Wednesday, April 25, 2018

What I Read: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

Time for the Hercules gif.

Okay, so here's the cool part: Abdel Kader Haidara, after years of careful negotiations and curation, managed to assemble a peerless collection of ancient Malian manuscripts, both Islamic and secular. But when Al Qaeda took over Timbuktu, the manuscripts—works of art in themselves that also advocated for religious tolerance and scientific curiosity, even in the 13th century CE—became a target of Islamic extremists. Haidara and other archivists worked hard to smuggle these literary treasures to a safety.

And the book starts off with a satisfying and easy to follow history of Timbuktu and its cultural heritage in the larger Islamic world, as well as a brief history of Haidara's work hunting down and negotiating with families, convincing them to entrust these priceless artifacts with him so that they could be preserved and studied.

And of course you get snatches of Haidara and his helpers smuggling books out of Timbuktu and into safety.


In reality, the focus (at least in the middle and end of the book) is more on the sectarian violence in Mali in the early 2010s. An extraordinary amount of detail about developments and actors in the political situation is provided when a simple summary would have sufficed. I suspect that these lefthand turns are the reason that I kept falling out of the book and why it took me several months to finish. Maybe even years? I remember reading it in an airport on the way back from a wedding, but I can't say for sure if it was Aaron's wedding in 2017 or my brother's wedding in 2016. Either way: it doesn't usually take me that long to finish your stand popular journalism kind of book. (Reading an ebook version probably didn't help, either.)

Friday, April 20, 2018

Friday 5: Waste

Compact cubes of trash in a landfill on a sunny day.
Photo by Bas Emmen on Unsplash

What’s something you unintentionally threw away?

Nothing, thankfully!

What disgusting memory of garbage do you have?

The job I worked at in the US has a picnic grove attached to it. It's a tourist trap (I say that in the most affectionate and loving way possible; I love tourist traps) in a small town, so naturally it has a bit of extra property with space for visitors to relax and plan their next stop (or for visiting school groups to eat their lunch). The trash cans in that picnic grove were some of the foulest things I've smelled in my life, especially during the summer or after a tour of 120 school kids with bagged lunches. They usually required two people to empty, too, since they were big, heavy-duty things, and the picnic grove was downhill and across the street from our dumpster.

I get nostalgic for that job a lot, but not for that part of it.

How are you about deleting emails?

I think the oldest email in my inbox is from 2006. It's weird to think I have emails that are older than some (most) of my students, but there you have it. I should maybe be better about deleting them, though. In case I want to run for President. BUT HER EMAILS

What do you treasure that someone else considers trash?

One of my best sources for beads is old jewelry no one wants anymore.

What’s the litter like in your neighborhood?

Not too bad. And the Nazis have stopped putting up posters as well!

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

What I Read: Gena/Finn

I had really personal reasons for being interested in Gena/Finn and for recommending it for my Discord book club and then it fucking disappointed me.

Most of my friends in high school were of the Internet variety, out of a group of fans of a particular TV show. Even though I was never really active in "fandom" as such (I don't write or read fanfiction, I don't hoard fanart, I'm not really interested in making the things I like the be-all, end-all of my identity...I just wanted to find the rest of the episodes online that I hadn't already seen), the way those friendships formed online were really important to how I grew up and where I ended up in life. I don't think there are many books that really tackle the importance (and also weirdness) of online friendships; the last time I'd read about that sort of thing was in Pattern Recognition of all things, and that was just a brief aside in what was otherwise a cyberpunk thriller.

I was expecting a story that chronicled the kind of awkward budding friendships I was cultivating in front of the computer screen in high school, and what I got was something else. Those were the bits Moskowitz and Helgeson skipped right over in favor of the kind of melodrama that could happen between any two friends, regardless of where or how they met, but with a sprinkling of unrealistic lefthand turn plot points for good measure (former child actors! shoehorned romance! tragic deaths!).

And the nail in the coffin for me was reading the book summary after I had read the book.
Gena (short for Genevieve) and Finn (short for Stephanie) have little in common. Book-smart Gena is preparing to leave her posh boarding school for college; down-to-earth Finn is a twenty-something struggling to make ends meet in the big city.
If I've read the book and I still need the GoodReads book description to tell me that Gena and Finn have nothing in common, and that one is "book-smart" while the other is "down-to-earth," then you've failed in your writing. In the book they come across as quite samey, except that one of them has a history of mental health issues.

Anything more specific than that will veer into spoiler territory so I'll save those complaints for book club where I know that people will either have read it or not care about it.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

101 in 1001, Round 3

As of the end of March, I finished up my third 101 in 1001 list. The final count is currently available on my 101 in 1001 page, but since that will be scrubbed in a few months, I'm memorializing it here, after the jump because it's a bit long. First, the commentary.

Proudest Moments

Out of all three lists, this one feels the most accomplished so far. I cleared around 60 goals completely, and I attempted a fair amount more. I'm not sure how that compares to past lists, since I don't feel like going back and comparing at the moment, but I did power through two pretty significant items:

1. I finished my modified TIME Top 100 novels list, a goal I've had since I first started this in 2009 (!).

2. I ran a goddamn 5K. I ran multiple 5Ks. This was a goal I'd set for myself on previous lists, then invariably take off the list in favor of something else because it felt too ambitious. And then I accomplished it by accident? Life is weird.

Moments of Reflection

1. I like the old-school Dr. Who, I really do, but we got up to the French Revolution story line and Lord Xenu kind of lost interest in it so we stopped watching. I don't really watch much TV or movies on my own, either, so if he doesn't want to watch something, I just won't watch it. (On the other hand, he's often quite keen to watch MST3K.) I'm torn between A) still including this because I like Dr. Who, or B) not including it because I'll probably fail at it again. I might just compromise and scale down the attempt (like, just finishing the French Revolution story line from the first series, or just finishing the first series, rather than the first two Doctors).

2. There were a lot of political things that got tacked on this list because The Election happened midway through. But I did a bad job counting them and an even worse job being consistent. I might scale it back, or figure out how to find my rhythm.

3. How much do I really care about that IMDB list? I don't know. But even though I failed pretty spectacularly on foreign movies and documentaries this time around, I do care about those, so that goal will definitely continue to stay on.

4. Now that running is a well-established habit, the next thing to tackle is strength training. I like yoga, but it's not the most efficient strength training route. The RCAF 5BX (or rather the adapted version here) seems like it might be a better option. I might also incorporate a planking challenge as an item? I don't know.

For the Next List

1. The reading goal is shaping up to be a combination of this Modern Library list and some books recommended in this post.

2. I might have to up my Swedish reading game, since I'm no longer in Swedish class. (Lord Xenu uses English with me so it's not like I get that much practice at home.)

3. I have some hard travel choices I'm going to have to make. After being invited to vend at last year's WorldCon (in Helsinki), it occurred to me that...I might do really well at WorldCon? It'll be in August 2019, which is sneaking up already. In addition to bulking up my Etsy stock, I would have to get a proper show table and display ready. On the plus side, one of my best friends (founding member of the Austin Feminist Science Fiction Book Club) got in touch with me about attending WorldCon in Dublin, fond as he is of the city (and, I hope, of me...!). The other horn of the travel dilemma is a wedding in Seoul, South Korea in March, which is less than a year away! Neither my sanity nor my budget can afford both (probably), so...

Friday, April 13, 2018

Friday 5: The Shine of A Thousand Spotlights

A dozen blazing spotlights focusing on a distant figure on a stage, framed by darkness and dark silhouettes.
Image courtesy Jacob Morch on Unsplash

What physical trait are you (or have you been) self-conscious about?

Hi guys, I could write a whole novel on being fat! But so many other writers handle it better, so rather than go into it myself I'll just post links to two writers whose perspectives helped me get right with Fat Jesus.

Dances With Fat

Jill Grunenwald (and her memoirs Running With a Police Escort)

Even though I've gotten right with Fat Jesus, small things remain. Mostly my nose. I don't hate it enough to go under the knife, and my human brain recognizes that it's a perfectly normal nose, but my lizard brain can't stop comparing it to adorable ski jump button noses. Even actresses who are constantly put on "quirky beauties" or "big noses" or whatever lists don't have the same kind of nose I do.

When did you last do something risking injury?

I guess going for a run always risks injury, right? So depending on when this post goes up, either Wednesday or today.

Why do critics and the general movie-going public never seem to agree?

I'd say the operative word is "seem." I suspect most of the time critical opinions and the public's opinions are generally in line. Otherwise I imagine that the contributing factor is that movie critics are a self-selecting group of people who gravitate towards the arts and appreciate, even crave, novelty in the form and as a result they're generally more appreciate of movies that are subtle or unusual. Most people watch movies for comfort or entertainment rather than critical engagement, and so they're more drawn towards predictable (or surprising-within-predictable-schemas) and comforting rather than challenging or difficult.

How do you feel about Hugh Jackman as an actor?


Who is the best singer you’ve seen in live performance?

I don't really go to live music performances that often. (Aside from the odd years where I can make it to Musikfest.) I guess two come to mind:

Ssingssing, with lead singer Lee Hee-moon

Black Masala, with singer Kristen Long (though my memory of their Musikfest performance seems to have a different singer?)

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

My Real Children: Book Review

I decided that I'm no longer bound by space and time when it comes to book club reads. In other words, I don't have to wait for a respective book's month, or even read them in order! Which is why I dug into My Real Children last week, even though it's not on the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club docket until June.

Image courtesy Tor

My Real Children takes a very personal, intimate look at history and chaos theory. Walton gives us two (alternate?) lives of Patricia Cowan, with different spouses and different struggles and different triumphs.

Of course, it's not just Patricia's life that's different between the two. History also takes two different tracks (though both are different from history as it tracked in our world). Walton sets up a delicious little tension there that's never entirely resolved: did Patricia's choices in any way affect larger world events? Or did those larger world events have any effect on her? Another author might have been tempted to draw a line between Patricia's choices and world events (like Charles Wallace body-hopping through different people in A Swiftly Tilting Planet), but Walton just leaves those differences there.

While My Real Children is put out by Tor, an imprint famous for fantasy and science fiction, I wouldn't classify it as science fiction myself. (I was actually surprised to see it was a Tor book!) But maybe that's because I already comfortably half-accept the idea of there being alternate reality versions of myself leading different versions of my life. There's no attempt to explain why those lifetimes are converging in Patricia's memory, or why she's drifting between two timelines. It's most certainly not a metaphor for dementia; she has dementia in both lifetimes, unrelated to the timelines crossing. The dual lives are simply a narrative device that shows how differently things can turn out on the micro- and macro-scale.

On a really personal level, I read this either at exactly the wrong point in my life or exactly the right point. (I'm not entirely sure which, yet.) Some days I'm cool with the idea of those alternate versions of myself being out there, hopefully living their best lives while I'm trying to live my best life in this timeline; some days I hate and regret everything and want nothing more than to tour through the different timelines and pick one where things are going a little (okay, a lot) better for me. I might have texted Austin Feminist Sci Fi Book Club Co-Founder Friend in tears over that. (Spoiler: I did.)

There's a moment where Patricia contemplates the differences in her two worlds: not in her life choices, but in the history. The lifetime where she had a long and happy marriage was in a world marred by multiple exchanges of nuclear warheads and the ensuing radioactive fallout; the lifetime where she had a shorter but deeply unhappy marriage was much more peaceful on the global scale. And there's an element of bitterness (why did cancer and violence have to wreck her storybook life?) there's also an element of hope (the sacrifices she made, even unknowingly, perhaps tilted the scales towards world peace). And at the end of the day, you can choose: bitterness or hope? This is the importance of stories: I can choose a story for myself where my struggles and my choices make the world a better place. Whether or not it's true is secondary (how could I possibly empirically test or measure that?); the fact that it's possible is what counts. It's perhaps hackneyed to quote David Foster Wallace at this point, but he hit the nail on the head:

But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line—maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Department who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible—it just depends on what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important—if you want to operate on your default-setting—then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren't pointless and annoying. But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars—compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't.

And since it rankles, a bit, to close a review of a book deliberately chosen for a feminist book club with a quote by a man (who has, unfairly, become the catch-all representative of obnoxious litbros everywhere), I'll actually close this review with a quote from A Tale for the Time Being, which is still one of my favorite books that I've read recently, and that feels very relevant to this act of choosing:

Do not think that time simply flies away. Do not understand “flying” as the only function of time. If time simply flew away, a separation would exist between you and time. So if you understand time as only passing, then you do not understand the time being. To grasp this truly, every being that exists in the entire world is linked together as moments in time, and at the same time they exist as individual moments of time. Because all moments are the time being, they are your time being.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Friday 5: Mist It by That Much

This week's Friday 5 is a delightful callback to one of my childhood favorites, Mel Brooks's Get Smart. 

If you didn't pick up on that before, you know now!

What did you most recently spray out of a can?

Dry shampoo. I like having bangs but after about a day they get really piece-y, so I sometimes touch them up between washes.

What’s your favorite food (or food product) that’s sprayed from a can?

None of them? The options are either cheese or whipped cream, as far as I can tell, and I don't care for either of this. I guess the cheese wins by a slight margin, as a "whiz with" is a Philadelphia favorite.

When did you last spray-paint something?

Probably when I was helping touch up a metal trash can when I worked at Lost River Caverns a million years ago.

What’s something that’s not sprayed from a can but would be pretty cool if it were?

Pancakes! Too tired to make breakfast? Just spray out some pancakes! Got a case of the munchies? Even the most chemically impaired person in the world can manage a spray can. Want to get a perfect circle every time? Just make sure the nozzle's clean and that your aim's straight.

What’s conceptually the oddest thing sprayed from a can?

Honestly, dry shampoo. It's up there with dry cleaning in terms of how counter-intuitive the concept is.