July 25th, 2018

book talk // the gate.

In The Gate, Natsume Sōseki manages to elevate the banal circuitousness of daily life into something transcendent that caused me to question my understanding of happiness, self-contentment, and taking control of one’s own life.

Sosuke and Oyome have spent their adult lives living with their heads down, guilty and filled with a self-imposed shame. They take so much of what appears to be in actuality random chance onto their own shoulders, letting it seep into their lives so deeply that it defines their very souls (Oyome’s miscarriages, Yasui dropping out of school — even though it seemed like he planned to anyway). In their martyrdom, I wonder if they give themselves too much credit for the misfortunes of both their own lives and the lives of others. How much is fault and how much is fate or chance? Ultimately, their life of quiet monotony is one of their own making, and, though they do possess the ability to break out of it, simply can’t, or won’t.

It’s interesting, because I have seen many readers assume initially that they are an elderly couple, but it’s revealed they’ve only been married for six or seven years. This is shocking, I think, as they live such unimpressive lives. They also deeply resent the upsetting of their routines. However, their relationship is still one that invites a certain envy. “Sosuke and Oyone were without question a loving couple. In the six long years they had been together they had not spent so much as half a day feeling strained by the other’s presence and they had never once engaged in a truly acrimonious quarrel. … They dwelled in the city as though living deep in the mountains.” 

Not much happens in the novel, but the meandering narration and carefully described backgrounds carry the story along. Later, Sosuke, in desperation to figure out a solution to a social problem (one that preferably involves his continued method of avoidance) spends ten days at a Zen temple attempting to clear his mind. However, he emerges with no greater enlightenment. Sosuke determines that he is not brave enough to walk through the metaphorical gate and gain a different perspective of the possibility of his life, and walks out the literal gate of the Zen temple without any ill feeling for this reality. “He was someone destined neither to pass through the gate nor to be satisfied with never having passed through it. He was one of those unfortunate souls fated to stand in the gate’s shadow, frozen in his tracks, until the day was done.”

Thus, the book ends much as it began, with the couple companionably sitting together, watching yet another change of season, the sun glimmering with the promise of still another tomorrow where nothing terrible will happen, but nothing interesting either.

Rating: 5/5
Recommended for:
 fans of Japanese literature / classics in other languages

July 4th, 2018

book talk // japanese june.

I am lucky. I teach, therefore I get summers off, therefore I can set arbitrary reading goals for myself. This summer, I decided to take on the bookstagram-inspired idea of #japanesejune — essentially reading a pile of translated Japanese literature. I didn’t set a numeric goal, but I ended up reading ten total books in June, six of them were Japanese fiction. I also used this goal as an opportunity to shop my own bookshelf, I had accumulated quite a glut of translations, and try out some new authors.

Confessions by Kinae Minato

What happens when a middle school teacher’s daughter is killed by her students? Revenge, of course. Confessions is essentially a literary tale of revenge — something between horror, crime, and mystery, though we know from the first few pages what happened. Slowly, the author unveils detail after detail by utilizing alternating POVs, an unspooling of various confessions. There are some very surprising twists, I audibly gasped more than once, and a lot of well done dramatic tension. Dark and twisted, with sparse prose and unlikeable characters, this is the Japanese novel I never knew I needed.I finished this book with about two days left in the school year, which gave it a weird synchronicity.

Rating: 5/5

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami

I was already a fan of Kawakami and had been meaning to read another book of hers. I already owned Manazuru and The Nakano Thrift Shop, but chose the latter for my reading project. The Nakano Thrift Shop is a quiet, slice of life book about a character named Hitomi and the people she works with at the Nakano Thrift Shop — a secondhand store filled to the brim with knick knacks. Aside from Hitomi’s POV, we never really see the characters outside of their connection to the shop. They are all defined by their relationship to love: Mr. Nakano has two ex-wives, a wife, and a mistress, Masayo (his sister) is a hopeless romantic and a sensitive, creative soul, Takeo is taciturn and doesn’t trust those around him, but Hitomi is drawn to him all the same. The seasons pass, there are conversations and simple meals. It is a deceptively simple book. And, as with Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo, I was swept away.

Rating: 5/5

Kokoro by Natsume Soseki

Amusingly, I already owned a copy of Kokoro that was an earlier translation, however, when I spotted the new translation by Meredith McKinney (she has also translated Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book) at Half Price Books, I grabbed it. Translation is so interesting because, unlike books in my native language, people are often offering updated versions with current vernacular. At any rate, I wanted to read a Japanese classic and this was my first pick.

Kokoro is divided into two halves, the characters into two selves, and at the core are the complications of the heart. It tells the story of a student befriending an older mentor he refers to simply as ‘sensei.’ Sensei remains opaque to the student as he grows from boy to young man. Eventually, Sensei entrusts him with the story of his life, confessing his own secret guilt and pain, as the student struggles to understand it.

I finished this book with an audible, “woah.” It was such a powerful and emotional narrative that I felt both enraptured and depleted. A classic for a reason.

Rating: 5/5


Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa

I’d heard good things about The Housekeeper and the Professor by Ogawa, so I picked this one up for a beach trip because it was described as an unsettling story in a crumbling seaside hotel — and that sounded charming and a little creepy. What it turned out to be was a BDSM summer romance story between a 67 year old man and a 17 year old girl written in a minimalistic style. This is the first book I’ve read by Ogawa, and perhaps it wasn’t a good place to start. Her prose is simple, fluid, and descriptive (the writing was 5 stars, for sure), but the subject matter alternated between being quite racy, sweet / unassuming, and incredibly dark. The subject matter just wasn’t my jam, but she’s definitely my kind of author.

Rating: 3/5

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

I loved this short, quirky gem of a book! It epitomizes much of what I enjoy about Japanese literature in general. This was also  the most recently published (in English) book I read.

Keiko Furukura is a 36-year-old, part-time convenience store worker. The convenience store hums like a life force around her, she stays fit to be a good worker, she is comprised of food from the store. She is a part of it. For her whole life, Keiko has tried to fit in to societal norms, and failed dramatically. People are outwardly kind to her, but, as she discovers, they secretly regard her as some kind of broken, useless object. A woman past her expiration date. The judgments passed on her are not new to any unmarried, childless woman in her 30′s, but Keiko is so sweet and unassuming — I wanted to throttle the rest of the judgmental characters! The part where she discovers her co-workers go out to drink without her especially made my heart break a little. As a result, Keiko experiments with fitting in, but ultimately discovers her own path to happiness.

It’s a life-affirming character study and the writing is lovely. Also, the author is still a part-time convenience store worker, which added another level of unexpected charm.

Rating: 5/5

The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima

This is my first time reading a work by Mishima, and his style surprised me. I expected pretension, but there was none. This is a novel of youthful love and naïveté, but it’s also a coming-of-age story about a boy who goes from shy youth to confident man. I truly loved Mishima’s description of the island and the islanders, especially the bath house and the diving women (though he definitely had a thing for breasts — there’s a lengthy breast contest scene between the divers). I kept anticipating tragedy, as is common for star-crossed lovers, but he mocks the concept openly. Like I said, it kept surprising me. I want to read more from him.

Rating: 4/5

June 20th, 2018

book talk // kudos.

When I closed the cover to Kudos, I also reached the end of Rachel Cusk’s creative trilogy — or, perhaps to call it a trilogy is misleading, really it’s a reinvention of the form itself. The books flow together into one continuing conversation; they are one. Cusk herself has referred to this as a “project” and, to me, that makes sense. It’s something else entirely, though I don’t presume to know what.

Kudos finds Faye back on a plane, tied to another male seatmate, practicing her intrinsic skill for listening. The narrative takes the reader through a book panel, interviews, and a literary festival. However, the main theme seems to be, in this iteration, suffering. Suffering of the feminine, suffering of the sensitive mind, suffering as an opportunity.

A writer, at the festival, states: “I am one of those people who believes that without suffering there can be no art, she said, and I have no doubt that my love of literature in particular stems from the desire to be confirmed in that belief.”

I wonder if that’s not true of all of us. We believe that in order for great literature to exist, first the soul must be tortured. And, in turn, we take pleasure in devouring the product of a tortured soul, seeking to find proof that all of life is suffering.

Faye also observes: “Suffering had always appeared to me as an opportunity, I said, and I wasn’t sure I would ever discover whether this was true and if so why it was, because so far I had failed to understand what it might be an opportunity for. All I knew was that it carried a kind of honour, if you survived it…”

The key to this record of Faye’s travels is that there is always one more conversation. Always one more person who wants to share their story, perhaps after the bottle of wine has been sufficiently depleted. She is a conduit, a sieve, for other people’s thoughts and observations. She contributes a bit more in this book, and she never outright disagrees with people, instead she often poses her disagreement as a question (“I wonder if that’s true?” — very teacher-like). But still, she is dissociated and separate.

The other thread that wove through this narrative is that of the feminine. Faye is a woman, married again, with two children; she is wife, mother, and also herself. However, she lets men greedily pour their needs into her and then she in turn transcribes them. In a sense, despite their obvious need to be heard, she is the one who has the final word.

The novel ends with a perfect scene — one that I would never have described as perfect in any other context — a man urinating into the ocean as she is swimming nearby. “He looked at me with black eyes full of malevolent delight while the golden jet poured unceasingly forth from him until it seemed impossible that he could contain any more. The water bore me up, heaving, as if I lay on the breast of some sighing creature while the man emptied himself into its depths. I looked into his cruel, merry eyes and I waited for him to stop.”

As with suffering, she must simply push through and wait it out. But she is borne up, unpolluted by his transgression. She will endure. And thus, the novel left me feeling both utterly hopeless and foolishly hopeful.

Rating: 5/5
Recommended for: people who liked Outline or novels that aren’t really novels in trilogies that aren’t really trilogies.

(Read my review of Outline & review of Transit)

May 24th, 2018

book talk // love and ruin.

This book centers around the life of Martha (Marty) Gellhorn — it chronicles her journalistic rise, beginning with the months following a tepid reception of her first novel, What Mad Pursuit (I read a bit about the novel here, where it was described as the “futile lapping of a surgeless lake, the procession and recession of climax and anti-climax, fraught with emptiness”). After a failed love affair and a failed novel, Gellhorn returns home to see her father on his deathbed, lick her wounds, and begin writing a collection of short stories, The Trouble I’ve Seen, based on her time with FERA during the Great Depression. She worked with Dorothea Lange to document the struggles of the American people during this time period, gaining access to places often barring women, and, in turn gaining Eleanor Roosevelt’s respect.

Eventually, she meets Hemingway in Key West. They agree to go to Spain together and report on the Spanish Civil War, where, amid the shellings and air raids, their friendship (he initially calls her “daughter,” which made me cringe a little) becomes a romantic affair. Gellhorn is no stranger to love affairs with married men, having had another while living in Paris, and seems to lose little sleep over the fact that Hem is already married. Theirs is a relationship set against tragedy, a safe place for those seeking comfort, and neither of them anticipate it will last.

Gellhorn is drawn to Hemingway’s magnetism, she admires him, and they begin to live together on and off for several years. However, she also chafes against his domineering nature, his need to control her and be constantly in the spotlight. While Hemingway seemed to admire her aspirations and bravery in the abstract, after she agrees to marry him, he becomes petulant and needy — she won’t give him a daughter, she selfishly leaves him for weeks at a time to pursue her career, she wants to explore more widely than his go-to fishing spots, she neuters the tomcats. The timeless struggle of females who seek to posses an identity independent of their husbands echoes loudly.

Are you a war correspondent, or wife in my bed?

When she refuses to stop reporting during World War II, Hemingway takes over her job at Collier’s, usurping her masthead and expense account, attempting to use his clout to block her travel. Despite all this, Gellhorn was the only woman at Normandy on D-Day and she was among the first correspondents to report on Dachau.

We know from the beginning that the relationship will end in “ruin,” but Gellhorn was the only one of Hemingway’s wives who chose to leave him, rather than the other way around — and it seems he never forgave her for it. Gellhorn also resisted publishing under the Hemingway name and hated when publications conflated their writing styles, implying she was the second best Hemingway. Her inability to live in Hem’s shadow, and the fact that when she left on assignment for World War II he immediately found a new woman to marry, allowed her to cleanly walk away and pursue her own path — and I found myself breathing a loud sigh of relief.

In moments, I’d been kicked out of love and was alone again.

I related quite a bit to Marty Gellhorn. She was flawed, she made mistakes, but she was also resilient, ambitious, career-driven, and very empathetic with a relentless wayward spirit. She knew this wouldn’t make her a good wife or mother, but she loved Hemingway and wanted to try. The settings in McClain’s novels are always lush, but her description of the Finca in Cuba made me long for such an escape. A writer’s paradise complete with daiquiris and a saltwater pool. I was more heartbroken when Gellhorn had to give up her beautiful home (which she bought) than when the relationship inevitably crumpled.

I loved being in Marty’s head, her first-person accounting of war was interesting, as was her unconventional (for the time) perspective on love / relationships. I found it odd that McClain focused in so closely on her relationship with Hemingway, even providing passages from his perspective, when Gellhorn was, arguably, more interesting than him. I suppose her coming-of-age in the literary world did happen in tandem with the rise and fall of this particular romantic entanglement; but, it’s important to note that she did not rise because of Hemingway, rather in spite of him.

I like McClain as an author. The Paris Wife wasn’t my favorite, but I really enjoyed Circling the Sun and will probably ready anything else she publishes in the fictional memoir genre.

Rating: 4/5
Recommended for:
those who enjoy historical fiction or have more than a passing interest in Hemingway, strong women, or strong liquor.

May 1st, 2018

dungeons & discourse // no. 5, the greenwylde.

This is part of an ongoing series: (no. 1, saltwater // no. 2, avian // no. 3, reunion // no. 4, poison heart)

Osiria sat cross-legged on the cushions in her new state room — well, the state room that had previously belonged to a pair of recently dispatched ship’s musicians. They had, unenviably, turned out to be sea hags rather than bards. It was unfortunate, Osiria thought, because their music had really been quite good.

In their absence, her own status as amateur dinnertime performer had been distinctly elevated. The middling pan flute skills that had secured her passage on this not-particularly-musically-discerning vessel were in need of some polishing. It also did not escape her notice that all the bards she had thus encountered turned out to be evil.

“Thank goodness I chose not to join the Bardic College,” she mumbled, poking the area where the scorpion’s poison had seeped in. The wound was healed now, but it reminded her that wily bards were perhaps not to be trusted.

Despite the haunted origins of her state room acquisition, Osiria was grateful for the solitude, away from the constant preening and prattling of the sailors. She knew the rest of her traveling companions were employees of the guard — she had been offered a similar post based on her warrior’s merit, but refused — and anticipated they’d be too busy with menial labor to interrupt her self-imposed isolation.

Additionally, the previous occupants had left behind several sheets of harp music, a small lap harp, and walls draped in layers of strange and gauzy tapestries. There wasn’t much else of worth, but Osiria had moved in her own meager belongings, including the two druidic texts and a growing collection of local herbs, which she intended to spend the next two weeks at sea studying in earnest — well, that, along with the harp music. If she was to be the only musical accompaniment on board, she needed to practice.

She plucked one of the harp strings. It produced a satisfyingly harmonic sound that resonated somewhere outside of her musical abilities. She exhaled, then set herself to the task at hand.

In the corner, a samovar boiled hot water for herbal tea. Her Elvish drift globe floated just over her shoulder giving off an effervescent blue light, as though underwater, and illuminating the never ending pages of Frogon’s tight, cramped writing and accompanying etchings, filled with all the detail of a master druid.

Hours bled into one another as night passed into dawn several times over. She heard her hawks crying happily, racing one another across the open ocean. The bestiary had taken good care of them, but they were anxious in her absence. She wished, quite desperately, that she could accompany them on a hunt. But there wouldn’t be another chance like this, a chance for uninterrupted study. “Soon, my loves,” she whispered.

On the fifth day, her room was a mess of hastily taken notes, strewn about music sheets, and several flowers (origin unknown) laid out in a neat line across the low table. Pinned to the walls were various herbs in different stages of the drying process. Saltwater and humidity affected the leaves differently and she was still experimenting. The small port window was covered with a sheer tapestry and the room possessed an ethereal glow, further enhanced by the lingering drift globe. The samovar was long empty, but a strangely sweet smell permeated the still air.

Osiria’s head was bent in deep concentration, her fist clenched tight, her lips whispering barely audible incantations. Any additional light in the room surrounded only her, as though she were pulling it toward her on a thousand silken threads. Suddenly, her fingers sparked green and blue. Osiria jumped back, eyes open in alarm. Then, with even more focus than before, she seized upon the air, clasping her hand over nothing.

Her eyes closed and she slipped into a peaceful reverie, almost like the Elven meditative state she was so used to relaxing into, the sense of ease covering her entire body like warm bathwater. Her hand sparked again, then flickered — a firework that gradually calmed itself into a steady flame. This time Osiria didn’t react. In fact, the crease in her forehead had disappeared entirely.

When the azure sparkling ceased, she opened her hand. There, in her calloused bronze palm, was a single, perfect bloom.

“The Greenwylde,” she whispered. “I did it.”

April 27th, 2018

book talk // audiobooks.

Let’s talk audiobooks.

For years, I assumed that audiobooks were “cheating.” I suppose I was mostly thinking in terms of the page count, or my Goodreads challenge — I wouldn’t count a podcast in my overall book count, but I also wouldn’t count an article in the New Yorker or a single short story collected in an anthology. I will also wholly admit that my English professors would never have encouraged me to “listen” to Madame Bovary, so perhaps it was also a bit of lit major snobbery. On the other hand, I use audiobooks to engage my students all the time, so why am I resistant to listening myself?

This year, I have a three hour (total) commute every day. I don’t drive, I take public transit, and that’s a lot of time for me to just be sitting with myself and trying not to listen to other people’s conversations. I decided to join Audible and use my 1 credit a month to download a tome of massive proportions — something 24 hours in length, preferably — and I narrowed my focus to nonfiction. I want to spend those three hours learning!

But, the niggling question remained: is it cheating?

According to the “simple view” of reading, there are two basic processes happening when you’re engaged in the task: 1) decoding, or translating strings of letters into words that mean something and 2) comprehension. University of Virginia psychologist, Daniel Willingham, explains “simple view” and further asserts in his blog post that ”according to the simple model, listening to an audio book is exactly like reading print, except that the latter requires decoding and the former doesn’t.” So, if the point of listening to an audiobook is indeed to practice decoding, then yes, it’s cheating because the decoding has been done for you. However, if you identify as an adult, typical reader, and are reading in your native language, that is probably not the point and you are simply listening to enjoy the story. Therefore, it doesn’t matter what method (print or audio) you used to obtain said enjoyment, the differences are negligible.

Furthermore, hearing a book read aloud can enhance understanding through prosody, or intonation, tone, stress, rhythm, etc. A speaker can evoke an emotional state, enhance comprehension of sarcasm / irony, or choose where to place emphasis — these are things a reader might miss while reading text. Consider stand-up comedy — would it be funnier to hear or read the jokes? Not to mention listening helps with the correct pronunciation of difficult words (part of why I use them in teaching), something I’ve especially appreciated in the audiobooks I’ve chosen as most have had some selections written in a foreign language.

The audiobooks I’ve listened to, and their accompanying reviews, are as follows:

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert Massie was my first audiobook, and I listened to this book in hour long chunks during my workday commute. That said, I thought the author did a great job of reminding the reader (listener) where we were picking up in the historical timeline. Parts of this book were very interesting to me — Catherine’s childhood, her marriage to Peter, her ascension to the throne. Parts I found incredibly dull — the wars, the cataloging of her numerous “favorites” (see also: boring, but beautiful and younger men she was sleeping with), and the very detailed account of the French Revolution.

The French Revolution and ensuing moralistic argument about the guillotine and capital punishment was a fairly glaring digression. Also, I thought the author spent a LOT of time discussing who Catherine slept with and I wonder if the same attention would have been paid a male monarch — most of whom had far more lovers than Catherine did. The narration was okay, but not particularly riveting. I dozed off once or twice.

Rating: 3/5

As with Catherine the Great, I listened to Marie Antoinette: The Journey during my commute. I will say Antonia Fraser definitely casts a forgiving and benevolent light on Marie Antoinette while making, what could be rather dry material, quite readable — er, listenable. It’s dense, not textbook dense, but there’s a lot of information.

I really enjoyed the depictions of Marie Antoinette’s happier days, but I appreciated that Fraser extrapolated on what happened after the Revolution, even up to modern times. The queen’s life was tragic — not just her end, but the lack of love (both emotional and physical) and trust in her relationship with Louis, the constant mocking slander she dealt with via the press, the poor health she endured for her whole life (most likely due to a gynecological mishap during her first birth), the deaths of three of her four children, her husband, and ultimately her own untimely execution.

The narrator sounded like a kindly British grandma, and she was quite soothing to listen to after a long day. Some Audible reviewers have said she possesses a halting, grammar-school French pronunciation, but, honestly, I couldn’t tell the difference because I know even less French than she.

Rating: 3/5

Cooney begins her biography of Hatshepsuit with a framing question — why are we so willing to forgive male leaders their excesses but unable to appreciate honest, naked female ambition?

“Hatshepsut had the misfortune to be antiquity’s female leader who did everything right.”

Hatshepsut was, by all accounts, a female king (yes, king!) who did everything right — she was so conventional as to almost be boring. She believed in the divinity of the gods, commanded military campaigns, and oversaw immense archaeological undertakings. She sacrificed her sexuality, even depicting herself without breasts and (as far as we know) never taking a lover, in order to be the divine pharaoh for her people. Her one mistake, the mistake that would erase her from the obelisks and cause mass desecration of her images, assuming the throne that “rightfully” belonged to a male heir. Her successor later demolished much of her funerary temple and her mummy was eventually lost to the desert sand. Cooney actually hypothesizes that this was a political rather than vengeful move, but who knows.

“Many historians will no doubt accuse me of fantasy: inventing emotions and feelings for which I have no evidence. And they will be right.”

The only downside to this book is that there is a lot of “perhaps” and “would / could have” — there just isn’t much known of Hatshepsut and thus a biography lends itself to a certain level of conjecture based on what is known about Egyptian culture at the time. Without a diary or correspondence, we can’t know what she was thinking or how she felt, so the picture is more of a ruler than that of a woman.

I’ve been waiting for an audiobook to really impress me and this was definitely it. It was narrated by the author, whose voice I happened to really enjoy, and you could tell she was pronouncing everything correctly and putting emphasis where she deemed necessary. Gamechanger! Prosody!

Rating: 4/5

April 16th, 2018

book talk // circe.

“Later, years later, I would hear a song made of our meeting. I was not surprised by the portrait of myself, the proud witch undone before the hero’s sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime for poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”

Circe by Madeline Miller is a feminist retelling of an ancient story. For most readers, The Odyssey was taught in freshman English class, and that’s where it has stayed; but, for a freshman English teacher (namely, me) the epic poem takes up my whole world for at least six weeks every year. And, excitingly, this past year has been a big one for the Greek epic, both with the release of Circe and Emily Wilson’s new, and first ever female translation of The Odyssey. Wilson describes Circe as, “the goddess who speaks in human tongues,” a phrase that resonates within Miller’s own work, as Circe is often criticized by the gods for her squawking, mortal voice.  On the other hand, her voice is the very thing that makes her an accessible goddess, she is already more human than the rest.

There are no spoilers here — we have known the outcome for centuries — but the lush rendering by Miller creates everything anew. Aeaea is reborn as a utopia of flora and fauna, both tamed and wild. Circe braids back her hair, hikes up her skirts, and makes use of the endless time inherent in her immortality to learn the spells of witchcraft already lingering in her blood. Miller weaves Grecian myths together as though she is Penelope at her loom — we hardly notice that millenia have passed. We bear witness to the creation of the Minotaur, to Icarus and his wings, to Medea, to whom Circe attempts to provide advice (it doesn’t go well), and we discover the fate of Odysseus after he returns to Ithaca.

It also dissects the dichotomy of the witch / goddess archetype that has always embodied her characterization. Witch, a word with a typically negative connotation, has often been ascribed to Circe and her pig spell, to the Moly that stops it, to her animal taming. But, she is still a goddess, beautiful and seductive and filled with divine power beyond the comprehension of mortals. A female character can indeed be both, she can be flawed and compassionate and empowered by her beauty.

Circe is a novel of femininity, sisterhood, and a woman’s search for independence in a time where men were heroes and gods ruled your fate. Can one gain the ability to alter one’s destiny by force of will? Or must one always submit to the gods? As Circe later tells Penelope, witchcraft is “mostly will.” And with that willpower, a woman can change her destiny.

“You threw me to the crows, but it turns out I prefer them to you.”

Truly, this is one of the best books I have read this year — it may have already taken my number one spot. I could talk about it for ages and if you happen to see me anytime soon, I will undoubtedly be recommending it to you.

Rating: 5/5
Recommended for: fans of Greek mythology or re-tellings of old stories.
April 11th, 2018

book talk // transit.

Rachel Cusk’s Transit picks up the thread where Outline left off. Outline told the story of a woman, Faye, teaching a creative writing class in Greece, post-divorce; Transit roots itself more in reality and less in that dream-like vacation mindset. There are no yachts or plane rides or fabulous dinner venues, only the “trolls” downstairs who complain about her home renovations. I’d say, overall, the setting is far more domestic.

The novel begins: “An astrologer emailed me to say she had important new for me concerning events in my immediate future. She could see things that I could not; my personal details had come into her possession and had allowed her to study the planets for their information. She wished me to know that a major transit was due to occur shortly in my sky. This information was causing her great excitement when she considered the changes it might represent. For a small fee she would share it with me and enable me to turn it to my advantage.”

I read this opening section out loud to my partner, thrilled with the dry wit and the narrator’s voice before I had even turned the first page. How could anyone not want to read this book?

From the outset, it’s clear that Cusk intends to speak to the theme of fate, of life’s various intersections, the transit of the soul. Faye, although she seeks to be free of life’s constructs, still finds herself in very traditional situations. She is a mother. She is a divorcee. She is a home-owner. She has returned to a place she left behind. But the whole story is nontraditional, pieced together, a state of transition. Most obviously, Faye is renovating her house and all around her exists the physical debris of change. The renovation is not yet complete at the end of the book (which makes sense, considering there is a third still to come) and we are left with the feeling that in Outline she was a mere sketch, drifting about, not fully realized, whereas in Transit she is gaining a sense of herself and beginning the chrysalis process.

“I said that my current feelings of powerlessness had changed the way I looked at what happens and why, to the extent that I was beginning to see what other people called fate in the unfolding of events, as though living were merely an act of reading to find out what happens next. That idea — of one’s own life as something that had already been dictated — was strangely seductive, until you realized that it reduced other people to the moral status of characters and camouflaged their capacity to destroy. Yet the illusion of meaning recurred, much as you tried to resist it: like childhood, I said, which we treat as an explanatory text rather than merely as a formative experience of powerlessness.”

The structure is brilliant. Set up in a series of vignettes with no true connection to the future or the past, simply an observation made in the moment, you could probably open the book anywhere and enjoy it. Each anecdote almost impersonally transcribes deep conversations, sometimes with people the narrator barely knows. There is the thinnest veneer of a plot which weaves the story together, but it’s an undercurrent, not the focus.

This is a novel that I would hesitate to recommend, or would recommend with the caveat that it’s “not for everyone.” But, Transit appeals to me, personally, because in a novel comprised of conversations there exists the absence of small talk. There is no, “what do you do for a living?” This lack of pleasantries, the onset of intimacy, alarms people in reality. In the book, it almost seems commonplace. In my own conversations, I very rarely want to discuss the weather, but I will gladly tell you all of the thoughts weighing heavily upon my heart and soul. In this way, Cusk speaks very clearly to me, and I found myself frantically underlining passage after passage. I am truly anticipating the third and final book in this sort-of-a-trilogy.

Rating: 5/5
Recommended for: people who liked Outline or novels that aren’t really novels in trilogies that aren’t really trilogies.

(Read my review of Outline)

April 9th, 2018

comic con // silicon valley.

Saturday was Silicon Valley Comic Con. SVCC began in 2016, and has grown exponentially since then. There were around 60,000 attendees in the first year and an estimated 100,000 this past weekend. I actually attended last year and decided to replicate the experience — it seemed especially important when I was in the depths of post-ECCC ennui. So, we gathered a crew, bought Saturday passes, and headed to San Jose. SVCC is definitely a more local con than ECCC, but it also has a significantly smaller crowd, thereby affording attendees more space to linger at booths without getting pushed about by a host of foam swords. The one thing I was a little bummed about was the fact that they didn’t have the outdoor biergarten setup like last year, perhaps because the weather was initially supposed to be poor. Another complaint I heard from several people was that the line for to meet Stan Lee was prohibitively long and he also cancelled his panel because he wasn’t feeling well. Stan Lee is one of the true kings of geekdom, but he’s also 95 years old — I can imagine the con scene is both overwhelming and exhausting at this point. On the other hand, I did see several excited people who had gotten their photo-op and were showing it off.

I didn’t attend any panels (nothing piqued my interest on Saturday, but I wish I had gotten to see Mads Mikkelsen speak at the Star Wars panel on Friday night — sad), so my group mostly just wandered the show floors and autograph area looking at cosplay, the various booths, and hanging out. There weren’t any literary guests I was particularly interested in meeting either, so I didn’t queue for autographs, but we did spontaneously jump into a photo with Det. Ortega (Martha Higareda) from Altered Carbon. If you haven’t watched the show, it takes place in Bay City (aka: future San Francisco) 500 years in the future and is based on the cyperpunk novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan. Det. Ortega is a badass, ball-busting Latina whose fight scenes showcase Higareda’s impressive physical acting.

Per usual, I mostly haunted Artist’s Alley and met a few new-to-me artists. I was also positively gleeful to find Jacqueline DeLeon selling prints, comics, and stickers. She’s a squee-level artist for me and I have watched her livestream digital paintings so many times that being able to buy her art (specifically the amethyst witch holographic print) and (finally) pick up her indie comic, Sirens of San Francisco, was a really fun experience. (I tagged all the artists in my Instagram post, if you’re interested).

Overall, it was a solid con that I hope will have some additions and improvements in the future — lots of good cosplay and local artists, an impressive guest list, and a fun group of friends. Now, I am looking forward to San Francisco Comic Con in June. I remain hopeful they will up their literary guest game, but, if not, I am still excited — especially because they relocated it to the Oakland Convention Center this year which makes me think (hope) it will be bigger than last year’s.

April 4th, 2018

this might be a manifesto.

“All my troubles at the moment are caused by the mere fact that I am trying more and more to be myself.” — Henry Miller, from a letter to Anaïs Nin

I made a pact with myself over the past year. I wanted to be more open and honest, internally and externally. I was tired of separating my true self from people with a phone screen. I was tired of living an inauthentic facade and pretending I didn’t want things, when actually I did — when I wanted quite a lot. Mostly, I wanted to be the biggest version of the best me. But, I was wholly unprepared for the fallout of this decision, both good and bad.

This week is my one year anniversary of moving to Berkeley. I decided I was tired of sharing a house with three other people and holding back what I really wanted to do (which was move in with my boyfriend) because of others’ opinions. I tested the idea to a chorus of, “ooh, that seems soon,” but, ultimately, I decided — screw it. Life’s too short, and all the rest of that cliched garbage that rings oh-so-true in a particularly passionate moment.

I can say now, it was the best decision I’ve ever made.

Moving to Berkeley shaped me, it made me whole again. It taught me what life could be like with a supportive partner and that ‘home’ is actually so many tiny, seemingly disparate things rather than one big, obvious one. Home is reading over eighty books in one apartment, remembering the particular way the sunlight hit you while you lingered over morning tea and a very good read; it’s also playing board games together and sharing a haphazard dinner of olives and popcorn, starting different D&D campaigns, hiking together, joining an urban wine club because we can; it’s finding a new yoga studio, new bookstores, new restaurants, new things to love. Home is buying a lot of plants. I was (am) finally happy again, like deep-down-sunshine-in-my-bone-marrow happy.

It’s been a year of self-discovery and reinvention and asking myself: “What do I want my life to look like?”

With this physical shift to a new place, I decided I wanted to cultivate positivity in all aspects of my life. I mean, why not? It seems so easy, so achievable when you’re happy. I planned weekend getaways, started cooking at home more, I lost weight, I decided to take college classes to get a raise at work, I started training for a new teaching position. It’s been stressful at times, but I am still here. I am still creating my best life.

As it turns out, some people don’t really like it when you try to positively change yourself, or when you succeed, or when you’re happy. Ideally, we humans want to surround ourselves with friends and partners who do like it, but we aren’t always that lucky. I’ve lost people in the process of trying to be direct, honest. I’ve been friend-ghosted and stood up. I’ve been called “competitive,” “jaded,” “opinionated,” and “snobby” — though I don’t know that those adjectives are particularly accurate, they stung. Alternatively, I have also been called “beautiful,” ”a good friend,” ”strong,” “intimidating,” “kind,” and “the most varied reader I have ever met” — you see, I wrote the good ones down, because the bad ones always linger in the periphery, whether you want them to or not, and the compliments tend to slip through your hands like sand.

There is no one-sentence takeaway from this experience. No whittled down top five list. My only salient point would be change is hard, loving yourself and letting yourself be loved is hard, striving is hard. But it’s so good too.