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.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Waxing Southern

I've been listening to a lot of bluegrass lately. A friend got me into Brown Bird in particular, although The Civil Wars, Sarah Jarosz, Crooked Still are all also on the playlist, and I'm now obsessed.

There's something about the music that is uniquely southern. Brown Bird in particular features droning fiddles, sudden changes in rhythm. It creates a music that's warm and eerie and sensual. Those of you who have been in the south during the summer know the weighty feeling of the hot humid air, so thick that it embraces you, the pressure of crickets and cicadas as the night pulses with their chirps. Summer in the south is not calm; nights are full of life and noise and nature. Days are quiet, full of sun and chirping, as  the sun bakes you and everything waits for night and cooler air. Good bluegrass captures this.

It's not surprising, then, that southern literature also works to capture this. My brain works oddly about some books and southern literature more than other genres; I tend to remember very little of the plot or characters, but instead grasp a feeling or a single scene. Absalom, Absalom is a meeting at night in a dark forest covered in kudzu, The Awakening is a feeling of flatness tinted blue. Beloved (my book from two weeks ago. I'm behind on blogging, but on top of reading) is three women dancing at twilight. Beloved deals with the concept of magic, the thought that anything can happen when you combine dark sultry nights with horror with love. I struggle with interpreting it, coming to any easy place in my mind for analysis. Instead I mainly just stop at the top level of emotions and wonder how you can begin to comprehend the plot, and the existence of a system that allowed for the easy destruction of the humanity of all involved.

I wonder if this is part of the duality of the south, the cheerful songs with runs and light strings and the songs of death and betrayal and odd rhythms and clashing harmonies. It is a region of such beauty and such life. The mountains, rather than intimidate you with their height and peaks, soothe you with their curves, the fog drifting around the peaks, lulling you into a feeling of safety and security. Behind that, though, are stories of violence, misunderstandings. It is a land that lends itself to extremes.

And yet, as someone who grew up here, it's hard to reconcile these feelings with the suburbanization and the aging hippies and the artists. I only hope we don't lose the artists or the storytelling or the mystery to the everydayness.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Approaching a New Decade

So I'm turning 30 this week. And I'm absolutely not freaking out except for when I am, and that varies with the times when I'm all "New decade is going to be badass." Which alternates with the times I'm all "YAY BIRTHDAYS," and the times when I'm all, "I DON'T HAVE TIME TO DEAL WITH ANY OF THIS BECAUSE WORK IS HARD," and the times when I laugh because I totally tested event functionality on one of our test sites by making a birthday event with a list of presents including ponies and unicorns. And then when I had to open tickets, I had to reference it and realized I was sending our developers to a page that included unicorns. And that's just funny, people. I hope they were as amused as I was. And that they build me a unicorn or a pony, because otherwise why are we paying them.

Tied into all of this is the fact that I have to write a speech (!) on my success (!!!!) to give at my high school honors banquet in two weeks. When I read that I should talk about my success, I laughed because I know where I work and what my job is and what I get paid, and I have to laugh about some of that or I cry with rage and frustration. Also I'm turning 30 and barring the people who started their own company and then sold it to Google, I don't know of many people at 30 who could talk about how successful they are. I think my success may be defined by the fact that I'm living outside of the state and can pay rent. Not a mortgage, because let's not get too crazy here, but I have yet to not make rent. Plus I have financed one out-of-country vacation, so I'm totally living high.

Both these events at once do mean that I am forced to think about where I am in my life, which is not all bad, but not all awesome, either. I mean, I had ideas about where I would be at this point. And it was not where I am. Which again isn't all bad. Life is confusing and different and I'd still rather be single than be with the wrong person. But I liked being in a couple. And I want kids. And at this point... I just don't know. I never meet anyone, when I do meet people, they either aren't interested or are dating someone or I'm not interested in them... I just wonder if it's ever going to happen, or if I should just try and move on to different dreams. And I know I'm not that old. But seriously. It's been an entire presidency since I've been single. Two election nights. Two inaugurations. It could be time to sublimate all of that into writing the great American novel, and get people to shut up about The Great Gatsby. I hate that book.

Which is not to say I am not closer to becoming who I want to be. Despite the many frustrations at work, I hear my boss say things like, "when you leave here to take over somewhere else," and I think, "I could do that. I could take over online strategy for an organization." I'm staying because I want another six months to a year of experience, although I'd stay longer depending on what my job turns into. I have a love/hate relationship with the fact that I'm apparently intimidating, because while it may hinder my love life, it sure as hell can be good for my career. I've gotten much more comfortable taking over conversations when I feel it's necessary and advocating for myself. And I like that. I feel all adult. Like I've been through a crucible and come out as someone who, while not completely adult, is a lot closer than I was a year ago.

But seriously. I expect a unicorn.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Magic Optional: Medieval Women and the War of Roses

When I was in college, I took a class on medieval women, the first of two classes I took on the topic (the other one was in grad school) and the first of two that I hated. I hated the one in grad school because the professor was demanding without explaining her expectations and lowered your grade drastically for what most professors see as minor offenses, such as not always following consistent citation styles in weekly short responses. It wasn't just me, either. 90% of the class hated it, and nearly everyone had at least one come-to-Jesus meeting with the professor.

The one in undergrad, though, I hated for the exact opposite reasons. It was a 300-level class that was a partnership between the English department and, I think, history, which means that people in there knew how to write. Despite this, our professor treated us like high schoolers. Before our first paper was due, we had a session on the structure of a paragraph, and how to write a basic thesis statement. I wanted to die of boredom, and quickly losing all respect for her and her teaching, began to half-ass that class like I had no other.

The worst example of this was my paper on Margaret d'Anjou. I did all of my research for the paper as I was writing it the day it was due (it was due by midnight). I remember sitting there, books in my lap, frantically looking for quotes and facts to include in the paper. By 8:30, I was on page 8, and it was supposed to be a 5-7 page paper. I was halfway through the war, and I was worried about when the building where my professor's office was would close. So I rewrote the intro, whipped up a conclusion, and just stopped. Still got an A-, with the only criticism being "I don't understand why you stopped where you did."

Given this utter lack of effort, it's not surprising that I remembered very little of the history described in Philippa Gregory's The Lady of the Rivers. The plot revolves around Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford, Margaret's close friend and handmaid to the queen. To be honest, the plot was interesting, and I respect Gregory's research into Jacquetta (she was a real person who was in the center of the action, but has rarely been written about. At least according to the addendum at the end of the novel), but the characters themselves were a little flat. Jacquetta was too good, seemingly never conflicted or tempted to truly do anything wrong. The closest she comes is when she thinks she is responsible for a curse on the king, but that is glossed over. She dabbles in magic, which mainly seems to allow her to see minor bits of the future and predict if she is having a boy or a girl, but as soon as her husband asks her to stop, she does. Margaret is petty and strong and whiney, seemingly only driven by a need for revenge against those she thinks have done her wrong. She never seems to advance beyond the political understanding of a 15 year old, which I think does her a bit of an injustice. The king is watery, and nothing else.

I know I've read other books by Philippa Gregory, but I'm honestly have a hard time remembering those, making me suspect that this book, like the facts from my oh-so-hurried paper, will quickly vanish into the depths of my memory.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

It's All in a Name

It should surprise no one that I love words. I took Latin senior year of college; it was one of my funnest classes, since it combined puzzles and words. (I like crosswords, but I liked Latin better. I even bought Harry Potter: The Sorcerer's Stone in Latin.) But one of the most complicated parts of studying literature is that literary theory is nearly impossible to read. I had to read most articles twice, once to get the idea of the article and once to truly understand. Because here's the thing. How do you question the act of reading and what words mean through reading? You're questioning the meaning of the method you are using to question meaning. It's impossible to do that in any straight-forward method. To quote this week's book, The Name of the Wind, "using words to talk of words is like using a pencil to draw a picture of itself, on itself."

And one of the most fundamental questions is what do words mean. What do names mean? How can you capture an experience, a moment, a person? Given this, it's not surprising that there is a trope in fantasy of the power of the name. By knowing the true name of someone or something, a word that somehow encapsulates their being, you gain power over them. You have a way to see all the things they try to hide, all the parts of themselves they don't want someone else to know.

The Name of the Wind dances around this. By knowing the true name of the wind, a person can command the wind to attack someone, or to stop that person from falling. But the book goes beyond the trope. Rothfuss does a fabulous job of creating a new world, with its own legends and rules and culture. He includes the power of names, but talks more of humanity's ability to define itself. The main character, Kvothe, has had many names, played many roles, is defined by many people. By playing those roles and going by those names, he is redefined and redefines himself. The same issue with names is true of his love interest, Denna. Her name, her identity is constantly in flux. In to Kvothe, she seems to garner power from playing outside of the system. People tell stories about her and what her role is, but she seems to ignore that. She plays her own games and sets her own rules. She hides herself, both physically and emotionally, and because of that, no one else can define her.

Yet she is lonelier than Kvothe. He, at least, has good friends. He is allowed inside the system, despite his rebellious nature. She seemingly is only friends with Kvothe, a man with an inner knowledge of names. Is Rothfuss, then, suggesting that allowing others to name you is necessary to be close to them? Is it an intrinsic part of humanity? Without that closeness, she seems to be an idol to many. Something distant that they can love, lust after, but never truly know. And idols don't have friends. They don't have lovers. They have worshipers.

In the end, the book speaks of masks; wearing a mask can change who you are by changing who you believe yourself to be. Words have power, more so because of their fluidity than because of their ability to describe. Which then begs the question. Can only simple things be named, walls, movements of air? Where is the limit? If humans define themselves, what about other animals? What about trees? Is it knowing the power of definition that frees us? What does this mean for those who refuse to play in that system, like Denna? Is she, by refusing to allow others to define her, casting off her humanity?

Sunday, April 07, 2013

An Excuse

So I haven't forgotten about blogging this week. But I'm behind on finishing my book (less that 100 pages left of The Name of the Wind) and am so exhausted I'm nearly incoherent. (Blame IA Summit, which was a great experience.) I promise I'll update in the next few days.

Friday, March 29, 2013

A Good Friday

I love Good Friday services (though at my home church, we did the same service on Maundy Thursday). This might sound strange; it is, after all, a service commemorating death. It is somber and reflective and sad.

For those of you unfamiliar with this type of service, the service is generally centered around readings and music. At my church at home, they slowly strip the altar, removing all decorations except for the cross. At my church here, they extinguish candles after every reading. The lights are gradually dimmed until the sanctuary is in darkness except for the one Christ candle. Then that is carried out. At my home church, they ring the bell 33 times while the congregation sits there in silence. It is deeply moving.

When I was there tonight, I wasn't feeling it. Not at first. The lights were up, I was concentrating on the music we had to sing (all a capella. I hate a capella), people were fidgety, we were super high up, so it was hard to concentrate. But then. Well, first the sermon was just the right tone (I'm so sad our associate pastor, who gave it, is leaving). I kept thinking of Lamb, which I read as a non-New Years resolution book because I love it and reading it now is oh-so-appropriate. And while Lamb is horrible sacrilegious, there are some striking moments. I was thinking in particular of when Jesus and Biff are in India, and they save children who were supposed to be sacrificed to Kali. And Jesus looks and says, "No more. No more sacrifices." Later, as Biff is struggling to accept that his best friend is going to allow himself to be killed, he realizes that that is how Jesus is going to ensure no more blood poured out. By making himself such a powerful sacrifice that he could convince God to move in a different direction.

I'm not sure how I feel about that, religious-wise. The thought that it would take the death of his son to show God that death is a bad way to worship is unnerving. But the need for a crucifixion in general is unnerving. It ties into the whole "God's plan/why do bad things happen to good people/what is going on with the world" questions that can easily derail faith. You can look at it as it takes something like that to prove to us, as humans, that God loves us and that we are doing things wrong. Which is also a hard pill to take.

Regardless, the book shows the pain of the people around Jesus. And the conflicts he faces. I think the strength of the book is that Jesus is human. He's real. He's laughing and making fun of people and struggling and trying his best to figure things out. Seeing Jesus as a person is to me necessary to see him as a part of God. The best thing about Jesus being human is that maybe, just maybe, God knows what I'm going through.

Anyways, as the lights continued to go out, as we sang our last song, the sanctuary was quiet. And I found myself moved and thinking of Christmas Eve, which is my other favorite service. And I thought, how perfect, that my two favorite services are so nicely tied, the bookends of Jesus's life reflecting each other. The two actually mirror each other; Christmas Eve the lights are turned out, and the congregation's candles are lit until the whole church is glowing. There is a peace and a hush until the bells ring out in exultation and everything is joy. You leave, chatting, catching up with people you haven't seen in ages. Everyone is happy and expectant.

At the end of Good Friday, everyone leaves in silence. The sanctuary remains dim and undecorated. People whisper their goodbyes, and there is a heaviness. A sorrow at the way the world is tonight, that people would rather do great harm than face the truth. The question of whether you would betray, you would deny. I see so much of myself in Peter. When confronted, when it is my life at risk. Could I have done anything differently than he did?

This, too, is as much of the story as Easter morning, or Christmas. We cannot experience the joy without going through the sorrow. And most of all, how can we understand the miracle if we can't comprehend the loss?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Searching for Quiet

This week, I was forced to read in a hurry. I'd read most of Game of Thrones, but never finished it because it made me tired and sad. Then a couple of weeks ago, I was metaphorically put in the cone of shame for still having it (I was borrowing it from a coworker who wanted to loan it to another coworker). So I finished An Unexpected Light and then repicked up Game of Thrones and finished it on Tuesday. Which meant that between dance class and work and choir, I really didn't start this week's book until Saturday afternoon.

Somehow I wound up once again on non-fiction, opting to read A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L'Engle. I have long loved L'Engle's work. A Wrinkle in Time was one of the books that led me toward sci-fi/fantasy, and the whole series has had a profound impact on how I view the universe. Plus I wanted to be Meg, awkward smart Meg who turned into a beauty in A Swiftly Tilting Planet and who found a cute nerdy boy.  Sigh. If only I could meet a Calvin...

Besides that, I mainly picked it because the back had a blurb on how it would make you understand why you got out of bed every morning. And I've been stressed and unhappy and angry and feeling unappreciated because of work, and a reason to get out of bed in the morning sounded appealing. Maybe it would make me feel marginally better, maybe I wouldn't so frequently read emails and literally yell in frustration (which is bad for multiple reasons, including the fact that the writers of these emails could walk by at any moment).

It was exactly what I needed. There have been several moments like that recently, mostly around religion. I'm not particularly comfortable being overtly religious. I don't hide it; my coworkers, for example, all know that I have given up drinking for Lent and that I am in my church choir. But I don't like spontaneous talking about my faith. It feels mushy somehow, and pushy. I'm not a proselytizer, I'm indifferent toward converting those of different faiths, mostly because I question the existence of hell, and I have a hard time believing in a God who would send good people to it just because they grew up in a family with a different religion.

And L'Engle addresses that. The book is nominally about writing, but is actually about life and religion. And she was apparently a religious agnostic. She suffered from the same questions I have, she dealt with some of the same issues. She says things that I have been thinking. She addresses the need for community, something I've been working on, finding it mostly in my church groups, and with my coworkers.

Clearly we would have been best friends, since she also had the same mentality about birthdays I do, which involves reminding people often until they want to smack you, but they will never forget and they will make it special. She talks about some key decades for her, something that hits close to home given my rapidly approaching decade change. It was interesting to read about her challenges; apparently no one wanted to publish A Wrinkle in Time, in part because it didn't neatly fit into any genres. It seemed like most people who read it knew that it was really good, that it was worth publishing. But the fact that it was unusual, and hard to define. That was more of a battle than they were willing to take on.

While L'Engle doesn't really address this, this fits into many of the lessons of her books. After all, look at Meg, and Charles Wallace. Neither fit in. Both are rejected by their society because they don't fit into easy definitions, and both have so much to offer. What are we missing out on by ignoring things that don't fit into our own conceptions? Are we turning down great opportunities because we don't have the energy to fight for them? (This also hit close to home, since I have very little energy to fight for anything right now.)

Given my stress levels and my need for calm, perhaps the strongest reaction I had is not so strange. L'Engle mentions the fun she and her daughters had sitting on the star-watching rock, feeling the warmth it had absorbed during the day, and staring at the sky. And I had this intense reaction of familiarity. All of a sudden, I was shot into my mental image of the star-watching rock from A Wrinkle in Time, the quiet expectancy of the space. The calm serenity. And I wanted nothing more than to have a rock like that to go lie on.

I long for the sanctuary she built for herself and I love her for the awkwardness she describes. And I'm re-adding all of her books to my "must read again" list. Because these books show me who I am and who I want to be.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Risks, Danger, and Welcome in Afghanistan

My ex took Uzbek the first summer we were dating. He was never that good at it (at least not that I could tell), which isn't super surprising, considering it was an eight-week class. But once he met my uncle and they bonded over a fascination with that region of the world, my presents from my uncle took a particular bent. A mask, an antique rice steamer.

Between the two of them, I began to develop a fascination with the region, as did my mom (who was planning on taking a fabric trip to Uzbekistan, and who I believe is still obsessed with yurts). A fascination that was only strengthened by this week's book, An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan by Jason Elliot, which is part travel memoir, part history book.

I tend not to be good at reading these type of books. I start them with grand expectations. Hopes that I can live vicariously through the author, get a glimpse into a different world. And then I start. And I get bogged down, and I lose motivation, and I never finish.

BUT that is part of what this project is about. So when I felt like putting down the book, I plugged through. There is a lot of history included in this book, and while I enjoy history, at times, it turns into "and then so-and-so did x," and my eyes start to glaze over. That is not to say that I didn't enjoy the book. There are some truly beautiful scenes, and I long for the day that the region is peaceful enough that I can go without giving my parents a heart attack. The people, their culture. There were moments in the book that made me wish that we could be more like that. Elliot receives so much welcome; he shows up in strange towns, knowing no one, at most having a letter of introduction. And the only occasion where he is not welcome is because of westerners and their culture and lack of trust. The thought of a place where guests are revered, where someone showing up unexpectedly is not a problem or an inconvenience, but a gift, is alluring. A place where people have no reservations about giving others the best.

Throughout, the danger is prevalent. It is a part of the narrative, almost becoming a character in the story. Kabul is under constant attack while Elliot is living there. Driving around the city at night, they go through checkpoints which include having guns pointed at your head. Everyone seems armed. Rockets hit around the city, destroying buildings and lives. There are parts of the city he cannot go, there are limits to where he can travel in the countryside. At one point, he attempts to travel through the center of the country, and while he makes it further than many recommended, he stops when he is told that the next part of the journey would result in his death. "Even a chicken would be shot going through there." (Approximate quote, since I am too lazy to try and find the real one.)

And the danger leads to something in the book that really struck me. Sometimes I feel like I'm coasting through life, waiting to meet someone, get married, have kids. Then my real life will start. I've talked to other people who feel the same way. And Elliot addresses this, saying during his time in Afghanistan, he felt truly alive. Whether it's because of the risks of driving on perilous roads through the mountains, the knowledge of possible death, the lack of material goods, he seems to live every moment in a way that is difficult from a cushy, but stressed-out western perspective. What can we learn from both his experiences and the Afghan way of life, and how can we translate that into something that works for our culture?

Myself, I will try and be more open to surprises, and more generous with the guests in my life. And possibly, push my self to live as though I am "sucking the marrow from the bones of life."

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Hanna's Daughters: A Mother's (Lack of) Voice

This week's book was Hanna's Daughters. The most interesting thing about this one was not the plot; it focused on three Swedish women, and to be honest, at times the characters were kind of flat and the plot trudged along.

What interested me, though, was what the book seemed to be saying about mother-daughter relationships. By the time you were 2/3rds of the way through the book, you realized that all of the plot, all of the descriptions of Hanna and her daughter Johanna came from Anna, Johanna's daughter. You see Anna involved in writing the very text you've already read, and you come to realize that she is an unreliable narrator; nothing that you've already read had came from the women it directly involved. At the time it's written, Hanna has passed away and Johanna is suffering from either Alzheimer's or something similar, and has no way to communicate. Both have lost their voices and are only capable of speaking of their histories through their relative.

This implies that Anna has inherited her mother and grandmother's voice. There are pieces of the text that only either woman would know, tied together with pieces that clearly could be family legend. How Hanna felt being raped would be a perfect example of the first (we learn that Johanna didn't realize this piece of her mother's history until she was an adult), and the fact that Hanna could only cry from joy for much of her life seems like a legend.

Yet how accurate can a daughter or granddaughter's interpretation be? We are so tied in by our own definitions of our relatives and the roles they have played regarding us. Anna remains bitter about her mother's acceptance of her father's treatment;given this, how can she provide a clear view? Her grandmother, she admits, she hardly knew and didn't particularly like, and her portion of the novel seems based on letters and those family legends.

What, then, is Frederickkson trying to say? The title defines the younger generations by their relation to the older, but the youngest is the only one with a voice. Do we, as a society, as daughters and sons, define how our parents and grandparents are remembered? Are we rewriting their lives simply because we outlive them? And by becoming parents, do we lose our own voices to those of the later generations?

The book ends after Johanna and her husband die, and when Anna finishes her book about her family. Only then, is she allowed to leave the bonds they had wrapped around her behind, and move on. Yet we see scenes of her with her daughters, suggesting that the cycle is continuing. Suggesting, in fact, that a new series is beginning, one that could leave her voiceless, defined by her daughters and granddaughters.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Seeing a Whole New World

I've always had a fascination with travel. If you ask me what I'd do if I won the lotto, my response is "travel for six months to a year. And then save money for later travel. and then buy a house." I hear about exotic places and I think, "I want to go there. I want to see that, experience that." I blame my childhood.

See, when I was little, we traveled a fair amount. My dad was in the air force, so we could fly really cheaply and we were stationed abroad for a couple of years. I still remember wondering around Japan, going into alleys full of shops. (And you will pry my kimono and slippers from my cold dead hands. I don't care if all that fits now is my right arm.) We hit several countries, all of which have moments that stand out for me. The bird sanctuary we went to, the giant Toys R Us (although they didn't really have different toys, just *more* of them). Even when we were in the States, we hit a lot of places. I have memories of wearing my poor dress, known to me as my spill dress, which I could never wear without some disaster happening. It had pink sparkly balloons and a teddy bear on it. We were on our way to Yosemite the first time I wore it; we'd stopped somewhere and I'd left McDonald's orange juice in the car. When I got back in and picked up the cup, the oj had soaked through the cup, and the whole thing dumped on me. I remember watching Ol' Faithful, and making fun of the smell. We went camping and skiing and biking, and just explored.

Eventually, we wound up in a small town in the south. Many there (and many of those I graduated with) stayed local and mostly vacationed in Florida. Whereas my mom has never been to Florida, and I only went for the first time because my dad wanted to go to a fly in. Instead, we vacationed in Seattle or San Francisco or Colorado or, later, in New York. In high school, I went abroad again, hitting four countries with my girls choir.

So when I read a book like The Historian, while I feel like I should focus on the plot, instead I focus on the descriptions. Kostova describes Budapest, and I try to sync that with my memories (one of the high school choir trips) and make plans to go back. The plot has the main characters bouncing around Europe, going into Soviet territory, all while going through horrible things and living in fear. Yet... all I can think is, "I want to SEE that." In all aspects, it's a good book. The plot is intriguing (though the ending is rather abrupt), the characters are fleshed out enough, and much happens. But I would mainly read it again for travel ideas.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Stressfully Paranoid

So despite the fact that I finished this week's book on Sunday, and mentioned it in last week's post, I never actually talked about it (although that is where the chaos part of last week's title came from). And Falling Under is one of those books that taps into my neuroses in a way that makes me feel normal.

See, when I hit a certain level of stress, I get anxious. Like insanely so. It's somewhat of a vicious cycle; the more stressed I get, the more I freak out about things that have very little likelihood of happening. The worst was last summer. We launched a major project in May. The week before it launched, I worked 70-80 hours, and was so incoherently exhausted it routinely took me several minutes to answer basic questions. All coworkers not so involved in the project avoided those of us who were, and I've been told we were particularly mean. I honestly barely remember that week, which was not surprising since I'd worked 17 straight days and god knows how many hours. After launch, we went to a happy hour with the consultants who worked with us on it, and I'm pretty sure I misunderstood half of what everyone said, because I didn't have the capacity to understand context or make logical connections. (Particularly awesome, since I hadn't met a lot of the team before in person. Yay for good first impressions!)

What was worse was that the launch wasn't really the end of the project; in many ways, it was the beginning for us. My coworker took a much-needed week off a couple of weeks later, and the work load plus the stress led to me having one of the most random breakdowns of my life, in which I made it home (at like 9) before I started crying, but then just couldn't stop. It's not like one of those sessions when you are thinking sad things, so you keep crying. I was sitting there, deciding what to make for dinner, with tears streaming down my face.

Then we had several other mini-launches that lasted the rest of the summer. My coworker E and I (two of the people most involved in the launches) both had physical effects from the stress levels that for me lasted until I went on a 10-day, out-of-the-country vacation in August. (This is also a warning for all of you. Stress is bad. You should try and work somewhere that will prevent stress levels that mean three days into a week off, you're getting random bursts of adrenaline flooding through you. That's no fun and makes you cranky for no good reason.)

Before my August vacation, I freaked out. First I was convinced that I was going to forget something. then I was convinced that something horrible would happen to my cat. Then I was convinced that I was going to die of an embolism on the plane, or that the plane would crash, or that something would happen to one of my family members while I was gone and no one would be able to reach me. Walking to the metro to go to the airport, I checked for my passport, my sunglasses, my wallet, my passport again, my sunglasses again, my wallet again, my chapstick, my umbrella, cycling through until I got to the train.

And my paranoia is not only tied to things like planning trips. When I'm that stressed, I lie in bed, thinking about how the floor of my bedroom is slanted and wondering if that part of the house could just fall off, and if so, should I move the stuff I love into a different room, and would my cat know in time to get out. I avoid grates on sidewalks, because what if they broke? I worry about tripping and falling onto the metro tracks, about a light pole falling and hitting me, a gas leak, my couch being too close to the radiator and catching on fire. I worry about others, too, frequently focusing on my cat, because I am responsible for her, but also family members, friends, and people just around me. "What if that person fell right now?" I wonder, and think about how quickly I'd be able to call 911, and if there is someone else around who looks like they might be better than me in an emergency.

Which leads me back to the book. The main character in Falling Under has some major psychological issues mostly stemming from a traumatic childhood. On a normal day, she is even more paranoid than I am on my worst. She too avoids grates, but she also is so paralyzed by fear that she can barely drive, barely cross the street, barely leave her apartment. Since the book is narrated from her viewpoint, though, such fears start to seem not necessarily ordinary, but understandable. I liked the narrator. I'd want to be friends with her. It kind of reminded me of how I felt reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. We all have instincts that lead us to look for patterns, to think that something beyond our control is a sign, just like we all worry about irrational things from time to time. But the beauty of books is that we can see these impulses from another angle, and understand another person's viewpoint. And maybe feel a little more normal.

And for myself? I think I'll go do some yoga and take a bath and just not worry about anything for a while.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Living, Literature, and Chaos

Between Friday night and Sunday night, I finished both my book for last week, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, and this week's, Falling Under by Danielle Younge-Ullman. Because I am just that awesome.

It was a compacted week, not because I didn't plan ahead, but because I'm not enjoying the book I was reading, Illusion by Paula Volksy, despite the ringing endorsement by Anne McCaffrey. It's a little too much of a political commentary buried under fantasy; I like some of that and think playing out possible scenarios in a fantasy world can be fascinating, but I feel like I'm being hit on the head with it. Plus I don't like any of the characters, and it's over 600 pages. I may or may not finish.

But Reading Lolita in Tehran... it was everything that I liked about being an English major. It had social commentary, literary analysis, the examination of power structures, all wrapped up in a beautifully written text. I remember having read an article on how liberal Iran had been. It's hard to imagine, both from the viewpoint of our current political climate, in which Iran is constantly posturing against the West and working toward gaining more power through developing a nuclear weapon, and from the humanistic standpoint of putting myself in the place of those who lived through the transition. How does one go from living in an atmosphere where you are free to think, to opine, to teach what you want, say want you want, write what you want, to one in which merely having been associated with the wrong person at any point in your life means that you can be arrested, or blacklisted, or killed?

One of Nafisi's points was that by fighting so hard to control women, the Iranian regime was in fact admitting that those women had the power to destroy the regime: "Does she realize how dangerous she can be when her every stray gesture is a disturbance to public safety? Does she think how vulnerable the Revolutionary Guards are who for over eighteen years have patrolled the streets of Tehran  and have had to endure young women like herself  and those of other generations, walking, talking, showing a strand of hair just to remind them that they have not converted?" (pg 27)

The fact that many of these battles, these fights for power, occur over control of the female body shows how powerful that body can be, something that despite having written my thesis on it, I still feel needs more exploration. Possibly because I don't quite understand it in this day and age. I mean, as far as ensuring the continuation of the species, having more women than men is important, since one man can. But we are no longer threatened. In fact there are too many of us. Why are women who can dress and think and act however they want so terrifying?

The women in Iran are defined by the state, a state that refuses to see them as individuals with hopes and dreams. Nafisi, in her discussion of Lolita, discusses how Humbert uses Lolita as a prop, a fantasy for him, but never seems to see her as an actual living, thinking human being. While Nafisi refuses to simplify the complicated power structure in Iran by strictly comparing the government to Humbert, she does point the reader to the similarities, as the women struggle to define themselves within a system that has taken away their voices.

But beyond that, the book shows the power of literature. The Iranian population is so tightly controlled; the government censors movies, book, art. But the people in this book escape that. They explore what it means to empathize, how to define morality, how to connect with those who seem to have nothing in common with you. Literature becomes the way that the characters can escape the strict confines of their current life. A weekly book discussion becomes far more than it may seem; it is in fact a rebellion.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Writing, and Living, Bird by Bird

I've always wanted to be a writer. Well, that's not true. There was an odd period when we were in the Philippines when I was planning on being a dishwasher. (No, I don't remember what I liked about it, or why I fixated on dishwashing. But despite the fact that I now hate washing dishes, some days it still seems like a valid option.)

But then in second grade, my teacher not only gave me special projects (I spent several days once painting a diorama of Amelia Bedelia. It was awesome.), but gave us writing assignments and then, most importantly, told me I was good at it. I'm not surprised. I found my report cards from elementary school, and the military teachers? Kind of in love with me. Reading some of them, I felt like they were close to stealing me away and raising me as their own. Luckily, we were on a military base and that doesn't fly there.

I've always loved being good at stuff. So much so that I have to force myself to do things which I don't have a natural talent for (my foray into ultimate frisbee springs to mind). Being good at stuff is just about tied with being right in the list of things that I love. So my teacher told me I had a talent, which combined with my love of reading, and boom. The problem of what I want to be when I grow up was solved. You know. Until I actually became an adult and realized that writing is hard and making money at it is even harder. You have to be driven and motivated. And so I went into the non-writing world.

Despite that, I still think someday I'd like to write. And so, every once in a while, I read books on writing, despite the fact that I have done no real fiction writing since college. (I do write poetry. Don't judge.) Which leads to this week's book, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. I've never actually read any other books by her, and I only have this one because I stole it from my mom. Who actually is the source of most of my "how to write" books.

My favorite parts of the books were less about writing, and more about being human. A. she's crazy. And the more stuff I read by people who are amusing, the more I realize that we are all crazy. And that makes me feel less alone. B. There was a part about how people use work or drugs or life to lull themselves to sleep. To live in a fog. Given how much and how hard I work, and how foggy that can make me feel... it hit a little close to home (ignoring how much my office drinks to deal with the stress).

Ironically, the human parts were also my least favorite; it's a book on writing, stop proselytizing at me. I know Anne's a Christian. Her new book is on faith, and got rave review from my pastor. But. That's not what I'm looking for in a book on writing. I loved Stephen King's On Writing. It equally dealt with humanity, but I didn't feel like I was being lectured to, or more accurately, like there was a subtle hint of "you should be Christian." I'm not sure why that bothers me. It's a non-fiction book and her faith is obviously an important part of her life. Why would she not include it in a book that talks about how she deals with the pressure of being a writer? But still. It annoyed me.

And yet we'll see. Maybe I'll actually start writing again. Maybe I'll just keep blogging (did you know, I apparently used to update it three times a week?). If that's all that it gets me to do, it was worth reading.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Dodging Reality

I finally finished last week's book, Dodger by Terry Pratchett. I love Pratchett so hard. Last year, I spent a few months reading all of Disc World (which I think got better as you go through the series. The first were good; the last were AWESOME).

Though I have to be honest. I enjoyed the book, but I'm not blown away. Maybe I'm looking for something more from the books for the next year, but the only one I've really felt like satisfied me was Pretty Birds. Dodger was good; it had Charles Dickens as a character, and an engaging main character. But shouldn't this be challenging? I mean, reading a lot has never been an insane challenge. Yes, I missed finishing a book for one week, but that just means I didn't have the like five hours finishing a book usually takes. (Yes, I'm bragging. No, I'm not actually exaggerating, although obviously it depends on the length and complexity of the book. And I was knitting a ridiculous pair of direwolf mittens for a coworker, and had very little free time. PS. Those are awesome.)

I want books with a social commentary, not just ones that I can check off a list. I tried with The Light Years. But it was just a narrative about the life of the upper classes before the start of WWI. Which had potential. I mean, I love Downton Abbey, which is essentially the same thing but more full of cheesy drama. But nothing ever happened. There was no real character growth, no change. No message.

So now I must decide. Is a new year's resolution worth spending time reading books that I'm not sure are worth it? Do I spend more time to try and find the best books of the ones I currently own? I kind of wish I'd thought through this earlier. Then I could have prepared a list: "Books you should read." Instead every time I finish a book, I haphazardly dig through my piles and try and find something interesting. Is it worth reading mediocre books for the sake of being able to give them away?

Friday, January 18, 2013

Pretty Birds: 3 down, 49 to go

This year, for New Year's, I decided on a new resolution. Rather than make vague promises about what I would like my life to be in the next year, or changes that I would only be able to keep up for a day, a week at most, I decided that I had too many books. Too many that I had been carting around. There are books in my apartment that have been moved 6 times and never read. To change this, I'd read one new book per week, 52 books total.

Some of you may think this isn't a challenge for me. And in some ways, it's not. I love to read, and I do it quickly. I can start a book on Friday night and finish it by noon on Saturday. But I also use it as my escape. I tend to stay away from books that hit too close to the heart; I want to be moved, but not depressed. Satanic Verses, Skinny Legs and All. Even Virginia Woolf's novels. I can be challenged intellectually, but not emotionally.

But. Many of my books don't do that."Funny, but tragic. You'll laugh while you sob." And I have been a coward in avoiding them. My first two books did not challenge me. One was a fluffy romance, so horribly written it gives me hope of ever being published. The second was The Lost Gate by Orson Scott Card. And it was thoroughly enjoyable, but in my usual style.

This week's, though... Pretty Birds follows a young teenage girl in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. The text shows her and her family learning to cope with the horror, to accept the death of loved ones, of innocents. Most of all to survive.

The thing that hit me hardest about this book (except for the ending, which truly was heart-breaking) is that I remember studying this. I was in elementary school when it was a humanitarian crisis. I remember learning about ethnic cleansing and the numbers of dead. And while I can't blame the 10 year old me for not understanding, not really caring, it makes me sad for both myself and the world. Because how many other atrocities go on today, when I can no longer hide behind innocence and youth? Look at Syria. How many innocents have died there, how many starve and plead? And they are not alone. People in countries around the world are suffering. And yet I still don't know what to do. Does anyone, though?

In the book, the people of Sarajevo mock the United States (although not as much as the UN), mourning the lack of interest. No one cares, no one stops the deaths of innocents.

While the book ends with some hopeful signs, I find myself wondering still. What can and should we be doing? Is it enough to donate money. To try and work in something that has meaning, betters the world? How can we change something that has been happening for centuries?