Ow

So, one of the advantages of your actual physical pain?  It doesn’t usually give you a lot of time to worry about your emotional pain.  Today is hot and humid, and rain has been threatened since Wednesday.  And my joints ache.  I dragged myself around the kitchen this morning, feeding the cats and making myself coffee, and muttering “ouch, ow, jeez that hurts!” a lot.  On the upside, I can take aspirin for it, and I haven’t had a single over-the-top anxious moment yet today.

And with this greeting me as I sit down to work, how much misery could I reasonably be expected to construct for myself?  There’s something about a little foot sticking out from under a blanket, that eases one’s mind.  Peebie is under her blanket and all is right with the world.  Also, Leo has stopped acting so weird, so that’s good.

416RvkJH10L._SY346_[1]And last night I started an ARC by Salman Rushdie, entitled The Golden House which is due out in early September.  My first instinct, when I put it down, was to ask myself why I’d never read his work before.  It’s so warm and personal, and even beautiful.  Now I want to read All His Things. You know how that is, right?  I’d quote some of it to you, but since it’s an ARC (Advance Reader Copy, for those who don’t know), and not proofed, I really can’t.  But I would like to.  I would like to seduce you into reading his words because I think you will fall in love with them.

Fortunately there seems to be a ton of Rushdie books available through ThriftBooks at very reasonable prices, so I’m going to put all of them on my wishlist and work my way through.

And it occurs to me now that I’ve been terribly fortunate this year in that I’ve discovered a lot of writers I truly enjoy and want to follow.  I’ve liked Victor La Valle for a long while, of course, but only this year began to read him in earnest.  I loved Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, and thought I didn’t like his earlier book, I’m still open to reading anything he has to say.

Kij Johnson, Kate di Camillo, and Nnedi Okorafor were all happy accidents for me, but I owe thanks to Barbara Young for my introduction to Ariana Franklin, and to The Housemate for introducing me to the wonderfully strange world of Jeffrey Ford.  Thanks to Neil Gaiman for recommending Lavie Tidhar, a wonderfully transgressive author, and to the wild enthusiasm of so many people for introducing me to Coulson Whitehead, Kathleen Rooney, George Saunders, and Min Jin Lee.

Some of the other authors I’ve read this year may or may not prove to be favorites, but that’s okay.  If even one of their works resonates with me, I’m that much  richer for the experience.

Hmmm, that was nearly as helpful as the aspirin.  Thanks too, to my perennial assistants, Peebie of the Jellybean Toes, and Leonardo di Floofi, who has not let fame go to his head.  he’s still the same little guy who has to touch the computer when I’m trying to work.

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Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

510SEx3k77L._SY346_[1]I’m not a huge fan of the family novel, but the readers on Litsy were so unanimous in their love for this book, and because I had wanted to expand my reading this year, and mainly because I got it for $1.99 during one of those one-day sales on Amazon, I took the chance. I’m so happy I did.

The game of Pachinko is used as a metaphor for how we live our lives, taking gambles which sometimes pay off, and sometimes don’t.  It can be colorful and exciting, and it’s certainly something about which many of us obsess.  In this story, people gamble all the time, some are fortunate, like Sunja, who is rescued from infamy by a young man whose life she helped save.  And in fact, as hard as Sunja’s life has been, there have always been people there for her, there have always been opportunities, often unlooked for, like the random bounce of a Pachinko ball as it spins through its maze of pins.

Sunja and her family are Koreans living in Japan before, during, and after WWII.  They are perennial outsiders in what is a highly insulated society, yet manage to make their way through hard work and determination. Some of her family slip away, some cling to life and make it work for them, and its not always who we might expect in either case. Some make their mark, looking past their social position to the status that success can bring.

Pachinko is very much about the expectations people have of themselves and of each other, and yes, it’s very much about family.  But for once I wasn’t put off by the formulaic treatment inherent in a family story.  Even the family members I didn’t like I liked, if that makes any sense.  And in the end, the story was satisfying which is all I really ask of a novel.

When Anxiety Comes a-Knockin’

I had a weird epiphany the other night while sitting up fretting over my sick cat, (Leo has an eye ulcer. It’s been horrible for him, rough for me.) and wondering why my anxiety levels seem to start at 8 and go to 11 these days.  I don’t think I’ve always been an anxious person, but in the last couple of decades, it’s become almost a defining characteristic.

Part of it was learned from Mom who was weirdly anxious.  She seemed serene about most things, but the strangest things could set her off into an endless loop of what-ifs, often connected to something she’d done.  “What if the pesticide I used in the garden killed that poor robin I found out there?” was one of her favorites.  It evolved into, “I heard her singing her last song before I killed her.”  Not that it stopped her from using pesticide on her roses, so I suspect the guilt and drama was in some way fulfilling.  And I get that because that’s how I use guilt.  I am always much worse inside my own head than anyone imagines.

But another part of it has to do with my circumstances. I spent most of my life as a part of a small, virtually closed unit.  My world was bounded by my parents and my home.  I had friends, good ones, but none of them ever really became a visceral part of that unit.  And then my world began to fall apart.  My mother, who was insulin-dependent, began to show signs of dementia, my father of congestive heart failure and crippling arthritis.  There were accidents, hospital stays, operations, and their health declined to the point where they were both virtual invalids who could leave the house only in a wheelchair.  Both suffered from dementia by then.  My mother’s was more advanced, and only late in the process diagnosed as Lewy-Body Dementia. (Leave it to Mom to get some kind of fancy dementia.)  My father suffered from plain old Alzheimer’s, but then he was a plain man and didn’t hold with a lot of fru-fru diseases.

Mom hallucinated.  A lot.  One of my favorite stories has always been about the day she called me over and  whispered, “Do you see those people on the couch?”  Of course there was no one there, but that day I didn’t feel like arguing about it, so I said, “Yes.”  Then she said, “I don’t mind them being here, I just wish they’d phoned first.”  On the upside, I could tell her the same joke every damn day and it would still make her laugh like she’d never heard it before.  You get your laughs where you can when you’re a caregiver.

Dad just suffered quietly, so quietly in fact that I didn’t even realize how far his cognitive powers had declined until one day he didn’t know how to use the ice dispenser in the fridge anymore. I still can’t find anything to laugh about in that.  He was my rock and I was seeing it crumble into dust.

Eventually I was forced to put them in nursing care.  When I would lie awake praying for a carbon-monoxide leak to kill us all, I knew I was pretty close to cracking.  Dad only lasted a few months, Mom a couple of years.  I redecorated the apartment, turned into a “prepper,” someone who preps for disaster, and blamed myself for killing them, like they’d still be alive at 113 and 112 if I hadn’t put them in a nursing home.  Like they would have gotten better. Right.

When they died, and I sold their place for a whole lot of money — I freely confess that I was in a great position at that point, and wanted revenge on the buyers for reasons which I’m not going to go into here.  They were good reasons though, trust me.  And I bought a place of my own and used up most of that money fixing things that needed fixing.  I was determined to make a new life.

So here’s the thing: I’ve done that.  I have a nice home which I share with a dear friend and our wonderful cats, and while I don’t have much money, I do have a job I enjoy, and I’m getting by.  So what’s the problem?  I feel like I’m always standing outside this life thinking, “But it’s not MY life.” When we moved here, I wanted to clean everything.  I was insane about cleaning.  Once that was done, I pretty much just stopped.  If asked, I’d say, “But that wasn’t MY dirt.”  My dirt… actually my mess, is something I can live with.  I’m not proud of that, but somehow it makes sense that it exists, this mess, because I don’t really feel like it matters.  This isn’t my life.  That’s gone.

Yes, I know it sounds crazy.  You live your life, right?  Maybe not.  Maybe you go through so many changes and lose so much that nothing feels familiar anymore.  Nothing feels safe anymore.  I felt safe with my parents.  No matter how awful things were outside, I could come home and there would be this little unit.  The apartment was its physical boundary, and we were its emotional boundary.  And the reading thing, which I’ve talked about before, that was my deeper comfort zone, and it was gone as well.

At this point I want to stop and say something directly to anyone who reads this and thinks, “What a whiny, privileged baby she is!”  I am not asking for your sympathy, so fuck your judgement.  What I’m doing here is explaining that sometimes you can feel like an outsider in the life you live.  This has nothing to do with privilege, anyone can feel it, and the anxiety and depression that goes along with it.  Understanding that there is a dissonance in the way you live may actually help you find your way to a more genuine life. I’m lucky to be able to divide the stages of my life so neatly that I can see where things got off track for me.

Now understand that I’m not hating the life I do live.  I’m just not comfortable in it and I do so want to be.  I don’t feel safe and I don’t feel as if I understand it. There’s nothing anyone else can do about this so no one needs to feel guilty, or feel any sort of need to help in any way.  This is my problem to wrestle with, and now that I’ve verbalized it, I may have a leg up on making things better.  I am reading again, after all.  That’s something, right?

So if this helps anyone understand their own anxiety and depression, I will feel as if I have done a bit of good in this world, and sometimes that’s the best we can hope for.  Good luck to all of you.

 

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin

41bl2ognhpL[1]It was probably forty years ago that I first read this book in a science fiction as literature class at Northeastern Illinois University.  It was taught by Tom Hoberg, one of the most interesting professors I’ve ever encountered. (I can still recall the names of the teachers who made a difference to me in those years, and maybe one day I’ll do a retrospective just to honor them.) He led off the class with this book, and even though I’d read SF and fantasy all my life, it was a remarkable introduction to a body of truly great science fiction writers and their work.  I’m not sure I adequately appreciated how ground-breaking this novel was.  I’ve heard it said that Le Guin didn’t do a very good job in creating an androgynous society — a criticism that even Le Guin admits may have some truth to it — but for the time in which it was written, it was about as bold a statement as I could ever imagine.

For those who have been living under a rock since it was first published, TLHoD is a first contact story.  It’s about Genly Ai, an emissary from a body of united planets called The Ekumen , who has come to the planet Gethen in order to convince them to join that group.  Gethenians are androgynes who enter what they call “kemmer” once a month in order to breed.  When not in kemmer or pregnant, they go back to being androgynes.  A Gethenian can enter kemmer as either male or female, they can sire children or bear them.  Most have done both. Because Genly Ai is a human male, this state of affairs is difficult for him to comprehend, and adds a layer of visceral difficulty to the already complex task of learning the cultural norms of a new world.

Much of the novel focuses on Ai’s relationship with Estraven, a lord of Karhide who has been helping him try to win over the Karhidish king.  Through political intrigues, a banishment, imprisonment and escape, and a long and fearful flight through some of the bleakest parts of a bleak country in the dead of winter, Ai and Estraven are forced to drop the walls of custom and meet as human beings.  And this is what the novel is ultimately about: crossing the boundaries of our differences to see the essential humanness of another person.

Since it’s been about 40 years since I read TLHoD, I can’t tell you what I thought if it then, save to say that I loved it.  What I can tell you now is that it remains timely in terms of its political content, its message about gender and other differences between people, and also because it is a book written by a woman in what was once a sausage-fest genre.  To some degree, that Le Guin knocked down the boys’ club  door and helped to pave the way for so many wonderful women writers in this genre might be its greatest legacy.

This is not to deny the value of the story itself, a story which still moves me, which made me cry again even though I knew what was going to happen, a story that made me think more deeply about not just gender but about the human condition.  It is not a book to dismiss for being dated or having shortcomings that are only important in retrospect, but rather one to read and cherish.

Review: The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, by Christopher Edge

26202647[1]Albie, who has lost his mother to cancer, and who feels neglected by his bereaved father, decides that if the many worlds theory is correct, then he can find his mother alive in a parallel universe if he can figure out how to hop between them. To that end, he discovers the Quantum Banana theory, and begins jumping into parallel universes looking for the one person he desperately wants to be with. Along the way, he encounters other versions of his friends and family, and even of himself, he has adventures, and he learns a few things about family and love, and loss.

When I was growing up, one of my favorite books was “A Wrinkle in Time.” When I read the description of “The Many Worlds of Albie Bright” I couldn’t help but be reminded of that old favorite. A story about a smart kid who goes searching to other worlds/universes to find a lost parent? Heck yeah. And yet in many ways the two books couldn’t be more different. Albie’s story is far less serious than that of the Murray children, the writing is direct and unpoetic, and there’s a hella lot of sciencing going on in the narrative. The only problem that I had with this book, in fact, was wondering if a child reading at this book’s level would get even the simpler scientific explanation of quantum physics. Since I’m not a nine year old, I came to no conclusions, but I can tell you that I got a kick out of it.

And while we’re on the subject…

This comes up all the time.  People who dog-ear their pages, who make notes in books or highlight, or underline, are called “monsters” by a lot of readers.

Fuck that.

No really, you tell me a book that sits pristine on a shelf, with an uncracked spine, pages barely touched much less wrinkly and stained by coffee or tea, pages without the occasional dog-ear or note, even if all it says is “YES!!!” You tell me that’s a loved book and I will tell you that you lie.  It’s a worshiped book, maybe, but loved?  No.  Things that are loved are used and handled, and held close in sometimes sweaty or dirty hands.  Books that are loved are read at the dinner table, dropped into the bathtub or off the side if the bed, sometimes left in the rain.  They are companions, not barely touched treasures.

So by all means use bookmarks — I’ve used everything from old bus transfers to pens when a proper bookmark isn’t available, but I have also dog-eared and used dust jackets.  By all means confine your commentary to a lovely journal or your Facebook.  Just don’t expect everyone else to do it your way.  Don’t tell us that we need to bow down at the altar of The Book because many of us know better.  They’re only as good as what is inside of them.

From About Time Publishing

 

 

Toward a new definition of reading

The advent of the e-reader has provoked a kind of backlash among a good many dedicated readers.  It’s not real reading they say.  It doesn’t smell like a book, it doesn’t feel like a book, you can’t hear the pages turn.  All of which are true, but meaningless in terms of what a book really is.  It’s a delivery system.  Humans have used many different delivery systems to convey their ideas.  The earliest was almost certainly story-telling, probably around a fire, maybe in a cave.  Stories of the hunt, stories of gods and men, stories that explained  the seasons or where the game was, or what thunder and lightning really was.

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By MarianoOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

And then there were cave paintings which also told stories, though I’m pretty sure that we aren’t capable of getting their full meaning.  But I am sure they were meant to convey ideas, either to other humans, or to the gods of nature.

Eventually we began to create alphabets to convey ideas in a more permanent and less obviously symbolic form.  We wrote on clay, stone, papyrus, silk… whatever was handy, whatever would allow our words to go on after we stopped speaking, perhaps after the story-teller was gone from this earth.  We read from scrolls, illuminated manuscripts and hand-written books filled with handmade paper.  Books were labor-intensive and those which didn’t belong to the church or the government, belonged to the very wealthy.

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By Adrian Pingstone (User:Arpingstone) – Own work, Public Domain, Link


Woodblock printing, which had its origin in Asia, was used to make multiple copies of images or text, but it was also labor-intensive, and not much used in the west.  However, when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, things changed for the better, at least in my opinion, because it opened the door for the common person to access the information that had previously been hard, if not impossible to obtain.

Amazon Digital Trends

Printed books dominated reading for more than 500 years, and so every other form of conveying information was moved to the side, given its own category.  Only printed books really counted as reading.  Five hundred years of dominance doesn’t let go easily, so when digital text, or e-readers began to appear on the scene, readers balked.  E-books weren’t real books, they said, but if you asked them why, their response would be “because they don’t smell like real books.” or “because they don’t feel like real books.”  The answers were disconnected from content, and bordered on being fetish-y, as if in secret they rubbed paperbacks on their naked bodies, or buried their faces between pages and breathed in the scent of ink and paper rather than actually reading what was printed on that paper with that ink.

When I’m confronted by the book-sniffers, I always ask which is more important to them, books or what’s printed in them?  Sometimes I get an honest answer, sometimes a dishonest one.  One person said, “Oh shut up,” though she said it with good humor because she knew what it was I was saying to her:  It doesn’t matter.

These same people wouldn’t say that audiobooks aren’t real because they’re aware that the blind reader relies on them as much as on braille texts.  I sometimes point out that the ability to scale the typefaces on e-readers helps people who are not blind but who do normally require large-print books, to access whatever text they want.

I sometimes point out that books are heavy and some of us have trouble holding them for long periods because of ailments like carpal tunnel syndrome.  I point out that some of us don’t have unlimited space in our homes but our e-readers and the clouds where we can store them offer us virtually unlimited space for digital texts.  I point out a lot of advantages to both digital texts and audiobooks.  Sometimes it makes a dent, sometimes not, and when it doesn’t, I understand that the person I’m talking to has invested much too heavily in the idea of physical books.  I don’t pretend to know why people do that, it seems so limiting to me.  What I do know is that at 55 I began to read digital texts.  At 63 I started listening to audiobooks.  I read a lot now, and I cherish every format because they give me what I want most: information.

While I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone how they should read (though I wish I could escape the feeling that I’m being told my choices are somehow bad or just not quite the thing, don’tcha know?) I can’t help but feel that we need to broaden our definition of what reading is to encompass the different ways in which the contents of a book can be delivered to us.  While I hope and pray that the printed page persists well into the future because yes, physical books are wonderful.  I wouldn’t dream of denying that.  I think the printed book has been the only game in town for a long time, and it’s going to have to stand aside a little and let its younger siblings have their share of our reading time, just as scrolls and tablets and illuminated manuscripts had to step aside and allow Gutenberg’s invention to bring books to the people.

Reading is what you need it to be.  Books, e-readers, audiobooks, hell even a cereal box is worth reading for a reader.  It’s what brings those stories to you.  In the end, what you hold in your hand is your own story-teller, sharing the tales of gods and men.