Monday, January 13, 2020

Book Review - Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

The first book in my 12 books of 2020 is finished.  So far, so good, in resolution world.

This is the sort of book, like Snowcrash, that I wish I'd found when it came out, because it could have changed my reading (and writing) trajectory.  Just for the record, I haven't seen anything, even trailers, for the Netflix series.  The book came up on a "you should read" list I found online.

Aside from one short scene near the end that was triggering for me and that I skipped as much as I could (and that robbed me of most of my sleep last night, so that I resorted to pills), this was an electric read.  I went slowly through it, in part because I'm reading with a friend and we gave ourselves the whole month, and in part because I wanted it to last.  However, by the time I was nearing the end of the book, I was ready for some kind of ending.  This is a twisted book, twisted in many ways.  The plot, the characters, the events, even the structure, winds around and around until you might feel that on this road you are looking at your own ass.  Still, it's full of very clear scenes.  Places are sketched into being with a luxurious economy -- a contradiction, perhaps, but that's how I feel about it.  Morgan did most of the things I really, really like in a book -- building up the world in bits instead of an encyclopedic info dump; filtering things through a narrator who doesn't know everything and can be deceived (and be deceiving, even to himself); a rotating cast of secondary characters who are all painted in greys, complex and shifting.  I wish I could handle a cast like that, with the skill Morgan shows.

Under the crime noir science fiction frosting are some real questions about human life -- what it is, what's it's worth, who is a person, what makes a person?  It doesn't lecture on them (well, aside from a villain monologue, which is done so well that I didn't realize until now that it was, indeed, a villain monologue), instead considering them along with everything else that a person thinks.  Some of the questions remind me of Kiln People (David Brin), a book I read years back and am still unhappy has no sequel. This one, however, has two sequels, which are already on my wish/hunt list.

In personal news, I am packing up books for our eventual move (still an if bunny of huge proportions).  Part of that has been selecting some 50 books (or so) as potential reading material for the coming year.  I have reserved for myself one shelf  to retain until the final part of the move, since I may spend some weeks here waiting on The Husband to settle in a new job and locate a new home.  With so many animals, just finding a rental isn't an easy thing, so we will instead look to buy a new home when we can, and I will move then.  Other stuff will move up for storage in the mean time.  As I pack up books, I am reminded how much I have NOT read in the last 10 years (well, in the last 4, really), and it stiffens my resolve to read more.  I think that some of my mental distress comes from not reading.  Reading was central stuffing in my life from the time I was very young, and having lost that has taken vital organs from me.

So, books, then the folding shelves (we have lots of those), then knickknacks and pictures, then more essential things.  Something to do for the whole time I'm waiting.

Next month's "club read" is Fahrenheit 451.  In the meantime, I have Thin Air (Weatherwardens) and The God Delusion to finish, and if I still have empty time, I will start Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age.  Ambitions, I have 'em.

Saturday, January 04, 2020

Book Review -- The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump

The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump by Harry Turtledove

My first completed book of the year!   Here's to resolution keeping.

I once ran into Mr. Turtledove at DragonCon several years ago.  We were wearing matching T-shirts ("Careful or you'll end up in my novel") and we laughed about it.  Then I slowly began collecting his books, but I didn't really read any (just as I wasn't really reading anything).  So I picked up this one at the beginning of December because it looked fun.

It was fun. It was smart and almost (but not quite) painfully pun-ish and clipped along at a good pace.  It's an alternate Earth (the sliver of sf/f that Turtledove has practically cornered) where magic and theology are the sources of all technology.  Purely mechanical devices are not so common.  EPA (Environmental Perfection Agency) man David Fisher is an overworked government drone who gets involved in preventing a potential magical disaster.  He's not a hero, and he doesn't swing a blasting rod to clear his path.  Nevertheless, he addresses the problems and is successful enough to make the book an excellent read.

It isn't an insult to say it has a very Terry Pratchett Discworld vibe to it in the punny names and the explanations of How Things Work.  That isn't an easy thing to carry off without being annoying, but carry it off Turtledove does.  It isn't a "serious" work of literature, but it was a great way to spend time.  I will forever see the word "demon stration" when reading about protest marches.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Book Review: Hugh and Bess

 Hugh and Bess by Susan Higginbotham

I enjoyed this book until the last third.  I'll get to it.  It wasn't really the author's fault.

I'm not huge on romance as a genre.  I read selectively and if it isn't something historical I can't easily get interested. I also prefer the trademark HEA -- happy endings, light drama, humor, because if I'm reading romance, I don't want to think too much. I picked this up on a whim and it sat for a while, but I cracked it a month or so ago and finally decided I was done today.

Set in the mid 14th century in England, this book is based on actual historical people and researched well, as far as I can tell, complete with the twistings of politics and the general harshness of life at that time.  13 year old Bess is to marry the 35 year old Hugh, who is trying to repair his family's reputation and fortune after his father's disastrous relationship with King Edward led to death, disgrace, and -- for Hugh -- imprisonment.  Bess wants nothing to do with the son of a traitor, and Hugh is in love with someone else anyway.

Pretty simple set up and of course you more or less know how it works out.  I quite enjoyed the interplay of characters, the historical glimpses, and the characters of Bess and Hugh.  Then, in the manner of historical drama, tragedy occurs and there is a lot of Unhappy when Hugh contracts the Black Death and thus dies.  The novel continues with Bess, still quite young, marrying again.  However, I was done with it at this point and skipped through most of the ending.  As I said, I don't appreciate unhappy/happy endings at this point in my life, and the loss of a character in whom I'd invested some interest and a lot of reading was more than I wanted.  For a more traditional romance reader, this would have been a crying moment, but as crying tends to hold me over an emotional black hole and right now that would be bad, I made the choice to read the afterword and call it "done".

The need to guard myself emotionally is, I think, the biggest hindrance to my reading (and watching TV shows and movies).  Writers want to affect a reader and affecting the reader emotionally is often a big part of a writer's goal, especially in the romance genre.  I've been affected by books in a lot of genres, but currently I tend to head for writers who will go lightly on the emotional buttons to either just have fun or to bring up intellectual questions to ponder.

Speaking of which, I have some new books to sprinkle in among next year's goal reading.  Neal Stephenson's _Diamond Age_, is the one I am looking at first (after Altered Carbon). 

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Best intentions

Well, I sure as hell didn't keep up this blog in 2019.  I can't give a reason why.  I just did not.  In fact, I spent relatively little time on my computer this whole year.  And I didn't read much, but I thought I could tidy things up for the end of the year and move on.

I've considered more than once just pulling it all down, but I haven't so far.  I know I'm not talking to anyone (I doubt even my best online friends remember this thing exists).  This is just typing to myself, and most days I can't think of anything interesting to say to me, much less work up enough desire to see what that might be.  And if I don't give a fuck about what I have to say, I can't imagine anyone else working up one.

I've mostly been following the impeachment closely, listening and reading and waiting.  I know it isn't going to remove SCROTUS from office, although it's a nice daydream.  It might not even affect his election possibilities, although, again, I can dream of a blue wave and Elizabeth Warren being sworn in (and replacing Bill Barr with Kamela Harris).  Sometimes I wonder what has happened to the nation I thought I lived in, and I wonder if it has always been like this only I wasn't noticing.  I don't have a lot of political nostalgia -- I became aware that politics existed when Nixon was getting in trouble, so I sort of expect that the White House and Congress will be crazy, one way or another.  Still, I feel like the things I once expected to be normal and right and part of being a citizen are falling away, falling into a theocratic, xenophobic, head-in-the-sand nightmare. The temps and the oceans are rising, people are dying because they are just sources of money for other people, and there are far too many billionaires who are under the illusion they don't live in the same world as the people who create their wealth.

On the personal front, we are once more contemplating a great change as The Husband searches for a new job.  He's done with academia and now it's interviews and tests and hoping for an offer.  Currently, there are possibilities in Connecticut and Kansas.  I really don't want to live in Kansas, even in a liberal part of Kansas. So the if-bunnies loom.

Now, books.  I have so many books I'm not reading, but I'm managing to finish a few.  Finished the very important book Founding Myths by Andrew Seidel.  Finally finished reading Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson and I wish I'd read it years ago when it was newer. It would have blown my mind a lot more than it did.  It's a good book, and should become a classic in SF.  A wild ride.

Also finished The Girl with Ghost Eyes by M.H. Boroson.  It's set in 1898 San Fransisco, in Chinatown, and is filled with Chinese mythology as well as the difficulties of being female in that time and culture.  The sequel was published this year so it is on the list.

I have two other books in process which I will list when finished.  I also have ambitions for next year.  A friend of mine and I put together a list of 12 books we plan to read together.

Altered Carbon
Fahrenheit 451
King of Elfland's Daughter
Life of Pi
Lives of Tao
The Magicians
Old Man's War
On The Road
Red Mars
A Universe from Nothing

Almost all are books I have had on my shelves awaiting my attention, and it seems like a fraught election year is the perfect one to distract myself. In fact, next year promises to be complicated in many ways, so that taking to this blog to talk to myself and maybe, possibly, other stray people, is a good idea.

Let's see if I can remember that in a week.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Book Review -- Jane Austen, Game Theorist

Jane Austen, Game Theorist by Michael Suk-Young Chwe

It only took me 6 months to finish reading a book!  It wasn't the book's fault, either.

I know next to nothing about game theory, but I know a little bit about Jane Austen and her novels, so I picked this up after hearing an interview with the author on the Freak-o-nomics podcast.  It's been sitting around for a long while, and this year I finally dove in.

I found it pretty darn interesting, although less from learning about game theory (although I may explore that topic later).  It's an interesting analysis of the novels and in particular certain characters, exploring why they act as they do and what Austen could be saying.  I especially appreciated Chew's take on Lady Catherine and Mr. Collings (from Pride and Prejudice), and how their actions are a result of cluelessness that could be related to how they use social status to interpret the world.  Since social status and relative status are underlying structures in all of Austen's work, those ideas appealed to me especially.

I also have yet another reason to revisit Mansfield Park, my least favorite of the novels, as Chwe casts a bit more light on Fanny Price (I wanted to slap her throughout the novel, mostly from frustration) and the reasoning -- or lack of ability to reason -- that guides her action and inaction.  I was very put off by Austen's "morality story" novel, but it's been several years since I read it and it might look better now.

I don't have much of an emotional reaction to the book because it is very intellectual (but conversational and easy to read).  The author dips into a variety of stories beyond Austen to explain his ideas, which makes game theory much easier to grasp.  He even goes into the reasons why both a grammatical approach and a mathematical/visual approach give different ways to understand the ideas.


In other reading news, I have a few books lined up to finish this summer (I'm keeping my ambitions small because of the problems I am having reading, some of which involve my vision and difficulty finding good reading glasses).  I am about 1/3 through Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash,  I've got a marker in the new book The Founding Myth.  I went to the book signing with Andrew Seidel, which was especially good, and the book (I'm one chapter in) is full of useful information and history.  I also got the audio book of the first in the Amber series,  Nine Princes in Amber, which I've tried to read many many years ago and now feel like trying again. I have some fun reading also lined up, but I'll discuss those as I finish books.  Right now, if I finish 4 books over the summer, I will be happy.  It will be more than I've done for a while.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Here Comes The Sun!

 It is sunny and bright today, with a hint of spring and a blue, blue sky.  I feel like I can breathe.  I took the dogs out and just stood on the driveway, watching the breeze ruffle Apollo's black puppy coat and feeling the warmth.  I have ambitions to leave the house.

Leaving the house.  I do it so rarely.  I confine myself and always for what seems like perfectly acceptable reasons.  I have no where much to go.  I have to take Zeus with me.  Leaving Apollo crated is very hard on him, but I can't handle two dogs in public (plus he needs a new training vest).  I don't want to spend money.  I don't want to talk to people I don't know, pretending I am normal and fine, explaining (again and again) why I have Zeus with me, what service dogs are about, and everything about poodles.  It's an automatic spiel anymore, automatic, an act, a performance.  Performing is very tiring.  Even going to the Botanical Gardens, once something I did weekly, seems like too much effort because it's crowded much of the time, overly noisy with cars and people and machinery nearby, and I can't walk very far anyway, even with knee and back braces on.

So, I stay home.  I am isolated.  I go weeks without having an actual conversation with anyone but The Husband and my once a week hangout with chosen e-bro Rob.  I don't talk with Bliss anymore, because she has a full time job now, and three kids, and a life.  That's how it goes.  Most of the people I know are like that, and I sometimes miss having a job with people around and things to do, even though I also know now I could not handle it.

I gave up singing in the church choir for several reasons, among which was I no longer enjoy it, it feels stressful, and I no longer feel any connection to the community.  It's a UU church,  but even so there's too much whoo and Jeeeeeezus and such for me now.  I told The Husband that I miss some aspects of being part of a Pagan community, because, separated from the stuff I know isn't true and isn't real, there are useful parts of it, of ritual and celebration and communication.  I wish there was an atheist group around here I could join, but I don't know of any, and I have doubts about my ability to participate.

At least there is sunshine today. 

Saturday, February 23, 2019

So Far, So Good

It's still February, but not for much longer.  It's rained most of the month, to the point that the ground squishes and  there are flood warnings.  This winter has been very rainy.  For the first time, I miss Florida.  Florida winters are dry and bright.  Even when there is sun, it is wan and anxious for when the clouds come again.

It's having an effect on my mood, duh.  

So, I turned 54.  No fuss, no bother, not much attention paid by me or anyone else.  Once upon a time I would have cried, fussed, been upset.  Now, I'm content with just letting the day go by.  You see, my mom died just after she turned 54, so that's lurking in the superstitious part of my mind, back there under the reason and logic.

And with that in mind, I had a colonoscopy.  The procedure itself was quick, painless, and one of the best naps I've ever had.  I wish I could have that sedative for sleeping at night, although during bad times I might just sleep all the time.  Everything inside is good and healthy and I can wait another 10 years before I need to do it again, which is good because the prep was horrible.  2 days of headache, plus a little vomiting.  I don't vomit very often, and usually when I do there's a trip to the emergency room right after.  I won't go into details because I'm kind, but it was more gross than I expected, considering I had an empty stomach beforehand (except for the Gatorade and the meds).  But it's over, I'm fine, and there is no particular trauma associated with it.  The Husband had his two days after me, and his went even better.  Seriously, we were in and out within 2 hours.

Aside from that, and the lurking darkness that is my depression using the weather to try to kill me, there are positive things.  I'm reading a book, something I haven't managed in 6 months (or more).  Nonfiction, something from which I want to take notes, borrowed from the university library.  This is so good that chocolate can't improve it.  The downside?  I need to replace my reading glasses -- my nice ones are scratched to hell and the other readers I have handy are single vision.  I need freaking bifocal readers because 3 or 4 inches makes all the difference between reading and writing my notes.  I am planning a trip to Walgreens, woo hoo.

The Husband just got his C-PAP machine yesterday.  Some bugs need working out, like getting his mask properly fit so that it doesn't wake me with a loud and prolonged buzzing hiss when it slips.  My sleep was a bit disturbed, especially while I tried to figure out what the hell that noise was.  When I reached over to tap his mask back into place, he got mad (in his sleep).  He hates it when I mess with him while he's sleeping, like closing his mouth when he snores by pushing up his chin.  BUT, there was no snoring and the machine itself is silent.  It will improve HIS sleep and his health, which will actually improve my sleep.  Getting older is complicated as shit.

Oh, I'm reading "Jane Austen in Hollywood", a collection of essays about the various Austen movies.  I can't explain it.  I just wanted to read it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019


This song does and does not quite underly my life at the moment -- what I'm shoveling and cleaning isn't snow, but I have been frozen for a while.

Depression is a beast, a chorus of demons, a paper bag over my head, a strait jacket.  Looking back, I know it started rising up while we were still in Maine and just keep getting stronger through the fall.  I lost contact with friends because my thoughts were all "Who cares what I say?  I do nothing important, I have no real life, I'm just existing, don't bother them."  A few maintained that they did, indeed, want to be bothered. 

I got my meds adjusted.  I got a puppy.  I stopped writing, stopped reading, stopped singing, stopped beading, curled up in my recliner and didn't move for hours, playing stupid games on my tablet and thinking about everything I had lost.  I didn't feel much because when I did it was strong, painful, overwhelming, and I didn't want to go through that over and over, so I got my own personal Novocaine going.  It works, it really works, but you know what?  Not feeling is pretty much like being dead, only you're still eating and shitting and taking up space.

I'm not out of the darkness yet, but I'm better.  I had some story ideas pop into my head.  My same old movies and games bore me.  I keep trying to read, but without focus and with the current newness of ringing in my left ear (just a product of aging and the assorted assaults on the human body) distracting me, it isn't going as well.  But, yes, there are times I can tune out the sound, which is just my brain trying to make up for what I don't hear anymore (very high tones, ones I barely notice my left ear can't hear).

Mostly I have been battling the usual dark thoughts -- the desperate sadness that I have never shaken from my mother's death, the accumulation of losses over a lifetime, the thought that I no longer want to speak/write because no one cares what I think and say...yes, thinking about my death, but now because it is far closer than it was before.  I'm 54 now.  I was 30-ish when I first started blogging, and this space has been over-active and ignored by turns.

So now I take back the whole "must have a purpose" thing and am just going to ramble. 

You see, an old friend stopped by this weekend and we fell into the kind of conversation I tend to have with her and with few others -- what is it to be human?  And I realized that the meaning of life is self made, the purpose of my life is mine to decide.  It doesn't matter who else listens or who else cares.  If I don't make noise, if I don't talk and sing and write and make things, if I don't sit in the grass with my dogs and enjoy the sun, or cuddle with my cats in the dark listening to the passing trains -- if I don't do all that, I'm not a human anymore.  I'm not alive.

And I am very, very much alive.

We shall see how this goes as I thaw from my winter freeze.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Am I Still a Writer?

NaNoWriMo is coming up.  For almost 20 years, now that I think about it, I've either attempted to do NaNo or thought about why I shouldn't do it.   I've finished some novels because of it, and I've tormented myself because of it.

I'm wondering if I should bother this year.  I have not written anything in months.  Part of this is my very small life -- I don't leave the house often, I don't speak to people often, I certainly don't interact with anyone other than my husband on a regular basis.  I've withdrawn from many things because the effort of fighting off panic is exhausting.  I can't battle it intellectually, and my medications only work so far (I can push myself into a social situation, I can even have a good time, but I will be exhausted afterwards, sometimes for more than a day).  And, for better or worse, I always got my stories from bits and pieces I picked up from being around people, especially people who weren't in my current carefully curated circles. 

So I feel...voiceless.  No, more than that, I feel wordless.  I have nothing to talk about really except my lacks and losses and insufficiencies, and I'm bored with that.  I'm typing this more out of an insistence that I do something than from a deep need.  I could crawl right back into my chair and speak to no one but my critters.

I'm thinking more and more about the pointlessness of my life, too.  Not suicidally, no, but how fear has so overtaken me than I do not more more than can not move, because something might make me uncomfortable.  I'm bored, I'm stunted, I'm barely living, but I'm not constantly marshalling my forces against my emotions to keep them in control.  I'm not doing that part...which is not really healthy, to tell the truth, but seems like my only choice.

So, am I a writer?  Was I a writer?  I'm not a musician any more.  I'm not a reader.  If I'm not a writer, then I'm out of identities, because that is the one I've held onto for most of my life.  I'm a non-entity.  I'm a cat (and dog) lady.  I'm a hermit.

The sun shines outside and I have the window open for the fresh air.  Maybe I can re-assume my writer identity with a little effort, like writing this blog and doing my morning pages, and maybe even doing NaNo.  It's not something I talk over with the ones I love most -- this conversation is the kind you have with people who aren't particularly concerned over your emotional well being moment-to-moment.  It's the thing you discuss with your writing group (don't have one anymore), with someone you meet on more intellectual ground (again, I don't put myself out where those people might be).

My isolation has been a long process.  I'm not sure how to walk it back anymore.  Few notice, fewer speak, and only one or two are willing to help me pry loose of my shell for a while, because that's work and I should be able to do it for myself.  But I can't or I won't or I don't.  Maybe I could use NaNo for that.

I have a week or more to think about it.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Why Can't I Read?

Reading has become spectacularly hard lately.  I pick up a book and start, but within a few pages I'm nervous, jumpy, and wanting to do something else.  I don't understand it, but it's a pain in the ass.

I'm going to make an effort to revive this blog and post more widely and more frequently.  Part of this is because Google, it its wisdom, has decided to kill G+ next year.  There are a lot of  people looking for other places that aren't Facebook to use, and  I will likely sign on to one or another in an attempt to stay connected to the people I know there.  It's my one real social outlet, so it's important.

But I've got this blog, which I've had for so many years, and I can use it as well.  There are comments, so people can talk back to me.

So, since this isn't a book review, let's revert back to the topics of former years. 

My mental health is...problematic at the moment.  I actually think I'm doing better, but it's been a difficult few weeks.  I just crouched in my corner with my tablet and played games constantly.  In part I was reacting to an overload of bad world news, the erosion of any logic or reason in the US government, and the latest turmoil which, in my opinion, ended in a very awful way, with a demonstrable liar and theocrat in the Supreme Court.  I am eager for November when I hope there will be a general voting down of the asshats and shitwaffles in charge.  We might get different asshats and shitwaffles, but that's what we've turned our political system into...

Or perhaps that's what politics has always been.  Netflix has the complete run of Monty Python on now, and I've gone through them all (very happily).  Political problems they were  complaining about in 1970 sound very much like what we are complaining about now.  That's a lot of years without a big change.

So, in short, I've gone through the usual cycle of suicidal thoughts, rotten sleep, general listlessness, and even a return to (some) emotional eating.  I'm wondering if the Zoloft is losing effectiveness (as such drugs will occasionally do) or if it is just a seasonal change/emotional change.  My brain and I -- isn't it odd how I think of myself as separate from the  particular organ that generates my thoughts?  That's peculiar, but an accurate description of my thinking.  I seem to have two different sets of operating instructions, and one has more sway because it handles all the hardware.  The other only occasionally gets control, and then mostly when there are drugs involved.

Wow, I'm remembering now why I stopped writing this way.  I feel self conscious and intrusive, and a wellspring of negative thoughts are flooding me.   I'm triple thinking everything I'm saying and trying to type fast enough to get ahead of it.  The physical symptoms of panic are starting, and I'm just sitting along in my office with my laptop.  I want to talk -- my body/brain wants me to get back in my chair with my tablet and stop bothering people.