alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions

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Best Use of Cannibalism

On the way to work this morning (one of the best times for unfettered thinking, along with showering, tooth-brushing, and cleaning the litter boxes), I realized there *has* been a recent book that effectively utilizes a cannibal character: one of the best books I’ve ever read, James Meek’s The People’s Act of Love.The People's Act of Love by James Meek

Samarin is not a bone-through-the-nose colonial “savage” from the tropics, but he does represent what is beyond the fringe of civilization, and he is a flesh-eater. An escapee from an arctic prison camp known as The White Garden, Samarin stumbles into an occupied town in Siberia in 1919. In the first telling Samarin is not the eater but the potentially eaten, the “pig” that The Mohican, another prisoner, brings along to survive the escape across the frozen tundra.

Maybe Samarin escaped from the Mohican. Maybe the Mohican is hot on Samarin’s heels, bringing his ruthlessness to the village and murdering the old blind shaman. Maybe Samarin has made up the story of the Mohican. Maybe Samarin is the Mohican.

“First the old get eaten by the weak, then the weak get eaten by the strong, and then the strong get eaten by the clever.”


Non-fiction Streak

Reading means one thing to me: Fiction.

Which means it’s a huge problem when I get tired of it, since I cannot wait in line for 30 seconds, eat dinner, or fall asleep without a book in my hand. I’ve heard that Twyla Tharp submits to self-imposed ‘creativity blackouts’ where she doesn’t read anything for a few weeks – not a magazine, not the mail, not the back of a cereal box. I’m tempted by the potential power of this, but I also hear the call of the loony bin.

My solution? All those non-fiction books that look so interesting when I fondle the covers and read the jacket copy, but just can’t bring myself to crack the cover when there’s still another alien-faerie-murdering-victorian-classic-YA-suspense-thingy clamoring for my attention.

Last week’s cleansing diet:

thrumptonThrumpton Hall: A Memoir of Life in My Father’s House
by Miranda Seymour
What: Woman writes of her father’s obsession with inheriting, preserving & coddling a Stately Home.
Why: As I was saying, it’s good to read about people whose lives are very different from yours.
Verdict: Powered by daughter’s (understandable) hostility to her father. Lightweight events recounted would have failed in the hands of a less-experienced biographer.
Bonus: Have your wedding at Thrumpton!

egyptMurder in Little Egypt, by Darcy O’Brien
What: Classic case of the murdering doctor, hailed as a hero by his rural community.
Why: It’s been on by bookshelf since 2003…and it’s a library book.
Verdict: Engrossing psychology.

motherLeaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood at the Edge of the World
by Yang Erche Namu and Christine Mathieu
What: Young girl leaves her tribal home in the ‘Land of Daughters’ for the wider world.
Why: Saw it on a ‘Best Books’ list.
Verdict: Enjoyed learning about traders and yak herders at the China/Tibet border. Appreciated Namu’s character: she resists her handsome lover by imagining children clinging to her skirts, and greets her pen pal with ‘How dare you be so ugly!”
Bonus: In China, Namu is a “crass celebrity“.

parsonThe Diary of a Country Parson (1758-1802)
by James Woodforde
What: Woodforde spends 20-some years as parson in Nofolk, writing down what happens, what he eats, and what he spends.
Why: Jigg the greyhound snuck in the cellar and ate the special pudding along with some cold tongue–recounted in Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book, in the segment on ‘Apricots’.
Verdict: Sometimes quotidian, sometimes droll, sometimes surprising. Unfailingly illuminating.

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Reading Outside Myself

Of the many reasons to read, a top one for me is taking a break from my life and the particular voices in my head, to listen for a while to the voices in somebody else’s head. Even though I write, and therefore encourage loquaciousness in my personal voices, I get tired of them always nattering on about dark green forests and frog people and old ladies with no teeth. I get bored of them. After a while, I think they are all the same, and not only do they have nothing new to say, that there is nothing new to be said. By anyone. Ever.

A good cure for this is a book by somebody else. Particularly somebody not very much like me. For that reason, I make an effort to read books not written by living white U.S. of Americans. When I need a cure, the less I know about the place a writer’s coming from (geographically, linguistically, temporally, or metaphorically), the better.

Sadly, finding this medicine is an effort. I read book blogs, writers’ blogs, publisher’s emails, & my local library’s RSS feed, and as Tayari often points out, writers of color slip discreetly under the rug of the US publishing industry’s publicity machine. So do translations. (And let’s not even talk about all the great books from everywhere that never get translated. Gnash! Frustrate!)

Reading something totally alien (not just something written with the intent of “explaining” a different environment to your western middle-class self) is really invigorating. Good for your brain, just like eating fish. Don’t know where to get started? For translations try:

Whoo, that’s enough. I’m making myself dizzy, especially from Booktrust’s page with all those yummy covers.

Up next: Lesser-read voices within the U.S.


Teenage Landscape

I recently read Chris Barzak’s debut novel, One for Sorrow

I enjoyed it immensely. It was an old-fashioned ghost story, in the sense that it was about a haunting. And in the sense that parts of that haunting were downright oogy. 

The part that really captured me was the landscape that felt exactly like when I was fifteen. It often seems to me that books (and movies) are set in one of 3 places: the city, where everyone is hip and hard and fast and now now now; the suburbs, where everyone is rich and white and label-proud; or the country (aka Rural America), a quiet land of deer hunting, corn fields, overalls and poverty.

But there’s a great in-between, and it’s called rural suburbia. Ranches, split levels, and faux cape-cods set down in the middle of cow fields. The kids who live there are probably white, but they aren’t rich. They aren’t farmers. They don’t know the names of all the trees, of the kinds of rock, or when to plant a watermelon. They know much more about how to get the high score, and which creepy old dude makes a few bucks selling ciggies and booze to 13-year-olds. But–

And here’s the but–the trees are all around. There’s only so much cable you can watch at 2am in July. And then you’re out in the woods behind your house with a cigarette lighter and a pointy stick, and it’s you and the trees and the bugs and the dark. You’re dreaming of the city, of when you can get away to somewhere real, but right now the natural world has you in its arms, and it’s not letting go.

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I’m back from Scotland.

This is sad because it was really beautiful and fantastic. Some less sad aspects are coming back to:

  • clean clothes
  • choice of footwear beyond: hiking boots or hiking boots ?
  • own bed
  • cats (There were loaner dogs at the cottage, but no cats)
  • food that I cook rather than just unrwap

Coming back also means work (sad) but also writing (sad + happy). Two things my sister-in-law said to me while she and my brother were driving us to the airport got me really excited about a story I’ve been stalled with for a couple of months. Write and see, I guess. Maybe Monday morning.

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Countdown to Scotland

The last time I was in Scotland was more than 10 years ago, struggling my way against the crowds up Market St. in Edinburgh on New Year’s Eve while the Bay City Rollers played “Saturday Night.” This time I’m off to Glasgow and Remote Parts West.

In honor of my trip, I’ve been watching Scottish television, and now present a list of Scottish reading:

  • Denise Mina – Garenthill & Exile. Excellent, brutal, mysteries set in shitty parts of Edinbrugh with protagonist probably more messed-up than the actual killer. Mina has written other books but, frankly, I’ve been too scared to read them.
  • Lanark, by Alasdair Gray. Yeah, I read it, but maybe I’m not Scottish enough; I liked the idea of it much more than the experience. Others feel differently.
  • Ian Rankin. #1 author of Tartan Noir. I haven’t actually read any, to my shame. I can’t believe that the 1st Inspector Rebus novel, Knots & Crosses, is out-of-print in the US. What is that about?
  • Heart of Midlothian, by Sir Walter Scott. There really is a Heart of Midlothian in Edinburgh, set into the pavement along the Royal Mile. Everytime I walked by, it was covered by gobs of spit.
  • Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh. Yeah, I know. But the first time I saw the movie, I was blown away, and went out looking for the book on the trip home from the theater. Say what you will about Welsh, I think (if my memory is accurate) that this one book was pretty amazing. Maybe it was a fluke, but I’d be happy to write a fluke like that.
  • Muriel Spark: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means, The Driver’s Seat. I admire Spark tremendously. Half the time I’m not sure what’s going on, which is probably why I admire her; I know she’s smarter than me. Her novels have a sly, manicured composure that seems out of fashion these days, and I’ll admit, there’s something retro about my enjoyment of her work–it’s cool and encapsulated and ever so slightly untouchable, like running my fingers over an immaculate 1962 issue of Woman’s Weekly, shrinkwrapped since publication and preserved from the ravages of time, hip-hop, chav girls, and spider poo.