Chris' Fish Place

Thoughts on things, mostly books.




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Nothing But the Night - John Edward Williams

This is one of the books that I know technically great, but just leaves me a bit cold. I think part of it is that the twist, if twist it is, wasn't that, well twistful. It would make a good book for discussion for some aspects of the story. But there was something about it that left me cold

Kindle Edition on sale this month

Thrall - Natasha Trethewey

If you like poetry, you should read Natasha Trethewey.  These poems are, on one hand, about her relationship to her father, and, on the other hand, the position that black people have been too often placed in by white people.


Thrall is an interesting word choice because it means being in someone's power.  There is the power that family holds over us.  There is the hold that the art that inspired some of these poems had on Trethewey.  There is the sense of ownership that white people have felt (or still feel in some cases) over black bodies.  It's all here.  Stark and beautiful.


I mean, look at this quote from "Taxonomy" -  a poem about the painting on the cover


Call it the taint -as in

T'aint one - and t'aint the other


Illicit an yet still naming still

what is between


(Loc 282)


It's a hard hitting use of word play.  You can see why she was US Poet Laureate. 



BTW - She is not dead.  The US Poet Laureate position is different than that of the UK.  It's only for Oct to May, poets can serve more than once.  Usually the Laureate, among other duties, picks a weekly poem for the NYT Sunday Magazine.


My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales - Neil Gaiman, Alissa Nutting, Carmen Giménez Smith, Naoko Awa, Lily Hoang, Hiromi Itō, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Kellie Wells, Michael Mejia, Lucy Corin, Jonathon Keats, Ilya Kaminsky, Rabih Alameddine, Karen Brennan, Katherine Vaz, Timothy Schaffert, Sarah Shun-lien Byn

t's interesting using this book in a class. The Swan stories are the most popular, and the quiet ones about relationships confuse people for some reason.  I liked "Warm-Mouth" far more on this re-read.

Old Review
There is a misnomer on the cover of this book. Some short stories in this volume have not been commissioned for the book. Several of them have appeared in various magazines and collections (some have appeared over a decade ago).

This is okay, for this is the first time that they are all collected together and I hadn't read any of them before.

The purpose of this collection in part, according to Bernheimer, is to present fairy tales as an acceptable source of literature, at least to present modern fairy tales as such. The succeds very well at this and several stories are truly descendents of the French Salon writers, Andersen, and the Grimms. Some of the stories don't work (at least for me) but several stories are absolutely, jaw dropping friggin (Can I say that?) wonderful. Even the stories that I didn't like (like "Warm Mouth" by Joyelle McSweeny) were at least worthy experiments in differenty styles. Each story has a brief afterword by the author and the table of contents gives the source tale for each story.

The two best stories (and it is a very close race, a photo finish, for several stories for this title) are John Updike's "Bluebeard in Ireland", a story about a marriage; and Katherine Vaz's "What the Conch Shell Sings When the Body is Gone", also a story about a relationship. In fact, many of the stories in this collection, as in many fairy tales, focus on relationships. Updike and Vaz's short fiction are really descendents of such older as "Bluebeard" because like the older tales, they look at marriage and relationships in the modern world. The two stories are magical without having "magic" in them.

Many of the tales in the collection are not what most readers would call fantasy or horror (I brought this at Borders which had it in the horror section), but there is a good mixture of fantasy and magic realism. I heistate to use the word horror. In fact, the two most distrubing stories, "The Erlking" by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum and "With Hair of Hand-Spun Gold" by Neil LaBute, are distrubing because of thier out and out realism. "Dapplegrim" by Brain Evenson is the only true horror story, and considering the source, it shouldn't be surprising.

There is humor here as well. I didn't really enjoy Neil Gaiman's Fragile Things, but his "Orange" is really, really funny.

Overall, the collection fulfills the promise that is made in the introduction

Still free

Revolting Rhymers - Puffin Books

This kindle freebie are the poems that won and placed in a poetry contest for young children. The contest was to celebrate a new production of Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes.
For poetry by children under the age of 13, they are pretty good and properly gruesome. It’s nice to know that there are children out there who wonder about the BFG’s poo. Each poem includes a brief interview with the author – favorite Dahl work, favorite disgusting bit – things like that.

There is also a selection of poetry in Welsh. The poems are not translated but the interviews are.

Historical Novel

Lily's Story - Don Gutteridge

Disclaimer: I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads giveaway. Before the giveaway the book had been on TBR shelf.

I first read Gutteridge a few years when I brought an omnibus edition of his first three Marc Edwards mysteries. I enjoyed them, and next time I was in Canada, I tried to find more print copies of his work, but the only ones I found where the three I had already. It was a joy to win this in a giveaway and realize that I can at least buy his books on kindle.

Lily’s Story is one of those massive works of historical fiction that use the life of one person (or in some cases the history of one family) to trace major historical events. In Guttridge’s case he has used the character of Lily to take the reader from the 1850s to the 1920s. Lily starts life with her father and mother but circumstances soon led to her being raised by her aunt and uncle. She goes from frontier living to town living to shanty town living over the course of the book.

Gutteridge does an excellent job of bring time and place to light. You do feel as if you are watching Lily and her family and friends struggle though the changing times, and the development of the railroad, the worry of rebellion, and the excitement of a visit by the Prince of Wales. And if you are further interested in the historical events that surround Lily, Gutteridge includes a bibliography at the end of the novel.

Lily, herself, is likable enough, though at times she seems to be pushed by time and events instead of actively taking part in them. There are times when she feels more symbolic than actually character, which begs the question what is she a symbol of?

And here’s what really is the best part of the novel, if Lily is a symbol of anything, it is a symbol of those women of Canada who worked and toiled but never got the notice that the men did. In fact, this novel is really more about women than the men – Lily, her aunt, her friend Sophie, and others. Gutteridge might not write the best sex scenes in the world, but he is very aware of how history and society view and viewed women. The status of women is the focus, and perhaps in part that plays a part in the passive feel that Lily sometimes has – she had no real power. It really isn’t something I’ve seen outside of Mary O’Hara.

The other running theme is that of the outsider in terms of religion – Lily isn’t religious in the ways that others around her are, and this leads in complications in a small town. Gutteridge uses this to address the issue of sameness and belonging.

So this happened at work on Thursday

Me: Did anyone start a book?


Student A: Well, I picked up a book at home.  I started it.  It's crazy.


Me: What's it called?


Student:  I don't know.  The cover was ripped off.


Me: What about the back?


Student: That was ripped off.  I guess we don't like books in my house.


Me: So what's it about?


Student: Witches.  It was strange. They were doing witch stuff.


Me: Answers another student's question


Me: Was there a coven?


Student: Yes.


Me: Was one of the witches named Weatherwax.


Student: Yes!


Me: You're reading Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett


Class; Whoa, she really has read everything.


Me: and it will count as an extra credit assignment book.


Student: Awesome!

Out Now

None of the Above: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal, Corporate Greed, and Criminalization of Educators - Shani Robinson, Anna Simonton

Disclaimer: I received a copy via a giveaway on Librarything.

This book about the Atlanta school test cheating scandal is really two books in one body and as such is not as good a book as it could be.

Shani Robinson was a teacher at Dunbar Elementary in Atlanta. After she left the school, she was charged as one of the teachers who allegedly changed answers on standardized tests. Robinson plead not guilty, but sadly, lost in court. She is appealing. I hope she wins.

Part of the book, the first book struggling to get out as it were, is Robinson’s memoir of the trial. Not so much her experience schooling but of the trial and, to a degree, the events leading up to. Because this concedes with her major events in her personal life, the reader is treated to descriptions of these events. And while that might be interesting in a general life type of way, in a book about schools, or at least one where the title suggests schooling as a center topic, every time it comes up it feels like digression or it becomes so tempting to scream, “you shouldn’t be focusing on that”. So, it feels like a quasi-memoir with not enough depth to it. This is particularly true in the Teach for America section. Robinson is even handed when discussing the program, but one is also aware that Robinson herself, one could say, is also an embodiment of what is wrong with the program – she leaves teaching, true she goes into counseling, but she does leave teaching.

The second book struggling to get though is about the circumstances that cause the downfall of public schools. At first, it seems like the reason for why cheating might occur, but then shifts to become a tracing of forces determined to close down public schools and replace them with charter schools, as well to replace poorer and minority (largely African American) residents with richer, predominately white ones.

The problem with this thesis or focus isn’t that its wrong. It’s that in order to see the thesis, to believe in the thesis, it helps if you have read the work of say Diane Ravitch, Marta Nussbaum, and Richard Rothstein. Diane Ravitch for the whole bit about testing and charter schools, Nussbaum for the purpose of education, and Rothstein for redlining and other city development issues. And you can replace those with at least a dozen other books that cover the same material. It’s that the authors don’t footnote their source – they do – but the connections and developed are so crammed and cramped that some things must be accepted by faith, which is fine but you need the background to do that.

So, the book isn’t a full memoir but it isn’t a full societal analysis either. In fact, considering Robinson’s only three years teaching experience the look at the focus driving and pressuring the teachers seems facile. Not that I think she is wrong but one does wonder how an educator with more experience, of the women whom Robinson worked with say. It is so unclear, mostly because Robinson is not in a position to know, whether or not cheating actually occurred. At times too, bias comes out – Robinson’s view of the press is, understandably, negative but it does color parts of her memoir when she uses descriptions that verge on petty. This all contributes to a wanting more feel to the book.

It is like there are two books that could be really good, or one longer book, screaming to get out. And this is a shame because what Robinson and Simonton are dealing with and the conclusions, they reach are vitally important both in the terms of race and education. Robinson is one of the people who should be telling it, not only about education but about the justice system as well. We do need to think seriously about education and the place if any testing has in the educational system. We do need to examine how and if we should hold teachers accountable. We should examine how race is a factor in who is charge for a crime. You should read this book, but you are going to be wanting a bit more afterwards.

Yet, there is much promise in the writing, and hopefully there will be a second book to pick up the themes of this one.


Bloomsbury is having a 40% sale online.

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South - Radley Balko, Tucker Carrington

You will never look at science the same way after reading this book. Even if you know that the shows like C.S.I. are science fairy tales what Balko and Carrington chronicle isn't so much a miscarriage of justice but a deliberate hoodwinking by a group of men (the two in the title are the most important but hardly the only ones) who didn't give a damn about the truth because those accused were poor, or black or the forgotten or all three.

The book focuses on Mississippi and two men who were supposedly "science experts" were anything but. Because of a variety of factors - from judges and the public who don't know or are misinformed, too science groups that slap on wrists, to racism - lives were badly effected and harmed by these two men.

You will, as the book itself notes, want to throw it across the room. But it is an important read because it disabuses (with footnotes) several myths and images readers have about science and crime.

And makes a case for getting rid of elected coroners.

Growing up in the USSR

The Girl from the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia - Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Well, this does explain some of those wonderful stories that Petrushevskaya writes.

Petrushevskaya's memoir is about her early years - her family's fall from grace, her birth, her life during war time. She lived as a half feral child for several years. But like in her stories, her use of language is beautiful and her comments on life searing.

"We ate glue in secret because of the rumor that it was flavored with real cherries" (22) she writes describing how scare food was, especially for her family with members imprisoned under the regime. It is so bad that at night, she is sent to the garbage pail in the kitchen to take the leavings left by the other family. One night she sees two dolls left by the garbage - her own dolls and horse were nothing really (her horse was made out of cardboard). She stares rapt - "Now, I know what a doll means to a girl: It is her tame goddess" she writes just before she reveals she had to leave these two goddesses.

The memoir is like her short fiction - magical, powerful, shocking, provoking, and a wonder.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist - Mohsin Hamid

Set as a monologue given by Changez to a man he meets in Lahore – a man who may or may not be a spy – The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a book that not only examines a Pakistani man who is in America during 9-11 but also the question of the reliable or unreliable narrator.


Changez’s story details his, perhaps, buying into the American dream or idea, his love for a typical, cliched American beauty, and his reaction to the terrorist attack 9-11.

The question is whether or not he is telling the truth. There is his name, there is the reference to Sleepy Hollow – which we must never forget is a story about a prank.
It’s a tricky novella.

Out in April - Pre-order away

Charged: the New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration - Emily Bazelon

Disclaimer: ARC via the publisher and Netgalley.

The last time I did my civic duty of jury duty it was either the day after or day that Larry Krasner fired several lawyers for the DA’s office. It was an interesting day. I’m not sure why they didn’t just cancel us coming in.

I tell you this so you know that I live in one of the cities that Bazelon writes about in her new book.

According to the studies that Bazelon cites in her book, most Americans agree that the justice system needs to be reformed and that in many cases the penalties are too harsh. True, there are some people, like one of my co-workers, who believe people like Krasner haven’t been victims of crime so they don’t care about punishment. But as someone who has lived in a city with harsh penalties, they don’t seem to work that well.

Bazelon makes an excellent and good case as to why this is as well as detailing how the country got to this point. Her book follows two people who are caught in justice in different parts of the country. There is Noura who is accused of murdering her mother, and Keith who is charged with an illegally holding a gun. Noura is white, from Memphis, and her family, well not rich, is not poor. Keith is from NYC, black, and his family is struggling finically. Both are close in age – not having graduated high school when the book opens. Both are basically innocent.

In some ways, Keith is a little luckier because NYC has/had programs that could help him and the idea of punishment was changing. This is not to say that his race, economic background, and neighborhood did not play a role in his charge and his subsequent interaction with police and the system. It is though Keith that Bazelon illustrates the cost to the average person when it comes to the justice system. It isn’t just the charge, but the time that is put on hold, the missed wages, the struggle to move forward on a good path when everything seems to be or is out to get you. Chances are that if you live in a big urban area, you know someone like Keith.

Noura’s case is different and illustrates what happens when a prosecutor doesn’t play by the rules and abuses power. (Noura’s case was also first reported on Bazelon for the New York Times). She is charged and eventually found guilty of murdering her mother. She spends years in jail. You might not know someone like Noura, but Noura’s case also illustrates how power can be horribly abused, and her friendships in prison illustrate, as Noura herself points out, that she is hardly alone in suffering a miscarriage of justice; she just has the benefit of being white.

What is also important is that the long-lasting effects of being charged are shown. It isn’t just the time and money that is loss, but the emotional and mental damage as well. Bazelon does directly tackle how race plays into what happens. The stories of Keith and Noura also lead to discussions with DA’s, defense lawyers, judges, and activists, some good, some bad – some pushing for change, some frustrated because their hands are tied. The book isn’t anti cop or anti-justice – it is pro-humanity.

Reading this right after finishing The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist is enough to make you want to go around smacking people. Thankfully, Bazelon includes a step by step proposal for reforming the justice system, including what people who read her book can do. Not only is the planned sketched out but she also provides cited examples of each step working

Highly recommended.

Antisemitism: Here and Now - Deborah E. Lipstadt

This morning in the New York Times, there was a full-page aid thanking Trump for having appointed a person to “monitor and combat anti-semitism”.

Yeah, that was my reaction too.

Considering Trump’s reaction to what occurred at Charlottesville, let alone his ad that no real network agreed to run, one does wonder why.

And this wondering even occurs when one takes into account the rise of anti-semitism that has been occurring.

One also wonders what Dr. Deborah Lipstadt thinks of it.

LIpstadt’s new book focuses on anti-semitism, not only explaining exactly what it is, and how it gets tied up and sometimes conflated with criticism of Israel. The book includes a look at the boycott Israel movement as well as whether certain politicians on both sides of the pond are anti-semitism. She just doesn’t just examine trump and Corbyn but also other public figures and their comments.

The book is designed as an email between Lipstadt, a student, and another professor who is not Jewish. This allows for the answering of questions – what it the difference between anti-semitism and criticism of Israel, where do the two melds, how does one combat the racist belief that Jews control everything.

Lipstadt does seem to be in part inspired in terms of structure by Coates’ work, a debt which she does acknowledge.

In the New York Times

Leo the Lop (reissue) - Stephen Cosgrove, Robin James

I was at my doctor's office yesterday and noticed this book. I was strangely happy that the Serendipity books are still around, and so I read this one. While it doesn't match the greatness that is Serendipity, it was still pretty good.

Leo the Lop has ears that are strange - or are they - and the book chronicles his desire to fit in. It is a good look at the importance of why differences don't really matter.

Illustrations are beautiful.

And in today's Twitter news

We have yet another author telling reviewers to think carefully before they one star a book.  In fact, readers should be considerate and Christian and email a list of errors to the author instead.  Additionally, the old stupid thing about how dare you give Gatsby (in this case) a one star.


And pretty much every review this author had as an example was not a review from anyone that many readers would consider a real reader.


Look, since it needs saying again:


1. Unless an author pays a reader, it is NOT the reader's job to find all the errors.  It isn't.  If a reader wants to email an author about it, that's nice.  But that's the reader going out of her way.  


2. I have yet to met a reader or a reviewer who one stars for few typos.  We just don't.  We know that pretty much every book - independent or big publishing house - will most likely have at least one typo.


3. Readers should, in fact, read outside their favorite (or preferred) genre.  If someone only reads in one genre, they limited and stifling their intelligence.  There is not a ratio or anything, but you should be reading outside of your favorite genre.  It's how you learn.


4. In most cases, in particular on places like Booklikes and Goodreads, star ratings are usually a reflection of personal choice and entirely subjective.  I'm surely not the only reader who uses stars differently for classics than for a recent release.  A one star Hemingway means I don't like it, but guess what - I still think everyone should read Papa.


For the love of cats, of course.


5. Even someone who didn't like a book can, in fact, recommend it to someone else.  I hated Zombie Cinderella, but I recommended it to a friend who I knew would love it.  Then I had to rescinded the rec because a friend of the author decided to be a douche bag.


Reviews on places like Amazon, GR, Booklikes are not paid.  So think of what would happen if we like actually stopped talking about books.