Let’s read some books!

The chemotherapy-induced neuropathy in my hands has forced me to make a lot of changes. I love cooking and baking, doing arts and crafts, and playing video games, but I haven’t been able to do those things since my first treatment. To keep myself busy, I’ve had to fill my time with some of my older hobbies that I haven’t made as much time for over the past few years.  Mostly, I’ve been reading.

Right now, reading is exactly what I need.  I’ve been avoiding physical books because they’re hard for me to hang on to, but my iPad mini and Kindle are easy on my hands.  Books are also a great value for entertainment media: even if I’ve spent a bit more than what I should on them recently it’s pretty tough to get yourself into financial trouble by buying books, especially since I’m a fairly slow reader.  Even better for my budget right now is the fact that I’m able to borrow free ebooks from the library.  It’s a little tough to wait for the numerous holds on popular titles, but easy and free are worth it.

As I said above, I haven’t spent a lot of time reading books over the past few years.  I’m currently on track to read 7 books in April which is, on average, a little more than I’ve read per year since I graduated university.  This has definitely been a source of embarrassment. I’ve always seen myself as a reader and for most of my youth, reading was my main hobby. As I got older, I slowly found myself reading published books for fun less often. I think there were several reasons for this.  Mostly, I struggled with finding my identity as an adult reader. With world of books being so enormous, I had trouble finding well-written, contemporary fiction that suited my taste and I didn’t always enjoy slogging through well-known classics.  I would stick with one or two authors for awhile and then have no idea where to go when I had read all of their work that interested me.

University also took a lot of the fun out of reading.  As a history major I would often have upwards of 600 pages of reading (or more, especially if it was time for term papers) per week. It wasn’t fun, easy reading: so much academic writing is dry and boring and remarkably difficult to slog through, even if the subject matter is interesting. The last thing I wanted to do with my free time was read more, even if reading fiction was more fun than reading academic non-fiction.

After finishing my undergraduate degree, I started my long and strange journey of being intentionally single and trying new things.  I started playing video games. Video games led me down a path toward a lot of new (to me) media, like manga and anime. For a good while, I wanted to immerse myself in those new interests and give myself the time to enjoy them. This didn’t leave me with a lot of room for reading published books (though I did read lots of fanfiction, but that’s another story for another day).  It’s hard for me to admit it, but books just sat on the back burner for awhile.

Being absorbed in reading again has been wonderful, like settling in for a lovely afternoon with an old friend.  The ONTD reading challenge that I decided to participate in has been especially fantastic.  I have the freedom to choose any book that fits each month’s theme, but I’m also forced to try out authors and genres that I normally wouldn’t consider reading on my own.  Best of all, the participants all make loads of recommendations each month, which has helped me make some fun new discoveries!

In some ways, one of my greatest struggles as an adult has been balancing my free time.  There are so many different activities that bring me joy that I often have trouble choosing what I should do on any given day.  I hope that once my condition improves and I return to work that I’ll be able to make room in my life to continue reading.  I won’t have as much time as I do now, but I’ve realized that it’s a hobby I should keep up with.  I certainly have enough recommendations to keep me going for a good long while!

Are there any interests or hobbies that you aren’t making enough time for?  What books are you reading right now?  Let me know in the comments!


Media Round-up for 18/03/2018

Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar

the bell jarThe March theme for my ONTD reading challenge was to read a book by a female author who is considered to be influential and has had a significant influence in literature, culture and/or society.  Some of the other participants had been planning to read The Bell Jar and, since I had never read it, I thought it might be a good choice.  Unfortunately, due to the new puppy, I read the book over quite a long span of time, which I find often diminishes my enthusiasm a little bit.

I’ve always thought that The Bell Jar was a bit like The Catcher in the Rye: it’s a book that you should probably read before you reach a certain age or you won’t get the most out of it.  I read The Catcher in the Rye when I was 15 years old, which was perfect.  I was an angry, angsty little shit and all of the talk of phonies was something I could identify with.  Having read The Bell Jar now, at 37 years old, I’m glad I didn’t read it as a teenager: there’s no way I would have or could have understood it at that time.

The Bell Jar is generally regarded as a roman a clef (a novel that depicts real life events overlaid with the facade of fiction) and depicts the decline of the protagonist’s mental health.  The events in the book are said to be similar to events in the life of Plath.  At the beginning of the novel Esther Greenwood, a 19-year-old college student, is working on an internship at a famous women’s magazine based in New York city.  Once she returns home after the internship, she receives the news that she was not accepted to a famous writing seminar.  From there, Esther’s condition takes a downward turn and we see her experiences with electroshock therapy and institutionalization.

The Bell Jar is one of those great books where it’s possible to dislike the main character and still like the book.  Esther is difficult and not particularly likeable, but there’s a great deal to admire in her rejection of the men who try to oppress her.  The writing style is fantastic: raw, simple and easy to read.  The tone of The Bell Jar is definitely dark, particularly knowing how Plath ended her own life, but I found that it was easy to identify with Esther’s experiences, even though my own struggles with depression aren’t nearly as severe.  While I wish I had been able to finish it more quickly, as I feel that the emotional weight of the novel would have hit me a bit harder, I am glad to have read The Bell Jar.

Dirty Money

dirty money netflixNetflix original series have been a bit hit-or-miss for me.  Some I love and others I don’t and, in my opinion, their offerings aren’t consistent in terms of quality.  Where they seem to be hitting it out of the park recently for me is with documentaries.  I love The Chef’s Table, Strong Island, The Keepers, Joan Didion: the Center Will Not Hold, Audrie and Daisy, and Amanda Knox.  It wasn’t as exciting as I had imagined it would be, but I even enjoyed Lady Gaga: Five Foot TwoDirty Money continues this trend of quality Netflix documentaries: it’s well-produced and fascinating.

Dirty Money has six episodes (all the episodes are all a little over an hour long).  Each episode is a different story about corporate greed and corruption.  The featured corporations/phenomena are:

  • the Volkswagen emissions scandal
  • Scott Tucker and Payday loans
  • Valeant Pharmaceuticals
  • HSBC money laundering for drug cartels
  • the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers
  • Donald Trump

All of the episodes are great, but for me the Payday loans and Valeant Pharmaceuticals episodes were the most interesting.  I had always known that payday loan companies were sketchy, but I didn’t realize how many folks out there were relying on them for day-to-day survival and how easily the companies could take advantage of that.  The Valeant Pharmaceuticals episode also showed me how insane the market can be for prescription drugs.  I’m not sure how the actions of Valeant affected Canadian customers, but I was astonished at how easy it was for them to markedly increase drug prices for consumers with so little regulation and oversight.  This is doubly interesting when considering the recent Martin Shkreli conviction: he has gone to jail only because he pissed off a bunch of rich people and not because he cheated sick folks out of life-saving medication.

If you haven’t watched Dirty Money yet, you might want to check it out soon.  There’s a lot to learn and it’s very entertaining.  I loved it.

Media Round-up for 11/03/2018

Altered Carbon

altered carbonAltered Carbon is a new Cyberpunk science fiction series on Netflix starring Joel Kinnaman as Takeshi Kovacs, a former cop and rebel who has been in prison for over 200 years. In the world of Altered Carbon, human beings have become practically immortal: each person’s personality is stored in a disc in their neck (called a Stack) and that personality, unless killed in a particular way, can continue living as long as they can afford to purchase and maintain a body (sleeve). Sleeves are outrageously expensive, however, and lengthy lifespans are only really possible for the extraordinarily wealthy. Kovacs is freed from prison by one of the wealthiest people on earth in order to work on a murder case and we slowly learn his backstory as he is working to solve the mystery.

I wanted to like Altered Carbon, but I didn’t. Aesthetically, it’s incredible. The visual style of the world is gorgeous to look at but, in my opinion, it fails in most other aspects. I loved Joel Kinnanan in The Killing, but I found his accent work to be pretty bad in Altered Carbon and, while he’s been praised for his performance in the series, I thought it was mediocre at best. In fact, the quality of the acting in Altered Carbon was poor overall, though I think that Martha Higareda’s performance as Kristin Ortega was particularly egregious. Her line delivery is so consistently wooden that it’s a little embarrassing. Acting-wise, the best performances came from Will Yun Lee (as past Kovacs in a different sleeve) and Renee Elise Goldsberry (as Quillcrist Falconer and former love interest of Kovacs).

The story of Altered Carbon also failed to maintain my interest. I kept watching the show hoping for a real mystery plot to unfold, but I was ultimately disappointed. The development of the show’s main villain was handled particularly poorly as their motivations were so ridiculous and psychotic that I just couldn’t identify or sympathize with any of it.  If my boyfriend and I hadn’t been watching this show together, I would have scrubbed through at least half of it.

Jake Buvala – I Got a Dog, What was I Thinking

It’s no secret that my mother and I have been more than a little overwhelmed with our new puppy, Frankie. During out first week together, I had several ugly days where I hardly slept and my anxiety was getting the best of me.  I didn’t like Frankie, I wanted to send her back, and having her in the house was uncomfortable.  These negative feelings were making me feel horribly guilty.  I love dogs, I love animals and, right now, popular culture is telling me that Frankie and I should be having a magical relationship.

During that first week I spent a lot of time googling.  Unfortunately, a lot of the resources I found were just making me feel worse — like I wasn’t being consistent enough and generally like I was a jerk for having the negative feelings.  And then I found I Got a Dog, What was I Thinking.  Jake Buvala is a dog trainer and blogger over at 3LostDogs.  His e-book is an easy-to-read, quick and dirty guide to some of the more challenging aspects of bringing a new dog into your home, such as biting and chewing, crate training, potty training and other behavioural adjustments and issues.  The information in his book isn’t new and you can probably get it for free elsewhere, but the tone and attitude of the book were an enormous help to me and it’s probably the best $13 I’ve ever spent.

What Jake gets right is that he acknowledges that you and your new dog won’t be super best buddies immediately and that your relationship with your dog needs to be built over time.  It doesn’t make you feel guilty for making mistakes or for not loving your dog as soon as you bring them home and he provides a lot of useful information that has been terribly helpful to us.  If you find yourself in a difficult situation with a new dog, I’d recommend that you check it out!

Media Round-up for 04/03/2018

Slow Burn

slow burn watergateSlow Burn is a podcast about the Watergate scandal, which resulted in the impeachment of U. S. President Richard Nixon in 1974.  Since I first listened to Serial, I’ve become a fan of podcast miniseries that cover one topic in-depth.  I tend to be open to different types of subjects, but I do have a significant bent toward true crime.  I decided to try out Slow Burn because it appeared quite often in 2017 year end lists of best podcasts and true crime plus an important political scandal seemed like a combination that would make for a good listen.

It was a good listen, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as some others have.  Of course, the Watergate scandal is fascinating and all of the episodes provide interesting information and are well-produced, but I guess the podcast just felt incomplete.  As a Canadian, everything I know about Watergate comes from seeing All the President’s Men quite a few years ago and I didn’t feel like the creators provided a good overview of the basics of the scandal.  Further to that, while each episode deals with a different aspect of the scandal, I felt as though they didn’t connect together particularly well, as though there wasn’t much of a narrative through-line in Slow Burn.  It also felt a little short and like it could have been more detailed and a lot longer.

The feeling that the podcast is incomplete is problematic for me because the outlet that produces the Slow Burn (Slate) has locked a lot of extra content for the show behind a pay wall.  There are extended interviews and other content that you can access by purchasing a premium membership at Slate.  The premium content is marketed extensively in each episode of Slow Burn as “bonus content,” but it makes me wonder whether the podcast would feel more robust and complete and have a better narrative through line if I was willing to pay for it.  The second season of Slow Burn will be covering the impeachment of Bill Clinton:  interested to see if my feelings about it will be similar to the first season.

Machado de Assis – The Alienist

the alienistThe Alienist is a 100 page novella written ca. 1881 by Machado de Assis, a Brazilian author who is often touted as the father of Brazilian literature.  February’s theme in the ONTD reading challenge was to read a book by a Brazilian author and The Alienist was one of the titles suggested by several other participants.  I’m glad that I chose this book because it was a nice change from what I’ve been reading recently and it’s been forever since I last read any short fiction or novellas.

Alienist is the 19th century term for psychologist/psychiatrist.  de Assis’ novella is a satire about a doctor, Simon Bacamarte, who moves back to his small home town in Brazil to open an insane asylum called Green House.  In line with his theories regarding madness, Bacamarte begins to commit more and more residents of his hometown to Green House, leading many to wonder who is actually insane.

The Alienist is an excellent satire on early psychology/psychiatry which examines how, depending on the expert’s hypothesis regarding the symptoms or nature of psychological disorder, he can find madness in just about anyone.  As Bacamarte’s hypothesis changes, so does the population of Green House.  Initially, I thought that this book might be a bit scary or creepy (I find depictions of insane asylums to be terrifying), but it is purely satirical and, given the length of the story, doesn’t go into much detail regarding the treatment of Green House patients or the institution itself.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to just about anyone who likes short fiction.

Media Round-up for 25/02/2018

Shonda Rhimes – Year of Yes

year of yesDespite achieving greatness in her career while managing to raise three children as a single mother, Shonda Rhimes (award winning creator and show-runner for Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder) was miserable. After receiving some tough love from one of her siblings, she took on a life-changing challenge: for one year she would say yes to everything that scared her.  Year of Yes is a memoir documenting the incredible changes and personal development that Shonda experienced as a result of her challenge (which wound up lasting more than one year).  Here are some of the things that she finally said yes to:

  • Having difficult conversations
  • Public speaking
  • Saying no
  • Playing with her children
  • Breaking the cycle of emotional eating

I greatly admire what Shonda accomplished during this period of transformation.  She seems to have made over her life in a way that is extraordinarily positive and, as a result,  seems to have become a much happier person.  I think that there is a lot that I can learn from Year of Yes and I will be revisiting it in the future, because I am definitely the type of person who says no too often and can sometimes create barriers to my own development.  The one downside to Year of Yes is that I think it is a little too long.  Some of the chapters dragged for me at times and I found them to be repetitive.

If you’re unhappy and looking for some inspiration to start turning things around, I would greatly recommend this book.  It’s an easy read and will probably make you laugh out loud at least once.  It may also allow you to give yourself permission to actively seek out more happiness in your life.  Shonda points out, very wisely, that sometimes we get bogged down in the social pressure to always be humble and grateful for what we have, which can stop us for striving for more.

The Story of Saiunkoku (Saiunkoku Monogatari)

saiunkoku monogatariSaiunkoku Monogatari is an anime series that takes place in a fictionalized Imperial China.  Its main character is a young noblewoman named Shuurei Hong, whose family is well-respected, but quite poor.  Shuurei’s dream is to become a government official; however, at the beginning of the series, women are unable to work as government officials.  Instead, she takes on various odd jobs to help her family make ends meet and is a prominent member of her local community.  Through various circumstances, she develops a relationship with the young emperor, who becomes determined to ensure that Shuurei is able to contribute what she can to the government of Saiunkoku.

When I first watched Saiunkoku Monogatari a few years ago, I fell in love with it, warts and all.  It has incredible charm that I just couldn’t, and still can’t, resist.  Shuurei is a wonderful shoujo protagonist — smart, determined and kind-hearted.  Her supporting cast of attractive male suitors is also impressive — they are all well-rounded characters, each with interesting traits that make them unique.  Shuurei’s journey and the overall story of the series are quite interesting, though I do think that it can be a bit slow at times and there are a few arcs that I find a little boring.

While I do love Saiunkoku Monogatari, I think it has its share of weaknesses.  As a reverse harem series (a series format where one female protagonist is surrounded by numerous attractive male suitors), there aren’t many female characters in the world of Saiunkoku; however, the few prominent female side characters are excellent and well-developed.  As I said above, I enjoy Shuurei as a protagonist; however, in my opinion the series creators rely a little too heavily on common shoujo tropes for her development: she is unequivocally the smart girl that is blind to love and romance (see Haruhi in Ouran High School Host Club, and many others).

The negative points I have mentioned above were aspects that I noticed on both my first and second views of the series.  What’s been unique this time around are my perspective and my expectations.  I will be writing at least one full blog post about this, because I have a lot more to say on the issue, but I will discuss this briefly here.  As I mentioned in my essay about my development as a feminist, years ago I was not ready to let feminism and politics get in the way of my fun.  This allowed me to dismiss many of the more pernicious aspects of the media I was consuming; particularly Japanese media, where there are significant cultural differences in the area of romance, particularly regarding consent.  Ryuuki Shi, the emperor of Saiunkoku and Shuurei’s primary suitor, kisses her without her consent on multiple occasions.  Within the shoujo manga/anime culture, this is often considered to be wildly romantic and when I first watched the series several years ago, those scenes didn’t bother me at all.  While they don’t completely ruin Saiunkoku Monogatari for me now, because I think you can still enjoy a show or a book while still being aware of its more problematic themes or aspects, it does detract from my enjoyment of the series now.

While I do still love Saiunkoku Monogatari, I don’t recommend it to anyone who isn’t a fan of shoujo manga and anime, particularly because, as I mentioned above, the pacing is so slow and plodding.  If you happen to be reading this and you do enjoy reverse harem shoujo and you haven’t already seen this show, what on earth are you waiting for?

Media Round-up for 18/02/2018

Carlos Ruiz Zafon – The Shadow of the Wind

shadow of the windThe Shadow of the Wind is a book for people who love books.  It takes place in Barcelona, Spain throughout the first half of the 20th century, a tumultuous time in that country’s history.  In 1945, the book’s protagonist, Daniel Sempere, is introduced by his father, a widowed used bookseller, to a place called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.  Daniel is allowed to take one book from the Cemetery, as long as he promises that he will preserve the book and its story for the rest of his life.  He chooses The Shadow of the Wind, a novel by a little known author named Julian Carax.  Daniel reads the novel and is completely spellbound.  At 10 years old, he feels as though he has truly awoken to the power of the written word.  He then begins a quest to learn more about the book’s mysterious author so that he can read more of Carax’s work.  His inquiries are met with stories that someone is systematically purchasing and destroying copies of Julian Carax’s novels.  The mystery that ensues is gripping and a pure joy to read.

I adored The Shadow of the Wind.  The writing is both beautiful and easy to read, which is a rarity and even more incredible since the book has been translated from the original Spanish.  If I’d previously known nothing about the book or its author prior to reading it, I would have had no idea that it was a translation.  The characters are rich, vibrant, and easy to root for.  I have not read a novel in quite some time where I was so readily able to identify with and root for the central characters.  They became my good friends over the hours that I spent reading the book.

The mystery elements of The Shadow of the Wind are also wonderful.  The suspense runs quite high until the novel reaches its climax and the denouement, where the truth is explained from the perspective of a character that you would definitely not expect to reveal anything, is tremendously satisfying.  The Shadow of the Wind is just the right length: Zafon has not lingered on any of the plot points for too long and it doesn’t skim over any necessary details.  I would say that the only real weakness of the book is that the true villain is a little underdeveloped and, for me, his motivations weren’t particularly compelling.

If you’re a reader, you should check out the Shadow of the Wind as soon as you can.  You won’t regret it.

You Must Remember This

you must remember thisYou Must Remember This is a Hollywood history podcast written and narrated by Karina Longworth, a writer and film critic, and is probably one of the best podcasts I’ve ever listened to.  When I was sick with the virus that put me in the hospital in late October/early November it was my constant companion.  Karina Longworth’s research is impeccable and her voice and enunciation are fantastic.

The podcast generally follows a series format.  Sometimes the series will explore just one story and others will have single episodes that fit the theme of the series.  Topics that she has covered so far include:

  • Movie stars during the Second World War
  • The Hollywood Blacklist (stories of Hollywood folks who were involved in or affected by the House Un-American Activities Committee)
  • Charles Manson’s Hollywood (the most critically acclaimed series and my personal favourite)
  • Dead Blondes (or, really, tragic dead blondes)

If you’re at all interested in the Manson family (or true crime stories), the Charles Manson series is a must.  If you’re at all interested in old Hollywood or like old movies, or are looking for a way of learning more about old movies, this podcast is a phenomenal tool to learn about film history and also to get recommendations for films to watch.  Try it out sometime and let me know what you think!



Media Round-up for 11/02/2018

This post should have been posted last Sunday (on February 4).  I was so sick that day, however, that I completely forgot to schedule it for automatic uploading.  The end of my second chemo cycle (my fourth treatment on February 2) was difficult.  I spent most of the weekend in bed and didn’t really have the energy to do much other than read a little bit and sleep.  I hope that this doesn’t get to be a habit, but sometimes when you’re not well, you need to give yourself a bit of a break.

Joan Didion – The White Album

white album“The weirdness of America somehow got into this person’s bones and came out on the other side of a typewriter.” — writer and critic Hilton Als on The White Album.

The White Album is my first experience with reading Joan Didion.  I have not loved a book as much as I love The White Album in a long time.  A few years ago I started reading more essay collections and contemporary memoirs because I needed some media that wasn’t fictional and I needed to read words that were put together beautifully, artfully, in ways I could never manage if I typed until my fingers bled and edited myself until I went blind.  Joan Didion’s writing is everything I’ve wanted and more.

I don’t mean to sound snobby, but I don’t like reading bad books.  I don’t like young adult fiction, the trashy mysteries my mother loves, romance novels or those Shopaholic-type tragedies.  I have my sources of fluff and trash (shoujo manga and a lot of video games) and, while I love those things, I want my books to offer something more.  I want them to be beautifully written.  I want to look at the way an author puts their words together and be in awe.  This happens to me less often that I would like, but I find that essayists accomplish this more often than most.

Joan Didion definitely did not disappoint me.  In many ways she is the pioneer of personal journalism: news as memoir and memoir as news.  The White Album is a collection of essays written on various topics written for many different publications between 1968 and 1979.  The topics are an interesting mix of the death of the 1960s, Black Panthers, the Manson family, traffic in Los Angeles, life in Honolulu, the movie industry and shopping center theory.  Yes, shopping center theory.  In each essay she is informing and teaching the reader by relating her personal experience with it.

One would think that because the essays were written as long as fifty years ago that they might seem dated, but that is not the case.  I would say that many of the essays about politics and social change are particularly relevant now, as I believe that we are probably living through the greatest period of social protest and rebellion since many of these essays were written.  The personal nature of the essays also assists in making them seem more contemporary — you’re reading more than just a simple explanation of the events of the time.

I would recommend The White Album to anyone who enjoys nonfiction or essays.  Once I have taken a bit of a break from her work, I will definitely be checking out Fumbling Towards Bethlehem and The Year of Magical Thinking.  I am wildly excited to read more from her.

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold

joan didion center will not holdI finished reading The White Album a good two hours before my usual bedtime.  The experience of reading it had been so powerful for me that I knew I wouldn’t be able to start reading, watching, or playing anything else that day.  Remembering that Netflix had recently released a documentary on Joan Didion, I decided that this would be a good time to watch it.

The Center Will Not Hold (bonus points if you can, without using Google, tell me which poem this references) is a biographical documentary of Joan Didion made by her nephew, Griffin Dunne, who is a character actor of some note.  It is a nicely put together collage of interviews with the subject (both recent and older footage from television interviews), interviews with other writers, friends and family members, relevant film footage, and readings of excerpts of her work as they are discussed in the film.  In general, I think it does a good job of providing an outline of her life and does an even better job of highlighting the beauty of her work and her significance in the world of writing.

What I found particularly interesting about Joan is her relationship with her late husband, John Gregory Dunne.  Dunne was also a writer and the two had an incredible marriage that seems to have been a truly equal partnership.  While they definitely had rough periods in their marriage (this is made quite clear in at least one essay in the White Album) they relied heavily on one another professionally, as mutual editors: before submitting any piece of writing to any outlet or publisher, the other would read it.  Joan stated clearly in interviews that there was never any competition between them, which I find to be fascinating.

If you’ve read any of Joan Didion’s work, you should watch this documentary.  It will inspire you to read more and if you haven’t yet read any of her work, what on earth are you waiting for?