Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Book Review: Wyrd Sisters

Wyrd Sisters is a giant step up in the quality of Discworld books. There's an interesting and complicated plot, driven by the actions of a cast of delightful characters. There's a wonderful subplot concerning a storm who hopes to one day make it big. There's sharp and subtle commentary on the nature of ruling and of fiction and rumors. And there are enough Shakespeare references to make your head spin, given that this is largely a parody of Macbeth.

It's no wonder that a majority of the fandom considers Wyrd Sisters to be the first good book in the series. It is often recommended as a starting point, even though it's technically the second book in the "witches" subseries. But it's so much smarter and more fun and better plotted than anything came before. The first few books can be off putting to people new to Discworld, though they are fun in their own right. But it's so refreshing to get to this point and see the Discworld I've grown familiar with.

It's not all smooth sailing from here on out. There are a couple more stumbles before the series becomes consistently great. But this glimpse at what the series does so well has me really excited for the rest of my re-read.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Book Review: The Seven Songs of Merlin

It can be difficult to read someone else's favorite book. Especially if you end up not liking that book. I'd like to be diplomatic and say that I just encountered this book at the wrong time in my life. And maybe that's true. I'm too accustomed to these tropes to feel any suspense or surprise. The book was clearly written for a younger audience.

At the same time, I'm tempted to say that this book is just objectively bad. Merlin is an arrogant, foolish boy who makes nonsensical decisions in order to advance the plot. He fucks everything up, but manages to right it all in the end because he's going to be a great wizard and we can't let him actually kill his mother. He gains wisdom and humility far too easily because they are distilled to seven lessons that can be expressed as cheerful platitudes, like "Love is the strongest bond" and "Every life is precious".

Worse, the author doesn't trust the reader to remember simple details or make connections on their own. The text beats you over the head with the idea that hubris is Merlin's fatal flaw, then cures him of it by book's end. Plot points are repeated over and over every time they might be slightly relevant, and the foreshadowing is clumsy at best and downright offensive at worst.

I suppose an argument could be made that it's a children's book, but the best children's books I've read trust their readers to put the pieces together on their own. The themes and morals may be made more obvious, but they tend not to be highlighted in nearly every chapter. And the characters are at least human, realistically flawed by internally logical. Merlin here is merely a shadow of what everyone knows he will become, and the book twists quite a bit to force him down his path. Then again, there are probably people out there who would say the same thing about Into the Land of the Unicorns

Monday, November 17, 2014

Exercise Bike

For the last year or so, I've been becoming more interested in the idea of building up a home gym. As I learn more about weight lifting, I feel more confident in my ability to put together a workout on my own. And it would certainly save time and money if I didn't have to actually go to the gym. But there are obstacles, too. For one, a home gym is really expensive. Mostly because of all the different dumbbell weights you need. But mats, foam rollers, and exercise balls don't come cheap either. There's also the fact that I lack motivation at home. Just like getting dressed and going to an office helps me focus on my work, being in a gym surrounded by other people helps me focus on working out.

All that said, we've taken a first, tentative step in this direction with the purchase of a stationary bike. A bike is something Kevin and I will both use a bunch, especially in the winter. We have it set up in front of the TV, so it should theoretically be just as easy to hop on the bike as it is to sprawl on the couch. Though we haven't really put it to the test yet.

Since getting the bike, I've managed to use it every day. The plan is to continue this, even if it's just for twenty minutes. Getting up half an hour early to get on the bike before showering shouldn't be too much of a hardship, especially since I was able to get up early for physical therapy this time last year. And pairing it with a sitcom (New Girl for now) should make the time go faster. I just hope the Thanksgiving house guests don't throw me too far off  my routine, assuming I managed to actually establish one in the next week.

Now the trick is going to be getting into the gym to lift weights. Especially on weekends, it's a lot easier to just hop on the bike at home for an hour. Which is fine if that's what I was planning to do anyway. And I could always do pushups, situps, and squats at home. I just need to get my mind to frame that corner of the basement as a workout space.

And maybe one day (in the next house), I'll be able to acquire enough equipment and motivation to do everything I want to at home. For now I'll just focus on cycling every day that I can.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Goblet of Fire is the big, transitional book that takes this series to the next level. The world expands, Voldemort returns, and Harry takes some important steps on the road to adulthood. It's nearly twice as long as the previous book, which I remember being super excited about when it first came out. This time around I was a little worried about the length. But it turns out (and I should have remembered) that this book is still excellently paced. It drags a bit at the end when two entire chapters are devoted to exposition and monologuing, but up until that point the story moves along really well.

This is one of the first books that I can remember waiting for. I didn't have to wait long, less than a year. But I was still incredibly excited to finally get my hands on Goblet of Fire. I had elaborate plans to read the entire thing in one sitting, much as I had with Chamber of Secrets. It was a bit long for that, and I wasn't really allowed to skip family meals. But I came as close as I could, wandering around the house with my nose stuck in this book.

The ending of this book (well, up until the exposition) is really thrilling. Almost as thrilling as the ending of Prisoner of Azkaban (though let's be honest, nothing else can compare to the twist that Black has been a good guy all along). As many times as I've read this, it was still surprisingly hard not to cry during sections of it. Although it didn't help that Voldemort's resurrection has now been more or less replaced by this (start at 3:00):



If you haven't watched A Very Potter Musical, you should really go do that. It's a lot of fun.

I was also distracted by another change in the text, though this one was deliberate. In the first edition of this book, Harry's father comes out of Voldemort's wand before his mother. This mistake was widely shared, and I remember the smug feeling that came with feeling more detail-oriented that the author. The mistake was, of course, corrected in later editions. This was my first time reading a later edition, and I actually think the scene works better the other way around. Mistake or not, emotions are sometimes more important than facts. Especially when it comes to a good story.

This book isn't my favorite in the series. It may even be my least favorite. I'll have to wait and see. But it's hard to argue that it ought to be shorter. There's a lot going on here, with the widening wizard world and a more complicated story. It fits that the books grew to accommodate the complications.

After this book came out, the world had to wait three years to find out what happened. It was at this point that I dove headfirst into fanfiction and the online fandom. In my mind there's a clear divide between the first four books and the last three books, with dozens of alternate futures for the characters. I'm definitely more familiar with the first four books (not that I haven't also read the later books multiple times), and my opinions about them are firmer and more informed by nostalgia. This is the point in my life when I was exactly the same age as Harry and his friends, which makes me feel even more connected to this story.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Plumbing Problems

Several weeks ago, Kevin noticed that the toilet on the main floor was leaking. There was a hairline crack in the mechanism that indicates that the tank is full. It wasn't closing fully, so water was just running through continuously. He shut off the toilet until he had time to deal with it, and we just used the other toilets for a while. One of the perks of having multiple bathrooms is that it's not the end of the world when one of them breaks. (One of the downsides is that you have to clean all of them).

When he found the time over the weekend, Kevin got the replacement pump and set about installing it in the toilet. This shouldn't be all that difficult, but it turned out to be. First, unscrewing the original pump turned out to be a two-person job. I had to hold it still so it wouldn't just spin around and around. There must be an easier way to do this, but we probably didn't have the right tools. Then things didn't quite match and what had been a steady leak inside the toilet that could simply be turned off, turned into a slow but steady leak into a bowl underneath the toilet.

I'm not sure where this leak was coming from, as I know almost nothing about plumbing (I know some very basic things from the day I spent hooking up a water cooling tank thing in my undergrad lab, but it was mostly following instructions from someone else because I was small enough to fit in the corner with the piping). At any rate, we lived with that for a few days, hoping to get a plumber in after our Halloween party.

But then the leak got worse. A lot worse. Whereas the bowl underneath the toilet had previously needed emptying every day or so, it now filled up twice an hour. It wasn't the sort of thing we could leave overnight, let alone while we were hosting a huge party.

This was on Thursday night. Guests were due to begin arriving Friday evening with the big party taking up most of Saturday. Kevin called a plumber hoping to get the toilet fixed as soon as possible. The earliest the guy could make it out was Friday morning. And since the leak was bad enough that we couldn't leave it, we turned off water to the entire house.

Friday morning was not fun. I'd filled some water bottle with water the night before and made sure the tea kettle was full, but there's only so much you can do. I couldn't shower in the morning, and I ended up taking my toothbrush to work with me, trying not to breath anyone on the metro. Thankfully we got it fixed in time for the party, only for the next plumbing disaster to pop up.

People are drunk enough at Hallowiener that something usually breaks. This is just part of throwing the party. One year I shattered a glass. One year someone kicked a hole in our wall. This year someone dropped a glass in the sink, resulting in a garbage disposal full of glass shards. I got as many out as I could, but a few had fallen beyond my reach. I made the executive decision to just not deal with it that night, and told people not to use the garbage disposal.

Life without a garbage disposal isn't quite as difficult as I feared. I kept having to remind myself that I couldn't use it, but peeling potatoes into the garbage can instead of the sink isn't really that much of a burden. Between the minimal impact the lack of disposal had on our life, and all the other clean up from the party, it took us a week to actually deal with the broken disposal. I was worried we'd have to call in a plumber again, but it turned out to be a pretty easy fix. All in all it only cost about $7 for a specific Allen wrench.

Now we're just crossing our fingers that the law of threes doesn't apply here. I really don't want to deal with another plumbing problem in the coming weeks.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Puzzlefest

It turns out that a competitive crossword puzzle competition is our idea of a good time. If we didn't realize we were nerds before, this knowledge definitely solidifies it.

This past Saturday was the annual Arlington puzzle festival, and we were able to attend for the first time ever. Historically it's the same weekend as Hallowiener, and Hallowiener takes precedence.

We arrived bright and early for the group puzzle competition, which was surprisingly hard. There were some word puzzles followed by a more complicated puzzle that involved 32 trivia questions, the answers to which had to be grouped together according to rules we had to figure out. For example, mail, harmony, commerce, and bay were all in group E, because sticking an e in front of each word results in an internet thing. Meanwhile dead, north, and Irish were all in group C because they're all seas. We didn't start to figure all of this out until close to the end of the time limit, so we didn't get as many points as we could have. It was a lot of fun to stretch our brains out, even if we didn't ultimately do very well.

Then it was the crossword puzzle competition, which I did horribly at. Kevin and Zach finished the first two puzzles in the time limit, and Sarah almost did, but I had a whole empty section even on the easiest puzzle. By the last puzzle I was able to figure out maybe 4 words.

We decided not to stick around for the Sudoku competition in the afternoon, because we had too much other stuff to do. Maybe next year we'll be able to spend the entire day doing puzzles. Even if we only go for the group competition again, it'll be a lot of fun.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Book Review: Sin City 7: Hell and Back

Ugh, this was awful. Standard Boy meets Girl, Girl gets kidnapped, Boy turns out to be a killing machine, kills a bunch of people, rescues Girl, and they live happily ever after. Except worse.

But, I have now finished Sin City. No more guilt about it sitting on my shelf unread.