Teaser Tuesdays: Publishing by Gail Godwin

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

publishing

The plentifully published Gail Godwin looks back on her career in Publishing. She is charming and humorous as well as moving; and I think these lines begin to express that.

“What kind of editor would you like to work with?” was Robert Gottlieb’s first question to me in his office, and I replied rather pompously, “Well, it will have to be someone who appreciates great literature,” then burst into sobs.

and several paragraphs later,

…on that late 1970 December day, he waited out my sobs and then said kindly, in response to my Great Literature stipulation, “Well, Gail, I’m afraid that’s going to be me.”

Lest you think her, well, obnoxiously pompous, I assure you she had reasons to be crying that day. And this description of these events is, I think, sweetly funny. I do recommend her.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Maximum Shelf: Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on November 25, 2014.


wolf winter
“It’s the kind of winter that will remind us we are mortal. Mortal and alone.”

In 1717, the Swedish Laplands are home to indigenous nomadic Laplanders and a mere sprinkling of Christian settlers. A new family has just arrived, fleeing an enigmatic unpleasantness in their native Finland, to take over a vacant homestead on the shoulder of beautiful but harsh Blackåsen Mountain. Frederika is 14, Dorotea six; their mother, Maija, is strong and resourceful, while their father, Paavo, is so crippled by vaguely defined fears that he seems to disappear even in the ever-present light of summer. In the opening pages of Cecilia Ekbäck’s debut novel, Wolf Winter, the girls discover a dead body on the mountain: a man, with his torso torn open. Maija rushes to the scene and is told by other settlers he was killed by wolves, or a bear. But the cut is long and clean, nothing has fed upon the corpse, and she wonders. She picks up a small item off the ground nearby.

The settlers do not live close to one another; it requires a purposeful hike to visit with a neighbor. Nonetheless, there is a priest in the village–a place generally vacant, where the settlers gather for Christmas and several weeks after, as required by the King–under whose purview a murder might fall. Just as Maija feels compelled to investigate the death of a man she never knew, the priest has his own orders, and his own secrets as well.

In the autumn, as the days in this far northern land shorten, Paavo leaves to find work far away. Maija capably runs her remaining household, and frustrates her neighbors, who feel that a woman should not speak at meetings. Frederika is haunted by the dead man she and her sister found. She begins to discover certain strengths, or powers, taught by her great-grandmother. Is she being haunted, or is she calling the dead? Frederika seeks guidance from the Laplanders, who used to commune with the spirits, but they have been (nominally) converted to Christianity by the Swedish king. And the priest remains a figure of mystery: Why investigate the death on Blackåsen Mountain? What is he hiding? While always told in third person, the perspective shifts subtly, between that of Maija, Frederika and the priest.

As winter falls, there is a palpable feeling of danger on the mountain and in the scattered, tenuous community. Paavo does not write home, the cold intensifies, food is scarce. Maija feels a continuing urge to solve the mystery of the murdered man on Blackåsen, which makes her no friends, and the priest clearly has motives of his own. War looms in the background, frostbite in the foreground. Maija cannot be sure which of the Swedish settlers she might be able to trust; each time she turns to a new acquaintance, she receives a cold shoulder or an alarming intuition. Even her daughter Frederika feels unreachably distant in their tiny, draughty house. Both Frederika and Maija attempt alliances with the nomadic Laplanders who move through their lives, but each gets less than she’d hoped. And Dorotea, seemingly too small to engage in adult machinations, is in danger from the obvious as well as the most surprising and sinister of threats.

Wolf Winter‘s scope is enormous. Maija struggles to keep her family afloat; struggles for autonomy and reason in a community ruled by secrets, fear and corruption; and seeks a voice as a woman in her own fate. Several levels of organization push and pull against one another: the household, the loose network of homesteads, the village which is only inhabited in darkest winter, the church and state, the King’s decrees and the wars he engages in–all will eventually supply tension in a story set on a sparsely populated and apparently cursed mountain.

Ekbäck imbues her tale with a sense of foreboding from the very start, and her austere writing matches the landscape: occasionally colorful but often in muted shades of gray, stark, cold and unforgiving. The range of topics touched upon–women’s place in society, isolation and community, political corruption, family, the power of superstition and fear–is daunting, but Ekbäck never attempts too much. Instead, the questions her characters ask themselves do the work of the novel’s examinations. Frederika struggles with her ability to see things that others do not; Maija resists such a possibility, to keep a grip on her family’s survival; and the priest strains to maintain the appearance of well-being.

The strengths of Wolf Winter clearly begin in its atmosphere, masterfully chilling with its literal weather–particularly a deadly snowstorm–as well as the isolation and withdrawal practiced by almost every character. Ekbäck’s pacing is expert as well, tension building as the snow rises and the settlers gather together. The characters’ secrets are many, and are revealed slowly throughout, up to the final pages. Even the characters more sparingly described are engaging; the central characters are deeply, thoroughly captivating. In the end, multiple faceted mysteries add to the allure of a debut novel that is both frigidly unnerving and wise, and ultimately satisfying in its resolution.


Rating: 7 toes.

Come back Wednesday for my interview with Ekbäck.

book beginnings on Friday: Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

wolf winter

Wolf Winter is set in northern Sweden in the 1700’s – a heck of a dramatic setting, and as potentially chilling as its title suggests. It begins:

“But how far is it?”

Frederika wanted to scream. Dorotea was slowing them down. She dragged behind her the branch she ought to be using as a whip, and Frederika had to work twice as hard to keep the goats moving.

Tamely enough, I’d say. But I bet it ramps up…

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Sex on Earth: A Celebration of Animal Reproduction by Jules Howard

The sexual habits and workings of the animal kingdom described in decidedly entertaining fashion.

sex
Jules Howard is a well-established zoologist, but you wouldn’t know it from the self-deprecatingly droll tone he takes in his first book, Sex on Earth: A Celebration of Animal Reproduction. The subtitle is slightly misleading; far beyond simple reproduction, Howard is intrigued by sex in all its forms and purposes. Inspired by captive pandas saddled with a reputation for sexual failure (unfairly, he thinks), he pursues diverse and myriad questions. He is specifically interested in getting beyond issues of who has the largest penis (the blue whale, if you must know) or exhibits the most outrageous behaviors–matters he finds, frankly, slightly pornographic–and instead examining the everyday as well as the eccentric. The heartwarming monogamous habits of the jackdaw, the incredible asexual abilities of the rotifer, homosexuality in penguins and iguana masturbation are just the beginning. And while the outlandish is indeed presented, Sex on Earth likewise narrates basic mechanics and relates them to evolution and animal life in the face of human impact.

Howard approaches his many expert consultants with a wide-eyed respect bordering on awe, and this is just one of the charming personality quirks that win his readers’ hearts. A comic (and overwhelmingly British) tone borders on the silly, but Howard’s science is solid and the overall effect is positively winning. In Howard’s capable hands, the sex habits of diverse creatures such as dinosaurs, hedgehogs and caddisflies are engrossing (not gross), and the language is accessible. His debut achieves a fine balance to which all popular-science writing should aspire.


This review originally ran in the November 25, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 9 macaques.

The Dark Tower by Stephen King

Just to review the Dark Tower series:

The Gunslinger (I)

The Drawing of the Three (II)

The Waste Lands (III)

Wizard and Glass (IV)

The Wind Through the Keyhole, written last but fitting between books IV and V

Wolves of the Calla (V)

Song of Susannah (VI)

And here we are with book VII, The Dark Tower.


dark towerHow to even begin? Everything that was wonderful about the first six (or seven) books of this series was at least as wonderful in this, the final installment. I love our characters – and you’ll recall that I love them best when they’re all together, which they are for the most part in this book (meaning, when they split up, they reunite in a fairly speedy manner). (The thing I am perhaps happiest about in this book is that the ka-tet reunites to work as a unit once more. That was what I found most frustrating about Susannah’s Song in particular.) I love the excitement – the many challenges, with the almost assurance that they’ll make it through, right? Because ka-tet? But then again, this is the last book… I love the suspense, and I very much love Stephen King’s prodigious, just about unbelievable imagination – where does he get this stuff? I love that even the minor characters (hello, Irene Tassenbaum) or most short-lived of locations are fully explicated, fully detailed, perfectly real – you can imagine King expanding any one of those vignettes, no matter how minor, into a full-length novel of its own, because that’s how well thought-out they are.

I feel that I need to skip the plot synopsis entirely on this one. It wraps up the series, so you know it’s denouement – nearly 850 pages of denouement, so quite a bit of action & adventure of the BEST kind prior to that wrap-up, but still. I can’t tell you what happens. If you’re that interested, I challenge you to read the whole book after reading the whole series. You won’t regret it.

There is heartbreak. But in brief response to King’s Author’s Note, in which he predicts some reader unhappiness: no, I respect this ending. I am not angry. I’m miserable that it’s over, of course. But there is a beautiful resonance to the way it all ended. Almost makes me want to …go back and start it all over again.

I am deeply amused by the extent to which King plays a role in this one. He had appeared before (I call it self-referential, he calls it metafiction; which of course it is, but I share his negative feelings about that term), but was a major player in this book, to my endless entertainment. Arrogant? Maybe a little, but I’ve bought fully into the idea that Stephen King is a master, so why not play with it? And, regarding my misery that this series is over, the fact that ALL King’s books are interconnected or woven around the Dark Tower, just means that there is more (tenuously related) to read on the subject.

The references are not limited to Stephen King as person or Stephen King’s other books, either; see Harry Potter as well as the Lord of the Rings as well as Homer as well as… pop culture, life, what you will. One of the most fun things about this series is that sense of metaconnection. It’s written into the plot – “there are other worlds than these” – and so it only makes sense.

I love the plot lines for their detail, intricacy, realism, imagination, and enormous world-building power; I love the characters; and I love the masterful way King structures every level of his stories, from dialog all the way out to a 7-(or-8)-book series arc. I am mad for this stuff.


Rating: for the sake of your father, 10 turtles, may it do ya!

This is the first book in the series to have gotten a 10; but call it a 10 for the series as a whole, to boot. Thank you, SK. Keep writing, and watch out for minivans so you can keep writing for a long while yet. Thankee sai.

Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found by Frances Larson

Strong-stomached readers will enjoy this accessibly written cultural anthropology of severed heads.

severed

The human head is remarkable. Not only does it boast receptors for each of the five senses and house the brain–the command center for the body–but it also displays the face, which (for better or worse) defines our identities to the outer world. In Severed, anthropologist Frances Larson (An Infinity of Things) examines a dark side of the human head–specifically, its separation from (and attempted reattachment to) the human body in myriad ways and with different purposes, intentions and results.

The Western world has balked at shrunken heads, trophy heads, headhunting and wartime brutalities, but still maintained a macabre enthusiasm for collecting these specimens, which, ironically, led to an increase in the practices. In Europe, beheadings for criminal and political offenses led to the development of the guillotine during the French Revolution. Despite its gore, this machine was heralded for its efficiency and arguably humane approach relative to other execution methods. Detached heads have served as religious and secular relics; scientific or pseudo-scientific tools; artists’ inspiration; soldiers’ souvenirs; and objects of ritual and political symbolism. In fact, much of Larson’s study considers the interplay between the head as part of an individual and head as object: it is necessary to objectify in order to decapitate or dissect. An overarching concern is whether the head alone holds the essence of each of us. The question remains unanswered, even as Larson investigates cryonic suspension of severed heads and head transplants (or as their practitioners prefer, “body transplants”) in one of her most intriguing and memorable chapters.

Larson’s examinations of the head’s place throughout history and the present are endlessly fascinating. Her writing is never gratuitously gruesome, but necessarily deals in grisly detail. (In addition to the myriad lessons within these pages, readers may well learn the threshold at which they become disturbed by such subject matter.) Severed explores the head in idiom, in its “linguistic ubiquity,” and as a tool for justifying racism: one major collector of skulls and related data rounded average skull size up for Germans and Anglo-Saxons, but down for “Negroid” Egyptians.

In this thoughtful survey of decapitated heads and their implications in history and across cultures, Larson is sensitive and thorough, allowing occasional humor while giving her subject the respect it deserves, offering entertainment alongside a truly engrossing educational experience. For readers of science, history, culture, anthropology and generally quirky nonfiction, Severed will be thought-provoking and unforgettable.


This review originally ran in the November 18, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 measurement tools.

The Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies, as rediscovered by Brooke Williams and Terry Tempest Williams

An exceptional meditation on nature and “soul-life,” republished after many years out of print and contextualized for modern minds.

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In a dusty Maine bookstore, writer Terry Tempest Williams (When Women Were Birds) and her husband, Brooke Williams, picked up an unfamiliar book that they quickly came to love: The Story of My Heart by English naturalist Richard Jefferies, originally published in 1883. As Brooke writes, “classic works of literature need to be rediscovered and reinterpreted every age for their clues to contemporary issues.” This new edition of Jefferies’s autobiography includes an introduction by Terry and Brooke’s commentary following each chapter.

Don’t be fooled by its small size. This is a book to be taken slowly and savored, because all three of its wise and pensive authors demand and deserve careful consideration. Here is Walden, but more mystical, and with no room to criticize the author for returning to wealthy drawing rooms between his stays in the woods. Jefferies has been characterized as a nature writer and a mystic; in Brooke’s words, “Jefferies writes less specifically about the natural world surrounding him, but in great detail the path his mind takes through that original world.” The Story of My Heart is a philosophical, wondering and wandering, musing, personal ode to the natural world and human potential. The Williamses make his contemplations relevant by analysis–for example, applying the context of climate change–but also explore a more intimate connection, as Brooke ponders the nature of his obsession with this book.

Both literal and spiritually minded readers can appreciate this remarkable collaboration through the counterpoint of Brooke’s responses to each chapter and the timeless thoughts in the original work.


This review originally ran in the November 18, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 9 leaves of thyme.
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