Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Book Review: Mountains of Mourning

Mountains of Mourning is a Vorkosigan novella, included in the Young Miles omnibus between The Warrior's Apprentice and The Vor Game. It's only 90 pages long, but I still felt like it deserved it's own entry.

This story is wonderful and dense. It takes place about three years after the conclusion of The Warrior's Apprentice. Miles has just graduated from the officer's academy and is on leave pending his first assignment. His plans to relax and goof off are interrupted when his father assigns him to investigate a murder charge from a woman in their district.

What unfolds requires the reader to be familiar with Barrayar's history, as laid out in previous books. Barrayar was isolated from the rest of the galaxy for a long time and is only recently (during Miles' lifetime) catching up with the social and technological progress that has passed it by. Historically, mutated or deformed babies were murdered at birth. There's a lot of bigotry and intolerance and resistance to change still to be found, especially in the more rural areas of the planet. But change is coming, and it has been declared illegal to kill babies.

So we come to the first charge of infanticide. A child was born with a cleft palate. It's pointed out that this can now be repaired with a fairly simple surgery. But before the mother was able to travel to the hospital, her daughter was killed. She accuses her husband, and Miles is tasked with investigating her charge and then carrying out the punishment (death in this case) of the guilty party.

The story follows the beats of a very well-constructed mystery. But it's also a rumination on how hard it is for older generations to change, how relatively easy it is for the young to embrace a new way of life, and the painful clashes that arise while the two are vying for power. There's a lot here that I recognized in our own political landscape. The specific example of killing deformed infants is abhorrent, but it helps drive home the point of just how sweeping and necessary these social changes are.

I continue to love Miles and all the different stories Bujold is able to tell with him.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Book Review: The Warrior's Apprentice

In which a seventeen year old Miles Vorkosigan accidentally acquires a full mercenary fleet.

The Warrior's Apprentice is the first book in the Vorkosigan series to feature Miles as a protagonist. It begins with him breaking both of his legs during the entrance exam for the military academy he hopes to attend. With no clear course for the future, he decides to visit his grandmother for a few weeks. But while on Beta Colony his compassion compels him to save first the pilot of an obsolete ship and then a deserter. One thing leads to another and before you know it Miles finds himself involved in a Civil War as the admiral of a Mercenary Fleet that's been hired by one side.

It's amazing how much luck is actually involved in this, though Miles also has an interesting mix of compassion, honor, and audacity that makes it impossible for him to give up once he's gotten started. Instead he keeps moving forward, amassing more loyal followers as he goes.

I was a little amazed that this book was written before Barrayar, because it follows it so seamlessly. Miles' disability, due to an assassination attempt on his father, is ever-present. It colors his relationships with both of his parents and his grandfather. It causes him to push himself too far occasionally when he's trying to prove he's just as capable as everyone else. His desire to make his father proud is always hanging over his head. Miles is a fascinating and complex character, and he makes an excellent protagonist.

The book also touches back on some of the differences between Barrayar and Betan culture. Since the protagonists are teenagers, this focuses on the different ways virginity is treated on the two planets, as filtered through Miles' closest friend, Elena. On Barrayar, everyone is expected to remain virginal until marriage (though this is of course enforced more strictly with girls than with boys). Beta Colony is at the opposite extreme: adolescents are given a full complement of vaccinations and implanted with contraceptive devices when they hit puberty and are turned loose to experiment to their hearts' content.

For all that the plot of this book is fairly straightforward, there's a surprising amount of depth here. It deals with shattered illusions, finding your place in the world, and learning to rely on other people or let them go and how to figure out the difference. Basically it has everything any good coming-of-age novel should. All buried beneath a layer of adventure and intrigue.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Roller Coasters

For my birthday, we spent the day at Kings Dominion riding roller coasters and water slides with a group of friends. The weather was beautiful which was something of a mixed blessing, since it meant that every single line was absurdly long. But at least we didn't get too grossly hot or overly dehydrated.

We started the day with a couple of roller coasters, both of which were the kind that launch you forward from a standstill. Thanks to lines, it took nearly three hours to ride those two coasters, so after lunch we decided to head to the water park. Lines were still kind of long there, but they mostly moved faster, or at least continuously. We were even able to ride one of the slides twice because the line moved so quickly.

We spent most of the afternoon in the water park and rode almost every ride they had. Then we went back to the park for birthday funnel cake and some more coasters. Unfortunately, the lines hadn't really died down at all. Even the lines that are normally relatively short took us a while to get through. We skipped several coasters because we just didn't want to wait. Finally we decided it was time to seek out the less popular rides.

The old wooden racer had a really short line. We almost walked right on it. Then we decided to ride the really high swings. You corkscrew up and then back down a 300 foot tower and get to see the whole park. We timed that one perfectly, because the flashing lights came on for our ride, but it was still light enough to see everything. After that we went on one more wooden coaster before calling it a day. And my sometimes unpopular opinion that wooden coasters are far superior was definitely upheld. The slightly out-of-control chaos you get on the wooden coasters adds a level of genuine terror that makes the whole experience better.

On the way home we stopped for burgers in Fredricksburg. We didn't get there until ten and then, thanks to slow service, weren't back on the road until after eleven. It was past midnight when we got home, and I was so exhausted that I slept for a solid eleven hours. I felt just like a teenager again.

Kings Dominion was a ton of fun, but the lines are so long that it's definitely a rare excursion. It had been five years since I was last there and it'll probably be five more before I go again. Unless we can arrange it to go in the middle of the week and avoid the crowds at some point.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Goals

I haven't posted about the gym in a while. Not because I haven't been going (I have), but because I'm still trying to figure out a routine that really works for me. For most of the winter, I was doing I good job of getting in four times a week - trainer on Wednesday, lifting by myself on Saturday, and cardio on M/Th or T/F. But ever since the wedding I've had a hard time sticking to that. A big part of it is that my routine just got so thrown off. Then weekends were so busy that it seemed nearly impossible to get in on Saturdays. But I'm trying to get back on that schedule.

In that vein, I decided it would probably be helpful to define some goals. The main goal, obviously, is weight loss. But I've been trying that for a year, and I have yet to lose any weight (well, except for the two pounds I gained on the honeymoon, does that count?). So I'm going to try and focus on fitness goals. Places where I should be able to see actual improvement in the coming weeks.

So from short-term to long-term, here we go:

Step Ups. I have a love/hate relationship with step ups. The thing I love about them is that it's really easy to pretend I'm Buffy while I'm doing them. Which makes it easy to get into a rhythm and keep my motivation up. But my balance isn't great. I usually start wobbling about 7 in. So goal number 1: make it through a full set (10 on each side) without wobbling. Then up that to 15.

Modified (Inverted?) Push Ups. I started doing these modified push ups that are just hell on my abs, in a good way. Instead of putting your hands on the floor, you grip some dumbbells or use a stair or something. It requires more balance, which engages your core muscles, which results in your entire torso being sore the next day. They're fantastic. Also I can actually go down farther when I do these, since my boobs and stomach don't hit the ground. Currently I can do three sets of 5. I'd like to be able to do 3 sets of 10. Or even 20 all at once.

Legs. I need to stop focusing so much on my quads and start focusing on my hamstrings. That's poorly defined, as far as goals go. I have a couple of exercises to do, but I hate them. Maybe it's just a matter of doing them until I hate them less? Or maybe I should look into other, hamstring-specific exercises. The real goal here is to build up muscle to protect my knees in the future. Currently it's all unbalanced, which is why I hurt myself so easily last Fall. I don't know, I'll figure this out.

Pull Ups. As it currently stands, I do pulls ups on the assist machine. You stand on a weighted lever thing and it helps make pull ups easier by reducing your own body weight. I have no idea how much it reduces it by or even how to figure that out. The scale goes from 1 to 16, and I currently set it on either 9 or 10. I can do two sets of 10 at that level. My goal here is to do one unassisted pull up. I have an impressively long way to go, given that the last time I tried it was like my arms simply weren't responding to my brain, which was a very strange feeling.

Biking. Okay, this is a really fuzzy goal. And it would require me to invest in a bike and then carve out time to actually ride it regularly. As of last year (ish?) I could ride about 4 miles comfortably and push myself to 10 before I actually felt like dying. So long as there weren't any major hills. So this goal (which I'm still waffling on) would come in two parts. (a) Bike to work. My office is about 10 miles from home, on bike trails. It's all downhill there and all uphill home. But if I could do this once, if I could get to a point where I'm doing it once a week, if I could get comfortable with that sort of distance, that would be a good thing. (b) Maybe sign up for Bike MS next year? There's a 30 mile component. It's at National Harbor in June. It would be for an excellent cause. I don't know. We'll see where I am when that rolls around.

Weight. Okay, weight loss is still a goal. But in a more abstract sense. I'd like to look the way I did in this picture:

We represented Westeros at the 2012 Winter Beerlympics
That was taken about 2 1/2 years (and 25 lbs) ago. I don't think I need to lose a full 25 pounds to get back to that size (~8), since I'm building muscle and that weighs more than fat. At any rate it seems like a perfectly reasonable and doable goal. If I could just lost that first pound.

Anyway, this is where I am. I'm hoping to knock out the first 2-3 by Labor Day, then up the ante on them. Or come up with new short-term goals. I'll keep you posted on my progress.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Book Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora

I had the hardest time getting into The Lies of Locke Lamora. It was frustrating because everyone around me was absolutely raving about it. And given the premise - a group of thieves pull cons on rich people - I was sure I'd like it, too, if I could just give it a chance. But giving it that chance proved difficult.

This was partly due to timing. I started it on a beach weekend, then continued while we had a house guest. For the first week I was reading in dribs and drabs of 10 minutes at a time. When I finally had 3 hours to devote to reading, I wanted a book I could just finish in that time. This was compounded by the format of the book. Scott Lynch plays fast and loose with linear time. He jumps between two main timelines - Locke's childhood and the present-day heist. Within those timelines, he continues to jump around, or abandon plot altogether for 3-4 pages of exposition. More than usual I was re-reading earlier passages trying to figure out if I'd missed something or if I was supposed to be in the dark.

All that said, I did eventually get pulled in to the book. The middle section was really strong, and I gulped it down. Three or four different powers come into play and none of them are wholly aware of the others. They set traps for each other, walk into them blindly, and do their best to wriggle back out. It's fascinating and just the right level of complicated. Sadly, things tend to fall apart a little again towards the end of the book, but I've been assured that Lynch figures out this format and gets a lot better at it in the future.

There are a lot of other things that Lynch does really well, the main one being representation. While the core group of thieves doesn't have any women in it (well, none who appear on-page anyway), there are some awesome women in the book. Including a pair of deadly bodyguards, the big boss's daughter, a brilliant alchemist, and the spy to end all spies. Moreover, Lynch makes an effort to pepper the background characters - guards and soldiers - with women which is something that happens incredibly rarely. It's also worth noting that there are almost no white characters in this book. It takes place in a vaguely Mediterranean city, and the characters reflect that.

I'm hoping the next book pulls me in a little quicker and keeps me more engaged. Maybe I'll wait for my life to calm down a bit before seeking it out.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Merica

When we lived farther away from Zach and Sarah, every visit seemed to turn into a beer and mimosa-fueled 3-day game fest, occasionally punctuated by naps, dog walks, and excursions for food. Since they moved to DC, our visits have become more frequent and a lot shorter. Gone are the epic sleepovers of years past, replaced by much more adult get-togethers where everyone goes home at the end of the night. Or at least at a reasonable time the next morning.

Well, mostly.

This year, we decided to celebrate our independence with a throwback to those weekends, albeit with a few more friends this time around. The weekend was, indeed, epic. Though the break to go watch fireworks kind of killed my momentum and I ended up getting cranky and going to bed early.

We played a bunch of board games, some beer pong, and entirely too much "Don't Drink and Drive" with the newest Mario Kart. We made a lot of delicious food, including biscuits and gravy for breakfast. I love biscuits and gravy, but it's really hard to make just enough for two, so I try to save it for when we have a lot of company.

People stayed through dinner on the 5th, then Kevin, Connor and I watched a movie before falling asleep early. All that partying really took it out of me. I slept for nearly 11 hours. I can't even remember the last time I slept that long. It was nice to get a full day to recover. I spent most of it doing laundry, putting the house back in order, and cooking an incredibly involved dinner. Because if you're going to be stuck in the house for five hours doing laundry, you might as well make some chicken stock, too.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Book Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime

Sometimes you accidentally buy too many books. The fact that there are over 15 books sitting on your shelf, waiting to be read, begins to stress you out. So you have to take a break from the epic you're currently reading to knock out one of the shorter books. One of the ones that only takes a few hours to get through.

And sometimes that backfires, because that short, easy book ends up being really complicated and it takes over your life in a way that leaves you unable to engage with any other literature for a while.

On Friday, I reached a section break in The Lies of Locke Lamora and decided that it was a good place to step back from that book for a bit. I've been enjoying it, but I've also been reading in fits and starts due to a lack of both attention span and time. I figured a quick palate cleanser would help me refocus. And maybe it will.

In the meantime, we need to talk about Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. I remember Sarah talking about this book back in college (she and someone else were excited that they had both read it), so when I saw it at a used book sale, I picked it up.

The story itself is pretty straightforward. The narrator is an autistic boy who decides to solve the mystery of who killed his neighbor's dog. Along the way he uncovers a whole bunch of secrets, and by the time he's solved his initial mystery he's off an a completely different adventure. The prose is distinctive and easy to read. It purposefully comes across as a little juvenile, but I really liked the way Christopher's voice is presented.

The story itself isn't too complicated. It's everything surrounding the story that gets messy. Something about Christopher felt a little off too me. Not just that he's on the spectrum. He has weirdly varying degrees of self-awareness and social awareness. Both his stream of consciousness and his ability to parse conversational language belie his difficulty communicating. His claims about his memory match none of the research I've seen on either typical or atypical memories.

I decided to dig a bit, to see what the autistic community had to say about this book and this character. And, per my suspicions, this book is about as far from accurate as it gets. Haddon himself admits to doing no research, claiming that his imagination makes up for it. Which makes my skin crawl for a variety of reasons. Haddon has since said that this book isn't supposed to be about autism so much as it is about the experience of being an outsider. Which makes it a pretty gross appropriation of that experience.

I'm left with a lot of conflicting feelings. The story itself was good, quick, and interesting. The mystery played fair, and I liked the way the secondary plot was introduced and where it went. The ending dangled a bit, but it mostly made sense. I just wish that Haddon had either done more research or, as the adage goes, stuck to what he knows. As it is, you get a book that many people take at face value, and it only serves to perpetuate a bunch of stereotypes without ever digging deeper.