Wings of Fire: The Dragonet Prophecy

13228487Wings of Fire: The Dragonet Prophecy by Tui T. Sutherland

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my daughter’s collection

Length: 336 pp

Publisher: Scholastic Press

Year: 2012

This world, at war for decades, is ruled by dragons. The land is broken and bleeding and all are suffering because of the wars between the seven various groups of dragons. A prophecy states that after 20 years of war, a group of dragonets, born under special circumstances, will come to unite the dragons and bring peace. These dragonets – Clay, Glory, Tsunami, Starflight, and Sunny – have been taken from their native homes, hatched together in a hidden cave under the mountains, and raised together against their will by dragons working for a group called the Talons of Peace. Their purpose is to raise these dragonets to fulfill the prophecy. The problem is, the dragonets have ideas of their own, don’t really want to be part of a prophecy, and just want to find their families and be normal dragons. And there are other factions who are not interested in bringing the war to an end.

This was a relatively fast read, or would have been if I wasn’t reading it as a bedtime story with my daughter, just a chapter or two per night. She loves this series, but Pern, it is not. It’s super violent for a middle grade book, which I don’t really like. It did provide for some decent discussion about why prophecies are illogical and false, a good exercise in using her critical thinking while still reading a fun story. It also shows how even the most bitter of enemies can learn to get along if you get to know each other, or are raised together and can overlook each other’s differences, i.e., nobody is born a racist. But in general, I didn’t find the actual story to be all that compelling or the writing that good. It was fine for what it was, which is a story my 8 year old enjoys, though I wish she enjoyed something less violent. I am determined to get her addicted to the Dragonriders of Pern. It WILL happen!

Fear: Trump in the White House

41012533A Review by Cathy Smith*

It was 1974, and we were all standing around a small television in the lobby of a hotel in Mexico City. President Richard Nixon was resigning from the office of President of the United States. My uncle turned to my mother and asked her thoughts about Watergate and President Nixon. Mom was not a big supporter of Nixon. For her, it was personal. During the 1950s, we lived in Bolivia. My father was one of the chief advisers to President Paz Estensoro and was involved in all the diplomatic meetings with any state officials from the United States. It was during one of Nixon’s visits to Bolivia as Vice President of the United States that things got very personal for my mom, and both my parents lost all respect and support for Nixon.

It is funny how the mind works, and how certain memories come back when watching current events in the news. In this case, all the memories of Watergate, Nixon, and my parents surfaced as I followed, and continue to follow, the drama of the Trump administration from the elections leading up to 2016, the midterms of 2018, the Mueller investigation, and Bob Woodward’s latest book Fear: Trump in the White House.

Bob Woodward is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose most notable work was with colleague Carl Bernstein when the two men blew the lid off the Watergate scandal with their investigative reporting. Their book, All the President’s Men, chronicles their work on Watergate. Woodward has worked for the Washington Post for over 45 years. Of his 19 authored or coauthored books, 13 have been number one national non-fiction bestsellers, and nine have been on recent U.S. Presidents (Woodward, n.d.). Fear: Trump in the White House was sold out before the book’s actual publication date. I initially bought the Audible version of the book, and later picked up a hard copy I found hiding in a stack of books at the local Costco. When going through checkout, the cashier told me I was lucky to have found the book because all the local bookstores sent representatives into Costco on the release date to purchase the Costco copies. He was surprised they had missed one. According to Woodward (n.d.) Fear: Trump in the White House has “sold more than 1.1 million copies in its first week in the United States and broke the 94-year-first-week sales record of its publisher Simon & Schuster” (para. 1).

Fear: Trump in the White House presents readers with a report of the Trump White House based on “multiple deep background interviews with firsthand sources” (Woodward, 2018, “Source Notes” pp. 363-390). Woodward presents readers with an inside look at what seems to be a White House in chaos. The story starts eight months into Trump’s term as President of the United States. Woodward opens with an account of a letter draft to the President of South Korea which would pull the United States out of KORUS, the United States – Korea Free Trade Agreement (Woodward, 2018, p. xvii). Woodward (2018) continues to explain in detail how Gary Cohn and Rob Porter “worked together to derail what they believed were Trump’s most impulsive and dangerous orders” (p. xix). From this example, Woodward takes his readers back to the beginning of the Donald Trump story, his rise to power, and how the White House drama of this administration continues to unfold in the headlines today.

Before the campaign, there was Steve Bannon, a scruffy looking, unkempt, right-wing media executive and strategist who was executive chairman of Breitbart News prior to becoming a chief strategist and senior counselor for Donald Trump. Bannon is a nationalist and holds to his America-first viewpoints. Bannon’s America-first viewpoint became the foundation for Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign, which included three points of focus: (1) to end mass illegal immigration (2) bring manufacturing back to the United States, and (3) get out of unnecessary foreign wars (Woodward, 2018). Bannon also encouraged the Trump campaign to focus on the fact that Donald Trump was not a politician, and that the campaign should focus the attention mostly on the Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. Throughout the book, Woodward provides example after example as to how Bannon influenced the campaign and the policies that laid the foundation for the White House we see today. However, even Bannon’s influence was limited when it came to Trump’s real inner circle, which is inclusive of the Trump family that include his wife, Melania; his son, Donald (Don) Trump, Jr.; his daughter, Ivanka; and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. In an article from CNN, Betsy Klein (2018) reports, “In a White House where the loyalty of some is in question, family members are among the very few Trump trusts completely” (para. 4).

In the first part of his book, Woodward describes a situation where Melania strongly refuses to sit to one side of Trump, with Ivanka on his other side while he makes a tearful apology about misogynist comments made years earlier. Although Melania did not sit next to Trump for this staged apology recommended by Kellyanne Conway, Melania did release a statement to the public expressing her dissatisfaction with his comments, but also shared her forgiveness in hopes that the public could do the same (Woodward, 2018). As I read this section of the Woodward’s book, I remembered the Clinton/Lewinsky affair. I thought about how this played out in the media when this story broke and how it continued to haunt Hillary Clinton throughout her Presidential campaign. Later in his book, Woodward then describes the West Wing’s views of Melania Trump and President Trump as having “sincere affection for each other” even though “she operated independently” (p. 174). According to Woodward (2018) “They ate dinner together at times, spent some time together; but they never really seemed to merge their lives” (p. 174).

Don Trump, Jr., who took over his father’s private businesses when his father took office, is said to be Trump’s most vocal advocate (Klein, 2018). Woodward’s mention of Don, Jr., focuses on his meetings with the Russians at Trump Tower in the middle of the presidential campaign. Closer to the inner workings of the Trump White House are both the first daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner. Woodward references this power couple throughout his book, illustrating the influence they have on President Trump. Woodward clearly leaves his readers with the impression that although Ivanka was on the President’s staff, she did not see herself as a staffer. Woodward describes an altercation between Bannon and Ivanka when Bannon calls her out on working around the Chief of Staff, and not following protocol by working through him. Woodward (2018) states that Ivanka was not shy about using her title as the first daughter when she assertively shouted at Bannon that she was not a staffer, but the first daughter. According to Maxwell Tani (2017), Jared Kushner, as one of Trump’s senior advisors, was “tasked by his father-in-law to solve some of the world’s most complex and confounding political problems domestically and abroad” (para. 2). Throughout Fear, Woodward makes mention of Kushner and his involvement in the Trump White House.

Outside of Trump’s immediate family, Woodward’s list of players, who seem to come and go, is extensive. Woodward does a great job weaving the narratives of the various players into the story of this White House administration. Woodward discusses the campaign, the Mueller report, immigration, trade, and the role this administration plays in the world and at home. Woodward paints a picture of how Trump was selected as the Republican candidate and then molded into the image of what the powers in control of the money wanted as the President of the United States. The chaos exposed by the reports from Woodward’s deep background interviews reflects not only the fear that some Americans may feel from reading his book, but is also reflective of the fear that individuals may have from working in and with the current White House administration.

After I finished listening to the book, I found that I needed some time to process and digest everything that I had just listened to. I decided to turn on the radio. The 1968 Simon and Garfunkel song “At the Zoo” was playing.

The monkeys stand for honesty | Giraffes are insincere| And the elephants are kindly but they’re dumb| orangutans are skeptical | Of changes in their cages | And the zookeeper is very fond of rum | Zebras are reactionaries | Antelopes are missionaries | Pigeons plot in secrecy | And hamsters turn on frequently | What a gas, you gotta come and see | At the zoo… (Simon, 2018, lines 16 – 29)

The timing of the song was a perfect ending to a well-written book. The Trump White House, as Woodward describes it, was (and still is) a zoo. As I continue to follow the news and the current state of the nation, I remember Watergate, and the scandals of a President my parents did not respect. I turned off the radio and sat in silence for a few seconds until another song/poem came into mind titled “‘The Ballad of the Skeletons’: Allen Ginsberg’s 1996 Collaboration with Phillip Glass and Paul McCartney.” I wondered about the agelessness of the songs and poetry of the Fifties Beat Generation and the Rock music of the Sixties. My mind finally wandered to Bob Dylan and I asked myself are the times “A-Changin”?

 

References

Klein, B. (2018). How Don Jr. became the President’s most vocal defender. CNN Politics. Retrieved on December 10, 2018 from https://www.cnn.com/2018/09/15/politics/donald-trump-jr-defender/index.html

Simon, P. (2018). At the zoo. Paul Simon. Retrieved on December 5, 2018 from https://www.paulsimon.com/song/zoo/

Tani, M. (2017). Here are all the duties Jared Kushner has in the Trump administration. Business Insider. Retrieved on December 10, 2018 from https://www.businessinsider.com/what-does-jared-kushner-do-in-trump-administration-2017-4

Woodward, B. (2018). Fear: Trump in the White House. Simon and Schuster: NY, NY

Woodward, B. (n.d.) Bob Woodward. Retrieved on December 5, 2018 from http://bobwoodward.com/

 

*Cathy Smith is a Full-time Faculty member at the University of Phoenix. She has taught at all grade levels, from kindergarten through college, as well as ESL. She herself is a bilingual citizen and advocates for Dreamers and DACA. She has many Things to Say about politics and the current Agent Orangenikov currently invading the Oval Office.

Fuzzy Nation

12605487Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Wil Wheaton

Source: my own collection

Length: 07:19:00

Publisher: Audible Studios

Year: 2011

Humans have scattered across the galaxy and on the planet Zarathustra, they are mining for sunstones, incredibly rare gemstones. Jack Holloway, independent surveyor and contractor for ZaraCorp, has just discovered a giant seam of sunstones when he accidentally blew the face off a cliff at a survey site. Because of issues with his contract and legal maneuvering, it is unclear whether Holloway or ZaraCorp owns the seam, though the law is leaning in Holloway’s favor. ZaraCorp lawyers and owners are now out to bribe the hell out of Holloway to get him to play nice with them, even though they are willing to do anything to get their hands on that seam, including sabotaging his vehicles and putting his life in danger. If the legal machinations weren’t complicated enough, Holloway encounters adorable, fuzzy creatures on his property. Promptly naming the the Fuzzys, he contacts an old friend of his, who drops the bomb that the Fuzzys may actually be sentient beings. If true, it would mean that ZaraCorp and Holloway himself are invaders on a sovereign planet.

See, here’s the thing that I love so much about good sci-fi. You can read it on its surface, and it’s just a fun story. Fuzzy Nation is a fun story. It has action and creatures and bad guys and good guys (well, they’re all right) and it’s set on not!Earth and all the things the tick the boxes for fun sci-fi. But if you read even a little more deeply, this is also about so much more than just a fun story. There’s corporate greed, environmentalism, racism, and colonialism. Those are just the big ones. I’m sure there are dozens of other issues I could pick out, legalities or the way evidence is handled, for example. But this book tackles corporate greed head on. It shows how so often, giant corporations only seek to increase their own profits and don’t care a thing about the people or communities they disrupt or destroy. Money is the only thing that matters to them. The people in charge see the effects of their actions and decisions and make the decisions anyway, opting for more money instead of morality.

Environmentalism ties in to that, because in their desire to make more and more money, ZaraCorp twisted itself into Gordian knots trying to get around or find loopholes in environmental laws so it could continue to extract the gems. Their nod to keeping the environment healthy is to plant a few puny saplings when they leave a site. To some people, that might seem adequate, rather than leaving a place alone and not mining for a thing that isn’t a necessary commodity in the first place.

The major issues come when the Fuzzys show up. What determines sentience? What makes someone a person? Holloway recognized their intelligence right away, and his friend Isabelle realized they were likely sentient as soon as she saw them. But of course, ZaraCorp and its lawyers and LEOs argued otherwise. They don’t look, act, or, most importantly, talk like humans, so how could they possibly be people? History is riddled with examples of colonization being justified because the invaders were bringing civilization to the savages, who were of course not recognized as fully human because they didn’t look, act, or talk the same way as the invaders did who brought “civilization” with them. What a load of bullshit. But it is the course so much history has taken, and once humans make it to the stars, I can easily see the same thing happening with smaller, less advanced races like the Fuzzys. It will be the Long Walk or the Middle Passage all over again, because humans basically suck.

As a long-time Scalzi fan, I thought this was a terrific read. One of his best? Maybe not. But fun, certainly, and covering a lot of relevant topics. I never read Little Fuzzy, so I can’t compare the two, though in the intro, Scalzi said something about how that book was a product of its time and he wanted to update it. Yay, I guess. I get a little tired of rebooting old things, but since I never read the original, this was new to me so I’m not worn out on it. Whatever, I liked it and thought it was fun and thought-provoking, which is how I like my sci-fi anyway.

Trail of Lightning

36373298Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

I read it as a: paperback

Source: library

Length: 287 pp

Publisher: Saga Press

Year: 2018

The ice caps have melted, causing the Big Water. The continents are completely reshaped and billions globally have died. On what’s left of the American continent, the Dine nation has survived, and the gods have returned to the land and walk among humans again. Someone is also creating monsters who are roaming the land, killing innocent people and wreaking havoc and terror. Enter Maggie Hoskie, monsterslayer. She is able to draw on ancient, powerful skills of her tribe, a rare gift, or curse, depending on who you ask. Maggie’s particular skills make her very good at killing, which she uses to kill monsters and Bad Men alike. She soon gets swept up in a job for the trickster Coyote to find a tool that is being used to create the monsters, destroy the person who has it, and prevent the tool from being used to make any more monsters. Maggie is aided by Kai, a young medicine man who has powers far beyond anything she can understand. Maggie has to decide if her skills are the gift Kai says they are or the curse she’s been taught, and whether she is destined to roam the world alone or if perhaps there is room for someone to love a monsterslayer.

NATIVE AMERICAN SCI-FI, you guys!!

This was such a fun book! More than that, it was terrific to see such a rich mythology woven into science fiction. The creation myth of the Dine tribe has been completely reimagined so that the world we live in, the fifth world, is being destroyed and recreated into the sixth world. I loved that Roanhorse used Native mythology in this way. I am somewhat familiar with the Navajo creation story because I teach world mythology, but even if I hadn’t known it, reading this book would have given at least a very brief overview of it, which is great. Various characters from mythology make appearances, most notably the trickster Coyote.

Maggie is an interesting character. She is damaged and uncertain because of her past. She is confident in her skills, but she hates having them. She feels unworthy of being loved, whether as a lover or just as a friend, yet she makes an excellent and loyal friend. Kai is, in many ways, a stereotypical pretty boy – confident, manipulative, and kind when it serves his purpose. Yet he is also complex because his kindness is actually genuine, his confidence is a bit of a disguise, and his manipulation comes at a price. Throughout the novel, the question arises – who are the real monsters? The ones Maggie hunts or is she one of them?

A couple things I do wish the book had are a map with the new continent borders. We get descriptions, but it’s always nice to see it as well. I glossary of the Navajo words would also be super helpful. Mostly, you can figure out the word based on context, but there were a couple that I couldn’t get. Having a glossary is nice to be able to flip back to. A pronunciation guide, if possible, would be even cooler.

I loved this book and can’t wait to read the second one in the series!

Girls Burn Brighter

34275212Girls Burn Brighter by Balli Kaur Jaswal

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 307 pp

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Year: 2018

 

**This review will very much have all the spoilers. Consider yourselves warned.**

In Girls Burn Brighter, two young women form a strong friendship through the harshest adversities. Poornima is the daughter of a sari weaver. Her family is fairly poor but they have enough to eat and to hire Savitha to help with weaving after Poornima’s mother dies. Savitha is from a poor family, so poor they have to resort to digging through the landfill for food. When the two women meet, they form a deep bond, one of those once in a lifetime friendships. When Poornima’s father begins arranging her marriage, Savitha encourages her to hold out for a man who is young and kind with a bunch of good sisters. A match is finally made and Poornima’s marriage is set. Then, a cruel act drives Savitha away on the eve of Poornima’s marriage and each woman embarks on a new part of life, alone. Eventually, another horrific act drives Poornima away from her marriage and off to seek Savitha, a journey that takes her from her home village to Mumbai to Dubai and eventually to Seattle.

The title itself made me nervous when I first started reading and began to understand more about the plot (I rarely read more than the blurb when I pick a book, and I never read reviews before I read a book, so I stay spoiler-free). I had worried that someone was going to get burnt to death because she’s a girl. However, I liked that it served more as a discussion on the strength of women even through adversity. After Poornima’s husband and MIL burnt her with oil, she realized she was supposed to fade into obscurity and invisibility. Instead, her inner light burnt brighter and she was more her own person, and managed to carve out a life for herself, even if it wasn’t what she might have wanted. It was her own and she took no shit from anyone. Savitha had a brighter light at first, which was utterly extinguished by her rape and subsequent capture by the brothel owners, but she eventually remembered it and saved herself.

I think that the relationship each woman had with her own father was a major factor in how each handled her circumstances. Savitha had a good and loving relationship with her father, and when she encountered abuse and horrors, she was unprepared to deal with it. Conversely, Poornima hated her father, who was an abusive drunk, and when horrible things happened to her, she adapted and survived and did what she needed to in order to get out. She never seemed surprised or terribly hurt when people were awful, which is terrible in itself. It seems like a fucked up way of learning how to deal with real life, like some kind of Grey’s Anatomy version of parenting – preparation through emotional, mental, and physical abuse and neglect.

Girls Burn Brighter was a shocking novel to read on multiple levels. Strangely, I was startled when I realized it was set in the current time. There were references to some years, one of them being 2001, and I was simply amazed, I assume because of my ignorance about the culture, that it was in a modern setting. It just felt like something that would have happened in an earlier time, the crushing poverty, the cruelty, effectively selling your children into slavery. Things like that aren’t supposed to happen now. But of course they do, which is a central theme of the novel. The way Poornima and Savitha were handled in this novel was really eye-opening for me, not because I am unaware that women deal with things like domestic abuse, rape, or sex trafficking every day, but because the story put a face to these issues. Why else read but to gain a deeper understanding, empathy, and compassion for people whose situations in life are totally incomprehensible to us?  I can’t fathom being drugged and taken to a brothel, being forcibly addicted to heroine, then forced to go through withdrawal, then sold into sex trafficking. But it happens. I can’t imagine living like Poornima or Savitha, having an arranged marriage, having a man who is so insecure with his masculinity that he feels it necessary to scar me for life by holding me down and pouring boiling oil on my face. But it happens. Actually, the conflict between Poornima and her husband, when she suggests she isn’t barren but perhaps he is, reminds me of the story Margaret Atwood tells about her male friend and the group of women: She asked him why men are afraid of women and he says it’s because men are afraid women will laugh at them. She asked a group of women why they are afraid of men and they said it’s because they’re afraid the men will kill them. There was so much of that woven throughout this narrative, of small, insecure men feeling threatened by women and so they hurt them to keep them under control or in terror.

Mohan might have been a somewhat sympathetic character since I think he didn’t want to be a part of his father’s “empire.” But since he didn’t actually do anything to stop it, and helped to bring girls to America to further the empire, I found him simply to be pathetic rather than sympathetic. He was a revolting figure, who oddly added rather a lot to the story. He was conflicted about what was happening, but too weak to stand up and do what was right. He wanted to study literature but was too weak to say so, and so studied it in secret on his own time. His small kindnesses to the women made him that much worse, because at least no one expected his brother or father to be kind at all.

The unrelenting brutality Poornima and Savitha endured really underscored how this is just the way it is for so many people, especially women, in so many parts of the world. It wasn’t so gratuitous that it was overdone, but it was an exhausting read. The end didn’t help, and I can see that it might be deeply unsatisfying to some readers. Personally, I thought it was perfect, because how could that particular scene be written ideally? I don’t think it can be, but the promise of it has to be enough. I do think Savitha was opening the door, and I do think it was ultimately a hopeful ending. The story at the beginning, with the old woman tending the trees that she called her daughters, seems to me to be foreshadowing of the end, that the women are strong enough to endure anything. Same with the owl’s story and how, if two people want to be together, they’ll find a way to do it. Poornima’s and Savitha’s friendship transcends anything they had endured, and for them not to find each other is not to be considered. I do choose to be hopeful at the end of the story.

 

2018 End of Year Wrap Up

Another year down the drain. Where did the time go?? I must be getting old or something because it seems like 2018 was just beginning. I had a busy year but managed not to do a ton of things. I do have a few highlights, though. I am going to be better about doing a year in review post from now on, mostly to keep myself on track and see what I actually did and what I need to do better in the future. Might as well share it with the interwebs. 🙂

Things that I didn’t actually do:

My sweet girl started 3rd grade. She goes to a school that teaches a grade level ahead and she’s killing it. Math isn’t her favorite subject, but she does a good job with it. Better than I EVER did. And she loves reading, which delights me to no end. She reads wayyy above her grade level. Her favorite books are the Wings of Fire series. We also just read the first Harry Potter book and now she’s obsessed. She loves Star Trek, Dr Who, and Star Wars, so I feel like maybe I’m doing something right. She’s so smart, funny, pretty, and kind. She is also stubborn and defiant and challenging and headstrong and brave. She’s my little Viking and as frustrating as she can be at times, I wouldn’t change one single thing. She is stronger than I am in a lot of ways and I try hard to foster her individuality and teach her that it’s ok to speak up and use her voice in ways I was never allowed to do when I was little. I am so proud of her and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next. Right now, though, she has a super gross cold, so I imagine what she comes up with with be some form of snot…

My mom started going to an all-women’s boxing gym in early spring and loves it, which makes me super proud of her. With the exception of probably Amy, my mom could most likely kick every one of my friends’ asses without too much trouble. That’s handy, since most of my friends could use a good ass kicking. 🙂 She got me started in on it as well, and so I’ve been going since May. I can throw some hard punches now for a little girl and am getting in pretty good shape. Thanks for talking me into trying it out, Mom!

My favorite books of 2018:

Favorite podcasts I discovered:

Movies I saw in the theatre:

  • Christopher Robin. I took my daughter to see it. We both fucking loved Eeyore. But I think this is the only movie I actually went to all year. I just don’t enjoy them like I used to. I want time to stop while I’m in the theatre so it’s the same time when I get out as it was when I went in. Since it’s not, I tend to feel like I’m wasting my time. If I went to another movie this year, damned if I can remember it.

Favorite new shows I discovered:

  • Star Trek: Discovery. I just got the DVDs of this for Xmas, so this is a BRAND new discovery (heh, see what I did there?) of 2018 for me. I absolutely refuse to pay for a subscription to CBS All-Access when most of the shows on CBS are, IMO, utter shit, and even the paid subscription has ads. Fuck off, CBS. I’ll wait for the DVDs. That said, this is a fantastic new addition to the Trekverse and I have a feeling I’ll be writing posts about this.
  • Shetland, by Netflix. It’s based on a series of novels by Ann Cleeves, which I’ve never read. I’ve found the plot itself to be fairly typical, just another police procedural. But I watch it for the cinematography. Ye GODS, it’s so fucking beautiful in the Shetland Islands! There’s no sun, no shadows, it looks cold and miserable and I have to go there immediately. It looks like a place where I would never get migraines unless it was hormonal.

Wherein I use my thinking part:

  • I made a concerted effort to write a review for every book I read this past year. For the most part, I managed it, but I think there were a couple I might have missed. In 2019, I’m going to work on writing better reviews than I did in 2018. I’m also going to write fewer reviews FOR other people except Discovering Diamonds, because I want to read more for my own pleasure.
  • I started a post-graduate certification program in Tolkien Studies through Signum University. It’s been excellent for me, getting to think again. Mostly, I feel like I’m losing my mind and my brain will start leaking out my ears any minute. Starting grad classes again has been a great kick for me, helping me to see that I do still have some brain cells, and I can still write good papers. Out of my first class (I’ve done 2 so far, and need a total of 5 to complete the program), I submitted a paper to the major Tolkien conference in England for August 2019. I don’t know yet if it’s been accepted. The CFP isn’t closed until February, so I won’t know until after that. It would be shiny if I get to present my paper, but if I don’t, that’s ok. If I don’t, it will save me a shit ton of money since I’m planning to go to Scotland in October 2019, but if I do get to present my paper, that will be cool, too. It’s about how liminal space in literature helps define character identity, using The Hobbit and Coraline as my example texts.
  • One of my coworkers and I started a book club at work for all the staff and faculty in our college. Really, it’s all about being able to read at work… Our first book was Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. The next is going to be Circe by Madeline Miller.

Speaking of reading, I did pretty well with my reading goals this year. I topped out at 97 books, not counting ones I DNF’d. In total, I read 21,131 pages and listened to 246:45 hours of audiobooks. I averaged 8 books a month. I read 59 books by women (60%) and 38 by men (39%). I read 24 books by authors of color (not quite 25%). In 2019, I’d like to bump that up to at least 30%. I read mostly SFF (33), historical fiction (25), and literary fiction (16), with other genres falling in here and there. I didn’t finish the Read Harder 2018 challenge, but I got 19 out of 24 tasks:

  1. A book published posthumously: NA
  2. A book of true crime: NA
  3. A classic of genre fiction: The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien (fantasy)
  4. A comic written and illustrated by the same person: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  5. A book set in or about one of the five BRICS countries: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
  6. A book about nature: NA
  7. A western: Doc: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell
  8. A comic written or illustrated by a person of color: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  9. A book of colonial or post-colonial literature: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
  10. A romance by or about a person of color: A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev
  11. A children’s classic written before 1980: The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
  12. A celebrity memoir: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
  13. An Oprah Book Club selection: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
  14. A book of social science: Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari
  15. A one-sitting book: Sea Witch by Helen Hollick
  16. The first in a new-to-you YA or MG series: Grimmtastic Girls#1: Cinderella Stays Late by Joan Holub
  17. A sci-fi novel with a female protagonist by a female author: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Solomon Rivers
  18. A comic that isn’t published by Marvel, GC, or Image: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  19. A book of genre fiction in translation: NA, unless you count A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
  20. A book with a cover you hate: The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald
  21. A mystery by a POC or LGBTQ+ author: Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
  22. An essay anthology: Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids edited by Meghan Daum
  23. A book with a female protagonist over the age of 60: Misfortune of Vision (Druids Brooch #4) by Christy Nicholas
  24. An assigned book you hated or never finished: NA

And, really, the biggest thing of 2018 is that I was approached by an editor at Pen and Sword Books to see if I wanted to write a book about a couple medieval queens for them. Umm, YES? I’m waiting for the contract, which has been approved but not sent to me yet, so I’ll wait to share more deets, but that honestly about blew me away. I’m so excited and I am looking forward to the process.

In 2019, some goals I have, other than writing the book and doing what I can to help the Resistance put 45 and his tribe in prison, are:

  1. Read 150 books
  2. Start running again and do a 5k
  3. Start journaling again
  4. Embrace minimalism
  5. Eat cleaner

We’ll see how things pan out. 2019, let’s do this.

10% Happier

1850579610% Happier by Dan Harris

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Dan Harris

Source: My own collection

Length: 07:50:00

Publisher: HarperAudio

Year: 2014

Dan Harris, the anchorman for Good Morning America, had a panic attack on national live TV and decided then and there that he might need to consider making some changes. Perhaps not doing cocaine anymore was one change. Learning about mindfulness and meditation was another. However, like me, Harris is a super skeptic and he gave meditation a hard side-eye. Eventually, he came around and realized that it is actually a thing that works, and which has scientific studies to back it up, and was able to get his shit together.

This was an ok book. I don’t know that I find Harris an interesting enough person in and of himself to have had a burning desire to listen to this. I got it when it was an Audible daily deal and it was the next in my queue. He really is kind of a dick, though good on him for trying not to be a dick so much anymore. I do really like his concept of how meditation makes him just 10% happier. I think that’s a really important point to make. Meditation (or medication, or religion, or shopping, or whatever you want) really isn’t a cure-all for anything in life, and it’s up to each individual how we choose to respond to a thing. You can’t expect something to make you purely happy, nor should you go looking for such a thing. To do so will surely make you 100% miserable. I think that’s something a lot of folks still need to figure out.

Overall, this was an all right book. I’m glad I had the time to listen to it mostly in one go because I didn’t think it was that interesting and I might have DNF’d it if I had had to listen to it over several days.

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

32075853Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 295 pp

Publisher: William Morrow

Year: 2017

London-born Nikki utterly rejects her Punjabi culture’s traditional views, especially arranged marriage. So she is naturally horrified when her older sister, Mindi, actually decides she wants an arranged marriage and asks Nikki to post a marriage profile on the temple’s announcements board for her. Nikki does, grudgingly, and while there, discovers a notice for a job teaching writing at the local Punjabi community center. She takes the job and quickly learns it is not a creative writing class, as the flier had implied, but a basic adult literacy class given to mostly older widows who had never been educated in their native language, let alone in English. Understandably, they are uninterested in learning to read and write using the texts for kindergarteners, which is all that is available to them. What they are interested in is storytelling. Specifically, telling romantic and generally filthy dirty erotic stories. So Nikki uses that to help empower the women, many of whom had never been encouraged to speak up or felt loved in their marriages, going against her culture and customs to do so. At the same time, she inadvertently stumbles across some evidence from the death of a young woman that may prove she hadn’t died in the way everyone had been told, placing Nikki and the widows in danger with the local gang of self-appointed “morality police.”

I loved every word of this novel. I thought it was so interesting to see the differences in the younger and older generations in this very traditional culture. I know next to nothing about Punjabi traditions, and so it was kind of shocking to me to know that arranged marriages are still a thing for many of them even living in Western countries. I am a bit confused by some things that I read when getting ready to write this review as compared to what was written in this book. For example, multiple sites indicate that Sikhs value gender equality, and yet it seems that some of them, at least the very traditional people, get bent if a girl is not a virgin when she gets married. Honor killings were a thing in this book. Of course, wayward sons didn’t seem to get anything worse than ignored/cut off from family, but girls get murdered. So I don’t get that at all. Not sure if that’s just typical religious hypocrisy or patriarchal bullshit or what, but there it is. Then there were The Brothers, the self-appointed bunch of moral police/thugs who try to reign in the widows from telling their stories. Word to the wise, little boys: don’t fuck with the grannies. It will not go well for you.

Aside from me being confused by religious contradictions and hypocrisy, which should come as a surprise to absolutely no one who knows me even a little bit, I just loved this story. I think it was interesting that Nikki got so involved with the widows. At first, it could seem like it was self-serving on her part, that she simply wanted a job, but I think she quickly realized that she could make a difference to the women and to the community as a whole. Also, when she tells the widows that some people don’t even know about Southall, the London Punjabi community, and that they should change that, I do think it is because she sees a lot of potential in the women themselves, and has tapped into her own latent desire to do social justice, even if she herself wasn’t aware of it yet. The widows are able to help her, and themselves, accomplish something new and daring in part because of their almost invisible role in the community. As one of the women stated, no one ever listens to old women talking because it’s like white noise. They used their low position in society to effect change, because no one knew what they were up to until it was too late to stop them or contain it. That’s fucking phenomenal.

This invisibility also shows just how much younger generations disregard the lives and experiences of their elders. No one ever thinks about how our parents or grandparents have lives and individual identities that have nothing to do with us. They have and had desires and fantasies just the same as our own generation, whatever generation that may be. Sometimes, I suppose that realization comes as a surprise to people. Having the widows write their fantasies is such a delightful way to show the young’uns that they were not, in fact, the first ones to discover stuff to do in the bedroom, or anywhere else.

Overall, I just loved this book and definitely recommend it. It would make a great book club selection.

Openly Straight

16100972Openly Straight by Bill Konigsburg

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Pete Cross

Source: my own collection

Length: 09:01:00

Publisher: Dreamscape Media

Year: 2017

Rafe is openly gay and lives with the full support of his parents and community in Boulder, CO. The problem, as he sees it, is that everyone sees his label first. He’s always the gay boy, the gay soccer player, the gay writer, never just Rafe. He finally decides he is tired of it and wants a fresh start, which he will get by moving across the country to an all-boys boarding school near Boston. Where he tells no one he is gay. He doesn’t go back in the closet, he argues, he just doesn’t advertise that he’s gay. Naturally, things get out of hand. One little white lie about not being gay snowballs into Rafe actively asking his family and friends in CO to pretend he’s straight. And then there’s Ben, the quiet, kind soccer teammate who Rafe can’t help but fall in love with, and who may or may not be discovering things about his own sexuality that he doesn’t want to confront.

This was a very interesting and quick read. Well, I listened to it on Audible, but still. I am straight and have never had to deal with coming out, so I can only imagine what it’s like for people always to be labeled as “the gay ____” of the group. I would hate that, and I really hope I have never done that to anyone. If I have, I apologize. It was inadvertent. Which is the point. Labels suck, and they are often placed unconsciously. This realization leads to the two best parts of the book. The first was the discussion in Rafe’s literature class when everyone was talking about tolerance. It really isn’t a very positive word, which is something I have said forever. To tolerate something – she is tolerable, I suppose – implies that it is just on this side of not making you vomit. You don’t actively hate it. You allow its presence but don’t welcome it. I tolerate the cat but I can’t fucking wait not to have a cat. So why do we say that tolerance is good in society? Wouldn’t something like acceptance or inclusion be infinitely better? I wouldn’t want someone just to “tolerate” me. Rather than being tolerant, let’s work on being accepting. Even better, let’s be inclusive. Accepting is better than tolerant, but it is still not perfect, since to accept something has an implication of resignation or surrender about it, that you may not like something but you know you can’t change it so you’re going to just let it go. It is better than tolerating something, but I think embracing or including a person or an idea or whatever is perhaps the best way to go about it.

The second part that I really liked, which may be a spoiler, I don’t know, so consider yourselves warned, is when Rafe realized that the “cameras” he was always so worried about were rarely actually focused on him. He realized that he had been staring at a guy in his group but he was thinking about himself and how concerns and realized what people think didn’t have anything to do with his own sense of worth or his own masculinity or identity. And then he had that lightbulb moment and realized that when others stare at him, it isn’t necessarily that they are judging him, but that they are thinking about themselves and reflecting on something utterly unrelated to him. I think a lot of people need to figure this out, that they aren’t the center of everything and that people aren’t always concerned with them. I know teens tend to have those imaginary audiences a lot, but I think many people never outgrow that. As my grandmother says, “you don’t worry so much about what people think about you if you knew how seldom they do.” It’s true – I think people think about themselves far more than anyone else and, for the most part, don’t care what other people do so long as it doesn’t affect them too much.

I’m a bit off YA at the moment, but this was still a very good book even though it wasn’t one of my favorites. The whole thing was just an interesting discussion and I am glad I read it. The writing style was easy and enjoyable, and apparently the author is local for me. Maybe one of these days I’ll see him at a book thing or something, which would be cool.

Persepolis

9516Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

I read it as a: paperback

Source: public library

Length: 153 pp

Publisher: Pantheon

Year: 2004

Persepolis is the graphic novel memoir of Satrapi’s early life in Iran. It begins when she was about 10 but gets more in depth when she is around 12-14. She takes her readers through the political upheaval and conflicts that took the region from a progressive nation to the fundamentalist regime most of us think of now, all through the eyes of a young girl who lived through it all.

This was an incredible read. I know it’s been out for ages but I only now got around to reading it, and I’m so glad I did. On just a surface level, this is a terrific book to teach people about the basic history of the region and the more recent political issues that have resulted in the rise of such fundamentalism. On a deeper level, it shows readers what it was like to live through it, from being a child who doesn’t really understand what is happening, to a beloved family member being executed, to seeing your best friend’s body lying in rubble because her house got bombed. Yeah, that one hit me right in the feels. If anyone reads this and isn’t moved or doesn’t feel compassion, they’re just fundamentally broken. I think this should be required reading in all modern history classes for high school kids, to be honest.

The scene that did me in, and which makes this something that ought to be required reading for any high school kid, is summed up keenly by the below image. This was one time when graphic novels absolutely conveyed emotion better than prose. I needed no written words to know what she was feeling, because the image captured it. I was feeling it with her.

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Image from Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi