Nonfiction Benediction

Heyyyyyyyyyyy guys! ‘Sup? I am here to bless your Sunday with something I like to call a NONFICTION BENEDICTION. Yes, I used a rhyming dictionary. No, I am not ashamed that I own a rhyming dictionary. That would be extremely contrary. Though I could have got one for free at the local library. Omg, this post is going to be legendary. I’m rapidly expanding my vocabulary. (Help me.) SOMEONE ALERT THE CONSTABULARY (Robyn, stop), PELASE GET SOME CHOCOLATE FROM THE CONFECTIONARY–

Ahem. Sorry.

What is a NONFICTION BENEDICTION, you ask? It is me, the book slinger, chucking a work of – gasp- nonfiction at your lovely head(s). One of my resolutions for 2016 was to read more nonfiction and poetry (specifically, one of each a month), so damn it, that’s what I’ve been doing. January’s nonfiction was Ivory Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown.

The Deal: In the early 1800’s, on a Hebridean beach in Scotland, the sea exposed an ancient treasure cache: 93 chessmen carved from walrus ivory. Norse netsuke, each face individual, each full of quirks, the Lewis Chessmen are probably the most famous chess pieces in the world. Harry played Wizard’s Chess with them in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Housed at the British Museum, they are among its most visited and beloved objects. Questions abounded: Who carved them? Where? Nancy Marie Brown’s Ivory Vikings explores these mysteries by connecting medieval Icelandic sagas with modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games. In the process, Ivory Vikings presents a vivid history of the 400 years when the Vikings ruled the North Atlantic, and the sea-road connected countries and islands we think of as far apart and culturally distinct: Norway and Scotland, Ireland and Iceland, and Greenland and North America. The story of the Lewis chessmen explains the economic lure behind the Viking voyages to the west in the 800s and 900s. And finally, it brings from the shadows an extraordinarily talented woman artist of the twelfth century: Margret the Adroit of Iceland.

Robyn says: First things first. Did you read that synopsis? Did you have to google “netsuke”? Yeah, me too. (It’s a Japanese word for a small sculptural object.)

I’ve been researching Vikings for the past five or six years (for a novel I’m too damn lazy/afraid to actually sit down and write but we won’t talk about that now… *cry-laughs into laptop*), so I read a lot about Norse mythology and Scandinavian history. It’s no surprise that as soon as I saw this book on the “recently ordered” list at my local public library, I clicked “reserve title” so fast I might have broken the sound barrier.

This is my favourite kind of nonfiction to read. I love learning about small topics – small compared to, say, the general history of major events or historical periods. I like the microscopic focus, the 150% zoom on a tiny part of history. And I love knowing that there are people existing in the world for whom this topic isn’t small at all, people who have devoted their lives to learning everything there is to know about a subject and who have generously decided to share just a tiny bit of their vast knowledge with the rest of us.

So  this book, ostensibly a history of the famous Lewis chessmen (read more about them here and here, was something I was really looking forward to, and it shot to the top of my TBR pile when I picked it up from the library.

Alas. It failed to live up to my high hopes.

My biggest complaint was that this was a messy book that didn’t really meet the goals of the subtitle. I learned a lot about a number of obscure topics–the medieval walrus tusk trade, Iceland’s religious history, the evolution of chess–but not as much about the Lewis chessmen themselves as I’d hoped. The book was disorganized and unfocused, and I have to agree with several other reviews I’ve read in that there was too much speculation and too little evidence to draw any meaningful conclusions. I had expected to hear a good case for one specific Medieval Icelandic carver, Margaret the Adroit, being the chessmen’s creator. Only one chapter discussed Margaret in detail, and the evidence for her being the carver was pretty thin.

And really, who the hell decided not to include any photographs??? Absurd. I was desperate for a visual reference when the author described the intricate details on the famous chess pieces. It’s a lot harder than you’d think to find photos online of specific Lewis chessmen – most of the images are of the prettier ones, like the queens and the Berserker knights. Which made me feel very :/

Verdict: Probably don’t read it… although I guess it was an acceptable introduction, and had some merit in providing a contextual background to the world in which the Lewis chessmen were created. Nonetheless, I’m going to look for some other books about the Lewis chessmen, because the dearth of information in this book has whetted my investigative appetite and challenged my librarian’s soul. The game is afoot!

Best lines: “But ask where the Lewis chessmen come from–or who carved them–and fists start to fly” (p. 13) (Yeah, I know, that’s a pathetic quote. Whatever. It’s nonfiction.)

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 tiny, beautiful statues of medieval queens that somehow survived relatively unscathed for a thousand years. A thousand years!

ROBYN’S FINAL THOUGHT: When I was standing in front of the Lewis chessmen in the British museum, probably looking like I was admiring the intricate carving, marveling over the unbelievable expressiveness of the little faces, pondering their immeasurable cultural significance, what I was really thinking was, “God, I’d really love to smash this glass and heist the f*ck outta those little babies.” Academic in the streets, barbarian in the sheets.

And now, over to Book Cat.

5 seconds before the attack…

Why must all the books you review lend themselves so readily to inhumane sartorial feline abuse?

Ignore his griping, he loves it.

Until next time, shieldmaidens and berserkers! May your days be filled with whatever glorious goat-filled madness is happening here…

ICEBERG RIGHT AHEAD

Guten tag, my sweet, schmackhaft strudels! How goes it on your little island of misery? Here on Isla Robyn, the population has been struggling with a severe outbreak of incurable Tarantism. Send help. (And cake. And kittens. And Khal Drogo.)

GOOD TIMES.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaanyway. This week I’m talking about a book I’ve wanted to read for ages but only recently bit the bullet and bought with my many mountains of honestly earned cash money.

 

It’s Alexis M. Smith’s Glaciers. How do you feel about the cover? It makes me want to gouge out my eyes. Or maybe I’m being overly dramatic?

No, I think I’m being completely rational. To be fair, I guess it is kind of relevant to the book, but then again, does relevance really matter when it’s also ass-ugly? These are the great questions of our age, my friends. Onward!

The Deal: “Isabel is a single, twentysomething thrift-store shopper and collector of remnants, things cast off or left behind by others. Glaciers follows Isabel through a day in her life in which work with damaged books in the basement of a library, unrequited love for the former soldier who fixes her computer, and dreams of the perfect vintage dress move over a backdrop of deteriorating urban architecture and the imminent loss of the glaciers she knew as a young girl in Alaska.

Glaciers unfolds internally, the action shaped by Isabel’s sense of history, memory, and place, recalling the work of writers such as Jean Rhys, Marguerite Duras, and Virginia Woolf. For Isabel, the fleeting moments of one day can reveal an entire life. While she contemplates loss and the intricate fissures it creates in our lives, she accumulates the stories—the remnants—of those around her and she begins to tell her own story.”

Robyn says: So… um. This was a book. Hoo-boy. Here we go.

Being a punk-ass book jockey myself, I have a weakness for fiction featuring librarian heroines. I also have a weakness for soldier love-interests because, to quote Dr Peter Venkman, who wouldn’t? So I thought a book featuring two of my preferred types of book-nip (a portmanteau I have just ingeniously coined at this very moment to refer to book catnip, trademark pending, bitches) would be a guaranteed READ IT. Right? RIGHT?

I guess the best way to put it is to say that I liked the idea of this book more than I liked the book itself. It was… well, pretentious is a harsh word. So is anemic. And pointless. And boring. So let’s just say it was pretty goddamn wanky, which is basically all of those things rolled into one cheeky sounding bit of Britishishness.

The jacket copy pretty much gives it away. Isabel is a “collector of remnants, things cast off or left behind by others” – so… she’s a fucking antiques collector. Like everyone and their mum these days, right? But nope, this is literary fiction, goddammit, so all the things have to also MEAN THINGS because metaphors and symbolism and other words from your English Lit 101 syllabus introduction. She “dreams of the perfect vintage dress” while attempting to endure her “unrequited love for [a] former soldier.” So like if Zooey Deschanel was in a Nicholas Sparks movie? (Okay, I’d probably watch that movie. Shut up, you would, too.) All of this takes place over a single day, by the way, because why not? There is also lots of “deteriorating urban architecture” to mirror not only the melting Alaskan glaciers but also her life because METAPHORS, METAPHORS, SO MANY METAPHORS—

Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuugh movie Augustus you are the worst

 

Seriously, though, I think most elements of Smith’s novel left a lot to be desired in terms of execution. The whole thing felt hollow. Take Isabel – by the end of the novel, I knew a lot about her but I wouldn’t say that I knew her, do you know what I mean? Like if your grandma is describing one of her neighbour-enemies. You know where they went to high school and what shoe size they wear and the name of their grandson’s best friend’s dog, but not much about what they’re like as people. As a reader who values rich, well-rounded, interesting characters over every other part of a story, I finished this book feeling very underwhelmed. The two supporting characters, Leo and Spokes (the love interest) were way more vibrant than Isabel.

The story itself was another personal literary cluster-cuss. I don’t think it’s a spoiler if I tell you that NOTHING F*CKING HAPPENS. And when shit does happen, it happens sooooooo slooooooowly. My god. I wanted to claw my face off. But mind you, it is mostly things not happening. It is literally the internal monologue a librarian walking around all day, doing very little librarianing I might add, oscillating between memories of her childhood and swoony thoughts of her co-worker and crush, Spokes. And then, when things might actually start to happen, and lips begin to pout in preparation for the long-awaited kiss, turns out that nope, Spokes is leaving and Isabel is probably doomed to spend the rest of her days as a lonely spinster with only her books and her cat to keep her going one loveless day after the next. (Yes, she has a cat – of course she has a cat.)

WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK.

Don’t you dare, book. Don’t you dare hint at a happy ending to this insipid romance that might actually redeem this book, then just be all JOKE, NOPE, DENIED, SORRY, SONNY-JIM. I mean, COME ON. Haven’t we librarians suffered enough?

NO, MARY, NO! NOT A LIBRARIAN! MARY!

Despite its many flaws, this book wasn’t a complete waste of my precious, precious time. Its one redeeming factor, in my opinion, was the writing. Smith hasn’t got a clue about how to craft a compelling narrative, but the lady can string together words real purdy-like. When Isabel is at a party and observes two guests flirting, she describes them as “leaning together now, one against the other, like fallen columns in ancient ruins.” Isn’t that lovely? There are lots of beautiful, little phrases like this peppered throughout the book, though I’m sure I missed a few of them when soul-crushing boredom forced me to start skimming.

Verdict: Don’t read it. Unless maybe you’re mad at yourself for something (like, I dunno, being stupid enough to get a master’s degree in an increasingly redundant field).

Best lines: Okay, there were some I really liked. Here’s the owner of the vintage store telling Isabel what kinds of dresses end up in her store: “It’s never the wedding dresses, you know. We keep those, too, but only because they’re so blooming expensive. No. I’ve seen enough old ladies’ closets to know what we really hold on to. Not the till-death-do-us-part dresses. It’s those first lovely dresses: the slow dance dresses, the good-night-kiss dresses. It’s those first pangs we hold on to.” But the only that really made me laugh was “What kind of moron wants to be a gladiator?

Rating: Two and half melting glaciers. IT’S A METAPHOR.

Book Cat, whatchya reading?

Me? I'm not reading anythi--oh, what the hell.  I'm reading JR Ward. Okay? Happy?  Now get the hell away from me. Wrath and Beth are totally gonna get it on.

Me? I’m not reading anythi–oh, what the hell.
I’m reading JR Ward. Okay? Happy?
Now go away. Wrath and Beth are totally gonna get it on.

Goddamn it, T. Now I’m going to have to a BDB marathon re-read. What a hardship…

NOT.

Toodle-oo, kangaroos!