Microserfs and Me

The one physical book I packed in my suitcase this summer to bring with me to Austria was Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs. I’d picked the book up in my favorite used book store/coffee shop because while thumbing through it I saw the phrase “Todd called me a cryptofascist today.” and had that particular experience where you just know a book is for you.

It took me several months to finish the book, which is rare for me especially considering its length. But Microserfs is a slow book where it felt like I was coming back to hear from friends about the past week of their life whenever I checked in. There’s no grand buildup of tension and little dramatic conflict. As many reviewers have pointed out: nothing happens!

This book should have been boring. Instead it become a sort of phenomenon among my friend group as we passed my used copy around, each of us reading it in turn and having it resonate with us. It was our cultural touchstone.

Part of this was that “right time” connection—a book about average (ish), college educated, mid-twenty-year-olds floating in that strange time period where the future and purpose is hazy really echoed my friend group’s current lifestyle. We’re all in that exact position, possessing a job that has a two-year time limit which is long enough to not worry day to day about what we’re doing next but unable to avoid figuring out the next step because the pressure of that concept known as adulthood is floating on the horizon of the end of our time here.

Microserfs made me think about the traditional plot structure of novels and how I’m starting to like books that don’t follow this construction.

And it isn’t just “realism” I’m talking about. I’ve read a lot of books that aren’t fantasy or about wildly rich and famous people that focus on the daily life of people. Most of these books though still follow the pattern of conflict and conflict resolution (at least). There’s character development. There’s a breaking point. Something to overcome.

While there are points in my life where I have experienced the kind of drama that novels are written on it’s all in the past; my day to day life is “boring.” I go to work. I see my friends. I cook dinner (maybe, if I’m feeling inspired enough), read a book, talk with my roommate. This is the schedule that Microserfs follows—these small in between moments.

If I had to paint a picture of this book, it would be that space where you’re sitting on the back porch with a small group of close friends, drinking beer or cider at twilight, having pseudo-philosophical conversation and laughing, kicking back chairs onto two legs, while music plays. It’s a peaceful scene, but one that I’ve treasured more and more. A quietness with the fortitude of human connection.

I want to read books where the characters don’t scream at each other. I want to read books where there’s no crises in a relationship but instead something steady and positive is presented (not without difficulty, but not tumultuous). The characters in Microserfs come across as real people, which is a credit to Coupland. They’re complex, have senses of humor, muse on life, and steadily pass their days.

There’s inter and intra-personal conflict but it isn’t fireworks in Mircroserfs, it’s a volcano that simmers occasionally but never erupts. Characters are hurt and hurt each other but not that much. I find it hard to explain this. Most of the relationships in Microserfs are presented as healthy and strong.

The story also lacks a clear antagonist. Perhaps the antagonist is the vague institution of capitalism or finding meaning. This conflict, though, isn’t necessarily resolved. The characters are left mostly in the same position the book began with. There’s no clear-cut lightning bolt of purpose that strikes the main character or major change he makes to his life that precipitates this finding of meaning (as in, jumping on an airplane to fly to a different country to “find himself”).

For some of us, finding meaning in our lives is not going to involve quitting our job, jumping on a plane, and having a spiritual journey. Instead it’s a grind against apathy, against the feelings of inadequacy in a world beyond our control, and the suffering the callous and random tragedies we’ll encounter and our friends will face. That’s not always extraordinary.

I do recognize my privilege in that statement. I’m not in the position where commonplace life is about survival. Life is somewhere in the middle—not filled with riches or lofty aspirations, earning enough to comfortably pay my rent every month, and so on. I’m lucky that monotonous living is the challenge I have to overcome.

But monotony does leave me asking: where’s the point?

The resolution of Mircoserfs comes down to this idea, “here we are, whole.” Despite the aimlessness, the conflict, past traumas, and despite where the winding road of life takes us, what happens, good and bad, all of us simply are. It’s enough.

Not a lofty message, maybe not even an exciting one, but it’s sunk into my bones. Microserfs dark horsed its way onto my top ten list of last year and I still think about it even though it has a plot that’s more similar to driving along an open highway in Wyoming on cruise control with nothing in sight than conquering a mountain and descending the other side, but I’m here for that stretched out haze of time.

 

 

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Small Update-Update

Hey everyone! Sorry the blog was asleep this past week. I have a friend in town visiting me and we’ve been traveling a lot and meeting up with people so I’ve not had a lot of down time to write up a blog post, let alone read (my …totals….the TOTALS!).

Tomorrow I’m off for another travel stint but a post will come up tomorrow and (hopefully) next Friday as well.

I’m working on a big ol boy on MedeaGone Girl, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Ex Machina which I hope to have by the end of the month as well and am v excited about.

Hope everyone is having a nice summer so far! I spent all of yesterday in the garden, drinking cider and chatting with friends which is the ideal summer dream…

May 2017: Round-up

I had my last day of work on Wednesday, which means I’m free to pursue all sorts of other activities now. Like laying in bed all day reading. Drinking Spritzers on the lake. Finding ways to avoid working on all the projects I told myself I’d catch up on once I was free.

June will be a bittersweet month for me. It’s my last month in Austria! What waits for me back home? (Probably reverse culture shock, tbh. I’ve been in Austria since Fall of 2015 for the most part.)

I read a lot of heartbreaking books this month… I don’t want to highlight them because of potential spoilers but WOW some major character deaths affected me. I’m determined to escape to happier books for a while–only light-hearted romantic comedies from here on out! (I saw, binge watching a bunch of dark True Crime documentaries)…

For someone who doesn’t read historical fiction or care that much about Jack the Ripper I enjoyed Stalking Jack the Ripper a surprising amount. Noteworthy is the “She’s the Man” and “Pitch Perfect” mashup we didn’t deserve but were gifted with anyway and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet soothed my itchiness to play Mass Effect…a bit.

not pictured: Blood for Blood (Ryan Graudin)

Best of May 2017: The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

I could sing praises for this book until I lost my voice but my singing is terrible so I’ll stick to just sharing a few reasons why Upside was one of the best books I’ve read this year. Albertalli manages to cram so much into this book without it feeling forced. The representation in this book! The amount of times I laughed!

But, I mean the greatest appeal for me in Upside is the main character. Molly openly discusses how it feels to be a fat teenage girl–the way others think of your body, the way people talk about your body, and all the other ways in which people try to police you. Molly doesn’t hate her body but she’s aware of how others may view it. I was so happy to see a character who lived in this space of body acceptance in a way that doesn’t diminish the struggles that young people face even when they don’t think they need to change their bodies.

I think there are a lot of people will find bits and pieces of themselves in Molly. In her wavering confidence, in how it felt to be a teenager looking for their first relationship, and in the friendships in the book. It also has some of the best repartee dialogue that’s just so snappy.

Worst of May 2017: Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

The City & The City sure dodged the Worst of the Month bullet because it was sitting in that position until the end of the month… but I wrote about my feelings for it already so I chose a different book for the slot.

Honestly my main problem with this book is the ending. It’s struggle to figure out how to express this without spoilers but I’m going to give a spoiler warning for stuff under the line even though I’m not going to really be that explicit.

Aside from the plot, I found the writing to be kind of vague and unsatisfying. One of the main criticisms levied by a bunch of people at Upside is that the MC is only obsessed with her crushes and having a boyfriend. But Everything, Everything suffers from this…worse? After the LI is introduced the entire narrative narrows down to only the interactions between those two characters. Many times the MC talks about how her LI is basically her whole world and reason she wishes to live. I’m not sure why Upside was targeted for this and not Everything, except an uncomfortable suspicion that there’s a stronger standard for fat characters to have ‘other interests’ than love.

It feels like there’s so little to the MC outside of her relationship with her LI. All the other facets of her life vanish.


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I thought it was really unfortunate how the representation on this story turned at the end. I think there are people with illnesses  (sort of) like the MC in this book that would have liked to see themselves in the story only for it to turn out the way it did in the end. It cheapened the narrative, IMO.

Book Recommendations: Non-fiction

Note: This post will be updated as I read and is linked in the Navigation menu

One year I made a New Year’s resolution to read one non-fiction book a month. I thought it was going to be a tedious way to improve myself and continue to learn after graduation from university. I did not expect to fall in love with the genre.

This list is divided into two sections. The first is non-fiction for people who don’t read non-fiction. The genre can be intimidating! These books are easy to read, with a chatty style and lack of overwhelming technical terms.

The second section is for books that are more specific/niche/difficult to read. I recommend them for people who already have an interest in the subject or are willing to push through technical language.

Non-fiction for Fiction Readers:

Macintyre, Ben– Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies

D-Day is often most remembered by that scene from “Saving Private Ryan” but this book delves into the ludicrous, hilarious, and astonishing story of the agents who spun the lie to the German intelligence that made the battle succeed…because the Germans were expecting the troops to land elsewhere. Some highlights from these characters include requests for chocolate from MI5 “for medicinal reasons,” a man with a degree in chicken farming creating entire networks of fake spies to feed bad information, and a woman who whispers insults about people to her dog in Russian. If you like James Bond, you’ll love this story because these real people pulled off one of the greatest espionage schemes in history and they were perhaps the least capable of doing so.

Nafisi, Azar– Reading Lolita in Tehran

Note: this book has a LOT of heavy literature analysis. If you don’t like classics, maybe this might not be the best choice. I almost put it in the other category but if you’re a heavy reader of fiction, you may have the background that this book relies on. Reading Lolita made my top ten list of 2016. It beautifully illustrates how our relationship with literature can give us strength and purpose while also focusing on parallels between literature and our modern lives. This book feels important to me on another level because it is very humanizing of the people of Tehran. In the western world, we’ve been blasted by negative media about this area and only see certain images of it. The book is political, feminist, and deeply touching.

Roach, Mary– Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

Everything Mary Roach has written is well worth reading but I picked Gulp because of the many, many absurd scenes in this book that had me picturing the professional scientists Roach was interviewing staring at her in dumbfounded exasperation. Roach asks questions that we all wonder but are usually too polite to ask and isn’t afraid of getting her hands covered in various types of fluids and solids to understand the science. She conveys these stories with gleeful prose that’s easy to understand and easier to laugh to. I think Gulp requires less squeamish warning than Stiff, so I picked it for this list.

Ronson, Jon– Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries

Like Mary Roach, Jon Ronson has a way of reporting his stories that is comedic and relatable. This is a collection of essays with highlights include Ronson interviewing the Insane Clown Posse about their song “Magnets” and their distrust of nerdy looking people wearing glasses, a trip where he attempts to recreate a road-trip from a James Bond novel, and visits the North Pole where it’s always Christmas (maybe enough to drive people to murder).

Sandel, Michael J.– Justice, What’s the Right Thing to Do?

What’s that whole, philosophy thing about anyway? Michael Sandel breaks down in an understandable way many of the prominent ethical questions of our time. It’s a book that was suggested to me when I first showed interest in philosophy and a recommendation I pass on. The philosophy in Justice is all practical, ethical philosophy, not the sort of nebulous “How do we know we know?” topics that tend to have people running away screaming at the top of their lungs. The questions discussed here include examining the free market, taxes, and capital punishment. It’s a great resource on being able to understand and structure your own opinions on topics that often arise when politics are discussed while also being accessible to readers unfamiliar with philosophical concepts.

Simon, Matt– The Wasp that Brainwashed the Caterpillar: Evolution’s Most Unbelievable Solutions to Life’s Biggest Problems

This may be the funniest non-fiction book I have ever read. It’s split into easily digestible sections, perfect for consuming when you have 10 to 15 minutes of time and want to learn something new. The book captures perfectly how shockingly strange our neighbor animals on this planet can be. It will gift you with many stories to pull out at parties, though maybe people don’t want to hear about the ant that stacks up the dead bodies of its conquered foes on its back like a towering monument of victory (I absolutely would love this story at a party).

Non-fiction:

Gladwell, Malcom– What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures

I would call Gladwell a less funny more technical Mary Roach. His writing is still far into the range of accessible, but he focuses more on journalism than comedic journalism (not that his stories can’t be amusing).  This collection of essays, which I think is much better in the latter half, covers topics from why there’s only one ketchup and dozens of varieties of mustard to the difference between choking and panicking. I prefer this one to Blink, because I feel that, unfortunately, there are some pop-psychology mistakes present in that book.

Kean, Sam– The Violinist’s Thumb: and Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code

This book has a lot of dense science focused on genetics, but the stories within are worth pushing for. While genetics don’t determine everything about our life, they can determine how well we can play the violin (due to extremely flexible fingers) or why eating a polar bear’s liver is lethal and why nuns were some badass scientists. Another book where I went around yelling at everyone about what I learned within it.

Newborn, Jud– Sophie Scholl and the White Rose

I actually had to read this book for class and ended up finishing it in the university library, sobbing where everyone could see me. Sophie’s story and the story of her brother and the rest of the white rose is affecting because the main players of the story are so young. These are students (and a professor) who were brave enough to try to spread a message of resistance against the Nazi regime, risking their lives to do so. There’s a fervent (maybe foolishly idealistic) passion in the texts that these students wrote that’s intoxicating. The only way I can describe this book is spiritually uplifting. It restored my faith in humanity.

O’Connell, Mark– To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death

Transhumanism is an idea that I’ve been interested in for years and Mark O’Connell’s book is a great entry point to the world of people seeking to leave our biological bodies behind. Because O’Connell doesn’t subscribe to the doctrine of transhumanism himself, there’s a through-line to his adventure that follows his own path of regarding his mortal body and what it would mean to be free of it while not losing sight of how absolutely bonkers some of the transhumanists’ ideas sound. For people who are interested in futurism, biotechnology, and A.I., this book will be a pleasure to read.

Challenge: Favorite Romance Trope

Tropes—we love to hate them and we’d be lying if we said we didn’t also love to love them. The challenge this week by @broodingYAhero for the #BroodyBFF street team was to discuss our favorite romantic trope.

At first, I was worried what I was going to do, because how do you pick just one romantic trope as your favorite? There are so many that are just so Good™ no matter how many times they appear in books. I’ll admit it, I’m weak for the “we’re pretending to be together for x reason but then we fall for each other” plot-line. I cozy up with the “oh no, we’re stranded in this remote location, I guess we have to work together to survive” stories. Give me a good “friends to lovers” and you’ll see me shake my head with a fond chuckle.

I rely on tropes like comfort food. When real life is too stressful or painful (2017 is testing me), it isn’t a turbulent book I want to dive into. Like a romantic comedy movie, I want to go into this story knowing that by the end, everyone who deserves happiness will be happy, after some humorous hijinks and melodramatic confessions, of course, and those who are Bad People™ are embarrassed and their goals frustrated. Hopefully publicly and with finesse.

That being said, my absolute favorite trope (which doesn’t show up in many light romantic comedies, for reasons that will be apparent) is when on a battlefield a person from the opposite side saves the life of their enemy, thus beginning a romantic entanglement.

This might be sort of a sub-trope of the “star-crossed lovers” trope and it has a lot of elements that make star-crossed lovers so appealing—the forbidden nature of the relationship, the risk of being caught, the way love transcends conflict, and so on.

But there’s that extra flavor that I find to be so GOOD, which is the saving the life on the battlefield bit. It’s just such a dramatic and compassionate moment—character A dying and character B coming by. Character A believes that character B is going to finish the job but instead B saves them. Their immediate separation, because of course B has to go back to their side of the battle and A to theirs. An obsession begins—who is this person who saved them? How do they find each other again? What if they are in a position where they are supposed to kill each other?

That’s some good stuff there, I tell you what.

My favorite book that utilizes this trope is Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor and I highly recommend it for anyone else who is a fan of YA fantasy and this particular trope (it also really doubles down on the star-crossed lovers trope).

Are there any books that you love with this trope? Let me know! I’m always searching for more…

 

Review: Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing

I received a copy of this book from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for honest review.

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Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing: Encounters with the Mysteries and Meanings of Languages by Daniel Tammet is a non-fiction piece that focuses on our relationship as beings possessing the ability to communicate through language. This relationship isn’t always tended to—how many of us on a daily basis think about the words and the words others use to communicate, especially not just what they mean but how they sound, look and feel? In many ways, I felt as though this book asked of me to slow down and find pleasure in the way in which humans communicate.

Though it is a book about linguistics, Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing doesn’t require a previous knowledge or interest in the subject. Not bogged down with linguistic jargon, and thoroughly explained with the jargon arises, Every Word tells stories about language that are accessible and will appeal to a wide audience, which is its strength. Through personal stories and interviews, Tammet weaves together a tapestry on the beauty and frustrations of language, at once a method of connection and a barrier of understanding. It’s a love letter, laden with hopes, fears, frustrations, and the triumph of connection.

Tammet’s personal relationship with language is the first subject in his book and it is a necessary beginning as the author experiences language in a way that many people don’t. Identifying on the high end of the spectrum of autism, Tammet’s first experience with language was one that no one else understood. Numbers were his chosen way to communicate and Tammet describes this system and his tumultuous relationship with using English to express himself.

From the opening pages of Every Bird, I found myself examining my own relationship with language. It was German that I found myself ruminating on first because it is a language I began to learn as an adult. From Tammet’s explanations on his synesthesia with words where they had colors and textures associated with them, I remembered when I learned the adjectives langsam and schnell. They were wonderful words—langsam where the tongue makes a slow trip from the teeth back to rest, as lazy as the speed it implies. And schnell the opposite, a quick scoot. The verb schneiden and the noun Schnitt that sound like the whisper of scissors closing and were so easy to remember because of that.

Even now, writing this review, when explaining how Tammet describes his number language I wanted to use the word Kopfkino—a movie in the head. In English, perhaps, he painted a picture in my mind. After that, I had to think on English words I loved: velvet, which sounds as slinky and silky as it feels, iridescent and how it sparkles, luminous and its glow.

When a book leaves me spending so much time outside of reading it on thinking about the topics within, the writing was a success.

The rest of Every Word journeys through many topics, all related to language. Tammet captures the paradox of language in discussing the utopian dream of an easy-to-learn global language of Esperanto and the tragedy (to some more than others) of the disappearance of languages due to cultural imperialism. Here too he delves into the politics of the language of repression and the efforts of native speakers of suppressed languages, like those in Africa, to publish works in their mother tongue. He takes us on a trip to cultures obsessively dedicated with preserving the sanctity of their language in an effort that is both admirable and fool-hardy.

I felt that these subjects were handled with respect. Even when Tammet’s position on the topic shows through his writing, he isn’t dismissive of the other side of the arguments presented. With many of these political issues, there’s strong arguments on both sides and I liked that Tammet expressed his own doubts and beliefs without pressuring the reader to agree with him.

Tammet also creates a space to admire the personalities and quirks of languages—how Nahuatl dances with repeated syllables, for example. Similarly, he writes on the joy and playfulness of what it means to be a writer and tame language for the use of storytelling. George Perec, Tammet relates to us, wrote a novel without using the letter ‘e.’

There’s a universality to the subject of Every Word that makes it easy to recommend to people, often with me regaling them with a favorite anecdote from the book. I learned a lot reading the book, of course, but I also felt a new connection with the globality of languages and the words I learn both in my mother tongue and that of the one I chose to learn. It’s an absolute joy to read and inspiring of conversations on the more political questions where are not necessarily answered in the text.

This is a book for people who love language and for those who don’t already to fall in love with it.

Every Word as a whole reminds me very much of my favorite story to tell when asked about living in Austria or learning German. The common question: why did you chose to learn German, isn’t it hard, aren’t the sounds harsh?

I’ll leave this here, with a smile because it still makes me laugh every time I talk about it and is, I think, in the spirit of Every Word.

In German, a snail is a Schnecke. A slug, on the other hand, is a Nacktschnecke. Nackt, of course, because he’s naked.

schnecke

Rating: 5/5 stars

Recommended for: people interested in language, especially topics of language preservation and linguistics, readers who like accessible non-fiction

 

 

Thoughts on Li’s “Dear Friend,”

dearfriendCapturing the quality of suffering during depression is a task that presents challenges to authors, especially in regards to communicating with readers who have never lived through a depressive episode. I use the word quality because there is a sensation to the experience of depression that is about as easy to explain to people as a taste they’ve never encountered before. In searching for a book to capture how I felt for years as a young woman that I could share with other people as an example of my experiences, there was the sense that the books I was reading had characters that were too melodramatic.

 

In truth, the characters were accurate to how depression affects some people and in many of them I saw myself and the ways I was out of control myself those years ago. But there’s a certain conceit to these characters, an expectation that the reader understands how depression influences not only thoughts but the body holistically. Unfortunately, I felt if I pointed to these novels, people would respond with a comment I’ve heard said among friends, “Why don’t they just do something about it?” turning depression into a concept of control (it is, of course, a concept of control, but not in the way that they think. In depression, one finds control in giving up trying to control).

For them, as I’m sure it was for people in my own life, the melodrama seems insincere, exaggerated, perhaps even intentional.

In Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, author Yiyun Li wrote a book that is partially a memoir, partially essays on her personal relationship to literature, and more essentially, ruminations on the experience of depression.

By picking and peeling at all the facets of her feelings, Yiyun Li unwinds the tangled and brambled knots of depression. Reading musings that are eloquent on the contradictions present in depression was eerie in that the thoughts were as intimate as my own.

“But when we read someone’s private words, when we experience her most vulnerable moments with her, and when her words speak more eloquently of our feelings than we are able to, can we still call her a stranger?”

Yiyun Li addresses the melodrama of depression, of how one is both aware of how helpless one is being and yet is also unable to be anything but. Inherent in this is the doubt, “Am I being melodramatic?” that doesn’t diminish the reality of suffering.

Captured here is the self-scorn that one has during depression as one holds in their mind the view of themselves and their depression as both an observer and the agent of action. I’ve always found that difficult to express—how it often felt as though I was watching myself and berating myself like a part of my mind had remained healthy and isolated while the rest of my mind induced my body into behavior I neither wanted nor could stop.

The contradictions of depression are examined as well, with a tender hand because Yiyun Li is not judgmental of suffering or scornful of it, but the opposite. Suffering is explored with a gentle intimacy and a respect. She is able to express how integral depression becomes with identity—invaluable and tyrannical.

“All the things in the world are not enough to drown out the voice of this emptiness that says: you are nothing…It is either a dictator or the closest friend I have ever had. Some days I battle it until we both fall down like injured animals. That is when I wonder: what if I become less than nothing when I get rid of this emptiness? What if this emptiness is what keeps me going?”

It would be a mistake to assume that this treatment of the subject romanticizes depression. Instead, a merciful acceptance permeates the work. The feelings that others labeled in her younger self that others labeled as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong,’ the older Yiyun Li requires no justification for.

This isn’t a book, necessarily, about overcoming depression and moving on triumphantly. Nor is it a book where Yiyun Li is seeking understanding, though that seems counter to the purpose of writing a memoir about depression. From the beginning of the book I was given the impression that the author didn’t care of the response of the reader and wouldn’t pander to their understanding. No excuses are presented, no explanations offered for why she was depressed beyond recognizing some of the origins of her feelings. Depression is personal, intimate, and this prose feels like the intended audience was none other than the author herself—the younger self that she can’t truly reach but is addressing.

The title encapsulates this distance and also the tone of Yuyan Li’s approach. Her depressed self isn’t an enemy but a friend she cares for. This is why there is no conquering, no triumph. One does not triumph over one’s friends or seek to conquer them, they attempt to understand. This is what appeals to me most about Dear Friend, that emerging from depression isn’t an activity that implies an award be handed over at the end.

Dear Friend is dense, circular, as tangential and meandering as exploring one’s own mind. It is through this format that Yiyun Li is able to capture the immense breadth of depression, the waves and tides of it, the way it affects relationships with strangers and intimate friends, the contradictory nature of how it provides control and also takes it away, the way one wants to cling to depression like a life boat and to shuck it as easily as changing clothes, and the stillness, the lethargy, the sense of non-being.

Dear Friend begs to be read and examined as carefully as Yiyun Li annotated the letters of authors she read. It’s stunning, heart-rending, frustrating, and difficult to parse. Yiyun Li admits she’s always been enamored with authors that elude understanding, a stance she’s tried to emulate her whole life. Though Dear Friend is confessional, this sense remains—it is deeply personal, simultaneously detached.

There’s an honesty to Yiyun Li’s thoughts and a lack of condemnation that I think some people would struggle with. But I also read it as an outline of tolerance, respect, and validation. It’s a book I will come back to in my own life as a way to articulate and understand my feelings and one that I will reference when others have misconceptions or questions about the experience of depression.

Fuckboys of Classic Literature: Far From the Madding Crowd Edition

This is a strange entry in our Fuckboys of Classic Literature category because the fuckboy of this book isn’t a character…but the author himself. I thought about inducting the soldier, Frank Troy, but ultimately decided he was more of an asshole than a fuckboy as his mistreatment of Bathsheba is rooted in his own failed, tragic love rather than a generalized view of women as existing for him alone.

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On a related note though: fuck Frank Troy.

No, the fuckboy of this story is Thomas Hardy, which is some kind of achievement. Good job, buddy? Hardy has earned his place by writing an entire book about a woman who is a paragon of independence, strength, and intelligence then completely undermining all of her achievements by making her character’s greatest failing that she’s shallow.

In the first chapter of Far from the Madding Crowd, Hardy takes the point of his novel and slams it against the reader with about as much subtly as setting an airhorn off right in your ear.

Upon meeting Bathsheba for first time, Gabriel Oak observes her and, with a passing glance, understands her completely. He falls in love with her, assumedly, but as Bathsheba departs makes a wry observation that foreshadows the entire plot of Madding Crowd.

“That’s a handsome maid,” he said to Oak.

“But she has her faults,” said Gabriel.

“True, farmer.”

“And the greatest of them is—well, what it is always…Vanity.”

I fully allow that maybe Hardy didn’t mean that the greatest fault of women is vanity. Hardy could mean that the greatest fault of people is vanity, though with a similar subtlety to the quoted dialogue, Bathsheba is given a passage detailing the manner in which she admires herself in a mirror right before Oak’s comment. This action isn’t even utilitarian—Hardy makes sure to note that Bathsheba doesn’t adjust her clothing or hair, she merely wants to admire herself. I’ve seen enough paintings of women staring in mirrors with various titles alluding to vanity to not dodge this thrown brick of symbolism. I’m not sure Oak owns a mirror and if he does, he sure wouldn’t pause to admire himself in it because he’s not obsessed with himself (obviously).

Regardless, it’s still exhausting to read an entire book devoted to showing how a woman who doesn’t flinch in the fear of entering traditionally male spaces in both leisure activities (not riding side saddle), and business (going herself to seal deals on the trade floor) is brought to ruin because she meets a man that flatters her vanity.

For all that Bathsheba haughtily scoffs at like Boldwood’s attempt to woo her with wealth and comfort, she falls quickly to the flattering seduction of Troy. For a woman who seems determined to assert her independence and claims of never being tamed, all Troy has to do is swing his sword around and she falls apart with a gusty sigh. This is both not a euphemism and a euphemism.

Hardy teased me with having Bathsheba avoid the trope of being the Gold-digger™. Alas, he swerved and instead served up Vanity™. A trait, it’s worth mentioning, that Hardy identifies as being worse than “beating people down,” which is actually perplexing because between the two options, I’d choose to keep company with the vain person.

Bathsheba is humbled through Far from the Madding Crowd, and her humbling is strictly tied to her vanity. When her vanity is cured, what is her reward? To marry the man who pointed out she needed to be humbled in the first place and has steadfastly stood at her side all the while despite her, at times, cruel treatment of him. Wait…or is this Oak’s reward for being faithful, humble, and consistently Good™? It’s almost like the book, as much as it claims to be about Bathsheba is instead about a wild woman being tamed for the Good Guy™.

Darn it though, Oak is a good guy. Out of the context of this story he might be one of the best natured men in classic literature I’ve encountered aside from Henry Tilney in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

Bathsheba doesn’t even save herself from the tangled web of ruin her vanity has caused—instead, a man solves the problem for her. As soon as Troy shows up, Bathsheba loses all capability for action and becomes passive, a reward for the men to fight over. Her ability to act as an agent is a thing of the past. Not like that feisty woman at the beginning of the book who marched into the men’s trading hall with her head held high, scorning societal norms could do anything about her difficult situation!

It would have been a vastly better book if Bathsheba had blown Troy away with the shotgun herself, is all I’m saying…

…and maybe I wouldn’t have to call Thomas Hardy a fuckboy.

 

BookBuddyAThon May 2017, in Review

I made it! (Sort of, almost, kind of) through my first reading challenge with my buddy @fatgirlfatbooks. She didn’t finish either, so I don’t have to feel too guilty, I don’t think. The blame lies with The City & The City for being such a slog to read. The drag to that book was unbelievable. Actually, since I’m already talking about it…

The City and The City (China Mieville)

This was the most disappointed I’ve been with a book in a while. It isn’t hard to nail down why exactly I found this book underwhelming because all of it was underwhelming except for the setting. The City & The City imagines a city that, through some vague and unanswered process, became crosshatched with a sister city. These two cities, despite the fact that they occupy the same physical space, consider themselves to be in different countries. For that reason, the societies in each city have set up a way of “not-seeing” the other city and the people who live there unless they officially cross the border.

It wasn’t a problem of suspension of belief as I was fully committed to the idea of these two cities sharing space. Politically speaking, the setting also created a lot of interesting questions: who governs the cities? Who policies them? How do the cities deal with different countries across the world? How does the economy of one city influence, or not, the other? and so on.

Unfortunately, the protagonist of the story is incredibly bland. Having finished the book, I can honestly say I still have no idea what motivated our detective. His only character traits seem to be: Average™, sort of competent at job, gruff, possesses stubble.

There’s a political conflict set up near the beginning of the book between nationalists in each city (that believe their city should be the only city) and unionists (the city is actually one city and should be merged). But is our main character of either of these political ideologies? Of course not.

He’s just rogue enough to have problems with authority but not radical enough to believe anything counter-cultural. It’s a weird choice because this doesn’t make him compelling. I kept thinking as I read the book: what if he had been a radical? What if he was one of those people who ignore the boundaries of the cities?

Beyond his lack of motivation aside from being vaguely competent at his job, the main character also seems to have no grounding interpersonal relationships. No family, two casual romantic entanglements that are mentioned in passing a couple of times then brought up at the end as if they’ve earned a pay-off of emotional impact, and a mentor relationship with a rookie that ends up going nowhere as well. Why? Why set any of this up to ignore it? The main character feels like he’s a cardboard cut out of a police detective. Ironically, I don’t think he’d pass the lamp test that is usually applied to female characters (as in, you could replace him with a lamp and the story would still occur without much being altered).

You may be wondering why I keep referring to him as the main character instead of his name. The answer is that I barely remember his name, not enough to be confident to type it. My buddy and I had this conversation about this after I challenged her to tell me 10 character traits about him:

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oh wait, that’s the guy from Romeo and Juliet

Frankly, the whole thing is baffling. Somewhere inside the kernel idea of The City & The City, regarding the co-existence of the cities, is a great novel. But this is not it.

 

To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death (Mark O’Connell)

Full disclosure, I haven’t finished this book as I type this review (I’m at 73 percent, I believe) but unless it goes completely off the rails, I feel comfortable sharing my thoughts on it.

To Be a Machine has been entertaining on several levels for me as a reader. On the first level is the subject matter it addresses—that of transhumanism and the eccentric, intelligent, and (sometimes) wealthy visionaries who are obsessed with it. Transhumanism is the devotion to the rejection of our biological forms and the vision of a future where we are no longer inhibited by them. For different transhumanists, this vision varies, but the core idea is the same. For them, the human body and all of its limitations, including but not solely mortality, must be overcome.

The second level of entertainment comes from the author’s reaction to transhumanism and the people he interviews on the topic. O’Connell has a visceral rejection of transhumanism, which is fairly common when people bring up the idea of uploading their brains into machine bodies, but also struggles with his identity as a decaying organism. Humorously, and human-ly, O’Connell confronts humanity’s apparent need to reject its own nature and also ascribe meaning to its animal life.

As someone who is heading off to complete a post-graduate degree at a university that is a bastion of transhumanism, O’Connell’s journey through these ideas as an outsider is interesting for the exact reason that I’ve never rejected them. The resistance to transhumanism, where it comes from, why people find it ghastly, is laid out bare in this book.

The Pseudo-religion interpretation of transhumanism that arises through the book is a take that I’ve never considered or encountered before and O’Connell’s arguments are compelling.

Whether it’s a topic you’ve encountered before or not, I recommend the book because the fields involved with transhumanism (technology, biology, psychology, engineering, A.I. research) will continue becoming more prevalent in the next 15 years. The ethics of bio-technology, of the enhancements and the eventual future that transhumanists envision is sure to be the heated topic of debates that will filter into the mainstream media once the fringe technology advances far enough to be mass producible. As O’Connell’s writing is entertaining, accessible, and investigative, To Be a Machine is a decent entry-level starting point for people interested in the movement.

 

That Summer (Sarah Dessen)

This was Sarah Dessen’s first book and I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of it. Many first books are easily identifiable as first books after writers have published as many as Dessen has, because like a painter’s style changes and matures over time, authors improve. In That Summer though, Dessen’s prose possesses the jaunty quality that I associate with her. To reference the title of this book, Dessen’s writing calls to mind summer because there’s a sunny, warm, breezy quality to it.

My favorite aspect of That Summer was that the focus of this coming of age story was between sisters. The novel captures how an age gap between siblings can influence how they understand or remember events during their childhood, in this case the divorce of their parents and the older sister’s behavior during the time.

The pacing of the book is slow, a lazy drift, but I’m not sure that’s a negative. Again, I think of the comparison to summer when, especially during summer breaks between high school years, the days stretch with little occurring each day.

A solid read, worth picking up if you’re a fan of Dessen and haven’t gotten around to this one yet, like me, or were thinking of skipping because it is her first.

 

Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet (Charlie N. Holmberg)

I waited for a week hoping that by the end of this challenge I would have a better idea on what I wanted to write about this book. Yet, I’m still at a loss. Maybe mixed-feelings is the best way to describe this book?

The plot was not what I was expecting, for sure. This is both good and bad—good, because it went in such an unexpected, off the rails direction (which I really liked at the end), and bad, because darn it! I wanted a magical baking book!

There is magical baking in this book, but it is an accessory rather than a focus of the plot. To describe the plot here would be difficult because it relies on the slow accumulation of memories by the main character to answer the mystery of her existence and unnaturally powerful baking skills.

I will say this—the events of the book are compelling. I didn’t want to put it down once I started and was eager to understand the mystery. The pay off at the end, where the identities of the characters are defined, is well done and I maybe, just possibly, shed a tear (I’m weak).

Maybe what’s leaving me reluctant on this book is how brutal it was. I’m not sure there’s redemption for actions of certain characters (Maire, the main character, I exclude from this because I do understand her). Maybe I felt the brutality was unnecessary? But that’s a personal preference and not related to the actual deserts of the book.

For now, I’m going to just conclude that my feelings are ambiguous. Still very much a fan of Holmberg though!

 

The Golden Compass a.k.a Northern Lights (Philip Pullman)

This is such a classic that I don’t want to spend too much time talking about it because what more can I add? All the accolades and praise for The Golden Compass are well deserved, especially for the world-building. Lyra, though she’s young, is relatable because of her pluck and genuine concern for others. The ending line to this book is absolutely incredible.

Hopefully it won’t take a reading challenge to spur me on to read the second one… using my Kindle to read library books has ruined my life in regards to reading books I own.

2016: Round-up Part 2

One of the bonuses of only working a 13-hour week is that you have a lot of time to cultivate a hobby. We say that about our copious spare time, “It’s a good year to pick up a hobby!” with a sort of nervous, giddy humor because at any moment we’re waiting for the Austrian government to realize it’s made a massive mistake in regards to the amount it pays us for how many hours we’re committed to the youths.

I swear we’re not running a con.

Here are books 26-50 of 2016.

 

26. Claimed (Evangeline Anderson): I wrote a blog post about this here. Another Alien Romance Kindle book that I read on my quest to try to find a book that would satisfy the dream of Alien/Human relationships that the game Mass Effect planted in me like a hungry tapeworm that’s sucking me of nutrients for as long as it goes unfed. Unfortunately, no aliens in alien romance books seem to look like aliens? Why is this? Did Bioware not tell the erotic fiction community of writers on Amazon that people don’t really seem to be at all disturbed by romances with aliens that look like bird dinosaurs?

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“all of our fans need to have a conversation with the lord” -Bioware, probably

 

27. I, Robot (Isaac Asimov): My first Asimov, my first steps into classic sci-fi. I plan on writing a longer post about this, but I’m really disappointed by how Asimov wrote the female protagonist of this book. Sure, the philosophy of A.I. in this book is fascinating, but women, especially women scientists, deserve better.

28. The Earl’s New Bride (Frances Fowlkes): Uh…it has a beautiful cover. I gave it 2 stars so probably skip it?

29. Darkfever (Karen Marie Moning): The Fever series is going straight on the top of my list of Problematic Faves. The problems are rampant (alpha male aggression being viewed as romantic and sexual assault as a plot device are a couple) so I would preface any recommendation for these books with that warning. With that out of the way though, this is an urban fantasy that is so engrossing it’s hard to think of anything else once you’ve started it because of the cliff hangers and the compelling devastation of the story. If you want a story about faeries where they are cruel, manipulative, and engaged in destructive conflict with each other, this might be the book for you. The five books of the series also have a satisfactory ending that winds up all the loose ends and answers all the questions that have been burning post the first book, which is a prime achievement for a series.

30. Bloodfever (Karen Marie Moning): I don’t think there’s been many series where I tore through all the books so quickly. Waiting for book 5 to come off of wait list at the library for a week and a half was so torturous I almost bought it…

31. Faefever (Karen Marie Moning): see Darkfever

32. Dreamfever (Karen Marie Moning): see Darkfever

33. Tithe (Holly Black): Reading Moning’s story about messed up faeries sent me back to reread my favorite YA story about disturbing faeries. Tithe is one of my favorite YA books—it’s mucky like a swamp at night with the magic of fireflies sprinkled about the dark trees. The book, with a deeply flawed cast, is damp, slimy, grimy, and dripping with 34magic.

34. Iron Kissed (Patricia Briggs): Every time I read one of these books I think I’m never coming back, but then I do.

35. Shadowfever (Karen Marie Moning): I didn’t perish from this wait, but I almost did.

36. Sphere (Michael Crichton): This book features important topics such as a man bemoaning the lack of coconut cake in his life. In all seriousness, I’m a fan of this book more than the movie even though they got Samuel L. Jackson in the cast. It treats the main female character better than the movie. Favorite idea out of this book: alien life might not be mortal and thus not understand the concept of morality as we do. So GOOD!

37. Love Letters to the Dead (Ava Dellaria): This book had no love letters to love of my life Friedrich Nietzsche, 0/10

38. A Court of Thorns and Roses (Sarah J. Maas): Since this is so popular on the internet and showered in praise already, I’ll hold back on spouting about it as well. Love it though!

39. Bone Crossed (Patricia Briggs): For real, I think this is the last Mercy Thompson book I read…

40. Beyond the Highland Mist (Karen Marie Moning): Hot advice for aspiring writers—go read some of the first books one of your favorite authors ever wrote and weep at how much they have improved. It’ll give you confidence! (This book was TERRIBLE but hey, Moning, you got better!)

41. Dog Songs (Mary Oliver): The fact that Oliver gathered an entire volume of poetry on her love of dogs shows how great of a human being she is and that you should obviously read this volume.

42. Dark Places (Gillian Flynn): My favorite Flynn book! I’ve read all of them so I can say that. I learned about the mania of Satanism that swept through psychology and how people treated children they thought were falling victim to these practices so the setting of Dark Places immediately delighted me. The wonderfully researched backdrop of these events fits so well with the plot. One of those books where all the characters are terrible 43people, which is Good™.

43. Seeing Stars (Simon Armitage): There’s a poem in this collection about sperm whales that haunts me.

44. Anti-Education: On the Future of Our Educational Institutions (Friedrich Nietzsche): If you’re interested at all in how education systems should work, read this book. Nietzsche warns against specialization because he fears the breakdown in communication between fields. Basically, Nietzsche is a pro-liberal arts education fellow.

45. To Tame a Highland Warrior (Karen Marie Moning): The writing will get there someday…

46. Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie): OHHHH BOY. Not to spoil anything, but this trilogy was on my top ten list of the year. It felt so liberating and exhilarating to read a book where gender as a concept was archaic and be faced with my own desire to know the genders of characters anyway. Add on top of that a story that involves an A.I. adapting to being an individual, a political struggle of an entity against itself, and an aristocratic nose 46that won’t quit, I’ll be hollering about this book until my death. It’s hard to succinctly summarize this trilogy but it made me love science-fiction passionately.

47. Soulless (Gail Carriger): I’m actually a little bitter about this book because it provided the perfect opportunity in the world-building to have an asexual main character and instead she just ups and marries a werewolf so like…what was the point, I ask you? Plus, it had that Regency inspired setting that I love so yeah, basically let down of the year probably.

48. Princess of the Midnight Ball (Jessica Day George): The prose of this book was in the style of a traditional fairy-tale, which didn’t really do it for me. But a decent read, if you’re into fairy-tale retellings.

49. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley): Check out why Bernard Marx is a fuckboy here. Utopia or Dystopia, you know? If you really think about it…

50. Sabriel (Garth Nix): Really solid fantasy read. I’m not sure what else to say about it? Nix is really good at world-building and I’m also glad that the romance in this took a definite back seat, allowing the female main character to have a purpose more than True Love™. Read if you love necromancy!