Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Storytime 2013: Revisiting

These are a bunch of books by authors I have read before, once, or seven times.

"The Casual Vacancy" by J.K. Rowling

This was the highly anticipated "J.K. Rowling's book for adults." It seems to me that since finishing Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling did nothing but watch "EastEnders" and reading the sensational bits of British papers. It's as if she really didn't want to be pigeon-holed as a writer of fantasy for children, so she threw in some sex and swearing and wrote about the most "real" lives possible.

The beginning of the book is hard to follow because there are SO MANY CHARACTERS. Rowling never really focuses on one character, unless you count Krystal Wheedon, but she spends so much time hopping around telling little tidbits about the many people in this little village, who all have problems with each other, that it's hard to even care about any of them. If Harry Potter is a tale about good winning over evil and true friendship, then The Casual Vacancy is about how shitty people can really be to each other. C-

"Days of Blood and Starlight" by Laini Taylor

This is the sequel to "Daughter of Smoke and Bone" that I liked so much. Karou and Akiva have been separated, and, each sure that the other is dead, attend to the warmongering of their respective races. They serve their commanders somewhat against their wills, but still hold the secret wish for there to be peace between angels and chimeras. Each finds out that the commanders are secretly condoning acts of brutality. The lovers' stories work in parallel until they are reunited, unsure of how their relationship will proceed. I feel like this whole book was a bit of a placeholder for a big showdown of love in the third book. Reading it, I just kept thinking, "war, strategy, war, war, more war, when are they going to reunite?" The creation of the worlds in Earth and Eretz is really imaginative though, and it leaves off with a huge cliffhanger that I really hope pays off. B

"Ash" by Malinda Lo

This book takes place several hundred years after "Huntress." Like "Huntress," it is YA lesbian fantasy fiction based on a previous work, which, from the title, is obviously Cinderella. It differs from the traditional tale in that the fairy godmother is a male fairy trying to trap her into promising her life to him. Ash also doesn't fall in love with any prince, but the King's Huntress. It's creative, but since the story is so well known, it's harder to accept than "Huntress" was. Ash also just seems like a wretched creature, more pathetic than I like my female characters. C

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Storytime 2013: Heroines and Headspace

"Daughter of Smoke and Bone" by Laini Taylor

This book was on a table at the library promoting young adult literature, and the author had been at LeakyCon, so I put it on my list. It started off clunky, as young adult novels often do, in that "OK, so some stuff happened before... See it? Got it? OK..." kind of way. Taylor first has to explain Karou's ex-boyfriend, her best friend, and then her whole life up to the point at which she is an art student in Prague. Long story short, she's been raised by chimeras and goes running teeth-collecting errands through portals for the creature who raised her. When it really got time for the story to start, the first half of it was rather unnecessary. But then the story really starts and makes up for it.

Karou's inhuman family keeps parts of her own life a secret from her, and she always feels like there is something that she has forgotten about herself. One day, she meets Akiva, an angel. OK, not a problem, the girl deals with monsters on a regular basis. Except that this angel burns all the portals and probably her chimera family inside their home. Problem. Inexplicably, the tattoos that Karou has had apparently since birth are a powerful weapon against Akiva. Also inexplicably, Akiva, though he knows he should kill this girl who is on the side of the "demon" chimeras, can't bring himself to do so. There is some really great banter between them as they negotiate what they know and feel about each other. Akiva can't believe that chimeras could actually be kind enough to raise a human child. Along the way, we find out the backstory of the angels vs chimera war, which unfolds from Akiva's point of view in an excellent past/present jump sequence. Then there is a big reveal, and Karou finally remembers who she is and who she was.

I really can't write any more about this without spoiling it, but rest assured that I am fired up for the sequel, waiting on my shelf. A

"Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me" by Ellen Forney

The title appealed to me when I saw it in the library, so I grabbed it. This book is a "graphic memoir" about the author's life with bipolar disorder. I think that the illustrations add a lot as she chronicles her steps through therapy, medication, manic episodes, depression, yoga, work, and finally, balance. She spends a lot of time addressing the artist's dilemma: lots of great artists had mental illness; did the mental illness enhance their craft? She doesn't want to let go of her identity as a crazy artist, but also knows that a lot of those artists killed themselves or were institutionalized. I felt like this personal account was helpful to me as I sort through my own mental health issues because the author methodically lays out the ways that bipolar disorder negatively affected her life, and the benefits of sticking to getting better. B+

"Huntress" by Malinda Lo

This book is a prequel to a book called "Ash," and since I like reading things in chronological order, I wanted to read this one first. The story is supposed to be based on the I Ching, which I have not read or researched, so I can't draw any parallels. I will say, it's not everyday that you find young adult lesbian fantasy fiction. The author, I found out later, used to write for AfterEllen.com.

Kaede, a lord's daughter, and Taisin, a sage-in-training, go on a quest to find the Fairy Queen. Before they even meet, Taisin has a vision of Kaede going alone to an ice fortress, and the only other thing that Taisin feels in the vision is her profound love for "this person" whom she does not know. So does she fall in love because of the vision, or does she have the vision because she will eventually fall in love? Oh, questions. Lo manages the queer flavor of the book matter-of-factly; at the beginning of the book, when Kaede is faced with the prospect of marriage to some lord's son, she states that she can't marry any man. Her mentor sighs and says "It's not likely that you'll be able to make a political marriage with another woman. It's happened before, but rarely." So homosexuality is a fact of life in this society, therefore, the romantic characters don't have to tear themselves up about being queer, just that their romance interferes with Taisin's life goal of becoming a celibate sage. Well played. However, the book's plot is not really clear, and ends abruptly, so I will have to see how it is supposed to lead on to the next book. B-

Monday, February 25, 2013

Depression, Anxiety, Herbs, and Being Present

It's been a few months since I made this video for the Project for Awesome, in which I talked about mental health and my experiences with depression and social anxiety. Shortly after that, my family made a decision to move my grandpa, who has dementia, into a care home, and my grandma moved into a retirement home of her own will, leaving the house they had lived in for the past 60 years. My grandparents have been a huge part of my life, especially since I moved here for university 10 years ago, so this change has had a big impact on me. No longer can I just stop over and watch PBS with Grandma if I need some human contact. Knowing that my grandpa is confused and alone most of the time makes me feel guilty. At the same time, some friendships that I hoped would develop fell flat, a big disappointment as I try to break out of my loneliness. I spend a lot more time alone in my apartment than I did before.

In an enormous spiral of depression, I made a very deliberate decision to distract myself from my life. I did not want to think about my grandparents or my job or my lack of social and romantic life, so after work, instead of reading a book or writing down my feelings, I turned on the TV or got on facebook for HOURS. I did not clean the house. I did not get errands done. Sometimes, when my roommate was staying at a friend's house, I drank too much so that I didn't feel so bad.

I don't remember what caused me to go out and buy St John's Wort. Desperation? Probably. Honestly, I didn't think it would actually work, but a few weeks after I started taking it, when my roommate had again left me alone all weekend, I was shocked and amazed to find that I didn't feel like laying down and dying. I didn't feel particularly happy. From my perspective, I was still poor and alone and unhappy, but it was as if some invisible emotional force was keeping me from sinking into my normal depression. Huh.

My faith communtiy is doing some rather abstract practices for Lent, the first of which was "practicing presence and fasting from distraction." My friend Mara, who has experience in the Orthodox Church calls it "Protestant choose-your-own-adventure Lent." So I'm fasting from my biggest distraction, Facebook, and instead of dwelling on how sucky my life is as a single 28 year old with an employer who takes advantage of me, I'm taking a vacation from trying to fix my life. Until Easter, I guess, I'm just trying to be in my life, even though I am not content with it. That means not casting around for all sorts of things that I could do, like join a new club or look for a new job. I make appointments and things for later in the week, but I'm refusing to make long-term "this is going to make my life better" inquiries. I'm taking things one day at a time, as it were.

Sometimes I even take things minute by minute, and the combination of this presence practice and maybe the herbs seems to be changing my experience with stressful situations. I was supposed to mail a package on Monday, but things weren't working out the way I wanted before work. During work, I just decided not to dwell on it, because I couldn't do anything about it until afterward. It worked. On Sunday morning, I wanted to check out another faith community, but I got into my car a bit late and would show up late. I hate being late, but instead of putting myself in the position of arriving late as a new person, I decided to just not go, but drive over and see where it was, to soak up some sun and listen to Irish music on the drive. It was fine. No one was even expecting me to be there except for me. Normally, I would beat myself up over it, and even thinking about it now, my anxiety threatens to bubble up, but I am calm. I am a leaf on the wind.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Storytime 2013: January

Just so you're all aware, this is my to-read list for this year, on an 8 1/2 x 11 page
"The Name of the Star" by Maureen Johnson

I got a booklet about this duo (the next book is apparently coming out this month) at LeakyCon, and I wanted to read it because I'm one of those sickos that's fascinated by Jack the Ripper, but really I just grabbed this because every so often I cruise the YA section to see if there's anything by Maureen Johnson available. She's a female author, and there's a lot of myth around Jack the Ripper, so I think it fits both of my themes for the year.

Rory Deveaux is a teenager from Louisiana whose parents take a university fellowship in England, giving her the opportunity to spend a year at a boarding school in London. Things are going well until Rory chokes on a sausage and the near-death experience allows her to see ghosts. At the same time, a series of murders take place in Whitechapel, mirroring those of Jack the Ripper from 1888. Rory's gift, and those of some kindred spirit-seers, may lead to the murderer.

The story reminds me a lot of "13 Little Blue Envelopes," another Johnson book in which an American teenager just about to start her senior year goes to England and develops a crush on the first British boy she meets. Factoids about England and Jack the Ripper are doled out as Rory starts her school year. They would probably be more exciting to someone who doesn't already know a lot about living there (I know, you feel so bad for me...), but as it is, I found those parts a little forced. After the sausage incident, the whole thing gets a little Scooby-Doo, complete with rag-tag detective agency. So the story is a little cheesy, but still a thrilling mystery with a big cliff-hanger at the end that makes me want the next book SO BAD. A- for the target reader

"The Snow Child" by Eowyn Ivey

This book was a recommendation by someone on the Nerdfighter Ning group "Nerdfighters Who Like Talking About Books."

Mabel and Jack left their home in New England to be homesteaders in Alaska. After 10 years of hard work, they are barely getting by. Mabel wonders what she has done with her life, leaving the academic society she grew up in to be a farmer's wife, and suggesting the move to Alaska. She and Jack have settled into a dull routine, and the never-resolved emotional pain of a still-birth still hurts. Feeling empty, she even attempts suicide.

Then one day, a surprise snowstorm inspires the couple to make a little snow-girl, and soon a pale, skittish child appears to Jack and Mabel from the woods near their house. With much coaxing, she starts to develop a relationship with them, almost becoming the child they never had. However, when the spring comes, the child disappears, leaving them to tend to their farm without her. The girl reminds Mabel of a story her father once told. In it, a snow-child comes to a childless elderly couple, like Jack and Mabel, and she stays with them each winter and leaves in the spring. Mabel's sister says that the story ends in different ways, depending on which legend you hear, but always with the snow-child melting at the end.

The beginning of this story was really good, as magical as the legend it was based on, but I felt that it went on a bit too long. When I got to the middle of the book, I thought it should end a certain way, but there was still more book. The bits of magic started to fall away, and the story just became another sad story. It was definitely not the book to read right after a certain episode of Season 3 of Downton Abbey. I am impressed with the author's commitment to stick to the "fairy-tale" ending of the story-within-a-story, but I was left wanting for those magical elements that drew me into the beginning of the book. B-

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Storytime 2013: Short story blitz

I think I will start saying how I happened upon these books. Sometimes that can be fun.

Short stories are great to keep on the nightstand, because you can read a whole one, then close the book up and go to sleep. Unfortunately, these two are not exactly bedtime stories...

"Black Juice" by Margo Lanagan

This collection of short stories was recommended by a friend from my program in college and who is now an English teacher. It was a suggestion for my quest to read more female authors.

Every single one of these stories is really strange. I am the first to fall in love with grotesque stories, but I bristle against books where the author creates a whole new world with specialized jargon and societal rules, and that happened in every one of these stories. In the time that it takes to read one story, I just start to get used to the setting, and then it's over and I have to start again with a different kind of world. For example, the first story is about a family whose sister has committed a crime, and her punishment is to be slowly sunk into the tar pit. The next story is about a lord's wife who has run off with gypsies and the next is about clown killers. Yeah, clown killers. And all of them have special slang to interpret, which is tiring, one story after another.

Where the stories do work is that the reader gets little hints about what is going on and why. Lanagan spaces out the information so that first the family packs a picnic as if going on a day trip, then the sister starts to sink into the pits, then you find out why she's being executed. I appreciate the dark nature of "Black Juice," but I found the stories hard to relate to because I felt like I needed Lanagan's personal dictionary just to get my bearings. C+

"There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales" by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

I found this book at my local library by doing a search for fairy tales, then clicking the category "Slavic."

The first half of this book is mostly ghost stories. You know the type, the Vanishing Hitchhiker, Sixth Sense type of story where throughout the whole story someone has been dead and either they or their loved one doesn't know it. They all kind of end the same way. Plus they're set in Russia, so they're all pretty bleak apart from the whole death everywhere thing. Not to say they're not well written, just go out and get some sunshine afterward, okay? The section at the end, Fairy Tales, gets a little bit lighter and there's less death. This is a good story selection for someone who likes a bit of the supernatural in the real world, and who doesn't need a happy ending. Even if you don't know anything about the Soviet Union, you get the feeling that the characters are used to a life that doesn't treat them well or often, so a little supernatural harassment doesn't bother them. The author doesn't waste any time on "Oh no! A ghost!" and I appreciate that. B-

Friday, January 11, 2013

Storytime 2013: "Leviathan" by Scott Westerfeld

This year I am not setting a goal number of books to read. 50, 60, maybe I will read that many, but there are some really long books on my "to read" list that might slow me down on a goal like that. So I'm setting some themes for myself this year. I'm sure that not all of the books that I read will fit into these themes, but it gives me an area of focus, and I feel like I haven't really studied a specific area of literature in a while. One of my themes is books by and about women. I am a lady writer, but I read very few books written by ladies. I also want to honor my historical sisters by learning their stories. 2012 was the 100th anniversary of the women's right to vote in Oregon. A friend once called me "a stubborn woman," and I am very thankful to the stubborn women who came before me. Another theme that I'm setting for myself this year is folktales and fairy tales, or modern stories based on folktales. Specifically, I want to read stories set in cold places like Scandinavia, Iceland, Russia, etc. Don't ask why, it's just the mood I'm in at the moment. If you have any suggestions for books that fit into either of these categories, please leave them in the comments! Happy New Year and happy reading!

"Leviathan" by Scott Westerfeld

The first book that I finished in 2013 is an alternate version of WWI, where the German and Austria-Hungarian forces fight with mechanical animals and the British forces fight with genetically engineered animal machines, clankers and beasties, respectively. Alek, the (fictional) son of Archduke Ferdinand is forced into hiding after his parents' assassination. Deryn, a young Scottish girl disguises herself as a boy to join the Royal Air Service. They meet in Switzerland, where Deryn's airship, the Leviathan, crash lands near Alek's secret hideaway. They find that they have a lot in common despite cultural and military differences and decide to trust each other.

The semi-steampunk flavor of the book is all right, but what I find really imaginative are Westerfeld's "beastie" creations. The lizards on the Leviathan can scramble around with their sticky gecko feet, but they serve a purpose as messengers, speaking in the voices of the humans that "record" the message. The flechette bats are fed metal spikes that they then "drop" on the enemy in the natural fashion. The Leviathan is a huge whale like creature that fills itself up with hydrogen and floats like a zeppelin. The controversy of manipulating nature in this way is not glossed over. Alek and Deryn each openly criticize and secretly admire the innovations of the other's culture.

The writing style is simple enough for middle school readers who are just learning about world history. In the afterward, Westerfeld points out the historical facts and fictions in his book, which will probably stir up some interest in the time period. There is an inkling of romance between the young main characters, which I'm not so keen on, but we'll see how he continues that plotline. Leviathan is the first in a series of three books. B-

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Resentment and forgiveness

I've had a lot of opportunities to be resentful lately. I try hard to be giving in my life, and sometimes that leads to people taking advantage of me, and that never feels good. I sometimes want to teach someone a lesson when they take me for granted. "Oh yeah?" I think. "Well what if I just didn't want to?" It's a bad attitude. It's resentment.

Today I had one of those opportunities. To avoid naming names, I'll be vague. Some friends had left a mess, and the one who would normally clean up didn't show for our regularly scheduled meetup. My first thought was disbelief, then judgement. "Oh, X person is always so irresponsible." Then I told myself that I shouldn't be surprised because I already knew that part of X person's nature. What was the real clincher was that the mess had to be cleaned up for a special meeting of strangers that needed to be impressed a little. So in order to make the place presentable, it had to be me and my roommate to cover X person's backside, who, I felt, was lucky that we'd showed up at all.

After getting the place ready for the meeting, I sent my roommate a snarky text message about how the dark carpet would cover the blood stains if I killed X person. I realize how uncharitable that was, but in my defense, that dark carpet surely does cover blood stains, and I was thinking of the movie "The Unsinkable Molly Brown." But it made me appear angry when I was really just annoyed. I'm not sure if this was passed on by my roommate, but later in the day, I got an apologetic text message from one of the people responsible for the mess. I thought about how I could respond. "It's fine" didn't seem right. It wasn't fine to repeatedly shirk responsibility. But it all got done, and I lost no special time out of my day to do it. What it was was all right.

"It's all right." I said, but what I meant was "All is right between us." I do not want to stay angry at my friends. I don't want to resent them, keep record of wrongs, scoff "Typical!" like a bitter Brit. If I can't be forgiving to my friends, who can I be forgiving to? If any one of us can't be forgiving, how can we ask for grace?

More than having to clean up someone else's mess, I was disappointed that my friend didn't show because I was really looking forward to kicking back and talking about Jesus and what to do about Him. Looking back on today, I wonder if God chose to give me a more direct lesson.