Book Review: The Shape of Water

the shape of waterThe Shape of Water
by Daniel Kraus and Guillermo del Toro
Magical Realism
314 pages
Published 2018

Alright, so, with as much as I enjoy twists on mermaid stories, this was kind of inevitable, right? I’d heard a lot about the movie, but hadn’t yet seen it, so I figured I’d read the novelization. What I didn’t realize until reading the book, though, is that this isn’t actually a novelization of the movie. The movie and the book were written at the same time, about the same story, but tell different parts of it. (This article explains how both were written.) The book delves more into the mythology behind the creature, and gets into the thoughts and feelings of both the creature and Elisa. Those things are incredibly hard to communicate in film, especially when the characters can’t speak! So, far from “reading the book instead of seeing the movie,” now that I’ve read the book, I REALLY want to see the movie!

If you haven’t heard of the movie, the basic premise of both movie and book is Elisa, a mute janitor at a top secret research facility, is cleaning a lab when she sees what’s contained in it – an amphibious man-like creature kept in captivity and experimented on. She teaches him sign language and eventually falls in love with him and decides to break him out of the lab before the researchers kill him. The plot is set in the 60s, so there’s a lot more overt racism and sexism going on, as well as some Cold War spycraft.

It’s also set in Baltimore, which is another thing I didn’t know before reading the book!

There’s a pretty good amount of minority representation here – Elisa is mute, her two best friends are black (Zelda) and gay (Giles). Zelda worries about her place as “the black friend” of a white woman, but also sees Elisa as a little damaged and in need of her care. When Elisa gets tunnel vision on the merman, Zelda’s worries are mostly confirmed, but not for the reasons she thinks, since Elisa shuts out Giles too. There’s definitely something to be learned there about hurting your friends unintentionally when starting a new relationship!

A lot of people saw this plot as super weird, with the woman falling in love with the sea-creature, but how many mermaid films do we have where the man falls in love with the mermaid when she still has her fish tail? Sure, the merman here is fully scaled and can’t talk, but Ariel can’t talk in most versions of The Little Mermaid, either. I don’t see it as much different, other than it’s a women falling in love with someone who isn’t the typical image of masculinity. And at least in the book, there are a couple of chapters from his perspective. He’s sentient and consenting. (I hope that comes across in the movie, too.)

I really enjoyed this one, and I definitely need to watch the movie to get the rest of the story. The book is self-contained – nothing’s missing, exactly, but since it was written in both mediums at the same time, I feel like I need to see the movie to perhaps flesh out some things.

From the cover of The Shape of Water:

It’s 1962, and Elisa Esposito – mute her whole life, orphaned as a child – is struggling with her humdrum existence as a janitor working the graveyard shift at Baltimore’s Occam Aerospace Research Center. Were it not for Zelda, a protective coworker, and Giles, her loving neighbor, she doesn’t know how she’d make it through the day.

Then one fateful night, she sees something she was never meant to see, the Center’s most sensitive asset ever; an amphibious man, captured in the Amazon, to be studied for Cold War advancements. The creature is terrifying but also magnificent, capable of language and of understanding emotions . . . and Elisa can’t keep away. Using sign language, the two learn to communicate. Soon, affection turns into love, and the creature becomes Elisa’s sole reason to live.

But outside forces are pressing in. Richard Strickland, the obsessed soldier who tracked the asset through the Amazon, wants nothing more than to dissect it before the Russians get a chance to steal it. Elisa has no choice but to risk everything to save her beloved. With the help of Zelda and Giles, Elisa hatches a plan to break out the creature. But Strickland is onto them. And the Russians are, indeed, coming.

Developed from the ground up as a bold two-tiered release – one story interpreted  by two artists in the independent mediums of literature and film – The Shape of Water is unlike anything you’ve ever read or seen.

Book Review: Clock Dance

clock dance book clubClock Dance
by Anne Tyler
Contemporary Fiction
300 pages
Published July 2018

Clock Dance was the second pick for Barnes & Noble’s  nation-wide Book Club. (The first was Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion, back in May.) Like the first one, it was contemporary fiction, which I’m pretty meh about. When I learned it was set mostly in Baltimore, and written by a local author, I became more interested. I’m originally from Oregon, but Baltimore has become my home, and I enjoy reading about it. We had a slightly larger group than last time, but I was the only returning attendee besides the store employee, Sam, who led the discussion.

Sam opened the discussion with the same question that she started the last one with – “Did you like the main character?” It’s an interesting question because most people ask “Did you like the book?” which can have a different answer. I don’t usually read books in which I don’t like the main character, but that’s usually because I choose my books. I’m not choosing my Book Club books, so it’s a good question. Unlike last time, I did like Willa. I disagreed with her judgment when it came to husbands, but I still sympathized with her. I mentioned that I didn’t like that she just floated through most of her life without any real ambition, but to be honest, I’ve done that too. I’m not a very ambitious person – or my ambitions are quite low. I think that, perhaps, is the difference. I find a lot of fulfillment in being, effectively, my husband’s personal assistant. It’s fun. Willa did not seem to find it fulfilling, she just – didn’t want to rock the boat.

I like how we saw each of Willa’s “defining moments” – the book opens on her as a child, her volatile mother having stormed out of the house during an argument. Her mother really does a number on her as a child. I think it’s why she hates to rock the boat so much. From here, we fast forward to college, and Willa’s boyfriend proposing to her after gaslighting her about an event that happened on the plane. Willa’s mother disapproves. Vehemently. I think that’s part of why Willa accepts. Our next view of Willa’s life is the accident that takes her husband’s life, and its aftermath.

Then we finally start into the real meat of the book, twenty years after the death of her first husband. Her sons have grown and moved away, she has remarried, and both of her parents have passed. Her husband is a little distant, and she seems rather untethered. Then she gets the strangest phone call. It turns out her eldest son lived with a woman (Denise) and her daughter for a little while in Baltimore; he has since moved on, but “Sean’s mother” is still a phone number on Denise’s emergency contact list. So when Denise is shot in the leg and put in the hospital, a neighbor lady sees it, assumes Willa is the grandmother of the child, and calls her to come take care of her. It’s a little convoluted, and Willa can’t even adequately explain to her husband why she’s decided to fly to Baltimore to take care of a child she has no relation to, but she does so anyway.

This is where we get to Baltimore, and, in Anne Tyler’s own words, “when her story changes to Technicolor.”

I actually live just outside Baltimore myself, but one of my best friends lives in Charles Village, and I could SO EASILY envision Willa’s neighborhood as a street of rowhomes. (Turns out it’s probably based on a neighborhood in Hamilton, according to the Baltimore Sun.) I was even mapping locations in Willa’s house to my friend’s rowhome! Anne Tyler really captures the spirit of Baltimore, and now I want to read more of her books, even if they are contemporary fiction!

Overall I enjoyed Clock Dance; Anne Tyler is very good at subtle character growth, which is quite realistic. People don’t often change all at once. Sometimes it takes a lifetime of being told what to do before finally waking up to what you WANT to do.

From the cover of Clock Dance:

An inspiring novel of one woman’s transformative journey

Willa Drake can count on one hand the defining moments of her life. In 1967, she is a schoolgirl coping with her mother’s sudden disappearance. In 1977, she is a college coed considering a marriage proposal. In 1997, she is a young widow trying to piece her life back together. And in 2017, she years to be a grandmother but isn’t sure she ever will be.

Then, one day, Willa receives a startling phone call from a stranger. Without fully understanding why, she flies across the country to Baltimore to look after a young woman she’s never met, her nine-year-old daughter, and their dog, Airplane. This impulsive decision will lead Willa into uncharted territory – surrounded by eccentric neighbors who treat each other like family, she finds solace and fulfillment in unexpected places.

A bewitching novel of hope, self-discovery, and second chances, Clock Dance gives us Anne Tyler at the height of her powers.

Book Review: Tears We Cannot Stop

tearsTears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America
by Michael Eric Dyson
Nonfiction
228 pages
Published 2017

I’m always trying to continue to educate myself on my white privilege, America’s racist history, and civil rights and activism in general. Tears We Cannot Stop fits neatly into that category, but it’s not an easy-to-read book. I mean, it is – in the sense that it’s well-written and flows very well. But it’s not easy to read because of what it says. Dyson is a black pastor, and he wrote this book as if he was preaching to the white people of America, trying to make them understand the plight of the minorities we oppress. Black people specifically.

It’s a short book, but a very powerful one. It’s separated into sections like a sermon would be, with a Call to Worship, Hymns of Praise, Scripture Reading, the Sermon, a Benediction, and more. He’s correlated these sections of a sermon with that of the book – The Offering Plate, for example, is a short little section talking about how one university – Georgetown – apologized for their past use of slavery, and established an institute to study slavery and its effects. Tried to make reparations, in a way. In the scripture reading he quotes a lot of Martin Luther King. In the Benediction he actually talks about a lot of other books to read about the subject of slavery, all of which I’ve added to my already extensive Goodreads shelf on the subject of civil rights and activism. (I’ll be attempting to read as many of those books as I can.)

Tears is a really good opening book to read on the topic, especially for white people. It’s eye-opening, and both invites and provides guidance for further investigation into just how big of a mess we’ve made of things in this country. I highly recommend it.

And, if you happen to be local to Baltimore, the author will be speaking at the Baltimore Book Festival this Friday, September 22nd! Unfortunately, I can’t make it on Friday, so I’m going on Sunday. Sunday I’m planning to catch Daniel Jose Older, the author of the Bone Street Rumba series and Shadowshaper, and Kevin Shird, the author of Uprising in the City, about the Baltimore Riots in 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray. I’m really excited about it, even if it is going to be the hottest day we’ve had in a couple of weeks. (Still only mid-80s, though, so it could be worse!)

From the cover of Tears We Cannot Stop:

As the country grapples with racial division at a level not seen since the 1960s, one man’s voice is heard above the rest. In his New York Times op-ed piece “Death in Black and White,” Michael Eric Dyson moved a nation. Now he continues to speak out in Tears We Cannot stop – a provocative and deeply personal call for change. Dyson argues that if we are to make real racial progress we must face difficult truths, including being honest about how black grievance has been ignored, dismissed, or discounted. In the tradition of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time – short, emotional, literary, powerful – this is the book that all Americans who care about the current and long-burning crisis in race relations will want to read.

Book Review: Walking Baltimore

 

WalkingBaltimoreWalking Baltimore
by Evan Balkan
280 pages
Published 2013
Nonfiction – Guidebook

So the first book I want to talk about is a series of walking tours of Baltimore. I’ve only been on two of these walks so far, but I plan to take many more of them. It’s just been SO. HOT. And I’m not a person who likes walking much to begin with! But there’s a new game out that’s made walking so much more fun – yes, I’m talking about Pokemon Go. (Go Team Mystic!) That little bit of motivation of “well, I’ll walk to that Pokestop. Alright, there’s another Pokestop two blocks away, I can make it to that one. Maybe a little further to that next Pokestop. OOoo there’s a Tangela nearby!” It makes it just enough fun that I walk a lot more before I’ve even realized it.

Walking Baltimore gives me general guides for walks so I’m not just wandering Pokestop to Pokestop until I get lost! It has very detailed instructions – turn left at this corner, cross the street here so you can see this monument, then look up at the architecture in front of you – it’s really well done. My only wish is that there was an appendix that rated the walks in order of difficulty – each walk has a rating, from easy to moderate to strenuous – but there’s no way to see all of the difficulties side by side. With 33 walks all over Baltimore, with all levels of difficulty and lengths, there’s definitely something here for everyone, and the history and points of interest covered by the walks are fascinating.

The two that I’ve actually walked are half of #4, Inner Harbor Promenade, and #11, The Civil War Trail: Path of the War’s First Bloodshed. Both are mostly on the Inner Harbor, where my husband works, so I hitched a ride down with him, walked, and caught Pokemon until he got off work and we came home. (We live outside Baltimore City limits.) I’d been down in the area many times, but had no idea the Civil War’s first bloodshed occurred when a mob waylaid Union troops travelling through Baltimore! There are medallions laid in the sidewalks commemorating some of the events of the Civil War march, and most of those are Pokestops too.

Currently I have this book out from the library, but I think this is one I’ll be adding to my personal library soon. I want the walking guides! The author has also written 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Baltimore and Best in Tent Camping: Maryland. So he knows his stuff.

From the back of Walking Baltimore:

BALTIMORE – famous for spectacular harbor views, myriad historical monuments and landmarks, and important cultural institutions. But it’s also much more – a patchwork of small, unique neighborhoods with terrific bars and restaurants, and more recreation and green space than most people realize. All of this combines to make Baltimore one of America’s most fascinating and walkable cities. 

In Walking Baltimore, longtime insider Evan Balkan leads you on 33 self-guided tours from Fells Point to the Inner Harbor, Mount Vernon to Mount Washington, and all the diverse neighborhoods in between. This book will show locals and visitors alike how and why Baltimore was an essential player in the country’s early history and continues to be influential today. You’ll soak up Charm City’s incredible history, culture, architectural trivia, and quirky vibe. Plus, you’ll find tips on where to dine or have a drink. Clear neighborhood maps and vital public transportation and parking details make exploring easy. Whether you’re looking for an afternoon stroll or full-day’s entertainment, grab this book, step outside, and walk Baltimore!