Thursday, November 6, 2014

Texts From Jane Eyre - Mallory Ortberg

You. Guys. I understand that I am a Person Of Hyperbole, and that you might find it hard to take me seriously when I tell you that this is the literal best.

Take the Fassbender seriously instead.

Ok it may not be the perfect book (probably it is), but it is my perfect book. English literature! Allusions! Swears! This is the first book that I've read and then re-read on three consecutive days. And due to the modern miracle of Mallory Ortberg already being REALLY VERY THERE on the internet, there's a super simple way to figure out if you're going to like this book.

Question A: Do you enjoy this? Or this? Or THESE, MANY OF WHICH ARE ACTUALLY IN THE BOOK??

Question B: Have you read books? Like, any books. Don Quixote? Gone with the Wind? The poems of Emily Dickinson? Sweet Valley High? THE LORAX? Or I mean do you at least know a few things about books? Because I'mma be honest, a lot of the humor depends on a passing familiarity with the text. I haven't read Moby Dick but I have the basic idea so I got the jokes. I know nothing about Atlas Shrugged except CAPITALISM so I was kind of like, Ehhhhh. I'm still cry-laughing about Wuthering Heights. I want to quote that whole chapter for you right here, now, it's that good.

ANNNNNYway, if you answered 'yes' to both A and B, you're in pretty good stead. In fact, the amount that you found A funny is kiiiiiind of almost exactly how much funny you're going to find the book, them being written by the same person, and all.

Play us out, Fassbender.

It really is.

Ten caterpillars. 

Requisite ass-covering: book received from publisher.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Being Mortal - Atul Gawande

I requested this without knowing what it was about because Atul Gawande. Always great. In case the title is as vague for you as it was for me, it's about dying. Super fun Sunday read. I don't really have anything hilarious to say about it, so maybe I'll just throw in a bunch of random gifs.

And I read it all in a day because it is engrossing. As always, Gawande is like, Hey, here's a thing you didn't know about medicine and also had never thought to think about, 'you' being laymen but also most doctors. The first half is about aging, and how we have almost zero viable options for the infirm. The goal of medicine is to fix what ails you, but when what ails you is a naturally deteriorating heart, and you're not going to get better from that, where do you go?

We don't really.

He kind of dances around an idea I find really compelling and terrifying, about safety versus quality of life. He talked to one woman who was moving her father from an assisted living, where he had finally (if reluctantly) built himself a routine and a community, to a nursing home because he wasn't safe living largely unsupervised anymore. He was furious about the move, but for her own peace of mind she felt she had no choice to severely decrease his quality of life. Gawande describes several innovative options for the elderly, almost all of which opt for freedom and independence over assurance of safety. What's unspoken is this: you move someone because you're worried they're going to die, but they're ALREADY going to die. They're old. The question is whether it's better to live independently for a year and then fall and break your hip and die, or to be confined to a wheelchair for your own safety for three years, during which you have no control over what time you get up, when and what you eat, where you go, and then die.

This gif has never been more appropriate.

This I guess is the underlying thesis of the book: often we sacrifice quality of life now for greater gains later. The trick is figuring out when there is going to be a later. At what point in a person's chemotherapy treatments do you decide that the amount you are going to extend their life (if at all) no longer compensates for the life they are losing during treatment? At what point do you decide that a person is close enough to dying of old age that your goal becomes to help them enjoy the next six months, instead of trying to stretch them at whatever costs to another year?

We really don't know.

Gawande talks about the conversations necessary to figure out what a person's goals are, and at what point living becomes intolerable to them. One patient declared that as long as he could eat ice cream and watch football, he wanted to go on living, which helped his daughter make good choices when a surgery turned complicated.

Make good choices, you guys.

All of this comes home to roost when Gawande's father, also a surgeon, is diagnosed with a tumor in the spine. One doctor pushed immediate surgery and aggressive treatment, while another counseled waiting, since what was most important to Gawande Sr was to continue his practice for as long as possible. Surgery might restore some of the failing function in his hands, but also might paralyze him from the neck down for the remainder of his life.

Me neither.

Weighing goals and ultimately deciding to wait and see runs contrary to the current medical practice of pushing as hard at a disease as you can. As Gawande says, patients think they'll move forward until doctors tell them there's no more they can do, but there's always something more they can try. We need a new way of thinking to figure out at what point trying your hardest becomes counterproductive.

Effort doesn't always = cake.

This is starting to sound really book-reporty. Read it, guys.

Eight caterpillars.

Requisite ass-covering; book received from publisher.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Happier at Home - Gretchen Rubin

GRETCHEN RUBIN IS MY SPIRIT ANIMAL. She just gets me in a major way, and I am fully on board with her various projects. I gave The Happiness Project ten caterpillars because it was So Exactly Right On For Me, and this may meet a similar fate.

Because a certain subset of people (like myself) are basically happy with our lives and we want to keep living them more or less as they are, in the same way I'm happy with chicken pot pie and want to keep making it with chicken and crust and vegs. But if you were to tell me a dozen minor modifications I could make to my crust and my roux and my attitude and this metaphor is getting out of hand, but if there were little things I could do to make my pot pie BETTER, I would enthusiastically do them.

Ok that I will not do though.

So this is like that. FOR EXAMPLE. One of the first things Rubin discusses is her relationship to her possessions, and I LOVED IT IMMEDIATELY because she gave me permission to like my stuff. People are always down on materialism and like if you like things, you're a shallow person. We've moved an average of once a year since we were married 7 years ago, and every time we move I'm like, MAN I HATE MOVING, but I love my stuff. And Rubin talks about how the people vs possessions argument is a false dichotomy, how many of our Things are beloved because they remind us of our Relationships (bracelet from husband, picture from trip with sister) or because they facilitate Fun Times (pie plate to make pot pie for friends, board games to play after pot pie), and how the issue is more about how we select our possessions, what we keep around us and how we feel about it.

C'mere, stuff.

She talks about ways of identifying stress points in the house and making your environment WORK FOR YOU. And the whole thing is just so practical and sensible and you can put it to use and it's very enjoyable to read in the way that smooth, unadorned writing is. It's exactly the sort of life-improvement book I enjoy.

Ten caterpillars.

Monday, September 15, 2014


Clearing off the old brain-shelves.

Changeless - Gail Carriger

I enjoy these books, even though there are whole PARAGRAPHS of light action that are trying to be amusing but aren't really and don't forward the plot at all, and Alexia's banter with her husband is nauseating as often as it is witty. They're just silly and fluffy and a little steampunky and this is the last in the series that my library carries in ebook format, so I might never bother to find out what happens now that Alexia is pregnant and her husband thinks it isn't his and has left her in the lurch (now that I've just typed that sentence, yes I will).

An Academic Question - Barbara Pym

This is the sort of thing that I used to qualify as Middle-Aged Lady Literature and that I'm now sort of really into. Caro is a university professor's bored housewife who reads to old people in her copious spare time, and this ultimately gives her husband 'access' (like, the thievery kind) to an old missionary's papers, which allows him to publish an article that trumps a rival and I'm not raving about it, but it's the sort of paperback you find in the cabin you and some friends are borrowing from your aunt only the weather is lousy, and you end up super-invested in it and don't want to come out of your room to play canasta in the evening.

The Dinner - Herman Koch

The couple in this book is kind of awful, but they only start out sort of dour and I like dour. They get worse as they have dinner with his brother and the brother's wife, and the brother is a TOTAL dick but they have to stick the dinner out because Something Happened with their sons (and it's very DRAMATIC VIOLINS and I'm like,

but it is. I mean, it's bad. The sons did something horrible) and now they have to try to figure out what to do about it, and things keep escalating in this horrifying way that makes you feel like the worst sort of rubbernecker and that's basically what moves you through to the end, because the characters, man. I did not like those guys.

The Leftovers  - Tom Perrotta

One of my old profs mentioned on fb how much she likes Tom Perrotta, and in my head he was one of those authors whose books you buy at the airport because you didn't realize how close you were to the end of The Historian, or whatever. But so I took this one out and it was DELIGHTFUL. I mean, it's just, you know, Slice Of Life Following The Rapture (Or Rapture-Like Event).

Not an accurate representation of The Leftovers.

Because a bunch of people disappeared, young and old, good and assholey, Christian and Buddhist and atheist, and now, three years later, everyone is just sort of doing their thing. Joining silent cults; trying to delineate their own personalities from those of their best friends; sneaking the teenaged, pregnant wife of a disgraced religious leader across state lines; going on awkward, middle-aged dates. You know. The usual.

And it was just, I don't know, interesting and enjoyable. So there.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Queen of the Tearling - Erika Johnson

At first I was all, Oh, well, of course I'm not enjoying this book very much, because I'm reading it right after finishing How to Build a Girl and The Magician's Land, both of which were EXCELLENT, so Queen never really had a hope. But then, no, I read Girl and Land CONCURRENTLY and enjoyed BOTH so really, Queen has no one to blame but itself.

So Kelsea is the Tearling heir who has been hidden away for the last 19 years because tropes. The queen's guard comes to collect her from her seclusion when she comes of age, and for exactly zero reason Kelsea's like, 'They probably thought her [Kelsea] weak. Perhaps they thought all women so.' Way to earn the hearts of your guard, Kelsea, by making assumptions straight out the gate.

Kelsea, all the time.

But that doesn't matter, because everyone who sees her is immediately like, OH MY THE NEW TEAR QUEEN SO BRAVE AND INSIGHTFUL. Johnson keeps having people say good things about Kelsea even when they make no sense contextually. Like, they're being tracked and the head guard is like, Can you fight? And she's like, I'm no fighter, and he says, 'I don't know about that, Lady. I've watched you on this journey; you hide your discomfort well.' WHAT AT ALL DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH HER ABILITY TO FIGHT? Nothing, that's what.

And it keeps going. One dude is talking about a past battle and the head guard is like, THE QUEEN'S MAIDEN EARS THOUGH and another guard is like, 'I've been watching her all day, sir. Believe me, she's a tough little thing.' ALL Kelsea has done up to this point is not fall off her horse.

This is sarcastic, tho.

Anyway, they get kidnapped by the Fetch, who is soooooooo handsome and roguey and dangerous (stop trying to make him happen, Erika). He's all like, Oh, I just wanted to chat with you to see if you'd be a good queen, is the whole reason I kidnapped you. On your way, now. Then they take her and her bodyguard, Mace, back to the road: 'another man rode Mace's stallion with Mace thrown across the saddle' AND WHERE IS THE OTHER MAN SITTING, I ask you.

Me either.

The Fetch also thinks Kelsea is Basically The Best with zero provocation. He makes some cryptic comment about having given her a gift that she'll find later and she's like, 'Great God, tell me you didn't impregnate me while I slept' and that is actually a good joke but he RUINS it by being like, 'you'll either be dead within a week or you'll be the most fearsome ruler the kingdom has ever known. I see no middle ground.' THE JOKE WAS NOT THAT GOOD.

Kelsea gets to her city that she now rules and is like, Well this is a lot of people. CARRYING ON. And I'm like, No, wait, go back. Because she's been raised in seclusion, having seen only two other people (and then accidentally some forest family) her entire life. THIS SHOULD BE A BIGGER DEAL, ALL THESE PEOPLE.

But enough of that actually interesting thing, let's get back to what an awesomey awesome ruler Kelsea is. It turns out that her land has been tithing off a portion of its people to the neighboring land, in exchange for not being invaded. Kelsea marches in, raises her hands for silence, and 'at that moment, Javel [a gate guard] knew for certain that she truly was the Queen, though he never knew why or how he knew.' That sentence basically embodies this book: I'm not going to tell you how she's awesome SHE'S JUST AWESOME OK DEAL WITH IT. No, Erika, I demand textual evidence.

And then Kelsea burns the slave trade to the ground in like literally her first ten seconds as queen and I guess that's pretty great but now you's abouts to be invaded. Meanwhiles, Mace picks a bunch of women from the were-gonna-be-slaves-but-aren't-now and gives them to Kelsea as ladies-in-waiting, and the Fetch, who is watching her (fetchingly) is like, 'It had been a clever thing, taking the women from the crowd...[t]he girl displayed a prickly intelligence that could never have come from [her mother]' and I'm like, IT WAS NOT EVEN HER IDEA WTAF.

Ok so now Kelsea is in charge, evicting her uncle the Regent, and 'Kelsea suddenly knew, her knowledge coming from nowhere' something something about her uncle and vices and whatever, point being that I want to read that sentence NEVER. Allllllllways have the knowledge come from somewhere, even if it's Kelsea's stupid jewel (later she develops random powers of Perception And Also Throwing People Against Walls from this jewel her mother passed on, which is DUMB because the powers have no consistency but at least they come from somewhere).

So Kelsea is holding her first audience ever, and she's all angry because none of her guards will meet her eye, 'a practice she assumed was standard but also found demeaning. After a minute, she grew so tired of not being looked at' that she asks one of the guards how his hand is. FIRSTLY, they aren't looking at you because they are fucking guarding you from things that are not you. SECONDLY, you were jussssst told not to ask them about wounds earned in your service because it'll damage their pride, which you might think is stupid but really, you should probably toe the line on this one.

Anyway, she's like two people into her first audience ever and she's thinking of her soft bed and a cup of tea and starting to nod off and I am like, Woman, you need to nut up. She goes to bed and there's a bunch of stuff about like, ick, pillows, and who was the soft floozy who designed this room with all these pillows, because if there's anything we need to know about Kelsea it's that she is Not Her Mother. Her mother liked fashion, FFS.

And probably like had boobs and shit what a slut.

MORE MEETINGS. This time with her general and colonel because remember, she's probably about to be invaded, and 'both men had presented themselves in full army uniform, probably to intimidate Kelsea' YES OR ALSO MAYBE OUT OF RESPECT HELLS BELLS. Anywert, Kelsea doesn't like the way the general talks to her either, because that's how Erika Johnson shows Strong Female Character: constant umbrage.

Also, sometimes the writing. 'Borwen's black eyes blazed, and a strange, feral sound emerged from his beard.'

It was probably a catbeard.

And Chris mentioned how hilariously ageist Kelsea is, but oh man. 'How could a woman who looked so old still place so much importance on being attractive?'

Says the Queen of Silver Foxes to the Queen of Tearling

'And for all the anguish that Kelsea's own reflection has caused her lately, she saw now that there was something far worse than being ugly: being ugly and thinking you were beautiful.' POSITIVE SELF-IMAGE IS ONLY FOR ATTRACTIVE PEOPLE DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME.

In sum:

Three caterpillars.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Red Rising - Pierce Brown

So, I read this. But it took me weeks and I read, like, four other books in that time. Literally anything that came into my hands that looked halfway good, I'd put Red Rising down in favor of. There came a point about halfway through when I realized I probably WAS going to finish it, but I was so...ehhhh.

So. Darrow is a Red, which means he goes into the pits of Mars to mine [element I'm too lazy to look up] to help terraform Mars' surface, so that all the weaker colors (currently wasting away on Earth) can come live there. In the spirit of dystopian literature, that is totally all a lie, the government is corrupt, Mars is terraformed already, and everyone is just hanging around in space-gardens and dashing about in space-cars while the poor Reds die in the mines.

Not to make her the subject of every discussion of YA dystopia ever, but Katniss Everdeen is abrasive, yes? It's kind of the schtick, that she's sort of rough around the edges. But she's not just a turd for no reason, you know? She's not all like, Oh, stupid elders thinking they know shit. They have slow reflexes, what do THEY know, with their old-person brains. Because that's Darrow. He is a jackass that I, at the not-ancient age of 32, want to punch in the teeth.

So there's that. And then, whichever team mines the most [element] wins the Hunger Games gets the Laurel, i.e. more food and things. Only the same team always wins, even after Darrow's sure he's collected the most [whatever], and he's like, That's how they do, rigging the game to keep us striving. And I'm like, Wait, what? Because if you knew it was fixed and you weren't going to win, why would you even? Part of the reason kids fight in the Hunger Games and don't just drown theyselves is because if they win, their families will Actually Get Stuff.


You'll be singing this for hours WHO IS YOUR DYSTOPIC OVERLORD NOW?

What were we? Ok. So Darrow and his wife get caught...sneaking into a space garden? I forget. And they get a bunch of lashes for this, only when the wife goes for her lashes she sings a Forbidden Song and so gets hanged instead. She does this on purpose because she believes in Revolution, but rather than just...I don't know, foment unrest among her fellow slaves, she MARTYRS herself so that her husband will rise up and revolt to avenge her. FEMININE WILES AND ALSO SACRIFICE. (Ugh.)

And it sort of works, because he does something to get HIMSELF hanged (I don't remember, steals her body or something) but instead of waking up dead, he wakes up on the surface of Mars, in the hands of Revolutionaries who want to re-make him as a Gold (the ruling power) so he can infiltrate their system and fuck shit up. It's...actually kind of an ok plan.

You don't really deserve Chris Traegar-level enthusiasm for this but I'm throwing you a bone, here.

Apparently he isn't the first person to undergo what they creepily call 'Carving,' where they Wolverine/The Swan him into a beautiful, unbreakable machine, outfit him with a fake family history, and send him off to subterfuge. I'm underplaying what a process this all is, and apparently the previous Carvees all died because body mods are a bitch.

So he applies to Gold School where, because he's secretly a Red and a badass miner and augmented to shit (and kind of a Mary Sue, to be honest) he's excellent at everything, including punching things. Which comes up sort of a lot, because once they've passed whatever tests, they're split into teams and dropped into an elaborate game of Capture the Flag.

And despite what seems like a majillion Resistance Dollars spent on his new look, and despite the CONSTANT surveillance both implied and explicitly described, and despite how deadly, deadly seriously the Golds take this shit, Darrow keeps doing stuff like weeping his dead (and kind of famous now) wife's name, or clutching his red headband that he brought from Below, or wearing a pendant of a flower that SEEMS to be native to the mines. It's like he's trying to get caught, is what I'm saying.

You get to NOT DIE, you unrepentant asshole.

Anyway, the whole point of the Hunger Games Capture the Flag contest is so that the Golds in power can watch their young people run around enslaving, raping, and occasionally murdering each other to see who they want to give jobs to. The games do become fairly compelling, even if they're full of Infiltrator Tropes like Darrow discovering that not all Golds are heartless monsters. WE HAVE SEEN THE ENEMY AND HE IS US.

But I just don't care enough to read the rest of what I'm sure is going to be at least a trilogy. I don't like Darrow, I don't like this edgy-poetic style of writing ('His face has become like a blood blossom') and I don't think sentences like 'It is weeks of physical therapy' should be allowed. WHAT is weeks of physical therapy?

It is, kitten.

Four caterpillars. Requisite ass-covering: book received from publisher.

Monday, August 4, 2014

How to Build a Girl readalong: In which I finally join the conversation


Or, sure, finger guns.

I joke, though. How to Build a Girl is its OWN gold star. So. Joanna begins having sex, and lots of it, and this brings up So Many Issues. Like female sexuality being primarily mediated through the male gaze. Or how Joanna has to address herself as 'massive slag' in order to feel better about feeling like a massive slag, or as a preventative measure against feeling bad when others will (inevitably) point out her massive slagness. Also, the word 'swashfuckler' is involved.

And what I love most about this book is its ability to address these things HEAD ON in a way that should feel overly teachy and messagey (didactic? Am I trying to say didactic?) but doesn't. Partially because it usually comes in the middle of a pile of hilarity, and is itself written with WIT and HUMOR, but also because the things she says feel simultaneously eternal and fresh. Like, I always knew this thing, but here is a way of articulating it that is so spot-on that I feel like I never knew what I meant.

Me, the entire book.

Like about how teenagers default to cynicism because 'it's a million times easier to be cynical and wield a sword, than it is to be open-hearted and stand there, holding a balloon and a birthday cake, with the infinite potential to look foolish.' Which makes me want to be nicer to teenagers even when they are making it sooooo difficult. But she also points out that 'when cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. Cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas.'

GROOVE to that truthiness.

Every time anyone posts a quote I'm like, YESS. YES, THAT. Because every sentence in this book is crafted, and not, like, Booker Prize Shortlist crafted (shut up, you know what I mean), but JOYOUSLY crafted. Like, language is such FUN and you can make it do so many THINGS and it is evocative as HELL and BEHOLD MY POWER, AS I MAKE IT DANCE TO MY TUNE.

So I leave you with this: 'I haven't yet learned the simplest and most important thing of all: the world is difficult, and we are all breakable. So just be kind.'

And hey, how difficult was it to stop at the end of this week's section, because of THAT THING SHE SAYS? (Completely non-subtle attempt to get you to pre-order the book. But for real, good cliffhanger.)