Sunday, August 18, 2013

Learning about Humanity

Last week was Chosen by a Horse. I think I've mentioned before that I was always a horse crazy kid; starting when I was age four and I begging to take riding lessons and when my friend and I played horsey on a regular basis. Add that to the fact that I love my cat, and it is not surprising that Chosen by a Horse made me cry. See, as per usual on any book with an animal, it featured a sweet horse who came unexpectedly into the author's life, taking care of her made the author learn valuable lessons about life, and the ending was not a happy one. I finished the book, sobbing, telling Cassie that she was not allowed to die. (I blame this book for why I freaked out when Cassie got sick this past week, although that's probably not fair, since I've done that before. The vet thinks that she's fine, just has a bug that is upsetting her stomach.)

The book was a bit trite, which is hard to say, since it's a memoir. You read about the author's horrible family life, about her struggles with alcoholism, and her awful marriage that wound up in divorce, and while it was horrible, she minimized it to such a point that it seemed almost unreal. She would drop in references to how her family abused her or describe a low point between her and her husband, but they were so casual that they were almost background noise. You never saw how that really affected her, or forced her to become the person she was when writing the story. She made references to having closed herself off, which was understandable, but all I was really concerned with was the horse she adopted. She never even says what is wrong with her back, something she mentions throughout the book as an ongoing health issue that stopped her from riding and forced her to always carry a cell phone in case it went out.

What you do see, though, is how much she cares about her horses, and how much joy they bring her. Spending time with horses helps her regain some of her humanity, and it is only once she experiences the pain of loving and losing one of them that she is comfortable risking her heart with humans again.

The week before was The Golem and the Jinni, recommended by my mom who was surprised that I knew what a golem was. She clearly has not read any Pratchett, nor watched Going Postal, a bbc version I recommended to her months ago. The Golem and the Jinni actually dealt with some very heavy issues, including what it means to be alive, what makes a person a person, and what role religion can play. It was well-written, interesting, and utterly satisfying and I read it in one day. (Partly because I hadn't planned, and didn't start reading it until Saturday, but partly because it was that good.)

The characters were flat, but you expected them to be, and the non-supernatural characters were nice foils to the depth of the characters you expected to be the flattest. After all, a golem's personality is defined by the words in its head and its relationship to a master, but the book asks what happens when the golem moves beyond that. What if a golem is its own master? This narrative was contrasted with that of the jinni, who was free but became bonded. The jinni should be able to fly, change form, perform acts of magic, but had been trapped and forced to stay in the same form by iron bracelets.

These two, each in a role that comes unnaturally to them (freedom for the golem and captivity for the jinni) struggle to figure out who and what they are, and how to manage in a world that was not meant for them. The golem craves stability and fears losing control of herself, while the jinni is anxious and restless and spends much of the novel exploring. Yet they both find something in creating. The golem is a baker, and through creating food (which she cannot eat), she stabilizes herself. The jinni is an artist, and loses himself in creating sculptures of gold, frequently sculpting birds that have the freedom he craves.

It is only through being together that either of them finds any comfort and can see any reason for living in their current state. Both contemplate suicide, but ultimately, choose life, refusing to kill others as well as themselves, while the humans in the story are the ones who commit the least humane actions. The non-humans are, in fact, the most human.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Rushdie, Luka, and Mythology

I'm not going to lie, one of the struggles with my blogging project has been what to say on mediocre books. Reading a book a week means I don't have time to figure out that one book is crap, pick up another non-crap one and finish it, too. Plus let's face it. Part of my reasoning for the whole book a week was to force myself to read books that I've had for forever. Which means reading mediocre books if only to realize that they are mediocre. And I have a hard time giving away books I haven't finished, unless I ABSOLUTELY hate them.

The last two weeks haven't been those. I'm not surprised the week before last was good; it was Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie, and his stuff is incredibly inventive and full of commentary. Luka is technically juvenile fiction, and in some ways it reads as such to a negative degree. The plot is based on a magical land, through which Luka must fight with his friends in tow, in order to steal the fire that will save his father. 

As Rushdie, through the characters, points out, the concept of stealing fire is one that echoes through several different cultures. Fire equals life, and if life comes from the gods, so does fire. Rushdie shows numerous characters known for stealing fire: the coyote and Prometheus are only two of several. My main issue, though, was not how he uses several classic myths from different cultures; it was that some seemed trite. The coyote seemed hackneyed, his speech patterns cliched.

Despite that, I kept reading. One of the more interesting things that Rushdie did was build in a video game narrative. Through this, he seems to argue against modern ideas that say video games are harmful for children's imaginations. Instead, video games blend seamlessly with myths, suggesting that in some ways, the very games that we play are helping form and giving us agency within our own myths. Gods and goddesses blended into the game, creating a narrative that spans the ages, as Greek myths fight with Norse which fight with American Indian, while the action is controlled by a modern child who, after accruing hundreds of lives, uses most of them to fight for the one that is the most important: that of his father.

The narrative highlights the chaos and pain of Luka'ss non-storied life. How can a child deal with the impending death of a parent but by retreating into stories and myths? How can any of us do so? We deal with loss by focusing on life, and by passing on new stories until real people become beloved myths. And sometimes, just sometimes, you win the game, be the hero, and get a happy ending.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Who's the Boss

Both my VP and my old supervisor have made comments along the lines of "oh, when you leave here to run your own office" in the past few months. I'm not going to lie, it kind of freaks me out. Partly because I'm trying to figure out what really makes me happy, so I'm not set on a career path right now, and partly because a part of me screams "I'M NOT AN ADULT AND YOU CAN'T MAKE ME ONE." But it also makes me kind of happy because a. boss=plenty of money and b. I like telling people what to do.

So reading Bossypants was fairly appropriate. I have to admit, I have kind of a love/dislike relationship with Tina Fey in that I love her as a person and for what she says, and I'm not always a huge fan of her writing. It's been a while since I've found SNL funny, and that includes when she was leading the team. I know it's practically social suicide to say it, but I never got into 30 Rock. It was amusing, I guess. The characters were a little over the top for me, but I can see why people liked it. 

The same was true of Bossypants. I enjoyed it well-enough, but I didn't laugh out loud, I didn't think it was hilarious, and while I liked a lot of her points, I wasn't blown away. Maybe it's Wedding Crashers syndrome; I'd heard too much about how great it was, and it couldn't live up to its own hype. It also was more of a general memoir than what I was looking for; I wanted something that focused on what it was like to work at SNL, what it was like to be the boss on a network show, what it's like to be a woman in comedy. Instead, I got a random, if funny, description of photo shoots and a general impression of being busy.

There is absolutely no logical segue into the next book I read. I could try, but it would be strained and awkward and would have to try and tie the battles Tina Fey fought as a female comedian to those the main character in The Magician's Apprentice fought as a woman who wanted to be a healer who also had magic, but let's face it. That's fairly tenuous.

The Magician's Apprentice came, as a lot of my books do, from the remaindered section of a book store. I like hardback books, but I don't like paying full price because I'm cheap and buy a lot of books and $25 a book adds up quickly. It was worth about what I paid for it. I feel like that's harsh, and I don't mean it that way. It was a decent book. It just wasn't a great one.

My main problem with it is that a large portion of it dealt with war. The part before the war was fairly interesting, as Tessia starts learning magic, and is forced to interact with the upper echelon of society. But then a war broke out. I don't particularly like reading sections from the perspective of the villain (a not uncommon trope in sci-fi/fantasy), and I think it was probably too accurate in its description of war, in that it was a lot of descriptions of not much action, followed by brief, high-action segments.

In focusing so much on the reality of war, the author didn't flesh out the characters enough so that I actually cared about them. There was a love story in the middle of everything, but neither Tessia nor Jayan (the other apprentice with her who is annoyed by losing time with his master but eventually comes to realize how special Tessia really is) has depth. Tessia is too good, too simple, too basic. Jayan is kind of boring; their relationship has no spark or chemistry as written.

I can't help but compare it to some of Mercedes Lackey's writing. Now she can capture the boredom around a battle while making you genuinely care about the characters. 

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Post-Colonial Time Traveling Magical Art

Sorry, you once again get a multi-book post. Blame work; it's killing my brain and my motivation.

This past week was Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore. Now it'd be very hard for him to ever live up to Lamb. Which has to be one of the funniest, most moving, religious books I've read. If you haven't read it, immediately go out and buy it. Cancel all appointments for the next couple of days. But this? Was pretty damn good. I won't give away too much of the plot, since one of the best parts of the book is figuring out exactly what is going on. But a large part deals with art over the centuries, what role emotion plays in all that, and what inspires an artist. Art without sadness or passion? Is empty. Art expresses humanity, and at the heart of humanity is emotion.

The book plays off of that; paintings that were painted while the painter was experiencing love or hate or depression are more powerful and useful. More interesting, though, is the suggestion that in some ways, life can be art. Acts of violence and war can be just as powerful as a painting of a woman or man that the artist loved. Strangely, within the novel, it is only those violence that can be a substitute for created art. Other emotions, while equally as strong, are only enough when they are expressed through other mediums. It seems as though Moore, then, is arguing that emotion is most powerful when it leads to other actions, painting or sketching or killing. The act, fueled by the emotion, becomes what matters, and in the end, the best art, the most inspired, requires blood.

The week before was The Buddha of Suburbia. I feel like I should have more to say about this; it won an award, I'm pretty sure that I bought it for a class. It's definitely post-colonial, and deals with issues of how immigrants deal with questions of identity and what their nationality means. The main characters are nearly all Indians living in England; there are the usual questions of what it means to be an other in a culture. The main character fights less with active racism (although he does deal with it) and more with stereotyping. He's an actor forced to play the part of his nationality, but that part is a caricature. Even when he bases his role off of real people in his life, it becomes a farce, and the lines between himself and the caricature are blurred.

And the week before was Cloud's End. Cloud's End reminded me of when I was in a creative writing class in college. See, I wrote a short story about a girl who meets what she thinks is a magical character. The ending was ambiguous; was she crazy, or was there actually another reality? The other fantasy fans in the class loved the ending; the non-fantasy fans hated it. "What happened?!" they cried. "Did she die? What was real?" Cloud's End leaves you with the same questions, but even more tied into identity than the story I wrote. The novel continuously asks what makes a person themselves? Is it memories? Is it an innate selfness? Can someone be replaced without loved ones noticing?

There is also a constant question of survival, tied to emotions. Again and again, you see couples or pairs with deep emotions connecting them, and one must destroy the other to survive, or one thinks that they must destroy the other. Love and creation are almost always paired with death and destruction. One begets the other, necessitates it. While humanity tries to ignore that basic fact, the plot throws the characters again and again into facing it. And in the end, who knows if good or evil won. How can you even tell which is which, when life necessitates death?

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Boring Lives Full of Mystery

So the books for the past two weeks have been mysteries. This is partly out of sheer laziness. Work has been insanely stressful, and the thought of anything mildly difficult makes my soul hurt. (I'm also rereading the Disc World series, so to fit in both, I have to go for easier.) This is partly because I've had them for years and have no good reason for not reading them.

What I've discovered is that I don't really like mysteries. Oh, I'm sure there are some that are quite good. Ones where you really care about the characters, where you are invested in figuring out the plot. Where you can't stop reading because you have to know what happened. These were not them. (I do like Jasper Fforde's series, which is more of a mystery. But it's also tied into literature and theory and it explains the annoying end of Jane Eyre, something that has always bothered me.)

Last week, I read The Cat Who Saw Stars, in which the main character gets hunches from his mustaches and whose cats somehow are psychic. Neither of which would really bother me, to be honest. I like quirk and vague hints of magic. I can't remember if this is one my mom gave to me or my grandma, but I think the only reason they did was because it features cats and one of the characters knits, which is not enough to hold me. My main problems were that the characters were flat and the plot wasn't cohesive. A guy dies at the beginning and we never really find out what happened to him, although the end hints that maybe the aliens made the sand eat him. Or at least that's how I'm reading it. (I'm also not kidding about the alien part.) Another murder takes place, but figuring out what happened on that one takes a backseat to a description of the main character's vacation. Which does sound lovely; I'd like a job where I can just peace out to my beach house for a month. But really. Who wants to read about what someone eats on their vacation for eighty pages of a short book?

This week's was Evanly Choirs, a book I know my mom gave me, mainly because it takes place in Wales and the Christmas I got back from Oxford, she gave me a bunch of books that took place in Wales solely because they took place in Wales (we'd spent time in Wales as a family before my term started, and X and I took a trip over there when he came to visit. I love Wales. It's wonderfully quirky, and everyone is taciturn, which I approve of). This was better than The Cat Who Saw Stars, but still not gripping. The main character was more fleshed out, but not by much, and the rest of the characters were pretty blank. The slutty barmaid, the pretty teacher, the cast of village folk who all blend together, the crazy competitive ministers. They all played into standard tropes, and that just bores me. The plot was more coherent, kind of, although it was like, "let's throw all these random people into a situation so that the readers won't see the twist coming!" rather than something more carefully planned.

Plus let's face it. Anything I'm reading while I'm also reading Pratchett is going to have a lot to live up to. Neither of these did that, but at least I can get rid of them and at least they distracted me momentarily from the madness that is work.

Monday, May 27, 2013

A Horse of a Different Color

I have always been horse crazy. And I don't mean, "mommy, daddy, can I have a pony?" horse crazy. I mean horse crazy to the point that when I was in third grade, my best friend and I started budgeting for how we could have our own horse. Ignoring the fact that our allowances were very small, and we lived in two different states, we spent hours planning where we could save money (our moms, for example, could make the horse blankets so we wouldn't have to buy them). We called stables near her house to get an idea of what it would cost to board a horse there.

She and I had taken riding lessons together on the air force base where we met, and fairly quickly decided that one of the ponies there was related to Misty of Chincoteague. Bucky had the markings and everything. We spent hours in lessons and going on trail rides, and were devastated when our brothers (who were also best friends) told us that they turned horses into glue. Even when we lived in different states, we continued to do things like go to riding camps together, or plan on buying a horse. I was horribly jealous that she got to move to Kentucky, whereas I was in Tennessee, and tried to comfort myself with the fact that the hoof of the horse on our map of the United States dangled from Kentucky into Tennessee.

I tried to keep up with riding once I got older, and kept taking lessons through high school. When I got into college, though, it got more complicated, requiring a car and coordinating with people I didn't know. And then when I graduated, it became a luxury I couldn't afford, but one I still miss and plan to get back to when I make more than I do now.

Given this history, it's not surprising how many books on horses I have. Given my inability to finish non-fiction books, it's also probably not surprising how many I haven't read. And Beautiful Jim Key wasn't exactly the best written book I've ever read. To be honest, it wasn't even the best written book on horses I've ever read. But the story is fascinating PLUS it takes place relatively close to my hometown. So the dangling hoof was right.

It's hard to imagine a horse that seemingly could read and write and do basic math. At the same time, there is such a preponderance of literature on the bond between horses and humans, why should we be surprised to find out that they are smart? Anyone who has spent any time around animals knows that each is unique, each has its own personality. I doubt I could teach Cassie to read, but I see the ability to learn and reason, if at a simpler level.

It also reawakened my desire to have that bond with a horse. I had my own horse for a couple of years, but she was flighty and I was hitting my awkward years, and it made for a bad combination. But a horse that I saw every day, that knew me for me (and didn't take peppermints to get in from the field)... it might not be in the cards for right now, but I hope someday I can actually manage it. And this time, I won't need my mom to make the horse blankets.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Catch Up: Reincarnation, Immaturity, and Cultural Studies

Once again, I'm dreadfully behind on blogging. Actually, I'm behind on everything (except for reading. Still knocking that out like a boss). You should see my apartment. It's covered in clothes and books and shoes and cat hair. It's getting ridiculous. So in order to have one area of my life where I am not behind or in chaos (although I also want to add a list component of all the books I've read to the side, and that's not happening tonight), I shall do a quick round-up of the last few weeks.

Three weeks ago was Katherine Kerr's Daggerspell. It was one of my fluffier choices, although the writing style was interesting, as was the transition between times. The story was one of reincarnation and rehabilitation, as the characters of one tragedy continue, after being reborn, to relive aspects of it until they manage to break their part of the cycle. The main character is the one man who rather than being reborn, is simply living (and remembering his role) until he makes up for his part in the original story. The writing reminded me a bit of The Name of the Wind, which led to some internal confusion as my brain kept trying to make connections that didn't exist. There was of course magic and fighting, including the one woman fighter saving the day, which I love. But since all but one character was rather fluid, it was hard to truly care what happened to any of them.

Two weeks ago was The Mystery of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon. Maybe it's because I was never a typical young person (I'm allowed to say that now since I'm old), I sympathized with the main character, who gets into a certain crowd because of a desire to be a part of the cool kids, to have that typical, almost Gatsby-esque party experience. But at the same time, the plot and the worries seemed a little too geared toward teenagers. Yes, no one knows who they are, yes, young people make stupid decisions. But an entire novel built around that was a bit much, particularly since he captured the annoyingness of young people a little too well. The plot also hinged on the relationship between the main character and his father, who was a leader in the mafia, and that relationship was never really fully explained. Instead, Chabon peppers the story with hints of why the father acts the way he does. But what is never explored, and what I think is more interesting, is why the father chose that life, what effect that had on his life beyond the death of his wife, and what made him push his son toward a different path. Actually, I wish the whole story had focused on the dad and son relationship, rather than the son playing with drugs and experimenting with various aspects of sexuality.

Last week was The Wise Man's Fear, the sequel to The Name of the Wind. In finishing it, I join the masses eagerly waiting for Patrick Rothfuss to publish the final part of the trilogy and find out what happens to Kvothe and Denna and all the rest. It continued and expanded its exploration of names, moving into how other cultures (all fictional, of course) use names and storytelling. Language is even more important in this one; there is one culture that views facial expressions and music as personally intimate, and so all emotions are expressed through hand gestures and all music should only be played for those with whom you are close. There is a discussion of predestination, as the narrative examines how a person's actions can be manipulated for evil purposes by one who sees all possible futures; the fairies, if someone interacts with this being, will instantly kill that person and anyone who interacts with him or her. That is how powerful being able to manipulate people through the truth (for the being only tells the truth) is. Given the number of themes, you'd think it'd seem disjointed, but Rothfuss does a masterful job of keeping the story moving. And it'd be a great series to write a paper on... You know, if Rothfuss gets around to finishing the whole thing.