Tuesday, March 15, 2016


KindredKindred by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We are the latest in a long line of strangers.

Most of us are acquainted with our parents. Many of us have met at least a subset of our grandparents. But our firsthand knowledge plummets with every generation beyond that. Some of those people in the distance may have left us anecdotes or documents or china collections, but most of them only left us with genes. How many voyagers and conquerors, wearers of shackles and cloth stars, came together to bring about each of us? Could we ever know?

Do we want to know?

That's a question that Dana, the young black woman at the heart of Kindred, doesn't have the option of saying no to. Through involuntary journeys across a century that mirror her ancestors' involuntary journeys across an ocean, she is sent from her 1976 California home to antebellum Maryland. There, she realizes that she has a single task: save Rufus Weylin. Rufus is the son of a wealthy slave owner. He's also "destined" to have a child with one of the slaves, a child that would grow up to become Dana's ancestor. As Dana is jerked back and forth through time, a pattern emerges: she is sent to Rufus's time to save him when his life is in danger, and is returned to 1976 when her own life is threatened. She walks a tightrope, trying to keep Rufus alive long enough for him to father a child, without getting herself killed, or getting stuck in the 19th century.

In the first few pages of the book, Butler's intentions are overt: this is not a book about uncovering the mechanisms of time travel, it's a book about the culture clash between times and places. Accordingly, Dana doesn't experience much bafflement about what's going on, because it's not a bafflement that Butler has any intention of allaying. Instead, Dana immediately latches on to the task that she's been given. That, I thought, was a somewhat unrealistic piece of behavior that served the purpose of getting the main plot going quickly.

But once that plot got going, it wouldn't stop. When reading this book at bedtime, I would tell myself that I'd just keep reading until Dana was in a slightly less dangerous position. Each night I'd find myself awake at a more ungodly hour. Life-threatening situations are key to how the story works. They become increasingly menacing with every repetition, and are arranged in a clever cycle of water and fire that I only noticed days after I had finished the book.

I often found myself trying to find little quotes to post here. Surprisingly, it was hard to do; the writing doesn't stand out because of glowing one-liners, but because of the light that bounces off one character to the next, illuminating as much as it covers in shadow. It's not a lyrical style of writing, but a spare and efficient one that I ultimately came to be grateful for. One doesn't necessarily wish to wax poetic while setting a broken bone.

As I hurried up the steps, I thought of Rufus and his father, of Rufus becoming his father. It would happen some day, in at least one way.

In addition to simply keeping Rufus alive through his numerous accidents and fights, Dana also wants to instill in Rufus a much-needed sense of compassion and justice; this often puts Dana in a position of opposition to Rufus's rigid and brutal father. They both leave their mark on him, although perhaps not the type of mark that either intended; he develops the devious nature endemic to the offspring of strict parents, combined with just enough open-mindedness to keep a twinge of Dana's hopes alive.

Dana's position as a time traveler has many fascinating aspects, but one that I found especially striking was the way people in the past regard her as a supernatural healer - due to possession of aspirin and some basic medical knowledge from the 20th century. Rufus's father has this to say about her: "You're something different. You come out of nowhere and go back into nowhere. But you can feel pain - and you can die. Remember that and do your job. Take care of your master." It immediately reminded me of this quote from The Green Mile: (view spoiler)

Finally, the relationship between Dana and her husband Kevin, who is white, undergoes a transformation, especially after Kevin is taken along on one of her trips. Kevin at first seems like a lazy, wishy-washy character, but eventually earned my respect through the loyalty that he demonstrates - although it's apparent that truly understanding Dana's experiences will be something that he'll have to work at over the course of his life.

View all my reviews


Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At school, you might have been prodded to "come out of your shell", that noxious expression that fails to appreciate that some animals naturally carry shelter everywhere they go, and that some humans are just the same.

There are two ways in which I could rate this book. In terms of how well-argued and well-balanced it is, I might give it 3 or 4 stars. But from the standpoint of how much it helped me to be ok with myself, I'd give it close to 5 stars.

This book sets out to defend the value of introversion from a culture that pushes extroversion as the ideal. It's not a dichotomy of hermits vs. partygoers. Rather, it's about how people have different optimal levels of external stimulation, with extroverts thriving at a level of stimulation that tends to wear out introverts, and introverts thriving in low-key situations that extroverts might find boring. It's a spectrum, though, and one of the surprising and valuable things I learned is that I'm not as extreme an introvert as I once thought. The book also points out that introversion and extroversion are not the only things that determine whether someone seems friendly or shy, because other factors (e.g., anxiety, acting, etc) can play a deciding role.

The book begins with a fascinating history of how Americans came to be obsessed with winning friends and influencing people, and critiques this mentality with abundant evidence for why introversion is both natural and useful. I was surprised to learn that introversion can be pretty reliably predicted based on infant behavior, with highly-reactive infants likely to become introverted adults. I was equally surprised to learn that even birds and fish seem to have some version of extroverted and introverted individuals, with each type flourishing under different environmental conditions. I like the idea of different evolutionary niches for different personality types, which collectively help make the species more successful and robust. Needless to say, this still applies to humans no matter how many times we're told - by parents, teachers, bosses, and the media - that everyone should aspire to be vocal and gregarious and thick-skinned. Humanity needs sensitive, thoughtful, observant types just as much.

A lot of the book is devoted to strategies for how introverts can make the best use of "quiet power", in the workplace and at home. A few of the highlights:
- Introverts make good leaders for active workers.
- Open office plans are the work of the devil (i.e., harmful, exhausting, and distracting) and should be avoided.
- Everyone needs to find "restorative niches" during the day, which are situations where a person is able to recharge in their own way.
- Introverts and extroverts obviously approach conflict differently. What's a sign of respect for an extrovert can be terrifying for an introvert. But by keeping in mind what the other person is feeling, a middle ground can be reached.

But what I found most useful was the simple acknowledgment of introverted thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. In social situations, I used to have a constant internal background chatter of self-loathing, but this book did a lot to counteract that.
"Ugh, why do you always sit in the corner at meetings and have so little to say? Because from here I can observe both the speaker and the audience, and the fact that I think about my words means that people actually pay attention when I say something." "Ugh, why can you never join big conversations at parties? Because I don't enjoy big conversations. And that's fine. I'm sure there's someone here with whom I can have a more in-depth one-on-one conversation. The loudest fastest voices don't always have the most interesting things to say."

It's not a perfect book, though. Its discussion/praise of non-Western cultures is a bit shallow, and I suspect correlation and causation were mixed up as a result. Also, I would have liked to see more exploration of the downsides of being an introvert, and how a person might handle those issues. It talks a lot about the fear of public speaking, which the author struggled with for a long time. While the book gives useful advice for how to deal with that (talk about things you're passionate about, prepare well, and treat it as a creative exercise), that's not the only (or even the biggest) internal struggle that an introvert is likely to have.

Even so, this book had a positive impact on me. It left me happy that I'm an introvert; I like to listen and observe and imagine. It also left me happy that there are extroverts in my life, who bring people together and who prod me with emails, texts, and phone calls at times when I'm prone to vanish too deeply inside my own head.

View all my reviews

Monday, February 1, 2016

2016 reading goals

Goooooooooal(s)! Yay!

In 2015 I completed the Read Harder Challenge, which proved to be an excellent way of finding new authors that I wouldn't have crossed paths with otherwise. For 2016, I've come up with my own list of 16 reading tasks that I want to accomplish. I'm also going to participate in The Year of Reading Women of Color at the 500 Great Books by Women group, and will be combining the two challenges to some extent. These are the tasks that I'm setting for myself, with the possible books that I'm considering so far. Ones marked with an asterisk (*) are also applicable to YoRWoC. Feel free to recommend me books for any of the categories.

1) A humorous book

2) A book that I haven't read reviews of

3) A book from a country that has been a site of war in the last 30 years
I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, by Malala Yousafzai*

4) A book bought from an independent bookstore I've bought but haven't read: The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood Summer, by Edith Wharton

5) A high fantasy novel
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemison*
The Final Empire, by Brandon Sanderson
The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

6) A work written before the year 500 AD

7) A play

8) A mystery

9) A book that takes place in South America
The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende*

10) A book in a series that I've started but not finished
Home, by Marilynne Robinson (I've read books 3 and 1, in that order, but not 2)
The Diviners, by Libba Bray (I've read book 2 but not book 1. What's the matter with you, self?)
The Telling, by Ursula Le Guin (Need to brush up my Le Guin fangirl cred by reading something from the Hainish Cycle other than the two most popular volumes)

11) A banned or challenged book
The Color Purple, by Alice Walker*
Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison*

12) A manga
Fullmetal Alchemist, Vol. 1, by Hiromu Arakawa*

13) An essay collection

14) A book by a woman of color (x12, may overlap with other categories)
The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy*
Fledgling, by Octavia Butler*
Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor*

15) A book that my parents own The Epic of Gilgamesh, by Anonymous*

16) A book that I probably should have read in high school
1984, by George Orwell
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

Sunday, January 17, 2016

2015: an illustrated bookish retrospect

2015 on Goodreads2015 on Goodreads by Various
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I get it," said the prisoner. "Good Cop, Bad Cop, eh?"
"If you like," said Vimes. "But we're a bit short staffed here, so if I give you a cigarette would you mind kicking yourself in the teeth?"

- Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett (1948-2015)

2015, in all its mind-numbing heart-breaking teeth-kicking glory, is not a year that I will look back on fondly, apart from a few things. The first among these things is the time spent with my sweet dog, and the second is the marvelousness of the books that I read. (The third is the discovery that icecream can be eaten with pretzel thins in place of spoons.) My 2015 shelf will tell you what my favorite and least favorite books were this year, with the caveat that an unrated book is not a book I disliked, just one that I didn't think it made sense to rate. So, I won't reiterate all that. Instead, pictures!

If I were to pin down a type of book that I found myself gravitating towards this year, it would be science fiction by female authors. Margaret Atwood, Joan D. Vinge, Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, G. Willow Wilson, Catherynne M. Valente, and E.E. Giorgi were all authors that I was floored by, and all except for the last were new to me.

While this graph may have more bars than it would have had in past years, the proportion of books in each category is not exactly anything to be proud of. So, there's something to work on.

This is, perhaps, the graph that I find most interesting because of its tidily predictable climb towards the present. It resulted from of a couple of things: 1) This was the first year that I ventured into the NetGalley rabbit hole, and 2) I dabbled in a couple of bandwagons, attempting to rectify the fact that I'd read almost nothing that's currently popular. Although they weren't all hits for me (ok, almost none of them were hits - looking at you, Ready Player One, Red Rising, Rat Queens, Vol. 1: Sass & Sorcery), I did get to read Brandon Sanderson, so I can't complain too much.

Also, what were people writing between 1900 and 1940? That's evidently something I need to learn about. As well as all those eons before the 19th century

Most of my books this year were free, thanks to my library and ARCs from publishers. My wallet rejoices. I also read some books that I'd bought in previous years (old purchases), leaving relatively few books that I had to buy in 2015 (new purchases).

It surprised me that this year, ebooks and audiobooks made up about a third of what I read, because both formats are new to me. I only got a kindle in the middle of the year. I'd never listened to an audiobook prior to this fall, but I've become fond of them. They make such good company.

I went on a bit of a comic book/graphic novel binge, which resulted in some great finds. Particularly The Arrival, which joins The Complete Maus as the only graphic novels I've ever given 5 stars to.

Things that the graphs don't tell you:
- As much as I enjoy my fantastical and futuristic stories, some of the best books I read this year were about a quiet, thoughtful life on the countryside: Gilead, Lila, and A Month in the Country. In fact, the author of the first two (Marilynne Robinson) is possibly my favorite author of the year.
- Two books that I had DNF'd in the past, Crime and Punishment and Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe, I returned to this year and rated 4 and 5 stars respectively.
- I wouldn't have thought I'd be singing the praises of a lesbian vampire novella (Carmilla), a video game novelization (The Book of Atrus), or a comic book about depressed and cliquish highschoolers (Skim), but that's exactly what I did.
- There's something immeasurably good about having the right book at the right time. On cross-country flights I had astonishing adventures thanks to Libba Bray and Anne Bronte. During a hard transition, Gilead was there for me and I read it extra slowly because its dwindling page count felt like the deflation of a life jacket. And when worst came to worst, Crenshaw extended a helping paw, and Hold Your Own reminded me to do just that.

Thank you, books.

View all my reviews

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The little bookish gift guide

Getting presents for people is my favorite part of the holiday season, and of course, I think bookish presents are the most fun. To share the joy, I'm posting this little holiday gift guide, the first part of which is partly inspired by something cool I saw on YouTube: If You Liked This. I've picked out a few popular books and paired each of them with a lesser-known book, so if someone on your list liked one, they might also be interested in the other. I've tried to point out pretty editions where possible, to maximize the thrill of unwrapping! The second part of the post has some more generic, but still bookish, types of gifts that I've had luck with before. Clicking on the images will take you to the Goodreads page (or the Etsy page in some cases).

For the lover of space opera
If you know someone who loves Star Wars but hasn't read Dune, get them Dune! It's the darker (and more subversive) forerunner of the Star Wars trilogy. Shown above is the beautiful Folio Society edition (if I were to ever get an FS book, it would be that one), but you can get the regular paperback for a much lower price, pretty much anywhere. If they've already read Dune, get them The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge. It won the Hugo award some years ago, but then went out of print - but was luckily re-released this past October. Like Dune, it deals with themes of immortality and ecology, but in a way all its own that also interestingly foreshadows certain things in Star Wars.

For the young bibliophile unafraid of ghosts

One of the things that people seem to love about The Book Thief is how it explores the power of reading even in difficult circumstances. A book with somewhat similar themes is Awake and Dreaming by Canadian author Kit Pearson. It's about a young girl named Theo who escapes into literature and daydreams to get away from her lonely and impoverished life. I don't want to spoil it, but I'll mention that it comes to have a somewhat supernatural element. It is one of my absolute favorite young adult/middle grade books.

For the urban fantasy adventurer

In many of Neil Gaiman's stories, the fantastical is just around the corner from reality, and the world can be very dark although it's never completely devoid of light. If that sort of story appeals, then I would recommend Falling in Love with Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson. It is a short story collection that spans multiple genres, from horror to sci-fi to fairytale.

For the internet enthusiast

.... Which I guess accounts for all of us. It seems that the internet and virtual reality are becoming increasingly popular topics for sci-fi in the last few years, especially with the the arrival of Ready Player One. If you're interested in these visions of how computer-aided interconnectedness will shape our future, check out The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster. This novella explores a future where people turn to computers for knowledge, solace, food, everything. Blogs, Skype, YouTube, GrubHub, all imagined by E.M Forster in the year 1910. This isn't the lightweight joyride of Ready Player One, but a thoughtful and necessary complement to it.

For the traveler

Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories that focus on the many ways in which immigrants experience "otherness". The Arrival, by Malaysian-Australian illustrator Shaun Tan, is a graphic novel that takes on the same themes, but in a surreal setting. The story is told entirely through images rather than words. People who enjoy how Lahiri creates subtle, telling details in her prose might appreciate a similar quality in Tan's illustrations. And those illustrations are seriously beautiful.

For the one who doesn't mind some stressful reading
I'm sure that's not the best way of describing it, but the feeling of being trapped and subjugated that pervades The Handmaid's Tale (the Folio Society edition is actually affordable this month!) is very much present in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Shown is the gorgeous new Vintage paperback edition

For the Potter fan...

...I don't think the world needs another recommendation based on Harry Potter, but I'll point you to my list on the subject just in case. They're mostly focused on magical eduction, and they all gave me a little bit of a Potter fix. Each is a great read for wintertime.

Other bookish gifts
I've given and received a lot of notebooks over the years. I love pretty notebooks, but have a weird inability to write in ones that are too ornate. The brand that I found to strike the best balance is Leuchtturm 1917. They have a clean, beautiful design inside and out, combined with a lot of practical features: numbered pages, table of contents, pockets, and a bookmark ribbon.

Bookends come in a huge number of shapes and sizes. A few years ago I gave my mother, a bird lover, a pair of bookends in the shape of a quail family. I also like the idea of getting bookends that spell someone's initials.

Everyone has something that they're passionate about, and the chances are that there's a beautiful reference book to match it. This might sound weird, but I think books like these can make great gifts for children who have particularly enthusiastic interests. The encyclopedias of dogs, cats, and horses that I received as a child are still some of my most treasured books.

Bookmarks can be super cute stocking-stuffers. As long as the recipient isn't someone like me, who loses them constantly. :)

So tell me, what are some bookish gifts that you're looking forward to giving?

Saturday, November 21, 2015

the right book at the right time

CrenshawCrenshaw by Katherine Applegate

It seems like the biggest cliche in the world to say that books are my friends, but that's really what it feels like sometimes. And that unread books are friends that I haven't made yet. I remember seeing this book somewhere and thinking that the cover was adorable, and shelving it as something I might read someday on the rare (I thought) occasion when I'd be in a mood for a middle-grade book. It was as if someone had slid a business card across a table, telling me to call them when I needed them. At the time, I had no idea what it would mean to need such a book. But when life conspired to bring about that need - when the worst thing happened and all I wanted was a big warm someone to sit near me for a little while - the knowledge of what to do was unmistakable.

Jackson is a 10-year-old boy whose family is going through difficult times. His parents try to look at the glass as half full, but Jackson sees no use in optimism: he's all about the facts, because he wants to be a scientist when he grows up. So it comes as a shock when he starts having visions of Crenshaw: a giant black-and-white cat who was once his imaginary friend. Crenshaw is linked inextricably to Jackson's likes and beliefs, but also exerts a will of his own. He refuses to follow Jackson's orders, and conveys ideas that Jackson struggles to make sense of. Jackson tries to figure out if Crenshaw is "real", and attempts to get rid of him so life can go back to normal. Meanwhile, the family's situation grows worse and we see how honest, responsible people can fall through cracks that widen every time society turns a blind eye.

While reading this book, I was reminded - of all things - of the Sufi poet Rumi's writings in which he refers to the Friend. It was not until reading this book while going through a dark period that the notion of the Friend started to click for me. Because to be honest, I can get hurt by the littlest of things. But when a hurt is so massive that it seems like it could slice right through me, it doesn't. It comes up against a part of me that almost has a mind of its own, decoupled from whatever turmoil is going on outside. It's something tiny and hard that just says nope - this won't go any further. There's no way that this is going to destroy us.

Is that stubborn little thing the seat of the imaginary friends I had as a child? Who knows.

The article I read about imaginary friends said they often appear during times of stress. It said that as kids mature, they tend to outgrow their pretend world.

But Crenshaw told me something else.

He said imaginary friends never leave. He said they were on call. Just waiting, in case they were needed.

What I've written is more about me than about the book, so I'll just stop by saying: thank you, Crenshaw.

View all my reviews

Friday, November 6, 2015

If you don’t say what you’re thinking, you end up lying when you really need to speak up.

The LakeThe Lake by Banana Yoshimoto
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This story is narrated by Chihiro, who is more concerned with external events than with the machinations of her own mind. Through what she does and doesn't tell us, her inner paradoxes are revealed. She places the highest value on the timelessness of her art, but says that she doesn't paint for the future. She acknowledges her ignorance about trauma as energetically as she clings to it. Her tone is casual, self-protective, and carefree in a way that requires a great deal of thought. Just because people are playing doesn't mean their hearts aren't in it.

Nakajima operates from a compartment deep within himself, a shelter from society and memory. He "meets" Chihiro as they gaze out from their respective apartment windows. They inch closer together as months pass, a process that we witness in snapshots of the everyday: taking naps, drinking coffee, painting nails. But something hangs in the background, silent. When you compare your anticipated recovery time to the remainder of your life expectancy and can't tell which is longer, you're in a position that nobody is looking to hear about. I don't want to be part of the loneliness that these not-normal people exude.

The titular body of water is a scene of Nakajima's childhood, but it's more than that. Chihiro likens their time together to the feeling of being underwater. The end of a person's life evokes the smell of water. The story is concerned with ends achievable through water: cleansing or drowning or both. Or freezing over: forming a shell for others to skitter across, featureless and unpredictable.

View all my reviews