July/August Reads Part 1

July was a slow month where I spent a lot of time on the couch watching Try Guys videos because it was too hot out to be alive, so I didn’t get as much reading done as I wanted. So I decided to combine my July and August reads into a single blog post.

Then I proceeded to have a fairly good August, so I guess I’ll be doing two parts after all to avoid this getting too long. /shrug

Educated by Tara Westover

It’s hard to describe how much I loved this memoir. I laughed. I cried. The whole gamut of emotions. I’m still thinking about it a month and a half later.

Tara Westover was “homeschooled” by her parents, Mormon fundamentalists who were heavily influenced by Ruby Ridge and tried to live largely outside the influence of mainstream society and especially government. Her memoir is painful and beautiful and I cannot wait to see what Westover does next because this was absolutely breathtaking.

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinso

I’ve been working on trying to read genre fiction written by women and nonbinary people that have been nominated for several awards, and Brown Girl in the Ring is up there as one of the most nominated genre novels of the last 20 years.

I listened to Brown Girl in the Ring on audio and while I mostly enjoyed the story, I enjoyed it despite the narration, not because of it. The narrator did a lot of dialect work that I found distracting and just didn’t click with me. It felt almost cartoonish at times.

It was really interesting to read a novel that’s centered on Afro-Caribbean folklore. I really enjoyed that. But each chapter began with a lyric from a children’s song or repeated phrases from children’s stories, and again, I found it distracting and it kicked me out of the narrative. It probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much in print. I’m excited to pick up more of Nalo Hopkinson’s work, just maybe in a different medium next time.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

It feels a little wrong to say that I like anything that I’ve read by Ottessa Moshfegh. I’ve read several stories from her collection Homesick for Another World and now I’ve listened to this. Her shtick, as far as I can tell, is writing about gross people who do gross things and are unapologetic about it. This sounds like a complaint. It’s not. Moshfegh’s writing is incredibly visceral and engrossing, but it can be a lot to handle. I definitely have to be in a particular mood for Moshfegh, but when I’m in that mood it’s pretty incredible.

I think this is probably a good place to start with her work. It’s compelling, and it doesn’t quite rise to the level of disturbing and offputting that her short stories do. If you like this, there’s a good chance you’ll like her other work. If not, then you’ve learned something valuable about yourself, and books that you might not want to read in the future.

One of the best things about this novel is the impending sense of dread that builds throughout the narrative. You know something is about to go horribly wrong, but you have no idea what. It’s very well done and I thought the pacing and oppressive mood were masterfully crafted.

It also takes place in the dead of winter and would be a great read for inclement weather this winter. I don’t know that I liked it as much during the summer as I might have during, say, a November snowstorm.

Things to do When You’re Goth in the Country & Other Stories by Chavisa Woods

This collection is pure Midwest Gothic through and through. I especially loved the stories “Zombie” and “Take the Way Home That Leads Back to Sullivan Street.” Each of the stories is unapologetically queer and the collection as a whole deals with familiar ideas and themes of the Midwest (isolation, class disparity, incarceration, limited opportunities leading young men into the military, coming home, being an outsider, etc) in fresh, occasionally heartrending ways.

I often have trouble with short story collections – I rarely connect evenly with all the stories equally; they can feel uneven. I had the same issue here. Some of the stories just didn’t grab me, but overall the collection really worked for me.

An aside: I was reading this while at the brunch place a couple blocks from my apartment and the waiter invited himself to sit down on the bench next to me, take the book out of my hands, start flipping through it, and quizzing me on my literary credentials, because books are just “so much deeper than, like, TV, you know?” No, I don’t know. Also, he saw the story title “Zombie” and was like, “ah, genre fiction” in that smug knowing way some guys have, despite “Zombie” being perhaps the least genre inflected story in the collection. I have not been back to that brunch place since, which is a shame because their cinnamon rolls are very good.

Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

My sister and I listened to this on a road trip moving her stuff from Atlanta to Syracuse at the conclusion of her summer internship. This is a solid courtroom drama that centers on the explosion of a hyperbaric chamber used to pressurize patients and deliver them pure oxygen, billed as a treatment for things ranging from infertility to autism. The explosion resulted in two deaths, and the main action of the story takes place a year afterward, during the trial of a mother of one of the children in treatment for autism, for supposedly causing the explosion with a lit cigarette near the oxygen tanks.

I honestly don’t think I’ll remember much about this novel a couple months from now. It was interesting, but it’s not going to stick with me, and I definitely feel like it took its sweet time getting around to the point. It’s probably best consumed in a binge over a couple of days, because there are a lot of perspectives to keep track of and everyone is lying at some point or another, often even to themselves. I think it would be difficult to follow if you read it over the course of a couple weeks by reading one chapter at a time.

I’m glad I read this, it was fun, but it’s definitely a 3/5 stars kind of book. Fine. Certainly not a knockout.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

I found this book on Libby while commiserating with my sister about my cancelled flight and lamenting the fact that we chose the slowest restaurant in all of New York state to get lunch. I had to make an unexpected drive from Syracuse to Chicago, so instead of finishing up the book I was reading on a quick afternoon flight, I needed to find a compelling audiobook to distract me from the fact that I was pissed about having to drive a huge rental car for twelve hours and would need to take an unexpected day off of work to accommodate the travel.

(It’s fine, my boss was very understanding. I was still miffed at the inconvenience)

In this thriller a young tarot reader is menaced by a loan shark and completely broke. She receives a letter that indicates she might be entitled to some inheritance from her recently deceased grandmother. She’s pretty sure that the letter has gone to the wrong person, but she’s desperate, and hey. What’s a little light fraud between strangers?

This is an excellent road trip book. It’s engaging, and even if you see some of the bits coming, it’s still rewarding watching them play out. The narrator was good, and it has a ~14 hour runtime, so listening to it on 1.5x means it fit pretty perfectly into my impromptu trip. If you’ve liked Ruth Ware’s previous works, you’ll probably like this. If you haven’t read her previous works, think of your typical clockwork mystery with a limited cast and shady old women with secrets, and you’ve got this book. It’s a thumbs up from me.

I’ll get back to you all at the beginning of September with the rest of my August reads!

A tip for traveling cross country alone

Sunday was incredibly trying. I was supposed to fly back to Chicago from Syracuse, but due to severe thunderstorms in Chicago, a ton of flights were grounded. And because I cheaped out and went with Frontier, they would be unable to get me on a replacement flight until Tuesday, which was less than ideal seeing as how I needed to get back to work.

So, I did the only thing i could think of at the time. I rented a car and started driving back. I got a late start since I was supposed to be on a mid-afternoon flight. If I had known I’d be driving, I would have started much earlier.

I’ve driven through Ohio a bunch of times this year and decided to stop at around 9:30 at a Super 8 just west of Cleveland, since I thought I had a good handle on how long it would take me to get from Cleveland to Chicago given reasonable traffic conditions.

I know this is sounding like a lot of background. “Where is my travel tip?” I hear you asking.

Always. Always always always latch the deadbolt and security latch on your motel door, friends.

At 12:57 AM an angry drunk couple started aggressively rattling my door handle and talking about how bullshit the hotel keys were, throwing themselves at m door trying to get it open. It turns out that the spacey kid at the desk gave them a key to my room (153) instead of the vacant room across the parking lot (135).

I knew it was 12:57 AM because the man’s slurred yelling woke me up, and in my panicked haze I realized that I needed to alert them that the room was already occupied. So I shouted “This is already a room!” three times and made some truly horrific groaning noises, and went back to sleep.

If I hadn’t had the security latch in place it might have turned into a much more dangerous situation. As it was, I was merely miffed that two days in a row were not going as planned, and I went to sleep dreaming of cuddling with my kitties.

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:

Collected Grumbles

My office has a ton of windows and, as a result, is a sauna. Especially in the mornings.

I hit every single red light this morning.

I have woken up late two days in a row.

Every single bra I own is terrible.

We have very noisy monitoring and I woke up to so many emails.

Truly, things aren’t that bad, but I’m feeling sluggish and glum this morning.