01 Jan

2015: The Year in Books

I made it through 71 books this year. It’s not as many as last year, but still highly respectable.

  • Page Count: around 27,128, based on statistics from LibraryThing.  This is about 77 percent of what I read last year
  • Library Use: 47 of the 71 books (66 percent) I read were from the library. Thank you, Sacramento Public Library!
  • Female and Male Authors: I read 41 books written by women and 30 written by men. Suck it, men. It takes a conscious effort to read more books by women, but it’s worthwhile, especially if you haven’t done it before.
  • Digital and Analog: I read 38 digital books and 33 analog (aka dead tree) books.
  • Fiction and Non-Fiction: I read 18 non-fiction and 53 fiction books.
  • Favorites: My favorites this year were Kameron Hurley’s books (all of them), Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, Who Fears Death, and Wolf Winter. The book I found most unexpectedly great was All My Puny Sorrows. It’s hard to pick favorites though because everything I read was pretty good this year.
  1.  The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells
  2.  The Serpent Sea by Martha Wells
  3.  The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
  4.  The Whispering Muse by Sjón
  5.  Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson
  6.  Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap Americaby by Linda Tirado
  7.  Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
  8.  The Just City by Jo Walton
  9.  The Martian: A Novel by Andy Weir
  10.  The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age by Astra Taylor
  11.  Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosio
  12.  The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley
  13.  Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Skakur
  14.  Down and Derby: The Insiders Guide to Roller Derby by Jennifer Barbee and Alex Cohen
  15.  Infidel by Kameron Hurley
  16.  The Ambassador by Bragi Ólafsson
  17.  Rapture by Kameron Hurley
  18.  In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood
  19.  2K to 10K: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love
  20.  Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer
  21.  The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord
  22.  Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone
  23.  Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii by James L. Haley
  24.  An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz
  25.  Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck
  26.  The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
  27.   A Darker Shade of Magic: A Novel by V. E. Schwab
  28.  Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone
  29.  This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible by Charles E. Cobb
  30.  The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
  31.  The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber
  32.  Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone
  33.  The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
  34.  The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen
  35.  The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
  36.  Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
  37.  Dune by Frank Herbert
  38.  Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People by Elizabeth A. Fenn
  39.  Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert
  40.  The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton
  41.  The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist
  42.  Mother of Eden by Chris Beckett
  43.  Children of Dune by Frank Herbert
  44.  The Undreground Girls of Kabul: In Search of A Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan by Jenny Nordberg
  45.  Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
  46.  All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Towes
  47.  Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer
  48.  The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu
  49.  Dream London by Tony Ballantyne
  50.  Last First Snow by Max Gladstone
  51.  The Lies of Locke Lamora by Max Gladstone
  52.  Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
  53.  Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller
  54.  The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
  55.   The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
  56.  Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch
  57.  Ivory Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown
  58.  The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi
  59.  The Causal Angel by Hannu Rajaniemi
  60.  Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
  61.  Luna: New Moon by Ian MacDonald
  62.  My Real Children by Jo Walton
  63.  Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
  64.  Butterflies in November by Auður Ava ólafsdóttir
  65.  Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
  66.  Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
  67.  The Art of Language Invention by David Peterson
  68.  Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
  69.  One of Us: Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway by Asne Seirstad
  70.  Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
  71.  Derby Life: A Crash Course in the Incredible Sport of Roller Derby by Margot Atwell
27 Dec

2016: The Year Ahead

As is my end-of-year custom, I am looking at whether I met my goals for 2015 and considering goals for 2016. I like to set goals for the year because they seem more tangible to me than resolutions. Plus, New Year’s resolutions are just goals you plan to give up on by Valentine’s Day.

For 2015, my goals were to read a lot, keep going to the gym, learn Icelandic and maybe start roller derby. And that’s pretty much what I did this year. I’ve read 70 books so far this year (I’m going to post my annual book list this week). I went to the gym pretty consistently and tried a few different workout programs. Of course, the most interesting things this year have been Icelandic and derby. It took me a while to find my groove with the Icelandic, but I’m almost done with a low-intermediate course. I have learned quite a lot. As for derby, it’s already taken over my life. I did rec league in April and May, and moved up to the birds in the summer. Today I actually skated my first scrimmage outside of my home league. My team won and I even scored a few points.

Okay, so, what’s up for 2016:

Languages

I plan to keep learning Icelandic because I am enjoying it. I’m nearly done with the second of five online courses offered by the University of Iceland. I want to finish the first four courses and get to a level where I can start reading the news by the end of the year.

I’ve also decided to get my Spanish to the next level. I am okay at Spanish, definitely not fluent, but I read news and do alright. I want to push myself for fluency in Spanish. I think the main thing that I need is more exposure to different types of language. I decided to read the Harry Potter series in Spanish and go from there. After I get comfortable reading some middle-grade books, I should be able to get into more interesting novels. After that, it’s not even work.

For both languages, I am going to practice writing more. I made an account on Lang-8, a site where native speakers correct the writing of people learning their language. My goal is to write once per week.

Derby and Fitness

Probably the most important part of 2015 was starting roller derby. I think it’s great and I find it exciting. My goal for this year is to make it onto Sac City’s B team, the Folsom Prison Bruisers. We’re having team tryouts in January. It would be great to move up early in the year, but I hope to at least make it onto the Bruisers by the middle of the year.

In terms of fitness more generally, I want to work on heavy lifting. After I started derby, I stopped lifting as often. Last month, I started the 5×5 Stronglifts program and I think I’m going to stick with that for a while. My goal is to squat my bodyweight (which is currently about 285. I can squat a little over 200).

Reading, Writing, and Everything Else

I am, of course, setting a reading goal again. My minimum goal is 52 books. I would like to get to 100, but it’s hard when I do so many things with my time. In truth, my goal is to read more books than I did in 2015.

This year I am also setting a writing goal. I have been thinking a lot about maybe writing some short stories or a novel, but that is not going to materialize on its own. My goal is to write 500 words/day.

I also want to waste less time on the internet. This has been an unofficial goal for a while, but I’m putting it in writing this time. It’s too easy to idly browse the internet when I could be reading or doing literally anything else.

This is honestly a lot of goals. I think most of it’s possible, but I do have a tendency to try to do everything and stress myself out when I can’t do everything. So, I suppose my last goal for 2016 is to learn when to relax and let things go. We’ll see.

08 Oct

Derby Life: Bird Style

I last wrote about roller derby after bird try-outs. Because I’m the kind of woman who leaves you hanging for four months, I am only now coming back to writing about it. I think aspects of my life that focus on improving incrementally are difficult to write about. There’s no great climax like there is in a movie. In the end, it’s just a lot of practice. That is hard to turn into something interesting.

Anyway, I did make the birds. I have made the most of it, but in retrospect, I think I may have advanced prematurely. The first month or maybe month and a half of bird class was incredibly hard. I almost cried a lot of times (and one time I really did cry). I dropped out of the warmups (and I still do sometimes) because I felt like I couldn’t breathe anymore or because my quads/back/calves were burning. Actually, I talked to my coach one night and she leveled with me and said that I probably wasn’t quite ready to move up, but my work ethic convinced the coaches to let me anyway. That damn work ethic, always making trouble.

I think in June I was not truly ready to move up, but I am so glad that I did anyway. After a month or two, I lost my “baby giraffe” skating style (an observation from a fellow skater) and a teammate told me she felt safe skating with me (the implication: I was unsafe until then). By August, I moved beyond being a hazard to myself and others. I am sure I made 100 times more progress by moving up to the birds than doing another round of rec league. And for what it’s worth, I went to a few rec league classes over the last few months too.

A baby giraffe

Me, circa June

The last month or so, I have started feeling more confident about my skating. I’m not a beast yet, but I think I have recognized that I have the potential to be a little fucking beast. The best thing has been discovering what I’m good at: not getting knocked down. Once I stopped skating like a newborn foal, I found that I am very stable. I credit this to the two years of weightlifting I have casually engaged in and to being a larger-than-average human. Now, anytime I find myself sucking spectacularly at something, I try to remember that no bitch on the track can take me out. It’s a small comfort.

The thing is, I do suck at a lot of things. I am starting to suck less at some of them. When I started the bird class, I thought my biggest problem would be speed. It seemed like I couldn’t keep up in any drill and I was always the slowest one out there. I think I am still relatively slow if we’re factoring in endurance, but I am getting a little faster. We recently tested how many laps we could skate in a minute. I managed to roll out 5.5 laps, which is actually a respectable pace. Can I do that for five minutes (or, okay, two minutes)? No, but it’s progress. The first time we did that test in rec league, I think I skated 1.5 laps. That means from April to September, my speed increased by 5 laps/minute. That will probably never happen again!

At this point, I think my biggest issue is actually stopping. I can stop, but not fast enough and not accurately enough. My current nemesis is the tomahawk stop, which rather than trying to explain, I will refer you to this video. Being able to stop and change directions fast is actually more important than just skating fast when you’re playing. Unless, perhaps, you are a jammer, which does not seem to be my calling right now.

Probably the most telling for me in terms of perspective and feeling like I’ve made progress has been skating with newer skaters. Last month the bird class helped out with the rec league scrimmage. And last week, a group of new skaters joined the bird class. I could see the difference between where they are now and where I am now. My stride is more solid, I can skate close to people, block, and stop without drifting halfway around the track.

Bird class is twice per week, but the title of this post also promises “derby life.” Derby has already begun to take over my life. I’m not fighting it though; I figured it would be one of those things that is a life commitment. I’ve been volunteering at bouts, usually with setting up the track. I recently learned how to set up a track without any guidelines on the floor, which is a handy skill. It makes me feel like I could play derby anywhere. I’ve also been helping out at bouts and scrimmages as a non-skating official (NSO), which involves tracking penalties, scorekeeping, etc. Everyone says that NSOing is a good way to learn the rules. I sort of doubted, but it is helping me learn the penalties and what to pay attention to during games. Last weekend, my league hosted a tournament and I spent the whole weekend alternately NSOing and making sure the track didn’t get fucked up. It was a full couple of days.

WFTDA Track Dimensions

WFTDA Track Dimensions

Another side effect of derby life is that it is making me more committed to being a badass in everyday life. Well, my own definition of badass. I started learning Icelandic earlier this year. It’s possible that I might have naturally become more serious about it over time regardless, but the last few months I have been studying like crazy. It’s fun and interesting to me. Plus, I want to be able to do justice to the name Rosetta Stone. I’m also going to the gym more consistently and eating a little healthier. For example, I always want to get a Slurpee after practice, but I know it’s not actually going to do anything for my body (and that the 7-11 near our practice area is probably unsafe, but, okay), so I don’t.

If you’re still reading this, you may wonder what’s next. Well, as my coach has reminded us, birds isn’t supposed to be forever. My next goal is to move up onto my league’s B-team, the Folsom Prison Bruisers. They just held try-outs for the Bruisers in September, but I didn’t try out because I knew I wasn’t there yet. One of our weekly practices is combined with the teams, so I have a fair idea of what I would be getting into. I still can’t make it through their warm-up. Although, I’m told that most everyone feels like they’re going to die and it’s not just me. A 25-woman paceline is probably enough to make most women want to fall over.

The next try-outs are (I think) in January. I am going to be tomahawking my fat ass off between now and then. I think if I can master that, and keep improving my other skills, I’ll have a respectable chance of moving up.

Hopefully, I’ll stop being ridiculous and write about this at least a little more often. I had been thinking about writing more lately. Yesterday I received the best “write more!” sign that I could ever possibly get. One of the rec league skaters told me after practice yesterday that she had read my blog and it made her feel better about trying rec league. I was surprised that she had not only found it and read it, but that she happened to be in the same practice with me. I was both stunned and pleased to have made a difference for a new skater. So, if you’re new and you’re reading this (and you made it this far), here’s the truth: roller derby is fucking hard and it hurts like a bitch. Just keep working and you will definitely improve. That sounds cliché, but it’s true. Now, go skate!

11 Sep

Icelandic Update, or Is It Really an Update If I Haven’t Told You Before Now?

Here’s the thing: I decided to start learning Icelandic in January of this year. I had every intention of writing about the process. As even a cursory glance at this blog reveals, I have not done so.

Somehow, I’ve been chipping away at a basic understanding of Icelandic for months, but it seems like it’s only started to coalesce in my brain in the last month or two. Like I couldn’t have corralled meaningful thoughts about it until maybe last week. What’s up with that? Brains, I guess.

Icelandic is the first language that I’ve learned totally on my own. I’m not in school and I have no plans to learn it in school. I’m also not in Iceland—I’m in Sacramento, which is probably the opposite of Iceland. I mean, it was 108 degrees yesterday. You know, in September. Enough preamble, here’s what’s up with Icelandic.

How I Am Learning

There is a surprising amount of free material available for Icelandic. I think there are a few groups working to spread the language and generate interest so Icelandic doesn’t die off. It’s not in danger, but there are only about 330,000 people in Iceland, and from what I understand, most of them also speak English.

I started out with the Colloquial Icelandic textbook. I even paid for the audio CDs that accompany it. This book is well scaffolded and had good explanations of the grammar. Each chapter has two or three long dialogues, which are the main material for the lesson. They’re not really that long, but somehow, these seem incredibly long to me. The hardest part of working with this book is taking the time to carefully go over each dialogue. I struggle with starting tasks. Once I start, I don’t want to stop for the next three hours, but knowing that I have a long dialogue to parse makes it hard to start working. I’m only on chapter 5 of this book. I got a little frustrated with it a few months ago, but I’m slowly getting reacquainted with it.

What I’ve really had success with the Icelandic Online course. This is a free online course from the University of Iceland. There are 5 levels, each divided into 6 chapters. The chapters are further segmented into 5 lessons, and each lesson has 3 section. I really like this course because it’s in small pieces. I can usually get through a section in the evenings after work, if I don’t waste too much time on the internet. I also like that it’s interactive. It has activities and a way to check if you get the answers right. The hard part about this course is that immersive—there’s no English. Luckily, Icelandic Online also has an online dictionary. I look up a lot of words, but for the most part, I am learning a lot.

The work part of learning involves a steno notepad and a flashcard app. I write down the words I find and some grammar notes in my notebook. Then, I use the Anki app to drill it into my brain. This is the first time I’ve incorporated as many pictures as possible into my flashcards. It makes things more interesting and I think I’ve been learning the words faster.

An image of the front and back of a flashcard for the word 'girl'.

One of my flashcards.

Why Icelandic Is Great

I knew Icelandic was going to be challenging and fun (because I find this kind of thing fun). I did not know enough about it when I started to know why it’s great. The thing I most like about Icelandic right now is that it is full of words made from smashing other words together. For example, remember that big-ass volcanic eruption a few years ago? The volcano is called Eyjafjalljökull. If you break this apart, it’s actually three words stacked together. Jökull means ‘glacier’, fjall means ‘mountain’, and eyja means ‘island’. This is literally the island-mountain-glacier volcano (the word for volcano, by the way, is eldgos, or fire + eruption).

Now that I’ve got enough words in my head as a foundation (about 1,000 words, if you’re wondering), I’m starting to notice how words combine. Some don’t really seem noteworthy from an English-speaking perspective, like hjólastígur (hjóla is ‘bike’ and stígur is path, so: bike path). But it still feels good to figure out a word based on its components. I’ve also started thinking about the components of words that might not seem to split apart (again, from an English perspective), like borgarbúi, ‘citizen’. Borg means ‘city’ and búi is ‘to live’. So, citizen is kind of like city-dweller.

Pulling words apart doesn’t always have the desired effect, however. I learned the word rafmagn (electricity). I looked up ‘raf’ and found that it means ‘amber’. I don’t think this has anything to do with electricity. It would be like saying that the ‘win’ in ‘window’ is semantically meaningful.

Why Icelandic Is Hard

Icelandic has four cases, which I guess isn’t that many, but they can be complicated. The declension of each word depends on its grammatical gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter) and whether it is singular or plural. Icelandic is particularly weird, because case isn’t necessarily derived from the role a word plays in a sentence. Case is dictated by a noun’s preceding verb or preposition. Some verbs are accusative, for example, so the object of the verb takes the accusative case. This is new for me. It’s tricky, but interesting.

Other Thoughts

It’s very cool to be learning a language in an age when we have the Internet. I can get multi-media instruction for free, have native speakers critique my writing, compile a playlist of music in Icelandic, and find tons of Icelandic text online.

I’m definitely more committed than I was a few months ago (I mean, I knew I was going to do it, but now I feel like I’m actually doing it). My current plan is to finish the first-level Icelandic Online course, and then take their “Plus” course for the second-level class. That costs around $300, but you get a tutor and more practice, which sounds pretty worth it to me. The long-term goal is to be able to read books and news in Icelandic, and to be able to use the language like a badass when I eventually travel to Iceland.

I am also going to write about what I’m doing more often. This post was long because it was long overdue. The next one will be more focused.

08 Jun

Things I’ve Been Meaning to Blog About: Roller Derby

I have been meaning to blog about roller derby for about two months now. Or maybe three months. In any case, this is the blog post about roller derby.

Yesterday, I tried out for roller derby with the Sac City Rollers. The try out is a first step; if I did well, then I can join the “bird” class, which is rigorous training for players looking to join an SCR team in the future. When I started rec league (a somewhat casual, basic skills derby course) eight weeks ago, I knew I would try out at the end, but I didn’t know that I might have a realistic chance of making it.

On my first day of rec league, I strapped on all the derby gear I had just purchased. I was terrified of getting up off the bench and joining the women warming up on the track. I had gone skating at a local roller rink once a few weeks before. The results were not inspiring. After Coach Skella (short for Skellawhore, of course) encouraged everyone to get out and warm up, I gingerly scooched my way out onto the track. I moved my skates, trying to emulate the videos I’d watched on YouTube before class. Most of the other skaters were confidently gliding around the track like they had been born with silver skates on their feet. I have never wanted to give up so much in my life as I did in the first 15 minutes of rec league.

Fortunately, the rec league class is designed for people like me, who have the skating abilities of a 95-year-old woman. The first day we learned how to fall and how to stop. I drifted about on my skates while we listened to the instructions, lacking the dexterity to stay in one place, but I did learn how to fall with grace. As nervous as I was, I felt so much better after the first class. Knowing how to fall meant that even if I had no idea what was happening, I could stop and hit the floor without dying.

In each of our weekly classes after that, I only felt more confident. The first few weeks were rocky, but after every class I knew I had improved a lot. After I finished getting my skates adjusted in week three or four (including putting in some insoles so wearing skates didn’t hurt and loosening my trucks), I was definitely ready to take on the skills we covered in the rest of the class, like jumping, hitting, and skating as a pack.

Trying to summarize eight weeks of roller derby practice is difficult. The classes were all two-hour sessions, in the heat of a warehouse that SCR rents here in Sacramento. There’s no air conditioning and the floor is coated in a grimy film. Despite the temperature and the dust, everyone is working their asses off to be a badass and you can feel that everyone wants everyone else to succeed. Everyone is chill. There’s no room for dicks in roller derby.

The individual drills like learning how to crossover or transition or skate backwards were alright, but the most fun parts of rec league came from group activities. We spent one night almost exclusively learning to be in close contact with each other. We skated circles around a partner and then formed a line hands-to-hips and made the person in the back push. We raced. I hauled more ass than I knew was possible.

The last—and best—night of rec league we had our first scrimmage. Each rec league skater was paired with an experienced skater. My partner, Moaning Lisa or Mo for short, was friendly and awesome. She skated up to me during our warmup, asked my name (“Stone,” she immediately nicknamed me), and then we raced around to gather up the rest of our team. Playing a full scrimmage, even with a skilled partner, was incredibly taxing. I have a long way to go in building the endurance to play properly. The scrimmage also made me realize that, even though I have improved a ton, I still have lots to learn. I spent a significant amount of the scrimmage wondering what the hell I should do to make someone stop hitting me.

Amid all this rec leaguing and scrimmaging, I have been getting more involved in the league. I started going to watch their bouts (the derby name for ‘games’ or ‘matches’) at the beginning of the year, but for the last few months, I have also volunteered. I help set up chairs, move people through the will-call line, and sell raffle tickets. I’ve even started introducing myself by my derby name, Rosetta Stone. It feels strange but cool.

So, back to try outs. I’m still awaiting the results. I feel like I did well—I did my best in any case. I’m dying to hear. I hope I made it so I can go on to get my ass kicked twice a week as a bird.

18 Jan

Testing the Waters of Modern Icelandic Literature

Book review: The Whispering Muse by Sjón

The Whispering Muse - Cover

The Whispering Muse – Cover

Because I started learning Icelandic this year, I decided it would be a good time to check out some Icelandic literature in translation. Most people are familiar with the Icelandic sagas, but there is a lot of modern literature coming out of Iceland too. I realized I could be reading Icelandic literature in a roundabout way. I had been reading David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. The book mentions Halldór Laxness, an Icelandic author who received the Nobel Prize for literature. I know, this isn’t a review about Laxness, as you’re undoubtedly thinking. Well, I did get a Laxness novel from the library but I read The Whispering Muse first because it is much shorter and I practice library triage. So, here we go.

The Whispering Muse takes the form of a memoir of an older Icelandic gentleman named Valdimar Haraldsson. Haraldsson fills his time with running a journal about the connection between fish and culture–specifically that fish is the secret to Nordic superiority. Haraldsson’s memoir details the events aboard the merchant ship MS Elizabeth Jung-Olsen, where Haraldsson stays as a ‘supernumary’ thanks to the largess of Norwegian shipping magnate Magnus Jung-Olsen. The story takes place in the late 1940s.

Each night while onboard the ship, Haraldsson dines at the captain’s table with several of the crew and the paramour of one of the crew members. Haraldsson becomes increasingly horrified each night because fish, nor seafood of any kind, does not appear on the dinner menu. Several days in, Haraldsson takes it upon himself to go fishing (the ship spends most of the story docked at a paper mill in a Norwegian fjord). His catch is made into several meals, to Haraldsson’s delight and to everyone else’s skepticism.

After the evening’s repast, the second mate, Caeneus, recounts a part of the saga of Jason and the Argonauts. To tell the story, Caeneus holds a woodchip up to his ear. Caeneus receives the tale from the woodchip and relays it to the group.

Haraldsson assumes that the business with the woodchip is some sort of conceit, but everyone else takes it seriously. Caeneus later reveals that the chip is a piece of the Argo itself, which is why it can tell him the story.

I’m not sure The Whispering Muse was really the right entree into Icelandic literature. I don’t really feel like I “got” the book, but I’m going to give it my best interpretation anyway because it’s just the internet, not a peer-reviewed literary journal.

The Whispering Muse is apparently a satirical take on a milquetoast Icelander who, preoccupied with the inherent superiority of his own people, cannot recognize true excellence when he sees it. Caeneus’ tales of the Argonauts feature excitement and heroics. In contrast, when Haraldsson has the opportunity to speak, he presents a rambling lecture on his fish and culture thesis. It is not well-received.

At the end of the story, Haraldsson, confronted by someone truly superior, only f lees. An epilogue explains that he loosened up on his view about fish and Nordic supremacy after his stint on the Elizabeth Jung-Olsen. I also suspect it is intentional that Haraldsson is dwelling on Nordic superiority so shortly after World War II. The Germans adopted the Nordic myths and used them as part of their claim for racial superiority. It would be a little awkward to walk around talking about how great the Nordic people are so soon after the same myths were unfortunately used (in part) to justify atrocity.

It was interesting to read a novel translated from Icelandic because it offered some different word use than what we normally get in English literature. I have to thank both the author and translator for this one, since literature in translation is so influenced by the translator. This translation had some gems, like the phrase higgledy-piggledy. You have to wonder how that appears in Icelandic (This just in: Google Translate says it’s the same in both languages. What a buzzkill).

What to read next:

  • I think I have to recommend Halldór Laxness as a next read. Independent People seems to be his most famous work, but there are certainly quite a few options.
  • I guess I’m cheating a bit for both of these recommendations, but I’m going to recommend The Bone Clocks as well. I just finished it about a week ago. It was definitely worth reading. It’s a kind of speculative fiction that is so close to reality that you forget you’re reading something that is arguably magical realism.
08 Jan

2015: The Year Ahead

This post is a little bit late becuase it took me a while to figure out just what I wanted to say about the upcoming year. I feel like I accomplised a lot in 2014. I didn’t exactly accomplish all of my goals for last year, but I definitely did more than in years past. So, for 2015, my main goal is this:

Keep going.

I’ve been going to the gym 3+ times a week. I want to keep doing that. I’ve been walking a lot and I want to keep doing that too. Last year we went on a few camping trips and did some other outside things, which was fun. I started a new job that is actually someting I want to do. And, of course, I read 90 books, which is pretty great, especially since my goal was to read 52.

Other than “keep going,” I’m planning to read a lot again this year. I don’t know if I’ll hit 90 books again, but knowing that I can read that much is encouraging. I think I will probably read a lot.

I have decided to learn Icelandic this year. This I have already started. In the last week, I’ve studied the phonemes of Icelandic and started learning a few words and phrases.

I’m quite excited about Icelandic becuase this is the first new language I have started since graduating college. I considered doubling down on languages I already know something about, but I wanted a new challenge and I want something to look forward to–like visiting Iceland! So, Icelandic it is. I expect I’ll blog about the langauge learning process throughout the year.

This year I am also hoping to give roller derby a try. My local team, the Sac City Rollers does a newbie class. Once they start up again, I intend to participate. Soon I’ll be an Icelandic-speaking roller derby chic. Here’s to 2015.

31 Dec

2014: The Year in Books

Long story short: I read 90 books this year! I’m quite pleased because that is nearly double last year’s 46 books.

I made a more detailed list this year, noting whether books were from the library or not, digital or analog, or written by a man or a woman. Here are some statistics about my 2014 reading habits:

  • Page count: approximately 35,177 pages. I used the page count from each book’s LibraryThing page.
  • Library use: 55 of this year’s books I borrowed from the library. The other 35 are books I bought.
  • Female and male authors: I read 30 books by female authors and 59 by male authors. I read more than one book from some authors. In total, I read work by 26 female authors and 34 male authors.
  • Digital and analog: I read 39 books analog (also known as “dead tree”) books and 51 digital books.
  • Fiction and Non-Fiction: I read 23 non-fiction and 67 fiction books
  • Series: I tend to read a lot of series (the lot of a genre reader). I finished Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy and Vinge’s Zones of Thought. I read through all extant Dresden Files (that’s 14 books plus a volume of short stories), Leckie’s Imperial Radch as it stands so far, Butler’s Xenogenesis, the Jemisin’s Inheritance Triology, Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, and Grossmans’ The Magicians.
  • Favorites: I think my favorite books this year were Ancillary Justice, Station Eleven, The Bread We Eat in Dreams, and The Girl in the Road. That said, I read a lot of really great novels this year. I think there are a lot of interesting, fresh stories coming from women in science fiction and fantasy right now, in particular.

Books read by month:

A bar graph displaying how many books I read per month in 2014

Here’s the full list of what I read in 2014:

  1.  Schooled: How the System Breaks Teachers by Dalton Jackson
  2.  The Hobbit by J.R. R. Tolkien
  3.  Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now by Douglas Rushkoff
  4.  MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
  5.  Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser
  6.  A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge
  7.  From Asgard to Valhalla by Heather O’Donoghue
  8.  Storm Front by Jim Butcher
  9.  Makers by Cory Doctorow
  10.  Fool Moon by Jim Butcher
  11.  The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge
  12.  A People’s History of the United States: From 1492 to the Present by Howard Zinn
  13.  The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
  14.  Grave Peril by Jim Butcher
  15.  Homeward Bound: Why Women are Embracing the New Domesticity by Emily Matchar
  16.  The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma
  17.  Sea Change by S. M. Wheeler
  18.  Loki by Mik Vasich
  19.  Notes from the Internet Apocalypse: A Novel by Wayne Gladstone
  20.  In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People by George K. Simon
  21.  Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss
  22.  The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff
  23.  The Bread We Eat in Dreams by Catherynne Valente
  24.  Queen of Kings: A Novel of Cleopatra, the Vampire by Maria Dahvana Headley
  25.  Summer Knight by Jim Butcher
  26.  The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell
  27.  Lexicon by Max Berry
  28.  City of Dragons by Robin Hobb
  29.  The Pilgrims by Will Elliott
  30.  Death Masks by Jim Butcher
  31.  Parasite by Mira Grant
  32.  Blood of Dragons by Robin Hobb
  33.  Writing Effective Policies and Procedures: A Step-by-Step Resource for Clear Communication by Nancy J. Campbell
  34.  Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
  35.  A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski
  36.  Lockstep by Karl Schroeder
  37.  Blood Rites by Jim Butcher
  38.  Dead Beat by Jim Butcher
  39.  Jennifer Government by Max Berry
  40.  No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald
  41.  Proven Guilty by Jim Butcher
  42.  Three Princes by Ramona Wheeler
  43.  White Night by Jim Butcher
  44.  Artemis Awakening by Jane Lindskold
  45.  When We Wake by Karen Healey
  46.  The Waking Engine by David Edison
  47.  Small Favor by Jim Butcher
  48.  Turn Coat by Jim Butcher
  49.  Changes by Jim Butcher
  50.  Side Jobs by Jim Butcher
  51.  Ghost Story by Jim Butcher
  52.  Cold Days by Jim Butcher
  53.  The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx & Friedrich ENgels
  54.  The Googlization of Everything by Siva Vaidhyanathan
  55.  The Girl in the Road by Monica Bryne
  56.  Skin Game by Jim Butcher
  57.  Supercapitalism by Robery Reich
  58.  Lock In by John Scalzi
  59.  The Bone Flower Throne by T. L. Morganfield
  60.  Dawn by Octavia Butler
  61.  Adulthood Rites by Octavia Butler
  62.  Imago by Octavia Butler
  63.  The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin
  64.  The Broken Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin
  65.  The Kingdom of Gods by N. K. Jemisin
  66.  The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil
  67.  Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
  68.  Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Force by Radley Balko
  69.  The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
  70.  Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
  71.  The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi
  72.  The Queen of the Dark Things  by C. Robert Cargill
  73.  The Last Colony by John Scalzi
  74.  Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi
  75.  Vicious by V. E. Schwab
  76.  Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy by Noam Chomsky
  77.  Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  78.  When Google Met Wikileaks by Julian Assange
  79.  The Human Division by John Scalzi
  80.  The Magicians by Lev Grossman
  81.  God’s War by Kameron Hurley
  82.  The Magician King by Lev Grossman
  83.  The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman
  84.  Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim
  85.  Krampus: The Yule Lord by Brom
  86.  Revolution by Russel Brand
  87.  I, Q by John De Lancie and Peter David
  88.  The World Split Open (multiple authors)
  89.  WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Harding
  90.  This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

 

16 Dec

North Korea Is Not for the Faint of Heart

book cover: Without You, There Is No Us

Without You, There Is No Us

I saw Suki Kim on The Daily Show a few nights ago. Although I barely registered the content of her interview, I heard enough to decide her book would probably be interesting. Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite is a memoir detailing the six months Kim spent teaching English in a covertly Christian university in Pyongyang. Luckily for me, the library had a digital copy of the book available, so I was able to pick it up immediately.

Without You, There Is No Us has a nice narrative flow (Kim notes at the end that she did rearrange the order of some events for the sake of storytelling). Despite the fact that there is no real climax, I was captivated by Kim’s description of life in North Korea and finished the book in about two days. The short version: North Korea sounds like it really sucks.

The first time Kim visits North Korea is as a journalist. She goes on a press trip when an orchestra from the United States visits North Korea. Although the trip was hailed as a victory for diplomacy and culture by most of the press, Kim disagreed. She became more interested in North Korea and eventually applied to work at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST).

PUST is a school with a strange mission: brining Christianity to North Korea. As you might expect, Christianity is outlawed in North Korea. The only religion is the state-sponsored Juche ideology, which is not so much a religion as the North Korean regime’s all-consuming cult of personality. Kim accepts a summer position at this Christian school that cannot teach any form of Christianity (as daring as they get is trying to show students the Chronicles of Narnia movie—such a strong Christian message!). To do so, she has to pretend not only to be Christian, but also to be a teacher. After the summer term, she ends up staying on for the fall, despite her reservations.

Suki Kim on The Daily Show

Suki Kim on The Daily Show

Kim contextualizes the narrative by discussing her Korean heritage, discussing her own experience and that of her parents during the Korean War. Kim is from South Korea; her family immigrated to the United States when she was 13. She explains to readers that all South Korean families, or clans, if you will, have a home turf in Korea and a history—usually a history that explains how their family practically saved Korea. This is called bon-gwan. While the Korean War drove many South Korean families from their bon-gwan, many were still able to maintain a sense of kinship and managed to rebuild afterwards. But for North Koreans, Kim eventually realizes, the regime has completely obliterated the kinship system. North Koreans move where they are told to move, work where they are told to work. They no longer have ancestral ties to the land or strong family networks. She realizes that this is not only a division between two Koreas, but another method of control.

Just as Kim contrasts Koreas North and South, she contrasts her isolation with the relentless communal spirit surrounding her. Kim is essentially isolated and the reader can see how hard it wears on her, especially by the end of her stay. She has to work to represent herself as someone else to her colleagues and she has to appear to go along with North Korean rules. Her conversations and correspondence are monitored, so she draws deeper into herself. By the end of her second teaching term, Kim seems extremely depressed.

On the other hand, Kim’s students are a study in cohesion. In North Korea, it seems that no one goes anywhere alone. Her classes stick together, and are buddied up within the class groups. No one is ever alone. But, to Kim, their camaraderie reads as at least a little false. After the students class groups are reshuffled for the fall semester, everyone is suddenly best friends with their new classmates, the old apparently forgotten. As Kim puts it, “It was odd that I should have felt so in need of a human connection in this communal space.”

Perhaps “camaraderie” really is the right word for her students’ friendliness. Her class groups have a class monitor—and the Korean word they use for the monitor translates to “platoon leader.” The students march in formation, sing militaristic songs, and take shifts standing guard over their local shrine to their Glorious Leader. Everything the students do has a militaristic cast.

Of course the weirdest aspect of the book (and best, by voyeuristic standards) was reading about the weird gaps and limitations in North Korean education. Kim’s students were those of Pyongyang’s elite and attended what was, ostensibly, a school for studying science and technology. Yet, none had heard of the internet. The students ask Kim remarkably naïve questions like whether everyone in the world spoke Korean. Kim recounts, “[The student] had heard the Korean language was so superior that they spoke it in England, China, and America.” The students were also strangely fixated on North Korea being the best at everything. As Kim says, “They were always comparing themselves to the outside world, which none of them had ever seen, declaring themselves the best. This insistence on ‘best’ was strangely childlike, and the words best and greatest were used to frequently that they gradually lost their meaning.”

One of the things that occurred to me as I read this book was that here in the United States we do tend to use North Korea as the butt of a lot of jokes (look no further than The Colbert Report, or anywhere on the internet), but in reality, the people there are suffering. North Korea is a dictatorship that is a non-stop human rights catastrophe. It sounds insane, but to be candid, this is real shit.

kimjongun-cake

There is a lot more I could say about Without You There Is No Us because there are a lot of issues that Kim struggles with, especially in regards to her students. She constantly tries to push the boundaries of getting them to think without breaking the rules. I also appreciated her take on some of her Christian colleagues and their opinions on their “mission” in North Korea, but I think I will leave those ideas for someone else to review.

Without You There Is No Us is definitely worth reading for a glimpse into the lives of people in North Korea.

What to read next:

  • The Interpreter is Suki Kim’s novel. I can’t say I know a lot about it, but I liked Kim’s memoir and am interested in reading more of her work.
  • After this, of course, I wanted to read some more about Korean history and why there is such a divide between North and South Korea. One that looks good is The Korean War: An International History by Wada Haruki.
  • Unrelated to anything Korea, my last recommendation is God’s War by Kameron Hurley. I just finished it and I really liked it. It’s a future space planet with two cultures inhabiting Islam-inspired spaces. It has great characters and an interesting world.
09 Oct

Brotherhood and Modern Philosophy: The Great Glass Sea

Book Review: The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil

Book Cover: The Great Glass Sea

Book Cover: The Great Glass Sea

As I read this book, I was sure I would not write a review about it. The Great Glass Sea is a dense, complex story. It is stuffed with thick, filling imagery and, frankly, it took a long time to read. At first, I thought there would be nothing I could say that would add to the experience of this novel, but I let my thoughts percolate for a few days and I have decided to write.

I was excited to get this book even though I knew nothing about it. I received The Great Glass Sea for my first installment of Powell’s Indiespensible, a subscription service for hand-picked books accompanied by thematically-appropriate goodies (this book came with a water bottle and several sachets of tea, if you are wondering). Since I did not know what to expect, I also found it hard to start this book. The first few pages seemed compelling, but I got a little bogged down in the newness of the concept and the Russian names. However, once I got used to that, I definitely got into the story and the way the story was told.

The Great Glass Sea follows the lives of twin brothers Yaroslav (Yarik) and Dmitry (Dima) Zhuvov—not their entire lives, of course. That would be dull. Rather, Weil zooms in on what separates Yarik and Dima, what pushes their lives onto opposing trajectories.

There are hints of Yarik and Dima’s separation from the beginning of the story, from their childhood, but it was not until I neared the end that I realized that the seeds of their separation were sown so early on.

Most of the story focuses on Yarik and Dima as adults. The boys’ town, located in the north eastern reaches of Russia, the parts that get so little winter sun, is home to a mad engineering project: the Oranzheria (“greenhouse” in Russian). The Consortium is building a gigantic series of mirrors to reflect light into the city. The project invigorates the people of Petroplavilsk. Men work 12-hour days erecting the mirrors, working their way across the Petroplavilsk and the outlying area. Yarik and Dima used to work on the same crew, but that changed after they were found doing nothing all day while on the clock by the Consortium’s CEO. Afterward, the brothers are put on separate shifts. They only see each other on holidays and at the bus stop during the shift change each day.

A map

Where in the world is Petroplavislsk? Waaay out there.

This separation sets off a series of events that propel the brothers Zhuvov into separate orbits. Yarik becomes a “friend” of the CEO and the front man for the Consortium’s advertisements in Petroplavilsk. Because Yarik has a wife and two young children, he sees the importance of moving up and embracing the culture of work. Dima, in contrast, quits work not long after their separation. Dima decides he feels no need to work. He roams the city, falls in with various anti-Oranzheria groups and, for the most part, loses the will do to anything other than save up for a day when he can be together with Yarik.

Each brother shows a side of this modernized, capitalized Russia. This is a Russia dragged out of the Soviet Era, which the people of Petroplavilsk call The Past Life, and into a world infused with American-style capitalism.

What is interesting about how The Great Glass Sea illustrates these concepts—brotherhood, capitalism—is that each brother personifies a choice. What I really like about this is, in my view, that Weil did not make a judgment. Is the capitalism better than The Past Life? Worse? You decide, dear reader. From this portrait, it seems that there are both positive and negative consequences for either decision.

Dima represents The Past Life. He wants to purchase their uncle’s old farm (technically the farm belongs to a socialist collective, but the brothers Zhuvov are among the few who can now purchase it) and live there with Yarik and his family. To Dima, work is pointless if he cannot spend it with his brother. In fact, most of life is pointless without Yarik. Instead of working, Dima saves the money that Yarik gives him to take care of their mother. He sells practically everything not nailed down in the apartment he shares with his elderly, addled mom. Dima searches for meaning out in the world, rather than attempting to find meaning through work. However, the people of Petroplavilsk view Dima as a layabout at best and as a lunatic at worst. His indifference toward temporal needs hastens his mother’s death. His inability to connect with the rest of the world makes him an outcast and further separates him from his brother.

Yarik represents a work-focused, capitalistic viewpoint. He wants to provide a good life for his wife and kids, rejecting Dima’s bucolic vision. Although Dima remembers life with their uncle on the farm as some kind of paradise, Yarik recalls the miseries and the work involved with living off the land. At the Oranzheria, he ascends from laborer to foreman to manager thanks to his relationship with the Consortium’s CEO. While his progress is emblematic of the American Dream (permit me this; there does not seem to be a “Russian Dream”) his rise is actually not a reflection of a functioning meritocracy, but is a way for the Consortium’s CEO to get ahold of the farm that a bunch of old communists refuse to sell—the farm that Dima wants to buy. This relationship also puts Yarik in several ethically questionable and even dangerous situations. But on the upside, Yarik’s family has a computer and a car.

The Great Glass Sea intrigues me because it does not pick sides. Is The Past Life better than the Oranzheria’s present? I find it reassuring to find a work that depicts a dichotomy without taking sides. So very different from the current American trend of giving equal time to “both sides” of an issue, whether or not an issue is too complex to have “sides” like that.

Philosophy aside, there were other compelling elements to this novel. The Great Glass Sea is speculative fiction with the lightest of touches. I am tempted to call it science-fiction, but I am not sure I really can. The Oranzheria is science-fiction-esque in that humans built a contraption to redirect the light of the sun so that a Russian town does not have to endure darkness any longer. Despite that, the Oranzheria is more like a set piece than like something from science fiction. Maybe it is hard to call this science fiction because the people and the world are so starkly real.

I would perhaps like to categorize the book as magical realism, but I think that might be a stretch too. The Great Glass Sea is very real, very present. I would even classify it as literary fiction, but the book, like its characters, takes multiple views. I think that genre fiction fans will enjoy it, as will readers of “literary” or “regular” fiction (what is that even called? This may be a sign that I read too much “genre” fiction. So be it).

The Great Glass Sea brings Russian folklore into the fray as well. Although I love myth and folklore, it turns out I know nothing about Russian folklore. One creature that is mentioned throughout the book is the Chudo-Yudo. There is not even a Wikipedia page about this creature (in English at least). It seems to be some kind of dragon (but possibly a metal band, who knows?). Clearly, I need to read up on it.

The Chudo-Yudo

The Chudo-Yudo, terrifying yet adorable.

Finally, Weil’s prose, once you settle into it, is delicious. His descriptions are long and lovely. This does make the book slower to read, unlike a dialog-dense book that moves along at a brisk pace. It’s worth it though.

Here’s a sample of Weil’s writing style. This is a description of the Oranzheria—also called the zerkala coming into view:

In the last hour of nature’s light, as the planet rolled away from the sun, the zerkala rose off the eastern horizon, their refracted glow red as the sky in the west. People called it vooskho zerkala. Mirror rise. From then to dawn the satellites drifted overhead, a sliding swatch of stars, their mirrors ever angling to cant the sun’s light down on the same circle of earth. And as the first zerkala followed their path over the world’s western edge, the bank of mirrors behind them took up the task, and then the zerkala behind them, and behind them, all through the hours that once were night.

What to read next:

  • Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword. Did you know the sequel to Ancillary Justice is out? Go read it!
  • In his acknowledgements page, Weil names a few books that helped him write this one. One is Russian Fairy Tales compiled by Aleksandr Afanasev. It sounds like a good entry to Russian folklore, which I am now interested in reading more about. The chudo-yudo! We must learn more of this strange beast.
  • The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne is another book I read recently. It, too, has a starkness to it, but this novel has stronger science-fiction elements. Highly recommended!