I Accidentally Read A Book About Samoa and I Apologize In Advance for the Tangents That Are About To Ensue

So.

The Last Bookaneer.

I read this book several weeks ago, but it’s taken me this long to write the review because it turns out a huge chunk of the book is set in Samoa and I needed a few weeks to distance myself from that fact before I could accurately judge. Because Samoa gets my feelings going for sure. Basically, this is me when every someone brings up Samoa, ever:

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Okay, so a little background (slash warning for what’s the come in this post): I used to live in Samoa. I moved there to teach high school students Earth Science and Marine Science for one year. Here are some of my hooligans (and they are hooligans, but I love them immensely):

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School uniforms in Samoa consist of the traditional ‘ie lavalava. 

In Samoa, I fell in love (with the Samoan people, with a specific person, with the islands, with the whole culture, with Polynesia, with my students–it was ridiculous, all the feels.) I came home after my one year of teaching was over and spent an entire summer spontaneously bursting into tears because I missed Samoa so much, until my parents got sick of me and kicked me out of their house and halfway across the Pacific Ocean back to my little island. They did this lovingly, and they did it even though they did NOT want me to move to the actual opposite side of the globe again. Because my parents rock and know me better than I know myself.

Ahem. Sorry. Got a little “I love evvvvvryone” there for a second.

Anyway, I ended up moving back to my little island chain in the South Pacific and signing a contract with the government to teach for another two years. Full disclosure: I am palagi. This is the Samoan word for white person. Because I am white. So very, very, very white. Possibly the whitest person ever, I discovered once I had my first of many battles between my skin and the equatorial sun. Oh, how I would have killed for some melanin! I would post a picture of my sunburnt self but I think I deleted them because they were so horrific. It was bad. And they don’t sell sunscreen often in Samoa, because, well, they don’t use it. So this was an ongoing struggle.

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My little Samoan island baking in the equatorial sun. 

But I digress. I bring this up because although I am, in fact, aware that I am palagi, I am so so so so Samoan at heart. I jump head first into that wonderful culture…learned the language:

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Samoan is kind of impossible to learn at first, but just like the culture itself, it eventually started to make sense…or I just became indoctrinated in the crazy haha.

immersed myself in village life:

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Ping pong next to the outhouse. As you do.

attended church (a big thing there now, although in the time of The Last Bookaneer, Christianity was not really a thing yet):

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Samoans take church very seriously. Matching outfits, coordinated song-and-dance serious. It’s highly enjoyable.

I became so immersed that even Samoans forgot I was palagi and would do things like forget to speak English to me, make jokes that only Samoans understood to me, physically abused me (slapstick physical comedy involving violence to their nearest and dearest is how Samoans show their love so you know you’ve been truly accepted once they start hitting you and laughing hysterically haha), and generally treated me like I had always lived there. The night I left, my “boys” (I accidentally joined a Samoan gang) showed up at the airport with a t shirt they made me and a song they composed to sing for me (all Samoans can sing. All of them. Not exaggerating. It gives you goosebumps.)

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Me surrounded by my “gang” of students at the airport the night I left Samoa. You can’t tell but they are singing a song they wrote for me and I am absolutely bawling my eyes out.

If you want a sample of the amazing, impromptu singing ability of Samoans, watch this video of Samoan wild land firefighters singing as they come down a mountain in California after being sent there to help with wildfires: Singing Samoan Firefighters

Long story short: my heart (lotu) is half Samoan. So it’s really hard for me to read or speak about Samoa without getting really excited and/or really homesick. Because that place felt more like home to me than anywhere else I have ever lived–tied with the Pennsylvania Appalachians, where I grew up and love immensely. So I apologize in advance for the many Samoan tangents that are about to happen in this review (like this one.)

So, the book!

The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl. Here it is:

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Real talk: I picked this book up because I though the title was fun and the cover is so cool. But I have a habit of only reading the first paragraph of a cover synopsis because I feel like there are often spoilers at the end of the synopsis. In this case, by not reading the full synopsis I missed the crucial (to me) sentence “On the island of Samoa, a dying Robert Louis Stevenson labors over a new novel.” So I went into this book having no idea the large majority of it would be set in Samoa. Surprise!

Just so you know, here is Samoa:

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You may have to squint.

Yeah. It’s really in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. A tiny dot in a big ol’ sea. Just to give you some perspective.

“Amber, that’s enough about Samoa, what the heck is the plot of this book?!”

Right. One more photo first just because I never get to share them.

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Traditional Samoan siva (dance). So…yeah, the men throw themselves at the feet of the women sometimes, and then the bystanders throw money at them and yell. I swear it makes sense in the moment. #IGuessYouHadToBeThere

The book!

Basically, this book is about the demise of the Bookaneers, a small and elite group of people who  try to stick it to the huge publishing companies by stealing manuscripts and publishing them before the companies can–and make a profit, of course. It’s set in the last decade of the 1800s, primarily in London and Samoa. Bookaneers believe they are helping the average person in the world by making books accessible to all, so they go around the world and do things like steal Mary Shelley’s lost Frankenstein notes before they are sold to the highest bidder. I’ll admit I have mixed feelings about the whole concept of bookaneers. As a book lover, I found their actions dubious at best. But I also live in a time and place where books are cheap and easy to get, so who knows what kind of desperate things I would have done to get my hands on my favorite author’s books back before it was easy to do so. Regardless of my personal feelings about the bookaneers themselves, this book was fun to read just for the adventure of it all. There are several bookaneers featured in the story, but there are really four main characters, three of them fiction, one a real life historic figure.

A (really) brief rundown of the characters: Pen Davenport, one of the most elite Bookaneers. Mr. Fergins, bookseller from London who ends up working for Davenport. Mr Clover, a young black railroad porter who loves reading and whom Mr Fergins slips free books to on the sly. And finally, the starring character in my opinion: Robert Louis Stevenson, real life author of such classics as Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The whole plot of the novel Mr Fergins telling Mr Clover the story of he and Davenport going to Samoa to steal Robert Louis Stevenson’s last, great manuscript before Stevenson dies. (He died at age 44 in Samoa.)

Robert Louis Stevenson was a really interesting character. If you don’t know anything about him, you should look him up. He was born into a family of well-known lighthouse engineers. The “lighthouse Stevensons” were famous for constructing impossible lighthouses all around the British Isles, most famously the Bell Rock lighthouse 11 miles of the coast of Scotland, built in the middle of the dang sea. Despite being absolutely pounded by waves 24/7, it was so well built in 1807 that it hasn’t had to be replaced or modified, ever. It would certainly be a lonely station for a lighthouse keeper, not that they all weren’t of course.

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Bell Rock Lighthouse now. Still hanging in. Thanks, Stevensons!

Robert Louis Stevenson was the oddball of the family, who wanted to write stories instead of design lighthouses. He was a total boss, honestly. People such as Ernest Hemingway and Arthur Conan Doyle admitted to having admired his writing greatly. And he had a great face for a storyteller. Check him out:

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Tell me that isn’t the look of a man who knows how to tell a good story.

Stevenson was also really sick: it’s commonly said that he had tuberculosis, but modern doctors think it may have been a different, chronic lung ailment. Whatever it was, it caused him to move in search of “better climate” frequently. That’s how he ended up in Samoa: he was searching for a warmer climate in the hope that his illness would abate. And Samoa got it’s hooks in him, because that is what Samoa does. He ended building a house there and living there the rest of his life. The house is the main location for the second half of The Bookaneer. His house was called Vailima (five rivers in Samoan).

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Wait, sorry. Wrong Vailima. 

Here’s his house back in the 1800s:

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And here it is now (looking way more fancy than it did back then):

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By contrast, here’s a traditional Samoan fale  (open sided house) where I stayed once upon a time.

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You sleep on mats on the floor in the traditional fale. I didn’t hate it.

When it comes down to it, my favorite thing about this book is all the research the author obviously put into it regarding Samoa. He was really spot on about a lot of things.

…tropical heat is oppressive in a unique way. It consumes you entirely. It seems to enter the skin and eyes, to crawl under the hair and nails; it becomes part of you and takes your breath. I’d learn there are only two Samoan seasons: hot and dry, and hot and rainy.

This is just truest thing ever said about Samoa. It’s hot. Really, really, really hot. All the time. So hot. Matthew Pearl, the author, has to have been to Samoa. He got the details of the place so right. He speaks of the ‘ava ceremony, which I witnessed a few times when I lived there:

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Traditional Samoan ‘ava ceremony.

He also did a really good job with his characterization of Stevenson. It’s a tricky thing to bring a real life person in as a character in a fictional book and not ruin their historic substance, but Pearl does it really well. Stevenson was popular in Samoa. A large part of this stems from the fact that he was a very well-known writer even then, and there are few things more valuable in Samoa culture than the ability to tell a story. That’s how they hand down their history, through oral storytelling. Stevenson was one of them in that aspect, and he got a Samoan name to match: Tusitala (the teller of tales). From all accounts available, the Samoan really seems to consider him one of their own, which is reflected well in this novel.

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Stevenson kicking it with Samoan peeps in the 1890s. 

This novel also accurately mentioned a lot of virtually unknown history relating to the colonization of Samoa by England, Germany, and the United States. For instance, Mr Fergins discusses the Samoan Crisis, in which England, Germany and the U.S. almost went to war over the Samoan islands in 1887. What stopped the war? A cyclone (hurricane.) This is a delightfully true coincidence of history: a huge tropical cyclone hit Samoa right as the standoff between the naval powers came to a head. The cyclone stopped a war by destroying all the warships. With no warships, the powers that be decided to “peacefully” divide the islands between themselves. (Peaceful for white people, not so much for the Samoans, since the colonial powers were egging on a Samoan Civil War to try to put a puppet ruler on the throne, and it ended badly for a lot of the natives. As is usually the case during colonial times). This novel talks about the aftermath of the Samoan Civil War and how it impacted the average Samoan, which is really awesome to see mentioned. So few people know what colonialism did to the Pacific Islands, and it’s nice to see it discussed in this novel.

I don’t want to delve too much into the plot, because spoilers. Suffice to say, shenanigans ensue between RLS, Davenport and Mr Fergins. Did they ever get RLS’s last manuscript? Read the book and find out for yourself!

So, overall opinion on this book: I liked it. I did not love it. I find the concept of the bookaneers to be kind of sketchy. I think they were supposed to be viewed as helping the world get access to books, but I found them to be extremely self-serving, and it was hard for me to root for them. Honestly, I was rooting for RLS the whole time, and hoping they didn’t get his manuscript.

I would really only recommend this novel to someone who really loved books, or someone who knows Samoa. Because the most redeeming things about this novel are the character of Robert Louis Stevenson (the author incorporates real quotes by the author into the storyline, so the characterization is really well done), Mr. Clover’s genuine love of books, the Samoan Islands lending a very good sense of atmosphere to the novel, and the ending.

The ending. I can’t write much because it’s a big spoiler. But I will say after a whole novel of questioning the author’s apparent attempts to make the bookaneers into sympathetic characters, the ending made me consider that perhaps the author’s point was the exact opposite all along. It was good. A very good ending that made the reader think about the complexities of passion, what it means to be good and bad, and that proverbial road to hell being paved with good intentions.

 

Snow White is a Gluttonous Tyrant and the Seven Dwarves are Marxists and Overall I Really Enjoyed this Book

Warning: There might be minor spoilers in this review. More like scenes I found amusing yet don’t give away the ending, but I’m warning you just in case.

“High in his attic bedroom, twelve-year-old David mourns the loss of his mother. He is angry and he is alone, with only the books on his shelf for company.

But those books have begun to whisper to him in the darkness…”

I’m not sure why I seem to be on a kick where the main characters of the books I read are all young boys whose mothers have just died, but here we are. I’ve had The Book of Lost Things on my “To Read This Year” list for, I don’t know, approximately 4 years. And I’ve had the book in my possession that whole time, so I really have no idea why I didn’t actually pick it up until this week. But I’m so glad I finally did. Here’s the cover:

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Solidly enticing, if you’re the sort who judges a book by its cover. Which: I kinda am. Sometimes. I can’t help it! It’s not that I won’t read a book just because it had a bad cover, but I’m more likely to pick up a book if it’s cool-looking, and don’t even pretend you aren’t the same.

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Oh hai Obama! I miss you!

Ahem.

Anyway.

The basic premise (without giving away any major plot points) is thus: David, a young boy living in World War II-era England, is not only dealing with life during the war, but also the death of his mother to cancer and the subsequent remarrying of his father and the birth of a new baby brother. Plus, the family is uprooted from London to the country to escape the constant German bombing, so it’s a lot for a boy to deal with all at once.

He’s kind of a funny kid. A little odd, and a little bit of a loner. He takes solace in books and the fairy tales his mother used to tell him. Then one day the books began talking to him—and a sketchy character called the Crooked Man begins appearing in his dreams. Next thing you know, a German bomber has crash-landed in the backyard as David is out there, sending him flying (no pun intended) into another world, where he desperately tries to find his way to the kingdom’s castle so the king can send him back home.

But the Crooked Man has other plans—and all is not as it seems.

The world he ends up has a lot of a familiar characters—the Big Bad Wol(ves), the Woodsman, Snow White, the Seven Dwarves, Goldilocks, a mysterious king, a knight heading off to rescue a sleeping woman in a tower—but they are all just slightly (very) different than what David (and the reader) remembers from the stories.

And that is what makes this book awesome.

I won’t touch too much on what happens when he reaches the castle and finds the king, because it’s hard to talk about without giving away the whole plot. But I will talk about the cast of characters, because these aren’t your mother’s fairy tale characters, and I found the changes to be rather genius (and sometimes hilarious).

Still, if you don’t want to know anything about the plot, stop now. Go read it. Come back. Read this. Tell me what you think.

For those of you who are okay with some discussion that doesn’t give away the plot, proceed!

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So, when David ends up in this weird new land, there are a lot of differences from the fairy tales he remembers. Everything is a lot more sinister. He first comes across the Woodsman, who rescues him from the Big Bad Wolves—yes, I said wolves. As in plural. Because in a unique twist that I enjoyed, the Big Bad Wolves in this world are half-human/half-canine creatures called Loups—who came into being thanks to a sinister Red Riding Hood (who doesn’t make a real time appearance, just gets a mention), and well…there’s no delicate way to say this: she gets it on with a wolf.

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Huh. There really is a meme for everything.

The products of this unholy union are the Loups: wolves who have the intelligence of men and walk upright and dress like men but have the instincts of wolves and are pretty evil and scary and trying to take over the whole kingdom and definitely want to eat David.  Pretty cool bad guy(s) honestly.

To be fair, it’s not totally Red Riding Hood’s fault they exist. But I won’t get into that cause it’s a pretty major spoiler.

David knows he has to get to the King so he can get back to his world, and he’s helped along by first the Woodsman and then a knight named Roland who is searching for a tower with a woman cursed to sleep forever trapped inside it—but like everyone else, Roland isn’t quite what he seems. His reason for wanting to get to the tower turn out not to have anything to do with his need to rescue the sleeping maiden and everything to do with tracking down his erstwhile love: another knight named Rafael who went on a quest for the tower to prove himself. Honestly, the whole thing was kind of great. Kind of. But again, no spoilers.

Along the way through his journey, David will also encounter trolls (literally guarding a bridge and also fighting off harpies, who really are in the wrong myth, which David notes because he’s a smart kid.) There are sundry other Beasts and Baddies, plus regular ol’ village people (not the YMCA kind but equally as annoying). But my ABSOLUTE FAVORITE characters were the seven dwarves—or should I say, the Comrade Brothers. Because yes, my friends, the dwarves are Marxists, fighting the man. And by the man, they mean Snow White. Who is a gluttonous tyrant who basically holds them hostage and oh, by the way, it turns out it was the dwarves who tried to kill her with the apple. They then blamed it on the Evil Queen, but oops, they forgot to check her alibi, and she wasn’t even in town so they definitely got caught. And now they are stuck with Snow, who’s really awful, as they dig dig dig dig dig dig the whole day through—stockpiling diamonds so they can one day make their escape and help the other creatures of the kingdom overthrow the capitalist system.  It’s so great. So great. I was literally lol-ing the whole time the dwarves were on the scene. An excerpt:

“So you mean you tried to poison Snow White?”

“We just wanted her to nod off for a while,” said Brother Number Two.

“But why?” said David

“You’ll see,” said Brother Number One. “Anyway, we feed her an apple: chomp-chomp, snooze-snooze, weep-weep, “poor Snow White, we will miss her but life goes on.” We lay her out on a slab, surround her with flowers and little weeping bunny rabbits, you know, all the trimmings, then along comes a bloody prince and kisses her. We don’t even have a prince around here. He just appeared out of nowhere on a bleeding white horse. Next you know he’s climbed off and he’s onto Snow White like a whippet down a rabbit hole. Don’t know what he thought he was doing, gadding about randomly kissing strange women who happened to be sleeping at the time.”

“Pervert,” said Brother Number Three “Ought to be locked up.”

…I just cannot. I’m still dying, the dwarves are so great. In fact, I’m going to end with them, I think, because I can’t really get into the reasons David ends up in this crazy world or the whole deal with the King or the real truth being the Loups or what’s up with the Crooked Man without majorly spoiling the whole thing.

…Can you guess his name?

Ahem.

I will say this. The Crooked Man is one of the most terrifying characters I’ve encountered in literature.

So, to sum up: I really really liked this book. There is a small part almost at the end that I found unnecessarily tragic, but the very end makes up for it just enough to leave me with an overall good feeling. So: this one is a highly recommend!

Montana Libraries Probably Have a Hit Out On Me, and Other Introductory Facts

Whelp, I’ve finally pulled the trigger and started a book review blog like all my fans have been demanding for years. (And by all my fans, I mean my mom and my friend Cat.)

I’ve never been the best at keeping things like journals updated, so I’ve been hesitant to start any sort of blog, but you know what? I like reading and I like writing, and I like when people read what I write. So, why not give it a go?

My name is Amber. I am an employee of a shall-not-be-named-because-the-Hatch-Act-prevents-me-from-even-accidentally-using-my-position-for-profit government agency. I’ll just say that we’re like one of the only popular government agencies, we manage public lands, and our employees move around a lot. It’s kind of point of pride to me that I have a library card in half the states in the United States and some of the territories. I also have a habit of wracking up fines in all those libraries, but we don’t need to talk about that. Just…if you see a wanted poster featuring a curly-haired redhead in your public library, it might be me.

I’m much better about this as a “grown-up,” I swear. I’m trying to make amends for my wayward youth as a library outlaw. So librarians in Clarion, Pennsylvania; Rapid City, South Dakota; and Farmington, New Mexico: call me!

Ahem. I’ve said too much. Or at least too much about a subject that is not the point of this blog.

Fair warning: that may happen a lot actually. I’m a big fan of tangentially-related sidetracks. They’re usually humorous, though, so you’ll probably enjoy them. And dang it, this is MY blog. If I can’t spew my word vomit on the internet, where can I?

Huh. This blog software wants me to insert a quote. So here’s a good one I saw recently:

Dinosaurs didn’t read. Look what happened to them. –Random Dude in the bar’s t-shirt

Okay, enough stalling. Without (much) further ado, my first book review!

A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine gave me Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book to read.

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I have a hit or miss relationship with Gaiman, so I put it off for a while. Last night around 7 pm, I finally picked it up, thinking I’d read a couple of chapters before bed.

Fast forward to 11 pm and me finishing the book and then just staring at nothing.

I’ve had a day to process now and I’m going to attempt coherency in this review. First of all, Neil Gaiman and I go ’round and ’round. I swear, I either all caps LOVE his books or I all caps HATE THEM. I have no idea why this is, but I either devour his books in one sitting or I can barely finish them. I loved American Gods. Loved it. And I loved The Graveyard Book. Maybe it has something to do with the history/mythology easter eggs in these two books? I don’t know.

Anyway, I was slightly skeptical about The Graveyard Book, but within five paragraphs I was HOOKED.

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.

The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.

The street door was still open, just a little, where the knife and the man who held it had slipped in, and wisps of nighttime mist slithered and twined into the house through the open door.

The man Jack paused on the landing. With his left hand he pulled a large white handkerchief from the pocket of his black coat, and with it he wiped off the knife and his gloved right hand which had been holding it; then he put the handkerchief away. The hunt was almost over. He had left the woman in her bed, the man on the bedroom floor, the older child in her brightly colored bedroom, surrounded by toys and half-finished models. That only left the little one, a baby barely a toddler, to take care of. One more and his task would be done.

I mean…damn. What an open.

This is a children’s book. I’ve seen a lot of reviews that are all “OMG, this is so dark for a children’s book. Um…no? It’s not? Have you read a single fairy tale? I’m talking OG fairytales. The Little Mermaid before Disney got a hold of it. Hansel and Gretel, Brothers Grimm style. Sure, the knife-wielding baby killer is dark. BUT SO IS A CHILDREN-EATING WITCH. Those suckers were terrifying. And children’s literature is the better for these tales, of which I am official including The Graveyard Book.

And the thing is…yes, it’s dark, but it’s also hopeful and wonderful. A child raised by the ghosts of a thousand years worth of history? Fantastic. Granted, I’m a huge history nerd, but I would kill (ha) to chat with the ghost of a Roman soldier or a Victorian spinster. The things you could learn!

The best part of this book is the portrayal of Bod. Too often children in books, even children’s books, are annoying. But not Bod. Even when he’s doing stupid things, you don’t get mad at him. He’s a kid, and he makes stupid kid mistakes, but they never made me want to shake him by the shoulders and scream at his idiocy. I loved him. His character was amazing. And as someone who 80% of the time can’t stand the characterization of children in books or movie or tv shows, that simple statement goes a long way towards recommending this book.