Wednesday, October 30, 2019

To Be Taught, If Fortunate

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers (2019)

My excitement when I learned that Becky Chambers had a new book out quickly turned to disappointment when I saw that it was a novella. After reading the three thick books that make up the Wayfarers series I was hoping for another big story, and as someone who tends to enjoy short books I don't know why I was afraid it wouldn't be good. Spoiler alert: it was very good.

It opens with a plea to read it to the end. It's from an astronaut, Ariadne O'Neill, who left Earth fifty years ago with her crew. The other three are Elena Quesada-Cruz, Jack Vo, and Chikondi Daka. Their mission was to visit four habitable worlds called Aecor, Mirabilis, Opera, and Votum, and their communique is coming from the last one. What follows is the story of their flight and their experiences on all of those planets, and then at the end you get the explanation for why they are sending this missive, which of course I won't spoil for you but it is not disappointing. It is kind of open-ended, if you care about that kind of thing, and I am already sorta dying to know if there will be a sequel but mostly I just care that Becky Chambers writes more books about something.

I love reading books that contain alien life because it's so fascinating to see what comes of writers' imaginations. There was life of some sort on all the planets they visited, as they suspected, and I loved seeing them described. (Oh, if only there were illustrations!) The characters were great too, which is one of this author's strengths. They are pretty diverse in terms of sexual orientation and race, though it's not actually spelled out and is kind of irrelevant to the plot. Which I like because diversity should just be a thing that exists and not there for the sake of being diverse, if you know what I mean. If you want specifics, there was bi/poly/ace representation, and the racial diversity is obvious from (and only identified by) their names.

Throughout the book I kept wondering what the crisis would be. Like, they were just visiting these planets and making amazing discoveries and as much as I loved reading about this, it's not a story. I kept wondering when the actual plot would start. The conflict comes very late, and it's great!

I hope we don't have to wait very long for another book by Becky Chambers because her books are so imaginative and fun to read. Anyone who likes science fiction in the style of The Martian would probably enjoy Becky Chambers. If you haven't read anything by her, please consider it!

Sunday, October 27, 2019

The Way Home

The Way Home: Tales from a life without technology by Mark Boyle (2019)

It feels strange to be writing a blog post about a book that is all about stepping away from technology and getting in touch with the actual world, but it's one I want to recommend and if I had to tell everyone in person, it just wouldn't happen.

Mark Boyle moved to a smallholding in Ireland to make a life for himself in a way that was not damaging to the earth or to himself. Rather than working for someone else all day to earn money to buy things for himself, he spends his days working for himself. Gardening, foraging, hunting, chopping firewood, whittling, doing laundry by hand, making everything he needs himself. He's not alone - his girlfriend Kristy lives with him in his cabin and there's also a farmhouse on the property. They have a free hostel where people can come and stay to experience the same sort of life.

The book isn't a straight-up memoir; there are vignettes about the way he lives interspersed with his thoughts about technology, nature, and people. A third element, set apart by italics, is the story of Great Blasket Island, inhabited by people living the old ways until it was evacuated in 1953. He spends a lot of time thinking about how he lives and how he used to live, how everything he does affects the natural world, and how technology affects us. It's very thoughtful and introspective. When I began reading and realized there wasn't really a story, just fragments of story mixed in with thoughts, I thought I might not like it. But it turns out that his thoughts are so compelling and well-expressed, and his life so interesting, that I had no trouble at all. The bits about Great Blasket Island didn't hold my interest quite as well, but even that was fairly interesting.

Doing everything the hard way means that Boyle has thought a lot about the easy way and its cost. There's also a cost for him to do things slowly and painstakingly, but one of the results is that you make time for the things that are really important and don't bother with the rest, a lesson we could all probably stand to take to heart. When he was using social media he was, of course, in touch with people he never saw otherwise, but in his new life he relied on the mail. At first, his mailbox was stuffed and keeping up with it was overwhelming, but over time it dwindled, which was a relief. He says "Inconvenience is a great filter." In terms of producing food and making things that he needs, it also filters out those things which are unnecessary but which we wouldn't think twice about acquiring when it's easy or cheap. But those things have a large cost to the environment and to the people getting paid pennies to produce them.

Sometimes it can sound like he's pining for the "good old days" but he has very good points about where our attention is these days, the number of distractions, and how removed from the natural world we are. This would be a good place to mention the value of some of our modern developments like antibiotics, but we have misused and overused them irresponsibly and I'm allergic to most of them anyway so they don't do me any good. In Boyle's case, he says he hasn't been to a doctor in ten years which I think he's trying to attribute to his healthy lifestyle and I'm sure that helps, but not having health issues is also a privilege that allows him to take on this strenuous self-reliant lifestyle. He also complains a lot about government regulations, some of which I'm sure are ridiculous, but at other times he comes across a bit like he's criticizing something just because he doesn't understand it. This isn't a complaint about the book, just a way of pointing out that although I feel pretty convinced that he's on the right track, he's imperfect like the rest of us.

Surprisingly, my favorite thing about his life is that he doesn't have any clocks and never knows what time it is. I'm a total clock-watcher because, like everyone else in our society, my life is ruled by having to be at work at a certain time which means having to get up a certain time, which means needing to be in bed at a certain time. It's a kind of prison and I have often wondered what my days would be like if I could just go to sleep and get up and eat when I feel like it rather than when my clock dictates. I was so jealous of this part of his life, but I'll probably have to wait until retirement to experience it for myself.

Look, I could probably talk about this book and its related ideas all day. I haven't even touched on the meditative aspects of picking nettles, the way advertising invades our privacy by constantly forcing its way into our heads, or many of the valid criticisms he has about capitalism. There's just too much here. I've always been a little obsessed with old-timey ways of life and people who live off the land, so this is very much up my alley. He's got a nice bibliography at the end of the book and although I'm unlikely to pick up a copy of Deerskins into Buckskins: How to Tan with Natural Materials,  I'd probably be interested in Helen and Scott Nearing's Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World, especially since I've already read their memoir The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing's Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living and found it quite inspiring. I'm unlikely to go live in the woods and start making my own soap and whittling my own spoons, but I do hope to be more thoughtful about the way I live my life.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019


Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (1991)

I won this book in a mini-challenge which was part of this year's TBR Pile Challenge. I had my choice of books and picked Outlander because I'm so intrigued by the show but had an idea that I might like the book so I wanted to try it first before watching.

Although I've known about this series for years, I had no idea it involved time travel at all. If you don't know the premise, it begins in 1945 when Claire and her husband, newly married before the war, travel to Scotland for a very belated honeymoon. While there, Claire walks through a mysterious ring of stones and is transported to 1743, beginning a series of adventures that span 8 books so far.

She arrives in the midst of a battle, which she first mistakes for a reenactment of some sort. Next thing she knows, she's a "guest" (more like a prisoner) at a castle, with everyone wanting to know where she came from and not believing her. They think she's a spy, and eventually a witch, and although all she wants is to get back to her own time, it's impossible to get away with everyone watching her. I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that she's forced into a marriage for her own protection, and it turns into a genuine romance.

This was a very long book. My edition was around 630 pages, but it read really slowly. It wasn't boring or hard to get through, just slow-moving. And I'm not sure why because it was missing a lot of the introspection I was expecting. Claire spent very little time pining away after her old life with it's cars and flush toilets, and she barely struggled at all to figure out how to live life in 1743. She seemed to fit in easily once she got some appropriate clothing. I would think if I were in that position I'd be bumbling about trying to figure out how to do basic daily tasks, while constantly panicking about the loss of my old life and comparing the two. It seemed like most days she just went about her business with barely a thought about how much she missed her husband or anything else.

So that was a bit strange, but still I mostly liked reading it. Oh, Claire could be a bit stupid, refusing to listen to other people who knew more than she did about living in that time period, but I liked her well enough. Jamie, her sudden husband, took a bit of getting used to but seemed like a decent guy and I liked how their relationship unfolded. Claire also made acquaintance with an interesting woman named Geilie who had some secrets of her own, as it turned out.

There was a great conversation at one point in which Claire has confided in a clergyman and asks for advice regarding her potential to change the future. He responds to her with something I've been thinking about recently after - and I hate to admit this - I saw it in a meme. I don't remember the meme exactly, but it said that when we think about time travel we always worry about how the tiniest action could affect the future in major ways, but we don't think about how in regular life our small actions can also affect the future. The future is the future, whether we've been there already or not. So the clergyman tells Claire basically the same thing, that everybody's actions affect the future and she shouldn't overthink things.

I went into this with the intention of just reading the one book, and I don't know that I loved it enough to read more, but also I'm a bit intrigued. I read the descriptions on Goodreads of the next two books and they sound kind of interesting, but also I'm confused about how the timeline fits together (although there's time travel, so.) At any rate, it was a pretty engrossing and enjoyable book.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Right Swipe

The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai (2019), narrated by Summer Morton and Brian Pallino

Rhiannon Hunter was ousted from a dating app company called Swipe after breaking up with one of the executives, and she went on to start a competing company called Crush. Now she's interested in expanding her business by buying Matchmaker, a more traditional old-timey kind of dating company. While attending an industry event, she runs into a guy she hooked up with months ago who ghosted her, and then learns that he works for Matchmaker.

Samson Lima was a pro football player, as was his father and uncle. His father died of CTE, and that is likely also what killed his uncle. Now Samson is working for his aunt, owner of Matchmaker. When he sees Rhiannon for the first time since their night together, he wants nothing more than to apologize and explain what happened, but she won't talk to him.

Rhiannon made a lot of assumptions, which is a thing I find annoying, and she kept doing it right through the end of the book. There were ways in which I could admire her, but I didn't find her interesting. She was an ambitious workaholic who didn't seem to have any interests outside of her business, and I am just not interested in characters whose lives are that empty. Samson was a little more nuanced, I suppose, since he was dealing with the repercussions of how he left his career, the traumatic brain injuries suffered by his father and uncle, and his struggle to figure out what to do with his life next.

The story had some interesting elements: CTE, the harassment Rhiannon experienced at her old company, her decision to make a dating app that is more female-friendly, and the interesting way the owner of Matchmaker decided to let potential new owners make their offers (basically a somewhat mysterious house party.) So I guess it was a solid story, but not especially awesome.

I listened to the audiobook, and both the narrators were good but their voices were almost too different to make it flow easily between their chapters. Brian Pallino's voice was so low and whispery compared to Summer Morton's that I often had to adjust the volume between chapters.

My expectations for this book were set by Alisha Rai's Forbidden Hearts series, which was excellent and made this one disappointing in comparison. This was a totally different book - upbeat and light where that series was  super dark and angsty - so I probably shouldn't compare them but I can't help it. I will continue to love Alisha Rai, but I may just stick with her darker, more serious, books from now on.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Exile From Eden

Exile From Eden by Andrew Smith (2019)

Sixteen years after the events of Grasshopper Jungle, Austin and Shann's son Arek is a teenager and starting to grow attracted to Mel, Robby's younger sister who is close to Arek's age. Austin and Robby often leave the hole together to explore and bring stuff back, but one time they leave and don't come back. Arek can't stand just waiting and decides to go looking for them.

The main story arc is about Arek and Mel leaving the hole to look for Arek's fathers, but discovering what the outside world is really like. They had been told that it was scary and dangerous, and while there were certainly scary and dangerous things out there it was so much more than that. It opened up their world in life-changing ways and neither of them will be able to go back to living in the hole all the time.

Arek's and Mel's story is told in alternating chapters with that of two other characters, Breakfast and Olive. Arek had heard of them because his fathers, during their explorations, had found notes that Breakfast left behind. Breakfast was constantly picking his nose, scratching his balls, farting, and declaring how wild he is, often punctuating his speech with "Ha! Wild!" Olive didn't speak at all but constantly jumped up and down in excitement. That was basically their shtick and it got old really, really fast. I quickly came to dislike reading the chapters about these characters.

The last book ended in a weird spot relationship-wise, and the love triangle between Austin, Robby, and Shann was left unresolved. It was basically the only thing I didn't like about that book. Now sixteen years later, Austin and Robby are a couple though it seems like they hide it from the other adults in the hole. Shann is unhappy and bitter, her mother Wendy a religious nut. But the story is unconcerned with the unhappiness of the women and nothing comes of that. Smith apparently only cares about boys and how all boys want to leave, which he keeps saying, as though nobody female ever got sick of their life and wanted to start fresh. I guess he thinks women are fine with being stuck in a hole and miserable like Shann.

It never explained why Robby and Austin were gone for so long, and I don't understand the title of the book either - doesn't exile mean you are sent away? It is sort of implied that the women made everyone miserable and the guys (and Mel) needed to leave the hole to get away from them. We also never learned how Breakfast and Olive met up. Throughout a lot of the book Breakfast is telling Olive the story of his life before he met her, but he never reaches the part where they met and, knowing what I now know about Olive, I'd like to know how they came to be traveling together.

It was ok enough, not nearly as good as Grasshopper Jungle and as I've mentioned I had a number of specific disappointments. I did like reading about Arek and Mel and their adventures discovering the outside world for the first time. During the course of the story, the Unstoppable Soldiers (the giant praying mantises) that they encountered seemed to be sick or dying, so there is hope that humans may be able to come out of hiding and reclaim the world. I'd like to think Arek and the others would bother to let the rest of the family know it's safe to come out of the hole at that point, but I'm not convinced they would.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

The Duchess Deal

The Duchess Deal (Girl Meets Duke #1) by Tessa Dare (2017)

I read a book by Tessa Dare several years ago and wasn't impressed. Or rather, I liked it until near the end when everything went kind of stupid. I've shied away from her books since then even though I know a lot of people love them. But recently I heard such good things about The Wallflower Wager that I thought it would be worth trying this series and I wanted to start from the beginning.

Our story begins with Emma Gladstone paying a call to the Duke of Ashbury. She's a seamstress, appearing in a dress commissioned by the Duke's now-ex-fiance. Emma is desperate for payment, though I don't understand why she couldn't simply carry the dress with her. At any rate, the Duke makes her a counter-offer: marriage.

The Duke returned from war with hideous scars covering one side of his face and body, which is the reason his fiance changed her mind about marriage. It was a huge blow to his self-esteem and he's a bitter, brooding man. But he still needs an heir so he offers Emma a way out of poverty. The deal is that as soon as she gets pregnant, he'll give her a house in the country and she'll never have to see him again. This has an appeal to Emma because, in addition to wanting financial security, she has just learned that one of her unmarried friends is pregnant and needs a place to go during the final months of her pregnancy.

Emma is fairly attracted to the Duke early on, and all the sex they're having to try and produce an heir only increases that attraction. The Duke, though he tries very hard to retain his cynical outer shell, also begins falling for Emma. But he's not convinced he's worth loving, and his former fiance isn't entirely out of the picture, plus Emma's plans to hide away her pregnant friend begin to complicate things. It was a pretty good story that I was invested in from the start. I love a marriage of convenience, and a hero or heroine who has a physical or mental disability (not that his scars disable him, exactly.) Additionally, the Duke's staff really wanted him to fall in love with Emma and they would contrive situations to throw them together and it was kind of hilarious and cute.

There was a lot of humor actually, which seems to be the case with most romances I end up reading - are they all that way? Emma doesn't know what to call her new husband, refusing to call him the Duke, or Ash, or his real first name, George, because it's her father's name. So she resorts to making up silly little nicknames which he hates, but she is fond of torturing him in this way. I liked some of their wry observations about society too. For instance, when Emma insists on using her seamstress skills to make her own clothing, the Duke will not hear of it. She tries to reason with him, saying that ladies are supposed to do needlework. His response is "Fine ladies make useless things, like wretched pillows, and samplers no one wants, and disturbing covers for the commode. They don't use their skills to perform common labor."

Which brings me to one of the things I liked most about this hero. He was very conscientious about how his decisions affected others. So when he shows Emma her house in the country and tells her to hire people to fix it up and she insists it's perfect the way it is, he tells her how that doesn't matter because the important thing is giving work to people who need jobs. That is something she understands.

What he did that I didn't like was threaten Emma's father on her behalf and without her consent. When the Duke learned why Emma was so poor, that her father had thrown her out of the house and let her make her own way (starving and freezing and even losing a toe) he was outraged. He snuck away, found her father's house, and slipped into the guy's bedroom in the middle of the night to threatened that he'd go to hell. I appreciate the gesture, but I hate when men act like their female partners are helpless and need protecting and don't even ask before seeking out those who have wronged them. Maybe she wants you to stay the hell out of it.

I liked Emma too. She was clever and resourceful and didn't take shit from anyone. She was down-to-earth and forgiving and could see the good in people even when it was hard for others to. I also like the women she befriends, who are all unconventional and interesting, and who I think are the subjects of the other books in this series, which I now want to continue reading.

This was a fun story about an unlikely match and I was happy that I liked it a lot more than the last book by Tessa Dare that I read. I was really in the mood for something light and escapist, and this really fit the bill.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

The Mother of All Questions

The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit (2017)

I impulsively borrowed this from a friend when I was at his house, despite having plenty to read and only moments before refusing his offer to borrow "anything I'd like" when he saw me browsing his shelves. But Rebecca Solnit is so smart and I so enjoyed Men Explain Things To Me that I couldn't pass up this book.

It actually took me a while to get through the first essay, "A Short History of Silence," which at 50-something pages is a pretty substantial chunk of the book. It was also probably the most abstract, and abstract is not something I am good at. It was about the many ways in which people (and more specifically, women) are silenced and even though it was a bit long and may be too broad and all-emcompassing for me, there were still passages I noted. One example is when she talks about how films primarily featuring men are just films, while those with primarily female characters are considered girls' or womens' films. She says "Men are not expected to engage in the empathic extension of identifying with a different gender, just as white people are not asked, the way people of color are, to identify with other races. Being dominant means seeing yourself and not seeing others; privilege often limits or obstructs imagination."

After this lengthy essay, which took me a few days to read, I read the rest of the book in probably a 24-hour period. As expected, having read Solnit's essays before, I was worked up into a rage, but also couldn't help smile at how clever, erudite, and articulate she is. I'm not great at expressing my thoughts and it's so satisfying to read the words of someone who can pinpoint exactly what it is about something that is so unjust or infuriating.

These essays examine events like the O.J. Simpson murders, Gamergate, and sexual harassment by men from Bill Cosby to Jian Ghomeshi. She talks about how women who have already been treated poorly by men are further harassed, often receiving rape and death threats online. She says "...the plethora of men attacking women and anyone who stands up for women in order to prove that women are not under attack and feminism has no basis in reality are apparently unaware that they're handily proving the opposite."  She always provides interesting statistics, such as that 38% of women murdered are killed by their partners, a sad but unsurprising fact.

In "Men Explain Lolita To Me," Solnit discusses the Esquire article "80 Books Every Man Should Read" (79 of which were written by men) and posits the merits of learning about others through reading, an idea that seems to upset some men. She says "Many among that curious gender are easy to upset, and when they are upset they don't know it. They just think you're wrong and sometimes also evil." (In that same essay she discusses the way that magazines like Esquire and Cosmopolitan feel the need to constantly instruct how to be your gender. "Maybe it says a lot about the fragility of gender that instructions on being the two main ones have been issued monthly for so long.") She points out the way that white men are forever talking about other people who can't take a joke or need to be coddled, when in fact they are the ones who react to jokes about themselves with rage and threats, and respond to criticisms about, say, male video game culture by threatening rape, death, doxxing, and bombs to the women who dare voice this criticism.

Rebecca Solnit gets at so many ideas in surprisingly few pages, and puts voice to things that are dancing on the periphery of my vision that I can't quite express. She's a lot smarter than I am, and I'm grateful that she shares her brilliance with the world. I was interested to learn from one of her essays that she has written a book about the history of walking, called Wanderlust, which I'd like to think I will read someday.