Recommended Reading

Women dressed as handmaids promoting the Hulu original series "The Handmaid's Tale" stand along a public street during the South by Southwest Music Film Interactive Festival 2017 in Austin

In the past half a year I have read two Margaret Atwood novels (the Handmaid’s Tale and Hag Seed). So imagine my delight when the always fantastic Boston Review published an interview with the amazing woman herself and Junot Diaz. If your unfamiliar with Diaz, he is the author of several amazing novels himself, including the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which I read a few years ago.

Much has been said and written about Margaret Atwood and the Handmaid’s Tale as of late, many of which by people smarter and more eloquent than I. The interview is an amazing combination of great literary minds.

Read the article here

Advertisements

It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again

DarkerShade

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab. Published February 24th, 2015 by Tor Books. 400 pages.

For some reason I don’t find myself reading that much genre fiction, although I often like it. Maybe it’s because most fantasy novels have cover designs that look straight out of a Scholastic book fair graphic novel and that throws my off. A Darker Shade of Magic does not have that problem (the cover design is quite lovely). 22055262

In the other reviews I looked through, people either loved this novel or thought it was just ok. I find myself in the latter category. Don’t get me wrong—I liked it. On Goodreads I gave it a 3 star rating, but it’s closer to a 3.5. It’s a compelling, fast read, that I found compelling enough to blast through in about a week.

However. One of the strengths touted in many of the reviews is that the concept is very unique. In the world V.E. Schwab has crafted, there are four parallel Londons: the boring one with no magic (Gray London); the exciting, prosperous one with magic (Red London); the one that used to have magic but has the life sucked out of it (White London); and the spooky one overtaken by magic (Black London). While these places are parallel, only the Antari, a special race of magicians, can travel between them. Our main character, Kell is one of them.

For me, this concept was not as unique as it sounds. One of my favorite novels, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, did the “magic door-opening” thing before this, and that novel had a little simpler of a world and felt more fleshed out because of it. That leads me into my next point: I felt that both and world and the characters were underdeveloped. Unfortunately Schwab often defaulted to telling over showing.

We are told that the main characters, Kell and Lila, are both dangerous people who have killed before and don’t have many qualms about doing it again. Lila is supposed to be a cutthroat thief (who also dreams of being a pirate despite presumably never having left London?), yet the whole time Lila and Kell help each other and are definitely the good guys. The novel claims these characters are morally ambiguous but they aren’t beyond a superficial-backstory level. It would be more interesting if Kell was supposed to be this upstanding figure who got into the whole mess because he is a good guy and went through a journey of having to kill, lie to his family, and break the rules of his world.

(I keep getting caught up on the pirate thing. Why pirate? This book literally has three locations and all of them are London. The series has absolutely nothing to do with the sea. It’s like Lila wanting to be a pirate is nothing more than a tepid metaphor that shows all us readers that she craves adventure. Except we don’t need clues, because Schwab just comes out and tells us that she does.)

Other people have critiqued the writing as flat and boring. Personally I didn’t have a problem with the simplicity of the writing. It works very well with the descriptive scenes of the separate Londons.

Of course, there are two more novels in the series, so maybe some development comes from that. I plan to read the next two books, but I would feel a lot more motivated to if at the end of the novel Lila betrayed Kell (spoilers: that does not happen. I sure wish it did though).

I think (I hope) that a Gathering of Shadows (book #2) dives into some of the things hinted at in this one because there’s definite potential for things to get really interesting. I have some ~theories and won’t even be disappointed if they all turn out to be true.

An American Novel in a Time of Unrest

East-of-Eden-01

East of Eden by John Steinbeck. Published 1952 by Penguin. 601 Pages.

Like many American schoolkids, my first introduction to Steinbeck was in Middle School with Of Mice and Men. There is a beautiful simplicity to Steinbeck’s prose, though the same certainly cannot be said for the careful and intricate construction of the plot. A large, generational novel like this certainly has many threads to care for and none of them get lost in the sheer magnitude of scope.

East of Eden is a perfect example of why classics are, well, classics. The novel invokes a classical narrative in itself—the story of Genesis (Adam/Eve and Cain/Abel) but set in the Eden-like Salinas Valley in California at the turn of the century. Though the novel takes place over a hundred years ago, I’m sure I could find some poignant parallels to today’s society.

Steinbeck fleshes out the landscape with gorgeous, lush descriptions and many of the characters receive the same treatment. The main figures (Adam Trask, Samuel Hamilton, Lee, and the Trask twins) are engaging and dynamic in their evolutions throughout their individual journeys. Some characters are treated better than others; a common critique of the novel is that the character Cathy is rather one dimensional (though the argument could be made that this is a purposeful representation of human sin).

“Maybe we all have in us a secret pond where evil and ugly things germinate and grow strong. But this culture is fenced, and the swimming brood climbs up only to fall back. Might it not be that in the dark pools of some men the evil grows strong enough to wriggle over the fence and swim free?”

However. There were two main things keeping me back from enjoying this novel the way I think I could have, given different circumstances. The first is that I have very, very limited knowledge of the Old/New Testament, and East of Eden is an opaque retelling of Genesis. I’ve also never read Paradise Lost and don’t have that to work off of, either. In an academic environment this issue would have likely been downplayed with the input and discussions of others, but on my own I’m sure quite a bit went over my head.

Second is that the picture of America that Steinbeck paints is incredibly beautiful—it’s the people in the novel that are flawed. With today’s political climate, I guess I am cynical towards the optimism. It’s the characters, of course that fight the battle against their inner sin. The drama of East of Eden, while universal, feels contained within the Trask and Hamilton families. Today, everything in the world feels so important, so dire. I found myself feeling disconnected from the world portrayed in the novel and the one I lived in.

From a thematic view, East of Eden addresses the nature of good and evil (obviously) but in a much more abstract way than a superhero story. Steinbeck approaches the question through the avenue of love; many of the characters desire love or lack it, and it often becomes a major factor in character motivation. The novel takes time to address all different sorts of love: familial, romantic, friendship, and self love. This is best represented through Adam’s journey—he begins with rejecting the love of his father, then becomes infected with a false love towards Cathy. However, he gradually begins to receive love through Sam Hamilton and Lee; finally, he himself learns how to give love to his sons in a way his father was unable to provide to him.

Another major theme is that of choice. The phrase ‘thou mayest’ comes up in a memorable conversation between Adam, Lee, and Samuel approximately halfway through the novel. When it comes to the characters, from the fringe to the main ones, they all battle with choice. Will they be how their fathers were? Do we accept how we are born or do we fight it?

“And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.”

I am not a lover of classic novels. But, as will many classics from the early 20th century, East of Eden is extremely accessible and compelling. It also feels like one of those books you should read. After all, it is the novel Steinbeck himself considered to be his masterpiece.

Lessons from Sophomore Year

Sophomore_Graphic-01As I mentioned in my previous post, Sophomore year of college was quite the doozy—the Spring semester especially. It seemed that I was constantly either at work or doing my homework, with very little time for socializing or sleeping. Several times I felt extremely burnt out and spent a week in bed watching Netflix, dissociating, and not getting much of anything done. As is life.

Between that though, I managed to learn a thing or too. Here’s some of that wisdom:

When they say “overloading” they mean it. At my school, overloading means going of 18 credits, fairly easy when each class is typically 4 each. During the spring semester, in order to graduate on time and go abroad, I decided to take five courses, including two writing courses. Writing has always been my academic bread and butter, but first and foremost quality writing requires time, and between the heavy course load there was little of that to go around. I felt I could have succeeded in either class, but instead I was stretched far too thin and ended up doing mediocre (for me) in both. Hopefully that’s the last time I have to take that many classes again.

Transferring, while worth it, isn’t easy. I would 100% advocate to anyone thinking of transferring schools. However, the process of getting credits sorted and schedules arranged is certainly not easy, and you have to be ready to advocate for yourself. I sent quite a few emails (including one to an assistant dean) appealing, questioning, and begging for a handful of credits to go through. However, doing so prevented me from taking redundant courses in science fields, something that will only be useful for the required credit and never for my career. Speaking of appeals…

Ask. Appeal. Repeat. At any college, especially a large university like mine, there are layers of bureaucracy to get through. There’s always someone to email, always a form you can fill out. You’d be surprised the benefits you receive when you just bother to ask someone for something. For instance, I appealed my financial aid several times throughout the semester, and while it didn’t drastically change my financial situation, the process resulted in several thousand dollars in new grants. A drop in the ocean, sure, but it’s money I didn’t have before and don’t have to pay back. People are also often willing to bend the rules a little or help you out if you take the time to ask them (and be polite about it!).

More than 20 people have been born on Antarctica. Apparently Argentina is pretty serious about their claim. 

Unhappy? Change something. Transferring is one of the best decisions I ever made, but more than that, I took charge of my own happiness. I wanted to try to be more active in making friends instead of laying at home every night (did actually make that many new friends? Not really, but I did try!). I signed up for things outside of my comfort zone, like being a tour guide for the university. I applied and was accepted to be an RA next year. Making money makes me considerably less stressed, so I got a job (though that came with its own problems). On my way home from campus I would have to cross a bridge that spanned that Mass Turnpike, and everyday I would cross that bridge, look out towards the city, and feel truly privileged to be where I was. So incredibly happy to be someplace where people are as passionate, motivated, and engaged in their projects as I am.

Weird Sunburns and New Tattoos: the Start of Summer 2017

I have undeniably been terrible in every way about updating this poor, neglected blog. Hey! Who knew college was actually really difficult and time consuming! I do, now. It’s even difficult to write about what I’ve been reading, because I honestly have not been reading as of late. My Goodreads account pleasantly informs me that I am a whooping six books behind my goal. The last time I published something was on January 16th. Most of the time, this blog is an angry snarl of guilt in the back of my head.

But hey, it would be worse if I never published again, right?

The entire Spring Semester was a whirlwind of stress and my schedule was packed for the majority of it. Despite the arduous time, I still feel like I learned quite a bit, some of which I’d like to share. It was also my first full year at my new university, where I managed to feel like a Freshman all over again. My retrospective thoughts, however, deserve a post all their own.

It’s 90 degrees here in Boston as I write this, so the summer has undeniably begun, even after the cold and misIMG_0336erable May we’ve had. I even have the strangest sunburn to prove it. On a sunny and hot Thursday my new coworkers and I took the train out to Revere Beach, a location I was skeptical about. Being from Maine, I guess you can call me a bit of a beach snob. However, the beach turned out to be really lovely, and not the watch-out-for-needles kind of place I expected. The water was even not-freezing, though my friends didn’t exactly agree with that.

Also to celebrate summer I got myself a new tattoo! I managed to get an appointment at Brilliance in Allston, a badass shop with all lady artists. There’s something very relaxing about getting tattooed by another lady, and my artist Hannah and I chatted the whole time. The tattoo, of course, is gorgeous. Roses for my newly-graduated sister.

I’m both excited and not about staying in Boston for the summer. I have a job at the school that provides housing, and not having to worry about paying rent is certainly a luxury. I also have an internship at an all-female social media agency, which makes me a little less stressed about my future (trust me: communications students are always asking each other about what internships they’ve had). It’s hard not to miss Maine, though, especially in my tiny, stuffy room.IMG_0334

Besides going to work, I spend most days in the school library, where there is beautiful, beautiful air conditioning and couches to lay on (also where I took these pictures, as I’m sure you’ve guessed). To be quite honest, I have no idea what to expect from this summer. Hopefully (fingers crossed) I will be able to dedicate much of my time to reading, to learning to code (more), and to writing this blog.

As we’ve learned from the last, though, I promise nothing.

Bird by Bird // Review

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Published 1995 by Anchor. 237 pages.

Google “best books about writing” and Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird is bound to be one of the first books to come up. It’s a slim book but it’s hardly a writing manual; rather, Bird by Bird is part writing guide, part meditation on the creative process.

This is the only work I’ve read by Lamott, but it makes me thinks her books are probably really good. Her voice comes through so clearly; reading about writing likely doesn’t seem like the most interesting topic but Lamott makes it so. Each chapter, even the ones that didn’t focus on specific aspects of the writing process still engaged me. These more speculative sections still challenged me to think critically, or even just differently about how I approached writing.

The book is probably divided half and half— the nitty gritty process and more of a general attitude when it comes to writing. Lamott explores how to create authenticity and truth but also the mental realities of trying to get published, of jealousy of author friends, and failure. Sometimes it’s nice to read about how to construct multi-dimensional characters, but it’s also nice reading about Lamott’s personal journey. There’s an even balance.

If you are looking for an instructional (how to write a plot treatment, how to structure a narrative, etc.) this is not that. That kind of manual can be very helpful, particularly in fiction writing if you’ve never taken a class. However, each time I opened this book I felt inspired to write, or even just create something.

It’s more than just a therapy session, to be clear. There are incredibly helpful tips about short assignments (just one paragraph, just one page) that are very insightful when it comes to fellow writers. Like many, Lamott recommends writing everything down, but instead of the trusty journal, Lamott uses index cards. There’s something about these very isolated thoughts that I like.

Bird by Bird will not teach you how to be a good writer. It will not teach you how to write at all, in fact. It will, however, sit down with you and help you with the suffering that writing often is. Lamott writes a very honest approach on how to consider ones own writing; in her mind, an exploration of truth. Lamott thinks the best writing is about truth and hope, and here she certainly lays it all out there.

Austen Almighty’s Year End Reading Wrap-Up

Another year, another reading wrap-up. In 2016 I read 28 books and it took me until the last minute to get it done– I finished my last book, Colson Whithead’s Underground Railroad about an hour before writing this. For the full list, feel free to head over to my Goodreads, where I track all of my reading.

Breakdown
Total books read: 28/28
Five Stars: 5
Four Stars: 11
Three Stars: 12
Two/One Stars: 0

As I’ve said in the past, I vet my books fairly carefully because reading bad books is a waste of time, so this distribution is not surprising. I did read more 3-star books than usual, however.

As far as patterns go, I started strong and had a major dip during July and August. I had a lot of reading to do for school this semester, of which Too Big to Fail was one, which hurt my year-end totals. Luckily, because of my good start I was only two books behind at the end of the semester and I was able to safely complete my goal.

Five Favorite Titles
1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (the first book I read this year and yes, also my favorite. Read my review here.)
2. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (I actually gave this book four stars, but it also really inspired me to write, and I know I’ll be using to for reference in the future.)
3. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Although, much like the last half an hour of Interstellar, the ending of this book lost me, I find myself thinking about it all the time.)
4. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (There’s not much more to say than what has already been said. Read my review here.)
5. Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Book Store by Robin Sloan (Literally just the most delightful thing I read all year. I like to look back and remember how happy this book made me.)

My goal next year is to read 29 (new) books with enough time to re-visit older titles at the end of the year. This will require some more consistency on my part, though my shelves are in disarray since I can’t have all my books with me at once. First on the docket is Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker, mostly because it’s the only book I actually have with me on vacation.

2017 Resolutions

In 2017 I want to be more like Lin-Manuel Miranda.

To say the least, 2016 has been a less than stellar year. But during the rocky course of time I’ve found that I have gained some perspective and a little bit of insight.

Probably the best part of the year is that Hamilton and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda continued to be a bright spot in the world, an endless source of creative out-put, positivity, and kindness. In 2017, I want to be more like him.

Far too often we view the world with apathetic eyes. This is something I have resorted to many times in the past. The world is hard— emotions are hard, so it’s easier to look away and feel nothing. I want to change that about myself. I want to care deeper and wider than I have before. I want to be moved to tears by the great and terrible acts of humanity. I want to experience the euphoria of the highs and yes, the despair of the lows. These things makes us more empathetic. We need to be more empathetic.

I want people I know in life to see me as someone bright and encouraging, someone who can be relied upon in highs and lows. This is not to say I want to completely abandon the part of myself who is calm under pressure and pushes through hard times. Rather, I find a need to strike a balance and free my emotions from how I often keep them inside.

Finally, I have a renewed desire to create. To create beautiful things that inspire emotions or thought. It’s something I’ve come to terms with, but I’m not truly happy unless I’m doing something. I need to be writing or learning something in order to feel fulfilled. Part of this need will be satisfied by a upcoming semester where I will surely be just as busy as the last, but another concrete goal I’ve set for myself is to learn how to code (HTML/CSS to start). Not only do I find coding interesting, but it also happens to be a great, marketable skill. I’ll try my hardest to document that process here.

2016 was a year of change. I have always hated change, if it comes suddenly and defies my expectations of something. This past year I have been forced to accept it, deal with it, because there was simply no other option than to keep moving forward. In 2016 my world changed; in 2017 I will be the one changing.

The World

“I’m sorry sweet child of mine, this is not the world I hoped for you.”

My mother sent me the text late last night, when to the shock of everyone, it became increasingly clear that Donald J. Trump would become President of the United States.

It broke me heart.

It is a terrible thing, that so many white voters feel as though their country has failed them. It’s also a terrible thing that so many minority groups have been failed by their country.

But today I am inspired by the messages of love and hope my friends have shared. The world my parents dreamed for me is not out of reach. We have to fight for it.

Ai Weiwei: on Dissent

In 2009, Ai Weiwei began posting the names of the victims of the Wenchuan earthquake the previous year on his blog. Weiwei had personally visited the district to document these names from speaking with locals. What he found was a disproportionate amount of school children who perished because of poorly built schools. The Chinese government had attempted to cover this up.

Later that year, Ai Weiwei would take 9 thousand colorful children’s backpacks, reflective of the amount of deaths, and created a mural on the wall of the Haus der Kunst in Germany. In bright colors he spelled out:

“for seven years she lived happily on this earth,”

a quote from one victim’s mother.

ai-weiwei-remembering-haus-der-kunst-muenchen-2009-880x376
Remembering (2009)

Ai Weiwei was born in 1957, the son of poet Ai Qing, a member of the Chinese Communist Party until the Anti-Rightist campaign the year Weiwei was born. The family was sent to rural Northern China to hard labor until the death of Mao. In college he cofounded an avant-garde art group, and in 1980 relocated to New York City, where he became friends with other visionaries like Allen Ginsberg and studied Dadaist Marcel Duchamp closely.

Duchamp became famous for his “ready-made” work, or taking pre-made objects and changing them someone to create a piece of art. This is something Weiwei would replicate in his own career.

In 1993, Weiwei returned to Beijing where he stayed for some years—sometimes by government mandate. In 2011 he was detained for 81 days by Chinese authorities based on bogus tax-evasion charges and was barred from leaving the country (He has lived in Berlin since 2015). Still, that didn’t keep him down.

Ai Weiwei is one of the most visible contemporary artists, despite having been under a travel restriction and spending extended time behind the Chinese internet firewall. He is known as being a iconoclast, or a destroyer of images or culture. One of his most famous works is a photographic triptych of him dropping a 4,000 year old Han dynasty urn and it smashing to pieces.

633l16020_8tpg3_b_group
Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995-2004)

A major theme of his work is dissent— against censorship, oppressions, and the rejection of traditions.

He is a vanguard of social media, going so far as to say that:

“the Internet and social media have become the only forms of democracy in China.”

On Twitter and his blog, he is boldly outspoken on the importance of free speech and the empowering aspect of social media. Most of his Twitter posts are those made in solidarity with various world protests. After the Chinese government fined him 2.4 million dollars (in US amounts) after that “tax evasion” thing, over 30,000 people donated 1.4 million from donors via the internet. In just a week. Weiwei has even described waking up and finding money folded into airplanes that were sent over his courtyard wall.

In China, where the government pushes relentlessly forward into the future, Weiwei reminds us to take a step back. With his art he employs hundreds of people in China to use traditional porcelin techniques to make millions and millions of sunflower seeds, which he then encourages museum visitors to take with them; he takes antiques that would be lost to an attic and makes them into a complicated, visual web.

ai-wei-wei-sunflower-seeds-tate-modernb-1.jpg
Sunflower Seeds (2013)

aiweiwei-2.jpeg
Bang (2013)

(The sunflower seeds were an exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, and the 886 stools an installation at the 2013 Venice Biennale)

Part of why I love Ai Weiwei is that his work is not just about the study of a space or an object or even a simple theme. His work explores an entire culture and what it means to both inherent a legacy and be part of the future. The world is pretty absurd, and he doesn’t take himself too seriously. His work is reflective of China and also his own whimsical nature.

In contemporary, post-internet art, the idea of an artwork is key. Weiwei said he used to work in hotel rooms and airports more than an actual studio. There is no artist today who has more effectively co-opted the internet for art’s sake than Ai Weiwei. With the ubiquitous nature of social media, the artist can rarely just be an artist. Weiwei is an artist, of course, but also an activist, influencer, and idea factory.

His art is bold and unapologetic—exactly how he is.

Further Watching: