Category Archives: books

2018 IN REVIEW

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WHAT HAPPENED THIS YEAR

I spent five months deployed: January, February, March, May, and June. It seems like a lot of time when spelled out like that, but for the most part it was easy and went by quickly. I got fully qualified and my aircrew wings. Best of all, though, I got to be in Hawaii for my birthday and I got to go home for a friend’s wedding and for Christmas too! I feel lucky. For all my worrying, things turned out okay.

I went on a trip to Alaska. I saw Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias, and Kenai Fjords. Now I have a truer understanding of what constitutes a wilderness. Alaska is sprawling and untamed and beautiful. I admire it and fear it. I would love to go back someday.

I got to spend some time with a friend in Washington as well. I’m proud of these videos.

I ran my first half-marathon! It was fun and challenging, but I don’t think I’ll do it again.

I started going to therapy again. It would be dishonest to say I’ve made a lot of progress – sometimes you don’t know how junked up you are on the inside until a professional calls you out on your own bullshit – but I’m at least becoming aware of what the path ahead of me looks like. The biggest difference between the start and the end of this year is that I now see the journey as worthwhile.

I started volunteering regularly. On Wednesdays I help out at the library on base. I really like the librarians and the work, too: re-shelving, helping out with programs, cleaning, cataloging. The place is always super busy and the time goes by fast.

I read my most books ever – 75 in a year! Thanks, deployment! Even if you take out the comics and graphic novels and novellas, I went way beyond what I was aiming for. A book per week has become a reliably attainable goal. I will stick to it for next year. You can find all the books I read this year here.

My recurring resolution to write a blog post every month frustrates the hell out of me. I wish I would stop doing this to myself. But I’m in the habit of doing it by now, and I know if I drop it, I will probably never find the motivation to write anything at all. I need something that will force me to, even only once a month.

BOOK OF THE YEAR

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I think we all harbor some sort of secret fantasy about the life we wish we could live. If I wasn’t such a coward, my dream is to move to some remote wilderness and stake out a solitary, sustainable life for myself. Whiskey When We’re Dry takes that daydream and shakes it up with my favorite fantasy life: a nineteenth-century, wild-wild-west story of a trick-shooting, cross-dressing young woman on a quest to redeem her family name. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. Jessilyn has the authentically Western voice that I’ve been craving since reading True Grit and her integrity and tenacity left me feeling breathless, inspired, a little bit in love. I devoured every word of this story. I can’t wait to reread it.

2018 Runners-Up
Saga by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples (volume #9 ruined my will to live)
The Witch Elm by Tana French
Circe by Madeline Miller

ALBUM OF THE YEAR

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Jonna Lee’s music has been making a huge impact on my life for almost a decade. Her entire iamamiwhoami project deserves a long write-up of its own. But her music and videos are so dear to me that anything I write feels so incomplete, so inadequate. I have been trying and failing for years to express how much I love what she does.

Think about the art that you appreciate the most. Try to describe it in such a way that conveys its significance in your life and encourages others to make room in their own hearts for it. I see this all the time when people recommend TV shows. You just have to watch it, they say.

For her three iamamiwhoami albums (bounty, 2011; kin, 2012; blue, 2014), Lee released the music and videos simultaneously. It was almost impossible to separate the visuals from the audio. The secrecy behind the project also made the release of each new video feel like a dispatch from the beyond, a clue that might reveal more of the machinations behind the creators.

Jonna Lee is a performer, though – she wants to interact with the audience behind the screens, take the audiovisual show to the real world. There was only so long that she could continue as iamamiwhoami. Though Everyone Afraid to Be Forgotten is her first venture beyond iamamiwhoami, it retains enough of the project’s visual motifs and audio samples that it feels like an authentic transition between the two.

Much to my relief, it stands spectacularly on its own two feet.

In Everyone Afraid to Be Forgotten, every song, separately, is memorable. The more upbeat synth tracks that Lee has become known for – SAMARITAN (with excellent costuming by COMME des GARÇONS) and NOT HUMAN, for example – contrasts in sound but not in tone with her slower, echoing dirges (LIKE HELL, HERE IS A WARNING). The haunting live recording of DUNES OF SAND in Jonna Lee’s hometown church provides some of the dopest acoustics your ears will ever be blessed with.

But where Jonna Lee really excels is audiovisual thematic unity. Linking the music with the videos is what makes Lee’s audiovisual storytelling so compelling and unforgettable. So the first time I watched the album’s movie accompaniment, I was actually a little underwhelmed. It felt like there was something missing.

There is just something about the way she produces a short video, contained to one song, that is perfect. No one else is doing what she does. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

2018 Runners-Up
By the Way, I Forgive You (Brandi Carlile)
Be the Cowboy (Mitski)
Dirty Computer (Janelle Monáe)

MOVIE OF THE YEAR

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Look, this one isn’t deep. I like these women and I love a good heist. Ocean’s 8 is light-hearted, fast-paced, and fun. It doesn’t take itself seriously. I liked it when I watched it the first time and I was surprised when I really enjoyed watching it a second time.

2018 Runners-Up
Black Panther
Crazy Rich Asians
Bird Box

TV SHOW OF THE YEAR

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During my first deployment this year, I was on a lot of overnight watches. It wasn’t a real watch, though, because I got to watch a lot of TV. And I watched the entirety of Brooklyn Nine-Nine in an embarrassingly short amount of time.

Once I started, I couldn’t stop. This show is pretty close to perfect. It is hilarious at no one’s expense, my favorite type of humor. Many of the episodes convey substantial moral messages. All of the characters have substance and depth – most of all, in this year’s season, Rosa. Her coming out was portrayed so perfectly that it stayed with me all year long. It was honest, it was authentic, and it gave me hope. It made me feel less alone during a time when I was very lonely. I’ll always be grateful for that.

2018 Runners-Up
Terrace House: Opening New Doors
The Great British Baking Show

GAME OF THE YEAR

Image result for celeste game breathe2018 was the year of beautiful indie games that made me cry. It started with Monument Valley – both, though neither are 2018 games – and then there was Florence and later Gris. What all of these games had in common was they felt like playable works of art.

Just on the surface, there is a lot to like about Celeste (by Matt Makes Games, also creator of TowerFall). The music is some of the best I’ve ever heard; seriously, ask anyone I work with: I have been listening to the soundtrack nonstop for months. If you’ve taken the time to read all of these words (thank you) and you get nothing else from this post, put on some good headphones and listen to the music* from Celeste. The pixel art is also gorgeous. The game controls are so simple and tight that there is zero room for error. As a 2D platformer, Celeste belongs to a genre that is notoriously brutal and unforgiving. From the very start of the game, though, Celeste sets an encouraging tone for the player: “You can do this,” the protagonist tells herself. “Just breathe.”

“Celeste gives me the tools and guidance to succeed so that every death is my own fault,” writes Emily Heller for Polygon. “I find this oddly comforting, since I know every stage can be bested; I just have to keep trying.”

There are going to be many times during this game where you want to give up. I can’t count how many times I rage-quit (though I can say exactly how many times I died, since the game keeps track). But after some time away, I would resume the game and beat that seemingly impossible puzzle almost effortlessly. Why was it so hard before?

Celeste Mountain makes manifest the climbers’ deepest fears. For Madeline, a physical embodiment of her anxiety discourages her from continuing her journey. Madeline first tries to outrun this part of herself, then musters up her courage to confront her head-on. I don’t need you, Madeline tells the negative part of herself. You’re holding me back. This pushing-away has terrible consequences, though, and Madeline hits rock bottom – literally the deepest depths of the mountain. There, she realizes that she can’t conquer Celeste without accepting herself in her totality, fears and all. Madeline’s contrition and reconciliation with the negative part of herself moved me to tears. Together, supporting one another, they summit the mountain.

Through some challenging gameplay (just want to emphasize that again: this game is very hard), Celeste teaches the player that progress isn’t always linear. Through Madeline’s experience, the game reveals that the only way to conquer your fears is through self-love. It is the starting place for true change.

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If you play Celeste (and I really, really hope you do), remember that the effort is what makes it rewarding. It is supposed to be hard. But you’ll get better, and you’ll return to earlier levels and wonder how in the world you found them difficult at all. Facing your fears and accepting yourself sometimes demands an intense inner struggle, too, but you’re going to come out on the other side – or on the top of the mountain – better for it.

2018 Runners-Up
Into the Breach
Florence
Gris

* Lena Raine, the composer for Celeste‘s music, wrote a really interesting blog post about her creative process using as an example one of the game’s most popular tracks. As someone who knows nothing about music, this sort of thing is super interesting to me, and maybe it will be for you too.

FOR NEXT YEAR

I am still trying to stop swearing. I was doing pretty well at this for a while, but inevitably we are influenced by the people around us. I’m going to keep trying.

I have to stop using my phone while driving. This is a terrible habit. Even with my phone mounted to my dashboard, I don’t need to keep changing my music while I’m driving, and definitely I don’t need to read a text or check my Neko Atsume cats “real quick” at a stop light. If you’re in the car with me, please keep me accountable.

I want to – need to – write more. It’s a shame that the only writing I do anymore is for work and for this blog. I have to find some way to stay inspired. Someone please start a creative project with me to maintain my motivation.

Some undefined fitness goal? I focused a lot on running and swimming this year with an appalling collection of tan lines to show for it. Maybe 2019 is the year I come back to the church of iron? Maybe it will be the year I find the balance between the two? Maybe I will give up and be fat in peace at last?

Finally, I am turning 30 soon. I thought this would scare me. With the exception of things that are the result of trauma, as I get older, I feel less afraid, less frantic, less rushed. A family friend once told me that, in his head, he doesn’t feel any older than he was in his twenties; it’s his body that betrays him. I think I’m starting to understand what he meant.

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Amazon Kindle: Oasis or New Paperwhite?

NOTE: I’ve had this post in the holster for a while. I wanted to make sure I used the Oasis enough to give it a fair review. Then those clowns over at Amazon went and released a Paperwhite-Oasis hybrid this week for half the price. What the hell! Why do I keep giving those jerks my dollars?

Here is the post anyway.

I like to read. I spend a lot of time doing it. It is a big part of my aesthetic.

I got a regular Kindle – no bells or whistles – as a birthday gift a few years ago. I was incredibly touched by the thoughtfulness of it; someone essentially provided me access to infinite books. I had never owned an e-reader before and I have to admit I was a little bit of a stuck-up purist when it came to reading. Physical books only! Gotta smell that good binding glue.

But the idea of reading all of the Game of Thrones books without having to lug around massive tomes was pretty appealing. I decided I would use the Kindle just for the big and cumbersome books, especially on the ship where personal space was limited. A compromise, right?

I ended up liking the Kindle a lot, especially after learning how to use the library’s e-book system. Unlimited power! It hasn’t replaced physical books, but at this point I almost wish that it would: my book hoarding is starting to get a little out of control and I live in less than 600 sq/ft of apartment space.

Anyway.

The Kindle, as a basic e-reader, is excellent. The battery life is unbelievable, especially if you keep it on airplane mode (which, if you get digital books from your library, you should, so you can keep your loans after they expire! STREET SMARTS!). It is inexpensive and durable; mine has a few scratches but, for all that I put it through, it is in great condition. It fit perfectly in the back pocket of my shipboard coveralls, even in a protective case. With no LEDs, it is very easy on the eyes, especially at bedtime.

So over the summer I found myself post-deployment rich and wanted to buy something nice. Why not a new e-reader – a quality e-reader? Perhaps the Gucci of digitized text? Even though I use my Kindle almost as much as I use my phone, I still felt a little guilty buying a new one, since the old one still works just fine, so many years later.

There are a few things about the regular Kindle (not Paperwhite) that I don’t like.

  1. It is tough to read one-handed. This is not something you would guess just by looking at it. The symmetry of the Kindle is visually pleasing but it requires the reader to pinch the corner or side of the device to keep it in hand. It doesn’t have page-turn buttons, and tapping the screen one-handed demands uncomfortable contortions – not unlike reading one-handed with a physical book when it comes to the position of the little finger.
  2. It doesn’t have a backlight. This isn’t a dealbreaker for me; I don’t mind using a book light or switching to my phone if I need illumination. I think my eyes are getting worse, though, and lately I have been having a harder time reading without the extra light on the screen. A backlight would be convenient, but only if it doesn’t keep me awake after reading in bed at night.
  3. The operating system is insultingly slow. It takes ages to recognize a wifi network. Sometimes I have to reset the device before it syncs up with my Amazon account and downloads new book purchases. Also, I can’t purchase books directly from the Kindle device. In fact, I can’t purchase them through the Amazon app on my phone, either. I have to use my internet browser to navigate to Amazon’s webpage to buy the book, then wait for it to get sent to my Kindle. This is incredibly short-sighted; I’ll reach the end of a sample of a book and think, I’d like to read more! But I have to go on a choose-your-own-adventure style quest to get the rest of the book. Amazon, for real, what the hell?
  4. The screen is framed by the device’s plastic body. Unlike a tablet, for example, which has one smooth, continuous surface, there is a gap in between the screen and the body of the e-reader. Dust and sand love to get up in there and hang out. It is really hard to clean that stuff out once it’s in there. And it’s always in there. It lives there now, perhaps forever. There is little bits of every place that I’ve ever been, still lodged in the corners of my Kindle. That would be kinda nice if it wasn’t so gross.

Which e-reader would correct these issues? Specifically, which Amazon brand of e-reader would correct these issues, because I’m a brand-slave due to my Kindle library?

The Paperwhite has backlighting, but shares the same physical structure of the original Kindle (ie, nooks and crannies for dirt to hide). The Voyage solves that issue and has page-turning buttons on the sides so the reader doesn’t have to swipe the screen. But I was curious about the asymmetry of the Oasis. It doesn’t appear intuitive, but after some thought, I could see how the imbalanced grip would actually be more comfortable, if a little strange-looking, for one-handed reading.

It’s definitely not cheap. For $300, I got one without ads. What a treat.

But is the price tag worth being able to dunk your Kindle in the bathtub like a teabag?

Here are the pros:

  1. Reading one-handed is a lot easier – if holding the device relatively flat. If I’m sitting upright on the couch or at a table, it feels very comfortable. My thumb rests along the page-turn buttons and I don’t have to move my hand at all to turn the page. This is wonderful.

    (Holding flat – comfortable, balanced, and ergonomic! Holding upright – say, in bed, laying on my back – the corner gets a little stabby into the palm after prolonged reading.)

  2. Fingers curl quite naturally along the lip on the back.
  3. I can buy books directly from the device! What should have been a default feature (and smart business tactic) now feels like a luxury. So, thanks, I guess?
  4. It is waterproof – or so they say. I’ve taken it in the bath a few times and haven’t had any accidental (or deliberate) dunks yet. I don’t feel nervous about ruining it with my wet hands and I can read by candlelight thanks to the backlighting. This is actually very nice, but backlighting is certainly not unique to the Oasis. (And now the waterproofing isn’t, either! I died and went to hell.) img_6814
  5. The operating system and page refresh are much faster, noticeably so.
  6. The battery life is comparable to the ordinary Kindle, but only if you leave it on airplane mode. I read a lot of complaints about this before purchasing, but so far it seems fine to me.
  7. The screen is one smooth, continuous surface – no gaps or crevasses for the entirety of the desert or beach to hide in when I travel.

All in all, what I like about the Oasis is that it’s much easier to hold, it’s nice on the eyes for both device design and actual reading, and it corrected a lot of the software issues from previous iterations of the Kindle.

If I could go back in time, would I hold off on buying the Oasis in order to wait for the improved, waterproof Paperwhite?

Probably not. My biggest complaint about the regular Kindle/Paperwhite is how uncomfortable it is to hold one-handed. That is still true; the physical design is unchanged. The asymmetry of the Oasis fixes this problem, at least to my satisfaction.

But should you buy it? Would I recommend it to others?

Honestly, if you have a few hundred bucks to piss away, sure. I don’t really have any huge complaints about the Oasis – but I’m not sure that I have effusive praise, either. All in all, it’s not so different from the much cheaper, earlier Kindle that I own. There are tons of other non-Amazon, more affordable e-readers out there, too. I would probably recommend one of those.

Or I can give you my old Kindle as a gift, just as it had been given as a gift to me. It still works great! Given the choice between the two, though, I do always reach for the Oasis. That’s worth something.

Just probably not $300.

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Making Time for Yourself

Someone asked me recently what I would be doing to entertain myself if I was back home. I didn’t have an answer. This is, I think, for two reasons:

  1. I haven’t lived in Hawaii for long enough to carve out a familiar, comforting routine. Of the past nine months (whoa) since coming to Hawaii, I’ve been away for almost six of them, and the others were seeped in an overwhelmingly liminal feeling.
  2. Almost all of the things that make me happiest are portable.

Think about it: if you were to leave home for a while – a few weeks, or many months – what is it that you would miss? If you have a family or spouse or even a pet, they have to stay behind. That’s rough, but this is about you. Who are you, apart from everyone else? What entertains you? What activities make you feel like you are fully yourself?

I like to ask people what they look forward to doing when they get home from work and all the chores and errands are finished. My dad would never let us pick up an activity if there was work left to be done; it made really appreciate my leisure time and, more importantly, live fully inside of it, free from to-do lists nagging at the edge of my attention. So when it is time for you to put your feet up and relax, what do you reach for? If it’s something you can carry with you, then, I think, you’ll always have a little bit of home with you wherever you go.

I’m sure I have a biased perspective. It took a long time, but now I am used to living away from my family and friends, and I had to learn how to make myself happy without them around for support, filling up my time and space. And I guess I’ve always been a quiet, introverted nerd. Outdoorsy and athletic, too, but my parents wanted me to be, and I’m not sure how many of those impulses are inherent and how many are the result of habit and upbringing. In fact, even those physical activities are, for me, solitudinous – running, swimming, hiking: all alone.

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Illustration by Chris Buzelli (from a great essay, titled “At Home in the Liminal World“)

When your principle form of diversion is depends on you alone – your creativity or motivation – almost any hobby can be carried along with you. I do things alone. I associate solitude with home. In a way, then, I can bring a little bit of home with me wherever I go.

Even amidst the roar of propeller blades and the chatter of the crew on the headsets, when I open up a book, I am transported to a different place, any place of my choosing. I can play my Nintendo Switch in a crowded, noisy lounge and forget that anyone else is there. Even writing this post, or any creative writing – I keep a notebook in my backpack, ready to seize the opportunity when inspiration strikes, and my phones “notes” app is filled with scraps of ideas and descriptions that I want to remember or revisit. When I run, it’s just me and the music (and suffering). I’m getting back into video editing, which requires a surprising amount of concentration and a challenging learning curve and a lot more invested time than I remember from before. All of these things bring me the most joy, and I can do all of them whether I’m at home or on the road.

Sometimes people get their “me” time, some comfort of home, from being around other people – group activities, team sports, spending time together. They could feel comfortable wherever they go. That is wonderful, a truly enviable characteristic. But this post is not about that.

I am deeply interested in people who make it a priority to carve out time for themselves, who have some quiet interest that draws them away from the company of others. Now, more than ever, it is so easy to waste time. (I’m guilty of this just as much as everyone else my age; I spend a truly appalling amount of time scrolling through memes and watching the same youtube videos over and over.) I’m fascinated by people who have clear priorities, who set boundaries on the time they’re willing to give to others and the time they insist on keeping for themselves. It takes some bravery and focus, and sometimes awkward explanations, to detach from the world around you and turn the focus inward instead, to be wholly and authentically yourself. I have a lot of respect for people who make it look natural and effortless, especially since I’m pretty firmly entrenched in the “antisocial weirdo” camp.

So if you have some secret hobby or passion, something that you do for you alone when no one else is watching, I’d like to hear about it sometime. I think I understand you a little bit already, and I’d like to know more.

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ABANDONED BOOKS, 2017

For someone who starts and abandons projects all the time, I have a very hard time quitting a book once I’ve started, even if I don’t like it. Especially if I don’t like it. Part of me feels like I can’t criticize a thing that I’ve given up on. Part of me is afraid of missing out on something beloved by others. And, of course, part of me is a sucker for a challenge.

It only ends up hurting me, though. It puts a huge roadblock on all of my productivity. I feel like I can’t do other leisurely activities until I’ve first dedicated time to this task. But reading shouldn’t feel like a job at all – it should make me happy. I’m trying to get better at putting books aside that I’m not enthusiastic about. Here are the books that didn’t maintain my interest this year.

 

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
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I want to be the sort of person who reads and enjoys Jane Austen. I’m not. This book bored me to tears. Sorry! I’ll try again in another few years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Eye of the World, Robert Jordan
jordanFantasy nerds rave about this book! There was an entire episode of Judge John Hodgman dedicated to it. So when I saw it in a bookstore in Whidbey Island, I thought it was a great opportunity to see what all the hype was about.

I really wanted to become immersed in an expansive fantasy series again, and the Wheel of Time series is certainly qualifies as huge: 14+ books with an average page count surpassing 800. But I only managed about 150 pages in the first book before I had to put it aside. The writing was too stiff, the characters too one-dimensional, the portrayal of women too… well, let’s say the Male Gaze is strong with this one. I’ve heard that the story and the system of magic in particular makes this series worthwhile, though, so someday I’d like to pick it up again.

 

 

Believe Me, Eddie Izzard
izzardEddie Izzard is one of my favorite comedians. Every time I mention him, I end up falling down a YouTube rabbit hole, watching video after video of his stand-up comedy. I didn’t get a chance to see his documentary, so when I saw his autobiography at the library, I grabbed it immediately.

I have the same complaint for this book that I had with the collection of stories published by The Moth this year (All These Wonders): sometimes stories spoken aloud don’t translate well to the page. Believe Me is written just as Izzard speaks. To do it justice, I think this story deserves to be heard in his own voice, with his characteristic tone and cadence. I will listen to this book on audio instead.

 

 

 

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
whiteheadI put it off and put it off until suddenly it was due back to the library. I returned it. There is a good chance I will give this book another go in the future, but this year was not the right time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Attack on Titan (series)
attackI consider this abandoned because I lost interest after reading three of the ten manga available at the library. It was very exciting at first and a lot scarier than I was expecting. But the plot became very transparent by the second manga, and I felt like it was positively dragging along by the third. Those two – the obvious and the slow – really diminished the horror aspect of the story. I will probably pass on the anime, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some books I completed which I should have abandoned:
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., Neal Stephenson
I love Neal Stephenson, but at 750 pages, that is many hours of my life I will never get back, and this story was not engrossing or memorable.

Georgia, Dawn Tripp
A romance novel thinly veiled as historical fiction. No shade on romance as a genre, I was just expecting to learn more about Georgia O’Keeffe as an artist and a person, and I didn’t.

Finally, some books that I almost abandoned and was glad I didn’t:
A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles
What started off as slow and meandering quickly became incredibly charming, especially the voice of the narrator. This story about the rapidly changing Russian social and political structures across one aristocrat’s life was filled with some of the best characters I’ve read in a while.

The Stars Are Legion, Kameron Hurley
This story is one of a kind: an all-woman space opera. It was a little hard to follow at the start, and it deals with some very gorey and gritty subject matter, but was an incredibly fun ride and rewarding in the end.

 

You can follow all of my reading on my Goodreads page here!

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