We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler: Verily

I’m a huge fan of Lemony Snicket but until We Are Pirates, I had never read a book by the man behind the man, Daniel Handler. If you’ve read A Series of Unfortunate Events, then you’re familiar with Handler’s tongue-in-cheek style and ethereal interpretation of what the fourth wall is. As a youth, those characteristics pulled me ever deeper into his writing.

They’re all present in this novel, though in new iterations. Handler’s narrator is a sneaky investigator attending an open house at the main characters’ (the Needle family) who finds himself enjoying the pants-up, lid-down peace of Phil Needle’s personal toilet where he recounts (imagines?) the events of the last few months. Handler is true to his wry, biting sense of humor and satire throughout the novel, and it is indeed “strange,” as Neil Gaiman comments in his blurb. Handler even employs his familiar technique of phrase repetition to tie his themes together, one example being multiple uses of “during this era of American history.”

All this was present and yet, this novel fell short. It kept my attention while I was reading, but once I set the book down, I didn’t think about it again until I picked it up again.

Amidst the general okayness of We Are Pirates, Handler did manage to touch on a few interesting points. He talks a lot about the state of American society, neither condemning nor praising it, and that, I feel, is what the book is really about. Within that theme he discusses adolescence, individuality, ageism, aging, Alzheimer’s, generation gaps, and much more. What drew my attention most, though, was his (scant but sharp) look at racism. From describing (quite accurately) the way white people try to convince themselves they are prejudiceless, to pointing out that most of the characters are white, Handler’s comments are very conscious and quite hard to interpret. “Just about everyone one else, by the way, in this book is white,” he says, the non-white character being a man from Haiti whose boss thinks he’s Jamaican. So Daniel Handler calls out novelists writing only white characters, but it’s unclear whether he’s satirizing the situation or merely admitting to its perpetuation. Either way, his comments are worth noting after the joke he made following Jacqueline Woodson’s speech at the 2014 National Book Awards.

did laugh, I did like the characters. We Are Pirates is absurd, honest, and brutal–all the things it promised to be. But there wasn’t the magic that makes a good novel a great novel. Maybe I misread this one, but for me it wasn’t the novel that Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon, and Russel T. Davies promised it would be.

We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler: Verily

Mondays on the Dark Night of the Moon by Kirin Narayan

I’m a sucker for folklore and fairy tales. I feel like everyone says that. Well, I say it too. Combine that with a predisposition to whimsically splurge buying books and a University Bookstore sale, and that’s how you get your hands on a copy of this gem. Narayan was a folklorist at the University of Wisconsin, my alma mater, and I suppose she used this book in one of her classes. Someone sold it back to the bookstore I couldn’t be happier with their decision.

Narayan has collected here a sample of Kangra folktales told in the mountain dialect of northern India.

Here’s the soundbite on the back cover:

Twenty-one tales of women’s ritual power and adventure quests


At first, this deterred me from reading the book. I was a different person then and didn’t fancy myself interested in women writers. Classic, right? If you’re reading this post and have reservations about this book because it’s about tales of women’s ritual power and adventure quests, please rethink a lot of things, but especially this book. I finally found the right time in my life to read this and here is what I found.

I opened the volume expecting the formulaic foreword, introduction, translator’s note, table of contents, and twenty-one back-to-back stories with occasional footnotes. What I encountered was a study on storytelling, relationships, culture, and character in an innovative form I’ve never heard of or seen. Yes, Narayan has included a preface, introduction, and afterword, but that is where the similarities with my expectations end. The tales storyteller Urmila Devi Sood recounts are short, usually five pages or less. The book is 225 pages long, leaving about 115 pages unaccounted for based on how I imagined the book.

As it turns out, each story is individually prefaced and followed by Urmilaji (the respectful name Narayan uses for her cohort) and Narayan’s contexualization and explication of the stories, mixed in with a delightful amount of Narayan’s beautiful and exact prose. While they sit together through seasons and temperamental weather, Urmilaji weaving stories she learned from her father and her community, Narayan transcribing, recording, and offering opinions, we see the two grow very close. Their respecting, admiring relationship is in stark contrast to the cold, often neglectful relationships between women in the various stories and we see in full detail the common struggle of a woman in Kangra society, divided between two homes, taking on the numerous duties the mother-in-law once held.

The story told outside the stories is as touching and compelling as the masterfully told and translated folktales themselves. Right from the first, I was grabbed by these wonderful tales. A few of the stories stand out as exceptional, even among the high average quality of the collection: “Across the Seven Seas,” “The Twelve Years of Affliction,” “Love Like Salt,” and “The Devouring Demoness.”

As the end draws near, Narayan and Urmilaji, now intimately comfortable with one another engage in enrapturing dialog about the final stories and Narayan recounts their conversations fondly. In my opinion, this isn’t a collection of folktales. It’s a reflection on Narayan’s fieldwork and a closely personal examination of how relationships develop. It’s a piece of fieldwork unmatched by any I’ve seen. I became deeply entrenched in the frequent meetings of the two outstanding women.

By the end of the last chapter, I was nearly in tears.

Read this book.

Mondays on the Dark Night of the Moon by Kirin Narayan

The Quest for Higher Education

Last fall, a friend of mine convinced me to begin applying to MFA programs for creative writing. If you look at my resume or at the classes I took in university or at the extra-curriculars I joined, it’s obvious that writing was what I really wanted to do (even if I never said it out loud) despite majoring in Math and Linguistics. I got together my best fiction and my best plays and whatever money I could spare and sent out applications.

The prohibitive cost of graduate applications is a subject for another, much angrier post.

I’m aware that my chances to be placed in the programs I want are nowhere near 100%: I haven’t written as much as my peers, haven’t been as dedicated, haven’t honed my craft like they have. But still, it’s non-0. There’s a chance. And if nothing else, I figured, this can be my test run. My situation is currently comfortable enough that I can wait a year or two to get accepted if I need to. I’m extremely fortunate for that.

Despite my non-committal, flexible attitude, I had no idea what an emotional roller coaster this STUPID WAITING PROCESS would be.

Even though I am fully prepared for the worst, there’s a sliver of me that can’t help but be way, way too hopeful and every day I don’t hear back lengthens my anxious suffering. I don’t care if I’m accepted or rejected. I just want to know. Not knowing is surprisingly and increasingly hard.

I heard from an inside source (:P, not quite a secret) that decisions to one school would be made by February 9th and letters would come immediately that week. Well, it turns out that a faculty member was away for an extended period of time and couldn’t make decisions until much later. Some time next week, probably.  l That’s totally understandable. I can sympathize with that. But on the inside, I’m screaming. There’s an immediate sense of relief that comes after news like this. I DON’T HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT IT, NOT TODAY! But then, the looming sense of dread comes again in the week leading up to the new expected deadline.

As I told a friend yesterday, venting about this:

That news was like waiting to die and then being told my disease was in remission, but during the course of treatment, I’d developed another terminal disease and was still gonna die, just a little bit later than expected.

I am being a little dramatic? Yeah, way. But it’s interesting how powerful this anxiety can be, even when my whole future isn’t immediately riding on the decision.

I’ll hear from my schools eventually. But until then? I’ll be pulling my hair out every day.

The Quest for Higher Education

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel Review: A Study in Memory

Welcome to my first post of Book Thoughts! Be prepared for lots of amateur criticism. I’m writing this blog to improve and expand the way I read books and I’m happy to start discussions and field constructive criticisms! Leave me a message in the comments and I’ll be sure to answer. Now, on to Station Eleven! (Oh yes, there will be spoilers.)

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014) is an intricately woven tale of love and memory within a rapidly changing society. Split into nine parts and fifty-five chapters, the novel cycles through a whirlwind of third-person perspectives naturally and adroitly developing a story never quite in present or past about a traveling symphony and Shakespeare troupe traversing the Midwest in the later of twenty years after a global pandemic caused by the “Georgia flu” decimates the world population. A nearly equal amount of time is spent in the twenty or so years leading up to the flu and especially the days of the first worldwide outbreaks. Taken together, these temporal shifts illustrate how personal relationships and social memory remain largely unchanged even as society is broken down macroscopically.

If the premise seems strange to you, I urge you to suppress that feeling and read on. After reading the novel, I’m convinced that joining a traveling acting group is the most natural path to take after a devastating virus kills our conception of society. You’ll know where to find me once civilization has collapsed.

Mandel employs not only time shifts and flashbacks to construct the narrative but also shifts in tense. Scenes set in the post-fall time vary between a present and a past narration. The same is true for scenes in the pre-fall. This appears to be a storytelling technique consciously utilized to force the reader into jumping between a feeling of immediacy or a feeling of retrospection. The technique is effective and, in the end, logical. Logical because it seems that the character Clark holds all the pieces together. He is the glue between all the perspectives because he knew all of the characters who the story follows. In that case, it may be that the whole story is created or narrated by Clark and passed on, becoming a part of the oral tradition of the post-collapse, told for generations in his Museum of Civilization. If we take this to be true, a narrative style more fluid, imperfect, and talky makes sense.

In a sense, this book is Clark’s greatest contribution to his museum.

Fundamentally, this book is an exploration of how things change and how things stay the same. At its core, Station Eleven is a depiction of what Mandel sees as the unchanging, foundational aspects of human society and interaction, our relationships. This novel is a delightful, powerful, and accessible look at what makes us human and how we preserve and cultivate those relationships even in the most dire of circumstances. Station Eleven earned every accolade it garnered in 2014. I look forward to reading more of Mandel’s work in the future.

Discussion question: Now that Station Eleven has been optioned and purchased (!!!), who is your ideal director for the film? (Shout out to Pints and Cupcakes for, among a million other things, raising this question to me a few days ago.)

Coming soon:

Rat Queens

Kafka on the Shore

One Hundred Years of Solitude (read in Spanish)

And many others!

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel Review: A Study in Memory