This Week, I Read… (2020 #10)

37 - Dreams Underfoot

#37 – Dreams Underfoot, by Charles de Lint

  • Read: 3/4/20 – 3/7/20
  • Mount TBR: 37/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book that is between 400-600 pages
  • The Reading Frenzy: Close your eyes and pick a book from your shelf
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

A long time ago, at least fifteen years but possibly longer, I’m pretty sure I got a few de Lint novels out from the library and read them. I don’t remember which ones precisely, aside from The Onion Girl because I do recall that cover, and I thought, I remember thinking these were interesting, so why not give him a try again but start at the beginning?

So I didn’t know, when I picked this up from ThriftBooks, that it was a short story collection, and that’s my fault, because I was expecting a novel. But even taking my incorrect expectations into account, I was unimpressed by this.

Together the stories do paint a vivid picture of a place, a city, that could exist nearly anywhere in North America, at least anywhere many cultures have come together with their many traditions of folklore, mythical creatures, and magic. The world-building is the strongest thing about this; if I felt like combing through the book again for each specific detail, I could probably draw you a half-decent map of Newford. (But this is the age of the Internet, and I bet someone else, a more invested fan than me, already has.)

But though this city could exist anywhere it could definitely not exist anywhen. The combined vagueness and immediacy of place is not matched by an equal timelessness, because these stories are so incredibly, painfully dated in their language and details. How many times was a large cassette player called a “ghetto blaster?” How many musical references are there to existing artists like 10,000 Maniacs and The Pogues? How many characters have Mohawks? (Not that that isn’t still a thing, it is, but the hairstyle has an incredibly strong link with the punk culture of the ’80s.) All of the individual stories appeared in magazines throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s, and it shows in the level of technology in the setting, but also in the language. Compact discs aren’t even abbreviated as “CDs” yet! So there’s where the specificity of an urban fantasy setting rubs the wrong way against the threads of magical realism–I wanted these stories to be more timeless than they could possibly be.

My second major complaint is the weakness of characterization. Everyone gets a physical introduction of a paragraph or two that covers most of the same details–it’s very, very important that we know everyone’s height and hairstyle–but the stories do little to flesh out personalities, being so focused on the magical aspects of the story. Even the characters that come up the most often are still fairly thin, built from tropes that don’t gain complexity through their actions–Jilly is a starving-artist type, Geordie a starving-musician type, and so on. I especially don’t like how all of the women are basically the same woman with slightly different looks and slightly different backstories. Jilly didn’t bother me in that regard so much because she’s the first one we meet, but the Hispanic waitress and the Romani musican lady honestly didn’t feel all that different from her, except the waitress used the most awkward forced Spanish in her narrative even while she whined that she had hung out with “Anglos” so long that she was losing her Spanish and could barely speak to her abuela anymore. Listen, I’m not bilingual, but I’ve read a lot of advice on how to write bilingual characters, based on how actual bilingual people switch between their languages, and this ain’t it. This is definitely a White Male Author writing both poor examples of women and worse examples of women of color.

And yeah, I know, this was more than thirty years ago in some cases and attitudes have progressed. Maybe his more recent works are better in this regard, but my interest was in starting the series from the beginning to get the full picture of his world. The world still seems interesting, but it’s populated by characters I can’t connect with. I won’t be coming back again.

38 - The Inexplicable Logic of My Life

#38 – The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

  • Read: 3/7/20 – 3/9/20
  • Mount TBR: 38/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book originally published in a year that is a prime number
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A bildungsroman
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I wish I had liked this better. It tackles grief in a way I’ve rarely seen in YA, with a great deal of depth of emotion, but ultimately, the writing style isn’t a good match for the subject matter.

Everything is too slick. Short sentences. Plain language. Talking-heads-style dialogue that goes on for pages without reminding you who’s talking, without showing anything that they’re doing, without interjecting any internal monologue or stray thoughts or reactions.

There’s nothing to hold on to for more than a few seconds, it all just slides right by. The text is so effortless to read that it’s easy to let it go right through you without leaving a firm impression.

That being said, this work does have a lot to say about the difficulties of being a teenage boy, especially in an unusual family situation, with the pressures of conformity, of grief, of unexplained anger. Salvador was a likable and sweet and sympathetic in his confusion about how to move forward. As a girl, I never felt the same brand of societal pressure to grow up and become a “woman” in the same way we push boys into manhood–society was looking over my shoulder in an entirely different way that isn’t a one-to-one correlation–but this story made me feel that pressure, that confusion, that uncertainty.

So this isn’t a bad story, or even a bad book. I just wish it weren’t so easily digestible, that it asked me to do a little more of the work to reach its conclusions, that it trusted me a bit more to engage with its themes.

39 - The Bride Test

#39 – The Bride Test, by Helen Hoang

  • Read: 3/10/11
  • Mount TBR: 39/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book from the 2019 Goodreads Choice Awards
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I read this in one sitting, thank you, unexpected day off work. (I almost managed that with its predecessor, not from lack of trying.)

So, having read both now, it’s clear to me that Hoang’s romantic thesis, the core of both books, is the idea that anyone is capable of loving and being loved, if they can figure out how to communicate with their partner. A lesson she’s showing through romances between autistic and neurotypical partners, but honestly, a lot of NT people need to learn this lesson whether their partners are atypical or not. (A lot of romances, too, the fastest thing that will make me toss a romance across the room is a plot based on constant misunderstandings or an unrealistic lack of communication. Sure, it’s difficult to fully open up to a partner under a lot of circumstances, but when you can’t talk to them about anything? Not a strong foundation for a relationship.)

I’m leading with this because I love this thesis, this central theme, far more than I dislike any smaller items in the book. Is the setup strange and more than a little uncomfortable at times? Yes. Are some of Khai’s family going to great lengths to manipulate him “for his own good?” Yes. Do the leads spend very little time actually getting to know each other, despite having the whole summer together? Yes. So (again like its predecessor) I see the flaws others fairly level at it, but none of them detracted from my can’t-put-it-down enjoyment of the book.

40 - The Thing About December

#40 – The Thing About December, by Donal Ryan

  • Read: 3/11/20 – 3/13/20
  • Mount TBR: 40/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A prompt that failed to make this year’s final list (a book by an Irish author)
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book set in Ireland
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I only finished this because of its short length and my own stubbornness. This is not a book for me.

First, in the “others think it’s great but I’m not the right reader” department, this is so heavily stuffed with Irish idiom and slang that there were stretches of the narrative that were absolutely incomprehensible to me. Like, I can look up words and phrases online to fill in a lot of gaps, but when Johnsey’s internal monologue or someone speaking to him goes off on a tear and starts using endless idiom and it’s all a long string of words that don’t make sense in that order to me and it just keeps going and oh maybe I see something that makes sense for a second but then here’s more slang and here’s more idiom and at the bottom of the page the paragraph finishes but I’m not sure what just happened because it’s all a rush and I don’t know how it fits together. For a finish.

It’s repetitive and exhausting. But I can see how it would flow for a reader who is far more familiar with the language. I can see the charm of the style, but only as an outsider who will never really “get” it.

On a much more widely damning note, Johnsey is one of the most boring and passive protagonists I’ve ever read. He doesn’t do anything. Everything happens to him. His father died. Then his mother dies. Then he’s beaten to a pulp by the local gang of bullies. Then he lies around in the hospital silently falling in love with his nurse, who for some reason gives him a hand job, thus securing his adoration forever. Then when he gets out, his hospital roommate starts swinging by, then the nurse. And all the while various townspeople are trying to get him to sell his land for development, and the newspaper is writing articles about him blockading progress by refusing to sell, but he’s not refusing, he’s just not doing anything. Then the weird, over-written and unsatisfying ending happens.

Everything happens to him. The only real active choice he makes for the bulk of the story is quitting his job when he’s in the hospital and his boss comes to see him, but that’s both out of left field and out of character. Johnsey just goes with the flow of everything because all his life he’s been coddled/bullied/told he’s too stupid to do things on his own. I understand that his history has built him to be that passive nobody, but that doesn’t make him an interesting character to follow, and honestly I don’t care for the constant conflation of mental disability, mental health issues, and violence. I don’t think there was any ending, happy or sad, that would have made me like this story better, but I can say Johnsey with a gun followed by a cute one-liner restating the title definitely wasn’t it, if such an ending could exist.

This ended up being just a slog of misery that I didn’t enjoy at all.

Learn to Draw 2020: Update #1

Windflower 12-27-19 #3

In an effort to get back on track with Learn to Draw 2020, it’s time I shared my progress. No, I have not been working on this project as consistently as I had hoped I would. Yes, I am still proud of what I’ve accomplished so far.

No, I will not allow myself any negative self-talk about my drawings.

I’m not going to share every single page, because even if I haven’t been drawing every day, I do have a lot of images and I’d rather highlight the ones that show my evolution than dump all of them out there at once. (I do post all of them individually to my journaling Tumblr, if you want to see.)

As I said, I was technically starting before 2020 did, because I had a weeklong vacation between Christmas and New Year’s. Thus, on 12/27/20, did I find myself one evening doing a blind-contour exercise of a sewing machine sitting in the corner of my guest room. (Blind contour is when you draw the outline of an object without being allowed to look at the paper as you go.) It’s odd-looking, but it is at least recognizable as a sewing machine.

Next up, modified-contour drawings of my hand “in a complex pose” and a few days later, my feet. This time, I’m allowed to look at the paper as I draw to make sure I’m not scattering elements all over the page, but I’m training myself to “see” edges of objects and replicate them on the page.

The negative-space exercises begin! A chair, my snake plant, and my Kitchen Aid stand mixer, all done not  by drawing the object, but by drawing around the object by focusing on the negative spaces.

And finally, where I am now. Both drawings were done from photographs I took at a local shopping plaza, going for complex and interesting angles to draw, because the newest lesson is on sighting. Which I am having a hard time with–these two drawings are just over a month apart, because I found the process so awkward and unpleasant, constantly stopping to hold up my pencil and close one eye and judge angles and relative proportions. My brain doesn’t like something about that, though it’s too soon to tell if a) I’m just bad at it because I’m just starting, or b) it really does make my poor sick anxious brain upset to have to refocus my sight so frequently in such an unnatural way. More practice will prove which is true, because either it will get easier as I do it more, or it won’t, and I’ll know this drawing technique isn’t for me.

After I do a few more of these, I’ll get to move on to portraits!

Flash Fiction #8: Apparently My Brain Wants to Write a CEO/Assistant Romance

[This is a scene from a plot bunny I’ve been writing down, in between working on Fifty-Five Days, so that I won’t forget anything until I can go back to it later, maybe. Who knows if this idea will bear fruit?]

Piper Kearns hated sleeping on her back. She was a stomach sleeper, despite all the click-bait articles insisting that sleep position was the worst for your spine (which she believed,) your digestion (which seemed more questionable,) or your fertility (which seemed completely unrelated and was not a particularly high priority for her at the moment anyway.) She would roll onto her belly, tuck one knee up to the side slightly to keep her legs from feeling glued together by her heavy blankets, and tuck the hand from the same side under her pillow. Whenever she posed herself that way, sleep was instant; whenever she tried to train herself to sleep on her back, or even on her side, for the supposed health benefits, she tossed for hours until she gave up and rolled over anyway.

All of that made her unexpected hospital stay more miserable than it had had to be. So did not coming fully into awareness, out from under the fog of sedation and pain medication, until long after she was supposed to be at work. Her phone sat on the tray in front of her, and it had messages waiting. Not as many as she had expected, honestly, but her boss was a busy man, and she knew there would be one from him wondering why she had not come in on time, nor called in properly. But there were actually three, spaced exactly an hour apart, as if he had set an alarm to remind him to check up on her.

If the pattern held, he would be calling again in seventeen minutes. She had that long to figure out what to say to him.

She knew she wouldn’t be in trouble. “Hi, I couldn’t call because I was unexpectedly rushed to the hospital last night and I only woke up half an hour ago,” would solve any possible repercussions from her breach of policy. Mr. Perkins was strict in many ways and had high expectations, but he was no monster.

But that line left her open to questions about why she was in the hospital. Questions that were perfectly understandable from a place of concern and surprise, and questions that were illegal when coming from her boss. He knew that, and he wouldn’t ask. But if he did, if, she had to be ready with some bland explanation, because invoking the illegality of those questions about her personal medical situation would only imply she had something to hide.

A car crash? That wouldn’t work. Her car was fine, and not using it “while she got it fixed” would be too much of an inconvenience. Her injuries weren’t at all consistent with being a pedestrian or even a bicyclist hit by a moving car. Even at the low speeds that wouldn’t simply have killed her. She couldn’t make that make any sense.

She flexed her left hand and felt a wave of gratitude that it was only sprained, not broken. It was still swollen badly and the brace holding it was uncomfortable, but it would heal far more quickly and cause her less aggravation. What lie could account for a sprained wrist, badly bruised ribs, and a split lip? Those were the injuries she couldn’t hide, because they were visible, or in the case of her ribs, because she couldn’t breathe deeply yet and had to move cautiously. She’d already been up to the little bathroom in the corner of her hospital room once, and walking normally had been impossible. She was reduced to a shuffling gait, half as fast as usual.

She had to call him back but hesitated, because she couldn’t come up with any lie that sounded as reasonable as the truth, and she wasn’t a particularly good liar. She was good at keeping her opinions and thoughts to herself, which the same thing at all; when she tried to deliberately say something untrue, her brain balked and her tongue stuttered.

Mr. Perkins joked sometimes about inviting her to the monthly poker game he threw for his friends and some of his more important subordinates. She knew it was a joke because there was a special version of his smile reserved for jokes. And because it was obvious to both of them that she would get fleeced if she went.

Thirteen minutes. It would be better if she called first; it would put her in a position of greater power. She still wasn’t ready, though.

She hadn’t listened to the messages yet; she knew what they would say, and she was afraid if she heard Mr. Perkins being angry at her, she would start to cry again. But, on the other hand, she would look like a fool if she called in without listening first and being prepared for his mood, without knowing what he had already said to her.

The first one was exactly what she expected, short and gruff and word-for-word from the company policy on tardiness. “Miss Kearns, it’s five after nine, and your desk is empty. Please arrive as soon as possible or contact me with your ETA.” Normally it would be a department chair making the call about one of their juniors, but her only direct superior was the CEO himself. The other officers were her seniors, certainly, but they had their own assistants and she didn’t answer to them. Just to Mr. Perkins.

He had never had to make that call to her before, and he sounded annoyed he needed to take even the thirty seconds it had required.

The second message had come one hour and one minute later. “Miss Kearns, in the three years you’ve worked for me this has never happened. Please call me and let me know what’s going on.”

Short, but completely off-script, and more concerned than annoyed. That message shook her a little, because she had imagined him growing increasingly frustrated by having to answer his own phone and make his own calls and wade through–what was on the docket this morning? She honestly didn’t remember, and that should have concerned her, but the minutiae of her job seemed distant and fuzzy this morning.

The third message was only fifty-nine minutes after that–had she been wrong about the timer? Or had he been staring at it waiting for it to go off, then given up early? “Piper,” he began. “Now I’m honestly worried. You’ve never pulled a no-show and you barely ever call in anyway. Are you lying in a ditch somewhere? Did your apartment burn down? I’d have called the police already if I didn’t know they would laugh at me trying to report a missing person after two hours. If I don’t hear from you by lunch, I think I’ll start making calls anyway. Where are you?”

Her hands shook so hard she set down the phone before she dropped it, because retrieving it from the floor was utterly beyond her at the moment, and calling a nurse in to do it would be a bother they didn’t need. She gave herself a few minutes to cry, then a few more to calm down enough to pick the phone back up.

He answered on the second ring. “Piper?”

He hardly ever used her first name, as they were a very formal bunch at work, and hearing it for the second time that morning in his voice nearly made her cry again. “Mr. Perkins, I’m sorry. I’m–I’m in the hospital. I only woke up a little while ago, and the doctors needed to go over everything with me. I couldn’t call any sooner.”

“Oh, thank god you’re okay. I mean, are you? Okay?”

She swallowed painfully, her throat still swollen from crying. “Injured, not dying.” She bit her lip against the need to explain. “They’re discharging me soon. I can be in after lunch.”

“No!” There was a pause where Piper imagined Mr. Perkins forcing himself to calm down, to lower his voice. He really had been worried about her. “If you need time off, you can take it. You haven’t used a single sick day in months. Just have the hospital fax your work return forms and I’ll authorize them.”

“I can work, sir,” she said in a small voice. “It’s not that bad.” And she didn’t want to go home and lay around doing nothing for three days, or however long the doctors would tell her she needed to rest.

In truth, she didn’t want to go home at all. But she was already forming a plan, and she would need to return to get her things, at least enough for a few days. Maybe a week. She wasn’t sure how long she could pull this off without anyone knowing or suspecting. Her organizational skills went into a sudden overdrive, creating a list in her head of the items she would need to pack and the things she would need to do, which meant she zoned out while her boss replied.

“I won’t pretend I can’t use you here if you’re well enough, but your health comes first.” He took a deep breath. “Do as you think best. I trust you to make that decision for yourself. But don’t be afraid to take shorter hours while you’re recovering, if you need to.” This is where her brain reengaged in the conversation, and she was about to launch into an entirely separate list of everything she needed to get done in the next week, which doubled as the list of reasons why she needed to work. But he either heard her indrawn breath, or he knew her well enough to know what she was going to say. “I can handle things for a while without you. And if I can’t, there are other people I can lean on, okay?”

“Okay.” She vowed privately that she was still going to put in her hours, maybe extra overall, though possibly with more breaks. “I’ll see you this afternoon.”

He chuckled softly. “I don’t know why I thought you would listen to me, but fine. Come in this afternoon. But I reserve the right to send you right back out if you collapse on your desk.”

“Fair enough, sir.” She ended the call and opened the note app on her phone and started a checklist, to fill the time until she got her discharge sorted out.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #9)

34 - Blind Attraction

#34 – Blind Attraction, by Eden Summers

  • Read: 2/28/20 – 2/29/20
  • Mount TBR: 34/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

This novel can’t decide if it’s character-driven or plot-driven, so it suffers the worst of both.

Alana, as a heroine, is full of contradictions, but not the good kind like you want. She’d deliberately trying to break free of her sheltered past, which leads her to engage in semi-reckless behavior, and that’s good, in the sense that it’s a defining trait for her that (mostly) informs her actions through the whole book. On the other hand, in situations dealing with her past, she’s incredibly wishy-washy. First she doesn’t want to get to know her estranged grandparents, then she does, then she freaks out when she finds out her rapist father isn’t dead like she was told, but then she’s okay and wants to get to know the family her mother kept from her. In another situation, she never ever wants to return home to her mother who lied to her, she doesn’t feel like that’s home anymore, but then the very next thing she does is return home to confront her mother about everything, but only because her mother had an accident and is in the hospital, but Alana isn’t there to help, just to insist her mother get help for her issues. Like, I get that “I’m never ever going home” isn’t a threat most people follow through on for their whole lives, but it really cheapens her resolve to have her break her word only a few days later.

So if Alana is trying to be the character-driven half of the novel, credit for the trying, her love interest Mitch is fully the plot-driven half, because he has no actual personality. He is completely the standard-issue semi-bad-boy rock star who has a vague “rock star” past of groupies and indulgence, but no actual back story, I couldn’t tell you a thing about a) the band’s history, b) his childhood, c) his family, or d) any views he has on literally anything except sex and commitment. In the earliest part of the story, he’s the rock god who is swooned over by Alana and falls in lust with her because she’s visibly different from the crowd of typical groupies around her. (Oh, yeah, let me tell you about how many rock-star novels are all about “but this girl is so different from all those bitches, she’s real, and that’s why I love her.”) After her injury in his presence, Mitch cares for her pretty damn tenderly, I’ll admit, and I do love a thoughtful man. But why? Why is he so damn wonderful to her when he doesn’t know her at all and his band mates are commenting on how out of character that is for him? The plot attempts to explain this with a bit about his hero complex in the past, there’s an incident with a girl overdosing on their bus, but in the very next scene his internal monologue reveals that’s all bullhonky and it didn’t happen that way, so there’s no explanation for his behavior but “this girl is different and I’m already catching feelings even though I’ve known her for less than a few hours.”

The plot needed to have a contrivance that keeps them together past a single night, so an accident temporarily impaired her vision. Mitchell can’t be a ragingly sexy douchebag to her while she’s recovering because that would be unforgivably taking advantage of her and romantic heroes aren’t supposed to do that, so he’s a perfectly tender gentleman instead, for absolutely no apparent reason. So if this behavior is in-character for him (like if the hero complex were real) then tell me that; but if it’s out-of-character for him, like it apparently is, YOU STILL HAVE TO TELL ME WHY.

On a larger scale even than the two halves of the romance making a structure that doesn’t really fit together, this book handles rape rather insensitively. Alana is a child of rape and her mother withdrew from the world, raising her daughter to fear men. Alana’s story is one of breaking free from this skewed view of reality, and as far as that goes, it’s valid. But in order for her to assert her independence and justify her actions as normal and adult and her own, she basically has to smack-talk her mother constantly. Yes, in the end her mother does need help for her mental health, but Alana’s confrontation with her about it is pretty brutal, and having her mother mistakenly shoot one of Mitch’s band mates (thinking he was Mitch) with a pellet rifle when they came to the retreat? Like, can we not portray mentally unstable people as unnecessarily violent? Can we not make a rape victim the villain of the story who’s holding the heroine back and shooting the man she thought was her daughter’s boyfriend? The entire thing left a terrible taste in my mouth.

35 - I am a Cat

#35 – I am a Cat, by Natsume Soseki

  • Read: 3/1/20 – 3/3/20
  • Mount TBR: 35/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book set in Japan, host of the 2020 Olympics
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book with a green cover
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

DNF @ page 150. I tried, I really tried.

The first chapter was witty and sardonic and fantastic. I am a cat! This is how a cat views the world! This is what cats think of petty human troubles! Cats are the superior life form!

Which, of course, anyone who has ever lived with a cat would immediately recognize.

But by the end of the first volume, I was tired of the style. It quickly stopped being about the cat, and became the cat constantly eavesdropping on old Japanese men having arguments and lying to each other, and while it was still often funny, it was funny in a different way, one that I didn’t find as gripping, and one that often relied on cultural/historical references I don’t have a grounding in.

Plus, the translation seemed to be subbing in British idiom when necessary for Japanese terms, which gave the whole thing an incredibly odd flavor to an American reader with a passing knowledge of Japanese.

Both the extra material and several reviews I’ve looked at point out that the first chapter was supposed to be the entire thing, but it was so popular Soseki continued it as a serial. In that form, I can see how it would be more effective, spacing out the doses of similar humor to readers, and turning the soap-opera betrothal story into something with cliffhangers, at least mild ones, while waiting for the next part to be released. But as a giant brick of dense satire with unvarying tone to be read at once, I found it too exhausting for my initial enthusiasm to cope with.

I really did love that first chapter, so I really am disappointed it didn’t stay that good.

36 - Wabi-Sabi

#36 – Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, by Leonard Koren

  • Read: 3/4/20
  • Mount TBR: 36/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with a title that rhymes
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

It’s going to take me longer to write this review, probably, than it did to read the book.

Let’s get the obvious complaints I have out of the way: the photographs are terrible and do nothing to enhance the book or my understanding of the concept of wabi-sabi. I don’t know if they are in color in other editions, but this one, they are black and white, often out of focus, and sometimes lacking enough contrast or perspective to even tell what it is I’m looking at. There’s one in particular of a large room, the interior of a tea house actually, and I only know that because of the extensive description in the back notes, detailing how the wall pictured is “a mosaic composed of metal in various states of tarnish and rust.” Well, that’s great, I guess, I see how it relates to wabi-sabi as described here, but the photograph conveys exactly none of that. Rendered in black and white, it could easily be mistaken for the exact slick, modern-minimalist, industrial look that is precisely the antithesis of wabi-sabi.

I’d rather not have photographs at all than have poor quality, misleading, or unhelpful ones.

As for the text itself, it’s written by an artist, and it is definitely for artists. The tone takes me right back to the pretentiousness of the art classes I took in college, right down to the language that looks intellectual and precise but often fails to have any real meaning. I know, I know, it’s a stereotype that artists are pretentious, and obviously not all of them are, but good heavens, this embodies that stereotype to the extreme, right down to the extra dose of racism the white author doles out by posing himself as a master of understanding wabi-sabi and going on at length about how modern Japanese culture is losing this aesthetic and how he has to promote it to the world in order to “save” it.

I’m all for cultural appreciation and I do want to know more about Japanese culture and history, I always have, I almost had enough credits in college for an Asian Studies minor because I kept taking classes outside my major (biology) because damn if I wasn’t fascinated. But am I about to write a book about my flawed outsider’s understanding of a core cultural concept of a people not my own, under the guise of saving it from extinction (at worst) or obscurity (at best)? No! Of course not!

But it’s rationalized at the beginning by noting how, when the author spoke to native Japanese people about the concept, they found it difficult to explain, or sometimes unwilling to try, and then he takes a jab at Japanese language being unsuitable for “explaining things in a rational way” which was just peak bullshit for me out of the whole book.

So I’ve just blasted this work for having awful pictures throughout, and for the author embarking on a spree of artistically pretentious cultural appropriation with a white-savior complex he openly admits to in the beginning. Seriously, he actually says he’s on a personal journey to “save” wabi-sabi.

After all that, why does this book even get a second star from me? I’ve made it sound like trash.

But, in some small way, it did deepen my understanding of the concept. I’m not a very spiritual person, so that aspect of it remains out of my reach, but as I was reading, I kept relating what was being explained to a concept I am incredibly familiar with: visible mending. I know about two techniques in this sphere, both of Japanese origin, and I practice one. The first (that I’ve never done) is kintsugi, a method of repairing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with powdered precious metals, often but not always gold. It’s gorgeous and apparently there are kits you can buy for it but a) they’re expensive, b) I don’t actually have any broken pottery to fix, and c) apparently the lacquers used can cause poison-ivy-like allergic reactions? So it’s a beautiful thing I appreciate but will probably never do myself.

The second, though, that I do all the time in my recent years of attempting to be a slow fashionista, is using boro patching and/or sashiko embroidery to repair my clothing and extend its life. Like kintsugi, the entire point of this style is to enhance the beauty of a damaged object with the fixing of it, rather than trying to make it perfect and unspoiled again. That’s wabi-sabi in a nutshell, at least on the material side of things, which I do get very well, unlike the spiritual side.

So I did gain something by reading this book. I did learn some (but certainly not all) of the history of wabi-sabi, and gained some understanding of its precepts, but ultimately I think this is a flawed package to convey it. Several other reviewers who thought poorly of this book, for whatever reason, have offered alternative sources by Japanese authors, which are going on my TBR right now.

Down the TBR Hole #28

Down the TBR Hole is a (very) bookish meme, originally created by Lia @ Lost In A Story. She has since combed through all of her TBR (very impressive) and diminished it by quite a bit, but the meme is still open to others! How to participate:

  • Go to your Goodreads to-read shelf
  • Order by Ascending Date Added
  • Take the first 5 (or 10 if you’re feeling adventurous) books. Of course if you do this weekly, you start where you left off the last time.
  • Read the synopses of the books
  • Decide: keep it or let it go?

I’m at exactly 1000 books read on Goodreads, and down to just over 600 in my TBR. Progress! So let’s keep that downward trend going, probably:

#1 – Rogue Desire, various authors

35654211._SY475_A romance anthology of politically-minded short stories, featuring one author I love, a few I’ve heard of, and the rest I don’t know at all. I’m sure that I added this because of Tamsen Parker’s presence, but reading through the blurbs for each story, I think this collection may have missed its moment with me.

I have enough unread authors already sitting on my Kindle that I don’t need to specifically buy more right now. This goes.

 

#2 – The Phoenix Codex, by Bryn Donovan

phoenixI love Bryn’s blog and have been following it for a few years, but have yet to read any of her work. I know one of her older books escaped cutting on my TBR in a previous post, but this one can stay too, because I dig paranormal romance and I have a good feeling about this one. I’ve just recently broken my book-buying ban, and I’m not planning to go crazy with purchases, but this could easily be a birthday present to myself in May, because I need to do more to support authors I’m a fan of.

 

#3 – Antisocial, by Heidi Cullinan

antisocialI have no doubt I was attracted to this by the cover, and the promise of gray-ace m/m romance.

Looking into both the positive and negative reviews, I’m far less sold on its content than I was the shiny packaging. Instead of being Japanese cultural appreciation, it’s shading far more toward appropriation.

Listen, I’ll be honest, I’m a weeb. I adore anime, I’ve read my share of manga, and if I weren’t white as hell I’d be rocking a kimono to every formal occasion ever because they’re basically the most beautiful item of clothing on the planet.

But I’m not okay with an author (allegedly) making up a fictional Japanese-sounding town/college of “culture admirers” and having white main characters randomly speaking Japanese and not actually having any Japanese characters, apparently. The positive reviews of this book speak well of the romance, and that’s great, but the negative reviews speak poorly of literally everything else in the book, so..it goes, what the hell was it even doing here in the first place.

#4 – #6 — the Blank Canvas series, by Adriana Anders

I think I came across the second in this series, was interested, and added all three. But looking past the exceptionally pretty covers into both the blurbs and reviews, they’re all going. All of these stories cover one of the leads undergoing and recovering from serious trauma, and that’s not inherently bad, but many reviews across all three books are sending up red flags like insta-love, moves too fast for believable recovery, unplanned pregnancy, and shallow dynamics. I’m getting the feeling there’s little emotional depth underpinning the serious nature of the various traumas, and I don’t want to waste my time on abuse/angst porn.

#7 – Kira-Kira, by Cynthia Kadohata

kira kiraI don’t remember where I came across this–I’m still plugging along through books I added in the second half of 2017–but I’m sure it was because this is middle-grade historical fiction, written by a Japanese-American author, focusing on a female coming-of-age story.

I don’t read a lot of middle-grade these days, but that’s enough of a rarity to intrigue me. Little girls of Japanese ancestry in the 1950’s? Not long after WWII? I’m sold on the idea, because this isn’t a story I’ve ever seen done before, and that’s enough. It stays.

 

#8 – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith

brooklynYeah, I know. Somehow I’ve never read this. And since the previous entry on my TBR, made on the same day, was also a girl’s coming-of-age story, I have a feeling now that I saw a recommendation list that day and starting plucking stuff from it.

I do often find fiction set in New York City, by New Yorkers, a certain kind of insufferable, but I won’t know if this falls into that pit until I try.

It definitely stays.

 

#9 – Sugar Daddies, by Jade West

sugarThere’s a problem I’ve had from time to time in assessing books for this meme, and that’s the fact that the kinkier the romance novel, the more divisive the reviews tend to be. Readers on board with the kink in question will five-star the crap out of the book, and most of the rest will hate it with the fiery passion of a thousand suns.

So in looking at this MMF menage romance…it’s dicey. Two of my Goodreads friends have read it; one gave it four stars and a reasonably glowing review, the other a two-star rating with no review.

As expected, the general pool of reviews follows the pattern I outlined above.

I’ve read good MMF novels I enjoyed thoroughly, one that I even loved best out of its entire series (Kit Rocha’s Beyond books.) I’ve read a series with a couple that turned into a thruple down the road (Abigail Barnette’s The Boss series.) I’ve read middling romantic suspense where the best part of the story was the fact that the romance was MMF and the fun dynamics that thruples can have (one of the novels in Lexi Blake’s Masters and Mercenaries.) So it’s safe to say I’m down with this kink in my reading. I think I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt and keep it on the list.

#10 – Meddling Kids, by Edgar Cantero

kidsI added this book because of the hype surrounding it at release–it was everywhere, and it sounded vaguely interesting, a mashup described as Scooby-Doo meets Cthulu.

But, boy, howdy, in the two years and change since, have I heard basically nothing about it, while the humdrum reviews piled up. And one Goodreads friend pointed out some systemic problematic attitudes towards Native American culture, trans people, and mental health.

Doesn’t make me want to read it, and it was added mostly on a whim anyway, so this goes with no regrets.


So I cut 6/10 this month, which is reasonable. The actual chunk of the TBR list I was examining this time covered less than a week of August 2017, which is crazy, at this rate I’ll never be finished with this meme! Should I start doing fifteen a month? These posts are already so long…

End of the Month Wrap-Up: February 2020!

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I read fifteen books and only DNF’d one of them! Go me!

Work continues at a decent clip on Fifty-Five Days, a.k.a. #rockstarnovel. I hit a rough patch last week when I was too sick to do much, but that happens, and the deadline I gave myself (end of March) is reasonably generous without letting me slack off too much. I feel confident I’ll have this draft done on time.

Honestly, I didn’t do any better this month than January on my exercise or drawing goals. I’m no happy about that, but I’m not going to beat myself up about it, either. I am trying to do a lot right now, probably too much.

I actually switched out my video game time this past month, mostly, for crafting time. I purged my wardrobe of the stuff I wasn’t wearing, assessed what was left, and started filling in some of the blanks with thrifted items, which involved a decent amount of sewing and alterations. Also, I picked up my knitting needles again and started my Christmas gift knitting, plus I have reclaimed a few thrift-store sweaters, turning them back into yarn I can knit myself! So that explains why I wasn’t making time for drawing.

The more I examine my long-term goals for creating daily habits, the more I see that my tendency towards enthusiasm/obsession/hyperfocus means that I do something intensely for a few days to a few weeks, then drop it for something else entirely. Which isn’t bad in and of itself, but is pretty antithetical to the “a little progress every day” mindset that would help me exercise/draw/write more consistently. Though I do still write nearly every day!

So, with that in mind, goals for March:

  1. Run/walk three times a week. If running seems like too much, as it has recently, walking is okay. Anything is better than nothing, right?
  2. Finish the Fifty-Five Days rewrite.
  3. Spend at least an hour a week drawing. Even if I have to schedule it!
  4. Read all the books in my TBR for the challenges and hopefully at least two or three more.
  5. General crafting stuff: Get at least two things out of my mending/altering pile and back into my closet. Keep knitting the shawl I started, though I don’t know whether I’ll finish it in March or not. Knit at least one more drawstring bag for gift-giving.
  6. Post all blog posts (after this one, which is a few hours late) on time! I’ve been slacking about this!

This Week, I Read… (2020 #8)

30 - The English Patient

#30 – The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje

  • Read: 2/21/20 – 2/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 30/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book published in the 20th century
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book set in Venice or Italy
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I’ve been reading a lot of books this month that I didn’t end up enjoying, but it is this one that has finally crystallized for me the concept that has been swirling vaguely through my head for weeks as I try to figure out why I’ve been disappointed by most of the recent string of books I’ve read.

The English Patient was more enjoyable to me that most “literature” that I’ve attempted to read, though not by much, but that small difference has illuminated for me why so many highly-praised books, so many award-winning novels, have utterly fallen flat for me.

“Literature” often values theme over everything else. I don’t. I value character the most. If a story doesn’t have well-developed characters that propel the narrative, I probably won’t like it.

I tried to read Beauty is a Wound a few weeks ago and failed to get through it. It did remind me, as apparently it was supposed to, of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I also did not finish. Both of those books explored theme through plot–the characters were names on a page, incidental at best. The plot happened, very much in the classic “and then” story format, but in both cases (and many others) I don’t care what happens next if I don’t understand, or the author simply won’t tell me, why the characters are doing what they are doing.

If you can’t get me invested in the characters, I won’t care about the plot, and I definitely won’t care about any grand themes the work is supposed to embody.

So how does this relate to The English Patient? It’s unique in my reading experience–at least since I started reviewing all my reads several years ago–in that it attempts to explore theme through character, not plot. There’s very little plot to speak of, actually, to the point where the first half of the book is directionless wasteland of character exploration, with beautiful language but no momentum. (Like the desert! Oh, look, I figured out the incredibly obvious metaphor that underlies most of the book!) But still, that was enough to intrigue me, to make me wonder why Hana would devote herself to a single grievously wounded patient, why she and Kip shared a mutual fascination with each other, why Caravaggio took such an interest in the English patient and the mystery of his identity.

Ultimately, I didn’t care for the story that much, even when I had the answers to those questions, and the ending was strange and unsatisfying, because, again, nothing really happens, so there isn’t all that much to resolve. For a 300-page book, the plot points that can be condensed down to a recognizable story arc, something you could write down as an outline, is so thin that I think calling it “skeletal” would be generous.

But the language is beautiful–another aspect of writing that “literature” often values above character, and while I don’t, I can at least appreciate good imagery and a tendency for strong turns of phrase. Not everything landed, in that respect, because I do get tired of male authors being obsessed with male characters’ penises, and those images are almost always cringe-inducing, but most of the rest of the book was fine.

So, if my value hierarchy is character > plot > theme > language, then this book is theme > character > language > plot, which makes it a better match for me than a lot of other classics, but still not a good one.

The Only Harmless Great Thing RD3_quote4_pms2_pink

#31 – The Only Great Harmless Thing, by Brooke Bolander

  • Read: 2/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 31/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book that can be read in a day
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book that won an award in 2019 (Nebula)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Five stars for the concept, two stars for the execution.

I love the idea of tying together two concurrent tragedies in an alternate-history novelette that, as a bonus, gives us high-level sign-language communication with elephants, recognizing them as a sentient species. (Though some characters believe this far more than others.) I want a world where I can talk to elephants, thank you.

But the actual text is a jumble of jumping viewpoints, three narrators telling three stories over three different timelines. I did eventually get a handle on it, but I don’t usually expect a novelette to have such a high bar for entry. It’s confusing, and worse, it seems deliberately so, because there’s no reason this couldn’t have been even just a little longer in order to do simple things like establish time periods and narrators clearly, to give readers some handle on the structure rather than throwing everything at them in a tangle.

The other aspect of the text I am less than enamored with is the excessive two-word hypenated-noun silly-thing endless-adjective descriptors. See what I did there? Would you want to read that over and over again for even the short length of ninety pages?

What it boils down to is an interesting idea that isn’t really treated with the respect it warrants, and is instead written slickly, disposably, into a nugget of a story that is far more difficult to engage with than it needs to be.

32 - His Custody

#32 – His Custody, by Tamsen Parker

  • Read: 2/25/20
  • Mount TBR: 32/150
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

There are a few tropes in this book that should squick me out, but don’t, because of the delicacy with which they are handled.

Reasonably large age gap? I’ve read larger ones, and both characters deal appropriately with each other in public.

Teenage lover? The heroine starts this story a minor, but nothing sexual happens until after she’s eighteen, and the hero really, really examines himself, questioning his motives, questioning what’s best for her versus what he wants for himself. I will drop a book in a heartbeat if I get even the slightest whiff of pedophilia, and it’s just not present here. He doesn’t want her because she’s young, because he’s attracted to younger women. He wants her because the care and trust and deep emotional connection they develop becomes something more.

Guardian/ward? I’ve never read anything from this subgenre before, I’m not even sure I could name another romance with this trope. But the power dynamic here is respectful, there’s no coercion, in fact the hero goes to great lengths to make sure there isn’t. It’s really just the situation that brings them together.

So now that I’ve checked off all the boxes of why this romance could have been problematic and wasn’t, why did I actually like it? REAL EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT. It’s not instalove. The bulk of the story (everything except the epilogue) takes place over the course of more than a year. Do you know how rare that is in romances? They usually take place over a few weeks at most, often quite a bit less. This lets the heroine reach legal adulthood, yes, but it also gives their relationship time to grow naturally, and time for them both to deal with the grief that brought them together.

What else? Consent, consent, consent. Tamsen Parker is one of the best BDSM romance authors out there, because not only does she never ignore or hand-wave consent, she works it seamlessly into every scene that requires it, and generally also makes it sexy, not awkward. (Unless it’s supposed to be for character reasons.)

In the end, I believe these characters are not only in both love and lust with each other, but also committed to the work it takes to make a relationship thrive in the long-term. I haven’t reread any of my other Parker books recently, and there’s a lot of hers I haven’t gotten to yet, but this book has reminded me why she’s one of my favorites, and this might be my new favorite work of hers.

33 - The Heart of What Was Lost

#33 – The Heart of What Was Lost, by Tad Williams

  • Read: 2/26/20 – 2/27/20
  • Mount TBR: 33/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a prequel
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

There was very little question in my mind that I was going to enjoy this sequel-prequel novel, yet I kept putting it off until I needed to read it for a challenge it fit. Why? I wanted to reread Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn first, and that’s a big commitment that I never managed to make time for. I’ve read those books at least seven or eight times, but not recently, probably not for at least five or six years. Maybe longer. I was afraid I wasn’t going to remember what had happened clearly enough to follow along.

That was an absolutely needless worry. Williams reminds his readers at key points, mostly seamlessly, of the important events that bear relevance to the story. Only the high points matter–did you remember who the enemy was? Did you remember the tower fell? Did you remember who became king and queen? So it’s all there in this, when necessary, for context. (In fact, I think one thing is over-emphasized, Isorn’s death, because one of the main characters here is his father Isgrimnur and it seems he can’t have a single scene without bringing it up. Which in one way is fair, because he’s still grieving deeply, but in another way is also flat-out repetitive. Compared to all the strengths of this, that’s an incredibly minor quibble for me, though.)

I was not expecting and deeply enjoyed and appreciated having a Norn POV character. The insight into their society, mostly unknown until now, was fascinating, and this story sets up interesting questions about what direction the new trilogy will take us. I devoured every bit of history text the chronicler set out before the Viyeki’s scenes, and he was a truly sympathetic character, with his doubts and worries and slightly alien (but still strong) sense of honor and conduct.

I finished this and was so excited by it, so happy to slip back into such a familiar and vivid setting, that I went and broke my current book-buying ban to pick up a copy of The Witchwood Crown. Osten Ard is back, baby!