The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

“There is no such thing as a true tale. Truth has many faces and the truth is like to the old road to Avalon; it depends on your own will, and your own thoughts, whither the road will take you.”

4/5 stars.
Library binding, 884 pages.
Read from May 23, 2019 to June 11, 2019.

This iconic fantasy novel has been on my TBR list for years and after I friend of mine raved about how much she was enjoying reading it I decided to finally pick it up for myself. Little did I know that the Portuguese versions of this book, that my friend was reading, is broken down into four separate books which is what I was expecting, whereas the English version, the version I read, has all four of the books put into one gigantic tome! Nearly 900 bloody pages. It’s a good thing I enjoyed it.

Written in 1984, Bradley takes the classic story of King Arthur and gives us the version of the story from the perspective of all the female characters. Especially the perspectives of Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar. This feminist re-telling takes the generally male-centric story of Arthur and relays another perspective of how it all came to be with him and his legendary sword. The female characters are far less conniving in this story and instead, show what their real motives were and generally how hard it would have been to be a woman during King Arthur’s time.

Christianity is on the rise and the ways of the Goddess and of the old ways of magic are falling aside to make way for this new religion. Each character makes choices based on their own beliefs on how best to navigate this new world, whether that’s to preserve the old, embrace the new, or take a more neutral stance in which both can exist.

“All gods are one god.”

A lot of people slammed this book for its religious undertones, for, well, its occasionally very blatant remarks against Christianity, and many felt that the whole book was a platform to discuss issues with Christianity. I strongly disagree, especially having actually read the whole book. While yes, the story does make a lot of remarks against Christianity, it also does the same for the pagan Goddess that many of the women in the story follow. I think one of the main driving features of the novel was about how religion takes such a major hold in people’s lives, for better and for worse. Following the Goddess lead to some horrible and tragic circumstances for Morgaine and many of her kin. I feel that the book focused more on the distress that comes in trying to do the right thing by your religion as well as by your self and trying to be as faithful as you can. This internal conflict between wants, needs, and desires versus what is dictated by a character’s religion creates unending turmoil for every single character in the book, both male and female.

Spoilers ahead… Think of how much misery would have been spared if Gwenhwyfar and Lancelot had just run off together but because Gwen was so pious the two of them lived a life of misery and shame, always thinking themselves horrendously sinful. Morgaine, what would have her life had been like if the will of the Goddess had not forced her to lay with her half brother and bear her child? She lived her whole life trying to escape the confusion of that moment and what the Goddess meant to her in her own life…end of spoilers.

The beautiful part of the book is that it also shows how wonderful faith can be too as each of the characters does eventually find peace in the end with their choices, faiths, and fates.

The character work in this book is its true focal point and driving feature. Despite the length of the book and the occasional tediousness of the plot, especially towards the end, you fall in love with all the rich and dynamic characters. I think I had a love/relationship with the majority of the female-led characters in this book because you grow with them. I loathed Gwen for a long time and even though she is still my least favourite character her character development gives me an immense appreciation for her. Morgaine, the best character in this story, especially since she is normally portrayed as a conniving and incestuous whore in the traditional version of Arthur, is a phenomenal woman and character, with deep faults and strong ambitions. The characters aren’t perfect either as sometimes they make terrible choices or occasionally give the impression of the stereotype they were thought to be in the original story but with the back story and character development provided by Bradley you get the whole picture and can decide for yourself. It’s like the traditional story of Arthur is only one piece to the whole picture and Bradley wrote the rest and filled in the much-needed gaps so that the women finally got to have their own voices and perspectives heard.

Bradley was so far ahead of her time with this book so it’s no wonder that it is still considered a fantasy classic to this day. If you love fantasy and have not read this book yet, you’ve got to. Bradley recreated the whole realm of Camelot, Avalon, and Arthur with this book and I don’t think I could ever go back to the original version since I like this one so much!

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

“A story lives transformed by a gesture not made or a word not spoken”

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 176 pages.
Read from May 7, 2019 to May 8, 2019.

Confession; This is my first read by Ian McEwan and I think that this novel was a great introduction to his writing. I look forward to adding a few more of his books to my TBR pile.

This is a deeply emotional novel of the marriage of a young couple in the early 1960s. Florence comes from a well-to-do family and is a brilliant violinist who hopes of pursuing a musician as a career. She is recently married to Edward, a historian, of whom she met by chance at university. The two of them maintain this image of a perfect relationship and are looking forward to the next step in their lives after marriage. The novel opens with the two of them on their honeymoon right after their wedding. While the world is slowly starting to emerge into the swinging sixties, Florence and Edward, are still generally conservative, meaning that they have yet to become sexually intimate. Edward is beyond excited to consummate their marriage but is extremely worried about his performance and is wracked with anxiety. Florence, on the other hand, is terrified. She has no desire to be intimate with anyone and has been frigid throughout their whole relationship. However, Florence’s behaviour is not created out of modesty or disgust as Florence has a secret trauma she cannot bring herself to deal with. The story is a slow burner with the climax (no pun intended) during the moment the two of them attempt to consummate their marriage. The couple’s lack of communication and utter embarrassment about the whole ordeal leads to tragic consequences for both of them.

As a reader, you want desperately to shake Florence and Edward and get them to actually discuss their feelings instead of hiding behind this facade that each of them has created. Florence and Edward’s story addresses human vulnerabilities and the extremes that we go to in order to maintain an appearance and not show our deepest selves and secrets, especially when it comes to sex. As a reader, you connect deeply with this newlywed couple as many of us have experienced similar issues with vulnerability and communication and you really want the best for them. Both Florence and Edward had an idea of what they thought might make them happy but their inability to communicate their fears resulted in their demise and their whole lives changed within an instant. You can almost feel the deep regret oozing from the pages by the end of the novel.

This is a moving novel on a difficult topic that the author masterfully executed. I would recommend this novel for anyone interested in literary fiction or stories about intimate relationships.

Stiff by Mary Roach

“Death. It doesn’t have to be boring.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 303 pages.
Read from May 3, 2019 to May 6, 2019.

I don’t really understand how anyone could be offended in talking about dead bodies or their various uses in science, though I appreciate that it is a sensitive subject, death is a reality of life. I think it’s not that people are uncomfortable with the dead bodies themselves but of their own perceptions of death. Many people can’t fathom being a corpse or if it was their loved ones, regardless of what happens to us when we die.

“We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget.”

Mary Roach personalises her experience and interest in death as she shares her own intimate experience with the passing of her own mother. Death may be an uncomfortable reality but it is an experience we all have in common. Mary Roach approaches cadavers in a very entertaining, informative and tactful manner. She observes and interviews the intricate lives of those doing the less-than-glamorous work with corpses while also exploring the strategies they use in order to cope and maintain their humanity with the surreal nature of their jobs.

Anything you ever wanted to know about how a body decays Mary details in her interviews with forensic pathologists that do studies on real corpses to help crime investigators in gruesome murder cases.  If you’ve ever wanted to know where your body goes after you donated it to the medical sciences, Mary can tell you, and it’s often not what you would expect. Mary also discusses how many of our scientific advancements are owed to the illegalities of body snatching through history.

“Many people will find this book disrespectful. There is nothing amusing about being dead, they will say. Ah, but there is.”

This book requires a healthy amount curiosity about death and a slightly open mind on the topic, especially if you’re not interested in how a maggot might sound eating human flesh during one of the many dynamic stages of decay. It also discusses the donation of cadavers to science and some very specific uses which many may not be comfortable with, as well as the sensitivities surrounding organ donation and its importance.

“It is astounding to me, and achingly sad, that with eighty thousand people on the waiting list for donated hearts and livers and kidneys, with sixteen a day dying there on that list, that more than half of the people in the position H’s family was in will say no, will choose to burn those organs or let them rot. We abide the surgeon’s scalpel to save our own lives, our loved ones’ lives, but not to save a stranger’s life. H has no heart, but heartless is the last thing you’d call her.”

Mary also discusses the feelings and respect that we give our dead regardless of what use a corpse has after death. Whatever scientific purpose a cadaver has there is something sacred in keeping our humanity and due respect in its treatment, in that a dead body, while no longer occupied, was once a person who was loved and had a life like anyone else.

I loved this book. It’s my kind of book. Weird, interesting, factual, personal, and well-written. However, I could see it not being for everyone. For those who are science-minded and comfortable discussing the gruesome details of the body, this book is definitely for you. If thinking about the specific details of an organ transplant and knowing what a still beating heart looks like in an open chest cavity makes you queasy, you might want to pass on this one.