Monday, December 30, 2013

Goals that are Somewhat Adjacent to the New Year

My friend Lee posted in his blog about New Year's resolutions and his general dislike of them. I enjoyed reading it, particularly the part where he addresses the type of resolutions where people basically want to complete change themselves. That struck a nerve with me. I'm in a position now to look back at the "everything about me must change!" phase of my life from a very safe and comfortable distance, and it is good to reach that point where I can feel sorry for the version of me that wasn't very happy with herself but also glad that she no longer exists. And I'm just glad to have a general sense that I like the current version of me quite a lot.
Also, it reminds me of this Amanda Palmer song. Because, you know. Pretty much any Big Thing I Have Learned has been sung about by Amanda Palmer at some point or another.

So Lee's post got me thinking about New Year's resolutions and how I don't really do them either, and the very nature of them goes against the whole thing of being happy with myself. I think it's ok to want to make some changes, if those changes are going to make me happier. And by that, I mean really, actually happier; not happier in that magical thinking kind of way that goes "I bet if I weighed less I would finally be happy", because depression is not stored in fat cells. I mean things that tap into the stuff that really actually makes me feel satisfied with myself.
Also, I tend to go through certain phases in my life, and often those phases run sort of along the cycle of a year. At the end of last summer, my year-long-ish travel phase ended. I had a great desire to be adventurous and see new places and do new things, and travel for no reason other than because I could. But I got really tired in New York City, as if all the travelling finally caught up with me. And the end of that phase led directly to the one I'm entering now.
So instead of resolutions, here are the things that I feel like doing this year just because they will make me happy:

Keep a home that I feel happy in. I have somehow evolved into a tidy person. I think part of it is being an introvert in the true Jungian definition of the word in which I recharge by turning inward (as opposed to the Tumblr definition of the word in which an introvert is a special, special snowflake with unique thoughts and feelings that are hindered by a severe anxiety disorder). I'm a social, talkative introvert! But nonetheless, I want to go home and hug my cat after every adventure, and when I do, I feel more relaxed and happy in a tidy home. I also want to work on my home decor more, just because it makes me feel satisfied with how my place looks.
Do creative things. There are new costuming techniques I want to try out. I want to learn leather working. I want to try out a few techniques that are completely new to me. But I also just want to remember that sometimes, the best remedy for stress is to stop sitting around and go do something creative. Play music, draw or paint, make a little art, even if it is small and simple art that is just for my own enjoyment. Especially if it is just for my own enjoyment.
Remember that eating good food and exercising makes me feel better. See what I did there? Eat better and exercise more is probably the most common resolution, but this list is about what I want to do to be happier this year, and not about resolutions. Also, for a long time I've challenged the ideas behind that very common resolution, and all the body image/societal expectation/beauty standard baggage that goes with it. And what I've concluded is that a skinnier, fitter me does not result in a sexier, more popular, better me. So rather than go with the standard resolution, I just want to stay in touch with this truth. I like the instant gratification of fast food. It is my favorite fix if I want to feel good for 30 minutes. But if I want to feel good every day when I wake up, I do that by eating more fruits and veggies and exercising almost every day.
Eat things I love. Sort of goes along with the last goal. When I'm not seeking instant gratification, I'm happiest when eating the food that I make for myself, because I like my cooking. I also want to drink more tea - just because I like tea a lot, and I've learned that I enjoy it most when I keep a lot of varieties around to choose from.
Remember that reading makes me feel like I'm doing something just for me. I have no interest in high-minded self improvement here. I'm not even convinced that reading is somehow better for you than, say, watching good movies or shows. I just like to read, and it always makes me feel relaxed and a little pampered. Which is why I'm posting this here. I hope to resurrect the book blog this year, because I also enjoy writing about the books when I finish them.
Forgive myself but remember that accomplishment is satisfying. At times, I need fast food instant gratification. At times, I need to leave the home messy and not worry over it because there's a lot going on in my life. At times, I need to just sit around and play video games for a couple of hours, which excludes the option of getting anything done. And that's fine. Everyone needs a break sometimes. Just so long as I can continue to accomplish things I want to do, because ultimately I'm more satisfied with myself when goals are accomplished.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


It's been a while.
Since my last post, I finished the Time Traveler's Wife (it was ok, and raised questions about free will), read Guards! Guards! in the Discworld series (it was funny), and then tried to read a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
It's not a long story. But it's basically an essay in the form of a novel, which I find really boring. I just couldn't finish the thing.
So I gave up on a book for the first time since I started the reading list.
I read Eric in the Discworld series (it was very funny and also a quick read). But once I was done with it, I found I just didn't want to return to the list. I wanted to re-read The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (which is on the list, actually, but re-reading it is not part of the plan). And now I want to read Fables graphic novels. And I think after that I want to read A Game of Thrones, or maybe something by China Mieville.
Clearly my mind is wandering.
So for now, I'm taking a break from the list, reading only for enjoyment. I'll be back later.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Haunting of Hill House finished; The Time Traveler's Wife started

I only have a couple of recurring dreams. Both of them are nightmares, both of them are about houses. The first involves being in a house that goes on forever - like in a Flintstones cartoon where Fred is running, and he is in the center of the screen as the wall of the house scrolls by endlessly until he smashes into something (and that something is never the adjoining wall). There are windows all along the walls without stopping, and there are things outside that want to get in. It's like living in a school hallway (if your school was always in danger from marauders, that is).

The other dream is that I live in a very large house. It has a lot of rooms, and I keep forgetting that one of them exists. I will suddenly discover that room, and it makes me feel really nervous, like all along the room has been hiding from me. Why would it do that? What's it got to hide?

I've been in houses that feel warm and inviting instantly. I've been in houses where I feel unwelcome if I'm left alone there without the owners. My first girlfriend rented an old house that had a dirt cellar between the kitchen and the back door. A friend of hers who claimed to have psychic abilities said that a child had once been abused there - locked up and forced to live in this small room on the dirt floor. I don't know that I believe in her psychic abilities, but no one liked that room. If she or her roommates had to go through it to the backyard, especially at night, they would run through it as quickly as they could.

When I was in my early 20s, I spent a lot of time house-sitting for other people. It was a way to both make money and live in a place that was totally mine for a week, and all I had to do was take care of other people's pets. I learned a lot about what makes me happy or uncomfortable in a house - high ceilings are bad. So are windows that can't be covered. Small entertainment rooms - "man caves" if you will - are good. The house I was most nervous in was occupied by four cats. All my other customers had a variety of pets, but also at least one dog. Dogs make a place better. Whenever I buy my first house, I plan to get a dog within my first week there.

Haunting of Hill House taps into this exact kind of delicate discomfort with houses. What makes a house feel inviting? What makes it feel unwelcoming? The house is described as having a strange architecture - uneven lines, a lack of symmetry, doors in unexpected places. I imagine Shirley Jackson had the Winchester Mystery House in mind when writing it - Hill House is not that extreme, but definitely borrows a lot of its terror from strange appearances. Eventually it does more than just look unsettling, as it's evil spirits begin to work on the minds of the visitors, all of whom have shown up to observe and collect data for a doctor who enjoys researching the paranormal. Of course, science and logic are no match for the horrors within the house. Still, despite the story's age it still contains some real genuine moments of terror as the house seeks to destroy the visitors.

They should have brought a dog with them.
I've started The Time Traveler's Wife, which was made into a film not long ago. All I know about the film is that it wasn't very good according to everyone I know who has seen it. I've really enjoyed the book so far, though.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Pyramids finished; War of the Worlds finished; Dragon*Con visited; Haunting of Hill House started

I've gotten behind on my blogging due to costuming, Dragon*Con, and life in general. So here's a quick review bringing this up to speed.

I finished yet another Discworld novel, although finished much more slowly due to my heavy costuming regiment.
In Pyramids, Terry Pratchett takes on a very ancient culture in order to poke a little fun at ancient cultures in general. Pteppic is the son of the king of Djelibeybi (ancient meaning: child of Djel), and is sent to the assassin's school in Ankh-Morpork. While there he picks up many modern habits, and becomes better known as Teppic. When his father dies he has to return home and figure out how to be king, while also trying to figure out how to live in a country that hasn't changed for thousands of years.

As usual, Terry Pratchett pokes fun at many things that we romanticize and seldom question. In this story, the foolishness of preserving tradition is called out for examination, as we learn that Djelibeybi is bankrupt as a result of spending so much money on pyramids for deceased royalty. Because this is the Discworld we are able to see into the lives of dead people, and we learn that the Djelibeybi belief that death is when you really start living is incorrect, and Teppic's dead father is just hanging around near his own dead body and rethinking his beliefs.

It was good with several laugh out loud moments, which is about what I expect from any Discworld novel. Terry Pratchett just keeps adding to the number of novels I need to finish with this list as the Discworld catalog continues to grow, but they are always fun to read and I look forward to getting to some of the more modern entries in the series.
I also took an unusually long amount of time to finish H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds. Partly this is because I picked it up from the library prior to Dragon*Con, which meant that I didn't even get started on it until after the con. Partly, this is because it was boring. Yes, it's a very short book but it is really dull. It's written as a first person account of the invasion of Victorian England by martians, and it describes every small event in detail.

Part of the problem here is that I am not familiar with the British countryside. It's clear that the details were meant to allow readers to envision the path of the martians across the land. Partly, the problem is that the descriptions of the martians and their technology have been so frequently used in sci fi that they are now outdated.

At any rate, it felt like work to sit down and read it for a while. The story is completely predictable if you've ever seen one of the movie adaptations (I've seen the 1953 film) or heard the Orson Wells radio drama (which might be the best way to consume this story).
Next up: it's October, so it's time for a horror story. My choice this year is The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. I'll also be putting up my review of Dragon*Con soon.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay finished; Pyramids started

I've finished The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, a 600+ page book that I made the mistake of starting right at the same time that I began to get seriously into my costuming for Dragon*Con this year. Not the best of timing. The only thing that kept me going instead of setting it aside for later is that whenever I could make time to read it, I found it completely delightful.

For starters, this book does not fit into the description of this reading list. It's not sci fi, fantasy, or horror. It's simply a history of two men working in the comics business between 1939 and 1954. But the fact that it doesn't fit in doesn't matter. It is a great story, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to read it.

The book follows Joe Kavalier, a Jewish immigrant from Prague who moves to America as a young man to escape the Nazis, and his cousin Sammy Clay, whom he comes to live with in New York City. Sammy sees that Joe has a talent for drawing and gets him a job drawing comics, which Sammy has a knack for writing. The story follows the two of them through the next 15 years as Joe struggles with his rage against Hitler, and Sammy struggles with his feelings of inadequacy about his job and his life. Much like any year-spanning story, the characters lives have their ups and downs, filled with victories and tragedies.

This would be a fine story by itself. I've enjoyed many movies like this - narratives that take in a lengthy span of time to demonstrate the shared experiences of human life and the nature of change. But the story is much more than that, and all because of comics.

The story takes place during the Golden Age of comics, when superheroes were created, and the books enjoyed tremendous popularity. This is a time period highly prized by fans of superheroes and collectors who covet original first editions. It is also a time period I don't relate to easily. I'm not a big fan of superhero comics, and usually only read the ones that stand out in some unique way, like Frank Miller's Batman books. As such, it's even more difficult for me to take interest in the Golden Age stories. Having read American Splendor, Fables, Kabuki, MausSandman, Sin City, Watchmen, it's hard to be satisfied with the simpler stories of that age. I recognize that like all art, those comics represent some fundamental things about that age, but I simply find more modern stories more satisfying.

However, perhaps the best way to experience something you don't relate to is through a story of people who do, who care for it so deeply and emotionally that it transforms their lives, which is what makes Kavalier and Clay so beautiful. Chabon's writing describes this affection poetically, without straying into cheesy nostalgia: "Most of all, he loved them for the pictures and stories they contained, the inspirations and lucubrations of five hundred aging boys dreaming as hard as they could for fifteen years, transfiguring their insecurities and delusions, their wishes and their doubts, their public educations and their sexual perversions, into something that only the most purblind of societies would have denied the status of art.
"Having lost (a lot, ok? No spoilers) - the usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an easy escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf."

I can't recommend this book highly enough. Read it if you love comics, or ever have. Read it if you've never gotten the whole comic book thing, or if like me you prefer your superheroes in summer movies.
Pyramids (Discworld Book 7)
I'm starting Pyramids by Terry Pratchett next, mostly because I need something simple while costuming. This continues the Discworld series with a story about Teppic, an adolescent who is yanked from Ankh-Morpork's assassins' school when his father dies, so that he may become the next pharaoh.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Man in the High Castle finished; Affinity started and finished; about to start Kavalier and Clay

After I finished The Man in the High Castle, I went right out to the library and got Affinity, and became so engaged in it that I couldn't make myself sit down and write a blog post. So now I'm doing a double post to take care of both of these titles.


The Man in the High Castle is by Philip K. Dick, who I like quite a lot. I started out this project reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and vowing to read more of his work when I finish this list. He does a few things in that book that I tend to like in general - mainly, the  book is clearly about Big Ideas but also allows you to draw your own conclusions about them. It's open to interpretation.

So is The Man in the High Castle. It takes place in an alternate history in which the Axis won WWII, and in which the world is divided between rule by Italy, which has very little territory and influence in a post-war world; Japan, which controls quite a lot including California, where most of the story takes place; and the Nazis, who not surprisingly are becoming a bit uncomfortable with sharing all this stuff with Italy and Japan.

In post-occupation California in 1962, most people are using the I Ching daily as a result of Japanese cultural influence. There are numerous story lines going on simultaneously that intersect in a variety of ways, but it's the I Ching that almost everyone has in common. That, and a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which is illegal to own in the United States and is an alternate history of their alternate history world, in which the Allies won WWII. Despite the fact that it's illegal, practically everyone is reading it.

Other than that, there's not much I can say about the plot that gives you a sense of the book. There are numerous themes going on, including a lot of discussion about things that are counterfeit and real and the value of one over the other. There's the issue of creating new American products in California when the only things the Japanese want from the Americans are the artifacts of their past - comic books, Mickey Mouse watches, etc. There's the basic falsehood of ethnic superiority, which is explored through Nazi and Japanese influence, as well as the resentment that the occupied Americans have against their captors. And there's the theme of alternate realities, explored through the story's own alternate reality and the additional alternate reality of the story within the story.

These are interesting ideas, and I like that the author always lets us figure this out for ourselves. I believe this is probably why I like his writing so much and dislike Robert Heinlein in a way that seems directly opposite - all the long winded lectures in Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land direct you towards the precise meaning of the book, in an undeniable way. I prefer Philip K. Dick's style, which lets us interpret his work as we please. After all, we tend to interpret these major themes he discusses based on our own thoughts and experiences. In a book in which the author tells you exactly what to get from it, I tend not to spend any time considering the meaning of it (why bother. The book has already told you what you are meant to think). I just start judging based on what I think of the idea being pushed - not to mention the fact that I dislike the writing style of any story in which the author's point of view is directly stated.

However, despite the interesting themes, I thought this book ended surprisingly abruptly, and I felt like a lot of the story lines were never fully tied up, or did not end in a satisfying way. According to wikipedia, Philip K. Dick used the I Ching to write this book and stopped it when the I Ching had nothing more to say. I feel like this contributes to the book leaving off so abruptly, and I'm dissatisfied with the open ending.

AffinityI went from that straight into a book that was not open ended at all, and which really surprised me in the end. Affinity is by Sarah Waters. I read her book Tipping the Velvet previously, and had a general sense of what to expect - she's a modern day author who sets her stories in Victorian England, giving them a delightful blend of the things that we still find alluring about the Victorians, without also engaging in the dry and long-winded prose of that time period. She also writes mostly about women and specifically about lesbians.
As it turns out, going into Affinity with the expectations set up by Tipping the Velvet  really blind-sided me. Tipping the Velvet was an adventurous tale, in which a woman discovers her sexual identity while going from working in the theater, to prostituting herself to survive, to become a kept woman for another woman, to working within a political labor movement. It does the exact opposite of the typical Victorian novel by exploring the world of someone who is not a member of the upper class without also trying to convince you that people like her are charity cases. It demonstrates what a woman in her station might need to do to survive - but also that a woman with gumption might be able to deal with it pretty well.
Affinity, on the other hand, is about a member of the upper class who visits a women's prison specifically as a sort of charity work - it's expected that being exposed to a lady will help with the reformation of the prisoners. We learn over time that the main character, Margaret, suffers from depression and attempted suicide prior to the events of the novel. Her depression results from her love affair with a woman named Helen, and from the end of their relationship which was soon followed by Helen marrying Margaret's brother. Through volunteering at the prison, Margaret meets and becomes enchanted with Selina Dawes, a spiritualist who was arrested for assault in a situation that occurred while she was channelling a spirit, in which she claims that she was wrongly accused for things that were done by the spirit.
This story is much darker than Tipping the Velvet was, partly because of the prison setting, and partly because of the gloomy weather - the description of the heavy fogs that infected Victorian London due to industrial pollution makes it sound like Margaret is living in the nuclear winter of a post-apocalyptic world. A great deal of the darkness comes from the fact that the story is mostly narrated by a woman who is suffering from severe depression; where Tipping the Velvet's Nancy maintains a good disposition based on her willingness to make due with whatever happened to her, Affinity's Margaret sees herself as a prisoner of the social standards of Victorian upper class society. Having read only these two stories, I can't help but wonder if this is a statement by Waters about the upper class versus the working class.
The story involves a few elements that I expected based on Tipping the Velvet: there is a lesbian relationship. The main character has suffered a failed relationship with a woman who was unwilling to go against social standards for love. The main character experiences a painful breakup and then falls in love again (instead of just pining away as if that one love was all that she could ever have).
But overall, the fact that there are lesbian characters is just as much a circumstance of the author's own background as the fact that they are also British. It's not so much a lesbian story as it is a story with lesbians in it.
I'm also not fully sure it's technically a work of either fantasy or horror. It's definitely a Gothic Victorian tale, but the actual supernatural elements are somewhat dubious. The main character is being treated for her depression with chloral and laudanum which - it becomes eventually clear - she is taking in increasing doses, and it's difficult to tell reality from her own delusions.
Regardless of the story's fidelity to the theme of this list, it was a very good read and engaging from start to finish. Waters has a lush descriptive style that gives Victorian England a textured realness. The book also seems to be heading towards an obvious conclusion, and then surprisingly deviates from that in the end. Overall it was an engaging tale with a very solid ending, which made up for my dissatisfaction with The Man in the High Castle's inconclusive ending.

Next up I'll be reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. This one has been listed as a favorite by a number of authors I like, but other than that I don't know a thing about it.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Man Who was Thursday finished; The Man in the High Castle started

G. K. Chesterton is one of those writers that people who I read love to read. Frequently (when I'm not working on a massive list of books), I take suggestions on reading material from the favorites of my favorites, so I probably would have gotten around to The Man Who was Thursday one day, no matter what.

Reading it, however, I kept feeling like I was supposed to be getting more from it than I was. It's funny at times, and it has a clear message (which I can't give away without spoiling the whole thing). I do like stories with clear messages. But it also was clearly leading up to a twist ending which is very easy to see coming. Overall it was OK, and definitely not a difficult read. I'm still not sure what to make of it, entirely. If you are a fan, post your thoughts on the novel.
The Man in the High CastleNext up is The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. Hooray! If you go all the way back to the beginning of this blog, you'll see that the first book I read on the list was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. Ever since then I've wanted to start this novel, and then perhaps abandon the list until I've read everything Dick wrote. He's been one of the great finds of this reading list, and I do not doubt that I will become a major fan of his work once I have time to get into it all.

I'm already well into The Man in the High Castle, and I love it. It speculates on an alternate history in which the nazis and the Japanese won WWII, and now control America as a result.