2017 Book List

One of my favorite parts of this time of year are the year end booklists that various sources, such as the New York Times, publish. I scour these to create my own list of books to read over break. Of course, I always end up with far more books than I can actually read, but I find some excellent books that I would not have read otherwise. I thoroughly enjoy having access to both the Norman Public library and the OU library, not to mention Interlibrary Loan. Here are some of my favorites from this past year, not ordered by preference:


Alif the Unseen: An absolutely amazing book set in a fantasy world inspired by the Middle East that involves technology, ancient books, political upheaval, and the world of the jinn.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore: A wonderful tale of books, technology, and quirky characters that several people recommended to me and that fully lived up to expectations

Miss Burma: Historical fiction set in Burma/Myanmar during the struggle for independence. I learned a lot about the history of Burma and the ethnic conflict that has erupted recently in the violence against the Rohingyas.


Vincent and Theo: After visiting the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam a couple of summers ago, I wanted to learn more about his life. This book takes a very personal approach, emphasizing the relation between Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo, based on the letters they wrote throughout their lives.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: An extremely moving story of Sherman Alexie’s life growing up on the Spokane Indian reservation and of his complicated relationship with his mother

Daring to Drive: The story of Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi activist who became a face of the women’s driving movement in Saudi Arabia.

Bruchko: The story of a missionary in Colombia and Venezuela who emphasized that conversion to Christianity should not require Americanization or Westernization

Butterfly Mosque: The story of an American woman (the author of Alif Unseen) who converted to Islam and moved to Egypt

Seeking Allah Finding Jesus: Nabeel Qureshi’s story of conversion, including his beliefs about Christianity when Muslim

Languages, Linguistics and Other Non-Fiction:

Diglossia and Language Contact: Language Variation and Change in North Africa: An indepth look at the languages spoken in North Africa and their influence on each other. I learned so much about the particular situations described and about language contact and diglossia in general.

Vanishing Voices: A saddening and inspiring discussion of endangered language in a historical and environmental context.

Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: A well-researched analysis of the gospels in their historical and cultural context. I particularly enjoyed the section on Jesus and women.

The Secret Life of Pronouns: A description of a psycholinguist’s research into what people’s use of language tells about them. I was initially skeptical but his experiments were quite convincing.

Rhiannon’s Flight

Rhiannon Mabinogi had always known she was beautiful. It had turned into a running joke in her family: their spaceship lacked a figurehead, and if Rhiannon was ever too sassy, some person or other would threaten to make her their figurehead. Not that she was ever worried – with her quick wits and tongue, there was little she could not get herself out of.

Image result for spaceship
Spaceship. Link.

Except her impending marriage to that baseless cur Gwawl.

Okay, so maybe he wasn’t really a baseless cur. Probably she had just been reading too many stories of her ancestral homeland. But she did not like him, and she certainly did not love him. At every port he called at he took the best of the planet’s resources without heed to the needs of its inhabitants. All he wanted to do was monopolize the space economy. And once he had blockaded the Mabinogi home port, there was nothing her father could offer but Rhiannon herself. Maybe baseless cur wasn’t too far from the mark, she thought as she adjusted her veil.

Now the Mabinogi were a proud bunch. As her father walked her down the aisle, he whispered in her ear, “Humiliate him, Rhiannon. Humiliate him.”

This she was already prepared to do. She activated the portal-maker hidden on the dress, and left Gwawl screaming at the altar. She went first to collect her pod and cloaking device, then took off through time to the land of her dreams, the ancient homeland of the Mabinogi, where the man who had enchanted her across the pages dwelt.

She calculated her course to arrive at the mounds of mystery, which the people of Dyfed believed led to another world. It was easy for her to cloak her pod so that it resembled a horse. She kept it at a speed just faster than whatever the speed of her pursuers was, until the king himself, Pwyll of Dyfed, came riding after her. He called out to her to stop, and she slowed.

“Of course I will stop. It would have been easier on your horse if you had asked me earlier.”

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Rhiannon. Link. 

“Where have you come from lady? And what are you here for?” His eyes shown with wonder and admiration.

“From a land far away, a land of mystery.”

“You are indeed most powerful, my lady. What brings you to my humble land?”

“You, my king. I flee one I do not love to find the one I do, that I might marry him.”

There was no doubting King Pwyll’s response as he gazed at her. Gwawl would certainly come after her, but she would be ready for him.

Bibliography: Lady Charlotte Guest’s The Mabinogionlink.

Author’s Note: In the original story, Rhiannon comes from the Otherworld through a magical mound. She rides on a horse that is always just ahead of her pursuers, until Pwyll, the king, calls out to her. She is fleeing from an unwanted suitor and is in love with Pwyll. I liked her sassiness and wanted to give more of an explanation of her background. I replaced magic with sci-fi tech.

The Shrewmouse in the Land of the Dead

This story was originally written for my Mythology and Folklore class. 

The shrewmouse, Casrarer, had known, from its very first day on Earth, that he was made by Raven to bring cheer to the world. His lot was to rummage around in the grass, looking for worms and receiving praise for its fuzzy cuteness and little pointy nose. Casrarer thought that he had a lot to look forward to. He ignored the rest of Raven’s conversation with man, thinking it would be of little relevance to him.

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Shrew. Web Source: Mammal’s Planet.

Unfortunately, the world soon became in need of more cheer than he could supply. The animals he lived among began to disappear at an alarming rate, and man began to fill the tundra. Casrarer scurried over to Paugnar, the bear, to ask him what was going on. “Why are my friends disappearing Paugnar?”

“The humans are killing them for meat,” said Paugnar sadly.

“Oh no!” Casrarer squeaked. “Are we in danger?” His hairless tail quivered in fear.

“Not us,” Paugnar replied. “You are too small and cute, and I am too fierce.”

“But Paugnar, what happens to our friends once they are killed?”

“There is a land of the dead, inhabited by shades. Humans and animals alike will go there. Raven told me that humans will be judged for their treatment of us.”

Casrarer was glad to hear that. He decided that he wanted to see the land of the dead. Perhaps he would meet the shades of his friends.

That night, as he was dreaming, he thought that he had awoken in a new place. He found himself in a village that seemed to have no end, even for a creature larger than a shrew. He wandered around, looking for his friends, and saw some strange sights. In one house, women were beating other people with a large stick. He overheard someone say that these were the shades of dogs, who got their revenge on humans who had beaten them on earth. He supposed that man who had grass growing through his body so that he could not move had pulled up grass while alive.

Soon after, Casrarer did wake up. He was back in the land of the living, feeling relieved that there was a solution to Earth’s problems after death. In the meantime, he would just do his best to bring cheer in the midst of the suffering. He scurried happily away.

Bibliography: Katharine Berry Judson’s Myths and Legends of Alaskalink.

Author’s Note: I combined two stories to create this one. In the creation story, Raven creates the shrewmouse to bring cheer to the earth and the bear so that not all of his creation will be killed by humans. In the land of the dead story, a girl who dies explores the land of the shades. She sees the sights and judgements that Casrarer (which means shrew in Yupik Eskimo and is pronounced Chahs-rah-rayr) sees in his dream. In another story about the land of the dead, someone visits it in a dream, which is how I got the idea for Casrarer to visit it in his dream.

The Ustu’tli at the Museum

This story was written for my Mythology and Folklore blog

The Fernbank Museum’s new exhibit was drawing huge crowds, to the delight of their marketing manager. Who could resist the giant, nearly complete skeleton of a dinosaur that resembled nothing more closely than an enormous snake with legs?  Particuarly one that had been discovered in their same state, up in the mountains of North Georgia. Hunter, a 10 year old boy who lived nearby, certainly could not. He loved anything to do with skeletons and dinosaurs, and had been begging his mother for months to visit the exhibit.

Unfortunately, the same day that Hunter was planning to go to the museum, there was a solar eclipse. His mother told him to stay inside, as looking at the sun could blind him. The museum was not even going to be open to the public that day, so there was no point in going.

Hunter was heartbroken. His dream was so close, yet so far. He decided to sneak out of his house and keep his eyes fixed on the ground. He knew the way quite well, and the roads were eerily empty.

As he walked across Atlanta, he heard a very strange sound. It sounded like a deep, far-off ribbit. He cautiously looked around, but saw nothing. The day was growing darker and darker, until there was no light. He looked up and stood frozen in shock. The sun was not covered by the moon, but by a giant frog.

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Frog swallowing the sun. Web Source: Fox23.

Hunter decided that presumably the museum would know how to deal with a giant, sun-swallowing frog, so he ran as fast as he could without tripping over branches and pine-cones. He arrived breathless, and slipped inside an open door. The museum exhibits were dark, and no security guards blocked him from the dinosaurs.

Somewhere in the museum, a small animal bleated.

The next thing Hunter knew, a thick, scaly body was moving past him. He ducked out of the way of a leg as it arched over him. Despite his terror, he suddenly realized what an amazing opportunity this was. An ancient, supposedly extinct animal had come to life before his eyes.

By this time, the museum employees had become aware of the chaos in the exhibit hall. “It’s an Ustu’tli!” screamed someone from the anthropology department. “It hates fire!” Another employee was frantically calling the police and the fire department.

Hunter ran around, chasing the ustu’tli. He knocked over a candle that had been lit in one of the offices, and fire began spreading around the building. The ustu’tli roared in pain as its scales began crackling in the heat. By the time the police got there, they were able to corner and shoot it.

Suddenly, the sky grew bright again. All the noise from the chasing and shooting of the ustu’tli had scared the frog away from the sun. Hunter slipped back home quite satisfied with his experience of the eclipse and the ustu’tli.


Author’s note: I based this story on two different Cherokee stories. One says that eclipses are caused by a frog that swallows the sun, which is chased off when scared by guns and drums. The other involves the ustu’tli, a large snake with legs which bleated like a young fawn to scare off hunters. One hunter dared to enter its territory and defeated it with fire. The mountain it lived on in the story is actually found in North Georgia, so I decided to set it at the Fernbank museum which is found in Atlanta.

Bibliography: James Mooney’s Myths of the CherokeeLink.

The Judgement of Malchus

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The Beheading of Saint Margaret. Web Source: The National Gallery.

Reposted from my blog for my Mythology and Folklore class. 

“Malchus of Antioch, do you know why you have been called before this court today?”

“Yes your lordship. I am guilty of the death of one Margaret of Antioch, a brave and noble woman of Christ.”

The provost frowned. “Far from it, for her death was upon my order.”

“Then you are guilty as well, your lordship.”

“And that is why I have summoned you all here today,” said a loud voice from the back of the room.

Looking around, Malchus noticed that he and Olybrius, the provost, had been joined not by Olybrius’ soldiers but by a dragon, an unsettling young man, and two other figures, both very bright. He thought it was one of the latter two that had spoken, but he was not sure which one.

“Tell us what you have done to the woman who was called Margaret,” said one of the bright ones.

The dragon growled at the mention of her name. “I fully intended to eat her, but she made the sign of the cross and I was forced to back down.”

“And you, Veltis?”

The strange young man shifted uncomfortably. “I am ashamed to admit that she bested me as well.” He rubbed his neck. “I couldn’t stop myself – every question she asked I answered. In the end, she made the ground open up and swallow me.

“Olybrius, son of Adam, what was your relationship with this woman?”

The provost looked annoyed. “She was the most beautiful girl I had seen in a long time. I intended to marry her, but she had betrayed our gods for a crucified one, which was most unseemly. I had her tortured multiple times, but she refused to return to our beliefs. At last I commanded my hangman to kill her, and this time there was no miraculous rescue.”

“And you Malchus, son of Adam – are you the hangman of whom Olybrius spoke?”

“To my everlasting shame, sir.” Malchus looked at his hands. “She asked for a bit of time to pray, and I gave it to her. But really it was for myself sir – I needed the time to gather up my courage. How could I kill this woman who had bested a dragon and come out alive from boiling water? But then, I’d seen the provost kill the 5000 men who converted because of her. So I wasn’t sure. But after hearing her pray, pray for forgiveness for all of us – for me – who had tortured her and were going to kill her – I couldn’t do it. And that voice – the voice from heaven – it said it granted her prayers, sir.” His voice was trembling.

“And yet the woman is dead,” said the other bright one.

“Yes sir. She told me that I might have no share with her if I did not cut off her head. So I did.” Malchus covered his face, and his shoulders shook.

“I see.”

The first bright one seemed to have made his judgement. “You all have done well in persecuting this woman. Not as well as I might have hoped, since she bested you, but that is to be expected when dealing the Enemy. You will certainly be rewarded by Our Father Below.”

“Wait just a moment,” said the second. “I believe Malchus belongs to me.”

Malchus began to be rather terrified, as the second seemed far more likely to judge him.

“Not at all. Did he not kill one of your people’s so-called saints? What more does it take to come Below?”

“He killed her, yes, but she requested that he be forgiven before her death. He has repented and believes, and that is all it takes to come Above. You have the other three, let me take this one.”

“Oh alright, have it your way. I’ve got three times as many as you.” He led the dragon, Veltis, and Olybrius away, leaving Malchus alone with the second.

“Malchus, you shall experience all the torture on earth that you have dealt this woman. But you shall one day see her again in paradise.”

Malchus knelt in gratitude.

“Do not kneel to me, but look ever heavenwards.”

When Malchus looked up, the figure had disappeared.


Author’s note: This story is based on the story of St. Margaret, from The Golden Legends. She was raised by her nursemaid, who converted her to Christianity. The provost wanted to marry her, but wanted her to renounce Christianity first. When she refused, he had her imprisoned, tortured, and eventually killed. During her imprisonment, she defeated the demon Veltis. I wanted to explore the story from the perspective of the other characters, particularly the hangman who beheaded her against his own wishes. In this story, the characters responsible for her death are judged by a demon and an angel. The demon’s language is partially based on that of The Screwtape Letters.

Bibliography: “Saint Margaret,” Voragine’s The Golden Legend, link to the reading online.

The Jackal’s Test

Reposted from my blog for my Mythology and Folklore class. 

Hello reader.

I’m three thousand years in your future. You won’t live that long of course, so here’s a glimpse of what your people have done to my world. You’ve burned it and hunted it and poisoned it. But you and your experiments also gave us minds.

Explore The Black Azar's photos on Flickr. The Black Azar has uploaded 12247 photos to Flickr.

Dystopia. Web Source: Flickr.

Yes, every one of us. From myself – Jackal, at your service – and the other animals to the surviving trees, all of us can think and feel and speak. Even the road beneath your feet. Well, my feet. You’re probably sitting in a chair in comfort.

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Caged Tiger. Web Source: Pixabay.

Despite all these changes, your people are still in charge. Somehow. I’m hoping to change that. Afterall, are you really fit to lead? Take this fellow Brahman. We – Tiger and I – were trying to see how people responded to Tiger’s plea for freedom. This guy actually let him out of the cage, which was a start. But we wanted to give him more of a feel for our plight than that of one noble beast in a cage. It’s easy to have pity on a magnificent tiger. But what about the rest of creation that suffers on his behalf? So Tiger made him go talk to three of us. He thought he had to convince them that he should live. But really we wanted to see if he could convince himself.

He heard from the trees that died for his books and newspapers. He spoke to the cow that was force fed only to be slaughtered for his meat. He spoke to the road that choked under the pollution from his car.

Yet after all these conversations, his only thought was for how he might survive. So I pretended to help him by leading Tiger back into his cage. It would not do for him to suspect our fomenting revolution.

You see, now we need another plan. You humans cannot be convinced to sympathize with us, so we must find another route to liberty. Tiger is still in his cage, and next time I will be the one to let him out. Cleverness and violence will win our earth back. As you might suspect from this glimpse into the future, I will take the reins as we rise.

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Jackal. Web Source: WikiMedia.

Author’s note:

This story is based on “The Tiger, the Brahman, and the Jackal.” In the original story, the tiger tricks the Brahman into letting him out, then threatens to eat him unless one of the first three people that the Brahman comes across can provide a convincing reason as to why he should not be eaten. The papal-tree, the buffalo, and the road see this trickery as the natural course of life, but the jackal pretends to be confused and forces a retelling of the story, until the tiger is back into his cage. In my retelling, I wanted to examine the jackal’s motivation for helping the Brahman and apparently opposing the tiger. I set the story in the future so that the personification of the animals, the tree, and the road would be more plausible.

Bibliography: “The Tiger, the Brahman, and the Jackal” from Indian Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs with illustrations by John D. Batten (1912). Web Source.