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.

March 15th, 2018

dungeons & discourse // no. 4, poison heart.

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

The altercation had turned bloody rather quickly, all said. Those blasted bards immediately shape-shifted into giant scorpions, their venomous tails dripping with a chartreuse poison. The more impertinent female half-elf, Trella, had remained in her human form.

Recognizing that the situation had spiraled out of her meager diplomatic control, Osiria commanded Artemis to retreat and climbed atop the caravan housing Archimedes, who was now trilling in agitation. Adrenaline, coupled with her proximity to the forest’s treeline, caused the green magic to flow through her more freely. Barely needing to command it, a mere mutter sufficed, a mote of brambles sprang from the earth to encircle the caravan, viciously entangling the first scorpion’s many legs.

Osiria reared back and let her arrows fly — they struck true; but the scorpion found its mark as well — in her back. She cried out in white-hot pain as the stinger disengaged from her flesh, leaving an oozing wound in its wake. Poisoned and dazed, she struggled to maintain control of her senses as the battle continued around her.

Luckily, Hephaestus, and his paladin’s flail, struck down one of the scorpions. Both arachnids shifted back into their original form and, less formidable with only two legs, began, instead, begging to leave the battlefield with their lives. Trella was bloodied and slipping in and out of consciousness. Normally, Osiria would have victoriously preened a bit, but her own situation was not particularly enviable.

“We knew he was yours…,” one of them conceded in a whisper. He dejectedly handed Osiria the key to Archimedes’ cage.

Despite an overwhelming urge to vomit as the scorpion poison coursed through her, she used her remaining energy to free a visibly shaken and aggressively molting Archimedes.

“Hush, hush, we are together now,” she reassured the raptor.

“You’re hurt,” he pronounced.

“Astutely observed,” she conceded. Another wave of nausea washed over her and she found herself leaning heavily against the metal cage.

“I feel as though, perhaps, it’s worth reminding you that you have a potion of healing in your left pouch. Unless your intent is just to make me feel guilty?”

Osiria chuckled. But it hurt to chuckle. And she woozily fished around in her pouch until her fingers made contact with a small vial containing an ethereal blue liquid. She tipped it forward in a wry toast to Archimedes before downing the entire draught.

“I will be entirely well by nightfall, my heart, I assure you. Now, let’s get you back to the Tooth.” She winced. “Let’s get us both back.”

In the meantime, Duma had begun to pillage items from the gypsy caravans while simultaneously attempting to convince the nomads to steal their booty from the nobility, rather than wandering adventurers.

Osiria would have laughed at the thieving rogue’s attempts to reform a band of brigands, but she was in no mood to be amused and far more interested in Archimedes’ immediate condition. His head was drooping toward his chest and she scooped the large bird up in her arms like a feathered kitten — although he would have cringed at the analogy.

She felt their beast bond breaking, the crackling of disintegrating magic like static electricity ran through her body. Osiria acknowledged that she lacked the requisite energy to cast the spell again, and instead allowed her heightened senses to dull.

Back on the Kraken’s Tooth, two blood hawks supported one another within the aviary’s roost. Osiria managed an assurance from Rocco, the new beastkeeper, that the pair would be safe and looked after before throwing her exhausted body down in her berth — stray arrows, dried mushrooms, and a handful of recently fermented tea leaves fell softly from her many pouches and splayed out on the ground around her like a halo.

March 6th, 2018

comic con // emerald city.

What’s the word for: “I am so sad ECCC is over that I already bought passes to SVCC?” Because, that.

Attending comic conventions is a rather new hobby of mine. When I lived in Texas, cons that actually showcased comics were few and far between. Mostly, they were anime or anime & sci-fi — but with an anime-heavy push — which is, unfortunately, not my fandom. I never felt included or represented at cons.

Last year, I attended both the Silicon Valley & San Francisco ComicCons and discovered a different breed of convention — one focused more on comics, art, creators, and cosplay. This year, I had the opportunity to attend Emerald City ComicCon, which my partner assured me was even more art focused. And, wow! ECCC was more than I could have imagined.

We had weekend passes, but were only able to attend two full days due to our work schedules. Also, I had never been to Seattle before — so that alone was pretty cool.

We arrived early Friday, meeting up with our friend who was in line for a David Tennant autograph. We stopped in for the “official” ECCC merch (I bought so many t-shirts!) because we were obviously going to need a bag for our haul — then, we decided to hit Artist Alley first, and hard. There were several artists of note that I wanted to get merch from, specifically things they weren’t going to be selling online, and I had pre-commissioned an original piece of artwork as well. I am glad we stopped by Artist Alley on the first day, because I went a little crazy and ended up commissioning two more original works of my D&D character, Osiria — receiving these beautiful pieces from artists I admire ended up being the highlight of the entire con for me!

(Art by Jack T. Cole & Katie Longua)

A few other first day highlights: we played Kirby Star Allies for the Switch and it’s crazy fun, I wore my “Crit the Patriarchy” shirt and received a load of compliments — said compliments also inadvertently led me to purchasing some D20 earrings to match, Brad got to meet Stan Sakai (author of Usagi Yojimbo), we sat in on a Critical Roll panel (where there was a fan proposal during the q&a!?), and we tried out the ECCC exclusive brews in the biergarten (yeah, there’s a biergarten). After a couple of ciders, I ran into the Copic marker booth and sang an angelic: “ahhhhhaaaahhh!” which was immediately reciprocated by a booth worker — cons are filled with other dorks and I love it. In the end, I successfully limited myself to five markers, and we all went out for margaritas.

Saturday was a lot more crowded, which was exciting for all the cosplay watching, but definitely increased the difficulty level in navigating the Show Floor. That didn’t stop me! My major goal for the day was to get the first Liveship Traders book signed by Robin Hobb. I have been to a few fantasy literature conventions and I have never seen her signing — so, let’s just say my excitement level was such that I was the literal first person in line. Our interaction was brief, but perfect:

Me: “I loved this book [Ship of Magic] so much, I read it in college and it’s still my favorite.”
RH: “I had so much fun writing it.”
Me: “It was one of the first fantasy books I read with a female protagonist. A lot of male readers have told me they couldn’t get into it for that reason, but it made me really happy.”
RH: “Well, there are other books for them.”

Afterward, our triumvirate had lunch at Mod Pizza with all the cosplayers and I made my way over to Vault Comics (my favorite publisher, at the moment) and ended up spontaneously meeting the creators of Zojaqan (my favorite comic, at the moment) who signed a first issue for me! I didn’t fangirl too hard, and they seemed genuinely happy to meet a fan — the fan / creator interaction is my favorite thing about cons and our mutually enthusiastic interchange just served to underscore that. I also made my most hilarious purchases on Saturday — a Dwight Schrute Lying Cat by Zak Kinsella (which, if you know me, is the peak of two of my fandoms and I also happened to be wearing a Lying Cat shirt that day) and a “Kylo Ren is a Punk Bitch” t-shirt (ugh, I hate the new Star Wars movies so much).

We ended the day with one more trip to the biergarten and a series of photos in the Dark Horse Comics photobooth (sidenote: their props inspired me to attempt my own horned flower crown for Silicon Valley in April — I am going to pretend to be a Tiefling) right as the floor was closing. It was a perfect end to a perfect con and I can’t wait to go back next year. Also, this four day respite was a good reminder to take time for myself and my hobbies because I came back to work in the best mood I have been in for weeks.

February 21st, 2018

book talk // the perfect nanny.

What makes a thriller? In my opinion, it’s fast pacing, exploitative scenarios (there will be an obsession, probably an affair, ultimately a murder), and a generically accessible title.

Aside from the title, The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani is none of those things. Therefore, anyone referring to The Perfect Nanny  as the “French answer to Gone Girl” is doing Slimani a distinct disservice.

The novel opens with two simple lines: “The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds.” Echoes of Hemingway. We know from the beginning that something terrible has happened, but the build is slow and so focused on the inner thoughts of each character that the reader comes up gasping for air, attempting to escape the confines of their minds. The characters, and their inner monologues, are so quietly unsettling, but also entrenched in domesticity and a charade of manners that I hesitate to ascribe the “thriller” label to this novel.

My biggest issue is with the American title — The Perfect Nanny indeed lends itself to a cheap psychological thriller (a la Gone Girl) whereas the French title: Chanson Douce actually means “sweet song” — which the British edition tried to capture in titling the translation Lullaby. America, as usual, missed the point. In this New Yorker article, John Siciliano, Slimani’s editor at Penguin, said, “I didn’t want to call it ‘Lullaby,’ because that sounds sleepily forgettable, and my goal is to reach a big commercial readership. We’re getting this book into places like Walmart and Target.” But, this novel is more understated than all that.

The Perfect Nanny dissects the subtleties of racism, classism, and sexism. Everyone in the novel wants. Myriam, the mother, wants to work, Paul, the father, wants his old, carefree life back, and Louise, the nanny, wants to be needed. Myriam, tired of giving up her freedom to be a slave to her children, convinces her reluctant husband Paul, who assumes she’s a blissful mother, to support her in going back to work. Necessitating the acquisition of a nanny for their two children. As they’re searching for the perfect nanny, Paul says, “Not too old, no veils, no smokers,” and if the nanny has children of her own, “it’s better if they’re back in the homeland” so she is able to devote herself entirely to their whims. Louise is perfect, but Slimani has given Louise, a doll-like blonde woman, the job of an immigrant to increase the obviousness of her fringe existence. Louise, despite her carefully arranged bun and Peter Pan collar, belongs no where. Her abusive husband is dead, her own daughter ran away, and the other nannies are suspicious of her haughty mannerisms. As Myriam and Paul aspire toward a specific upper-middle class existence, Louise becomes integral, but she also becomes their blind spot and their shame.

Slowly, and without anyone overtly noticing, the classism creeps in. When Myriam goes shopping, she hides the new clothes in an old cloth bag and only opens them once Louise has gone. “Paul congratulates her on being so tactful.” Myriam feels guilty about staying out late, but Paul insists, “That’s what Louise is for!” Slimani also probes the concept of motherhood in ways that make the reader squirm. Her description of a new mother in the park is particularly unsettling: “She carries her body of pain and secretions, her body that smells of sour milk and blood. This flesh that she drags around with her, which she gives no care or rest.”

Slimani explores the tender boundaries that, when shattered, cause people to break. Over the course of many months, Louise realizes she has never had a space to call her own, a place she hasn’t shared with others. She has nothing except debts and solitude. She looks at herself, Myriam, and the children — the precariously balanced existence they inhabit — “Someone has to die. Someone has to die for us to be happy,” she repeats to herself. But, again, Slimani does not offer us any concrete answers. There is no big thing that causes Louise to snap, instead it’s a thousand tiny injustices.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that, Slimani is only the 12th woman, ever, to win the prestigious (and historically sexist) Prix Goncourt prize. This award is initially what made me sit up and pay attention to her work, and I’m glad I did as I will be thinking about this book for months to come.

Rating: 5/5
Recommended For: anyone looking for an alternative to mainstream thrillers

February 9th, 2018

dungeons & discourse // not your healer.

Is anyone really surprised that gatekeeping is alive and well in the tabletop gaming community?

An all-female, actual play DnD podcast I follow, The Broadswords, retweeted the meme screencap on the left with the comment “Can we vomit any harder?” Of course, as soon as it was retweeted more than, like, five times, male gamers came out to question, “hey, what’s with all the hate?”

As many females who have played MMOs or tabletop games can attest, we are often relegated (see also: forced) to the role of healer. Usually this happens without an explicit conversation, it’s just (whoops!) the only spot left or it’s incorrectly assumed that the female player wants this role. This hierarchy of female healers and male tanks is an ongoing joke in the lady-gaming community — it’s a stereotype, but, it’s one that male players seem to assume we aspire toward. A cursory browse of a WoW forum post on the topic brought me to this (male-given) explanation for the phenomenon: “Well im a guy and in my personal opinion or my state of mind if you will, i think it might be because that girls have a ‘mother/protective’ like instinct to nurse or take care of others.” The following replies were mostly slight variations of: “motherly nurturing instinct? the lack of a primal destructive competitive edge for DPS,” “ tanking is ‘too much pressure,’” ”mother instinct,” “ I think it is a “power/control” issue,” and, my personal favorite, “DPS on the other hand is very competitive. Your worth is measured in numbers. Girls don’t particularly like that.”  (all grammatical errors have been preserved for posterity)

Personally, I have never enjoyed playing a healer, but I’ve never enjoyed tanking either. I have always tended toward damage dealers or DPS (monk in FFXI / XIV and ranger in DnD), but many male players in my linkshell or gaming groups have asked if I could also level white mage / healer, basically because they didn’t want to — the underlying message being: it’s a girl’s job. And it’s hard to DPS alone, so I generally needed the support of a party or group. In the end, I usually quit due to the frustration of not being taken seriously.

I still see a lot of gatekeeping, in tabletop gaming especially. For example, there was a DnD group I was playing in — five males, who were fairly experienced players, two females, who were newer — and the other female player was essentially boxed out for being too “normie.” So, how can female players ever be expected to learn the game and improve if the barrier to admittance is already knowing the game? If they are too “normie” to be given a chance in the first place? Her voice was essentially silenced and she just wasn’t invited back after two sessions. In retrospect, I wish I had spoken up for her, but I too was new and didn’t want to rock to the boat.

I had a similar experience playing FFXIV where I went into a boss fight without (gasp!) watching a YouTube play through first, so I had no idea what to do. I was unaware that you were supposed to already know how to beat the monster before you’d ever actually encountered it. My linkshell mates (all male) kept yelling at me and interrupting me over chat. So, what I had assumed would be fun, turned out to be a very negative experience, resulting in them telling me I needed to watch more YouTube videos if I was going to play with them again. One must be omniscient, apparently. This experience was the impetus for my leaving the linkshell, and eventually the game itself.

I still have issues with being interrupted while gaming, usually during DnD when I am trying to have a character moment in-game. Players cut in with OOC questions, directing a query at the DM who is engaging me, specifically, in a scene. It annoys me to no end because I feel like my character moments and choices are overshadowed by others’, seemingly more imperative, needs. It’s not a gaming deal-breaker for me, but I don’t like being the only one who constantly has to repeat herself because no one was listening. (Sidenote: as a teacher, I get interrupted enough at my job. I don’t want to constantly deal with being talked over in my personal life too.) This thread on Reddit (it’s about 2 years old, but still applicable) about being a female DM and dealing with interruptions provides two potential solutions for such a scenario. Option A: ”name, I’m explaining something right now, I need you to stop talking until I’ve finished with other name‘s situation so they can make the best choice.” Option B: “You are busy talking and don’t notice a battle axe tied to the tree in front of you.” I prefer Option B.

The group I DM for now is all male — with a twist — I run the table. They are also almost all new players and I am a newer DM — which is fun because the game feels low-stakes and convivial most of the time. No one is more “hardcore” than anyone else. We are all learning and making a few mistakes as we go. Although I was nervous to the point of nausea the first time, we have a good groove going and they are quite respectful toward both me, my role as DM, the story, and one another (well, OOC, the barbarian has some separate issues — haha). Plus, I love story-telling and developing weird, esoteric characters who inhabit my rather in-depth worlds — I never would have had the opportunity to experience this role and develop a passion for it if my partner hadn’t encouraged me to take a leap and become a DM.

To circle back to the meme itself, I am lucky enough to have a partner who is also my DM, and brought me into his group because he genuinely loves me and wants us to spend more time together. Some of the male players suggested I needed an interview beforehand, but he shot that down and said I was nerd enough for all of them. So, this Valentine’s Day, I feel lucky to be both the most important person in his life and his damage-dealing ranger who can speak to hawks. Suck it, gender stereotypes!