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As of this morning, I have completed all paperwork, meetings, studio walkthroughs, and desk shifts required...and as of Monday, I'll be teaching my first yoga class! (My first two yoga classes, actually, since I picked up a sub that evening.) Earlier in the week, I was anxious bordering on terrified; after some breathing and journaling and other anxiety-acceptance measures, I'm feeling at least a little more sanguine about it. The manager at the studio has been super chill and supportive, including responding promptly and positively to my numerous emails about questions and small administrative details. And no matter how badly I screw up, I know I'm not going to be as bad as The Worst C1. (I don't think I ever wrote about it here; suffice it to say, the girl barely moved from the back of the classroom the whole time, she didn't touch anyone, she spoke in a soft near-monotone that sounded for all the world like she was reciting a memorized script, and her whole playlist was atonal noise rock, including savasana (?!). At the very least, I know I have a better playlist.) But there's still a lot of anxiety for me in getting up and being open (and thus, to a degree, vulnerable) with a whole group of people, for a whole class. Which, I suppose, is a sign it'll be a good learning experience, too.

Anyway, onto the book stuff!

What I've just finished reading

*hangs head* I have not finished anything this week, either. I strongly suspect I'm letting my anxiety occupy too many emotional cycles; I've noticed that I tend toward obsessive behaviors when it gets going - refreshing social media, occupying myself with ticky administrative details, looking over my calendar repeatedly, etc. (Why, yes, I do have a family history of obsessive-compulsive disorder, how did you guess?) It's surprising, how much time and energy it takes to be anxious. Anyway, I'm working on it.

What I'm reading now

The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon. Dialect or no, I've been finding myself wishing that I was reading a physical copy of this book; Peter Riegert is turning in a perfectly decent performance, but there are so many wonderful descriptions and delightful turns of phrase that I really want to savor but that just go by too quickly. I finally have taken to using a combination of Audible's "bookmark" feature and (for ones I think Brian will enjoy) transcribing and texting them to preserve their ephemerality: "the sudden awareness, like an inverse satori, that he has made a grave, if not fatal error...his jaws snap together, making each tooth ring out with its own pure tone as the impact of his ass against the ground conducts its Newtonian business with the rest of his skeleton." "The winter sky in southeastern Alaska is a Talmud of grey, an inexhaustible commentary on a Torah of rain clouds and dying light." "They all looked shocked; even Gould, who could have happily read a comic book by the light of a burning man."

For all the lighthearted metaphor, there's a very real atmosphere of melancholy and uncertainty in this story; not grief, precisely, but the recognition of opportunities missed, the sense of having taken a wrong turn somewhere without knowing precisely what it was. Perhaps this is appropriate to a tale of Jewish culture, even alternate-universe Jewish culture; I know it probably resonates with me more now, at this point in American history, than it likely would have even a year or two ago.

I'm a bit torn on the worldbuilding; there are hints of a broader global alt-history stemming from the decision to relocate Jews to Southeast Alaska instead of Israel, but whether due to my personal ignorance of world/Jewish history or simply to the fact that it all goes by a bit too quickly in audio format, I'm having trouble piecing together exactly what's different from our more recent history. That said, the tensions and troubles and cliques and feuds and foibles of this particular group in this time that never existed are beautifully rendered. The plot is mostly pretty standard religious-political-conspiracy stuff, and it moves a bit slowly, but one gets the feeling it's more of an excuse to spend time in this world and with these characters, and said characters are entertaining and well-drawn enough to be worth the investment. I'm wondering how it'll wrap up; the themes don't point for a truly happy ending, and neither does the alt-history-noir setup, but given the effort they're putting in to untangling this mess, I suspect Landsman and Berko will pull at least "bittersweet".

all about love, by bell hooks. This week's chapter is on community, and the importance thereof in giving us a place to practice love, especially for those of us raised in unloving and dysfunctional family situations. I've long been a proponent of making community connections a bigger part of our lives - it's something that doesn't get a lot of emphasis in our mainstream culture, with its deleterious emphasis on the nuclear family as the social unit uber alles - but I'm not sure I agree with her framing. She seems to come from a place of fundamental certainty that everyone participates in a community in good faith; thus, she believes that, while distancing is sometimes necessary, there is no reason to ever cut ties with a person; everyone can and will change for the better when presented with evidence of the hurtfulness of their actions. She cites one friend in particular whose family was incredibly hurtful towards her when she came out as a lesbian; apparently after some years, their attitudes changed and they were able to have a worthwhile relationship.

Obviously, I have a lot of issues with this paradigm. I'm all for giving people the benefit of the doubt; we're all human, we all make mistakes. But she seems to be falling headlong into several common social fallacies; the fact is, there are drama queens, and missing stairs, and other individuals that a community is better off without. Setting boundaries with these people, and actively limiting your social interactions with them, is a net social positive - not only because it increases your happiness, but because limited options due to social censure is its own lesson. I'm more torn on the question of whether they can learn; presumably, we need to give people the benefit of the doubt in order for them to learn, but based on my past experiences, I have a very difficult time trusting that someone with an established pattern of behavior will have any desire to change, let alone gain the self-awareness to do so. I'm sure it can happen, but I have a hard time trusting that it is what's going on in any given situation - especially when it's so much easier to claim you're trying to change without actually, y'know, doing any of the work. Maybe this is a reflection on me and my trust issues more than on anything inherent to humanity, I don't know.

What I plan to read next

Back before I put a moratorium on new book-buying, I had pre-ordered Cherie Priest's new book Brimstone, which just arrived in the mail. I have a feeling my to-read shelf is going to go neglected in my next selection...
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Weird experience of the day: halfway through a yoga class, my brain just shut down and was like "nope, no more." It's been a busy week, and I've definitely suffered fatigue from overwork before, but what really made this one stand out was the separation between physical and mental. I know my body pretty well, and it was tired but could have gone on for some time; mentally, though, I was just noping right the hell out. So child's pose it was for a few minutes; afterward I went home and bailed on evening plans so I could spend the rest of the day napping and otherwise recharging. (Brian, dear man that he is, brought me pie from the locally- and justifiably-renowned Bang Bang Pie shop. Pie is excellent for recharging one's spoons.)

So that's my excuse for why this is late. :) On to the reading!

What I've just finished reading

Nothing, I'm afraid. Which seems extra surprising given that I took last week off from the spa for tattoo healing - you'd think that'd be prime reading time. But what with splitting my attentions between three books, and all the other stuff - private clients, prep work for the new yoga job, anxiety about starting said job in April - that's been taking up my mental space, I haven't finished anything this week.

What I'm currently reading

The Black Count, by Tom Reiss. Having garnered many accolades for turning around the Army of the Alps and singlehandedly conquering space that was thought unconquerable, General Dumas has been reassigned to the Army of Italy, which has until recently been in similar straits. A similarly talented general of a very recognizable name is in charge of another division, and has made great progress in driving out the Austrians - and even greater progress in squandering the goodwill this has generated amongst the Italians by eschewing the complicated logistics of supply lines in favor of plundering the countryside. Dumas, a man of honor, does not wish to directly challenge his colleague Buonaparte; he nonetheless has taken to countermanding the worst of the abuses where he sees them, and notifying the other general using the time-honored tactic of "I'm sure you couldn't have known what your men are up to, but..." With the clarity of historical hindsight, I suspect we're beginning to see where his downfall will stem from. (Also, if Lin-Manuel Miranda wants to write another multiethnic historical musical, this would be an excellent source - I suspect Dumas and Napoleon could easily fit in the Hamilton/Burr dichotomy of man of honor/man of opportunity.)

all about love, by bell hooks. This week's chapter was on greed, the way in which our culture's lionization of it prevents us from expressing and experiencing love, and the way we attempt (unsuccessfully) to use it to fulfill our longing for connection. Again, lots that I agreed with. This passage in particular jumped out at me, especially given current events:
 
Our prisons are full of people whose crimes were motivated by greed, usually the lust for money.  While this lust is the natural response of anyone who has totally embraced the values of consumerism, when these individuals harm others in their pursuit of wealth we are encouraged to see their behavior as aberrant.  We are all encouraged to believe they are not like us, yet studies show that many people are willing to lie to gain monetary advantage.  

It's often struck me as odd that we punish behavior that's a natural extension of our expressed social values.  Stories like The Wolf of Wall Street demonstrate the paradox nicely -- Jordan Belfort was so admired for his wealth, despite the fact that he made it by cheating people out of their income, so that even a hatchet job by the press only made job seekers come hounding for a chance to work with him.  

As with most philosophy books, there are parts where the author generalizes; she paints a picture of the sixties, for instance, as a golden time of radical action and hope for change.  Which is perhaps true so far as it goes, but it also elides the very real uncertainty and fear that pervaded those years, something that Mad Men does an excellent job demonstrating.  Yes, change was (and still is) needed, but change always brings discomfort, which gives rise to backlash movements - something that we seem to be experiencing at an elevated pace lately.  In this way, the book feels firmly set in the economically prosperous nineties, and not just because the worst thing hooks seems to be able to say about the President is that he lied to the American public about an affair.

There's one other passage I want to quote.  I don't really have anything to say about it, but it haunts me.

When I interviewed popular rap artist Lil' Kim, I found it fascinating that she had no interest in love.  While she spoke articulately about the lack of love in her life, the topic that most galvanized her attention was making money.  I came away from our discussion awed by the reality that a young black female from a broken home, with less than a high school education, could struggle against all manner of barriers and accumulate material riches yet be without hope that she could overcome the barriers blocking her from knowing how to give and receive love.

Meditations From The Mat, by Rolf Gates.  I feel like I've been dissing on Gates' philosophy a lot, so I wanted to post a quote I really liked.  For instance, this one, discussing tapas, the niyama governing spiritual discipline:  "We will have good days and bad days, days when the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, and days when the opposite is the case.  Years of consistent practice are not built on rigid self-discipline; they are built on the desire to know more."  This dovetails nicely with something I've been ruminating on for a while now; we all talk about how we want to eat better and exercise more, but "wanting to be healthier" clearly isn't a strong enough motivator to overcome the lack of desire (and, not to get sidetracked into a discussion of privilege, but also the lack of opportunity) to eat well and move more.  Finding a form of exercise you genuinely enjoy is a good first step, as is figuring out healthier foods that you like; even better, however, is realizing how much better you feel when you're employing these practices, and giving yourself permission to be that happier person - which requires compassion for your flaws and mistakes as well as curiosity about what more you can do.

Of course, Gates then goes on to talk about how he attended a talk by a disabled and socially underprivileged person who had a spiritual awakening while in prison, and proceeds to completely skip over any of the details of the man's experience and simply go on about how inspiring it was and how universal the themes of his journey, which feels more than a little...dehumanizing and exploitative?  Maybe I'm reading too much into a single paragraph. Or maybe I'm afraid that in my love of pattern-seeking and big-picture stuff I sometimes do the same thing.

What I plan to read next

Still TBD - I suspect I'm going to continue to be busy with these for a while.  But watch this space...
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My last post might have been lighthearted in nature, but strangely (and despite freezing temperatures today), it really does feel like spring has begun. I wonder if there's any actual connection between changes in people's lives and changes in the seasons. I know it's always felt that way to me, but I'm not precisely an unbiased observer.

In any case, we're due for a high of 72 on Friday. Time to get the bikes out!


What I've just finished reading

Paper Girls, vol. 2, by Brian K. Vaughn and Cliff Chiang. I'm completely entertained at how much DNA this series shares with Stranger Things, at least for the first couple of acts; refreshingly, however, the kids terrorizing their neighborhood on bikes are all girls, and this informs their outlook more than a little. There's less character-building and more action in this volume, as the futuristic elements teased in the first come into full play here. I enjoyed it - the thought of a Godzilla-sized tardigrade terrorizing a quiet suburb entertained me to no end - but missed the interplay between the characters, as most of this volume (understandably) consists of their splitting up to do detective work and figure out what's going on. There are some good moments, though; I'm hoping that the next volume, which is going to have to start providing some explanation, finds a way to keep the character development going alongside.

What I'm currently reading

The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon. I remember seeing promotional posters for this book everywhere when it came out, probably because it's set in Southeast Alaska and I had just moved to Juneau at the time. I'm enjoying Chabon's characters and the wryly vivid way he describes his characters and world: "The rest of Sitka's homicides are so-called crimes of passion, which is a shorthand way of expressing the mathematical product of alcohol and firearms." Interestingly, I'd barely noticed the dialect until reading a review that pointed it out, despite having had real trouble with it in other works (I couldn't make it past the first couple pages of A Clockwork Orange). I wonder if it's because I'm listening to it via audiobook; it would make sense, given my significantly-better reading (as opposed to audio) comprehension, that my brain would be worrying at the unfamiliar words and have trouble getting past them when written, but would be so busy interpreting and piecing together the sounds that it'd be more willing to sort of gloss over the unfamiliar words and pick them up from context.

all about love, by bell hooks. Given my general dislike of philosophy books, I seem to be reading a lot of them all of a sudden. Even when they annoy me, realizing I can journal about them and make them into a sort of dialogue helps them feel less preachy. But it also doesn't make for particularly fast reading - I think I've managed all of one chapter of this one all week.

The chapter in question is on values - and specifically, how many of our cultural values actively inhibit living by a love ethic. So it's probably not surprising that I found a lot of stuff I agreed with, haha. Still, this passage in particular caught my eye:
 
We see movies in which people are represented as being in love who never talk with one another, who fall into bed without ever discussing their bodies, their sexual needs, their likes and dislikes. Indeed, the message received from the mass media is that knowledge makes love less compelling; that it is ignorance that gives love its erotic and transgressive edge.

Speaking as someone with more than a passing interest in erotica, this kind of thing drives me nuts. Some folks really do dig anonymous sex, but in my experience they're a minority - and usually it's more the transgressive thrill of the act itself than anything particular in the sex that they enjoy. Seeing so many movies where the message is "these people are in love and that magically means they're 100% compatible in the bedroom despite their never having, y'know, sat down and talked to each other about what they like" both sets up an unrealistic cultural standard and actively suppresses a normal and healthy part of sexuality. It took me years and several partners to get past the "if I have to tell my partner what I like then clearly we're not really In Love!", and I know some people never get past it; opening up your mouth and asking for what you want is hard enough without that kind of baggage attached. (I genuinely wonder if this kind of problem has been more harmful to our collective sexual health than the oft-laughed at pornographic tropes; at least with the latter, it makes no bones about being a fantasy and not representative of real life.) Besides, talking about your desires is sexy - it demonstrates confidence and self-knowledge. Leaving that out of a romantic story means you're missing out on some seriously good stuff.

What I plan to read next

It's pretty up in the air at the moment - I've got a fair amount on my plate right now.  Still, I suspect I'll be eyeing something new soon - you can't keep a good polybibliophile down for long!
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What is it that makes minor back injuries the reverse of minor head injuries? With the latter, they hurt like the dickens in the moment but then (presuming they're not serious) fade into the background. Minor back injuries, however, might not feel like a big deal at the time, but boy do they make their presence known as you go about your day.

And my leg had finally recovered from wrenching my knee a month ago. Grumble.

Anyway, let's get on with things:

What I've just finished reading

The Honor of the Queen, by David Weber. (Okay, so I technically have an hour left on the audiobook but I'm going to finish it today and I doubt anything's coming that'll drastically alter my opinions.) During one of the apparently-endless hashing-outs of potential battle strategies and planned tactical maneuvers, my mind wandered a bit, wondering why it was that I couldn't bring myself to care about any of it. It was during the prolonged battle sequence that I figured it out: the loving descriptions of drive technologies and weapons capabilities and tactical maneuvers were all coming at the expense of any real characterization, which meant that the rapid-fire point-of-view changes between characters was getting confusing - not having learned anything unique or memorable about any of these people, I couldn't remember who half the names were. I know some people love this kind of strategic minutiae for its own sake, and more power to them, but my interest in strategy is directly tied to my interest in the people involved, and I just can't bring myself to care about this course-change or that missile salvo when I don't have the first idea who the people are plotting the courses or firing the missiles.

In fairness, and to my relief, the gender politics haven't grown substantially worse over this installment...but at the same time, I can't say they've really gotten that much better; this series has a serious case of "story about a woman written by a man". (I have never once met a woman who would describe "crossing her arms" as "folding her arms under her breasts". For serious.) And what with the pacing and characterization issues, I'm frankly just not that interested in continuing.

What I'm currently reading

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, by Tom Reiss. As my post about historical perspective might have indicated, I'm very much enjoying reading this right after Alexander Hamilton; it's kind of fascinating to see what was going on in France at the same time, and thanks to having the lyrics to the musical memorized ("Seventeen...sev-sev-seventeen-eighty-nine...") I actually have some dates in my head to draw rough correspondences. Interestingly, the older Alexandre Dumas also grew up in the French Indies (in what is now Haiti, to Hamilton's Nevis - truly a forgotten spot in the Carribean), so the fact that The Black Count goes into some additional detail about the sugar industry of the time lends itself to further understanding of Hamilton's childhood as well.

Reiss' primary difference from Chernow, so far, is that he's far less focused on his title character; rather than closely examining primary sources to tease out the quirks of his personality, the text has so far been content to draw him in broad strokes while filling in a good chunk of French history. Given that it's written for a popular American audience, whose perceptions of the Revolution are probably shaped entirely by, say, a TV adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel (Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen! *swoon*), I'm totally okay with this, but it might feel a little basic to someone already well-read about the period. I do hope we get to spend a little more time with the titular Black Count himself - I'm about a quarter of the way through, and so far we know that he was extremely strong, intelligent, dashing, and ambitious...and not much more than that. Some of this might simply be a lack of primary sources, however; it's rather easier to gain insight into a historical figure's personality when they had the twin advantages of a tremendous output of writing and people actively dedicated to preserving their work after their death, neither of which (I suspect) Dumas Senior had.

What I plan to read next

My goal for this week is to pick up and hopefully finish All About Love. Fingers crossed!
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When I attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks, I had the good fortune to take a Modern World History class from Professor Cole. His courses were known for being high-quality, but not easy - study groups were strongly recommended, as the reading was dense and we went over almost none of it during the lectures. The reason for this, though, was also what made him such an excellent teacher: he spent the lectures talking about (and, while flipping through a truly gargantuan stack of transparencies, offering examples of) perspective, propaganda, confirmation bias, and precisely why it's so important to seek out multiple sources when studying any historical event. The very first class, for instance, we watched Rashomon; the rest of the course would continue in a similar vein.

Just yesterday, I came across an interesting example of just the sort of narrative nuance he warned us about. So in true Professor Cole fashion, I'm going to demonstrate, albeit with screenshots rather than transparencies.

First, if you'll pardon the slightly long quotation, we have a passage from Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton:

Chernow, <i>Alexander Hamilton</i>, 2004, p.316

Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, 2004, p.317

Needless to say, this doesn't paint a particularly flattering portrait of Thomas Jefferson - he comes off as a naïve idealist at best, and an intentionally blinkered one at that.

And yet, while reading Tom Reiss' The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, I came across this bit of context that Chernow left out of his analysis:

Reiss, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, 2012, p.98

Despite the damning evidence of the founding father's own words, it's worth also considering Chernow's biases in judging Jefferson's shortsightedness. It's pretty clear from the name that Alexander Hamilton isn't focused on Jefferson, except in how he relates to the title personage; given that Chernow clearly admires Hamilton, the fact that they were constantly at odds with each other means that Chernow has a vested interest in portraying Jefferson as clueless and/or villainous. (Lin-Manuel Miranda, to take the examination further, had an even stronger reason to do so when writing Hamilton, as any good musical needs a villain to drive the dramatic action forward, and the British were more or less out of the picture by the end of Act I.) Whether or not this was historically justified is a separate matter; it's certainly arguable that after centuries of canonization, Jefferson is due for some examination of his flaws. But by leaving out the fact that he was far from the only person who foresaw a peaceful end to the French Revolution, and that general public opinion (at least prior to the brutal winter of 1788-89, and the following grain shortage that spring) agreed with him, Chernow makes Jefferson's letters sound like the pronouncements of a lone, ludicrous figure, rather than a perhaps overly idealistic man speaking from a position of privilege. It's a subtle bit of character assassination, and worth considering.
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"The last thing to determine conclusively is whether you are in a comedy or a tragedy. To quote Italo Calvino, ‘the ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: The continuity of life, the inevitability of death.’ Tragedy, you die. Comedy, you get hitched."

--Professor Jules Hilbert, as portrayed by the inimitable Dustin Hoffman in Stranger Than Fiction


Back when I first saw this movie years ago, it set me on ruminating over the difference between comedy and tragedy. The definition above isn't untrue, if a bit simplistic - obviously there are plenty of comedies that don't end in weddings, and tragedies that don't end in death. A better definition might be that a comedy ends in a strengthened sense human connection, whereas a tragedy ends with a weakened connection and/or increased sense of isolation, but that's describing the effect rather than the cause.

So here's my proposal: a comedy is a story where the protagonist learns, grows, and changes. A tragedy, on the flipside, is a story where the protagonist has an opportunity to learn and grow, but misses it, and fails to change (or fails to do so enough to avert loss).

This, I think, is why comedies are so often love stories - be it romantic love, filial love, friend-love, or even self-love. Love is one of the primary drivers of change in our lives; to quote M. Scott Peck, love is "the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth". For those of us lucky enough to live in relative safety, few other forces will ever highlight our weaknesses while simultaneously driving us to aspire to better - that is, provide ideal circumstances for learning, growth, and change - than love.

I suspect, also, that this is why comedies tend to focus on younger protagonists, often those of working- or middle-class. Younger people, even those in their 20s, are in many ways are still discovering the world around them; it's often easier for them to admit that a former assumption was incorrect, because their world is still very much in flux. That's not to say that a change isn't without consequences, both internal and social; otherwise the story would have no stakes. Think of the romantic hero afraid of being laughed at when he falls in love with a less-than-acceptable partner, for instance, or the pre-med graduate whose whole life has been about becoming a doctor, until they picked up the guitar. But it's easier to make a drastic career change, or to make better friends, when you're younger; as you grow older and settle into habits, the stakes get commensurately higher. Tragedies, by extension, tend to focus on older, higher-class subjects - especially rulers in one form or another. And whoo boy, when you're the political and social figurehead of a kingdom, do you have a lot to lose by admitting that you're wrong. Often, however, your country has even more to lose by your refusal, which compounds the magnitude of the tragedy.

Of course, no good framework is ever offered without examples and discussion - that's how we vet any theory. So let's have an impromptu humanities class! What are your favorite comedies or tragedies? (No judgment allowed on people's choices; there's just as much room for discussion of the tragic/comic aspects of Riverdale or Three Men and a Baby as there is of The House of Mirth or The Yiddish Policeman's Union.) What are the stakes? How does the main character change (or refuse to change)? Is the story a tragedy from one perspective but a comedy from another? Does your choice upend my whole theory? Let's discuss!
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I've been trying to write a life-update sort of post, but I'm recovering from a cold right now and my brain doesn't feel up to the herculean task of narrative coherence. Suffice it to say: I've finished Extensions, I'm working on getting my CPR certification and applying to teach. Auditions are likely to be around the end of March, which should be interesting, as I'm booked for my first tattoo right around that time. I miss writing letters to people and am trying to pick it back up, however, see above re: narrative coherence. Brian and Jamila have been making numerous batches of macaroons, and they come out perfectly puffed and chewy-crispy each time; I'm having to be careful not to overindulge and make my blood sugar grumpy at me.

There, life update done. Meantime, inspired by [livejournal.com profile] osprey_archer, I'm trying out a weekly book meme thing. I haven't been as consistent with book reviews as I'd like, lately; I'm hoping that this will help me get my thoughts out in the moment and thus reduce the time investment involved. Plus it'll mean my LJ gets updated more consistently...assuming I prioritize the time to actually do it every week, heh. Still, it's worth a shot!

What I've Just Finished Reading

--Temptations of a Wallflower, by Eva Leigh. I have an interesting relationship with the (hetero) romance genre; I like how their heroines have just as much agency as their heroes, and for reasons I've never quite grasped I'm a sucker for period romance. However, the formula is strict enough that the storytelling often feels stifled or shoehorned in, with conflicts and resolutions arising from plot necessity rather than organically from the characters. This one's in the middle of the spectrum on that point; not the most egregious example, as the characters are strongly drawn, but motivations do get a little muddy in places. I did like the hook of a heroine who secretly writes erotic fiction; the samples in the text were a trifle threadbare in their writing to convincingly be all-of-London bestseller material, but then, look at the 50 Shades series.

--Wanted, A Gentleman, by K.J. Charles. Now, when it comes to gay romance, I am all about it - especially Charles' work. Her story craft has been uneven in the past, but she's clearly coming into her own on that front - and, as always, her characters are beautifully drawn and have seriously smoking chemistry. I particularly like how her latest stories have included men of color; she's clearly researched what life was like for men of African descent in Victorian London, and convincingly portrays their even-more-fraught tangle of emotions hidden beneath strict social mores.

--Season of Wonder, edited by Pauly Guran. A collection of Christmas-themed short stories with a genre bent. As with most collections, this was hit-or-miss for me, but (as with most collections) I appreciated the chance to sample some authors I'd never heard of, whose work I might not otherwise have picked up. Particular standouts for me were Robert Charles Wilson's "Julian: A Christmas Story", which transcended its shopworn genre tropes through strong worldbuilding and its narrator's strength of character, and Connie Willis' "Newsletters", a humorous take on the alien-abduction story. And Janet Kagan's "The Nutcracker Coup" entertained me to no end; I'm always a sucker for a story about engineering social change through refusing shame.

--"The Isthmus Variation", by Kris Millering. My personal elevator pitch for this story, which I'm rather proud of, is "a virtuoso burlesque of intrigue and guile". I love the pacing, the way the narrator slowly reveals the Game, and the game within the Game, and the game within that. If the story has one weakness, it's a certain emotional remove from the characters; what could have been a gut-wrenching tragedy is instead a series of saddening events observed from a distance. Still, as a narrative tableau and a demonstration in worldbuilding, it's beautifully executed.

What I'm Reading Now

--Bara roligt i Bullerbyn, by Astrid Lindgren. This is the first non-English book I've ever seriously tried to read, and whoa, is it a humbling experience. It's a good one for me to start with, though: it's just a little above my current fluency level, so I only have to hit Google Translate a few times per page; also, being aimed at kids, it uses a lot of simple, repetitive language, and has occasional pictures. (That was part of the humbling - I was a precocious reader as a kid, and I literally can't remember ever needing the pictures to help me understand an English language book. But I need Google something like half as often when there's a picture of what's going on. Context helps!) Additionally, I read this book in an English translation as a kid, so it's entertaining to me to be working my way through one of the stories, suddenly remember something about it, and then find it in Swedish a page or two later.

--Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. Having listened to the musical a slightly embarrassing number of times, I'm now listening to the audiobook of its source, and aside from my brain wanting to occasionally go off on lyric tangents (many lines from the musical are taken directly from this book), it's a pretty cracking read - Lin-Manuel Miranda did not have to exaggerate when it came to the drama in Hamilton's life. It's good to get the less-streamlined, more nuanced telling of many of the events, as well as context for some of the big historical moments, but I have to admit I'm curious how much of this I'll retain in ten years - as opposed to the musical, where the lyrics are probably permanently imprinted on my brain.

--Meditations From the Mat: Daily Reflections From The Path of Yoga, by Rolf Gates. This is one of the more popular selections among the teachers at CPY, and I can see why - it's a series of reflections on various yogic philosophies and their applicability to this person's life, and thus to life in general. I think it's the second part of that that's not quite sitting right with me; there's a lot of presumed universality that just kind of puts my hackles up. I'm a big fan of letting everyone find their own path, and for a practice that supposedly touts just that philosophy, yoga has an awful lot of evangelists. (My friend Kat to me, in response to my "yoga's done a lot of good things for me but it's not for everyone and if you don't jive to it that's okay" speech - "I think you're the only person who practices yoga who feels that way.") Still, it's pretty clearly written for the audience I'm likely to be teaching, so I suspect it'll be useful, and there's definitely some good stuff in there. Plus the gourmet-jelly-bean format (read one or two reflections at once) helps keep it from feeling overwhelmingly smug. I'll probably be working my way through this one for a while; further updates as my feelings warrant.

What I Plan to Read Next

--All About Love, by bell hooks. This is actually more of a "plan to finish" - I read half of it and promptly lost my copy, only to find it again...right after a friend loaned me her copy. >< (Where do you hide a book? In a library...or in my case, a bedroom overflowing with books stacked two-deep on far too many shelves.) There's some really excellent stuff here, on defining and reclaiming the term "love" from its watered-down and eroded cultural niche, and on recognizing the many forms of relationships referred to as "love" but based instead on codependency, social expectation, or habit. I'm looking forward to seeing where hooks takes it.
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Sometimes you come across a particular book that's exactly what you need to read at exactly the right time. And sometimes, you read a book and think, "Man, I wish I'd read this five years ago."

Margaret Lea, our heroine, is a solitary type and mostly content to be so, with a shop full of books for company and a father who does his best to mediate the Obligatory Family Angst. One day, however, she receives a letter from Vida Winter, Britain's most popular and most mysterious writer, now very ill and wanting a biographer who can understand the secret at the heart of her tale.

This is clearly a book written for book lovers, especially lovers of the sort of gothic English fiction that's become classic in the past century (Jane Eyre, The Woman In White, and Wuthering Heights are among the many stories repeatedly name-checked). In a lot of ways, the first half of the story feels like a pastiche of these more famous tales - elements cut and pasted, rearranged in a bouquet and tied with a bow or two. Interesting if you like that sort of thing, but it never quite achieves a sense of harmony, of being greater than the sum of its parts; and if you're not a fan of that particular genre, it'll probably feel overwrought and ridiculous. Even if you are, it's frankly a bit slow and boggy, with rather a lot of time spent inside Margaret's head.

A little over midway through, and after an entertainingly meta interlude where one minor character even points out the overwroughtness of the whole project, things start to feel a little more real. The characters become better-fleshed, with more nuance and personality. The story finds a surer footing. And while I'm not entirely convinced by the Big Secret, it brings enough of the disparate threads together for the conclusion to be satisfying, if perhaps not as cathartic as the author hoped.

I feel like if I'd read this some years ago, when my life was slower-paced, I spent a lot more time alone, and I was making a concerted effort to read a number of these classic gothic novels, I might have enjoyed this story a lot more. But as it is, I'm much busier and more social these days, so the slow pace of the story frankly annoyed me. (If it weren't for Audible's 1.5x speed-listen feature, I might not have gotten through the first part at all.) Still, everything moves in cycles; sooner or later I'll probably slow down again, and turn more to books for company. Perhaps I'll reread this book then, and see whether I appreciate it better. C+
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Not that I figure anyone really had any doubt; I've been plenty active on Facebook and even a bit on Twitter. But for a while I feel like I've had long-form writer's block; I have several blog posts full of Big Thoughts and Theories percolating in my head, but nothing's coming out. So instead of trying to write about Big Thoughts and Theories, I'm going to fall back on my usual blogging habits and relate some small things that are happening in my life right now.

--Things continue to go well in my work life. I've settled into the spa job, and found it to be both interesting and fairly lucrative. There's little opportunity to build repeat clientele, but I'm gaining all kinds of experience working with different body types, and the tips have been quite good on the whole. My private bookings have seen a real boost too, thanks to some good word of mouth, and I've acquired several regulars. For the past couple of months I've been averaging two to three bookings a week, which doesn't seem bad at all given that I'm working out of my home and don't advertise other than in person. And I've had a few of the yoga teachers at the studio specifically ask for feedback on their assists, which is gratifying.

--I'm gearing up for another Big Summer of Travel; upcoming is a trip to Alaska to help my mother move into her (giant, gorgeous) new house. (Related: if anyone's interested in traveling to Alaska in the future, hit me up - I know a great place we can stay.) Shortly thereafter is a trip to Washington, DC to visit [personal profile] peacefulleigh's family. Also, my fellow Arizona-dwelling PNW expatriate friend Niki is finally escaping the desert, moving not fifteen minutes away from Leigh's clan. (I may or may not catch her this trip - her tentative schedule has her arriving a couple of days after I leave - but still. Hurrah for good friends living close to each other! It's the next best thing to having them both live close to me.) Then in September, I have plans to take my friend Elyse to Anchorage to do touristy things, then hop down to Juneau to visit friends I haven't seen there in far too long. I'm looking forward to it.

--My Goodreads friends may have noticed, I've been on a real comics kick lately. After a good friend did a killer cosplay of Gwendolyn from Saga, I figured I should read the source material, and am enjoying it greatly - I love the contrast of the crazypants fever-dream worldbuilding with the so-shopworn-as-to-almost-be-mundane (but lovingly told) story. Also, courtesy of my local comics shop's Memorial Day sale, I picked up the first volume of Sunstone (already read on DeviantArt, but worth revisiting and supporting the author both) and a new-to-me series called Paper Girls. Hopefully that'll tide me over until the new Wicked and the Divine comes out.

--One of the long-form posts I've intended to write and never gotten around to has been a product review of Soylent, featuring some of the goofy labels Brian's written on the bottles as illustrations. Having built something of a backlog at this point, I've started a Twitter account to share them with non-Facebook-using friends. Feel free to follow or retweet!

--I feel like I'm barely skimming the surface here, but for whatever reason this is what my brain's coming up with at the moment. So I'll post this now, and maybe it'll help rekindle my more (semi-)regular writing habits. I can hope!
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This is very much a case of "not a bad book, just not the book for me".

If you're a fan of Larry Correia's Monster Hunter series, you'll probably love this book. (Heck, given how often it's popped up in my Audible recommendations, you probably already love this book.) It's a solid actioner, well-written, with a great hook and some impressive worldbuilding. It also, similar to Correia's books, happens to be written from the perspective of a straight white man with a hate-on for religion, a thing for power fantasies, and strong libertarian leanings.

But here's where it gets personal, and muddies the water somewhat. Because the truth is, I'm finding I have less and less patience with this perspective as time goes on. I get why it appeals to people - spend some time imagining yourself to be a bad-ass super-soldier, kicking ass and taking names! But what really struck me the most, listening to the first half of this story, was how completely it devalues any kind of human connection. The main character is a lone wolf, with a weapon or a snarky retort ready for any situation; the only two characters he shows any kind of vulnerability toward are both fridge-stuffed within pages, and in the second case, he gets caught and tortured for his trouble. No one is to be trusted, everyone is out to use you, religion is solely a tool for manipulation rather than a reason to strengthen social ties and reinforce shared humanity, et cetera, et cetera.

This isn't even getting into the inherent sexism. To the author's credit, he makes an effort, including several female characters who aren't victims or sirens (although there are both of those, too), but the the story goes to great lengths to demonstrate that anything feminine-coded (compassion, love, emotion, vulnerability) is a weakness that will get you killed. It doesn't help that the aforementioned female characters all come across as men-with-tits, i.e. they demonstrate no particular difference in perspective despite presumably having had a very different experience growing up than their male counterparts. And then there's the fact that, in order to more effectively torture him, the main character's captors put him in the body of an attractive young girl -- because everyone knows that attractive young women are for torturing, doncha know. Graphically.

You know what? I take back what I said at the start of this review. I mean, on the one hand, I'm clearly not the target audience here. But on the other, stories have power in people's minds. And any story that so blatantly dismisses our fundamental humanity, that casts any kind of vulnerability or compassion or basic kindness as weaknesses to be discarded, is just not a good story. F
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As my Goodreads friends may have noticed, there's a particular book on Renaissance history that's been stuck on my currently-reading list since April of 2014. To celebrate finally conquering Magnifico (and, hopefully, the imminent conquering of this cold that's given me the time and motivation to finally get through its five hundred pages), here are some reviews of stuff I've been reading lately!

Magnifico, by Miles J. Unger. I was inspired to purchase this after reading this excellent series on Machiavelli and his time; I was looking for further insight into the place and period which spawned the infamous political theorist and his work, and the life story of the ruler most solidly associated with the previous generation seemed a promising avenue. By that metric, it succeeded, albeit in a more roundabout way than I'd originally hoped; the author's takeaway seems to be that Lorenzo was a gifted statesman and generally benevolent (if nearly despotic) ruler, but that his style of rule depended almost entirely on his personal charisma, which (along with the changing political climate of Europe) was why Florentine government and prestige went into more or less permanent decline after his death, and why Machiavelli's cynicism was so profound. (It's got to be pretty tough to spend one's whole life trying desperately to assist a government that appears to have no real interest in self-preservation, especially after growing up during the tail end of its golden age, and thus having seen firsthand what it could be.)

I don't have anywhere near the knowledge of this period of history required to accurately judge the author's assumptions and conclusions, but he's clearly done his homework - there's a good fifty pages of indices, footnotes, bibliography, and other ephemera, and he clearly delineates in the text the more controversial parts of the history he cites as well as giving his reasons for his own take. There were a few bits that seemed to have slipped through editing - references to parts of the text that were further along, for instance, or the omission of small factoids that a general audience might not know. (I was completely confounded as to why, for instance, the pro-Medici faction during the Pazzi coup was shouting "Balls! Balls!" until I Googled and discovered that the Medici coat of arms prominently featured five red balls and one blue.) Still, it's an impressive (if highly dense) recounting of a singularly splendid part of Italian history, and well worth the effort to read if you're interested in Renaissance history, or love the art of the period and are curious about the time in which it came about. B+

The Wicked & The Divine vol. 3: Commercial Suicide, by Gillen McKelvie & Wilson Cowles (with guest artists). Conspiracy mysteries, while a popular genre and one with a number of built-in advantages (there's a built-in question to hook the audience and a similarly inherent driving plot force), are ultimately some of the trickiest stories to do well, especially when it comes to pacing and payoff. (The mid-2000s reboot of Battlestar Galactica, for instance, completely fell down on the payoff end; Season 2 of Orphan Black, while entertaining, had a lot of pacing issues.) We're not quite to the payoff point, but the pacing here is masterfully done; after one volume of buildup and one of pell-mell "Fandemonium", the writers are easing off the gas pedal a bit, giving the characters time to regroup and reflect and the audience some much-desired backstory. Most impressively, they manage to do it all without losing momentum - even as some questions are answered, more arise. (And despite their cheeky titling of the last few pages "The Inevitable Cliffhanger", the most interesting cliffhanger this time actually occurs mid-arc, at the end of the Odin issue.)

The series continues to have interesting things to say on the subject of hero worship, desire, the relationship of a celebrity to their fans, the unspoken contract inherent to that relationship, and (perhaps most pertinently in our age of media oversaturation and Tumblrization) the way history and myths alike are constructed and managed through the continual editing and reediting of interviews, video, written notes, and other records. The authors' research continues to shine, leaving all sorts of visual and textual clues for those familiar with the mythology of the deities involved. (Special shoutout to the revolving panel of guest artists who covered this arc; they each did a wonderful job capturing something about the outlook of the particular god their issue focused on.) This series is definitely headed towards "all-time favorite" status, even if The Morrigan's story hit just a little too close to my teenage self's capital-R Romantic ideals to be read without wincing. A+

The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo, by Zen Cho. A delightful little gem of a tale. At first glance, it's a very traditional girl-on-her-own-goes-and-gets-into-trouble sort of story, but I loved how it defied the shopworn tropes of the genre; at every turn, the characters surprise and delight, refusing to fall into their proscribed roles even when their situation couldn't be more conventional. Additionally, despite nearly every character falling into some minority group or other, it never feels particularly strident; their ethnic identities, sexualities, or neurotypes are just part of who they are, and influence their perspective accordingly. And the main character has one of the strongest voices I've ever read in fiction. A

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Allison Bechdel. A beautifully crafted memoir that's by turns fascinating, heartbreaking, and hilarious - though as the subtitle implies, it leans more toward poignancy. Bechdel relates her family life and various formative experiences with a crisp straightforwardness that belies their emotional heft. Moving back and forth through time, she traces recurring themes, as well as cause and effect and cause again - examining how later revelations caused her to scrutinize and reevaluate earlier experiences.

It's probably not surprising I resonated to this story; I am, after all, a queer woman who loves books and has a somewhat troubled relationship with her father. But the clarity with which the author sets forth her ambivalence in her family relationships felt reassuring, in a way; it was fascinating to see how hers (dys)functioned, where it was similar and where it diverged from my own experiences. Similarly fascinating for comparison were her accounts of queer culture in the 70s, and how her self-discovery and coming-out process went; I was surprised at how similar it was to my own, even if her environment (and eventual self-identity) was different.

In retrospect, the earlier chapters feel stronger and more contained, whereas the later ones feel a bit more open-ended; I'm not sure if it's due to the opacity of the source text or simply a lack of any new information, but the final, Ulysses-based chapter especially felt like it didn't quite hit the emotional notes it was aiming for. Still, the book as a whole was fascinating - as a time capsule, as a story of a family, and as an account of the experiences that made Bechdel the writer and artist she is today. A
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I found my Kindle. It was on the top shelf of the coat closet, with the winter accessories. The nearest I can figure is that I was in a hurry and grabbed it, intending to put it in my purse, reached up for a pair of gloves or a scarf, set it down, and forgot about it. (God knows I'm usually trying to do six things at once when I get ready, so it's believable, but seriously - WTF, me?)

So the Kindle Voyage stays on the wishlist for now. Maybe for my birthday...

A dilemma

Jan. 19th, 2016 12:38 pm
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I cannot, for the life of me, find my Kindle.

Given that I last remember using it here at home, and that I haven't seen any strange "Your Amazon Purchase of {probably porn}" emails, I sincerely doubt that I left it somewhere. More likely, in a frenzy of cleaning, I put it away somewhere safe...so safe, in fact, that I can't figure out where, even after a good week of searching. (I've also asked around at work, the other place I most commonly use it - the bright pink cover would make it stand out. But, alas, no luck.)

On the one hand, this is hardly an emergency situation. I have no shortage of paper books to read, after all, and my entire Kindle library is accessible via my phone and computer both. But on the other...I miss it far more than seems appropriate. It's super convenient for reading in the bath or at work, and I maintain that reading off an e-ink screen is much more pleasant for my eyes than a backlit LCD.

And gosh, wouldn't you know it...Amazon has a new model out, one that's moderately but perceptibly superior to my version in every way. Not enough to justify an upgrade, certainly, but if I'm having to replace it anyway...

I will mull for another week or two, I think. It's been a good few weeks, work-wise, and I've stumbled into yet another occasional fill-in job at another chiropractic office. But it's not like I don't have plenty of other things I should be saving for (like, y'know, a house), and some part of me is just convinced that if I order one, two days after it arrives I'll find my old one. I suppose I could pass it on to a friend; I have a few who're interested but have yet to jump onto the e-reader bandwagon. Although I suspect relatively few of them would've chosen a bright pink case. :)
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I'm genuinely torn about this book. Half of the writing is almost virtuoso; the other half solidly workaday. And half the time I'm not sure which half is which. Which, for a story with uncertainty as a major theme, is perhaps perfectly appropriate.

First, a warning: this is not a lighthearted, easy-read mystery/thriller. This is a dark book about deeply dysfunctional people and relationships, far more along the lines of Gone Girl than Nancy Drew. I know some people love this sort of thing and some hate it; personally, I have a pretty high tolerance for unlikable characters if they're well-drawn, but this was right on the edge of "too dark" even for me. Hence the warning: you know best if this is the kind of thing you're likely to appreciate.

That said, the portrayal of the three women who narrate the story - by turns Rachel, Megan, and Anna - is one of the virtuosic aspects I mentioned earlier. Rachel, an alcoholic who's sinking fast but hasn't yet hit her personal rock bottom, is particularly heart-rending; she's not likable, exactly, but her humanity is on full display, challenging us even as she tests the limits of our sympathy. Megan is Rachel's foil, possessed of the life Rachel wishes she had but haunted by her past decisions and mistakes. And then there's Anna, borderline sociopathic; so determined to live out her perfect-family fantasy that she ignores, diverts, or offloads any personal responsibility; happy so long as she can stay in denial. The whodunit plot, while not exactly boring, is almost secondary to meeting these three women, getting to know their stories, and watching them struggle to find their identity in a culture where the range of available roles is limited, and past mistakes are punished harshly.

It's perhaps not surprising, then, that the book's biggest weak point is its male characters. We see signs of how they feel similarly restricted by their social roles, by the toxic side of masculine culture that values them as providers and protectors uber alles, that forbids them from showing the vulnerability necessary to truly reach out and connect with other human beings. But their stories are told obliquely, if at all; and their struggles with identity and loss don't come off as half so sympathetic as the women's. Which I think is a shame; it feels like there's a missed opportunity here to show that both genders have many of the same difficulties, and to emphasize that common ground rather than setting them in the far-too-common antagonistic roles.

On a more fundamental level, the writing vacillates between hauntingly poetic and...not quite thudding, but not particularly interesting. I really felt like we could've done with one or two fewer episodes of Rachel's wallowing in self-pity. And I count at least one major plot hole: cut for major spoilers ) But given that this is a debut novel, I found it nonetheless very impressive indeed; if the description sounds to your taste, then by all means pick it up. I just don't think I personally am in a hurry to read it again anytime soon. B-
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The word "book" seems insufficient to describe this 500+ page, multi-year, multi-collaborator project. Although now that I think about it, I think it's less a problem of linguistics than of presentation; the book format itself is insufficient to contain it.

Women In Clothes is an consideration of precisely that - women (of varying ages, cultures, body shapes, gender and sexual identities, and income levels) and their relationship with their clothing. The examination takes the form of a collection of short pieces: answers to a long (and continually evolving) survey they designed; transcribed, and occasionally translated, interviews; pictures of prized pieces or collections; and the occasional whimsical moment such as a series of photos of several women trying on each others' outfits in sequence. Often the pieces are cut and pasted, with a number of quotes grouped together to highlight their similarities, or a range of answers to a single question set against each other for contrast. The overarching concept seems to be to create an - or perhaps simply to record and replicate the existing - ongoing conversation about clothing between women from all over the globe and all walks of life.

It's an ambitious idea, and to a degree, effective; I've certainly come away with a broader understanding of how history and life stage and geographic location have affected the clothing choices of other women. The problem lies in the sheer amount of information involved. The book is nearly twice as long as an average novel; and, due to the inherently democratic nature of the project and the thoughtfulness of the contributors, there's just no easy part to point to and say "that could go". (I can only imagine what a laborious and painful process the editing must have been, and how much was probably left behind.)

Hitchcock is credited with the adage that a movie should not last longer than the average theatergoer's bladder capacity; while there's no similarly simple metric for books, the fact that it took me seven months to get through this despite it being about two of my favorite subjects indicates that something's not working in the presentation. I think it might have been better exhibited online somehow - wiki-style, perhaps, with hotlinks that encourage the reader to casually browse, swinging between related subjects, rather than railroading them along in a straight line. Still, even in book form, it's an interesting read for anyone interested in the intersection of psychology, sociology, and fashion. B-
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I picked this book up initially because, as a massage therapist, it sounded like it would be useful information for my field.  But it turned out to be far, far more than that.

As anyone who regularly reads this journal probably has guessed, I find people fascinating: the way our genetic proclivities and life experiences combine to form a literally infinite number of personalities; the way we build mental structures upon which we can hang the barrage of sensory input the world gives us each day; the way we're all susceptible to certain modes of thinking and flaws in reasoning and yet each find our own particular ways to deal with them. And, sadly, the ways in which we hurt each other, and ourselves, despite (usually) not meaning to.

This last has been a continuing source of fascination and frustration to me. What causes the self-destructive, or other-destructive, behavior that seems so tragically common? True, a small percentage of the population are psychopathic, uncaring of the damage they inflict except as it might come back to affect them; but the vast majority of hurt is either an unintentional treading upon a sore spot, or a lashing out in response to a perceived threat.

Dr. van der Kolk elegantly articulates something I'd observed but had trouble putting into words: with a few exceptions, people who hurt others do so because they are hurting, themselves. What's more, he posits, and backs up with numerous studies, that most of that hurt is caused by unresolved trauma; either from childhood (the results of the Adverse Childhood Experience study he and his colleagues pioneered, referenced several times in this book, paint a shocking picture of exactly how prevalent childhood trauma is in our culture) or from later on in life. Unfortunately, the current drug-focused psychiatric climate can do relatively little for these people, as medication can address the symptoms but do very little to resolve the underlying causes.

This sounds like a depressing subject, and it is - although described with clinical detachment, the events that many of Dr. van der Kolk's clients have undergone range from tragic to horrific. But the book takes a hopeful and (at times) inspirational tone, describing numerous successes and advances in treatment, citing both case studies and randomized trials demonstrating their efficacy (or, at times, suggesting the need for further study of promising but largely untested methods).

Even more strongly, Dr. van der Kolk advocates for the political will to take action in stopping trauma at its source - instituting educational and social-support programs for underprivileged families, refocusing school programs from punishing difficult children towards understanding and teaching them coping strategies, making treatment available at a low cost to people from all walks of life. As he states in the epilogue:

When I give presentations on trauma and trauma treatment, participants sometimes ask me to leave out the politics and confine myself to talking about neuroscience and therapy.  I wish I could separate trauma from politics, but as long as we continue to live in denial and treat only trauma while ignoring its origins, we are bound to fail.  In today's world your ZIP code, even more than your genetic code, determines whether you will live a safe and healthy life. {...} Poverty, unemployment, inferior schools, social isolation, widespread availability of guns, and substandard housing are all breeding grounds for trauma.  Trauma breeds further trauma; hurt people hurt other people.

For so much of my life, I've tried to understand why so many people - often people very dear to me - have trouble making positive decisions for themselves.  Now, thanks to this book, I have an answer - and not just a single answer, but a holistic framework that includes familial and social factors, a range of observable responses, and treatment possibilities.  Having recently acquired my LMT, I'd been mulling over possible further career goals; thanks to the inspiration of this book, I may well look into the field of trauma treatment.

I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in people and the ways they interact with the world; I'd go so far as to say it's a must-read for anyone in nursing, medical care, massage therapy, social work, counseling, or other socially-oriented professions where we see people in moments of vulnerability.  But honestly, I wish people everywhere could read it and take it to heart; compassion and empathy are fundamental to social connection, and given that we're wired to be social creatures, what could be more universal than learning why and how we are hurt, and how to help each other through it?  A++ with cherries on top
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Last Friday night, I had a very bad reaction to NyQuil.

To call it unexpected would be something of an understatement; NyQuil has always been my go-to cold medicine. When I've got a sore throat, am coughing too hard to sleep, or am otherwise miserable with a cold, it's always been there for me, willing to knock me out for a few hours of much-needed rest. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say I've probably taken it a hundred times over the past several years. Even this past week I'd taken it a few times - I've been dealing with a lingering cough and scratchy throat from the Swedish flu, which seems to get worse at night.

But this time, something in the chemistry was off. Instead of falling asleep and waking up in the morning, I awoke after two hours, heart pounding and blood pressure skyrocketing...only to nearly lose consciousness as it bottomed out a few minutes later. I had tremors, sweats, chills, nausea, and all the other symptoms of a bad flu, made worse by the clockwork shots of adrenaline that jolted my system every half-hour or so.

Since sleep was out of the question, I put the time to use doing what few things I could - Googling the symptoms (they all checked out as less-severe uncommon side effects of the drug), making and drinking tea to stay hydrated, and taking deep breaths and firmly telling myself that this was temporary, that I would make it through this. That last was rather more difficult than it sounds with the regular adrenaline dumps, but it was pretty much all I could do, so I did. (I would like to add with some minor grumpiness that, had I been in Sweden or just about any other first-world nation and could go to the ER without it costing literally thousands of dollars, I would have checked myself in for observation - "liver failure" was listed as a "severe" possible side effect. But I decided against it and instead checked my skin and the whites of my eyes every hour or so to make sure I wasn't showing signs of jaundice.)

Quite frankly, I was fucking terrified. In precisely the primal, hindbrain, violent sense that phrase evokes.

---

It's occurred to me, as I've been listening to the book on trauma that I was wrote about in my last post, that this qualified as a mildly traumatic experience - I was in fear for my life and I could do very little about it; even once it was past, I couldn't shake the feeling that it could recur, despite (obviously) avoiding NyQuil since then. And as I started to pick up the pieces of my daily routine, I realized that I could observe all the stages of healthy-person trauma recovery that Dr. van der Kolk discusses. I found words to describe the experience (naming and articulation). I reached out to friends and family for support (social connection). When I experienced some minor avoidance and flashback issues -- difficulty getting to sleep the next night despite being exhausted; performing a massage in an unusually warm room yesterday and, as I started to sweat, feeling my heart rate and blood pressure rise -- I dealt with them using deep breathing and centering techniques, reminding myself that this was not the past (reestablishment of temporal perception). And, gradually, my brain has been able to put the experience in the past (integration), instead of being constantly on alert, convinced that it will happen again.

---

Recently I've been ruminating on The Pictures are Pretty but the Struggle is Real, a plea for us to "be real" on the Internet. The author's a little fuzzy on the definition of "real", but suggests that we need to be honest about the things we're struggling with, to allow some of the rougher edges of our lives to show, in the hopes of better connecting with other people.

My feelings on this are...complex. I applaud her intent, but I think she glosses over a lot of the complexities of honesty and sharing. I think [livejournal.com profile] alexmegami had an excellent point over on Facebook: "The Internet is also home of the overshare. I question the ability to be fully yourself with an audience of hundreds or more. While I'm not opposed to honesty...a fight with your spouse is not something to be blasting across the tubes the day of or the day after or even within a week or two, especially without their okay." Vulnerability is powerful; misusing that power to hurt others is not cool, even if you genuinely need help.

And that's not even addressing the question of degrees. Is saying "I'm having a rough time of it today" any less honest than saying "My partner and I had a huge fight over moving today"? Is making a joke to put a humorous spin on a scary situation, as I did with NyQuil by announcing our breakup on Facebook, any less "real" than admitting how terrified I was, as I did above? Heck, is it somehow less honest of me to wait a few days to blog about it, until after I'd had some distance and time to process, than it would have been to write a mostly-incoherent in-the-moment accounting?

There's a lot to be said for the power of vulnerability: used conscientiously, it can be a powerful invitation to sympathy and connection. As [personal profile] peacefulleigh put it: "I strike a balance, or at least I try to, with triumphs and moments of frustration. But even in the latter, the point is not honesty, it's connectedness. I know that my friends have either felt that way too, or we can all laugh together at my foibles later."

And there, I think, is the key. There's nothing wrong with honesty (or "real"ness) in and of itself, just as there's nothing wrong with preferring to present a more polished appearance to the world. But neither of them are an end unto themselves. The point is connection; remembering that we need to strike a balance between reaching out from a position of power ("Look how thoughtful and smart and together I am!") and vulnerability ("I'm really scared about this and need help"). Maybe one's success on social media (and in the social world in general) is best measured in connections made. I think that's what I'm going to experiment with, ultimately; if I feel like I'm not engaging with people, I'll check to see if I'm spending too much time in one mode or the other. Which, yes, will probably require me being vulnerable a little more often. Sigh.
missroserose: (Default)
--My goddaughter is here! Sophie was born last Wednesday, and (judging by the pictures) is tiny and adorable and only looks a little like a squashed potato. (Or Winston Churchill. Or Yoda. Newborns. *grins*) I can't wait to meet her in a month! And to see Donna; it's been far too long.

--The first week of my new job went well. Lots of requests for the standard fluff-and-buff, but I did get to work on one man who was right up my alley - his muscles were all knotted up from schlepping suitcases around, and some myofascial and trigger point work did wonders. The receptionist told me later that he couldn't say enough good things about me. He's not local, sadly, but his employer has an office here; I did tell him I'd love to see him again when he's in town next. We'll see. So far this upcoming week is looking pretty slow, but that's life at the bottom of the totem pole - priority for appointments is given based on the hours you were available in the previous month, which with my current schedule should put me solidly in the middle of the pack come November.

--Brian was in Dallas for work all last week...and has to go back today for another week. Boo. I don't mind the time alone, in principle - I can set the thermostat to whatever I want, or better yet, turn off the A/C completely and throw open the doors and windows! - but two weeks at a go starts to feel lonely. As independent as I fancy myself, I've lived with someone else nearly continuously for more than a decade now; that kind of time spent leaves an imprint in your life and habits. (And let's face it, he's pretty cool to have around. Half of my more clever quips I steal from him.)

--I picked up a copy of The Body Keeps The Score on an Audible Daily Deal, and it's turned out to be completely fascinating. I initially thought it would be about the ways our body reacts to trauma, a useful thing to learn about for a massage therapist; as it happens, while it touches on that subject, it's turned out to be more about the neurological effects and how they affect the body and mind of trauma victims both. Fascinating stuff, but what's really been eye-opening for me is the discussion of victims of childhood trauma - neglect, abuse, molestation. These people display a well-known constellation of symptoms - difficulty with emotional regulation, propensity toward obesity or anorexia, high likelihood of self-harm, high predisposition toward autoimmune disorders like lupus or fibromyalgia, and a significant lack of bodily awareness, among others - but the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the "psychiatrist's bible") has no separate diagnosis for the condition, and the completely drug-oriented treatment framework that's sadly the norm now doesn't help either. So they'll reach a crisis point and seek help, and be diagnosed with depression, or bipolar disorder, or borderline personality disorder, or (if they have a particularly observant therapist whom they trust enough to open up to) post-traumatic stress disorder, and be given drugs to 'treat' that disorder, which won't help long-term because their problems stem from neural patterns and behaviors that were (tragically) adaptive in their earlier years.

This particular bit of knowledge slots nicely into a gap I've been wondering about for years now. I was initially a psychology major in college, but I got discouraged precisely because the field seemed to be all about figuring out which drugs treated what problems, regardless of the person's background or experiences or anything else about them. In all fairness, I know some people for whom such drugs are life-changing; however, in the years since then, I've also had a number of friends who fit exactly the profile described in the book - they've been in and out of doctors' offices for years, trying to figure out why they feel broken and nothing seems to help. Many of them have managed to have amazing lives nonetheless; now that I have some idea of why life has been so difficult for them, I'm even more in awe of their accomplishments. I'm looking forward to listening to the section on treatment strategies, as well; it's good to know there are people working on strategies that actually help these people, even when the medical establishment refuses to recognize their problem.

--I was petting Dexter the other day when I realized that he's developed several more little white furs on his face. In retrospect, this is hardly surprising - he's twelve or thirteen years old, after all - but it startled me a little that I hadn't noticed until now. We humans are so good at seeing what we expect to see, and it's sometimes a little discouraging how easily we fall prey to the assumption that life is fundmentally unchanging. Often it takes something momentous - a birth, a death, a wedding, a career change, a betrayal - to make us realize exactly how time's been passing, and things and people have been changing, despite our merry assumptions of stasis.

I don't really have any great conclusion or insight to this observation, but it's interesting to me how even though we experience time in a linear fashion, we certainly don't perceive it that way. It reinforces my conviction that it's important to take the time to really listen to each other and connect, rather than just taking each others' presence for granted.

And I should definitely spend more time petting my cat.
missroserose: (Default)
Phew. Let it never be said that David Mitchell is unambitious.

This novel bears some similarities to Cloud Atlas, a later work of Mitchell's and one of my favorite books. Nine interlinked short stories are each related by a particular narrator, whose speech patterns, history, and current circumstances (expertly illuminated over the course of their narrative) all subtly construct their mental outlook on life, which thus defines their part in the book.

What is the book about, you ask?

I've just spent a good five minutes thinking it over, because initially, I had thought it was about a lot of things. But then I looked at the list and realized that they all come down, basically, to one subject: why things happen the way they do. Is it coincidence? Chance? Fate? The cyclical nature of the universe? Do we make our own choices? Can we truly, having been shaped by our DNA and the world around us, even claim to make our own choices? Are chance and fate ultimately the same thing, merely seen from different perspectives?

If Cloud Atlas is a symphony in book form, all elegant multipartite symmetrical construction and carefully-cultivated recurring motifs, ghostwritten is more of an improvisational jazz number. There's a bass line, and numerous themes and riffs that each player interprets individually, but the eventual goal of the piece is far less defined, and indeed seems to be as much about how it gets there as it is the actual destination. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, by any means - after all, it's only fair that a book fundamentally about chaos theory would be somewhat chaotic - but it makes me wonder if some of the subtler nuances get drowned out in the cymbal crashes, as it were.

Still, this is an impressive story, and all the more so for being Mitchell's first book. If you find people and their overlapping mental constructions fascinating, if you love quantum theory even if you're not a hundred percent certain you can explain it, if the questions of cause and effect and relativity and creativity are interesting to you - in short, if you're an observant and curious human being - pick this book up. It won't explain these things, but it at least illuminates them, a little, in that beautifully intuitive way Art can do while it waits for Science to catch up. A-
missroserose: (Incongruity)
I finished this book more than a week ago, and I'm still absolutely stunned by it.

Five stories, ranging in length from short story to novella. Each reminiscent of an old-school fairy tale (though only two are outright retellings of popular Western tales), both beautiful and disquieting, with various recognizable tropes and archetypes and plotlines and characters all delicately woven together into something entirely new. Each told in phraseology that echoes the rhythm and poetry of a truly gifted oral storyteller, full of sure-footed language that carefully signals character, time, place, while nonetheless belonging clearly to the voice of this author alone.

Cooney clearly understands the evolution of stories, how bits and pieces of their DNA free-float between people before recombining in our minds, adapting themselves to the time and environment in which they're told. The stories themselves are familiar and yet different from anything I've read in a long time. Her masterful use of language reminded me more than once of David Mitchell; and yet, while Mitchell's cleverness is the sort that (justifiably) demands recognition, Cooney's style is almost the opposite. Subtle, lyrical, with a beauty that shines through its familiar trappings; you could read each story without ever noticing the careful craft of the words, and then they would be there to surprise and delight you upon reread.

These aren't long stories, but they're not quick reads either. They're as much poem as story, meant to be thoroughly enjoyed; read quickly, they lose much of their power. But if you love fairy tales, if you love stories, if you love beautiful use of language, if you enjoy the journey of the story as much as the destination? This is the book you didn't even know you desperately wanted. A++ with cherries on top

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