Book Rundown, 2014

Posted on

It’s January 1st, that one magical day of the year when you can depend on seeing my annual reading experience described in wholly unnecessary detail. Nice to know something around here’s dependable, as I rarely post here anymore. Time might come when I post here only on January 1st, but I won’t surrender this annual tradition. The public demands it! That is to say, I track my reading habits obsessively, and if an innocent member of the public lands here, the worst that will happen is a mild case of tedium. It passes quickly.

Depression is a nasty disease. Not nasty like Ebola or multiple sclerosis, and as a topic it has no business in my annual book review, except for this: whole months of 2014 passed with me reading hardly anything. I just didn’t want to. Still don’t want to, most of the time. I would check out new books by authors I adore — Christopher Buehlman, Tana French, and K.J. Parker, for instance — and return them to the library without having cracked them open.

So it should have been a better reading year. It should have been a better year, period.

But you aren’t here for the gloom! You’re here for the scintillating minutiae of my reading life! I completely understand if you can’t contain yourself a moment longer, if you simply must jump to the meat of the Book Rundown, but some of you may wish to revisit previous years’ entries to torture yourself with sweet anticipation:

And now, the real reason we’re all here: Book Rundown, 2014

Total books read, cover-to-cover: 92

Age levels:

  • Adult: 85
  • YA: 6
  • Children’s: 1

Books read that were published in 2014: 38

Books read that won’t be published till 2015: 1. The Aeronaut’s Windlass, first in a new Steampunk series by Jim Butcher.

Nonfiction: 40. This includes a couple of poetry books and a collection of cartoons, which are murky from a classification point of view. Other people might class them as fiction.

Fiction: 52

Genres: (as some books have more than one genre, total exceeds 92)

Nonfiction:

  • Art and photography (collections): 4
  • Biography: 1
  • Cultural Criticism: 2
  • English Language: 1
  • Expose: 1
  • Feminism: 1
  • History: 5
  • Horror: 1
  • Humor: 8
  • Memoir: 9
  • Psychology: 1
  • Science: 4
  • Social science: 6
  • Travel: 1
  • True crime: 2

Fiction:

  • Classics/Literary canon: 2
  • Crime/Mystery: 3
  • Erotica: 1. Which should last me a lifetime, please and thank you.
  • Fantasy: 20
  • Historical: 2. Both by Douglas Nicholas. Superb medieval British Isles setting.
  • Horror: 13
  • Humor: 1
  • Literary fiction: 5
  • Mainstream: 1
  • Mystery: 3
  • Science fiction: 8
  • Steampunk: 1. Reluctantly– this is NOT my genre– but I wanted 2014 bragging rights for a book not pubbed til 2015, and anyway it’s written by my BFFF. (That extra F is not a typo. It stands for Frenemy. ‘sComplicated.)
  • Suspense/Thriller: 5
  • Western: 1

Formats:

  • Audiobooks: 26. Would have been more, but I broke my own rule. Normally I listen exclusively to nonfiction, preferring to read fiction with my eyes, but I encountered such a strong audiobook review of a novel that I made an exception. I quickly recalled why I don’t listen to fiction: the pace, the literal pace, is too slow. Didn’t help matters that the novel itself was not to my tastes. I finally gave up on it sometime in summer, but I stubbornly refused to start a new audiobook till I’d finished the one in progress. The result: six months of no audiobooks. I ended the stalemate by reading the remainder in a print copy. Maybe now I can go back to audiobooks.
  • Collections/Anthologies: 18. 1 of cartoons (T-Rex Trying); 1 of fantasy art (Spectrum 20); 1 of speeches (by Kurt Vonnegut!); 1 of radio interviews (NPR’s Funniest Driveway Moments; not that funny); 7 of essays; 5 of photoessays; and 2 of poetry.
  • Graphic novels: 13, of which one was nonfiction.
  • Picture book: 1. Not for young children. This is a picture book for tweens and up, provided they have a bent sent of humor. It’s not as good as the first Patrick Rothfuss picture book, The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle, but I enjoyed the continued macabre adventures of the princess and her stuffed teddy in this sequel, The Dark of Deep Below.

Miscellaneous: 

  • Annual fat Russian novel: First Love, by Ivan Turgenev. Positively slender, by Russian standards, but positively not-positive in theme and tone, so it counts as legitimate Russian fiction.
  • Annual classic: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. It’s a coming-of-age novel, and I regret not reading it when I was a teen; would have meant more to me then. But I still enjoyed the hell out of it.
  • Annual language book: Bad English, by Ammon Shea.
  • Re-reads: 0. As in zero. I’d have to doublecheck my records, but I think this is unprecedented.

Authors: 87

New (to me) authors: 64, or 66 if we go with pseudonyms: I already knew Robert Gilbraith as J.K. Rowling, and I wish I’d stayed with Anne Rice and not tried her erotica pen-name,  A. N. Roquelaure. Two hundred  pages of spanking, that was.

New section for 2014! Authors by sex: Note that each author only gets one entry, so though I read three Stephen King books, I’m only listing him once. And I am treating Robert Gilbraith as a male, out of respect for JKR’s chosen pseudonymous identity.

  • Female: 21 (roughly one quarter)
  • Male: 66 (roughly three quarters)

Best book of the year, fiction: The Necromancer’s House, by Christopher Buehlman, published 2013. Baba Yaga is the antagonist. That fact alone guaranteed I would read it, even though my previous Buehlman book (Those Across the River, featuring werewolves) was merely enjoyable: liked it, didn’t love it. But this book? THIS BOOK? Astonishingly good. In contemporary upstate New York, Andrew is a mostly-out of practice necromancer, still mourning his dead wife but in love with a witch named Anneke, who loves him just as much. They’d be a great couple if she weren’t a lesbian. Instead Andrew meets his sexual needs, sorta, with a nearby carnivorous mermaid, who unwittingly murders an old man who had been dear to Baba Yaga, thereby invoking the wrath of the scariest, most powerful monster in all of European folklore.

The whole book has a moody tone. There are moments of horror, humor, violence, and pathos. Buehlman has a truly inventive imagination and sneaks in a lot of commentary on social issues such as alcoholism and sexual identity without being pedantic, and the climactic battle scene has a plot twist I promise you won’t see coming.

My only problem with this book? It is Urban Fantasy and Horror of the highest caliber, and nobody seems to know about it. Urban Fantasy fans know about The Dresden Files (hey Jim, love ya, noodlehead) and about folks like Kevin Hearne, Seanan McGuire, Myke Cole, and Chuck Wendig, but The Necromancer’s House isn’t getting the same marketing or publicity or con-time or whatever it is that makes established fan-bases aware of standalone novels like this.

Best book of the year, nonfiction: What It Is Like to Go to War, by Karl Marlantes, published in 2011. I listened to the audio version, narrated by Bronson Pinchot. This should be required reading for any civilian, and ESPECIALLY for anyone in a position of power to send troops into war zones– but this is not a political book about the Vietnam War, or even a philosophical book about the ethics of combat. This is the memoir of one Vietnam vet doing his damnedest to explain what it’s like to go to war.

Marlantes is a superb writer: his book Matterhorn stands alongside Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and the early novels of Robert Olen Butler as some of the finest fiction on Vietnam. And only a superb writer could bring such insight and clarity to terrible subjects like violence, dehumanizing the enemy, trauma, and PTSD. (His book has helped me understand my own PTSD and depression.)

But what I admire most is the honesty of the memoir. Marlantes tells the whole picture, not just the parts that paint him in a flattering light. He could have concentrated on the “War Is Hell” theme: no one would have argued with that, and it would have been the truth. But it would not have been the whole truth. Marlantes is brave enough and honest enough to talk about the parts he enjoyed: the adrenaline, the camaraderie, the killing of the enemy. And he has the courage to reveal how, all these decades later, he is still haunted: haunted by what he did, haunted by the aftereffects echoing in his civilian life, haunted by the parts of war he still misses to this day.

Honorable mentions: 

  • Zombie Baseball Beatdown, by Paolo Bacigalupi. Middle-grades/YA novel featuring human zombies, cow zombies, baseball, and a really strong argument in favor of local agriculture and strict food inspections.
  • Poems Dead and Undead, edited by Tony Barnstone and Michelle Mitchell-Foust. Most of us don’t read poetry for pleasure, perhaps because we had to count one too many iambs in grade school. It’s a short anthology, and you don’t have to read it cover-to-cover, but surely some of the poems will catch your fancy, as two in particular did for me. I was astonished at the over-the-top gruesome imagery (“What kind of sadist would write this?!?”) of a poem called “The Dead King Eats the Gods,” and then learned that it was inscribed on an ancient Egyptian pyramid. And I was charmed by the twisted fairy-tale version of God and his buddy Satan in “The Gardener,” by Stephen Dobyns.
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo, might be the best example of embedded reporting you’ll ever read. For three years Boo immersed herself among three-hundred some families in a slum in Mumbai. To bring the religious and ethic strife, the overcrowding, and the overwhelming poverty into focus, she follows the stories of a few select individuals, resulting in a narrative that boggles the Western mind. The audiobook is narrated by Sunil Malhotra, who does an outstanding job of with the various accents.
  • The Aeronaut’s Windlass, first in a new series called Cinder Spires by Jim Butcher. It’s not published yet, so I can’t say much, except that it’s Steampunk, and I don’t like Steampunk, and I found myself grudgingly liking it anyway.
  • The Magician’s Land, the third volume in the trilogy by Lev Grossman. No book will ever touch me as did book #2, The Magician King, but this was a fine conclusion to a series that pays homage to Narnia and Hogwarts.
  • I Am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes. Just bear with the slow start, okay? Once the action gets going, the pace of this spy novel does not let up. I’m bored with most contemporary thrillers, but Terry Hayes nails it. International terrorism, unnerving but badass protagonist, exceptionally good plotting, little details that make it all seem believable. Hayes reminds me a lot of Neal Stephenson. Also? It’s a debut. That’s just annoying in a book this good.
  • Something Red and The Wicked by Douglas Nicholas. Nicholas is a poet, and it shows, but not in an obnoxious ooh-look-how-lyrical-and-erudite-I-am kind of way. Set in the medieval British Isles, and starring a family of four traveling entertainers, these first two novels in the series mix horror with magic and adventure and romance. The prose is lovely without bring pretentious, and I challenge even the nerdiest history buff to find a historical inaccuracy
  • The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North. Though I am leery of anything marketed as literary fiction, I’m a sucker for reincarnation stories. This sort of story has been done before (ha) but North has some unique angles. Quite reminiscent of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.
  • Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith. Our hero in this YA novel loves his girlfriend but suspects he might also be in love with his best male friend. That’s right: we have a bisexual/questioning teenage male protagonist. Not a bisexual girl — face it, everyone likes bi- girls — but a sexually confused male. It’s so damn refreshing. I could stop talking right now and rest my case. Except maybe I should mention that Smith writes with a style reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut. And also maybe I should mention the humongous praying mantises poised to take over the world.
  • Shovel Ready, by Adam Sternbergh. Another book too damn good to be a debut, this is a near-future thriller with just a little bit of science fiction. Our hero is an assassin. He really likes boxcutters. That’s the bright start of the novel: things tend to get a little bleak after that. Look, this is a really grim book, definitely not for everyone, but the prose is tight and I soaked up each page. Which possibly says something about me.
  • Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer. Perceptive reader that you are, I bet you can already tell from the title that this is going to be another one of those not-very-cheery books. Most of the characters die in the first few pages, so try not to get too attached. For that matter, don’t get attached to the survivors. They’re not especially likable. This is a short book of ecological science fiction, with not even a hint of levity to disrupt the tense atmosphere.
  • Quesadillas, by Juan Pablo Villalobos. Though wary of any book that threatens to reveal itself as literary fiction, I took a chance on this one because 1.) it was short and 2.) there was an amazing amount of swearing, I mean even on the first page. Not quite sure how to classify this — satire? magical realism? Marxist lit? — but no matter: it is the story of a family in Mexico with too many children and too little money. Funny thing is, it’s not bleak. Plenty of horrible things going on, but the tone dances between ligth-hearted and surreal.
  • The Martian, by Andy Weir. Science fiction! Adventure! Survival story! Mark Watney’s fellow astronauts left him for dead, which is sort of unnerving to realize when you return to consciousness and realize that you’re alone. On Mars. With no transport. And no way to communicate with earth. With an inauspicious start like this, you’re probably expecting a short story– a very, very, very short story. But Watney has the ingenuity, the tools, and the chutzpah to not only treat his injuries but to establish his own one-person colony– and to start thinking up ways for a good-old-fashioned rescue. Props to Andy Weir for inserting all kinds of science and factoids without dragging down the narrative.

Worst:

  • Nonfiction: Her, by Christa Parravani. This is not a bad book. Parravani is a gifted writer, and her story sounded like just my kind of memoir. Reading about other people’s struggles helps me understand my own. Parravani’s identical twin Cara was brutally, violently raped. She never completely physically healed, and it should go without saying that she never healed emotionally, spiritually, or psychologically. Cara began abusing drugs, and one day she died of a heroin overdose. Christa somehow managed to function after her twin’s death, but spent years suffering from the deep depression and unhealthy relationships.I’m with you so far, Parravani. This is a gut-wrenching grief memoir. But then one day along comes Mr. Wonderful, they fall in love on their first date, marry a few months later, and next thing there’s a baby. I am truly happy you finally got a break, Christa, and I wish you all the best. But this was the worst nonfiction book of 2014 for me, personally, because it ends with a deus ex machina. Prince Charming showed up to rescue you. I read grief memoirs to draw strength from people who survive even though things don’t get better.
  • Fiction: Shotgun Lovesongs, by Nickolas Butler. Yet again overcame my wariness of Literary Fiction to give this one a try. I should know better by now: if all the critics love a LiFi novel, I’m guaranteed to hate it. But it was set in rural middle Wisconsin, an area I know well and love. Long story short: the prose is fine, no problems there, and the characters are pretty well-developed, only I didn’t like the characters. Not always a deal-breaker– I love George R. R. Martin’s Tywin Lannister, for instance — but they just didn’t interest me. I didn’t care about them. And my biggest disappointment of all was that the book did not evoke rural Wisconsin. Hey, maybe for some folks it did, but the setting felt more like Ruraltown USA than Eau Claire.

And finally, all ninety-two titles, arranged by author:

Adrian, Matt The Mincing Mockingbird Guide to Troubled Birds
Alter, Adam Drunk Tank Pink
Azzarello, Brian Brother Lono
Bacigalupi, Paolo Zombie Baseball Beatdown
Barnstone, Tony and Michelle Mitchell-Foust, eds. Poems Dead and Undead
Buehlman, Christopher The Necromancer’s House
Blum, Deborah The Poisoner’s Handbook
Boo, Katherine Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Bourdain, Anthony Kitchen Confidential
Bryson, Bill I’m a Stranger Here Myself
Bryson, Bill A Walk in the Woods
Butcher, Jim The Aeronaut’s Windlass
Butcher, Jim Furies of Calderon
Butcher, Jim Ghoul Goblin
Butler, Nickolas Shotgun Lovesongs
Carey, Mike The Girl with All the Gifts
Cargill, C. Robert Dreams and Shadows
Ciaramella, Jason Thumbprint
Cole, Myke Control Point
Connolly, Harry Child of Fire
Cosby, Nate Cow Boy
Crockett, Alexandra Metal Cats
Crosley, Sloane I Was Told There’d Be Cake
Estabrook, Barry Tomatoland
Ettlinger, Steve Twinkie, Deconstructed
Farinella, Matteo Neurocomic
Fenner, Cathy and Fenner, Arnie, eds. Spectrum 20
Forman, Gayle If I Stay
Gaffigan, Jim Dad Is Fat
Galbraith, Robert Cuckoo’s Calling
Gladwell, Malcolm Outliers
Greenberg, Isabel The Encyclopedia of Early Earth
Grossman, Lev The Magician’s Land
Harris, Alice Blow Me A Kiss
Harris, Joe The X-Files: Season 10
Hayes, Terry I Am Pilgrim
Hearne, Kevin Hounded
Hiaasen, Carl Team Rodent
Homans, John What’s A Dog For?
Ironmonger, J. W. Coincidence
Jemisin, N. K. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
Jessop, Carolyn Triumph
Kidder, Tracy Strength In What Remains
King, Stephen Danse Macabre
King, Stephen Mr. Mercedes
King, Stephen Revival
Kittredge, Caitlin Coffin Hill
Korb, Scott Life In Year One
Krakauer, Jon Three Cups of Deceit
Lovejoy, Diana Cat Lady Chic
Magary, Drew Someone Could Get Hurt
Krulwich, Robert NPR Funniest Driveway Moments
Malerman, Josh Bird Box
Marlantes, Karl What It Is Like to Go to War
Martin, George R. R. The Hedge Knight v. I
Martin, George R. R. The Hedge Knight v. II
McKinley, Robin Shadows
Mueller, Tom Extra Virginity
Murphy, Hugh T-Rex Trying
Nicholas, Douglas Something Red
Nicholas, Douglas The Wicked
Norman, Howard I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place
North, Claire The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
Parker, Robert B. Looking for Rachel Wallace
Parravani, Christa Her
Pratchett, Terry Raising Steam
Riordan, Rick The Lightning Thief
Robothan, Michael Watching You
Roquelaure, A. N. The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty
Rosen, R. D. Throw the Damn Ball
Rothfuss, Patrick The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle: The Dark of Deep Below
Schulner, David First Generation
Scott, Traer Nocturne
Sedaris, David When You Are Engulfed in Flames
Shea, Ammon Bad English
Smith, Andrew Grasshopper Jungle
Smith, Betty A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Solnit, Rebecca Men Explain Things To Me
Stechschulte, Conor The Amateurs
Sternbergh, Adam Shovel Ready
Su, Kat Crap Taxidermy
Talty, Stephan The Illustrious Dead
Tobin, Paul I Was the Cat
Tregillis, Ian Something More Than Night
Turgenev, Ivan First Love
Vandermeer, Jeff Annihilation
Vanhee, Jason Engines of the Broken World
Villalobos, Juan Pablo Quesadillas
Vonnegut, Kurt If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?
Waters, M. D. Archetype
Weir, Andy The Martian
Wood, Jonathan No Hero

Anger Management

Posted on

I have trouble controlling my anger, but like all good contrarians, I can’t be bothered to have anger issues like everyone else. Instead of expressing my anger too much, I don’t express it enough.

I do okay with its cousins. I can express resentment and frustration and disappointment, and I fashion myself as a true connoisseur of irritability. My relationship with irritation is nearly transcendent. It is a wonder to behold, unless it is directed at you, in which case I advise you to retreat, quickly, because the chances of you calming me down are approximately nonexistent.

In the right circumstances, I can muster up some anger in the abstract. What is the point, I ask you, what is the point of having an insufferably rigid moral compass if you don’t rail against social injustice now and again? I like to do that occasionally, so as to pretend to myself that my degree in Women’s Studies has practical application in real life.

But pure anger– undiluted, unambiguous, directed at someone specific who deserves it– is not part of my emotional arsenal. This is not without its benefits: I get to look civilized and refined in comparison to people who can’t control their tempers, which usually only makes them angrier, which in turn makes me feel smug. I like feeling smug. Very satisfying in a petty sort of way.

But not expressing anger gets to be a problem with, oh let’s pick an example at random here, let’s say for instance my absolutely horrible relationship history, the typical pattern of which consists of the other person doing atrocious things to me while I respond with the all the fortitude and charisma of a potted fern.

This reluctance to express anger in appropriate situations is a function of both nature and nurture. I am a biological female, which means that I have less testosterone advising me to get into fist fights or to start wars with hostile nations. And I am a societal female, which means that cultural traditions for literally thousands and thousands of years have conspired to make me peaceful. We women are expected to be the diplomats and the peacemakers and the teachers, not the warriors.

(I learned this in my Women’s Studies classes. SEE? TOTALLY PRACTICAL DEGREE. Albeit useless for getting a job.)

Biology, culture, take your pick: whatever the reason, women rarely engage in physical violence. Exceptions abound: this is not a universal rule that applies to all women all of the time. Some women become career soldiers, and some of the most courageous warriors in history were women: think Joan of Arc and Boudica and Jennie Irene Hodges, who dressed in drag so she could fight in the Civil War. Plus you’ve got plenty of violent women in civilian situations: Anne Bonney and Mary Read were professional pirates (the Blackbeard type, not the modern Somali type). Lizzie Borden knew the business end of an axe. And modern teenage girls in catfights are fearsome to behold.

But even that language is loaded. Girls engage in catfights, which are bad enough but not, you know, real fights. A lot of scratching and hair-pulling and screaming, not a lot of crippling punches to the sternum.

Unusual circumstances and unusual women aside, females don’t fight. We aren’t supposed to, and usually we don’t want to. We will defend ourselves, usually inadequately, but we rarely attack.

So guess what. I’ve started taking karate lessons.

Here’s the thing: I’m not doing it for self-defense. If I cared about defending myself against aggressive strangers, I’d buy a can of mace. Cheaper and quicker than years and years of studying martial arts.

As it happens, I’m not worried about defending myself against aggressive strangers. Statistically speaking, any intentional violence done to me will come at the hands of a loved one. Get this: the leading cause of death among pregnant women is murder. The murderer is almost always the father of the child.

Not that I’m pregnant. Just trying to point out here that being attacked on the street or raped by a stranger behind a bush is much less common than domestic violence. And it’s much harder to fight against someone you love. Most women will resist an attack. Most women will try to defend themselves. But very few women will return (or initiate) an attack upon a husband or boyfriend or uncle or stepfather or whoever. (Notable exception: women will go to unprecedented lengths to protect their children, but that’s a moot point for me.)

My own history bears this out. I have been on the receiving end of some absurdly violent situations. (Oddly, considering everything else I’ve gone through, I have never been physically beaten up. It’s on my to-do list.) I have suffered emotional, spiritual, psychological, and sexual violence, and it’s always been from someone I loved. There’s never been a knife or a gun. (There was a bomb, that one time, but the explosion wasn’t aimed at me specifically so it doesn’t count. Probably. Probably doesn’t count.) We’re talking about weapons-free abuse from people who were supposed to be honoring and respecting me as much as I honored and respected them.

In hindsight, maybe a bit of carefully directed anger– you know, freaking standing up for myself— might have been useful.

This is difficult for me to reconcile. I am non-violent to my core. Politically and personally, I recoil at the thought of causing physical harm to someone else. I would like to think that, if I were ever in a life-threatening situation, I would be killed rather than kill. I hope I would pull a Gandhi and die with integrity.

That’s right: I care more about honor than life itself. Now you see why I like Russian novels.

This is where karate will help. The classes themselves are a controlled situation, where I am not just permitted but encouraged to move violently. I am appalled at the thought of actually hurting someone, but if you do it right, you don’t hurt the person. You just leave them, er, temporarily indisposed.

Hulk-Yoga

I’ve studied yoga for years. It’s actually proving useful in karate: the other students complain afterward of aches and bruises, and I’m all confused (“Oh, being thrown to the floor again and again and again and again was supposed to hurt? Huh.”). But the problem with yoga is that there is very little body-slamming involved. None, really. With yoga you’re not supposed to be angry. That in fact is the whole entire point of yoga.

But I’m trying to cultivate anger, and if it works out the way I hope, karate will teach me to express that anger in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone. Maybe the way to tap into the my ridiculously repressed emotional anger is to move about with some nice healthy violence. No one gets hurt, but I still get to move with more kinetic energy than, you know, lotus pose.

Triggers

Posted on

When I was earning a degree in Women’s Studies in the early 2000s, “trigger warning” was not in the feminist vocabulary.  Some years later the phrase started to gain traction in feminist circles, though by dint of my profession I only ever saw it in conjunction with books. “Trigger warning: this novel contains a rape scene” would precede a review, for instance.

Trigger warnings are a caveat emptor: proceed at your own risk, because something violent awaits. Often the violence is sexual, but it might be purely physical, or emotional, or psychological. Trigger warnings are most commonly applied to books and movies, but they can show up in lots of places. A haunted house at Halloween might come with a trigger warning.

The aim of trigger warnings is to protect people.  They serve to alert people in general that violence is on the horizon, but in particular they exist to warn people who are particularly sensitive to violent imagery. Survivors of war, combat, rape, assault, and other traumas are the ones who most need to be on guard.

I don’t much care for trigger warnings.

A few disclaimers: I’m a feminist. I’ve been raped. I am speaking for myself, not for all feminists, certainly not for all survivors of sexual violence. And I have deliberately not read a lot on the topic. I very much want to have an informed opinion, but for right now, I want my opinion to be informed by my own perspective, not by other people’s. This is one of those times where I want to reach my own conclusion before integrating any dogma. I read this New Yorker piece and then stopped.

I will happily modify my opinions as I learn more. This is just my starting point.

We’ll start with the trigger warnings I do applaud. If you as a creator want to apply a trigger warning to your own work, fantastic. It’s your intellectual property. You can do what you want. If you want to risk losing potential sales out of respect for other people’s demons, you are demonstrating courage and selflessness. Bravo.

I’m less enthusiastic about trigger warnings in reviews, but I suppose I still basically support them. I’m not wild about having a third party interpret, and potentially condemn, a creative work. One book reviewer’s trigger is another person’s salvation. But it’s the only workable solution I can see for people who are trying to research a book before reading it. Let’s say a reader is eager to try a new series but is wary of mention of suicide. Her choice is not to read the book at all – which is a really lousy option—or to consult sources that will give her reliable information about what to expect.

I do not like the idea of labeling all books, de rigeur, in a classroom setting, or in a bookstore, or in a library. For one thing, it’s impossible to accurately identify every conceivable trigger. A rape scene, sure, that’s pretty clear. But what about something less obvious? If you’re a parent who has lost a child, you might fall to pieces if you read about another parent’s loss. But you might also fall to pieces if you read about a parent who hasn’t lost a child.

Know what’s dicey for me? Reading about happy, healthy relationships. They’re not full-onslaught triggers for me, don’t get me wrong, but I get extremely uncomfortable when I read about normal happy people. Feels like an indictment of my own shortcomings. No way can anyone warn me about all of my triggers.

Here’s the thing: maybe you’ve been raped. Maybe you’re a combat vet. Maybe you’ve suffered from something less overtly violent, like a divorce or the death of a loved one. Know what sucks? The world doesn’t owe you.

Just because something awful has happened to you doesn’t mean the world will change to accommodate your psychological damage. You don’t get a free pass. Artists will continue to create content that will disturb you, and the fact that you have suffered does not give you the right to condemn them for it. The fact that you have suffered does not afford you further protection.

It sucks.

I know that.

You have endured something awful. I am so sorry for that. I’ve lived through way more violence than anyone deserves (and a lot less than some people get), so I mean that from the bottom of my heart. But that still doesn’t mean that censorship is right—and that’s what labelling usually becomes. At the very least, if you slap a giant yellow “Trigger warning: rape” sticker on a book, you’re going to stigmatize it.

magician_kingLev Grossman wrote a book called The Magicians, which I liked quite a lot, and then he wrote a book called The Magician King, which blew me away. The main character is my spiritual twin. Julia has endured worse violence than I have, and she is smarter than I am, which is not especially easy for me to admit, even about a fictional person. She is me, only moreso. The only explanation is that Grossman spied on me to create Julia’s character. I mean the man peered into my head.

The scene where she is raped is described in very graphic detail, and the whole book haunted me for months. I am profoundly glad to have read it. I hate to think of it getting labeled as inappropriate. It is inappropriate, for some people. For me it is indispensable.

For people who are sensitive to triggers, help is out there. You can ask a trusted friend to read through a book or preview a movie. You can go to a public library and ask about a specific title, or you can ask the librarian to pull together a list of materials that are safe for your needs. (Not all librarians are created equal, so if the first one seems stumped, try another librarian. Or just send me a message.)

And there are positive ways of creating change. Have you suffered violence? You can leave it at that. No one owes you anything… but you don’t owe them, either. You don’t have to become an advocate. You can choose to talk. You can choose to stay silent. Ain’t nobody’s business but your own.

But if you have the strength and the energy, you can speak up. Did a scene in a book upset you?  Again, I emphasize that it is the author’s prerogative to write things that bother you, just as it is your prerogative to read it, or not read it. But you might consider communicating with the author, through twitter or the author’s website or, failing those, the author’s publisher. Being petulant will probably get you sweet nowhere. Being open and honest might get you some meaningful dialogue. (“Hey, I read your book, and it caught me by surprise on p. 123. It stirred up some really painful memories. Just thought you should know.”)

control_pointAnd you can do things like this. Myke Cole is the author of some fantasy novels with a really fun concept: American military plus magic. (Start with Control Point). He also has triggers of his own, which come into play at fan conventions, where people wave around toy guns. He’s doing something good with his experience, offering free lessons in basic weapon safety.

By the way, an author friend of mine has made noise about going to a firing range. Well – he mentioned it once, and that’s good enough for me. I’m going to keep pestering until he does something about it. I don’t particularly see myself joining the NRA anytime soon, but I’ll try anything once. Plus I’m fairly sure I’d look hot with a gun. Which is my main motivation for doing things. Vanity, you know.

So what did I get wrong about trigger warnings? Like I said, this is a starting point. Let’s hear it. I’m prepared to issue mea culpas.

This is what 33 looks like

Posted on

No filter, no Photoshopping. Bathroom light and an iPhone camera.  I turn 33 tomorrow.

Bit-by-bit analysis:

33

  • Wrinkles: I noticed one the other day between my eyebrows. Sometimes it seems very apparent. Other times it vanishes.
  • Stretch marks: they’re everywhere.
  • Acne: most people leave this behind once they move beyond puberty. I am not one of those people.
  • Hair: I might have gray. I don’t know. I’ve been dyin’ so long it looks like black to me.
  • Muscles: not terribly noticeable in this photo, but I promise they’re there. Upper body, lower body, core: I’m no body builder, but I do strength-training six days out of seven.
  • Breasts: not terribly noticeable in this photo, but I promise they’re there. Despite their stretch marks and their cozy relationship with gravity, my breasts are my most aesthetically pleasing feature.
  • Tattoos: completely obscured in this photo. Still only two of them. Maybe more someday.
  • Pudge: amazingly resistant to diet and exercise.
  • Wonder Woman undies: if there’s an upper age limit to superhero underwear, I don’t want to grow old.

 

 

 

After

Posted on

A few years ago I was raped. It was someone I’d known a long time. No knife or gun or anything like that.

Took me a few days to recognize what had happened. Take one degree in Women’s Studies, add it to a heightened feminist awareness, and you get the same confusion and self-doubt as every other victim experiences. Funny.

The day after it happened I apologized to him.

Took me a year to stop dwelling on it all the time. Now I only dwell on it a lot.

Understand: this did not happen in a vacuum. Bad things happened before. Bad things happened after. Some good things, too, but lots of bad. More than my fair share. So it goes.

Took me several years to decide to write about it. Here we are.

Silence is comforting. I’m beginning to understand, finally, why Alice Walker withdrew after she was seriously injured as a child. Never made sense to me before. Because I have to maintain a job and function in the world at large, I do not have the luxury of withdrawing into total silence — but I do have the option of retreating partway. 

So let me be clear. I don’t want to chat about this. I do not want your pity. I do not want the comments section below to turn into a sympathy card. Here is what you will be tempted to say:

“Oh my God, how terrible.” Yep. Sure is.

“I had no idea!” That’s because I didn’t tell you.

“You’re so brave.” No. Bravery has nothing to do with this. 

I’m talking about this because silence is not a good way to deal with violence at a societal level. Thank you, Women’s Studies degree and feminist awareness. I managed to learn something from you after all.

I’m talking about this because there is so much rage and sadness in me. Again: there are lots of causes. Probably genetics deserves a lot of the blame. A variety of unfortunate life circumstances have contributed. Being raped was just one of them.

Golly. I shouldn’t have dressed like that.

That is what we call gallows humor, for those of you playing along at home. That was a joke.

After I finish typing this I am going to sneak straight back to my cocoon of silence. Thank you for respecting that. If you have read this piece and feel compelled to contact me, okay. There are legitimate reasons, just like there’s legitimate rape.

That was another joke. Ha.

But mainly I just want to be left alone. This is particularly true if you are a friend of family member. If I had wanted to discuss it with you, I would have done so years ago.

“Raped” anagrams into drape, pared, and padre. “Rape” anagrams into reap, pare, pear, and aper. Now you know.

Others have it much worse. Children get raped. Some people get raped repeatedly. Some people get raped by family members. Some people get raped as part of war. Some people get raped to death. 

Human suffering does not measure on a comparative scale. You can only compare your pain to your own past experiences, and even then it’s difficult to judge, because memory does funny things. But I feel safe in supposing that my own pain is relatively mild.

I am not dismissing my own pain. It is horrible. I’m just observing that other people’s pain is more horrible.

That kind of pain changes you. I picked up the psychic equivalent of a chronically bad back. I can still function, basically, but it’s a lot harder, and some days it’s almost impossible to move. The trick is to go about your business without anyone noticing.

I haven’t healed fully and I doubt I ever will. I was depressed and anxious before I entered adulthood. 

There are good bits. Not as many as I’d like. But some. 

No message to leave you with. Sometimes life arranges itself into a tidy narrative. In this case I have no moral, no advice, no inspiration, no warning. In this case all I have is an ugly story with no lesson that offered no catharsis in the telling. Perhaps the next time I write here I will offer a picture of a kitten as a palate cleanser.

Book Rundown, 2013

Posted on

Welcome to the annual Book Rundown here at BookOuroboros, in which I would rather hang my head in shame than admit that to reading only eighty books this past year. Put it like this: I read fewer books in 2013 than I did in 2008, the year I actually wrote a book of my own, for crying out loud.

The main culprit was unemployment. During the twenty-three month lull between professional jobs, my book consumption plummeted. Being unemployed doesn’t mean you suddenly have lots of free time to read. It means you fill all your time with job hunting and with scrabbling together whatever odd work you can. Even when you do read, you feel guilty, because you know you ought to be looking for work.

Next year will be better. I said exactly the same thing exactly one year ago, and while I improved on last year’s pathetic showing, I think 2014 will see triple digits again, as I have a job now. Dear lord, it better get better. I am insufferable when I don’t read enough.

For comparison, here are the links to the previous years, so that you can see my shame writ large:

Total books read, cover-to-cover: 80

Age levels:

  • Adult: 64
  • YA: 13
  • Children’s: 3

Books read that were published in 2013: 17

Books read that won’t be published till May 2014: 1. That would be Skin Game, by Jim Butcher. It’s the next Harry Dresden book and it’s wonderful.

Nonfiction: 40. Holy cow. Nonfiction has never taken up this much of my reading pie. No wonder I’m cranky all the time. Nonfiction will never be as important to me as fiction.

Fiction: 40

Genres: (as some books have more than one genre, total exceeds 80)

Nonfiction:

  • Animal welfare: 1
  • Cookbook: 1
  • Economics: 1
  • Exercise: 1
  • History: 5
  • How-to: 1
  • Humor: 3
  • Medicine: 1
  • Memoir: 17
  • Parapsychology: 1
  • Psychology: 3
  • Science: 5
  • Social science: 7
  • Travel: 2
  • True crime: 2

Fiction:

  • Classics/Literary canon: 3
  • Crime: 1
  • Fantasy: 16
  • Historical: 3
  • Horror: 10
  • Literary fiction: 4
  • Mainstream: 3
  • Mystery: 3
  • Science fiction: 3
  • Suspense/Thriller: 2

Formats:

  • Audiobooks: I’ll always prefer print, but audio comes in handy when you’re chopping vegetables or toiling on the elliptical machine. I refuse to listen to fiction in audio — some things are too sacred — but certain types of nonfiction are palatable. In the first part of 2013 I lived in a pedestrian-friendly city, so I listened to more audiobooks than ever before, 29. Which goes a long way toward explaining why I read so many nonfiction books this year, now doesn’t it.
  • Graphic novels: Only 4, of which 1 was nonfiction. But you know what? In my new job, every single graphic novel the library acquires will pass through my greedy little paws. Expect this number to skyrocket next year.

Miscellaneous: 

  • Annual fat Russian novel: Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol.
  • Annual language book: How Not to Write Bad, by Ben Yagoda.
  • Re-reads: 8. Because some years you just have to re-read Harry Potter. And because you have to re-read The Shining in anticipation of its lovely sequel.

Authors: 76

New (to me) authors: 52

Best book of the year: The October List, by Jeffrey Deaver. Not the most affecting, not the funniest, not the most thought-provoking, but the most impressive. At this point I no longer read books by Jeffrey Deaver. “Reading” is an inadequate way to describe the experience. I strap myself in and enjoy the ride. This man is the Houdini of plotting.

Honorable mentions: 

  • My Friend Dahmer, by Derf Beckderf, a guy who was buddies with the serial killer in high school. Regrettably, no one seems to want to read it. I know it sounds gross but it’s very respectfully and thoughtfully done.
  • Born Round, by Frank Bruni. Unexpectedly funny memoir about a food critic who has always struggled with his weight.
  • Helter Skelter, by Vincent Bugliosi. The Manson crimes were old news before I was born, but it still reads like it’s fresh.
  • Skin Game, by Jim Butcher. Can’t talk about it yet, because it’s not published. I can smirk, though. That’s what I’m doing. I am smirking. Right now I am smirking.
  • Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala. Maybe the best grief memoir you’ll ever read.
  • Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier. WHY HAD I NOT READ THIS BEFORE? (Thank you for my copy, Citizen Reader!)
  • Bossypants, by Tina Fey. Laugh-out-loud funny memoir. And since she’s a professional entertainer, it’s worth listening to the audio version.
  • The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan. I have a fricking degree in Women’s Studies, so WHY HAD I NOT READ THIS BEFORE?
  • Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, by Rhoda Janzen. Should have been a sad memoir. She managed to make it delightful instead.
  • Doctor Sleep and Joyland, by Stephen King: for my money, the best living storyteller in America.
  • Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Women’s issues on a global scale.
  • The Road to Wigan Pier, by George Orwell. I knew I loved his fiction, but his nonfiction was a lovely surprise. Best explanation of class in England I’ve ever read.
  • Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, by David Sedaris. Not his best collection, but David Sedaris on a bad day is still funnier than practically everybody on the planet. As with Tina Fey, it is permissible to listen to the book instead of reading it on the page.
  • Travels with Charley, by John Steinbeck. Same as with Orwell: I knew I loved his fiction, but the nonfiction blew me away.

Worst:

  • Nonfiction: Walk Away the Pounds, by Leslie Sansone. Turns out the book isn’t about walking. It’s about aerobics in your living room. It’s about aerobics in your living room with lots of bubbly life-affirming self-help bullshit. And lady, if I wanted a book about leading a religious life, I would go to the 200s. Get your church out of my exercise manual.
  • Fiction: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman. Okay. Look. I loved Sandman. I loved The Graveyard Book. But Neil Gaiman is hit-or-miss for me, and while the whole rest of the reading world heralded this book as the best thing since mint chocolate chip ice cream, I thought it was boring. Very moody, nice sense of atmosphere, but the tension never really built for me and I think it would have been a swell short story. As a novel? It wasn’t bad (I am being disingenuous by lumping it here in the “Worst” category) but it wasn’t great. So I suppose now I have to surrender by Fantasy Fan credentials.

And finally, all eighty titles, arranged by author:

Aaronovitch, Ben Midnight Riot
Anderson, M. T. Thirsty
Anson, Jay The Amityville Horror
Atkinson, Kate Life After Life
Backderf, Derf My Friend Dahmer
Banerjee, Abhijit and Esther Duflo Poor Economics
Baxter, Stephen and Terry Pratchett The Long Earth
Bering, Jesse Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?
Bittman, Mark How to Cook Everything: The Basics
Bourdain, Anthony Medium Raw
Bruni, Frank Born Round
Bryson, Bill Neither Here nor There
Buehlman, Christopher Those Across the River
Bugliosi, Vincent Helter Skelter
Butcher, Jim Skin Game
Cahalan, Susannah Brain on Fire
Coben, Harlan Shelter
Deaver, Jeffery The October List
Dederer, Claire Poser
Deraniyagala, Sonali Wave
Diamond, Jared Guns, Germs, and Steel
du Maurier, Daphne Rebecca
Egan, Timothy The Worst Hard Time
Ephron, Nora I Remember Nothing
Fey, Tina Bossypants
Flaim, Denise Rescue Ink
Friedan, Betty The Feminine Mystique
Gaiman, Neil The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Galloway, Gregory As Simple As Snow
Gogol, Nikolai Dead Souls
Hanagarne, Josh The World’s Strongest Librarian
Heinrich, Bernd Winter World
Hill, Joe Clockworks
Hill, Joe Nos4A2
Hill, Joe, Stephen King, and Richard Matheson Road Rage
Hodge, Chris and Joe Sacco Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt
Hornbacher, Marya Madness
Jamison, Kay Redfield An Unquiet Mind
Janzen, Rhoda Mennonite in a Little Black Dress
Jessop, Carolyn Escape
King, Stephen Doctor Sleep
King, Stephen Joyland
King, Stephen The Shining
Koch, Herman The Dinner
Konigsburg, E.L. The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World
Kristof, Nicholas D. and Sheryl WuDunn Half the Sky
Le Guin, Ursula K. A Wizard of Earthsea
Lee, Christopher This Sceptred Isle
Lukyanenko, Sergei Night Watch
Marra, Anthony A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Moss, Michael Salt, Sugar, Fat
Northup, Solomon Twelve Years a Slave
O’Nan, Stewart A Prayer for the Dying
Orwell, George The Road to Wigan Pier
Pratchett, Terry Nation
Roach, Mary Gulp
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Sansone, Leslie Walk Away the Pounds
Sedaris, David Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls
Sijie, Dai Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Spinelli, Jerry Love, Stargirl
Steinbeck, John Travels with Charley
Stevens, Chevy Always Watching
Terrill, Cristin All Our Yesterdays
Trout, Nick Tell Me Where It Hurts
Vanderbilt, Tom Traffic
Vaughan, Brian K. Saga
Walton, Jo Among Others
Wasik, Bill and Monica Murphy Rabid
Weisman, Alan The World Without Us
Wilde, Oscar The Picture of Dorian Gray
Yagoda, Ben How to Not Write Bad
Yousafzai, Malala I Am Malala
Zusak, Markus The Book Thief

Blogtied

Posted on

Wow. I just looked up “hogtied” to make sure my pun was working, and my goodness did I just get an education. Hint: in modern contexts, it has nothing to do with animal husbandry. Or at least I really hope it doesn’t.

chrisPI feel threatened by year-end lists. They make me feel inadequate, as with the Best Books lists, of which invariably I’ll have read almost nothing, or the Top Moments Of lists, which serve to underscore exactly how culturally obtuse I really am, i.e., I have only the vaguest notion of what twerking is. Though honestly I’d really rather keep it that way. I think possibly it has something to do with animal husbandry.

And there’s an artificial feel to reflections brought on by the end of the year. I get that the changing of the calendar is a powerful symbol, but it’s important to be reflective year-round, and to make resolutions year-round.

So in the spirit of full hypocrisy, here are some reflections and resolutions as we enter the final week of 2013:

I started volunteering at Asheville’s day shelter for the homeless in late 2012, but the bulk of my experience came in 2013. It was easily one of the best things I’ve ever done. I became a better person for it. You don’t get a chance to say that too often, you know? Once you reach adulthood, it usually takes a significant change (becoming a parent, moving overseas, going to college, joining the military) to force you to grow in a meaningful, lasting way. Volunteering face-to-face with people in desperate circumstances is a convenient shortcut.

In May I started exercising. I’ve been exercising faithfully since then, doing cardio and strength-training in addition to a bit of yoga. I’ve also been exercising with intensity: on several pieces of equipment at the gym, for instance, I am using the heaviest weight setting. And just last week I surpassed 300 pounds on the reclining squat thingy machine. At the same time I started paying closer attention to my diet. It had already been healthy, but that was when I began tracking nutrients and calories and weighing my food in grams. 

So the good news: in 2013 I got way fitter. I have more muscles and a stronger heart than ever before. Don’t have any bloodwork to back me up, but I am certain I have never been this healthy.

The bad news is that I’ve gotten fatter. Despite the blood, sweat, and tears (figuratively, literally, and literally) of my diet and exercise, I am pudgier. Some of the weight is muscle, but my pants fit tighter and my face looks puffier. This is not fair and I completely resent it.

For the first eight and a half months of 2013, I was unemployed, or nearly so. My only income was from some contract writing in library-land. I did not have health insurance or job prospects or a livable income. When I was not volunteering or throwing around weights, I was hunting for jobs. There was too little time for reading or writing or vegetating.

The plus side is that I was living in Asheville. Western North Carolina will always be home to me. I might deign to eventually acknowledge other locations as home, but they will be supplements, not replacements.

In mid-September I was offered a job as a Collection Development Librarian with the Mid-Continent Public Library. I had to leave my beautiful mountains and my nearby parents. In compensation I got to start a job in which I spend 40 hours each week buying books, movies, and music, in exchange for which the taxpayers give me a comfortable wage and health insurance and vacation.

I am still not really sold on the whole Missouri concept, but in addition to the whole financial stability thing, there is one other noticeable perk, only I’m not going to talk about it here so nevermind.

Also this year: I gave up my intellectual crushes on The Oatmeal and Neil Gaiman. I’m over you guys. Both of you. I mean I’ll still read your stuff but we’re pretty much through.

So that’s 2013 in review. As for resolutions:

  1. I will find a witch doctor to make me skinny. Traditional medical advice isn’t cutting it. Needs must.
  2. I will read more. (This year’s appallingly low book count will be addressed on January 1. Stay tuned.)
  3. I will write more. As in, I will write more for pleasure. For years I have been satisfying my itch for creative writing with this blog, but I need something new. I swear I have no idea how to write fiction, but that’s what I  want to do and that’s what I will do. Or I’ll stare at a blank screen. I don’t care. One or the other will happen.
  4. I will blog less. I want to to carve out time for more reading and more writing, but more importantly, I’m no longer sure why I write here. I guess it’s because sometimes I want to express myself in essay form, and the New Yorker hasn’t come calling for me. Jerks.

I have no intention of taking this site down. I like having the archive of my old writing. When the mood to essay an essay strikes me, I will post here — just maybe not too often.

I’ll definitely be back in a week, though, to publicly disgrace myself with the paltry number of books I read in 2013.

Meanwhile, Happy Christmas

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.