Thursday, January 16, 2014

The People Who Influence Us

There will be a bit of rambling here. And hey, maybe one day I'll read a book and talk about it.

I didn't sleep any last night. It happens every now and then--whenever the Sandman replaces his stash with cocaine, I suppose. So what happens when you lie in bed awake for eight hours straight? (After running out of Candy Crush lives?) The mind wanders into weird territory. All the blood rushes straight to whatever part of the brain is dedicated to soul crushing nostalgia.

It begins like this. I remember a tweet I made about having a nose like Cyrano de Bergerac. And how I have super smell capabilities. Then I think, "If I had to make a list of my favorite smells, what would they be?" Coffee. Laundry detergent. River rocks. Musty garages.

Oh, musty would I explain that one? Well, I have very fond memories of musty, oily, garage-y places. My dad's garage with its cool concrete floor, tools lining the shelves, the perfect place to practice dribbling a basketball. Or my cousin's old hideout: an abandoned shipping trailer in my grandparents' yard. After he moved away he stored his old things there: a punching bag, stashes of comics and MAD magazines, Metallica cassette tapes. It became my new hideout. And the smell of the place--"eau de garage moisi."

And how weird it is that twenty years later, and very far removed from the source, I can recall exactly how it smelled. It's like we have a smell-catalog in our brains, a smellalogue if you will, storing and organizing every scent we come into contact with. It's a much stronger memory holder than sight or sound, I'm sure of it.

Then I panic. I remember the trailer in the yard, but what did my grandparent's house smell like? For several minutes I can't remember. It worries me. I don't want to forget. Then suddenly it comes back in waves. Tobacco. Bleach. Vegetable soup. The perm solution my grandmother used.

And then I'm there. Coloring pictures at the kitchen table, catching minnows in the creek, watching The Price is Right with my grandpa. There's no distance between then and now--it's a wormhole, a direct path between two points in time. Maybe at times we forget the people who influenced us when we were young, but it doesn't change the fact that they're there in our lives, every step of the way.

Other than sleepless nights, the circumstances that usually lead us to remember the deep past is through death. Someone dies, and although we vaguely think about their life and their person, what we always come back to is their influence on us. How we interacted, what we learned, how things changed, what we experienced, saw, tasted and smelled.

I got a Facebook message this morning from my boss at my old job letting me know a shared acquaintance had passed on. I worked in the media department of a university library, and we helped this gentleman, a former professor, digitize a collection of photographs he took on his travels. Every morning this fiercely independent ninety year old man would drive his old pickup truck to the library and slowly walk the long distance to our door. Even though he had difficulty walking he would refuse to let us drive him the distance in our golf cart, only reluctantly agreeing to a ride on rainy days.

He had traveled all over the world. During my time helping him I must have scanned thousands of photographs. All professional, all breathtakingly gorgeous. We would often work together. Although he would at some points forget my name and call me "Jennifer," he could remember every detail of his global journeys. The peaks he climbed in Colorado, or the spiritual experience he had after coming across a forest carpeted with bluebells.

When I got to take a world journey of my own when traveling to Japan, I took inspiration from his techniques and tried to make the best photographic travelogue possible, albeit limited to the point-and-shoot camera I was able to afford at the time. Later when I showed him my photos, he urged me to continue practicing photography and to explore the world and its wonders. I haven't been able to travel far since then, but I've done my best to explore my own backyard and catalog its magnificence through frozen snapshots in time.

So I am sad today. The world has lost a true gem of a human being. But at the same time, I'm gloriously happy. He had such a fulfilling life, and he touched the lives of so many others. This nostalgia we have for things past, the memories, should be dusted off every now and then. Not just when death forces us to think about them. They're not stuck in some way way back--they're surrounding us every day.

So. Take out those photo albums, and exercise your smellalogue. Don't live in the past, but accept it, and acknowledge how it and every person you've come into contact with has molded you into the person you are today.

Thank you, Dr. Wine.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Purge

Not the movie.

During my freshman year in college a retiring English professor let students come into her office and take whatever books they wanted. She needed them gone so she wouldn't have to move them back into her house. I was flabbergasted at the time--who could just let go of their precious book collection?--but now I get it. If all goes to plan I'll be moving in May to another apartment, and just thinking about "the big move" has my bones hurting already. I've lived in one place for 5 years and collected quite a lot of..."stuff." Books in particular.

Not to whine, but I'm moving for financial reasons. The rent in my current apartment has gone up $100, and in a way that cleverly doesn't violate the lease contract I signed a year ago. So I'm cleverly moving the fuck out. It's sad that I'm 28 and at no point do I ever have an extra $100 floating around in my bank account. I live paycheck to paycheck every month. I've had to borrow an exorbitant amount from my parents in the past few months, who past age 22 I never wanted to have to mooch off of ever again. I've cut back on a lot, but unfortunately before my rent went up I bought a used car (which was not an optional thing to buy--it was sorely needed), so I'm paying it off as well.


To the point. I'm putting up my life for sale. Well, my books. I'll stop being dramatic. Selling books is a funny thing. What I bought for $15.00 a few months ago is now worth $00.15 on nearly every used book platform available. It hardly seems worth the trouble, so tomorrow I'll be donating 2 gigantic boxes full of unsellable books to the AAUW, who run a semi-annual local used book sale. So if you're in the Roanoke, Virginia area, come on out February 1-2.

The rest are going up on my page. So. If you're interested in buying some books, DVDs, or video games, maybe check out my page? Anything not sold by April-ish will be donated to BetterWorldBooks.

Highlights from the collection:

  • Maphead by Ken Jennings, which I talk about here.
  • Perfume by Patrick Suskind which I talk about here.
  • Madaddam by Margaret Atwood, which I haven't even finished reading yet! I'm selling because I can check out the ebook through my local library. I'm not making a very good sales pitch.
  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which I never finished because I'm attention deficit and it's 900 pages, not because it's not fascinating. Because it is. Also, because every time I see it on my shelf I think "Team of Rivals: World Police" and it has just got to stop.
  • The Magicians by Lev Grossman
  • its followup, The Magician King.
  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, which I talk about here.
  • LEON Baking and Desserts, the most beautiful cookbook I've ever laid eyes on. If this doesn't sell I won't be donating it. Actually, you might want to snatch this up before I change my mind about selling it.
  • And several children's literature books leftover from a class I took in college. Seven years later and I'm just now letting go of some of these.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A New Year, A New Challenge

Since I apparently have trouble with reaching reading goals that involve numbers, I'm setting myself up for a different "challenge." This one I'm seriously excited about.

A few weeks ago a certain writer (who shan't be named since he's probably the kind of guy who regularly googles himself) wrote an article for Vice that listed 17 books he had given up on reading this year. I noticed in his list that every book was by a very specific author set: all men, and all white. Being the stinker I am I decided to leave a comment. "So the lesson here is stop trying to read books by white guys."

It was a joke. But it hinted at a bigger problem. I can't sit here and list to you every way the publishing industry, critics and readers have discriminated, consciously and unconsciously, against writers who are women and POC. It's a long history fraught with blood, tears and heavy sighs. But you should know it's not all history--it's still happening. "White guy" writers are more read, featured, reviewed, published, recognized and rewarded.

Don't believe me? Here are some numbers.



So. Part of the problem is exposure. It's not that there's some weird gigantic lack of writers out there who aren't white men. Pretty sure not everyone on earth is Jonathan Franzen (although what a terrifying idea for a scifi novel). There's just a gigantic lack of exposure and recognition for writers who aren't.

I can't change what you read. But I can change what I read. And more importantly, what I cover on this blog.

So in 2014 my reading "challenge" is not read stuff by white guys.

More specifically, to not read stuff by straight, cisgendered white guys. Hardly seems like a challenge. I've got quite a large ocean of literature to pick from. The hardest part will be dealing with any flack from dudebros I may get. Like some of the feedback I got for my joke on the Vice article. White guys, including the author, did not like my joke! Who'da thunk!

I will add one asterisk to my goal. *If by the grace of the old gods and the new George R.R. Martin finishes writing and publishes The Winds of Winter before the end of 2014, I shall be reading that shit.

But otherwise, MISANDRY, AWAY!!!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Tying Up Loose Ends: Another Year Survived

So 2013's reading resolution was a failure. 20,000 pages was the goal and I only managed 8,078. Turns out I spent most of the year 20,000 leagues under my comforter! In a bathrobe!! Listening to Ladytron!!!

See also.

Anyway. I'd like to tie up my unfinished reading business and share some snippets from things that weren't completed or don't warrant their own post. Here goes.

From an interview with Michael Holroyd, biographer, in Paris Review, Issue 205.

I've always believed that there's no such thing as a definitive biography and, particularly if you write about writers, that you are offering your subject the opportunity to write one more book, posthumously, of course, and in collaboration with you. Even if you and I were writing about the same subject, and even if our research were identical, we would produce different books. The dates and so on would be the same, but some themes would seem important to you and insignificant to me.

 From Living History: Hillary Rodham Clinton

My mother and my grandmothers could never have lived my life; my father and my grandfathers could never have imagined it. But they bestowed on me the promise of America, which made my life and my choices possible.

From Taipei, by Tao Lin

It would take her thousands of steps to get anywhere, but she would get there easily, and when she arrived in the present, it would seem like it had been a single movement that brought her there. Did existence ever seem worked for? One seemed simply to be here, less an accumulation of moments than a single arrangement continuously gifted from some inaccessible future.

While idly eating the salad-y remains of his burrito with a fork, around twenty minutes later, Paul became aware of himself analyzing when he should've left. He vaguely traced back the night and concluded he should've left when, on his way to the venue, he had been "completely lose." He allowed himself to consider earlier opportunities, mostly for something to do, and discerned after a brief sensation of helplessness--like if he'd divided 900 by itself and wanted the calculator to answer 494/494 or 63/63--that, in terms of leaving this social situation, he shouldn't have been born.

Paul woke on his back, with uncomfortably warm feet, in a bright room, not immediately aware who or where he was, or how he had arrived. Most mornings, with decreasing frequency, probably only because the process was becoming unconscious, he wouldn't exactly know anything until three to twenty seconds of passive remembering, as if by unzipping a a PDF, showing his recent history and narrative context, which he'd delete after viewing, thinking that before he slept again he would have memorized this period of his life, but would keep, apparently not trusting himself.

 I really wanted to love Taipei. But just didn't. I never did finish it. Another year older, I wonder if my tastes have changed. Either way, I hope Tao Lin releases more poetry and short stories in the future.

Happy new year, my lovelies.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy

I have a handful of literary guilty pleasures (handfuls the size of Hulk hands), and the Bridget Jones series is one of them. I read the first two books straight through during a 19 hour flight to Japan a few years back. I also kept a travel journal for that particular trip, and needless to say Bridget's diary-keeping style seeped into it, making it pretty useless for reading now. It's full of weird, shallow observations and abbreviations of very as "v." It is funny though.

So non-spoiler alert, if you've read the books or are familiar with the movies, Mark Darcy has kicked the bucket. Bridget's a 50-year-old widow with two kids. And if it seems like Mark leaving this plane of existence is a cop out to get Bridget back in the same dating scene she was in the first two books, you'd be correct. It's almost criminal just how much the plot follows that of the first book. And of course Pride and Prejudice. There's a Mr. Darcy here as well, completely obvious and ridiculous from first greeting. "Welp, no need to read the rest. This grumpy man just saved her from a tree. They'll be married by the end." And so.

Highlight: if they do make Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy: The Movie, Daniel Craig will most certainly play the part of Mark Darcy 2.0.

Another highlight: Bridget has joined Twitter: which given her writing style, is her natural habitat.

Regardless of recycled plot, it's still funny, if a bit repetitive in its jokes. The best parts were the poignant moments, when Bridget and the kids talk about the dear departed Mr. Darcy. Those were truly touching and well-written and may or may not have made me shed tears.

But those won't be the quotes I'll share with you. Let's get straight down to pure Bridget.


  • Get annoyed by dishwasher, tumble dryer and microwave beeping in attention-seeking manner to tell you they have finished, wasting time crossly imitating dishwasher by dancing round saying, 'Oh, oh, look at me, I'm a dishwasher, I've washed the dishes.'
  • Eat grated cheese straight out of the fridge, dropping it all over the floor.
  • Lie in bed in the morning thinking morbid or erotic thoughts, but get straight up at six o'clock and do self up for school run in manner of Stella McCartney, Claudia Schiffer or similar.

Why are bodies so difficult to manage? Why? 'Oh, oh, look at me, I'm a body, I'm going to splurge fat unless you, like STARVE yourself and go to undignified TORTURE CENTRES and don't eat anything nice or get drunk.' Hate diet. Is all fault of SOCIETY. Am just going to be old and fat and eat whatever I like and NEVER HAVE SEX AGAIN and WHEEL MY FAT AROUND ON A TROLLEY.

There are at least twenty more examples of Bridget doing the 'Oh, oh, look at me' dance.

Sunday 28 October 2012

5:30 a.m. Maybe will text Leatherjacketman!
< How are you? >

One soul reaching out to another, I thought, amid the smouldering remains of the silly old mess we'd accidentally created, like silly billies in the midst of a deep unbreakable connection; Leonardo da Vinci's Adam reaching out, in that painting, for God's fingertips.

Friday 2 November 2012
Possibilities of anything ever happening with male of species again 0.

Happy Christmas, all.

400 pages
8,078 / 20,000 page goal

Monday, December 16, 2013

Hyperbole and a Half

The subtitle for Allie Brosh's book Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened, could double as a subtitle for this blog. Anyway. Bad Things happen, but also good things. Like this book.

Oh, Simple Dog.
Allie Brosh has been running the extremely popular blog Hyperbole and a Half since 2009, narrating the ups and downs of her life through prose and comics. I first got into reading webcomics around that time, and I fell in love with her drawing style and humor. And Simple Dog.

It's incredible just how accurately Brosh can convey specific feelings and attitudes through simple line drawings. It's a style that looks easy but I know must take hours of work to get exactly right.

Probably one of Brosh's most relatable entries to her blog is her latest dealing with the issue of depression, which you can read in full here: Depression Part Two. It's heartbreaking and hilarious, and I've yet to see anything else that portrays the hardship of explaining depression to your peers and loved ones as this does.

Here are some snippets from the book.

"If you were sitting quietly on your couch, waiting for your girlfriend to come back inside so you could finish watching your movie, and while you were waiting, someone called you up and said "I'll give you a million dollars if you can guess what's going to happen next," you absolutely would not guess "I am going to be brutally and unexpectedly attacked by a goose in my own home." Even if you had a hundred guesses you would not guess that."

So, buy the book, check out her blog, and watch this delightful clip of Brosh reading the first chapter and a Q&A session with fans.

369 pages
7,678 / 20,000 page goal

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Lathe of Heaven

The premise of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven is a simple one: what if someone could change the world with their dreams? But the resulting speculative novel is anything but simple.

George Orr is an average guy. Almost spectacular in his averageness. Except that when he has particularly vivid dreams, whatever happens inside them manifests itself into reality when he wakes. Frightened of his power, he seeks help from a psychologist, who in turns wants to harness this incredible opportunity to change the world. But power, even used with noble intentions, can have devastating consequences.

The entire story leaves you on edge, questioning what's real, the reliability of the protagonist, and ultimately the reliability of the world outside the story. Reading it I felt like Bastian making his way through the Neverending Story, seeing himself mentioned, and just being like

My first thought after reading was, how has this not been turned into a movie yet? Especially after the success of Inception in 2010? Then I did my research and found out it has. Twice. Neither being a blockbuster by any means. But the first attempt, a 1980 public television flick with a shoestring budget, actually turned out to be pretty decent. Oh, the special effects are somewhat hilarious, but it follows very closely to the book. And I bow down to anyone trying to make a film that involves volcanoes, space wars, aliens, nuclear disaster and beautiful ponies with $250k. You can watch the entire thing on Youtube.

Here are some passages that will hopefully convince you to become a Le Guin-head like me.

"But in fact, isn't that man's very purpose on earth--to do things, change things, run things, make a better world?"
"What is his purpose, then?"
"I don't know. Things don't have purposes, as if the universe were a machine, where every part has a useful function. What's the function of a galaxy? I don't know if our life has purpose and I don't see that it matters. What does matter is that we're a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass-blade in a field. It is and we are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass."

That Haber could have thus got out of communication with himself was rather hard for Orr to conceive; his own mind was so resistant to such divisions that he was slow to recognize them in others. But he had learned that they existed. He had grown up in a country run by politicians who sent the pilots to man the bombers to kill the babies to make the world safe for children to grow up in.

There is a bird in a poem by T. S. Eliot who says that mankind cannot bear very much reality; but the bird is mistaken. A man can endure the entire weight of the universe for eighty years. It is unreality that he cannot bear.

192 pages
7,309 / 20,000 page goal