Heat Wave

It’s so hot here in Chicago that a couple times I’ve started to feel drunk just by sitting in my office and sweating myself into inebriation.

My plans for the weekend include alternately getting ahead on some of my work projects and playing Just Dance 2019 while chugging some pedialite.

No one is invited.

June Reading

Bit of a slower month this month. June really passed me by without me noticing.

Escaping From Houdini by Kerri Maniscalco

Escaping From Houdini is the third installment in the Stalking Jack the Ripper series, one of the most popular properties of James Patterson’s Little, Brown imprint, jimmy patterson. These YA murder mysteries center on an ahead-of-her-time(TM) young woman, Audrey Rose, studying mortuary sciences and forensic medicine from her eccentric uncle alongside her snarky love interest, Thomas. She runs up against social stigma, since these are not very womanly professions. Also, we hear roughly once a book about how Audrey Rose is 1/4 Indian, but honestly it’s a cop out and doesn’t come into play. She is treated as white for all but one sentence per installment, to the point where it feels a bit odd that this is a part of her backstory. It’s like Maniscalco decided to take a stab at representation and then just went nowhere with it. The supposed feminism of the books is superficial and anachronistic, and the books do little to grapple with the realities of the era. Audrey Rose rejects the trappings of Victorian femininity without examining the underlying social causes or the interiority of other women in the fiction. It’s Cool Girl fiction, but with a protagonist who is also a crime solving mortician.

This particular installment unsuccessfully attempts to launch a love triangle subplot, but undercuts it at every step by having Audrey Rose reassure us that she would never ever ever give up on Thomas. The crimes are given a fun sense of urgency since the entirety of the book takes place on a trans Atlantic cruise liner, so that’s cool. I know that this series’ entire gimmick is inserting historical figures into the crime narrative, but the whole Houdini subplot was just tiring and could have been lifted entirely without impact.

I’m not going to pretend these books are good. They aren’t. They’re empty calories where people die, you get to read about Victorian autopsies, and a good portion of the narrative is devoted to the love story between Audrey Rose and Thomas. At this point I’m committed to the series and I’ll see it out through the fourth and final installment, but I wouldn’t recommend you pick it up if you already haven’t. This is best consumed as mindless background noise. Enjoyable enough to kill some time or help round out a commute. And I’m not about to pretend that I’m in any way above this kind of potato chip entertainment.

A Book of Tongues by Gemma Files

A Book of Tongues is the first installment of Gemma Files’s Hexslinger series. It’s a Weird West tale that follows a band of outlaws headed up by a disgraced preacher turned cowboy wizard and his sassy gunslinger whoreson boyfriend. They’re being spied on by a Pinkerton trying to collect scientific data on wizards.

I’m a sucker for the Weird West, and I love a narrative with villain protagonists, so I thought this would be totally up my alley. I think I liked this book(question mark). It was compelling and I will likely pick up the next installment to find out what happens.

However, I think there might have just been too much going on. Also, I listened to it as an audio book and I think that made it a little harder to follow than just reading it on the page might have been.

But seriously. This book.

An incomplete list of things featured:

  • outlaws
  • The Civil War
  • wizards
  • oodles of gay sex
  • violence
  • Pinkertons
  • Aztec gods
  • San Fransisco Chinese brothels
  • WIZARD BATTLE
  • Native American shamans
  • WIZARD PREACHER BATTLE now featuring SCRIPTURE

It was maybe just one too many concepts thrown in. I’m still sussing out exactly how I feel. I would gladly spend one more book in this world to figure out what happens next, but this is the first of a trilogy and for some reason that fills me with a little dread.

Heads up that characters in this book use racial epithets and hold attitudes that are appropriate to the postbellum West. It’s incredibly uncomfortable, but the horrors of Manifest Destiny and the white settlement of the American West are examined and commented upon within the narrative.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

I absolutely loved Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and my best recommendation is to go into it knowing as little as possible before you start. It’s a surprisingly intimate and moving look at life in England from 1910 up through the end of World War II, following the life of Ursula Todd, the middle child of five in an upper middle class English family.

I’ve seen a few friends on Goodreads mention that they couldn’t get past page 50. I will admit that it takes a bit to get into. You really need to spend about 100 pages getting used to what’s going on, and the unconventional flow of the narrative. If you aren’t sold by page 125, then it’s safe to give up. But it does require more of a chance than some books.

While researching subgenres and tags for categorizing this book I learned about the concept of “slipstream” books. From Worlds Without End:

Slipstream deals with “mainstream” themes but contains a speculative element. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a speculative future, for example, but is marketed as a mainstream novel.

http://www.worldswithoutend.com/resources_sub-genres.asp

The more you know!

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

I decided to read Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country in advance of the HBO series coming out, which I will definitely be watching.

This book goes down quick and it’s a natural choice for a television adaptation. The structure itself is fairly episodic and the action escalates quickly. It does not rely on the typical horror novel structure of building slowly with uncertainty about the provenance of the evil until the last quarter of the narrative. You’re pretty clear on what (or who) the evil is from the start, and each section is a tale of how our main cast outsmarts and outlasts that evil.

Lovecraft Country exists in the universe of novels that take the cosmic horror of Lovecraft’s works and examines the racism and utterly banal human evil underneath it all. Having read a lot of Lovecraft when I was a teen, I love narratives that recontextualize and expand Lovecraft’s universe to better reflect our own.

Lovecraft Country is a great addition to this literary canon. It’s thoughtful, at times funny, and above all entertaining. A must read for readers interested in the modern expansion of Lovecraftian mythos.

Cat musings

I spend probably far too much brainpower devoted to making sure that my cats know that I love them equally and that I don’t have a favorite. I don’t know if it’s working.

My two cats, Darien (the tuxedo cat) and Aliester Meowley (they grey longhair cat), have very different love languages and methods of getting my attention.

Darien is a gentle bean, gregarious and fun loving, but doesn’t really open up emotionally until he gets to know you pretty well. He loves being near people, almost cuddling, except for when he’s feeling particularly vulnerable or lonely, in which case he will headbutt the softest part of you repeatedly until settling down for a brief snuggle. He likes to be on things. Any time I clean off a surface (countertops, the bed, my dresser, the china cabinet) he needs to be there. He thinks tidying up is a game for his benefit.

Black and white cat standing on a somewhat cluttered china cabinet

Aleister is terrified of new people, but once it’s just the three of us, he’s the real master of the house. He needs to be held and petted and kissed nearly constantly, and when he’s feeling neglected he will exfoliate my entire face with his tongue. Batting him away does no good. He’ll just keep coming back until either he’s done, or I decide to pay him the attention he thinks he deserves. He’s constantly climbing all over me with his little needle fists, kneading my mushy bits and accidentally giving me tiny little stabs.

selfie of jess sitting on a couch with a large grey cat sitting on their chest and getting up in their face

It’s easy to give in to Aleister and snuggle him constantly, but sometimes I worry that Darien feels left out so I try to pay Darien special attention.

I finally got them both cat scratch lounges so they don’t have to fight over the one. Whenever I want a moment to myself I sprinkle cat nip over the scratch lounges. It’s the only way for me to get any peace.

two cats, one black and white, one fuzzy and grey, hanging out on carboard scracth "lounges" and consuming catnip

Responsibility Update

I said back in April that I was trying to start building up a Fuck Off Fund, and I really wanted to take it seriously. Without talking specific numbers, I said that I wanted to save up six months of living expenses – at my current standard of living – and have it in a savings account. Just in case.

I also said that I expected to hit 10% of that savings goal by the end of Q2. Here’s an update.

Yes, I have been saving, but I hit a bit of a setback between changing jobs, getting an expedited passport (I still need to get that expense reimbursed from work), and traveling to Columbus, Santa Fe, and Costa Rica all in the same month. My ability to save was somewhat stymied. I still made a good faith effort though.

It’s the last payday of Q2 and I’ve managed to save 5.7% of my Fuck Off Fund total savings goal. So a little better than half of my somewhat ambitious original declaration. Not bad, seeing as how I didn’t even announce my savings intent at the beginning of the quarter.

However, this is slower than I would ideally like to be saving. I don’t have any international travel plans coming up, and I think 10% per quarter is a reasonable target, so by the end of Q3 I would like to reach 16% of my total Fuck Off Fund savings goal.

Again, probably no one cares about this, but many sources online say that announcing your intent to people you know helps with accountability. Feel free to poke me periodically about how my journey to financial responsibility is going.

What the heck, Chipublib? An Update

So I turned in some library books that were way overdue and now I have more than $10 in fines. When you have more than $10 in fines on your account, your account is restricted. You know what. Fair enough. I don’t really agree with the practice of library fines, but I’m not that put out over it and will pay them when I am able.

First, it blows my mind every single time I remember that I can’t pay the fines online. Nor can I pay them with card while I’m physically at the library. I was able to pay fines in the Arapahoe Library District in like 2005. What’s Chicago’s excuse?

Second, now that I have restrictions on my account, I am not allowed to access the Chicago Overdrive system. BUT, while I had several overdue books at their maximum fine that were not yet turned in there were no restrictions on my Overdrive usage. I do most of my library interactions through Overdrive. It’s much more valuable to me than having access to physical books.

This all means that if I have several overdue items out and have no plans to acquire more physical properties from the Chicago Public Library, I’m actually disincentivized from returning my materials in a timely fashion, if at all. I can’t be the only library user who has also noticed this. It’s very frustrating. One more argument for abolishing fines. Or at least making it as convenient as possible for me to pay them if we’re going to insist on this antiquated system.

Losing Ephemera

Do not mistake this screed for something well thought out or researched. I’m having a crisis and working it out here on my semi-secret blog. Comments welcome.

What’s a part of the internet you think back on and realize that you’ve lost something beautiful, both as an artifact and as a piece of yourself?

I think back to gURL.com circa 2003. We still have the archive to look back on, but it’s not the same. gURL had personality and was useful in a way that a lot of the more sanitized sites we see today aren’t. The archive page linked above includes links to things like

  • “i have a sharp pain around my ovaries. is that normal?”
  • make fake blood for your halloween costume!
  • featured user generated poetry
  • a prompt to write about what you’re thankful for, with the chance to be featured to other site members
A screenshot of a gURL.com tattoo generator game from 2004.

Today when you go to gURL.com it redirects to the Seventeen Magazine website, and headlines as of this typing include

  • Khloe Kardashian Just Got Real About Claims That Tristan Cheated On His Pregnant GF with Her
  • Taylor Swift Made Katy Perry Cookies with the Words “Peace at Last” to End Their Feud
  • Fall Might Be Cooler, But These Trends Will Keep You Looking HOT
A screenshot of seventeen magazine's online headlines from June 2019.

Now, I’m not precious about the Kardashians or girls being interested in fashion. I think it’s great that these things exist and I’m happy for the people who find joy in this content. But outlets for these stories existed before, and will continue to exist until the breakdown of civilization. But the unique, quirky, earnest, and informative world of gURL.com has been completely erased.

Cover of "Deal With It: a whole new approach to your body, brain, and life as a gurl," published by gurl.com in 1999.

When I was a tween my mom bought me the gURL.com book. It, like the website, is heavily influenced by 90s zine aesthetics. Lots of block letter headings, and bright colored background chunks where blocks of text lived. It included frank discussions about puberty and development, in a way that had a sense of humor and was devoid of shaming tactics. It feels painfully earnest now, looking back at previews on Amazon.com (where the book is available used for less than $2). It’s like a relic from the kid’s room at Lilith Fair. But I learned a lot from that book. So much so that nearly twenty years later I remember it fondly and can still picture the aesthetic of the book.

Screenshot of a page from the gurl.com "Deal with it" book depicting disembodied mouths with colorful speech bubbles quoting online users.

What will tweens today be able to look back on and remember fondly and specifically? Everything looks the same now.

"Old man yells at cloud" screencap from The Simpsons.

But I’m not just worried about the kids these days. What is it doing to all of us that our online history is both so permanent and so fleeting? All of our transgressions [teenage indiscretions on Facebook, leaked nudes, poorly worded or understood tweets (or hell, BBS posts – I have no idea what people are keeping on me from the old days of the internet)] are screencapped and infinitely distributed – held against us forever. (or at least that’s what they want us to believe) None of us, especially in the United States, has any real right to be forgotten. But the things that shaped me [gURL.com, a half remembered fanfic that wormed into my brain in the summer of 2003 but which no combination of keyword searches seems to produce, proto social networks that allowed for customization like myspace and vampirefreaks] are either gone or have been purged of their historical content. The MySpace purge of 2013 was devastating. The admission from them earlier this year that all of the music is gone was played for laughs on Twitter, but we should be horrified that so much of ourselves that we thought safe is lost forever because some DBA fucked up one day.

Our desires, secrets, and fuck-ups are profitable. Our passion projects from a decade ago are not.

We’re forced to deal with our mistakes forever, and have those mistakes mined and used to create ever more accurate and invasive models for advertising to us every second of our waking lives. But the context from which those mistakes were made is eroding. What is that doing to our image of ourselves? What is it doing to our ability to relate to and trust one another?

This is all happening at the same time as the physical world around us is eroding. If we really want to talk about disappearing context, let’s take a look at the increasing lie that is “seasons” or “historical precedent” when it comes to weather.

Everything seems like it’s falling apart. Inside and out. Physical and digital. With only the glaring and irreversible consequences of our mistakes remaining.

And it’s not like the physical and digital are separate here. Hyper-specific advertising and machine learning models are inherently created to maintain the status quo. Machine learning does not identify how to make things “better.” It takes training data and makes more of what already is, whether or not that will produce a more desirable outcome for its targets. This leads to things like disinformation campaigns around vaccines or climate science. People don’t want to change their lives or confront their flaws, and we have created giant reflective chambers where people will only ever need to interact with things that re-entrench those worldviews. Digital lack of foresight and maximization of “engagement” has real world policy and behavioral implications.

What can we do to turn this ship around? I don’t have answers. If the failures of the modern condition could be solved with code, they would have been. Everything we do in that arena only seems to be making things worse. So what do we do? I can’t be the only one perpetually on the brink of a nervous breakdown fueled by existential despair, can I?

As everyone knows by now (I have the zeal of a newly sober junkie who is desperate to let everyone know about it), I have removed myself from the social media giants (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter). I’m still on Goodreads. I don’t think that’ll change anytime soon. But I’ve been developing a bit of a Tumblr habit that I think I’ll need to squash. I feel like these behemoths are a large part of the problem; they provide the illusion of granting context and increasing engagement, while really stripping us of those things. There’s no such thing as context in a 280 character tweet, and stringing a bunch together into a choppy simulacrum of a blog post is no substitute. The things that you see in “feeds’ are filtered by their potential to enrage you, because that’s the best proxy software engineers have discovered to figure out what will engage you, and you don’t see them in any sort of logical order (like chronology or topic) that might enhance your understanding rather than muddle it further.

But there’s a compelling argument to be made that by abandoning these noisy public squares, I’m ceding my right to a voice. If I retreat to secure my own oxygen mask, I lose the access necessary to help others secure theirs. I’ve been very deliberate about not linking this blog on any of the social media giants. I’m not hiding it, but I’m not promoting it as part of my “””brand””” either. Am I making a mistake by not letting the public image of ‘Jess’ absorb every part of me?

To some extent I think we can look to art for guides on what we might do to retain a sense of individuality and meaning. The central question of queer art and queer life is “how do I exist meaningfully in a system that does not want me?” and it’s a potentially useful and inspiring avenue of thought to go down. But that only addresses the social conundrum in which we find ourselves, and not the way in which social and ecological dissolution are increasingly interlocked.

What can an individual do to actually affect things? We can call our congresspeople until the cows come home, and some of us have. We’ve voted, but still there’s no meaningful global or local action on the climate, or researching increased bacterial resistance to medicine, or kids in cages, or any of the existentially threatening issues we face. Received wisdom does not seem to be working. Many people I see online seem to be advocating for a revolution as the agent of change, but at the end of the day we’re all armchair anarchists, and Netflix is an effective opiate.

Who needs a guillotine when you’ve got a gif?

Read some things by people who are smarter than me:

Dear Chipublib: why?

It is a constant source of frustration for me that the Chicago Public Library overdrive setup only allows a person to have 5 digital holds at a time. I can check up to 20 things out, but I can’t have more than 5 holds. This seems totally flipped to me! Shouldn’t I be able to reserve more things and put the bottleneck on taking books out, rather than flagging books for the future based on availability?

Someone smarter than me is probably going to have to explain it to me someday. Probably something to do with money. Bah.

May Reading

Zer0es by Chuck Wendi

I listened to this in the car on the way out to Cleveland for PyCon 2019. This is a fun techno-thriller, perfectly suited for a road trip. If you like thrillers involving computer hackers, you’ll like this book. I appreciate that not all of the assembled hackers are white dudes. However, the diversity of the main cast will likely not change your mind on whether this genre works for you.

Atlanta Burns by Chuck Wendi

I listened to this in the car on the way back from PyCon 2019. This had much more of an impact on me, but is also substantially much more upsetting. Which I guess makes sense. It’s about a troubled girl who picks fights with Nazis, and it’s incredibly stressful.

SPOILER FOR ATLANTA BURNS BELOW

I think there’s an argument to be made that Chuck buried his gay in this one, and people will probably dislike this book for that. However, I suspect that Atlanta might be gay as well, based on a couple stray lines here and there. I’m hoping we learn she is in the sequel. Fingers crossed. Also, I think that the murder of the gay kid in this book is sufficiently motivated and necessary, and not just a cheap trick used to provide emotional stress for the straights. YMMV.

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier

I’ve heard Jaron Lanier on the WeCroak and Ezra Klein podcasts, so I pretty much knew what I was getting into here. I also have been feeling for a while that social media, especially any site with an infinite scroll mechanic, makes me meaner, less attentive, and changes my tolerance threshold for boredom and discomfort. I listened to this on the couch while playing Stardew Valley (one of my favorite pastimes lately) and was basically looking for something to give me permission to nope out of social media.

Quitting social seemed so hard, like I would be missing out on so much. Three or four weeks later I can definitely say that my life has not crashed and burned just because I’m not keeping up with the minute to minute hot takes on Twitter. It’s possible to get news through other sources, even if, like me, you don’t own a television.

Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko, Translated by Julia Meitov Herse

I read this as a buddy read with my sister, and I loved this book. It’s harsh and confusing. You definitely feel like you’re accompanying the protagonist on her journey of thinking through mud and not understanding what’s going on. But in a good, interesting way.

HOWEVER. I did not realize until I was about halfway through that this is not a standalone novel, but the first book in a series. The next two books have been published in Russian and are being translated into English, but with no set timeline, and I’m very put out. I am invested now, but I didn’t realize I was getting myself into yet another series with no end in sight. I might have waited on this had I known.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Another book I listened to while playing games on Switch (Celeste and Stardew Valley again) and I was so underwhelmed by this book. I guess it was compelling enough for me to finish, instead of DNFing, but if that’s the best I can say about it then that’s pretty faint praise.

This book hinges on the supposed strength of the marriage at the center of it. But apart from being told that Jason, our protagonist, loves his wife so so so so so so so so much, we don’t really see it. He even admits near the beginning of the book that they both feel like they’re in a bit of a rut, and he doesn’t seem particularly happy. I suppose you could interpret everything that comes after as Jason’s realization that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, or whatever, but the whole thing just fell so incredibly flat. And the whirlwind tour of different dimensions felt tangential and useless. Also, there was an entire Strong Female Character in the middle of this book who could have been lifted straight out of the book and it would have had no substantial impact on either the plot, or the protagonist’s character development, such as it is.

This is probably my least favorite book I’ve read all year. Well, that or Hadriana in All My Dreams. Apples and oranges, I guess.

We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia

Looking back it appears that May was a great month for audio books. I listened to more audio books last month than I think I did in all of 2018. I listened to this one while packing to go to Costa Rica for work and finished it right before an eventful karaoke night at my local bar.

We Set the Dark on Fire takes place an alternate reality in which upper class women are sorted into two classes of potential wives, the Primeras (who run the hosuehold) and the Segundas (who have sex with and do emotional labor for the husband). High profile men get a pair of these wives to help prop him up as he enters adulthood. This YA novel is about class struggles, gay feelings, and institutional sexism. It’s perfectly enjoyable. I’ll probably read the sequel when it comes out.

However, it was very confusing to listen to two audio books in a row with prominent characters named Daniela Vargas.

And that’s it for May. Here’s hoping for an equally, if not more productive and satisfying reading month in June.