missroserose: (Default)
What I've just finished reading

Future Sex, by Emily Witt. Those of you following along at home may have noticed that this book has generated an awful lot of drama for what feels like, in retrospect, a 200-odd-page blog entry. But such is the danger of high hopes. I'd almost given up on the book halfway through, but persevered through the end, which was bittersweet - Witt returns more to her analytic mode, and even shows some self-awareness about her privileged perspective. For instance:

No wonder people hate Burning Man, I thought, when I pictured it as a cynic might: rich people on vacation breaking rules that everyone else would suffer for if they didn't obey. The hypocrisy of the "creative autonomous zone" weighed on me. Many of these people would go back to their lives and back to work on the great farces of our age. They wouldn't argue for the decriminalization of the drugs they had used; they wouldn't want anyone to know about their time in the orgy dome.

[...] To protest these things in everyday life bore a huge social cost - one that only people like Lunar Fox were willing to grimly undertake - and maybe that's what the old Burners disliked about the new ones: the new ones upheld the idea of autonomous zones. The $400 ticket price was as much about the right to leave what happened at Burning Man behind as it was to enter in the first place.
 
I also really enjoyed her (lamentably short) chapter on birth control and reproduction, and how our entire social framework for childrearing remains stuck in 1950s norms despite technology having thrust us into an entirely different world:  

40 percent of births in the United States are to unwed parents. This happened because most people have separated their sex lives from marriage, but the thinking about the subject has yet to flip. When people cite the research about the advantages of raising a child in a two-parent home, it tends to be an argument for marriage, not for improving the experience of raising a child outside of it. And this has meant that many women, unmarried but also pragmatic about the challenges of single parenthood, feel the 'choice' they have made not to have a child is not much of a choice at all.
 
Indeed, she brings the subject of that disconnect home, in this particularly insightful bit:

I had always preferred success through recognized channels: getting good grades, going to the right college. I experienced satisfaction in obeying rules, and I had greater affirmation from my family when we acted as if I hadn't chosen to be alone, when we spoke as if I was simply waiting (maybe for decades) for the right person to come along. [...] I had now absorbed a powerful lesson about resistance to change: that it manifests less by institutional imposition and more by the subtle suggestions of the people who love you.
 
I feel like there's a really great book in here about social order versus social anarchy; about the way people who dislike or don't fit in to the majority norms instead seek out subcultures with their own norms and rulesets, because most humans function best with boundaries and limits and social reinforcement; about the price those people pay in terms of estrangement from the greater culture, and the varying ways (closeting, sociopolitical advocacy, withdrawal) in which they minimize or deal with that estrangement; and about the ways technology is enabling these subgroups, and whether this means our sexual culture is broadening or merely splintering into individual shards. Unfortunately, and perhaps ironically, these remarkably clear-eyed observations are clouded by the author's own unexamined prejudices and assumptions, especially once she starts getting into her own experiences. Ultimately it feels like a missed opportunity, but I nonetheless hope that it might start a conversation on these important topics.

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue, by Mackenzi Lee. Buckles were swashed, adventures were had, supernatural solutions determined to come at too high a cost. The ending is satisfying; without going into details, our three heroes ultimately reject their proscribed social roles, running off to do...they're not sure exactly, but certainly to live their own lives as they choose, Monty and Percy as lovers, and Felicity quite possibly as a medic on a pirate ship. ("But girls can't be pirates!" "Haven't you heard of Grace O'Malley?")

That said, I'm personally a little torn on said ending. It's certainly appropriate enough for the story, and it's true to both the late-teenage perspective of the protagonists and the YA intended audience - it's a stage in life when most of us have little to tie us down and a great hunger for new experiences and the possibility of trying new identities. But the way it's handled feels...just a little bit facile, like the characters are playing dress-up rather than committing to a difficult life road. To a degree, this can be excused by their immaturity; they acknowledge that it's going to be a tough time but clearly don't understand exactly how tough it is to forge your own road, outside of the social ruleset you've been raised to follow. But the ending as written feels like it's supposed to be an unfettered triumph, rather than a "we've overcome this set of challenges, hurrah, but new ones are right on the horizon."

Maybe it's precisely that tonal dissonance that's not quite sitting right with me; as a fellow 19-year-old I would have been all "Yes! Screw the patriarchal social hierarchy! Go live on a tropical island with your beloved with no skills or visible means of financial support! Love is all you need!" whereas 34-year-old me, having had some small experience with the difficulties of moving to a new place with entirely different sets of rules (as well as having complicated moral feelings about piracy as a career in the 18th century), is somewhat more mixed on the prospect. But, difficult as it was, I eventually found my niche, and what I feel is a good balance between social approbation and forging my own path; perhaps they will too.


What I'm currently reading

So this is kind of awkward - technically I'm in the middle of a number of books, but I've done so little reading lately that I haven't made any progress in them this week. Clearly I need to fix this!


What I plan to read next

I have two primary candidates at the moment. One is James Enge's Blood of Ambrose, a birthday present from my delightful friend Claire (with the promise of the rest of the trilogy to come if I like it). Apparently it has an Ambrosia in it! However, my friend Olivia gifted me with Jennifer Finney Boylan's memoir She's Not There: A Life In Two Genders, which looks fascinating - and happens to be written by Olivia's aunt. I'm leaning towards that because she'll be officiating at Olivia's wedding later this month, and if I'm going to possibly have the opportunity to meet her I'd like to have read something of hers - I know very little about her other than that she's a writer. But I still have so many other books to finish! Sigh...
missroserose: (Kick Back & Read)
Introducing Atalanta! So named because she's swift and sleek and virginal - I've never had a brand new bike as an adult. No word on whether she plans to join the Argonauts, but she gets me around town in style. Although there does seem to be something slightly inconsistent about double-locking a bike named after a woman most famous for refusing to marry because it would impinge on her freedoms, heh. My only complaint is that she didn't have much in the way of color choices; I wanted a purple bike, but my options for this model were "would you like black or silver?" Oh well. Time to go shopping for some stickers!

It's been a ridiculously busy week, so this update is going to be short:


What I've just finished reading

*hangs head* Nothing this week. Work and house cleaning and bike shopping and houseguest all ate my brain.


What I'm currently reading

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue, by Mackenzi Lee. Poor, poor Monty. A life of determinedly drinking, gambling, and seducing his way as far into his father's bad graces as he could short of being outright disinherited has ill prepared him for a cross-Continental high adventure, filled with mystery, personal revelation, self-awareness, and just maybe a dash of thoroughly undeserved but nonetheless beautiful romance.

I was a little afraid at the start that Monty would end up being a little *too* unsympathetic; he spends a good chunk of the first act feeling sorry for himself. Not that he doesn't have valid reasons - an emotionally and physically abusive father who consistently punishes his sexuality is rough no matter your class, and arguably harder when you're otherwise socially privileged (as his mixed-race best friend and educationally-stunted younger sister are keen to remind him). He gets a bit of a pass on pure charm as well as on his fierce, undying devotion to Percy, his best friend, but nonetheless he sits right on the knife edge of "selfish and useless" for a while...right up until Percy's illness becomes apparent, and suddenly he has a reason to Grow Up and Do Better. And boy, does he - not perfectly, not in any way out of character with his self and his history, but his sheer determination to find a cure and save his friend from a life in a sanatorium is heartening, as is his slow discovery of his own talents. His sister Felicity is, luckily, quite tolerant of him, and willing to lend her clever and resourceful brain to any task that will help; his growing respect for her is one of the best parts of the story.

Needless to say, I'm enjoying this greatly, although I'm curious how it'll end up, especially his relationship with Percy - there's a potentially-supernatural thread being introduced, but it's not constructed in a way that seems conducive to a deus ex machina, nor to a "everything must sadly revert to status quo" ending. So I suppose we'll see!


What I plan to read next

I swear to god I'm going to finish Future Sex, even if it is becoming increasingly annoying! Also, a friend of mine asked me to beta read a short story of hers, which I suppose counts, although I don't know anything about it...
missroserose: (After the Storm)
Happy Day After Loud Patriotic Noises day! On Monday I taught two classes at Sauganash, my usual 1:30 and the 6:15. What with the long holiday weekend, I had a huge crowd for the 1:30 class - 20 people (my usual count is between two and five) crammed into a relatively small studio. It turned out to be an awesome class, though; despite the fact that there was a whole range of skill levels, everyone meshed well and flowed together, and I felt like I had a good rapport with people. I got lots of positive feedback from folks afterward, too, which is always gratifying, and a teacher who took my class gave me a good tip on dealing with crowds. I was curious if the evening class was going to be similarly crowded, or if everyone was going to be drinking by then...as it happened, it was closer to the latter, with all of four people, one of them Breanne (the studio manager), taking my class so she could give me my internship evaluation. (As hinted at in the headline, it was almost completely positive; she said I was clearly already an excellent instructor, and she couldn't wait to see what I started doing with the more advanced classes. She also particularly mentioned my music and gave me possibly the best compliment I've ever had - "The choice of songs at the beginning and the way they fit with the timing made me feel like I was in a musical!" So many warm fuzzies.)

It's been a busy week, but luckily I managed to get some reading done, albeit mostly yesterday at the park. So on to the meme:


What I've just finished reading:

The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories, by A.C. Wise. A collection of short stories, many of them with some kind of queer romance theme. A lot of them feel like they could have been fleshed out a little more; the title story especially seemed incomplete, like it was really a novella rather than a short story. Still, there's a distinct sense of atmosphere throughout most of the stories; I found "The Final Girl Theory", about an archetypal 70s-esque slasher/mondo/gore horror film and the cult following that had sprung up around it, particularly chilling.

The Wicked + The Divine vol. 5: Imperial Phase pt. 1, by Kieron Gillen. The gods are in the second year of their supposed two-year lifespan. And, as an academic dryly notes in this volume, "There are very few stories of gods bathing in blood in the first year of their return." There's a lot to unpack here, about the effects of power on ungrounded human minds, about the ways in which various personalities deal with the stress caused by a sense of disempowerment, and about exactly how dangerous a powerful person who feels disempowered and victimized can be. (That last feels especially cogent for our times, on an individual and a group level.) Given all of that, the subplot about The Darkness - an as-yet-unexplained threat that the gods are so far the only ones equipped to deal with - feels almost like a red herring; far more interesting has been seeing how the embattled deities try to aggregate their own fecal matter, or (in the case of Sakhmet) don't even try.


What I'm currently reading:

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue, by Mackenzi Lee. A complete impulse buy, and I'm all of one chapter in (in truth, I burned through the last of The Kissing Booth Girl almost solely so I could get to this one - I was that charmed by the description), but this is shaping up to be a new favorite. Henry Montague, a brash and self-centered young 18th-century British lord, is off on a Grand Tour of Europe with his (sigh) younger sister and his best friend/confidante/longtime secret crush. Swashbuckling action, perhaps-requited pining, and encounters with historical figures have all been promised, and given the strength of the main character's voice in the first chapter, I'm already sold. I fully intend to savor every chapter.

Future Sex, by Emily Witt. Despite being almost three-quarters done (and not a long book), this one's feeling more and more like a slog. I've been reading the chapter on polyamory, which I have something of a personal stake in, and find so many problematic aspects with her analysis, stemming in large part from the fact that her case studies come almost entirely from a single demographic (rich white Silicon Valley workers in San Francisco). While I realize most practitioners of poly come from a background with a certain level of privilege (it's hard to juggle multiple relationships when you're working three jobs just to survive), there's all sorts of unexamined assumptions here, especially in the couple privilege and unicorn-hunting fields. The entire tone is faux-supportive-while-actually-being-condescending - "Look at these adorably earnest young people and how dedicated they are to their alternate lifestyle that their parents already tried and failed at in the 70s! But they really think they can make it work!" It reminds me a lot of the New York Times article on polyamory that generated a lot of justifiable resentment from the community - it's at least a more nuanced perspective than the usual "blog post illustrated by stock photo of three pairs of feet sticking out from under the covers", but nonetheless feels written to reinforce the couple-centric monogamous norm rather than challenge it.

Now that I think about it, that's probably my biggest issue with the entire book; supposedly the author's writing about possible roadmaps to future ways humans might engage with each other sexually, thanks to technology and changing social mores, and yet the whole book is written with a sense of exoticism - "Look at this! Isn't it strange/disgusting/fascinating/novel?" - that's very much at odds with its purported mission, and only serves to reinforce the "othering" of those particular lifestyle choices. Bleh.
I'll probably finish it, if only because I'm pretty close to the end already, but for a book I had such high hopes for initially, it's been awfully disappointing.


What I plan to read next

I'm beginning to feel like my reading style is downright Heisenbergian, or perhaps Schrödingeresque - there are possibilities, and maybe even probabilities, but the fact is I just can't know until I'm there. So as usual...stay tuned!
missroserose: (Kick Back & Read)
Hello, book friends! As I posted on Facebook, coming back from vacation is almost as much work as getting ready to go. Since returning on Sunday I've dyed my hair blue, bought groceries, made a playlist, taught two classes (with two more upcoming), run numerous errands, sent a nastygram to Hertz over being charged half again what Expedia promised, hosted two private massage clients, had Dominika and her husband over for dinner, and (according to Strava) biked nearly 20 miles all over Chicago. Still to do: mail presents to my mum, finish unpacking, clean out the fridge and microwave (seriously, it's been like two years and they're getting disgusting), create a Facebook page/website to connect with more potential massage/yoga clients, prepare for teaching my first yin yoga class on Sunday, winnow out my clothing/shoes/movies/general possessions, catch up on spring cleaning that I missed because my massage bookings went through the roof in May...and that's not even half of it. Augh! One step at a time.

Still, I've managed to carve out some time for reading, albeit less than I'd like since returning from vacation...


What I've just finished reading

Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin. I finally gave up on finding the time to read the paper copy of this I'd bought, and listened to the rest of the audiobook. It's good stuff, and thought-provoking, but I really don't think the format was right for me for this work; I've always been a faster and more thorough reader than listener (much to the frustration of my schoolteachers, heh), and audiobooks are frustratingly ephemeral when it comes to volumes that traffic in ideas - it's hard to consider and write about related experiences when the person just keeps talking. I do hope to reread on paper and consider more thoroughly, but as an overview of the ideas discussed it was definitely a good introduction.


What I'm currently reading

Come As You Are, by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. This continues to be one of the most fascinating and (to borrow a term from the tech sector) disruptive books I've read on the subject of sexuality. The framework Nagoski presents is far more sexuality-positive, and particularly female-sexuality-positive, than the overall cultural narrative we all grew up with; I've noticed that Nagoski shares my fascination with personal and cultural storytelling, how it assigns meaning to our world, and how that meaning can be either beneficial or harmful to our sense of well-being. For instance, the hymen, possibly one of the most frequently misunderstood parts of feminine physiology, came to that point of misunderstanding largely due to patriarchal concerns over paternity, which led to a cultural narrative of female "purity" being perceived as desirable - despite the fact that the organ itself has little to do with a woman's sexual state.

I also particularly enjoyed the chapter on arousal nonconcordance, describing exactly what's going on when someone's genital behavior demonstrates arousal even when their brain is not sexually aroused. I was particularly interested in the correlation statistics; unsurprisingly, it's higher for men than for women. But even in men, it's only a 50% correlation; contrary to our cultural narrative, it's perfectly normal and in fact common for men to sport an erection without actually desiring sex. (This seems particularly significant given how often female-on-male rape is culturally dismissed, and likely hugely underreported, due to the supposed impossibility of it.) In women, nonconcordance is even higher - only about 10% of the time does increased bloodflow and lubrication correlate with actual sexual desire. Newsflash: our genitals are excellent at indicating sexually relevant scenarios (those where we perceive or expect to perceive sexual stimuli), but our brains are much, much pickier in terms of what actually turn us on.

As with the best sociological research, all of this seems fairly obvious in retrospect; the fact that few of us could have articulated it speaks to the power of cultural narrative (and the power of research to create better, more accurate narratives to displace them).

The Wicked and the Divine vol. 5: Imperial Phase Part I, by Kieron Gillen. The initial conspiracy arc having been (bloodily) resolved, the question for our various god-teenagers appears to now be, "What's next?" And, in the tradition of humans realizing sudden apparently-limitless power, the answer appears to be disturbingly close to, "Anything we want." For those of us familiar with the way such arcs usually go, the shape of the rest of the story is starting to be indicated; the hard limits may have been removed, but that seems most likely to have sealed our characters' fate. It's not difficult to imagine a bunch of teenagers given godlike powers self-destructing spectacularly, and well within the dictated two years' deadline; Baal in specific seems determined to avert that outcome, but it remains to be seen how successful he is. (The title indicates a couple of possibilities, neither of which bode well for regular humans.)

This collection begins with an award-winning issue, written in the style of a gossip magazine, where the authors had real-world writers "interview" the various gods (via chat roleplay) and write articles on them. It's a neat trick, adding surprising verisimilitude; the illustrations are spot-on for a fashion/gossip rag, and the writers add their own voices and reactions in a truly impressive way. For all that Satan remains the best character, and her interview is entertaining to say the least, my favorite is almost certainly feminist writer Laurie Penny going up against racist sexist man-child and self-proclaimed "shithead god" Woden. "And here the self-pity. It all comes out in a slosh of self-justifying red-pill logic that you really don't need me to describe. The biggest issue of all is Woden's specific limitation: unlike the other gods, he can only make magic for other people, which must be a bummer for a misanthrope." Reader, I about died laughing.


What I plan to read next

Still working on the currently-reading pile, heh. Seven books is a bit much, even for someone with my voracious appetites...
missroserose: (Book Love)
Hello, fellow book-lovers! This morning I sent an email to the spa manager requesting a leave of absence. I've enjoyed working there and learned a lot, but it's pretty clear at this point that the job is requiring a far bigger investment of energy than I'm willing to give, especially with yoga teaching becoming more central in my life (and also providing an avenue for increased private bookings). It's a little scary, striking out on my own, and it may yet prove to be temporary, but it feels like the right thing to do. So here I go!

Meantime, in Booklandia...


What I've just finished reading

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. Oh man. I can see why some people regard this as her masterwork; it's a lovingly rendered and terrifyingly believable portrait of an incredibly dysfunctional family dynamic, told through the eyes of a person strongly invested in perpetrating it, who nonetheless manages to remain a sympathetic narrator. It's that last that really gets to me: seeing Constance and Merricat's world through the latter's eyes, you understand why she does the things she does and root for her, even though objectively the outcome is a terrible one. Which isn't to say it's entirely her fault; Jackson is unflinching in apportioning the blame to gossiping townsfolk, a gold-digging cousin, well-meaning friends, and Constance's own agoraphobia. But like the most impressive tragedies, in retrospect, there is simply no other way things could have played out; despite having been given the opportunity, the characters are fundamentally incapable of change. The fact that the narrator genuinely regards the outcome as a happy one simply makes the ending all the more chilling.


What I'm currently reading

A Wind in the Door, by Madeline L'Engle. I'd forgotten that Mr. Jenkins comes along for the adventure this time! I love that Meg had to find something to love in such a pathetic person who had genuinely made her life (and was continuing to make her brother's life) difficult; such people are some of the most difficult to see as fundamentally human, and arguably some of the most important for precisely that reason.

An Unnatural Vice, by K.J. Charles. At this point I preorder all of Charles' books, and this was a happy surprise to find on my Kindle on a difficult day. I enjoy all of her romances, but I have a special fondness for the enemies-to-lovers trope - it's hard to do well, but when it's done well the inherent conflict and pent-up lust makes it absolutely scorchingly hot. This installment focuses on Nathaniel Roy, an attorney/journalist/general man of integrity who's been grieving his lover for some years, and who of course (given Victorian mores) must hide his grief from the greater world; naturally, he finds himself having to work with (and deeply, disturbingly attracted to) Justin Lazarus, a spiritualist/con man/general man of few morals.

As great as the chemistry is, one of the unexpected delights of this series has been the central mystery plot; not so much for its own sake, but because it gives the main characters reasons to interact, and they and their relationships are all so beautifully drawn. I particularly liked a conversation Nathaniel has with Mark, a one-armed war veteran friend of his:

As they turned together onto Greystoke Place, Mark took Nathaniel’s arm, pulling him to a stop. “Look, mate. I’d say I’m pretty able to handle myself, yes? You don’t go around telling me to stay out of fights, do you?”

Mark was perhaps the last man Nathaniel would have wished to brawl with. “Indeed not.”

“But even so, if I said I was going to take up bare-knuckle fighting, you’d maybe point out I come up a bit short in the matter of knuckles. Right?”

“I see where this inelegant metaphor is leading.”

“I’m missing a hand, so I need not to get into situations where that’s a problem. Well, I’m not the only one missing something, that’s all I’m saying.”

We can all only hope to have friends as good as Mark.


What I plan to read next

Given how little I've managed to read this week, I'm not going to speculate. So many possibilities! But we'll see.
missroserose: (Joy of Reading)
Hello, world! The weather has been glorious all week! I biked thirty miles on Saturday! I kicked ass at Sculpt yesterday! I might be just a little bit manic following recovery from that cold, but I Feel So Dang Good! So let's talk about books.

What I've just finished reading

A Talent For Trickery, by Alissa Johnson. So frustrating - I really liked the character setup here, but the plot felt overly contrived and kept the main character passive throughout, which led to the big emotional beats of the romance feeling hollow. Oh well.


What I'm currently reading

Future Sex, by Emily Witt. I continue to have mixed feelings about this book, and the primary split between excellent social analysis and no real self-observation on the part of the author is only becoming more blatant. The chapter on live webcams, and the industry and culture that's sprung up around them, for instance, is absolutely fascinating; after talking quite a bit about some of the more well-known members of the community Witt joined and relating bits from interviews with performers and customers alike, she talks about a couple of friends she made and how, with their help, she tried setting up a session herself - and then just stops. Cold. No description of what happened, or how it felt to her, or how it fit in to her sense of who she was and what she was looking for vis a vis sexual connection - just, a little more general analysis, and then the chapter was over. It seemed such an abrupt halt that I'm genuinely starting to wonder if the book's problem came about during editing. She might have initially written it to be much more personal and memoir-ish, but then decided it worked better as social analysis? Or perhaps she just wasn't comfortable sharing so much so publicly, which, okay, fine, but this is an odd topic to tackle and then suddenly play shy.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. I picked this up from Audible in preparation to listening to Jackson's biography, and whoa. I've known for a long time that she had a real talent for portraying the darker side of human social dynamics and the horrors that can arise from them (frankly, anyone who's read "The Lottery" could probably guess as much), but this is an elegantly simple and chillingly effective portrayal of insular family dysfunction caused in part by social ostracism, given an extra frisson of uncertainty by being told through the eyes of a narrator who is...likely not entirely reliable. I can see why it's considered a classic of the genre.

A Wind in the Door, by Madeline L'Engle. When I started rereading these books, I was feeling very uncertain about the world and where it was headed, and part of what resonated with me was the way L'Engle's world acknowledges that uncertainty rather than denying it exists. I picked up this one last night, in the midst of an emotional high point, and strangely that still resonated - but even more was the certainty that, just as there are supernaturally powerful beings of chaos and darkness in the universe, there are also equally powerful beings of order and light that are fighting to preserve what's been built. Being the humanist that I am, I interpret this as allegory for the two sides of human nature (and, indeed, of the universe), but it's a potent message all the same, and I'm glad I'm rereading them now.

What I plan to read next

Hrm. I still have that copy of Jackson's The Sundial waiting for me...
missroserose: (Kick Back & Read)
Last Tuesday I had the sort of back-of-the-throat sinus pain that usually heralds an oncoming cold; however, given the option to believe it was allergies, which I've never had (in fairness, May is an especially terrible month for allergies in Chicago), or a cold, I inexplicably went with the former and did not adjust my activity schedule in the least. Three hours of massage, an hour of biking, two hours of yoga, and two days later, I was in full-blown no-energy knocked-on-my-butt cold territory, and missed two days' work at the spa as a result. Eugh. I'm nearly better, aside from a trailing cough, but it serves me right for not listening to my body.

But hey! Lots of reading time!


What I've just finished reading

Sunstone, vol. 5, by Stjepan Šejić. The writing in this lesbian BDSM love story has been a little uneven - though, in fairness, no more so than most romances - but the artwork. Whoa. (It's not explicit, though definitely NSFW.) Šejić has clearly cultivated the high-level comic creator's ability to visualize a scene in an unusual way that contributes to the telling of the story, and several of the story bits that might feel a little interminable in text are rendered in striking and imaginative ways that help communicate the narrator's state of mind. I particularly liked, in this volume, watching Lisa's somewhat fragmented mental waffling illustrated as the falling petals of a nearly universe-sized daisy - she loves me, she loves me not. (Because man, when you're in love and uncertain, it really can take up your whole universe.) And even with its somewhat fanfic-y feel, the character and major plot arcs are all resolved in an emotionally authentic way. I loved it.

All In the Timing, by David Ives. This was a gift from [personal profile] cyrano, and while I enjoyed reading it, it definitely illustrated to me why I don't spend a lot of time reading plays any longer - I haven't cultivated that sense of directorial vision, capable of considering multiple possible presentations simultaneously, and doing so is a lot more mental work than just reading a novel. Still, my benefactor asked for my thoughts, so here they are:

--The concepts behind "Sure Thing" (where two strangers navigate the tricky waters of a coffee-shop conversation on the way to genuine connection, with a gong helpfully sounding whenever one of them missteps) and "Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread" (a musical number playing on the eponymous composer's stylistic quirks and nihilistic sensibility transposed into a completely banal setting) both made me smile, although I wonder how many people the latter would really play to outside of particular demographics - surely lots of theater-goers haven't seen Koyannisqatsi.

--"Words, Words, Words" (in which three monkeys with typewriters serve as a metaphor for the blind human push toward art-making) struck me as a little precious in its conceit, but could work with a good enough director/cast.

--"The Universal Language" (in which a con man sells lessons in his invented "Unamunda" language to a woman suffering from a stutter, only to find such joy in teaching it to her that he falls for his own con) surprised me in its earnestness; I'd thought that I had pegged the collection as rather more postmodern cynicism, but it was oddly touching all the same.

--"The Philadelphia" was more straightforward, didn't outstay its primary joke, and made me genuinely laugh. ("I've been in a Cleveland all week. It's like death, but without the advantages.")

--Weirdly, "Variations on the Death of Trostky", which seems to be the one most people remember from this collection, didn't do a lot for me as written; I think that may be the lack of directorial eye speaking. I felt like I was missing something, whether from the direction or political context or simple lack of familiarity with 1930s Russian socialist philosophy.

Still, on the whole, I enjoyed the collection, and would totally audition for the part of Dawn in "The Universal Language".

An Extraordinary Union, by Alyssa Cole. Luckily this picked up some as the story progressed; most critically, Elle gained some depth of character. I appreciate that she's still prickly and judgmental (and justifiably so, given her history and contemporaneous context), but she gets to be a little more three-dimensionally human as things go on. And the Confederate vs. Union spy plot does a nice job moving things along, as well as giving the romance a sense of urgency sometimes lacking in the genre.

The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood. Hrmm. So many mixed feelings on this one. [personal profile] asakiyume brought up some very cogent points about how it feels like a very specific and limited dystopia - although there's some discussion of how it affects other groups (largely through deportation), the focus is by far on educated middle-and-upper-class white women, and reflects a very specific fear of their social worth (and, thus, their privilege) being reduced down to that of baby-making machines. Which seems almost quaint in retrospect - as she pointed out, if anything, what's kept women subservient (in our culture and in others) has been not a lack of fertility, but an abundance of it; higher education and social autonomy for women is linked strongly to access to birth control.

That's not to invalidate the underlying fear - given the persistent volume (if not necessarily numbers) of the conservative movement, and the high placement of some of its more extreme members, it's understandable that the Netflix series has become popular - but it does seem rather blind to how its dystopia would be received by women of different ethnic or social groups. (There's no mention as to what, if anything, has happened to black women, for instance. I pictured the narrator's friend Moira as a lighter-skinned black woman, although I don't think there's anything in the text to support that. Nor is there much differentiation in social class - would a poorer woman already used to being largely looked down on embrace her role as a Handmaid, given that it comes with a certain cachet?)

There are some touches here that ring true - I especially liked the portrayal of a culture that promises women freedom from predatory sexualization under patriarchal guardianship, only to have those same supposed guardians be the one doing the predating. But for every detail that felt "right", there were others that brought up far more questions - who, for instance, does this dictatorship even serve? How does it fit into global politics? Who are they fighting? How did they even get into power in the first place, absent some kind of major disaster? I realize that our narrator's limited viewpoint means some of these questions naturally would go unanswered, but I have a feeling [personal profile] osprey_archer's Society for Improved Dictatorship would have some choice words for these people.


What I'm currently reading

A Talent for Trickery, by Alissa Johnson. In a weird way, this is turning out to be the opposite of An Extraordinary Union. The female protagonist is charming and well-drawn from the outset, but both leads are getting bogged down in a lot of Feelings About the Past, which, while certainly a valid part of romance (especially between two thirtysomethings with a history), doesn't make for a particularly dynamic plot. Most of the actual plot developments have been fairly external to the characters, which isn't necessarily a problem, but here has had the result of making the female lead especially a passive reactor in her own story - something that's frustrating to her (given that she's a former con woman and not used to passivity) as much as me, the reader. I do like the theme of how people's lives and priorities can change over time, but I hope things pick up here as well.

Future Sex, by Emily Witt. "Internet dating had evolved to present the world around us, the people in our immediate vicinity, and to fulfill the desires of a particular moment. At no point did it offer guidance in what to do with such a vast array of possibility. {...} It brought us people, but it did not tell us what to do with them." Even beyond Internet dating, this seems to be the thrust of the book so far - Witt writes about her desire for connection, but seems patently uninterested in forming any kind of actual personal connection with anyone she encounters. I think [personal profile] asakiyume hit the nail on the head last week when she pointed out that going into any kind of relationship simply looking to get your needs met is a recipe for failure, since a relationship should be about what you can do for the other person as much as what they can do for you; this definitely adds a pathetic (in the sense of "pathos" as well as the more common definition) dimension to her search. I'm waiting to see if Witt will show any insight on this point, although I admit my hopes are not high. Luckily it's not a terribly long book.


What I plan to read next

I'm going to need a new audiobook to replace The Handmaid's Tale. I'm eyeing Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, although I want to read a bit more of her work before I tackle the biography - I've read a bunch of her domestic-humor writing (which is notable in how it's been dismissed as trivial, despite the very real thread of psychological horror and fear in losing one's personhood to 1950s domesticity...or maybe that's just my interpretation), but little of her outright horror other than "The Lottery". I have a copy of The Sundial I ordered more than a year ago (!) that I've been meaning to read...or maybe I'll use one of my Audible credits to nab The Haunting of Hill House or another of her works. Suggestions?
missroserose: (Kick Back & Read)
What I've just finished reading

Last week was the big "finish all the things" push, so this week's been more about starting new books! Interestingly, I've started three, and despite being somewhat disparate in genre, they all have a similar issue:

What I'm currently reading

An Extraordinary Union, by Alyssa Cole. This book came highly recommended by the Smart Bitches, and I liked the premise - a black woman with an eidetic memory who works as a spy for the Union during the Civil War - but so far the execution is kind of meh. Some of it's probably stylistic - there's a certain amount of tell-don't-show happening, and the dialogue between the characters doesn't really mesh - but honestly, I think the biggest problem is that I just don't care about the protagonist. She's certainly smart and driven, but doesn't seem to have much actual personality past her work. That's really showing now that she's met the main character - their interactions to this point have been either neutral or hostile, but suddenly they're bantering, and I don't have any real sense of how her emotions got from point A to point B. Realizing you're both spies working on the same side might explain some of it, but all of her other feelings that we've seen have been curmudgeonly at best, so enh. I'll probably read a bit more and see if it picks up, but so far this is showing a high likelihood of DNF.

The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood. I picked this up off a library giveaway cart ages ago - I think I was nineteen or twenty at the time - and I couldn't get into it at all. At the time I didn't have the historical or sociopolitical knowledge to give it context; now that I'm perhaps somewhat painfully informed on those fronts, I thought I'd give it another go - especially since Audible has a nicely-produced special edition they've just released to promote/capitalize on the series. And...it's not bad. I definitely have a better appreciation now for the worldbuilding and the social commentary. But I'm not really grooving on this one, either. I think there might be some of the same issues going on - I'm about a third of the way through and so far, Offred hasn't really been a character in her own right so much as a means to view her world, which feels doubly strange given that we're clearly supposed to feel shock and horror at how this world treats her as a thing to be used. The craftsmanship is higher-level, though, so I'll probably keep listening - it helps that I can do housework or whatever at the same time.

Future Sex, by Emily Witt. This was an unintended purchase from the local feminist bookstore. (Brian, seeing me engrossed: "I was going to buy that for you but I would've sworn you already had it." Me: "I do not, would you buy it for me?" Brian: "Sure, but why don't you buy it?" Me: "Because I'm trying to stick to my moratorium on book-buying.") So far it appears to be half girl-dating-in-the-city memoir (a la I Don't Care About Your Band) and half history-and-analysis-of-nontraditional-relationship-options. She opens the book talking about how her expectation (like most women in our culture) had always been that she would date for a while before eventually meeting and marrying Mr. Right; this book is supposedly a chronicle of what happened when she turned 30 and, not having met him, decided to challenge the cultural narrative and try different models for meeting her sexual needs, from the relatively banal (Internet dating, webcams) to the more outré (polyamory, attending Burning Man) to the avant-garde (orgasmic meditation). And a lot of the analysis is solid; I particularly liked this passage, on both how much and how little has changed for women in this arena:

In theory, I could behave as I wished.  Without breaking any laws I could dress as a nun and get spanked by a person dressed as the pope.  I could watch a porn starlet hula-hoop on my computer while I had sex with a battery-operated prosthetic.  I could contact a stranger on the Internet, tell him to meet me at the north entrance of the Woolworth building, tell him I would make myself known only if he arrived carrying three Mylar balloons referencing Disney animated classics, and then, if he fulfilled my wishes, go to his place for sex.  I could do all these things without having to wear a scarlet letter, get thrown in jail, or be stoned in public.

I did not do any of these things.  My timidity not only concerned ideas of sexual "safety" (especially since most such ideas were ruses that gave women a false sense of control in an unpredictably violent world).  My avoidance of sex also had a lot to do with an equation, a relationship of exchange around which I organized my ideas.  {...}  Being sexually cautious meant I was looking for "something serious".  Having sex with more people meant I privileged the wims of the instant over transcendent higher-order commitments that developed over long stretches of time.  {...}  The arbitrary nature of these correlations had not occurred to me.

I appreciate her ability to articulate the cultural assumptions that so many of us never examine, and for that reason I'll likely keep reading.  However, I've noticed that she's somewhat less solid on examining her own reactions.  For an author who's supposedly interested in exploring alternative forms of sexual expression, she seems to come at them from an extremely judgmental standpoint.  I get that some of that is probably because she's operating outside of her comfort zone, but a lot of the time she comes off as perpetrating exactly the sort of social moralizing that she supposedly has rejected.

I wonder if part of the problem is that she doesn't seem to have differentiated between sexual needs and emotional needs.  She talks about them as separate, so clearly she understands that they're not the same thing, but in describing her experiences she often appears to conflate the two, expressing disappointment when an encounter (even one specifically acknowledged to be solely sexual in nature) leaves her emotionally unfulfilled.  It's a strange blind spot from an otherwise quite articulate writer.  

What I'm going to read next

Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin.  My paperback copy arrived and is staring at me sternly from the coffee table.  I'll get to you soon, Notes!  I promise!

missroserose: (Default)
What I've just finished reading

Radiance, by Catherynne M Valente. I haven't written anything about this previously, because I've been reading it out loud to Brian, and between our respective schedules and hobbies our reading time has been far more intermittent than I'd like - it took us well over a year to finish this. That said, a book like this, told in snippets, and where any given passage is about the language and imagery as it is any real advancement of plot, works surprisingly well in that format. I'm not entirely certain how well the various themes - of the search for oneself at the heart of the parallel journeys of moviemaking and interstellar travel, of the carelessness and lack of understanding with which humans appropriate their environment, of the story told by the camera by omission as much as by projected images, of the effects of observation on stories, and on people, and on the stories those people create - hold together, but clearly they stuck in my mind even when the details had faded. I want to go back at some point and reread this in one chunk, but given the size of my to-read list, I'm not certain when that might be.

The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy. My enthusiasm for this one waned toward the end - Marguerite spends the entire final act doing little more than being an observer for the audience, which puts her in some slightly beyond-the-suspension-of-disbelief scenarios solely so she can over hear so-and-so's plans. I'm put in mind of more than one piece of writing advice that discourages both first-person and third-person-limited viewpoints for precisely this reason; personally, I feel that it depends strongly on the type of story you're telling - if our heroine had had more of an emotional arc in the second half of the book, this might have worked far better. Alas, for most of the ending the story feels unnecessarily chained to its passive protagonist. I did enjoy the final plot twist, predictable as it was; still, I think I'll stick to the miniseries the next time I want to experience the story - Marguerite is much more interesting in that one, and it skips the pretty blatant anti-Semitism.

A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeline L'Engle. I'd forgotten exactly how gosh-darn quickly everything happens in this story. Reading it as an adult, the breathless pacing lends extra pathos to Meg's protestations that she and Calvin and Charles Wallace haven't been prepared for any of this - they haven't. But I wonder how much of that feels extra identifiable to young adults, who are often thrust into new situations (that may well feel life-and-death) with little to no advance preparation. Ditto to the three W's constantly telling them "we can't tell you what to do, you have to figure it out for yourself" - that reads as frustratingly condescending to me as an adult, but to an eleven year old sorting out how to navigate tricky social situations, that's basically just Saturday.

I was surprised at how much I disliked Meg, especially towards the end - it felt like she spent darn near the entirety of the book whining about the unfairness of whatever situation she was in. But whoa, did I see myself in her big moment of character development:

At last she turned to her father. "I'm--I'm sorry, Father."

He took both her hands in his, bent down to her with his short-sighted eyes. "Sorry for what, Megatron?"

Tears almost came into her eyes at the gentle use of the old nickname. "I wanted you to do it all for me. I wanted everything to be all easy and simple...So I tried to pretend that it was all your fault...because I was scared, and I didn't want to have to do anything myself--"

"But I wanted to do it for you," Mr. Murry said. "That's what every parent wants."
 

I've been pondering a lot about my relationship with my mother, and why it's felt so rocky lately.  I'm not quite sure exactly how this maps to my experience, but my gut tells me it's at least part of it.

What The F, by Benjamin K. Bergen.  The last couple of chapters deal with the legal censorship of profanity, in the context of the research that's been done to back up the claims of harm that it perpetuates - which is frustratingly limited and contradictory in its conclusions.  The author's ultimate conclusion seems to be "we need more research, but what we have indicates that moral panic over profanity actually makes the problem worse", which I generally agree with - but there are so many nuances here that aren't addressed. Profanity! )

What I'm currently reading

Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin.  This came recommended by a friend when I moved to Chicago, so I picked up the audiobook awhile back.  The other day, I pulled it up on a whim - and within ten minutes I was wanting to cheer aloud, while simultaneously feeling frustrated that this was a book written in 1955 and so much of what it talks about still feels so immediately relevant.  That said, I ordered the paperback almost immediately after returning home (it doesn't count as a new book if you already had it in a different format, right?); there was so much going by so quickly, and I know I'm going to want to dissect it properly for discussion here.

What I plan to read next

L'Engle's A Wind in the Door is next in the series, although Notes may displace it as my current-paper-book of choice.  (I tend to read a lot of books at once, but I try to limit myself to one in any given format.)  Other than that, who knows?
missroserose: (Kick Back & Read)
It's amazing how much "I just finished three weeks with all of two days off and no relaxation days in any of them" feels like "I'm fighting off a cold", except without the sniffles and coughing. Not that I'm complaining, but I suspect I've learned my lesson about scheduling downtime, heh. At least until the next time I have a busy period following a long quiet one.

What I've just finished reading

Yesterday was my first SOMA day in three weeks, so while I've gotten some reading in here and there I haven't finished anything. I'm nearly done with a couple of books, though!

What I'm currently reading

What the F, by Benjamin K. Bergen. I'm not sure if the repetitive style is easing off in later chapters or I'm just growing used to it, but it's bothering me less as we go on. Some of this might be due to the proportion of new information I'm encountering - I found the section on profanity as parts of speech, and the unusual rules it follows, particularly fascinating. Cut for profanity, duh. ) Being a giant nerd who loves overarching patterns and rules, but loves finding exceptions to those patterns and rules even more, this kind of thing is absolutely delightful to me.

The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy. Oh noes! Marguerite, having betrayed the titular hero of legend to the representative of the corrupt French government in order to save her brother, has finally realized that he was, in fact, her seemingly-brainless fop of a husband all along! (Er, spoilers? I mean, the book's over a century old at this point...) Now he, on a mission to save another Comte, races headlong into a trap! Can she get there in time to save him - or, if all goes wrong, at least find him in time to apologize and accompany him to the gallows? I think the modern critics who've compared this to superhero stories aren't far off - the level of subtlety and nuance in the writing is about on par with earlier comic books, haha. Still, it's good clean melodramatic fun - sometimes you just want to cheer the beautiful maiden on against the evil and corrupt government, especially when one's own government seems determined to fulfill that same role.

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L'Engle. I read this one roughly a bazillion times as a kid but haven't touched it in more than a decade, and I'm surprised at how accurate my memories are of some of the lines - lots of other books in that category I find I've misremembered. Something that jumps out at me a lot more as an adult is how trusting Charles Wallace is of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which - and even more so, how trusting Calvin is of all of them and the Murry family, despite having barely interacted with them prior to being invited to dinner. And yet, I totally feel his exultant joy in having found a clan of people with whom he fits in; combined with the more adventurous/less risk-averse mindset of a teenager, I can completely understand how he'd be down for a cross-universe adventure on the strength of a gut feeling of belonging. Still, the part of my brain that's all "Informed consent! That's important!" is shaking its head more than a little, and thinking it's lucky that the three W's were ancient beings fighting for the good of the universe, and not (say) representatives of the Sea Org.

What I plan to read next

Totally up in the air at the moment, but I strongly suspect it'll be from my shelves/Kindle storage - I've already broken my "no new books" rule once recently, haha. (I read them when I was a kid! That makes them old books, right??)
missroserose: (Kick Back & Read)
A sure sign that I've been overdoing it physically is waking up feeling like I've been flattened by an 18 wheeler in my sleep. It's not unusual for this time of year - I'm biking more (including more than an hour to and from Sauganash on Monday), running a lot of errands, doing spring cleaning here and there, plus teaching yoga as well as maintaining my own practice. But man, am I exhausted today. Given that my activity levels aren't likely to decrease anytime soon, I think I'm going to start making a regular practice of SOMA (short for Sit On My Ass) days. And luckily, today is a good candidate. All I have to do is teach a class at 6:00; other than that, I can rest and read and maybe take a nice hot bath with Epsom salts.

And what a perfect sort of day to write up a weekly book meme!

What I've just finished reading

all about love, by bell hooks. While eight months is not the longest time I've taken reading a book, it's on the high end, especially for one this relatively slender. You know the old joke, "Where do you hide a book? --In a library"? Also true of my bedroom and its multiple bookshelves with books stacked multiple layers deep. I set this one down halfway through, it got whisked onto a shelf in a frenzied cleaning bout, and I couldn't find it for months - and then when I found it again, it took me several weeks to get back to it amidst everything else I was reading. I'm glad I finished it when I did, though; having taken up the book meme, it gave me a chance to experience the text on a more interactive level, since I was writing about it on a regular basis rather than just in summary at the end.

I have a bunch of highlighted passages, but the one that I think best summarizes the thrust of the book, from the final chapter: "...the journey towards self-actualization and spiritual growth is an arduous one, full of challenges. Usually it is downright difficult. Many of us believe that our difficulties will end when we find a soul mate. Love does not lead to an end to difficulties; it provides us with the means to cope with our difficulties in ways that enhance our spiritual growth." (Emphasis mine.) I don't have much to add to that, other than simply to say that it aligns with my experience, and I feel it's a distinction that many folks in our culture would benefit from reflecting on.

Interacting with the text (especially at the same time as Meditations from the Mat) also helped me articulate my mixed feelings about philosophy/self-help books. One of the things I really liked about all about love is that it feels, in many ways, like a meta-analysis of its subject - hooks draws from numerous books, studies, interviews, and popular sources for her conclusions, and while she does use personal anecdotes to illustrate points that speak to her experience, she doesn't (usually) attempt to generalize those stories as representative of universal experience. Many, many other philosophy books fall into precisely that trap, which becomes increasingly problematic as you move farther away from the author's nationality/income level/culture/other demographics; it remains my single biggest pet peeve with popular philosophy...probably, as with most pet peeves, because it reflects a similar tendency in myself that I'm not proud of.


What I'm reading now

What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves, by Benjamin K. Bergen. Cut for profanity - it's hard to talk about a book about profanity without using profanity! )

Meditations from the Mat
, by Rolf Gates and Katrina Kenison. I took a break from this one for a couple of weeks, but have returned to reading an essay or two each evening before bed; it's helped that there's been less anecdotal generalization and more abstract philosophy. I particularly like Gates' definition of tapas, the yogic principle of 'burning zeal', i.e. the discipline required to make positive change in one's life and spiritual practice. He talks about karma as the trajectory we're set on by the circumstances of our birth, gender, social class, family, and experiences; and he defines tapas as "the generation of internal momentum to counteract the momentum of karma". This dovetails nicely with my reflections on the differences between comedy and tragedy, which are in turn reflective of my longtime thoughts on nature and nurture, predestination and self-determination, order and chaos. I'm not sure I have the spoons to articulate it all today, but the interplay between karma and tapas seems a good place to start. It's a complicated universe we live in that often seems immutable, and yet by the very laws of gravity, to quote British quantum physicist Paul Dirac, "Pick a flower on Earth, and you move the farthest star." As in so much of our universe, I suspect the answer is not one or the other, but both - even when that seems to create a paradox.

The Black Count, by Tom Reiss. Dumas has found himself in possibly the biggest nightmare a man of his ambition, talents and determined physical agency could encounter: at the mercy of a hostile foreign power, trapped within a Kafkaesque bureaucracy of diplomatic and military affairs, and now struck with some kind of mysterious ailment that may or may not be an attempt by the aforementioned hostile foreign power to rid themselves of a politically inconvenient 'guest'. I admit that I didn't foresee this particular twist; while his imprisonment was mentioned at the beginning as part of his story, given his constant friction with Napoleon, I had assumed it would come at the latter's behest once the man had consolidated his power. Given that Dumas was nearly as famous and respected, however, as well as far more physically impressive, I find myself speculating whether Napoleon's recasting himself as military dictator would have gone quite so smoothly had Dumas, and his strong belief in the principles of the Revolution, been present to object. The book hasn't (so far) presented the question, and from its presentation of the General's canny political instinct as well as the political structure of the time, it feels unlikely, but so far I have only the one source to go on.


What I plan to read next

I've noticed that I tend to select books the same way I do hair colors - there are general rules that I (usually) follow, but the actual selection depends largely on my gut feeling at the time. So in other words - stay tuned!
missroserose: (Book Love)
What I just finished reading

The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon. As I think I mentioned before, the characters really made this book for me. Regardless of his own personal lack of faith, Landsman doggedly pursues his case and his own personal demons to a remarkably satisfying finish. Berko, Landsman's half-Jewish partner and friend (another favorite quote: "But to look at, he's pure Tlingit. Tartar eyes, dense black hair, broad face built for joy but trained in the craft of sorrow."), finds some peace in his identity. If the book passes the Bechdel test, it's only by a squeak, and I didn't get a sense that any of the female characters got distinct arcs; however, there are at least two well-drawn female characters of determined agency; especially Bina, Landsman's boss/ex-wife/longtime soulmate, who treats him with an eminently believable mixture of love and caring balanced by sick-of-his-shit boot-to-the-ass exasperation.

But really, I think it was the timing that made this book one of my favorites. Sometimes you read a book and realize you would have enjoyed it a lot more in the past; other times you pick up a book you've had on your radar for ages and realize you appreciate it a lot more than you would have if you'd read it when it came out. The atmosphere of melancholy and apprehension that pervades the story nicely mirrors the recent zeitgeist of my social circle. But it was really this bit from the end that launched it into "personal favorite" territory:

 
For days Landsman has been thinking that he missed his chance with Mendel Shpilman, that in their exile at the Hotel Zamenhof, without even realizing, he blew his one shot at something like redemption.  But there is no Messiah of Sitka.  Landsman has no home, no future, no fate but Bina.  The land that he and she were promised was bounded only by the fringes of their wedding canopy, by the dog-eared corners of their cards of membership in an international fraternity whose members carry their patrimony in a tote bag, their world on the tip of the tongue.

 
Given how much of my anxiety of late has been tied directly into that sense of rootlessness, the fear that all the work I've put into building my life will be lost - that everything humanity has created, all the knowledge we've gained, will be lost - it's good to be reminded that life is resilient.  If whole cultures have existed for centuries without even the foundation of a country of their own, who's to say I won't survive whatever uprooting forces are coming?  And if I don't, others will; and if we don't, some other species will come along, and discover the remains of our species, and wonder.  I find this an oddly comforting thought.

What I'm currently reading

all about love, by bell hooks.  I read a few chapters this week:  on romantic love, on loving through loss, and on mutuality - the latter being called "the heart of love".  I particularly like how she calls out patriarchal culture for creating a world where women are socialized to be emotionally fluent and available to their partners, but men are not; thus, women generally are good at meeting their partners' needs, but men are not.  Given that having your emotional needs (for acknowledgment, for support, for acceptance) met is an important part of mental health, this then feeds into the narrative that men are inherently superior, more even-keeled, and better able to govern themselves and others.  It's an insidious dynamic, and one that I'm glad is getting some attention through discussions of emotional labor.  

What I plan to read next

So many options!  I just picked up an audiobook on Audible Daily Deal titled What the F:  What Swearing Reveals About Our Langauge, Our Brains, and Ourselves, which I suspect is going to be high on the candidacy list - language and biology and sociology, three of my favorite things!  But we'll see.
missroserose: (Default)
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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