Monday, September 22, 2014

Book Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

I have a weird relationship with Ursula K Le Guin's work. I feel like I'm supposed to like her more than I actually do. Not that I actively dislike her. But I always find myself disagreeing with her about something fundamental. As beautiful as her prose tends to be, and as forward-thinking and progressive as many of her ideas are, we just seem to be coming from different places. I think it boils down to the fact that she's espousing feminist ideas from a generation or two ago, and they simply aren't radical enough to interest me.

The Left Hand of Darkness does some interesting things with gender by essentially getting rid of it in all but on character and making that one character undeniably alien. A more strange stranger in a stranger land than anything Heilein ever conceived. And to an extent it's interesting to see this alien, Genly Ai, continuously project gender onto everyone around him.

It makes sense. As the book points out the very first thing we want to know about anyone is are they a boy or a girl. It's the first question asked of new babies. When we're out in public and confronted with someone androgynous, we tend to become uncomfortable. How do we interact with someone we can't classify? And it's also nice to see the narrative constantly flummox him. To learn that the "landlady" he views as matronly has fathered children but never borne them. To watch another character shift fluidly between masculine and feminine characteristics.

But then she goes and argues that women (from planets with men and women) tend to not be mathemeticians or politicians or whatever because they're so focused on child-bearing and child-rearing and I find myself disappointed that she couldn't carry this thought-experiment one step further. Then she can imagine a racially diverse and harmonious future where ESP is taught as a second language, that she can come up with an entire society that is genderless and to some extent sexless, but that she can't imagine a society where the contributions of women are equal to the contributions of men. Where men take an equal part in child-rearing and women are free to pursue interests outside of the home.

Maybe this is why I fell so hard and fast for Bujold, with her uterine replicators and parenting tests. Though it must be said that she's not perfect either. Then again, who is?

Back to this book. I struggled with the first two thirds of The Left Hand of Darkness. There's a lot of alien terminology thrown around, and I had a hard time keeping track of it all. I found a breakdown of the calendar in the back of the book, and I would have liked a glossary as well.

That said, it did eventually fall into place. The last third of the book was fantastic. It helped that it shoved our two protagonists out onto a glacier for several months. Fighting for survival and learning more about each other as their boundaries are eventually eroded by the harsh conditions. The monotony of their journey, which magnifies their setbacks and successes is a great backdrop for their burgeoning friendship. I just wish it hadn't taken quite so long to get there.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Book Review: Oryx and Crake

He doesn't know which is worse, a past he can't regain or a present that will destroy him if he looks at it too clearly. Then there's the future. Sheer vertigo.
When news broke that HBO was developing an adaptation Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy, I began seeing it everywhere. And it being written by Margaret Atwood, I decided to pick up the first book, Oryx and Crake.

Oryx and Crake is narrated by a man who calls himself Snowman. He is, for all he knows, the last human left alive. He acts as a prophet to strange, human-like beings called the Children of Crake, in between finding food, getting drunk on what little alcohol remains, and reminiscing about his former life, when he was known as Jimmy, he had a best friend named Crake, and he was in love with a woman named Oryx.

The book alternates between the present and past. Though Jimmy is hardly in a state to think about things linearly, so it all occasionally gets mixed together. As the novel progresses a dystopian society comes into view. One in which scientists are playing with genes, trying to grow new organs, create more plentiful food, or cure diseases. They're barricaded themselves off from the rest of society, where disease and poverty run rampant.

This vision of the future is the most compelling and painful part of the book. Art is on it's way out as reality shows take over and people seek more and more sensationalized entertainment. Illegal and immoral sex acts, executions, assisted suicides. The scientists, and Crake in particular, are seeking to make a better world, though they also aren't above seeking profit. Jimmy finds himself adrift, wondering where things went so wrong.

Oryx and Crake would have been a lot better if any of the characters had been sympathetic. As it is, Crake is self-absorbed and far too exacting. He is too far removed from humanity and has far too much power (bestowed on him because of his incredible brain). But Jimmy isn't much better. He's addicted to sex, hardly bothering to differentiate between the various women who flit through his life. They're bodies to him, and Oryx is little more than an idea he falls in love with. I'm hoping for more from the next book, which reportedly follows an entirely different group of people. It'd be nice to care about the characters in this horrific world.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni

He's an adolescent jinni, proud, impulsive, and selfish. She's a newborn golem, intelligent and hard-working, but scared. When they both find themselves transplanted to Manhattan at the turn of the twentieth century, they need to figure out how to carve out places for themselves. And when they meet, a fulfilling, but rocky friendship forms.

Helene Wecker's debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni, is just lovely. It deals with immigration and lower Manhattan at the turn of the century, when people are arriving from all over the world and carving out neighborhoods for their communities. It asks interesting questions about identity, about how to balance individuality with community, about religion and human nature.

The narrative winds its way through the first year the golem and the jinni spend in New York. They arrive separately, though on the same day. And while they are kept apart for a while, as Wecker explores the Jewish community on the Lower East Side and Little Syria on the Lower West Side. It explores the people they meet.

The golem is eager to please. She hears everyone's desires and needs, hopes and fears, and is compelled to do whatever she can to help. It's a struggle for her to learn to ignore these intrusive thoughts, to pay attention to what people do and say instead. She comes off as helpful, if quiet and a little odd.

The jinni, meanwhile, does whatever he wants. He takes off on a whim with little regard for his safety. He seduces young women with no thought as to the consequences. He chafes against the constant presence and small talk of the people around them, viewing it as unnecessary.

The collision of the two supernatural beings is wonderful, and their arguments were some of my favorite parts of the book (aside from the dance, the dance was definitely my favorite part of the book). They're coming up against their natures and the prejudices and trying to work out how to find happiness in a world that only barely accepts them.

There's a lot going on this book. A bunch of different narrative threads that come together quite beautifully at the end. For the most part, the language gets out of the way and lets it happen. There aren't any flowery passages or imminently quotable lines. It's simple, and it makes for a very easy, very quick read. One that sticks with you because the ideas that go down so quickly take a bit to digest.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Work Hard, Play Harder

Like the rest of summer, the last couple of weekends have been filled to the brim. Over Labor Day weekend, we had Zach and Sarah over for games. We finally got to play Settlers of America, a mash up between Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride, sort of. I bought it for Kevin years ago. But it really only works with four people, and it takes hours to play. It was a good game, if a little long.

On Sunday we went up to Baltimore for a baseball game. Except we went early to eat burgers, drink beer, and watch a soccer game. The baseball game was long. And hot. It's been four years since the last baseball game I went to, and it will probably be another four before Kevin manages to drag me to another one. I just don't understand anything about that sport or why it appeals to people. Though I've been told that the games have gotten significantly longer in recent years. Given that, I wonder if they'll eventually start playing fewer innings, to get the length back down.

Labor Day itself was spent on the couch watching TV while I tried to finally kick a cold I've had for way too long. The cough is still lingering, something like three weeks after I first got sick. It wouldn't be so bad, except that Kevin managed to get over this damn thing in about three days.

Last weekend was filled with the Renaissance Festival and football. We all trooped out to Maryland to enjoy mead and cider and turkey legs. I bought a game I've been coveting since the last Renaissance Festival called Octiles. It's a variation on Chinese Checkers in which the path across the board is constantly changing. We also saw a short adaptation of Henry the V but Shakespeare's Skrum, which was a lot of fun.

Football was something of a mixed bag. Zach, Connor, and Kevin's mom all came over for the Redskins game, which was disappointing. They never quite seem to get their act together, and if they do it all, ultimately, falls apart. It didn't help that all of the scoring happened in roughly 3 minutes of gameplay, which resulted in a game that was both frustrating and a little boring.

But then I made nachos, which I've been looking forward to for weeks, and we watched the Niners game. The nachos were delicious, and the Niners are a much better and more exciting team than Washington. They scored in the first minute of the game and proceeded to walk all over the Cowboys.

This weekend promises yet more football (I love Fall), and some downtime. Which is good. I really need to clean out my office. It looks clean, but there's so much filing to be done. Not to mention that my bookcases are, once again, overflowing and could stand to be reorganized. I'll spare you the pictures this time.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Hey Big Spender

We got a couple of big ticket items during the Labor Day sales, and I'm super excited about both of them.

First up is our new bed. We splurged on a Sleep Number mattress (that was still expensive at 50% off). I've wanted one for ages, and I've been bugging Kevin to upgrade our mattress basically since I moved in with him. I had a glorious pillow-top back in Colorado that I bought while hungover on New Year's Day. But it didn't make financial sense to bring it out to Virginia with me. So it moved to my mom's guest room, and I've been sleeping on an Ikea foam mattress that Kevin loved for it's firmness and I hated for the same reason.

But he finally agreed to buy a new mattress, so we went to the Sleep Number store. We'd also looked at some Tempurpedics, which were wonderful but even more expensive than the Sleep Numbers. We found ourselves torn between a foam-top and a pillow-top, and the price difference ended up making the difference for us.

When it was first delivered, it was a little ridiculous. The delivery men placed both foundation and mattress on top of the slats that our Ikea mattress had laid on, which meant we were sleeping nearly three and a half feet above the ground. But over the weekend we fixed it, and the mattress is now at a much more reasonable height (and Kina can get in bed with us again). I'm so, so, so happy with the new mattress. It's like sleeping on a cloud.

We also bought a new oven. I've been wanting one for a while, and it became more important when the big, front burner on our old oven started turning off at random. It's hard to cook when the heat suddenly disappears. I knew I wanted a flat top oven (we're not hooked up for gas and drip pans are the hardest thing in the world to clean) and Kevin did most of the research to find one.

The oven arrived earlier this week, and I'm super happy about it. It's so much easier to keep clean. I can just wipe it down instead of disassembling it to get at the mess. And all of the burners work, which makes me happy. The only thing is that I'm going to have to relearn how long it takes to cook things. Boiling a pot of water for pasta last night took forever, much longer than it's ever taken me to boil a pot of water before. It's probably because of the glass top between the pot and the heating element. But I will eventually get used to it, and then everything will be wonderful again.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Feeling Strong

I'm gaining weight again. Which is maybe something I'm just going to have to learn to live with. This time around I'm fairly sure it's muscle, though. So there's that at least. Really I should just stop getting on the scale at all. Except that I really thought I was doing well, and that I'd finally see that damn number go down instead of up.

Aside from that number (which I really ought to just ignore) things are going well. I'm definitely getting stronger across the board. I can do 60-70 pounds on the lat pull down and row. I'm up to 15 pounds on the Arnold Press and 30 pounds on the dead lift. I've added weight to my step ups and feel completely stable doing them now. My trainer noted that, while I still have balance issues on the single-leg dead lift, my knee doesn't wobble at all. When she pushed me to fatigue on various exercises, I was able to do 20 pushups, and then another 15.

All in all I feel stable and strong when I'm lifting now. It's hard to figure out how this relates back to the ways my body is changing. My stomach feels and looks larger, but it's always been the last part of me to show change. The shorts I bought at the beginning of the summer feel loose. So I think I'm heading in the direction I want to be heading.

If I can just remember to stay off the scale, everything should be great moving forward. Despite the weight gain, I'm pretty sure I'm healthier than I've ever been. I'm certainly more active than I've been since high school. And I'm eating way more veggies and less junk than I was back then. I am getting results, as slow as the process has been, and it's making me feel good about myself.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Book Review: Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron

Jasper Fforde's novel, Shades of Grey, is a complete mind fuck. This book is weird, deliciously so, but also in a way that can kind of make your head hurt. It throws you in to a far-future dystopia in which everyone's perception of color is greatly reduced and class is determined by how much and what part of the color spectrum they can see.

This book doesn't hold your hand. It throws you in the deep end and expects you to figure things out. The language is strange and references to the past (our society) are always mangled. But if you can stick with it, the rewards are great. The humor is subtle, but wonderful. The characters are fascinating and wholly real. And the society is just endlessly fascinating.

I had to read this book in bits and pieces, taking breaks to absorb everything. That said, it picks up towards the end, and I flew through the last 100 pages or so. There's a ton of world-building in the beginning, and half the fun was figuring out which bits were crucial to the plot and which bits were just colorful background (no doubt crucial to the plots of future books).

The ending blindsided me, which doesn't happen often. But it was fantastic, and I'm eagerly awaiting the next book. Though I am glad to be able to give my brain a bit of a break before it comes out.