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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Fledgling

Last year, when I went to 4th Street Fantasy, Octavia E. Butler's name came up a few times.  So I made a point of reading something by Butler before going back to 4th Street.  I didn't know anything about Butler, but I found Fledgling in Grand Marais a while ago and decided that was the book I was going to read (that was the same time I bought Sunshine; I'm not sure why, but that seemed to be a vampire book sort of day).

Fledgling is about a vampire (or Ina, as they call themselves) girl named Shori.  Shori awakens in a cave, badly injured and with no memory of what happened to her.  It turns out that she is the only survivor of her Mothers' colony.  Even though she looks to be about 10, she's in fact fifty-three years old.

Fledgling is the story of Shori's attempt to both remember what happened to her and her family, and to survive.  Her mothers were experimenting with genetics, trying to find a way to combine Ina and Human genes so that the Ina would be able to survive in the sun: Shori was the successful culmination of their experiments.  Her dark skin protects her so she doesn't burn in sunlight quite as easily (although she does still burn); she's also able to stay awake during the day, where other Ina are not.

While her memory of her family and who she is is gone, she is still able to remember things innately.  And that's how she's able to bond with Wright, the human who finds her on the side of the road.  The Ina and humans have a symbiotic relationship with one another: the Ina feed off of human blood, while the humans get intense pleasure from them (and a healthy, long life).  I honestly thought this was a really neat way to look at vampires.

While this started out a book largely focussed on memory loss (and what it means to be a family), it ends up being a story about racism.  What happened to Shori was no accident: someone wants her dead because of her hybrid genetics.  And no innocent people, Ina or human, are going to get in their way to seeing her dead.

Once it is discovered who has targeted Shori, the book then becomes a bit more political.  The Ina call together a Council of Judgment, where both parties (Shori and the accused family) are to present their cases to members of Ina families who are related to both parties.  The Council members are all elders because they are most experienced and so most capable of using their senses to spot falsehood and truth.  Over three nights, both parties are to say what they want, question whomever they want, and then are to accept the judgment the Council decides on.  It was here where the racism became overt.

The one thing that was really uncomfortable about Fledgling was the beginning.  I had read the back of the book, so I knew Shori was fifty-three years old.  But at the beginning, she still seems very childlike.  And there's a sex scene which is extremely uncomfortable to read through.  It thankfully doesn't go into graphic detail.  But the whole scenario seems just so wrong (albeit deliberately so).  Once we're past that (and the book makes clear that even though Shori looks young, she is in fact an adult according to human standards), I think the book makes it clear that Shori is rather adult-like, and so as the reader, you're able to get past what had just happened.  As one reviewer on Goodreads said, "vampires and their humans, though, have a unique relationship," which I think is how you are able to get past this aspect of the book.  

All in all, Fledgling was a very interesting take on the vampire myth.  While uncomfortable at times (for many reasons), it really makes you think.  I'm definitely going to read more of Butler's work in the future!

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Little World of Liz Climo

A friend of mine got The Little World of Liz Climo for me for Christmas.  It's been sitting on one of my shelves since then.  But after finishing The Book of Better, I grabbed it and finally read through it (which honestly took less than an hour).

Liz Climo's art is adorable.  The book is made up of little one or two panel comics featuring her cute animals in all sorts of situations and misunderstandings.  This is the type of book that will brighten your day.  I definitely recommend it.  :)

The Book of Better

So I posted about a week ago that I have 164 books to read.  And what do I decide to read?  A library book, of course.  But this wasn't just any library book.  This was a nonfiction book about diabetes that I decided I really wanted to read right now.  For one thing, it was a pretty fast and easy read (I could tell because the majority of pages only had text on about half of the page).  And for another, if Chuck Eichten had anything to say that could make my life a bit better, there's no reason NOT to read this book right now.

Oh, I should also say that Eichten has Type 1 diabetes, which was another appeal.  Many, many books on diabetes are written about Type 2, and so don't apply to me.  Reading a book by someone with Type 1 means he gets what my life is like.  And that's pretty awesome (and somewhat rare in my experience).

So anyway, The Book of Better.  I admit that I didn't get a whole lot out of this book.  But I really enjoyed reading it.  Eichten talks about diabetes in a great way, making it easy for everyone to understand.  He goes through the basics, gives some terminology, then shares what he has learned over the years.  Eichten admits he is no doctor or expert, besides the fact that he's had diabetes for 25 years as of writing the book (I guess it would be almost 30 now because the book was written in 2011, which makes him an expert in a way.  Sure, in a lot of cases a doctor knows the technical stuff  better than a patient.  But a person with diabetes knows their own body and how things work for them better than any doctor ever could).  And over the course of having diabetes for 25 years, you are prone to make mistakes, because much of what we learn for ourselves is trial and error.  Eichten wrote The Book of Better to share some of his missteps so maybe you can avoid making them yourself.

He also has funny little anecdotes, or goofy comparisons all through the book, making The Book of Better a rather fun read. 

There were two things that bugged me about it though.  For one, this book is American.  For the most part, that's no big deal.  But people in Canada measure blood sugars using mmol/L, not mg/dL.  So I had a bit of a hard time reading the chapter on blood sugars (until I broke down and started converting everything using the internet).  Sure, I could have read through the book and guessed at the numbers (and after looking them up, I would have been relatively close with my guesses for most of them).  But I would have doubted.

The other thing is kind of silly in a way.  But Eichten talks about the artificial pancreas and leaves out one crucial detail: it will need glucagon!  Glucagon is the hormone your body uses to raise blood sugar.  A successful artificial pancreas won't just be able to turn insulin delivery on or off; it will need to be able to raise your blood sugar quickly if it needs to, much as a healthy person's body can. 

I admit, the fact that he left this bit out might be because the idea is newer than the book.  But I think it's important to say nonetheless.

That being said, I'm really glad I read The Book of Better.  Sure, I didn't really learn anything new for myself (I've had diabetes for almost 23 years and have an insulin pump, which I heartily agree is the best thing ever!)  But it was still a good read, which made me feel pretty good.  And yes, maybe we all need to work a little harder just to make our lives better.  Even if those of us who don't have diabetes.  Because life may not be perfect, but you can always make yours a tiny bit better.  :)

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Lord of Light

My brother lent my Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light a few weeks ago. When we went to 4th Street Fantasy last year, Zelazny came up in conversation quite a bit.  Both of us have read one of his other books, A Farce to Be Reckoned With (and I read If At Faust You Don't Succeed), although my brother didn't realize it was by Zelazny.  So he got Lord of Light in an effort to read something by Zelazny before this year's 4th Street.  And I decided to read it as well; keep in mind this was before I updated the list and realized I had way more books than I thought I did.

I'm not entirely sure what I want to say about Lord of Light, now that I'm finished reading it.  I liked that it uses the pantheon from Hinduism (even if it doesn't use them well) because I have not encountered many science fiction and fantasy books that look outside of the Western world.  But I had a bit of a hard time reading it (in part because life seemed against me reading it at times over the last week).  I had intended to actually finish it a week ago, but as you can see, that didn't happen, having finally finished it today.

Lord of Light is the story of Mahasamatman, or Sam as he prefers to be called.  Sam is an Accelerationist - meaning he doesn't believe the beings on his world who have made themselves gods should keep the rest of humanity in a dark age.  And so he rises up against them, first through Buddhist teachings, and later through actual battles.

The first half of the book is a bit hard to follow.  Sam is referred to by many names, including Siddhartha and Tathagatha.  Often a new chapter will use a different name to refer to Sam, and it took me a bit in some cases (particularly Tathagatha) to realize we were still talking about Sam.  The first chapter talks about Yama bringing Sam back to the world of the living from Nirvana, which left me wondering for awhile if Lord of Light were in fact book 2 of a series.  But about halfway through the book, I realized that subsequent chapters (up to about chapter 5) were actually the back story, telling us how Sam came to be in Nirvana in the first place. 

Zelazny's writing was great.  He had some excellent phrases, including a quote I'm going to use for Apocalypse Madness.  But overall I thought the book was just okay, in large part because the early chapters felt like separate short stories shoved together because they all follow Sam.  Sure, the whole thing came together eventually, but it made for a hard time reading, at least for me.

I also agree with something my brother said in his review.  Lord of Light feels like it's going to end with a sequel.  But then it abruptly ends, which also made it less satisfactory. 

All in all, though, I am glad that I read it.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

List Update - June 11th

Wow, it's been awhile since I've done one of these. But it seemed appropriate since it's half way through the year. Plus I updated the List last night, both the physical one and the Goodreads shelf. You see, I've picked up a number of new books lately, so I wanted to make sure those were all on there. So I sat down and updated everything, cross checking to make sure both physical and digital Lists were the same. It was a time consuming process, but in the end the List had 151 books.

...and then I found even MORE books I need to read!

By the time I was done last night, the List officially has 164 fiction books I need to read! That's far more than I was anticipating!

Also, back in January, I decided I was going to try to read 50 books off the List this year. The goal doesn't care about other books I read (like library books and stuff), as long as I finish 50 from my personal stash, so to speak. When I made that goal, my intention was to get the List under 100 books. With the new count, that is unlikely (especially if I only manage the 50).

So anyway, six months in, I have read exactly SEVEN books from the List. I am way behind and really need to get cracking if I want to get anywhere near my goal. Actually, this appears to be shaping up to be a bad reading year: to date, I have read only a grand total of FIFTEEN books this year (both List and other books).

So at this point, I need to both step up my game in the reading department AND stop buying books for awhile. Hopefully then I can finally bring the List down to a more manageable (and less overwhelming) number.

I may have to send all my current library books back too...or at least stop grabbing new library books!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Skinny Habits: the 6 Secrets of Thin People

I wanted to read Skinny Habits: the 6 Secrets of Thin People because I was genuinely curious. Are there things that people who seem to have willpower and lots of healthy habits do differently than other people? I've actually chatted a bit with my mom on this topic because she can go to a party and say no to a piece of cake. Even though, like her, I don't really like cake, I find myself saying yes to having a piece (and often regretting it). Well, let's see what Bob Harper has to say on the topic!
As the title suggests, Harper believes there are six habits "skinny" people (I think he actually means "healthy" people) do: make contingency plans, consciously push back, reengineer their environments, challenge themselves, rest for success, and dress for thin. Some of them seem pretty straightforward (for example, when you're well rested it's easier to eat healthier because your brain isn't in need of sugar to stay awake and focus). Some of them I wasn't sure what he meant (push back against what?) And some I was genuinely interested in the strategies (how do healthy people make contingency plans)? Well, only one way to find out: let's read!

The book starts off with some basics on how the brain works. I have a degree in psychology, so nothing was really new to me, but I read it anyway as a refresher (and to see if there was anything new since I got my degree). After that comes the habits.

I really liked the chapter on contingency plans. Harper starts out by explaining the power of if/then statements ("if I have to go to the party, then I will talk to x people before hitting the buffet table"); if/then statements are a useful tool for helping you change ANY habit, so this is great knowledge for everyone to have!

The next habit, pushing back, is all about arming yourself with rational thoughts so you can push back against the irrational thoughts that pop up when you slip up. So like going back to myself, if I were to eat a piece of cake and catastrophize the experience ("I'm such a screw up, I'll always be unhealthy" sort of thing), this chapter gives you the tools to fight those thoughts.

Habit 3 (halfway through the book!) is all about reengineering your environment. Harper talks about changing your social environment to have more healthy conscious friends and changing your physical surrounding (particularly your micro environment) to reflect better eating habits, too. Things like taking cookies off your counter in favour of a fruit bowl or using a smaller dinner plate.

Habit 4 is to challenge yourself. Basically, Harper is saying that you need to have hobbies and interests that you are passionate about and that will keep you learning. People without hobbies often turn to food out of boredom.  

Habit 5 is all about getting enough rest. Harper talks about both getting a good night sleep and general relaxation to beat stress. In particular, he looks at the awesome health benefits of meditation, yoga, and belly breathing.

The final habit is to dress for thin. This goes back to the whole idea of "fake it till you make it" with the goal of fooling yourself.

So those are the six habits healthy people have. Harper doesn't say anything revolutionary; these six habits are all common sense. They're also backed up with science, which made Skinny Habits a good read if only to refresh myself on that (particularly the psychology related to these habits!)

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Book of Jhereg: Teckla

I can't believe one book can change my mind about a character so completely.

Up until this point, I've really enjoyed the adventures of Vlad Taltos.  Sure, there are issues with the stories, but I've felt like they were mindless fun reads.  All of that changed when I read Teckla.

Teckla is about Vlad's wife Cawti getting caught up in an Easterner and Teckla revolution.  Vlad doesn't want her to be part of it.  But instead of trying to talk it out civilly, they get into argument after argument.  Then Vlad goes and sulks for awhile cleans the apartment or wanders the streets, goes and talks to people, then repeats it all over again.

The start of the book was really weird.  A revolutionary guy by the name of Gregory shows up at Cawti's and Vlad's.  He tells them that a fellow revolutionary, Franz, was murdered.  This is the first that Vlad had heard of Cawti's involvement with (and really the existence of) said revolution.  So after Gregory leaves, the two of them go on a long walk and argue.

I'm going to add here that it took me awhile to figure out this was exactly what Vlad was mad about.  Their argument wasn't detailed in any way, so I wasn't sure what the issue was.  I thought that maybe Cawti had gotten involved with these people and maybe slept with someone.  But no, she was just involved and I guess Vlad didn't want her to (because it could get her killed, too, I think). 

Vlad keeps trying to dissuade Cawti.  But every time he tries to "talk" to her, he makes sarcastic remarks or just starts off angry, which sets her off, too.  So of course nothing gets resolved between them.  At one point Loiosh actually tells Vlad that this has been happening (which is when Vlad finally tries to have a conversation with her, but of course it's a bit too late because she's already moved out).

I'd like to point out here that Cawti never felt like a real person, even though this book was in some ways about her.  That was a real shame in my opinion.  It was almost like Vlad had her on this pedestal, thinking that this was what she was; he never seemed to know (or actually want to know) the real person that she was.

So anyway, in the middle of their marital issues is the revolution and the Jhereg who owns the piece of the city where the Easterners live.  That guy first wanted Vlad to kill Franz (but Vlad turned it down, not really knowing anything about the revolution at that point).  And then wanted Vlad dead....you know what, I honestly don't remember WHY he wanted Vlad dead.  In the middle of the repetitive and boring action I lost track of why.  Anyway, so Vlad needs to stop the assassin, stop the other Jhereg, and stop the revolution so his wife doesn't get herself killed since she won't listen to "reason."

At one point, Vlad even decides that the only way to save her life is to kill all the leaders of the revolution (who happen to be Cawti's friends).  This goes directly against his whole moral of not killing Easterners.  Loiosh also didn't like that plan and said as much, but couldn't come up with a reason why they shouldn't do it.  The only thing that stopped them was the appearance of a ghost (which, while plausible in the setting, seemed kind of weird.  Why couldn't he have had second thoughts when he was about to go through with it?)

Honestly, anytime Vlad was talking to one of the revolutionaries was kind of painful to read.  He was accusing them of sticking to their ideals at the cost of innocent people's lives while he was honestly guilty of the same (remember, his solution was to kill everyone at one point).  It was also tough to read because Vlad and the revolutionaries both firmly had their minds made up about what they believed and neither side (with maybe the exception of Kelly, the revolutionary leader) was willing to even listen to the other side's viewpoint (at least without bringing their preconceived notions firmly into play first).  That was fine at first, but when it kept happening again and again, I really lost patience with the whole thing.

One thing that I found really interesting was that the revolution in Teckla reminded me of the Occupy movement in 2011, even though Teckla was written in 1986.  As far as I can tell, there wasn't anything in the early 1980's that was similar (although I admit I did only a quick Google search, so I might be wrong).

So yes, that was my opinion of Teckla.  I really didn't like it at all.