Summer Reading: Pairs Event

In which I pair three books read this summer with three books read before this summer that have similar themes but are in some way opposite. It’s a scientific process, people.


IMG_4256Summer Reading: The Gracekeepers,* by Kirsty Logan, takes place in a watery future world (I haven’t seen Waterworld, so I can’t tell you how it compares. Sorry about that). All land is inhabited by landlockers, who jealously guard their island holdings; some of them have returned to earth worship. Everyone else lives at sea. These damplings include scavengers, revivalists who live on converted cruise ships (no pun intended there), messengers, and the crew of the Excalibur, a tiny floating circus. North is the circus’s bear girl, who, like her parents before her, dances with a bear to entertain landlockers in the hope of earning dinner. One night a storm sends the circus crew into the path of Callanish, a gracekeeper—a person in charge of arranging damplings’ burials at sea. North and Callanish exchange secrets and part ways, but they can’t stop wondering about each other, and about the possibility that there’s a way to be of both the land and the sea.

The main characters aren’t as fleshed out as I would have liked, but The Gracekeepers is worth picking up for the atmosphere, the world-building, and the supporting characters.

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Pair it with: Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water,* another novel set in the future after some kind of environmental disaster—though this time, one that causes a scarcity of water. Memory of Water also features a pair of young women trying to make the best of a dangerous existence while hiding secrets.

IMG_3428Summer Reading: Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country is a hilarious tour through Australia. He talks to almost invariably friendly Australians, gets quite drunk and draws naughty cartoons on a napkin, lists the continent’s unrelentingly deadly wildlife, and doesn’t see too many kangaroos, among other exploits. I can’t say the book makes me want to visit Australia—though Mr. Bryson enthusiastically hopes that you will—but it definitely made me want to visit with Bill Bryson. The book’s one drawback: Mr. Bryson’s failure to write significantly or at any length about Australia’s Aboriginal population; as far as I could tell, he did not speak with a single Aboriginal person.

Still, if you’re one of the people who’s just discovering Mr. Bryson thanks to the press surrounding the upcoming movie version of A Walk in the Woods (which I highly recommend), I recommend reading this one.

photo 3Pair it with: A very different take on Australia, by an Australian. Christos Tsiolkas’s Barracuda* is a book with teeth, and a lot more anger than laughs. As I wrote in my review, “Danny is an teenage Australian swimmer who dreams of making it to the Olympics; thankfully, there’s no swelling inspirational music in this tightly-plotted, intricately structured novel.”

FullSizeRenderSummer Reading: Mark Forsyth’s The Etymologicon is a circular perambulation through the odd origins of English words. You could pick up the book, flip to any page, and have yourself a laugh reading any entry, but each entry connects in some way to its predecessor and successor, so I think it’d be more entertaining to read it start to (sort of) finish. Mr. Forsyth is the man behind the popular blog The Inky Fool, and The Etymologicon draws heavily from the blog’s content. Though it’s erudite and full of arcane trivia (Starbucks gets its name from the Pequod‘s first mate, whose name was drawn from a prominent whaling family, but the name itself came from a Viking word for an English stream. Really.), but also surprisingly snarky and scatological. Highly entertaining. But what else would you expect from an author whose biography begins, “Mark Forysth is a writer, journalist, proofreader, ghostwriter, and pedant”?

photo (34)Pair it with:  Erin Moore’s That’s Not English,* which I called “a beach read for nerds” in my review. Like The Etymologicon, it’s a funny read about words, but it’s less about etymology than it is about culture.

What bookish pairings have you found this summer, Dear Readers?

*I received a copy of these books from the publishers for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my reviews.

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Recommended Reading: Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water

photo (107)If you’re looking for a thoughtful, surprising dystopian novel that will make you see your preferred summer body of water — ocean, lake, swimming pool — in a whole new light, look no further than Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water*.

Ms. Itäranta, who is Finnish and lives in England, wrote the novel in both Finnish and English (the translation of the novel’s Finnish title is The Tea Master’s Book), and readers will find both a Scandinavian setting (albeit much different from today’s region) and lyrical prose, setting Memory of Water apart from what has now become rather standard dystopian fare.

What also sets the novel apart is Ms. Itäranta’s use of conventional dystopian tropes — a world changed after environmental disaster, an authoritarian government wielding violent power, scarcity of basic resources — without following standard plot-lines. Noria Kaito lives in a far-flung village of the Scandinavian Union, which is ruled by New Qian. Her mother is a scientist, and her father is a tea master, performing the traditional tea ceremony that has been handed down for generations; Noria is his apprentice. One day, her father shows her a dangerous secret: a hidden spring that only the tea master’s family knows about. With fresh water scarce — the rest of the village drinks desalinated seawater — this knowledge is illegal, and before long, a commander from New Qian arrives in town, suspecting the tea master’s secret.

When her father dies, Noria becomes the tea master — unprecedented, since she is a woman — and must decide what to do with her knowledge. At the same time, she’s navigating her friendship with Sanja and exploring old technology that they found together in the “plastic grave” near the town, technology that leads the pair to yet another dangerous secret. The military’s hold on the town becomes more brutal, and Noria is faced with extremely difficult choices about what’s best for her, for Sanja, for their village, for the world.

I loved Memory of Water for its musicality, its lyric attention to water, its innate feminism, its conjuring of a world very different from our own, but shaped with its ghostly imprint. I loved Ms. Itäranta’s refusal to grant the reader a happy ending (reaching instead for realism) without diminishing the power of hope. Highly recommended reading.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which does not affect the content of my review.