Book as Body

Book Reviews, Essays, Thoughts

Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

Posted on January 18, 2020

Sometimes, I really miss my university days.  One of my favorite classes I ever took was a humanities course called Topics: Science Fiction as Myth. I signed up because I had just taken a fantastic Intro to Classic Greek Myth course with the professor who was going to teach it. A couple of times a week, in one of a hundred cramped classrooms within a deteriorating liberal arts building, we would all whip out our gigantic Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction and discuss the short stories within.

The professor created this class by combining his extensive knowledge of ancient myths with the relatively nascent genre of science fiction. His assertion was that sci-fi literature was modern myth-making. Myths are stories that play a fundamental role in society; they seek to explain, teach, warn, and predict. Whenever technology or scientific understanding progresses, science fiction writers are the prophesiers who evaluate and explore the possible repercussions of that advancement. How is humanity going to tackle the problems that face us in the coming centuries? Our ever-creeping progress (e.g. cloning, genetic engineering, A.I., etc.) is leading to moral quandaries that ask us what it means to be human. 

Reading Ted Chiang’s short story collection, Exhalation, summoned me back to that tiny classroom. I can easily imagine us reading any one of Chiang’s stories and the thought provoking discussions that would ensue. Exhalation is not just a short story collection, it is an achievement. Chiang’s voice stands out in exploring the complex mythos sprouting from the age of information and technology. Some words to describe the nine short stories – clear, cerebral, clean, contained, confident. Every short story is distinct from the next, almost as if each one was a new exploratory album by the same genius artist. His language isn’t necessarily poetic, but it doesn’t have to be; however, there is a poetic quality to the depth in which he explores his ideas. The themes he investigates are wide ranging, such as the development and maturation of artificial intelligence, the acquisition of language, the truth of memory, the search for God, and the meaning of consciousness.   

Don’t read these stories in a hurry, as I wouldn’t describe this collection as casual reading.  Each story dives deep into its topic, and deserves to be savored. I was going to list my favorites from the collection, but I just about wrote down every story. Suffice it to say, this is a must read for any science fiction aficionados. 

Click here to buy Exhalation: Stories

2019 Wrap Up

Posted on January 15, 2020

I know we’re already two weeks into the new year, but I wish you a happy one nonetheless!

It’s been almost two months since my last post. To be honest, my mental health was not well during this time. Even though 2019 has been the best year of my life, I found myself slipping into my predictable, seasonal depression as my first winter living in Colorado began. The desire to write, to create, to do anything, disappeared. I was still reading (good books, at that), but not as much as usual, and without the familiar, feverish need to write about them. 

When I started this blog 6 months ago, my goal was to post one book review a month. After these two months of nothing, I inevitably started feeling like a failure. Who was I letting down? Myself, clearly. This blog wasn’t supposed to be a burden, yet I carry it like one – saddled by my own impossible expectations. Nobody asked me to write book reviews. Nobody pays me for the hours I spend reading, analyzing, note-taking, writing, and rewriting. Nobody is holding my hand, keeping me accountable. I hold my own hand, criticize myself, and listen to my gut. It is a solitary process, and it works for me.   

To read and write about books is my ideal job. The one I’d work without pay or complaint. Isn’t that the definition of finding your calling? But it isn’t that simple or romantic. Most days, I forget that I’ve heard the call at all. Or I convince myself that the call wasn’t meant for me, but for someone else. Then I start to question if I even heard it at all, or if it was a trick of the mind. When you struggle with impostor syndrome, it’s a constant, conscious effort to convince yourself that there is even a point in trying. It’s so much easier to give up and avoid the suffering that can come with exposing your true self and art to others. 

When I read my own writing, the self loathing routine begins almost immediately. Here is an example of how my negative thoughts can spiral.

You really think you are a good writer? But you don’t have natural talent. You have to try really hard, and it shows. You just don’t have the “it” factor. You write like whatever author you’re reading at the moment, and so you sound unoriginal. Mediocre. Oh, and you sound pretentious too. Like a pseudo intellectual, dripping in academic jargon. God. These aren’t even the types of book reviews people like to read. You’re just self-indulging. You don’t even sound smart, so why not at least try to be funnier? Controversial, perhaps? And you seriously want to write a book one day? Please. Maybe if you believed in your voice for once, it could happen. But you don’t.  Maybe you could write something that makes others believe in your storytelling . But you won’t. 

 I’m cringing a bit at how melodramatic my thoughts can be, but it’s the truth. After 6 months of effort, I realized that my negativity toward my own worth superseded all the positive feedback I’d received about my writing. I asked myself, why did I start this blog in the first place? 

It wasn’t to be admired, lauded, or respected. It was because of a book. Middlesex is one of those books that sets the bar even higher for the next. When I write about a book, it’s because it has affected me so much that I can’t bear to keep it a secret to myself. I’ll wonder at how I’m meant to return to normal life after having a book shatter and rearrange my worldview like glass shards in a mirror. My review of Middlesex is twice as long as my others. I was excited and wanted to force everyone to read it. You might have noticed that I don’t post negative reviews, and that’s because I think it’s a waste of my time. There are countless books to be read, and I like to gush about the good ones and move on from the bad. I don’t believe it helps anyone to shit on their book. I’d rather celebrate someone’s achievements. So why can’t I celebrate my own? 

The reason I decided to quit the self loathing and write again was because of a book (surprised?) – The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher. In one of her journal entries she kept during the filming of Star Wars, she writes, “I wish I could leave myself alone. I wish that I could finally feel that I punished myself enough.”  Those words punched me in the gut because it felt like myself talking. It felt like a wake up call. 19 year old Carrie and 27 year old Georgia have a lot in common – mostly in our inability to see ourselves clearly. We see ourselves through the eyes of other people. We see the failed version of ourselves as the true version.

I’ve punished myself enough. I will leave myself alone. I will continue to read, write, think, and overthink. I will cut myself some slack. And I will do it for no one but my damn self, because I truly do love this process. I have several reviews in the works that I can’t wait to share. If you’ve read this whole thing, thank you for listening. And I hope you can find the strength to show up for yourself, too.         

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

Posted on November 26, 2019

“This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another.”

The Fifth Season is a breath of fresh air. It’s the first book in a Science Fiction and Fantasy (SFF here on out) trilogy called The Broken Earth. In 2016, The Fifth Season won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, sending N.K. Jemisin into the literary spotlight. She was the first black author to win the prize. She joined a prestigious list of previous winners, including SFF legends Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke. She distinguished herself further when the next two novels in her trilogy continued to win the same award in 2017 and 2018. She is the only author to win three Best Novel Hugos in three consecutive years.

The story is set on a planet similar to ours, except for the near constant seismic activity that makes life on its super continent a constant struggle for survival. Every few centuries, an apocalypse-level-threat wreaks havoc on the earth in the form of climate disaster – a “Fifth Season.” The Sanze Empire has survived by exploiting a portion of its people, called orogenes. Orogenes are people born with the rare ability to control the earth’s energy, allowing them to cause and prevent earthquakes. There is a cost, however, since an untrained orogene child can unintentionally kill living things in their area of influence when performing orogeny. Due to this, they are generally despised and feared by people across the continent. If they are not killed in childhood, an orogene may be allowed to live if trained by a Guardian at the Fulcrum, where they can be controlled. The story follows Essun, whose son, an orogene, was just killed by his own father. Now, she must search for her remaining child during what appears to be the final, planet-destroying season.

It’s no secret that white men have been the voice of SFF storytelling since its genesis. For a black, female writer to break out in the genre, let alone dominate it, is nothing less than the genre deserves. In an interview with Wired, she said that she did not set out to write an allegory for slavery and caste oppression, but rather a story about a mother grieving her child. She ultimately delivers an epic – voiced by black characters – which masterfully blends science and art, creating a world I could easily imagine. She proves what we have known all along – black stories have a place in SFF.

Despite its heavy themes, you don’t need to read this series as an allegory to take something from it. The glory is in its world building, magic system, and in Jemisin’s extraordinary ability to make her characters come alive. This story is epic. It’s already in development to become a TV series, and my fingers are crossed that the producers will do the story justice. I highly recommend you read this one before it blows up.

Click here to buy The Fifth Season on Amazon

Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

Posted on November 15, 2019

“Is it better to speak or die?”


I recently watched a beautiful movie that you may have heard of, since it came out two years ago and received numerous accolades for its screenplay, score, and acting. The movie is Call Me By Your Name. I’m still mad that nobody alerted me to it sooner. There is so much to explore underneath the surface of this seemingly simple love story. When I discovered that it was adapted from a novel, I knew I had to read it and go deeper, and I was not disappointed.

Call Me By Your Name is set “somewhere in Italy in the summer of 1983.” Elio is the precocious seventeen year old son of a classics Professor. He and his parents spend their summers in Italy, hosting a revolving table of guests, and every year they invite a promising doctoral student to stay with them for 6 weeks and work with the Professor. This year’s guest is Oliver, a twenty four year old American who teaches at Colombia.

The story unfolds as Elio and Oliver discover that what they feel for each other is something much more than friendship – it’s love. Forbidden love.

Elio is the unreliable narrator through whom the story comes alive. His stream of consciousness narration is feverish, obsessive, and pitiful, at times. His every waking moment is consumed by thoughts of Oliver and whether his feelings are reciprocated. As I read, I also felt trapped within the emotional prison Elio creates in his mind – his shame shackling him to his cell. The tension between the two is almost unbearable.

In the background of all this tension, almost becoming a character itself, is the setting. It’s perfectly European. The quaint Italian town they reside in is romantic, enchanting, and feels more like a paradisal dream than a real location. I felt transported to a different realm, a realm of memory and nostalgia. But all that beauty means nothing without someone to share it with. Someone who sees us. And in the end, I think that’s what this story is about – recognizing yourself completely in another person, and being seen in return.

“He was my secret conduit to myself – like a catalyst that allows us to become who we are, the foreign body, the pacer, the graft, the patch that sends all the right impulses, the steel pin that keeps a soldier’s bone together, the other man’s heart that makes us more us than we were before the transplant.”

Andre Aciman has managed to write a modern love story that recalls all the tragedy, drama, and sensuality of European antiquity. Call Me By Your Name is about transcendent love, the impermanence of life, and all the treasured moments in between. I highly recommend it to all the hopeless romantics out there.

Click here to purchase Call Me By Your Name on Amazon

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Posted on October 4, 2019

It’s been a few months since I finished 1Q84. I read this 1,000 page behemoth on my Kindle, so I never had to lug around the true weight of this dense novel. But you can’t read Murakami and not feel the weight of his stories in your heart, nonetheless.

I read my first Murakami novel, Kafka on the Shore, a few years ago when I was an undergrad. I was drawn in by the title because it had ‘Kafka’ in it, one of my favorite authors. I had never heard of Haruki Murakami, this apparently influential and prolific Japanese author. I did some research. Like Kafka, his work is also described as surrealistic and dreamlike. In fact, in the literary world, Murakami is considered one of the pioneers of magical realism (now one of my favorite genres). Magical realism is a type of fiction that is set in a realistic world, yet imbued with magical elements. In these types of novels, we have to suspend our disbelief. The authors don’t try to convince us to believe in the unbelievable; that isn’t their job. Instead, they ask the reader to reserve judgment – to go into this fictional world believing in nothing and everything. Ready for the unknown.

At its heart, 1Q84 is a love story within that unknown. I fell in love with our two main characters, Tengo and Aomame. Tengo – the reserved, talented, and hardworking novelist. Aomame – the badass, mysterious assassin who carries an emptiness inside of her. I fell even more in love with the intriguing story that slowly weaves together their paralleled lives. I don’t want to give anything away, but suffice it to say it involves a creepy, mystical cult, mysterious disappearances, a fateful encounter, air chrysalises, and enough magic to make you question what’s real.

Critics of this book would probably describe it as overly long, misogynistic at times, boring, and filled with tedious, meticulous description. They’re not wrong. A lot of the novel is repetitive, with paragraphs that could be omitted and not affect the story. But Murakami lovers relish in the way he describes the details. How he makes us believe that nothing is so small as to be unimportant in the grand scheme of things. And that is what gives his stories power.

1Q84 makes me think of the ancient Greek myth of soulmates. Plato explains below:

“Humans were originally created with four arms, four legs and a head with two faces. Fearing their power, Zeus split them into two separate parts, condemning them to spend their lives in search of their other halves.”

This book’s body is severed into two halves – Tengo and Aomame. They both long to become whole again, and their journey to find each other is wonderfully mysterious, unnerving, sensual, and full of tension.

This book isn’t for everyone. Reading 1Q84 takes time and effort. Dedication, even. It’s not a perfect novel, but it is unforgettable. If you read the first couple of pages and find yourself being transported into its world, then the read will be exciting and worthwhile.

Click to buy 1Q84 on Amazon

A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver

Posted on September 9, 2019

“In the morning there is meaning, in the evening there is feeling.”

– Gertrude Stein

The morning is a time of slow contemplation. Well, for Mary Oliver it is. I’ve always struggled with mornings. If there’s a choice, I’ll almost always choose to sleep in. That is, unless, there’s something worth waking up for – the beauty of a sunrise, for example. I could find meaning in that. A thousand meanings, for a thousand mornings.

A Thousand Mornings is the perfect book of poetry for people who hate poetry. I love the form myself, but I know that most people don’t. I didn’t at first. Poetry can be intimidating, and the way it’s taught in schools can be tortuously analytical. People start to believe that poetry isn’t for them. That it is part of some realm reserved for intellectuals. And that is a shame, because I believe that poetry can be healing. Hearing a beautiful poem is like hearing a beautiful song; you can come back to it whenever you need to for comfort or clarity.

Mary Jane Oliver died this past January of lymphoma at the age of 83. Oliver remains hugely popular in the world of American poetry. She is known for her simplistic prose that celebrates the everyday wonders of the natural world. A Thousand Mornings is a small collection of some of her most memorable poems. Poetry need not be full of veiled meanings and highfalutin language. There is beauty in simplicity. Mary Oliver’s poems are easy to read. Her writing is crisp. Her ideas presented plainly. She asks the age old questions of life, and recognizes her smallness in the universe.

The body of A Thousand Mornings is old. While reading, it feels like I can hear Mary’s grandmotherly voice and see her wrinkled hand, pointing at the leaves falling off a tree, slowing me down with her presence. White hair flows out between the pages, extending from them as naturally as a leaf sprouts from a branch. This body is a long time in the making – both a student and teacher of the world.

Each morning that the sun rises is a testament to the truth that time is passing; what can we make of that? The sun will die, and so will we, but right now we are both alive, celebrating the infinity of meaning.

Click to Buy A Thousand Mornings on Amazon

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Posted on August 27, 2019

Hermaphroditus. Digital art done by me in Procreate

Middlesex is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, published in 2002.

Caution! 
Some spoilers ahead from the first half of the book. Not enough to ruin the book. But maybe just the right amount to make you want to know what happens next. 

One month ago, I moved from San Antonio, Texas to Denver, Colorado. For me and for many others, moving isn’t just a geographical change, but an opportunity for a reinvention of self. A fresh start. Look at me – I’ve found the determination to finally start a blog, which makes me feel extremely vulnerable. But I haven’t quit out of fear yet. And while my shift into the public, online world may be slightly unnerving, it pales in comparison to the transition that Calliope, our unforgettable narrator, undergoes. 

Callie is different from most people. In fact, she is rare. She knows she is different, but she doesn’t understand just how different. In a heartbreaking moment inside the New York Public Library, Callie flips through an ancient-looking dictionary, looking for that word. The one she saw written in Dr. Luce’s clinical notes about her. The one that would come to disrupt her notion of self. The dictionary read as follows:

Hermaphrodite   —1. One having the sex organs and many of the secondary sex characteristics of both male and female. 2. Anything comprised of a combination of diverse or contradictory elements. See synonyms at MONSTER.

Throughout the 20th century, intersex people were referred to as hermaphrodites. The word hermaphrodite is ancient, and comes from  Hermaphroditus, who was the mythical child of the Greek gods, Hermes and Aphrodite. I won’t tell the whole story here, but essentially, Hermaphroditus ends up possessing both male and female qualities. In some broader thinking cultures around the world, Hermaphroditus and Callie would fall into the “third gender” category and be celebrated. In others, they would be isolated and demonized. But to even try to categorize intersex people is impossible. The rare condition is, like the notion of gender itself, too complex and misunderstood. Ultimately, it isn’t Cal’s genitalia that comes to define him. Yes, his condition influences the entirety of his life, but in the end it is his choice to accept himself, as he is, that allows him to move on with life.

Let us backtrack a bit so you can understand why I sometimes refer to Calliope as ‘her’, and sometimes as ‘he’ (Cal). Callie lives the first part of her life as a girl. That is, until puberty begins, and she realizes she isn’t developing like the rest of her peers. Callie was born with 5-Alpha-Reductase deficiency. This means that she is genetically male. The X and Y chromosome are present.  However, she cannot produce enough of the hormone dihydrotestosterone, which is critical in male sexual development. Thus, her genitalia appear female until puberty, when it becomes more ambiguous, and her identity crisis begins. 

Middlesex is an ode to the connection between ourselves and our history, and how our choices and our biology are inextricably linked. To discover how Callie developed this extremely rare condition, we have to travel back through time. In the very first pages of the novel, in a parody of Greek drama, Callie eloquently sets the stage for this modern reimagining of the epic: 

“Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome! Sing how it bloomed two and a half centuries ago on the slopes of Mount Olympus, while the goats bleated and the olives dropped. Sing how it passed down through nine generations, gathering invisibly within the polluted pool of the Stephanie’s family. And sing how Providence, in the guise of a massacre, sent the gene flying again; how it blew like a seed across the sea to America, where it drifted through our industrial rains until it fell to earth in the fertile soil of my mother’s own Midwestern womb. Sorry if I get a little Homeric at times. That’s genetic, too.” (4)

Oh, did I mention our narrator is Greek? In fact, the novel is profoundly Greek. And you know the Greeks love their epics. Middlesex is likewise epic in its scope, as it tells the story of three generations of the Stephanides family and their journey from a small Turkish village in the mountains to the industrial city of Detroit in the 1920s. To Callie, every action that led to her birth is significant and full of meaning, and she begins her story with the catalyst for it all – the incestuous relationship between her grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona. 

In the first half of the novel, Callie is an omniscient narrator, detailing her family history with the lyrical prowess that defines this novel. Interestingly, in Greek mythology, the muse of epic poetry was also named Calliope. She was believed by some to be the inspiration for Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. Our 20th century Calliope’s narration feels like a tragic comedy, imbued with divine inspiration, yet humbled by modernist doubt.

Finally, it’s time to imagine this book as body. And what a special body it is. It is uniquely Calliope. A body at the center of debate. A body that stands at the center of the nature vs. nurture debate. On display. Studied. Examined. Demonized. A body that feels like it’s in the wrong skin. There is familiarity there as well as unfamiliarity. And its brain – cerebral, thoughtful, yearning for truth, always in desperate conflict with the heart. But this heart is broken, split in half like Callie’s life – into the before and after. And still, despite all the pain, guilt, and shame that fills this body, it does not fall into despair. Instead it grabs the reader by the hand, intimately, and heals by telling its story. Its complicated, beautiful story. 

By: Georgia Pistorio

Click here to buy Middlesex on Amazon