and character traits and equally bemused by the unquestioning enthusiasm for all things Nordic that has engulfed the rest of the world, whether it be for their food, television, social systems or chunky knitwear.
In this timely book he leaves his adopted home of Denmark and embarks on a journey through all five of the Nordic countries to discover who these curious tribes are, the secrets of their success and, most intriguing of all, what they think of each other. Along the way a more nuanced, often darker picture emerges of a region plagued by taboos, characterised by suffocating parochialism and populated by extremists of various shades.
They may very well be almost nearly perfect, but it isn’t easy being Scandinavian.
Why this pairing?
The Unit is a unique dystopia in that it is set in Sweden and takes various aspects of Swedish culture to their dystopic extremes.  Since Scandinavia often comes across as idealistic, it was interesting to see a dystopia set there.  This nonfiction work takes a long tough look at Scandinavia and exposes the minuses (in addition to the pluses) of living there. 

That’s it for my pairings! I hope you all enjoyed them.  I know that I certainly found a few new books for my wishlist!

Book Review: Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire (Series, #1)

March 28, 2015 9 comments

Book Review: Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire (Series, #1)Summary:
October (Toby) Daye is a changeling — she’s half fae and half human.  Half Daoine Sidhe to be exact.  She has just enough fae features to not fit into the human world, but her magic is just weak enough to keep her from fitting into fae either. Toby was splitting the difference quite well, serving her fae liege as a private detective and living a semi-normal human life with her human husband.  But when a bad fae turns her into a fish on a mission for her liege, and it takes fourteen years to be turned back, everything changes.  Toby loses her family and her desires to have any ties to the fae world, but the fae world won’t let her be for long.  A high-ranking fae who was also her friend turns up dead, killed by iron, and a curse means that Toby must investigate.

Review:
Interestingly enough, one of the later books in this series was recommended to me by an automatic readalike generator (whose name I know forget) as a readalike for Fudoki (review) a book set in historic Japan about a cat turned into a woman warrior.  I was intrigued by the series, although I wasn’t certain of the connection to Fudoki, and so I put the first book on my wishlist.  My future mother-in-law was kind enough to gift it to me during the height of my cabin fever during Boston’s historic winter this year.  This book hits all the right tones for urban fantasy: a strong yet wounded heroine, a complex mystical world operating parallel to and sometimes overlapping with our own, a single book mystery for the heroine to figure out, and an overarching mystery that leaves the reader wanting to come back for more.

The book takes a little bit to get set up.  There’s a flashback to before Toby was a fish then the book pops quickly forward to the (near) present when Toby escapes being a fish.  It at first struck me as a bit of an odd beginning, but by the end of the book I was loving it.  The fact that Toby has a 14 year gap means that there are elements about her world she has to learn or relearn, meaning when key parts of information need to be told to the reader, it comes across as natural that Toby will need to learn about it or remember it.  She did have those 14 years away, after all.  It’s a plot-telling device, but it’s smart.  It also isn’t forgotten when it comes to Toby’s character.  The fact that she lost her family and all those years deeply impact her psyche, and that’s as it should be.  It helps automatically make her a more well-rounded character.

Halfings are common in urban fantasy, but the ones in this universe are particularly well-done, mostly because there’s just so many of them.  Toby isn’t an anomaly, halflings are a constant, persistent problem for the fae to have to deal with.  They don’t quite fit into fae, but they also can’t just banish them for the humans to deal with.  The humans don’t even know they exist, in fact, most humans who do mate with fae never even know that they did.  While some fae are open to and embrace the halflings, others are not.  Similarly, some halflings will give anything to just fit into fae or into the human world, while others are comfortable living partly in each.  The fact that there are so many halflings allows for a lot of diversity and keeps Toby from looking like a marked heroine.  She is just one of many, dealing as she can.  I appreciate the everywoman aspect this lends her.

Toby is also extremely likeable.  She’s down-to-earth and matter-of-fact about everything.  She has many quotes that sound like an average person talking but contain a kernel of wisdom.  She’s a humble smart woman who maybe doesn’t realize just how much savvy she does have.

That’s the true value in wards; not keeping things out, but telling you if something’s managed to get in. (loc 537)

It can’t all be dreams because a broken dream will kill you as surely as a nightmare will, and with a lot less mercy. At least the nightmares don’t smile while they take you down. (loc 2428)

The fae world is incredibly complex and yet makes a lot of sense.  There are many different types of fae, and they are smoothly introduced.  My personal favorite are the Caid Sidhe.  They are surely the reason this book was recommended due to my loving Fudoki.  The Caid Sidhe are fae who shapeshift into cats, and even in bipedal form have some cat-like features and abilities.  The king of the cats has a bit of a love/hate relationship with Toby that is fun to see.  But also, fae cats.  How is that not fun?  Realistically, though, I wouldn’t have loved seeing the Caid Sidhe so much if there hadn’t been such a variety of fae.  It’s a richly imagined world that is really fun to visit.

The mystery is good, with Toby investigating a murder.  There were plenty of plot-twists, although I did guess the responsible party far in advance of the ending, which was a bit of a bummer.  I also must say that I’m not really a fan of heroines getting wounded within an inch of their life only to be saved by magic repeatedly.  It removes some of the sense of danger for me.  I did appreciate that for once there was an urban fantasy heroine who was never threatened with rape.  That was a nice change of pace.  I’ll take forcibly changed into a fish over that any day.

Overall, this book sets up the incredibly complex fae world of the series, as well as establishes the heroine’s character and background quite well.  Readers will easily fall into the incredibly imaginative world that Toby partially lives in that runs parallel to and sometimes hand-in-hand with our own.  Some readers may find the mystery a bit predictable, but this is an excellent first entry in an urban fantasy series that will leave the reader eager to pick up the next and go back to this rich world as soon as possible.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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2014’s 5 Star Reads!

January 8, 2015 1 comment

Since 2011, I’ve been dedicating a separate post from my annual reading stats post to the 5 star reads of the year.  I not only thoroughly enjoy assembling the 5 star reads posts, but I also go back to them for reference periodically.  It’s just useful and fun simultaneously!  Plus it has the added bonus of giving an extra signal boost to the five star reads of the year.  You may view the 5 star reads for 2011, 2012, and 2013 by clicking on the years.

With no further ado, presenting Opinions of a Wolf’s 5 Star Reads for 2014!

A bone hand holds chopsticks.
A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts

By: Ying Chang Compestine
Publication Date: 2009
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Genre: Horror, Short Story Collection
Themes: Chinese history, food
Summary:
According to Chinese tradition, those who die hungry or wrongfully come back to haunt the living.  Compestine presents here eight different ghost stories, each correlated along with a course in a banquet and richly steeped in Chinese culture and history.
Current Thoughts:
A cute book that I think of fondly.  I really need to make at least one of the recipes in this book!  This short story collection is presented in just the way that I most enjoy.  Different stories surrounding one unifying theme.  Plus, I learned something.
Full Review

A Japanese warrior woman's face has the shadow of cat ears behind her. The book's title and author name are over this picture.
Fudoki

By: Kij Johnson
Publication Date: 2003
Publisher: Tor
Genre: Fantasy
Themes: the meaning of family, identity, duty
Summary:
An aging empress decides to fill her empty notebooks before she must get rid of them along with all of her belongings to retire to the convent, as is expected of her.  She ends up telling the story of Kagaya-hime, a tortoiseshell cat who loses her cat family in a fire and is turned into a woman by the kami, the god of the road.
Current Thoughts:
Warrior woman who was once a cat. Set in ancient Japan. What is not to love about that? My only regret is I waited so long to read this book.  It languished on my TBR pile for far too long.
Full Review

A woman's hair is barely visible on the left-hand side of a book cover. The book's title and author are in red against a black background.
Gone Girl

By: Gillian Flynn
Publication Date: 2012
Publisher: Broadway Books
Genre: Thriller, Contemporary
Themes: be careful who you marry, not everything is as it first appears
Summary:
On Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary, Nick comes home from working at the bar he co-owns with his sister to find his wife gone. The door is wide open, furniture is overturned, and the police say there is evidence that blood was cleaned up from the floor of the kitchen.  Eyes slowly start to turn toward Nick as the cause of her disappearance, while Nick slowly starts to wonder just how well he really knows his wife.
Current Thoughts:
It’s hard to give thoughts without revealing spoilers so let me just say that I still love the twist in this book, and I found the writing style to be perfect for a thriller.  It’s a book that really curled my toes, and I’m glad it exists and has become so popular, and I’m looking forward to reading more Gillian Flynn this year.
Full Review

Woman in short wedding dress and black boots holds a sword. A dog in a bow tie is nearby.
My Big Fat Demon Slayer Wedding

By: Angie Fox
Publication Date: 2013
Publisher: Indie, Self-Published
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Themes: weddings are hell but lifetime partnership is amazing
Summary:
Lizzie Brown, once preschool teacher turned demon slayer, is extremely excited to be marrying her true love, Dimitri Kallinikos, who just so happens to also be a magical shape-changing griffin.  And she’s also fine with letting her adoptive mother run the whole show, even though her mother wants to make the wedding into a week-long event.  She’s not so ok with having to tell her mother about being a demon slayer, though. Or about integrating her mother’s posh southern lady lifestyle with her recently discovered blood-related grandmother’s biker witch gang.  She’s pleasantly surprised that her mother found a goth-style mansion to rent for the wedding.  Maybe the magical and the non-magical can integrate fairly well, after all.  But then it becomes evident that someone in the wedding is trying to kill her.  Plus, they find demonic images around the property….
Current Thoughts:
I read this right after I got engaged, so I was in just the right frame of mind for an urban fantasy featuring a wedding.  But even if I hadn’t just gotten engaged before reading it, I still would have loved it.  This book knocks it out of the park with everything that makes urban fantasy delightful.  A normal event kicked up a notch by fantastical characters and happenings.  It also communicates the odd combination of the horror that is wedding planning and the pure joy that is finding your lifelong partner.  Plus it’s hilarious and romantic.
Full Review

A woman's jawline and neck are viewed through a shattered glass.
Still Missing

By: Chevy Stevens
Publication Date: 2010
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Genre: Thriller, Contemporary
Themes:  be careful who you trust, hope and healing
Summary:
Annie O’Sullivan extremely forcefully declares in her first therapy session that she doesn’t want her therapist to talk back to her; she just wants her to listen.  And so, through multiple sessions, she slowly finds a safe space to recount her horrible abduction from an open house she was running as an up-and-rising realtor, her year spent as the prisoner of her abductor, and of her struggles both to deal with her PTSD now that she’s free again and to deal with the investigation into her abduction.
Current Thoughts:
This book features a realistic depiction of PTSD plus it scared the pants off of me.  Still does if I think about it too much.
Full Review

A sunset near tropical trees and a mountain range
A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown

By: Julia Scheeres
Publication Date: 2011
Publisher: Free Press
Genre: Nonfiction – History
Themes: understanding a tragedy, when spirituality goes awry
Summary:
On November 18, 1978, 918 people, mostly Americans, died on a commune named Jonestown and on a nearby airstrip in Guyana.  The world came to know this event as that time that crazy cult committed mass suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid.  However, that belief is full of inaccuracies.  Scheeres traces the origins of Jonestown, starting with its leader, Jim Jones, and his Christian church in Indiana, tracing its development into the People’s Temple in California, and then into Jonestown in Guyana.  Multiple members’ life stories are traced as well, including information from their family members who, perplexed, watched their families give everything over to Jones.
Current Thoughts:
I am so glad I read this.  I feel so much more informed and knowledgeable about Jonestown.  It’s sad to me that the cultural myth of Jonestown is so different from what actually happened, particularly with regards to the mass suicide, when in many cases it was murder not suicide. This book presents an event that would be easy to brush off as “those people were just crazy” in a way that humanizes it and makes it more real.
Full Review

Book Review: Fudoki by Kij Johnson (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

September 10, 2014 6 comments

A Japanese warrior woman's face has the shadow of cat ears behind her. The book's title and author name are over this picture. Summary:
An aging empress decides to fill her empty notebooks before she must get rid of them along with all of her belongings to retire to the convent, as is expected of her.  She ends up telling the story of Kagaya-hime, a tortoiseshell cat who loses her cat family in a fire and is turned into a woman by the kami, the god of the road.

Review:
I’m not usually big into fantasy, particularly not ones involving court life, but I am a real sucker for any story involving cats, especially if that cat is a tortoiseshell, since I’m the proud kitty mommy of a talkative tortie.  This book didn’t just not disappoint me, it blew me away with two side-by-side, related by different, thoughtful tales.

I had no idea when I picked up the book that the empress would figure into the story quite so much.  At first I was a bit irritated that she was a) getting 40% to 50% of the storytime and b) rambling off from one thought to another like elderly people tend to do.  But I stayed patient, and I learned that there was more to the empress than met the eye and also that the two stories were actually informing each other.  Kagaya-hime’s story shows everything the empress had secretly wished for her whole life, and the empress’s life translated into how Kagaya-hime felt trapped in her human body.  It’s artfully done in a subtle way, which is part of what makes it so beautiful.

Kagaya-hime goes from a sad lost kitty with burned paws to a warrior woman, allowed along on a quest for revenge by a moderately elite rural family.  She is able to earn respect from the men as a warrior because as a cat she sees no reason not to hunt or defend herself.  She is a woman but no one ever took her claws away (though they may be arrows and knives now, instead of claws).  Thinking of her is empowering to the empress, who always had an interest in war and politics but was forced to remain literally behind screens in gorgeous gowns that are hard to move in.  It’s interesting to note that while the empress may be jealous of Kagaya-hime’s ability to do what she wants and defend herself, Kagaya-hime herself is unhappy because she simply wishes to be a cat again.  It is the conclusion to Kagaya-hime’s story that allows the empress to see a conclusion to her own story (her life) that will ultimately make her feel fulfilled.

The details of ancient Japan were clearly meticulously researched.  Johnson smoothly writes about the outfits, land, and battles as if she was there for them herself.  The information never comes through as an info dump but instead is something that simply is, that the reader learns about naturally just by venturing into Kagaya-hime and the empress’ world.  This is what knowing your history inside and out before starting writing does for historic fiction.  It makes history come to life.

Overall, this is a stunning piece of historic fiction the reading of which feels like slowly sipping a well-made matcha latte.  Fans of historic fiction of all sorts will be engaged, those that love cats will be enthralled, and those with an interest in women’s history will be enamored and touched by how much things change and yet still stay the same for women.  Recommended to all who think they might even possibly be interested in a piece of historic fiction set in Japan featuring an aging empress and a shape-changing cat.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

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