Get Well Soon

34443962Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them* by Jennifer Wright

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Gabra Zackman

Source: my own collection

Length: 07:44:00

Publisher: Audible Studios

Year: 2017

Get Well Soon is all a brief overview of several of the worst/ scariest/ grossest diseases in recorded history. Each chapter deals with one disease or condition and written with what is obviously a shit ton of research to back it up. Also, lots of gallows humor and pop references, to keep you entertained.

It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one who knows me that I LOVED this book. I mean, I know am I morbidly obsessed with the bubonic plague. Seriously. I’ll read anything about the plague. But this book? It was hilarious! I get that a book about horrific diseases shouldn’t, maybe, be classified as “hilarious,” but too bad. If you can’t laugh inappropriately at things, then I am not the person for you to hang out with. We won’t make good friends. This is one of my favorite nonfiction books ever. The writing is engaging, not sophomoric as one wet-blanket reviewer suggested. It is fun, and the use of pop culture references, even older ones, keeps readers reading. Given the gnat-like attention span many people have now (thanks, social media), keeping their attention focused is a good thing. It helps people learn. Learning is fun. I learned that smallpox is hemorrhagic. And that “boo-boo” likely derives from “bubo,” though I already knew not to kiss a bubo to make it better. I teach fairy tales and folklore, so I found the connections to those stories and encephalitis lethargica to be fascinating. Also, this should be required reading for all anti-vaxxers.

I listened to this on audio book, and I have to say the narrator was not my favorite. She had this weird way of starting a sentence sounding sort of nasaly/ raspy, like Kate Mulgrew, and then ending the sentence in a normal tone. It was worse when she was quoting someone. It was annoying AF. But the content of the book itself was so good that I did my best to ignore the narrator’s voice.

Seriously, go read this. You won’t regret it.

*Amazon affiliate link.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

521953The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time* by Mark Haddon

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Jeff Woodman

Source: my own collection

Length: 06:02:00

Publisher: Audible Studios

Year: 2003

Christopher Boone likes to go walking at night sometimes. On one of his nightly excursions, he encounters Wellington, one of the neighbor’s dogs. Wellington is dead, killed by a garden fork. This is puzzling to Christopher, who likes to understand why things happen and likes it when rules are followed; Wellington should not be killed with a garden fork. He decides to discover who killed Wellington and begins “detecting” like Sherlock Holmes, asking his neighbors rather uncomfortable questions. In the process, Christopher uncovers many more truths than he ever expected to, and now he has to learn how to live with the consequences of those truths.

This was a sweet coming of age story, told from the perspective of a boy who is on the autism spectrum. Christopher is highly intelligent and is gifted in math – he is going to take his A-Level maths exams later in the book so he can attend university. But he doesn’t know how to buy a train ticket without help. He doesn’t understand humor. He can’t tell a lie and doesn’t understand why you must always tell the truth but can’t tell an old person they’re old or a smelly person that they stink. I loved that he says metaphors are lies, but similes aren’t, and that he hated yellow and brown but red was the best. I really loved his thoughts on logic and reasoning and religion. Getting the story from his perspective is a wonderful change of pace from the typical narrator. I listened to this on audio book, so I didn’t see any of the diagrams that I think were in it. But I did enjoy figuring out before it was explained in the story that the chapter numbers were prime numbers. If you know how good I am not at math, you will know how impressive that is. I was rather proud of myself.

Seeing Christopher’s growth over the course of the book was wonderful. He learns that he IS able to do far more than he ever thought he could or would be able to do. He figures out a soul-shattering secret that has been kept from him and it sends him into a spiral of confusion, anger, and pain. Fleeing to London, on his own for the first time, Christopher learns that he is capable of much more than her ever knew.

I also thought the way his parents were portrayed was probably pretty realistic. I don’t have an autistic child, so I can’t imagine how hard it must be. I AM the mother of a very smart and difficult child, though, and know very well how frustrating and exhausting it can be. I wouldn’t change it for anything, but I can maybe understand how some parents would snap after a while. It doesn’t make it right, but it is a human reaction, and I think Christopher’s parents were shown in a very human and sympathetic light.

Highly recommended!

*Amazon affiliate link.

Anthony Bourdain Remembered

43884234Anthony Bourdain Remembered* by CNN

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Edelweiss

Length: 208 pp

Publisher: CNN

Year: 2019

Sometimes when I cook, I have the voice of chef Anne Burrell in my head, telling me I’m using my knife wrong or I need to do something differently. Over the years, though, another voice has been added to hers, overwriting it to tell me that it doesn’t matter if I do it perfectly so long as I’m trying something new, and “screwups are good. Screwups – and bouncing back from screwups – help you conquer fear. … Do not be afraid” (Les Halles). As long as my mise en place is in order (and it had better be or he will yell at me), then everything will be fine. That distinctive voice belongs to Anthony Bourdain.

Probably it’s not normal to have the voices of anyone in your head, but I’ve always been one to have conversations with people I only meet in books, or on TV, or from studying history. I’m not ashamed to admit that some of the best life lessons were ones I’ve received from people I’ve never met in person, some of them fictional. This is far more a tribute to him than is it a book review, so I am going to talk about the late, greatly missed Tony Bourdain. From Tony, watching his shows and reading his books, I’ve learned so many things. Now I know that you should always try a dish twice in case it wasn’t prepared well the first time. Borders don’t matter because we have far more similarities than differences. You’ll never know what you like until you try it. The one truly universal connection between people is food and breaking bread together over a meal, prepared with love and served in a spirit of generosity and openness, is something that transcends religion and politics and language. Traveling to new places and seeing how people in different cultures live is something everyone should do; there is no education in any hallowed institution on earth that can compare with this.

Most of us never got to meet Tony in real life; nevertheless, he had a tremendous impact on our lives all the same. I never met him, but that doesn’t change the fact that I look up to him as a mentor, or that his death left a wound that will always be tender. I know this isn’t how depression works, but I can’t help but wonder if he knew how very many people would be affected by his death, if it would have made a difference. Probably not. I’ll save my rant about the need for better mental health care for a more appropriate place.

As I said, I never got the chance to meet Tony in person. The closest I ever got was a random encounter in London, on opposite sides of a busy street in Soho. That sardonic smile was plainly visible through traffic and crowds and will be a sight I’ll cherish dearly. Nevertheless, I can say that I feel lucky that I was alive and shared the earth at the same time he did. I think the best way to remember him will be to try to approach life like he did – with curiosity and openness and a hunger that can only be satiated by going and seeing and experiencing it for myself.

This book is a collection of memories, left by people who feel as I do. This is not great literature. It isn’t going to move mountains or bring about world peace. It is simply the heartfelt notes of people given in their grief to express a love for a deeply flawed, deeply compassionate, curious, creative, soulful man, someone who touched us all profoundly in some way, and whose loss we feel acutely. People who also learned from Tony that “there is less to fear about the world than we think” or that we should “listen, rather than speak.” We know, because of him, that “it is a privilege to sit at someone’s table” and that we should “go to the place. Eat the thing. Talk to the person.” When we travel, he taught us how to be “less of an observer and more of a participant…”, that we should “offend no one, appreciate the simplest things, and absorb it all”, that “food was a tool through which to understand a place, to broaden your own understanding of the world…”, and that there is “beauty in the sad, and the poignant, and even in the mundane, every day.” He taught us new ways to see, how to be better listeners, and how to find the interesting experiences. I think he’d get a kick out of one comment in particular, written by Amy P, who said, “Tripe. I didn’t enjoy it, but Tony was 100 percent the reason I tried it.” Yes, girl! I have tried things, culinary and otherwise, that I never would have thought to do because of something I learned from Tony. Just try the food. If you don’t like it, then try it again somewhere else, in case the first time wasn’t the best. If you don’t like it after that, well, at least you tried it. But then again, you may discover your new favorite food. You might learn about your new favorite activity. I learned about black pudding in London’s old east end butcher district, and the next time I am there, I’m absolutely going to try some, because that’s what Tony would do. Because the real lesson he left us with is not to be afraid. Go out and try things and see where they take you.

“Travel isn’t often pretty. It isn’t often comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind” (No Reservations). Anthony Bourdain left something good behind, and his presence will continue to be missed. Let’s all go out, have an adventure, and make our own mark on the world. 

RIP, Anthony Bourdain. We still miss you.

Bourdain twitter BW
Image retrieved from Anthony Bourdain’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/Bourdain/status/993005310611619840

Bourdain, Anthony. Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Technique of Classic Bistro Cooking. New York: Bloomsbury, 2004.

—-. No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.

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Black Death

44597455Black Death (A Tudor mystery featuring Christopher Marlowe)* by MJ Trow

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Netgalley

Length: 224 pp

Publisher: Severn House

Year: 2019

Robert Green and Christopher Marlowe are not friends. But when Green believes someone is trying to kill him, he sends a desperate letter to Marlowe, behind for his help. When Green is found dead, Kit believes it is his duty to discover who murdered Green and so undertakes the investigation. At the same time, stage manager Ned Sledd is wrongly taken to Bedlam in lieu of an escaped inmate just days before the opening of one of Marlowe’s new plays. Marlowe has to find the connection between all these events and help his friend. And also, the Spymaster, Robert Cecil, is taking an inordinate interest in things. And there’s plague. What could go wrong?

This is a short, quick read and like other MJ Trow novels I’ve read, it is a fun and witty tale as well. The plot is full of twists and turns and not all is as it appears. The characters, especially Marlowe, are all multidimensional. I really love the little digs at William Shakespeare (spelled here as Shaxper) throughout and the subtle shade thrown on the authorship of his works. There are many literary gems hidden in these pages that appeal to any Anglophile.

The descriptions of Elizabethan London are also vivid and gritty. So much of that period is romanticized but here, we get the more realistic portrayal of what it might have actually been like – dirty, smelly, and depressing. Oh, and don’t forget the plague!

A fun and fast read, highly recommended for any lovers of Marlowe, Shaxper :-), or Elizabethan English history in general.

All This I Will Give to You

43267676All This I Will Give to You* by Dolores Redondo (trans. Michael Meigs)

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Timothy Andres Pabon

Source: My own collection

Length: 18:10:00

Publisher: Brilliance Audio

Year: 2018

Manuel Ortigosa is a writer  living in Madrid. He is hard at work on his next novel, waiting for his husband Alvaro to return from a business trip to Barcelona, when he receives word from police that Alvaro has been killed in a car accident. In Galicia, the opposite side of the country from Barcelona. Manuel travels to the town in Galicia where Alvaro died and learns that his husband was the Marquis of an ancient aristocratic family and Galicia is their ancestral home. Alvaro had hidden all this from Manuel because it seems he felt that his family was toxic and he wanted to shield Manuel from them. Upon his death, however, Manuel learns that Alvaro had saved his family from deep debt, using his own considerable funds to pay back loans and renovate the family homes, which put them in Alvaro’s personal possession, and thus he bequeathed everything to Manuel. Manuel is trying to come to terms with the fact that his husband hid who he was from him for the 15 years of their marriage, deal with the family who is indeed toxic, and find out what truly happened to Alvaro because he hadn’t died in an accident – he was murdered. Manuel meets two allies – a recently retired cop and a childhood friend of Alvaro’s, now a priest and Alvaro’s confessor – who aid him in finding out the truth.

This was a nicely complex book and I enjoyed not only the mystery plot but the travel element as well. I’ve never been to Spain, so the descriptions of the settings were some of my favorite parts, irrespective of the rest of the story.

The characters were generally complex and multifaceted. Manuel, the cop, and the priest were the ones I thought were the most multidimensional and complex people, though many of the other secondary characters, such as the family’s nanny, also seemed to have rich personalities.

There were many points of conflict – between Manuel and his husband’s family, between more progressive ideals and traditional Catholic practices, between the newer social order and the ancient traditions of nobility. There were also rivalries and intrigues between the family members as well, dark secrets and infighting. Alvaro was right – his family is toxic and he did well to keep Manuel from them. It would be exhausting to have to deal with a family like that.

I listened to this on audio book, so I have no idea how to spell some of the names, like the name of the cop friend, or the name of Alvaro’s family home. In any case, I think I would have preferred to eyeball read this one. I had picked up the audio book because it was a daily deal on Audible, but I didn’t care for the narrator. He did all right but I didn’t think he did a great job differentiating between characters. I had a hard time telling when it was supposed to be Manuel speaking and the cop, for example. His reading of women’s voices was pretty awful, though at least he didn’t make them sound like vapid cows like some male narrators do.

I loved the last line of the book SO MUCH. It is one of my favorite last lines ever now.

Age of Saints

43925261Age of Saints: Druid’s Brooch Series: 7* by Author

I read it as a: galley

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds

Length: 240 pp

Publisher: Tirgearr Publishing

Year: 2019

Connall had promised his father that he would take care of Lainn, his little sister. Then his father went away and Connall, despite his best efforts, failed spectacularly in every way to uphold his promise. He and Lainn endure an abusive stepfather; a neglectful mother; starvation, terror, imprisonment, and torture in the land of Faerie; and literal insanity in both human and fey realms. Connall tries to draw on the power of a magic brooch, passed down through his family for generations, to help him and Lainn survive, but in doing so, is he saving them or only delaying the inevitable?

This is the seventh book in Christy Nicholas’s Druid’s Brooch series, and as with the others, it can be read as a standalone. I have read most of the others in the series and with each installation, I appreciate anew how well Nicholas crafts her characters. Each one has depth and vision to them, even minor characters who are only on the page a moment.

Equally appreciated is Nicholas’s deep understanding of Irish legend and lore. Her books are rich with these, and they bring the culture and people within the pages to brilliant life. This novel features the early days when the old ways of the Druids and the new ways of the Christians were still able to live together peaceably, though by the end of the book, the two religions were showing the strain. The Age of Saints refers to the 5th and 6th centuries when the Church was working especially hard to convert the Celtic countries, often using converted Celts to do so, such as St Patrick or Columba, who is referenced in this novel. It was interesting to see the interplay between the two cultures in this way.

I also loved the theme of protection that wove throughout the book. Connall cares for and protects Lainn as best he can, even when he fails utterly. He tries to keep his father’s words in mind as a way to protect himself as well, because at the end of the day, Connall is still a very young man, still in need of protection himself in a variety of ways. He learns how to protect himself, but also how to accept it from others when needed. The raven companion provides protection of a sort as well, and teaches a hard lesson. Connall protects his mother even when he doesn’t really want to. Even though most of the hardships in the book were because of a bad decision he made, Connall was still a sympathetic figure. He honestly did what he thought was best, or at least tried to. He never did anything out of maliciousness, just out of simple naivety or lack of experience, and he never whined about it, unlike some characters in other books. He Had his issues and his flaws, and he had an epic meltdown at one point, which I think was entirely understandable, but he was not an unsympathetic figure at all. He just needed someone to protect him but he had no one to do that, and so he did the best he could.

I also liked the exploration of his sexuality here, and how he was concerned about how Christians would think of him as sinful or unnatural to want to lie with another man, but the Druids had such members within their ranks and thought nothing of it. The conflict in him didn’t feel forced, like Nicholas was just trying to do something new or make a point. It was nicely done and flowed well within the narrative of the story.

One of the things I really love about this series is that it works in reverse time – the books begin in a more recent time and are gradually working back toward a time when the magic is newer and closer to the surface. I hope that, in the final installment of the series, readers will finally understand the genesis of the story, the event that caused the brooch to be given to the humans from the fey, and to see the full circle of all the novels in the series thus far. It has been a finely crafted series to date and I look forward to reading more. Highly recommended.

*Amazon affiliate link. 

Acre’s Orphans

43457902Acre’s Orphans: Historical fiction from the Crusades (The Lucca Le Pou Stories Book 2)* by Wayne Turmel

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds

Length: 222 pp

Publisher: Achis Press

Year: 2019

This is the second novel featuring protagonist Lucca le Pou (Lucca the Louse), but it can easily function as a standalone novel. It opens very shortly after the Battle of Hattin in which Salah-adin’s forces defeated the Crusaders and forced them to surrender vast portions including Jerusalem, and executing many Knights Hospitallers. Lucca, one of the titular orphans of Acre, has lived his entire life in Acre and has little desire to leave the city when Salah-adin takes control. However, his nominal guardians at the leper house where he lives convince him to go to Tyre, taking along Sister Marie-Pilar, a leprous nun, and Niheda, another orphan girl who attached herself to Lucca. Lucca is determined to go to Tyre to find Count Raymond, whose name is being slandered in Acre and accused of being a traitor, setting him up to be murdered. Lucca is to find the Count and deliver a message to him from his allies still in Acre, avoid being captured by Salah-adin’s forces, keep Sister and Nahida safe, and somehow return home again in one piece.

At first, I thought this was a YA or even a children’s book because of the young age of the protagonist. However, the more I read, the more obvious it became that this is not a children’s book. It is a nicely written adult novel, replete with rich historical detail, which just happens to have a 10-year-old protagonist. The themes the book covers are not ones most children would want to read, and the violence, disease, and general human misery on display would make it unsuitable for many younger readers.

Despite the somber topics the book covers – the Crusades, leprosy, children surviving horrors on their own – Turmel does a really excellent job of keeping it appropriately light. The bits of humor that shine through in Lucca’s personality lift what could otherwise be a very grim read and instead bring in genuine laughter and a sense of adventure rather than doom.

The cast of characters is pleasingly diverse. I appreciated that the bad guys were not automatically the Muslim characters. There is enough Othering that occurs in both literature and real life as it is, so to see a book that includes a wide range of people as main characters and which doesn’t automatically pigeonhole those characters into revolting stereotypical roles is a really nice change of pace. This seems particularly true of novels set during the Crusades; one website that has the biggest list of historical novels I’ve ever encountered still only has about 15 books on the Crusades as told from the Muslim point of view, and not all of those are even written by Muslim authors. This book still doesn’t tick all the boxes for me in that regard, but I’m hard to please, and it is nevertheless a delightfully well-rounded story.

Lucca is a boy I wouldn’t mind knowing in real life. I would want to bring him home and feed him up and throw him in the tub because he needs a mother to look after him. Nahida is a girl I want to hold and protect from the world, same as with my own daughter, and keep them all safe. The giant Knight Hospitaller Gerhardt reminds me of a dear friend of mine and Sister Marie-Pilar is the fierce and protective auntie or grandmother everyone should have. These characters breath life from every page and made me care about what happened to them.

Highly recommended.

The Creation of Anne Boleyn

15814396The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen* by Susan Bordo

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 345 pp

Publisher: Mariner

Year: 2013

The Creation of Anne Boleyn is a study on the woman, in all her various incarnations, who was wife to a king, a catalyst to the English Reformation, and mother to Elizabeth I. The book covers a wide range of areas ranging from actual history to literature, film, TV, and pop culture interpretations of Anne Boleyn.

There were some enjoyable things about this book. Bordo takes a feminist approach to her writing and interpretation of Anne, which of course is something I appreciate. She is a women’s studies professor, so approaching the topic of Anne Boleyn from the perspective of gender studies rather than a pure historian’s point of view is a nice change of pace from some of the recent things I have read on the subject. I also think that, because the writing tone is engaging and entertaining, it might entice other readers who are new to the topic of Tudor studies to be inspired to learn more about the subject on their own as a result.

There were many issues throughout the book as well, though. As many others before her, I think Bordo leans too heavily on Eustace Chapuys’s letters about Anne. It is true that he did not like her and had many reasons to hope for her downfall. However, although Bordo frequently states in one way or another that Chapuys shouldn’t be trusted in regard to his opinion on Anne, not once did she mention that he only had a couple interactions with Anne directly. Most of his information about Anne came second- and third-hand from others, which she did mention in passing, but I think it is important to remember that his whole job was to report to his boss, Charles V, what was said at court. Chapuys was Charles’s ambassador, so he was likely repeating many of the things he had heard; he was doing his job when he said that “a gentleman known to me” called Anne a whore or said that she had adulterous relations or whatever else. We cannot possibly know that he was “gleeful” when Anne’s downfall came, because unless one is a time traveling mindreader, there’s simply no way to know what he was thinking. I think we really have to take much, if not most, of what Chapuys says in his letters about Anne with a grain of salt. No, he probably didn’t like her at all, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that every single word he wrote about her were his own true thoughts, either.

The book also had a tendency to attack authors with whom Bordo disagreed, which I don’t think is the most professional approach. She makes a lot of valid points about many popular authors who seem to think their historical fiction books are the same as gospel truth and are well researched, when in fact neither is true. I won’t say which authors Bordo takes such exception to, only that I completely agree. They, at least, tell a good story even if it’s totally inaccurate. Bordo, however, champions some authors who also have problems as well, if not to the same degree as the others. The difference seems to be that the ones she champions are ones who paint Anne in a very positive light rather than as the traditional Jezebel or even as a flawed and imperfect woman. Her own bias comes through the most strongly here. Also, Bordo herself does the same things she accuses others of doing, which is to make declarations of historical fact without supporting evidence, or making claims that are contrary to evidence in hand. At one point, she calls Henry a pussy-whipped husband, which is really unlikely to be true, don’t you think? There is evidence that he was ruthless and even brutal when he needed or wanted to be long before he met Anne. Similarly, her treatment of Katherine of Aragon and Mary is really bad. You don’t have to be Team Katherine to be able to acknowledge that Henry treated his first wife and daughter abominably. Fighting to keep a marriage and position to which she was born does not make Katherine stubborn or self-righteous, as Bordo suggests. It makes for good historical fiction, perhaps, but not really for nonfiction. Additionally, I really don’t think quoting people from one’s own Facebook page is adequate for a “scholarly” book. I was really annoyed by that and disappointed that this book was passed off as scholarly. It’s kind of the equivalent of “My mom thinks my story is cool,” and it doesn’t pass muster. For someone who is a doctorally prepared professor, she should do better than resorting to ad hominem attacks on authors or scholars whose positions she disagrees with, and use better supporting evidence.

At the end of the day, this is far more a pop culture commentary than a biography. It is useful in its way for a starting point into further, more academic studies by actual Tudor scholars. It was interesting as a feminist cultural study, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a source for any theses.

The Year the Swans Came*

42323212The Year the Swans Came: Where historical fiction and fantasy collide by Barbara Spencer

Cathy read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds

Length: 384 pp

Publisher: Troubador

Year: 2018

The Year the Swans Came is tale of love and mystery that revolves around Margrit “Maidy” Bader and Ruth Endelbaum, their families, and the friends the two girls meet while attending college. The story takes place after the end of an unnamed war, in a village whose townsfolk are slowly trying to get back to normal after the departure of the occupied forces. When Maidy is young, she is devastated when her older brother, Pieter, unexpectedly leaves home. Years later, Pieter reappears around Maidy’s 16th birthday. With Pieter’s return comes the trials and tribulations of love and the deepening mystery of where he was and why he left home in the first place. Even more puzzling is Pieter’s connections to the mysterious Van Vliet, Zande, Jaan, and others who seemed to be a part of a small bevy of select young men.

Spencer masterfully uses detailed descriptions to bring this story to life. I easily came to respect and admire Maidy, her humble courage and her natural strength, even though she seemed to see herself as lesser than her best friend, Ruth.  Opposite Maidy’s character is Ruth, who is the girl that has it all, from money, to beauty, and to what both girls feel is the admiration of everyone she comes to meet, especially the young men at the college. Spencer also does an excellent job of weaving historical details throughout the narrative that give it a strong sense of past. Even though it is not clear as to when or where the actual story took place, the intricate details throughout the novel build wonder and curiosity as to the time period and setting.

As I followed the lives of the two girls and the connections between their families and their friends, the magical realism was not easily realized throughout the first part of the story.  Even though Spencer integrated small hints of fantasy as she thickened the plot of the love triangles and deep friendships, the tale felt more like a love tragedy with small hints of mystery. It was not until the last few chapters that the magical realism was realized. I was able to reflect back through the story to recognize how the legend of the swans was the foundation for Spencer’s story and how the subtle hits dropped throughout Maidy’s and Ruth’s journeys were a part of the magic that helped the story to unfold.

The Year the Swans Came is a tragic story for anyone who wants to become captivated by the lives of two girls who are literally polar opposites of each other.  It is a story of one girl’s love of herself and her physical world, and the story of another girl’s unconditional love for the people in her life. It is a story of passion and a story of anguish. Spencer has done a wonderful job subtly showing how magical realism is a real part of the mythologies of a culture.  

*This is a guest post by Cathy Smith.

It Isn’t Fun to Care. Do It Anyway.

In my personal life, I try to practice Stoicism. I recognize that there are many things – most things, in fact – that I cannot control or change. I let go of those things and focus instead on controlling what I can control or change, which mainly centers around my own reaction to a thing. I can’t control traffic but I can choose not to get mad about it and enjoy listening to my audiobook instead. I can’t control that it feels like living on the sun in Arizona, but I can either accept that it’s hot here, or move. Recently, though, I went to a talk given by Paul Nicklen, biologist, photojournalist, and arctic explorer. As I listened to Nicklen’s presentation, I felt my Stoicism crumbling a bit more with each word he said.

Nicklen showed us a video he had taken of a polar bear who was starving to death. The poor creature, who should have weighed close to 1,000 pounds or more, clocked in at roughly 200 pounds and was too weak to do more than stagger towards Nicklen, who had waited for several hours nearby. The bear eventually came over to some garbage cans the film crew laid out to check desperately if there was food inside. Nicklen did not tell us if the bear ever found enough to eat, though the implication was that it did not and eventually died. Attempting to be apolitical, he was careful not to connect the effects of climate change to the bear’s situation, while at the same time making sure to be clear that it was precisely because of climate change that the bear had no ice to live on, and that it was the destruction of its habitat that had caused its starvation conditions.

Nicklen discussed, too, the effects of the use of drift nets upon ocean populations. The fishing industry uses drift nets that are up to a mile long, which are opened and then set loose in the ocean. The fishing boats then come along to collect the nets to see what they caught. Often, they catch dolphins, whales, sharks, rays, seals, and other non-food sea life. Many of these are endangered animals; many are highly intelligent and sensitive. Some are caught intentionally, such as sharks for shark fin soup. We had the dubious honor of seeing footage of a shark getting its fins cut off, while still alive, for exactly that purpose, and then thrown back into the water to flail helplessly. I couldn’t blink, because blinking would have made my face leak and possibly made sounds come out my mouth.

Nicklen’s talk was not all about the wanton death and destruction of the oceans and the arctic regions. The majority of it was awe-inspiring and filled with breathtaking images he’s taken over the years. He showed us many images of what a polar bear is supposed to look like in all its huge glory. They can be silly creatures as well, for as huge and deadly as they are. One enormous male Nicklen showed us made himself a giant snowball, put it on top of his head* (he was supremely proud of himself, judging from the expression on his furry face), and then snuggled up with it in his arms and fell asleep. This delightful encounter was documented by Nicklen’s lens. He showed us what a happy seal looks like, fat and sleek, her pup a butterball of soft white fur, so full of milk it can’t stuff its tongue back in its mouth. When elephant seals are weaned, they get really lonely. If you lay down in the surf near them, they will come and want to be close to you and will lay on your lap, even though they weigh around 500 pounds. The oft-maligned leopard seal, frequently described as violent or aggressive, provided another glimpse into arctic animal life. Nicklen got in the water with a female leopard seal moments after she’d killed a penguin to eat. She charged him, nothing but gaping jaws and teeth, but he shut his eyes and curled up and after a few minutes, she settled down, confused. Then she swam off and came back a few moments later with another penguin, which she tried to give to Nicklen. The penguin got away and she retrieved it, prodding it toward him again. He did not take the penguin for fear the power dynamic would change him into a competing predator to the seal. Instead, she kept bringing him penguins, each one more wounded or weakened, until finally she brought him a dead one and literally put it on his head. During his last swim with this female seal, she turned on her back and made a sound at him that is usually reserved for their pups. Maybe she thought he was a particularly inept pup and was trying to help him. These encounters, too, were captured by Nicklen or one of his crew.

Nicklen’s purpose is to show that animals are often misunderstood and that many instances of “animal aggression” is simply humans panicking or imposing and stressing the animals out. When the animals are allowed to dictate the encounter, using a modicum of common sense of course, it is far less likely that anyone will be harmed. They have personalities and feelings, not to anthropomorphize anything. But to be careless with our actions has far-flung and devastating impact on the environment and the creatures that live in it.

I shouldn’t think this would need explaining, but there are still people who deny that humans have an impact on climate change, or who deny that we can change anything. I simply cannot fathom or condone that kind of short-sightedness. We rush to insure our homes if there is even a 1% chance that it will burn down or come to harm. Why wouldn’t we take similar precautions with our one true home, the earth? It is exhausting to care about something so much, but Nicklen made a comment that really struck me during his talk. “It isn’t fun to care,” he said. I agree, it isn’t. But do it anyway.

I realized after the talk that I can still be Stoic about this. I may not be able to control or change these people or their views. I can’t force the climate to revert to pre-Industrial Revolution clean standards with a wave of my hand. But I CAN do my part not to use things that are harmful to the land or oceans. I can help lobby to ban things like drift nets, trophy hunting, and the market for shark fins. I can drive a car that doesn’t contribute to greenhouse emissions that makes the atmosphere hotter, and melts the ice so the polar bears don’t have anywhere to live. There are things we can do, even if they are a little inconvenient. We have to consider if there really is an inconvenience when we are keeping the ecosystem healthy. We can do better, if not for ourselves then for our children and grandchildren. It isn’t fun to care, but do it anyway.

*All the photo links will take you to Nicklen’s awesome Instagram page.