Strangelings, activate!

Hello! I fell a bit behind this week but I’m here now so we can discuss last months Fantastic Strangelings Book Club pick and to announce next months.

So first off, January’s book is Swallowed Man by Edward Carey. It sounds weird as hell but bare with me. It’s about Geppetto (Pinochio’s father/creater) during his time trapped in the belly of the whale and it is so very good. A tiny summary to whet your appetite:

The ingenious storyteller Edward Carey returns to reimagine a time-honored fable: the story of an impatient father, a rebellious son, and a watery path to forgiveness for the young man known as Pinocchio.

With all the charm, atmosphere, and emotional depth for which Edward Carey is known—and featuring his trademark fantastical illustrations—The Swallowed Man is a parable of parenthood, loss, and letting go, from a creative mind on a par with Gregory Maguire, Neil Gaiman, and Tim Burton.

My advance copy of the book was digital so you have to use your imagination to picture the ever-present Dorothy Barker peeking over the top.

And if you’re like me and one book is not enough to get your though a month my optional bonus book for January is You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories About Racism by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar. This book was hilarious and horrific and the same time and I can’t recommend it enough.

So, discussion is open for last month’s book, The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar, which made me cry multiple times. No spoilers here, so I’ll leave my thoughts in the comments below and you can feel free to leave yours there if you like. The Fantastic Strangelings facebook page usually gets more discussion but I always do a blog post here as well in case you’re not a Facebook fan. And as always, there are no rules in book club. It’s okay if you haven’t finished the book yet as the discussions always stay open for whenever you have and no worries if you’re more of a lurker than a discusser because honestly this is the most introverted book club ever and we all totally get it.

As a quick aside, I can’t believe it’s been a full year since we started this book club. Your membership has sustained us and our employees and I need someone from Guinness to call me because I suspect we might have a world record for the longest running independent bookstore that has still never opened its doors to the public. Fingers crossed that one day soon the vaccine will be available to all and we’ll be able to see you all in person. I can’t tell you how much your support has meant to me, the Nowhere Team, and so many authors during this incredibly strange time.

You created a small miracle and you continue to be one.

17 thoughts on “Strangelings, activate!

Read comments below or add one.

  1. This book was part ghost story, part fairy tale while still feeling so true…full of stories inside of stories to remind us to believe in the unbelievable and that magic is real if looked for it.

    Personally I felt this book was worth reading for the prose alone and almost every page had a sentence that was so achingly true and beautiful. I kept texting friends little snippets until they finally bought the book themselves.

    I struggled a little bit at first because there were so many characters reaching over multiple timelines but whenever I felt overwhelmed I just fell back into the prose and found myself resurfacing.

    I loved that there were SO many themes but it makes it hard to point to which ones were most important…the author explored grief, acceptance, breaking out of the invisible constraints the world places on us (like the girl who flew), art, race, class, gender, sexuality, family, religion…there was a lot to unpack.

    I loved the idea of looking for the sacred in everything and I loved how often the stories and themes and words would fold back on themselves. I saw it much more the second time I read it but I’m sure I probably missed so many. Here were a few of my favorites:

    Sami and his silk knots, making an invisible bond visible was such an interesting callback to Laila using knots in her lace-making to create her first birds. The immigration of birds and their struggle compared to the immigration of people and their struggle. The sanctuary of birds and the sanctuary that comes from finding your community. How Nadir called himself the fox-headed boy when he finally shaved off his hair compared to to when Khalto Tala described being led by a fox to safety when she was lost. Khalto Tala said the fox waited for her and the rare birds called to her but she turned away from the wilderness for the safety of town. It seemed as if Nadir made the decision to follow the birds and become the fox himself in becoming who he is. It also echoed the time when Laila followed the birds deep into the woods to paint them even when she knew she might not make it back. That courage to explore and move forward even when it’s terrifying or might be deadly…so powerful.

    I loved that I could see myself in every character…whether they were good or bad. And that I could learn from all of them. That’s an almost impossible thing to do and it is was done so beautifully.

  2. Sitting here in my Nowhere Bookshop sweatshirt (OMG, I originally typed swearshirt and nothing was so completely correct EVER).
    Looking forward to the new book. I started Thirty Names but realized early that my grief over losing Mom wasn’t going to let me read it now, so it will be put aside for a while.
    Gonna head on over to the Nowhere website and order Amber’s alternate book now! I just love her! And you, of course. That’s a given!

  3. It sounds like a neat book. One day I will join your book club, but for now I just read about it here on your blog and on Instagram.

    On a side note, I just wanted to tell you how much your books and your blog helped me while I was going through my darkest period a couple of years ago.

    Thank you, from Wendy in a lovely corner of southwest BC Canada

  4. due to the postal service being what it is, I haven’t received Thirty Names yet. Waaaaa trying to patiently wait.

  5. So glad this post is up, because although I read and enjoyed the book (“achingly beautiful” prose was a perfect description), I am stuck on the fact that the timeline didn’t make sense. Did it? They way I read is Laila hid her journal in the wall of the apartment the night before they had to move because the building was being torn down. Then somehow all those years later, Nadir found the journal hidden in the wall and made his final trip to the apartment literally minutes before the building was being torn down. I’m sure I misunderstood something, and I’m hoping someone here can set me straight.

  6. “Bare with you”? Does everyone in the book club get naked to read it 😉😂😹

  7. I LOVED this book even though (with my senior brain) I struggled at times to figure out what was going on. But as Jenny said, the prose always drew me back in. Examples…”as though she were held together by the skin on a cup of curd”…”shoals of men we’ve had to make detours to avoid”….”maybe it’s true that the self is every artist’s first obsession, that every other subject is just a recognition of the self in another form”. Such a sad, compelling, informative tale. Totally recommend it. Thanks for picking it, Jenny!

  8. PS…to Trish…I was also a confused about that timeline. I think that Laila hid it because both buildings were slated to be torn down but then only one was torn down. And that’s how Nadir found the journal all those years later?

  9. Still reading. Beautifully written, but I really wish that the author had included footnotes to translate phrases into English to the reader can fully appreciate the language. It leaves me either having to stop reading and search for translation, or skipping past it and assuming I have got the gist of it. Either way, for me it interrupts the flow.

  10. Sounds interesting, but I can barely keep up with my local book club readings. Note to self: stop only allowing enough time to read just before you go to sleep. Makes for slow progress.

    Love the title of this post and I wonder if it is based on Wonder Twins Power Activate . . . the cartoon? Loved that growing up.

  11. (um, spoilers.)
    So…I joined this book club because I needed a kick in the butt to read something other than Cold War nonfiction (seriously people, I have a problem). This was the first book I received, and nothing like anything I’ve ever read. I probably would have legit been afraid to pick it up at a bookstore. But I was so enthralled with it, from start to finish. The timeline, like others have said, was a bit weird, but once I got into the rhythm of the chapters hopping back and forth between Laila Z and /Nadir, it made sense. I’m a bird nut, so I was engaged on that level and was hardcore rooting for them to prove that bird existed. Having pretty much no family heritage, I was fascinated and often sad both about how tight-knit the community was and how they continually got railroaded by white people for whatever “progress” means. Being stuck in the middle of a major questioning of my own sexuality, I was moved by Nadir’s journey through his learning about his own gender identity and what that meant both to the expectations put on him by his community as a female-presenting member, and how he grew into his own space over time. And finally, while I’ve always been a huge advocate of trans people and acceptance of “what you believe in your heart you are is who and what you are”, I learned so much about what it actually feels like to go through that process both externally and internally. And like Jenny, I cried like a million times just being overwhelmed.

    Probably the best “you made a good decision joining this book club” introduction possible.

  12. Judith – Thanks! I’m glad I’m not the only one who was confused by that, but when I read the reviews on Amazon and none of them mentioned an impossible timeline, I figured it must have been something I overlooked or misread. Your explanation makes sense.

    I also agree with Comment #9 about wishing the Arabic phrases were translated somehow. I just skimmed over them and figured context clues would have to suffice.

    All this said, this is a book I would never have picked up myself, and the main reason I joined this book club was to force myself out of my comfort zone. The beauty of the prose absolutely won me over, as well as Nadir’s struggle to find himself. Like Kate above, this book reaffirmed that decision!

  13. Judith/Trish – Yeah, Laila hid the journal because someone bought the building with the intention of tearing it down and evicted them. I’m not sure what prevented the tearing down initially (money, probably) but Nadir’s mother was a strong advocate for making it a historical building later on, which probably delayed the tearing down further (and long enough for Nadir to make it in and get the journal).

    On another note, the owl that led Nadir into the building the first time was Laila’s mom, right? At first I thought it was Nadir’s mom but that doesn’t make sense from a timeline perspective for one but also because Nadir’s mom didn’t know there was anything to find in that building, only Laila (who is alive) and her mother did. How her mother found Nadir and her grandmother, I’m not sure.

    I completely missed Nadir being the fox though, I might have to reread this one and see what else I missed. I barreled through it the first time because it was so good.

  14. *I meant to say Nadir and HIS grandmother, obviously :facepalm: I had Laila stuck in my head.

  15. I finally got to read this one (I’m so far behind in my reading!) It was amazing and beautiful and sad and uplifting and I’m telling everyone I know that they need to read it. I really loved it!

  16. Finally found this post a month later!
    The thing I think stuck out the most to me was the birds – this is the third book I’ve read in a year with a focus on middle eastern/Islamic culture that has a strong tie to birds and one bird in particular that may/may not exist (the other two books being Girl, Serpent, Thorn, with their own Simorgh, and the Mirage series with the Tesleet), and I really wish I had a better idea of what that meant culturally.
    I really loved reading this one for the ties to the old culture and the new. Like, desperately wanting to still connect with your community and culture and feeling like that’s impossible with who you really are or with all of the other tragedy in the world making it so hard to keep up with it.
    The timeline confused me too, TBH. I’m also super confused why everyone just assumed Laila was dead? Like, I get it was harder to track people back then, but it didn’t sound like she stopped painting or changed her name or anything. Her husband was still around at the very least, and She was still in the area, to the point where she was living above her aunt’s shop half a century later. I feel like she should have been easier to find.
    Unrelated to this confusion: i need to know right now immediately how Reem could create toy birds capable of flight and being the same level of nuisance as a real bird. I also need one. I know they were symbolic of Reem having her life together and knowing who she was in a different way than Nadir, but I’m an electronics geek and those just fascinated me!

  17. Thanks for this recommendation Jenny, it was far outside my typical reading comfort zone but seemed to resonate with me on so many levels. I actually read this book on my ipad using the libby app so I was able to get it from my local library, I typically prefer reading from a physical copy but have discovered a few benefits from using the app- it allows me to bookmark or highlight passages, as well to search for key words and phrases. This is really helpful for a book like this to be able to go back and forth easily and look things up when I got confused on characters or timeline. Also, having the internet readily accessible allows me to further look up Arabic translations, or google interesting tidbits to help further my experience reading. While reading this I used google earth to visit places like Beiruit and even looked around at menus of restaurants serving Syrian cuisine to get a better vision of what the author was describing. There was a reference to the Polish artist Roman Opalka and his self portraits and life’s work 1-Infinity, a quick Wikipedia search and this too came to life! Anyways highly recommend purchasing the actual book when able to, but the libby app is a great option for anyone with a library membership if they are unable to purchase a copy. So many great passages, found myself highlighting many beautiful lines to write in my journal, loved the passage “the idea that art or the natural world could be anyone’s property has always made me uneasy. A work is shaped not only by the artist, but by everyone that interacts with it; it belongs a little to everyone. This too is how a life is made; with the support of many hands.” This speaks to the ripple effect and interconnectedness we all share, beautiful reminder in this often dark world. Thanks again Jenny for a great pick!

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