Saturday, April 26, 2014

How to Tell If Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You, by The Oatmeal

Like all of us who work a desk job, there are certain times during the day when I need a little pick me up to get through the afternoon.  My go-to pick me up is the Bobcats, a series of cartoons by The Oatmeal, an online collection of cartoons that are always worth a read.  To cash in on his on-line success, The Oatmeal (actually named Matthew Inman), decided to publish a collection of his cartoons from on-line, as well as some new ones in my latest read, How to Tell If Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You.

Now, I’ve had cats in my life since I was 4 years old.  And I have observed their behaviours and actions for years, under a whole host of conditions, and I have surmised the two following facts:

1-      Cats are assholes.
2-      Given the chance, your cat will kill you.  (Sometimes as revenge, but more likely, just because they can.  For a reason for this, see number 1.)

How do I know number 2 is true?  My last cat, Buster, proved the point – there would be nights were I’d wake up to the evolutionary hold-over feeling that I was being watched, and he’s be standing or sitting in the doorway to my bedroom, just watching me.  It was unsettling, to say the least.

When Inman published his book, I knew I wanted to read it.  As a collection of cartoons, the book presents a solid cat-related field with a lot of insights that all cat owners will recognize and sympathize with.  With his usual sarcasm and wit, Inman points out the flaws of our fluffy little companions, and makes us realize that we, as humans, aren’t crazy – they are plotting our downfall.  But we love ‘em, so we’ll keep feeding them and cuddling them (on their schedule, of course).

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  It takes about 20 minutes to get through, and it’s worth it.  The problem is The Oatmeal website – you can spend hours trolling through there.  But even that’s worth it.  The Oatmeal will remain my go-to online comedy emporium, and this book is just one reason why.

Blink, by Malcom Gladwell

Have you ever been walking down a street, and see someone ahead of you with a gait and/or body shape that you recognize immediately as a loved one or a good friend?  Honestly, this happens to me a lot.  I never gave it much thought until I read my latest book, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.  I’ve been a fan of Gladwell’s ever since reading Outliers, so when I picked up Blink, I was interest in seeing what his theories on our cognitive thought process was, and I wasn’t disappointed.  

The main theme of Blink is the exploration of the human thought process, specifically trying to understanding what our initial reactions and thoughts are when confronted by certain situations, and how that first moment of confrontation (the first blink) impacts how we handle the situation.  

Using a whole host of case studies, Gladwell walks his readers through the reactions of experts when confronting new examples of their domain, and our reactions to unknown situations, to politics, to human emotions, and to race relations.  Using a wide brush, Gladwell pulls in a whole host of examples of his main thesis, which is that the human mind makes quick (really snap) judgments a thousand times a day, in a whole host of situations and, for the most part, these quick judgments are most likely the ones we should follow.  Our brains are characterized as a huge processing unit and, just like your home computer, it operates on two plains – the observable and the background.  While we can moderate the observable (such as deciding if we want to drink coffee or tea this morning), it’s the background processes that governs most of what we do (it makes us heat water for our tasty morning beverage, but it keeps us from touching the heating element).  

The snap judgments that we make throughout our day is actually happening in the background portion of our brains – that part of our consciousness tells us when to duck if something is flying at our face (I’m looking at you, pigeons), or that the person standing on the street corner asking for your credit card for a charity isn’t all that trustworthy, or your doctor is a dick who can’t take the time to walk you through your course of treatment.  All of this type of assessment happens in the back of our minds, and is then translated to the conscious part; you may decide that the person yelling duck is pranking you, or you support that charity so you’ll hand over you credit card happily, or your doctor went to Harvard so she knows what she’s talking about, and you ignore those snap judgments.  But when you get a pigeon in the face, or your identity is stolen, or your doctor leaves her Jag’s keys in you, you have no one to blame but yourself; you should have trusted that first blink’s worth of impressions.  And that’s Gladwell’s point – while in some situations, long, drawn out, rational though might be worthwhile, our initial responses shouldn’t be ignored, and should play a major part of our decision making.  

Some of the critics of Gladwell claim that his type of writing is a simplification of a whole host of psychological, biological, sociological, and a bunch of other ‘ologicals’ work into writing that is palatable for the masses; these critics dismiss Gladwell’s work for this reason.  But I tell those critics to stuff it.  I’m a fairly intelligent and highly educated individual that is interested in understand why and how the universe works, but I have no experience in reading and interpreting ‘ological’ studies and reports – I’m not entirely sure I’d be able to understand one if I ever tried.  So I appreciate Gladwell, which works collects these types of reports, synthesizes them, and draws out the larger conclusions they present as a whole, and makes them accessible to people like me.  To Gladwell’s critics, I invite you to try it.  I’ll bet you can’t, or at least, not as well as he can.

The only thing I wasn’t a fan of with this book was the lack of biological/historical explanation of this initial blink reaction that humans have.  While mentioned in passing once or twice, I think this ‘first blink’ reaction we have is a hold-over from our evolutionary phases where we had to decide if Urg from them neighbouring Grunt tribe was friendly, or if that tree branch would hold us while we slept, or if that cut on my sister Rung’s leg is likely to kill her, or if we should take her with us when we move on to our next hunting ground.  I think the ‘blink’ reactions we still have are a hold out of a time when snap judgments would likely keep up alive, and I don’t think Gladwell addresses this possibility with enough evidence for or against, he just brushes over it.

So, final verdict?  I’d say this is a book to read.  There’s a lot of technical talk, but Gladwell makes it accessible to the average reader by relating it through case studies and examples.  The theories he presents are well explained and their role in his larger thesis is clear.  As always with a Gladwell work, subject matter that could be considered very dry and hard to read is made interesting and engaging, and so I would recommend Blink to everyone, along with his other works.

Four Sisters, All Queens, by Sherry Jones

My latest read, Four Queens, by Sherry Jones is one of those books that have been kicking around my place for ages, and that I haven’t gotten around to reading before now.  And that probably wasn’t a bad thing.  I’m a little torn about whether or not I can praise this book, or if I should pan it.  Let me explain….

Four Queens is about a quirk in history.  During the 13th century, the House of Savoy (rulers of Provence in France) married four of its daughters very well; each of the four girls, Marguerite, Elénore, Sanchia and Beatrice married powerful men.  The eldest two married kings, and the younger two married men who became kings.  For a time in history when daughters were only worth what they could bring their families through marriage, the House of Savoy cashed in big time.

My problem with this book is that each girl needed a book of her own.  Marguerite married the King of France (Louis IX), who had a mother that was a terror (Blanche, the White Queen).  Marguerite’s struggles the claim the love of her husband over his love for his mother, then his love for God, then his love for saintly behaviour would have been a compelling study of human natures.  Elénore married Henry III of England, who at the time was dealing with the fall out of the signing of the Magna Carta, which gave the barons of England unprecedented power over an anointed king, and the loss of lands in France.  All of this created an unstable political environment that would have been ripe for examination.

And don’t think the younger girls lived boring lives in comparison.  Sanchia, a quiet girl with aspirations of entering a nunnery, married Henry’s younger brother, Richard, who was the richest man in England, both in terms of wealth and ambition.  Unhappy with his lot in life, and captured with the beauty of Sanchia, Richard married her in hopes of making them power brokers.  But, as Jones portrays her character of Sanchia, this wasn’t too be.  Sanchia, a retiring sort of person didn’t have the strength to stand up to Richard.  (They ended up King and Queen of Germany.)  And Beatrice, the youngest daughter of Savoy, probably takes the cake in terms of potential for a book of her own.  Beatrice was married to Charles, Louis IX’s younger brother who, like Richard, was an ambitious man trying to carve a place for himself in the world.  Charles and Beatrice, to a lesser extent, didn’t seem to care who they had to step on to make it happen.  It’s a real cluster-fuck of a relationship between them, and would be horribly compelling in its own book.  (They ended up King and Queen of Italy – but not the Italy was we know it: Sicily, Naples, Albania and Jerusalem.)

So, keeping in mind that you should never expect a book to be something it’s not (because, in the words of my thesis supervisor, you should write that book yourself), I just wish it had been fleshed out, and made into a series of four books.  As it is, one book doesn’t leave enough room for a full exploration of situations and characters.  It was frustrating to be flipping from one sister to the next, because you didn’t want to leave one narrative for another.  While Jones is a capable author (the characters are engaging and the writing style is solid), she appears to have bit off too much to handle in one book.  And that’s the major flaw in this book that keeps it from being a good read.

So, final verdict?  If you’re looking for a quick overview of the history of the time, then this book might be for you.  However, if you get easily frustrated by switching narratives, or a lack of exploration of a character’s thoughts/feelings, then this book isn’t for you.  On a whole, I’m not saying I’ll never read another Sherry Jones work, but Four Queens isn’t the best of calling cards – there’s just too much information packed into one book for an enjoyable read.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Isn’t it odd how the universe works?  Here I am, struggling to find my place in this world and understand what’s going on with my emotions, and I pick up my latest read, The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, which addresses just such issues.  I had no real clue what to expect when I picked up this book, other than a great read, because Eugenides had never disappointed me with his books (see here and here).

The Marriage Plot is a modern-day nod to the Regency and Victorian authors who wrote about life, love and marriage.  The story revolves around three people; Madeleine, who is from an affluent family and graduating from Brown University with a degree in English, Leonard, a brilliant biology student from the wrong side of the tracks and who is Madeleine’s boyfriend, and Mitchell, a religions-major who is in love with Madeleine.  On the day of Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell’s graduation, Madeleine learns that Leonard has been committed to a psychiatric ward for depression/a break down.  Even though they had broken up earlier in the semester, Madeleine leaves her own commencement ceremony to rush to Leonard’s side, there by setting up a pattern for their relationship.  Meanwhile, in order to escape his unrequited love for Madeleine, Mitchell is planning a back-packing trip to Europe and Indian for post-graduation.  The truth in this story is the quest that Madeleine and Mitchell are on to find themselves; both are in love with people that can’t, for different reasons, return their love.  So, when you’re young, educated, and have the world in front of you, how do you deal with that?  How do you find a place in the world that you can be comfortable in knowing that the one you love isn’t in love with you?  What plans can you make, and how can you adjust when those plans have to change?  Eugenides explores all these issues (and I’m sure more that I just couldn’t pick up in my condition), with aplomb and honesty that characterizes his work.

In The Marriage Plot, the narrative shifts mainly between Madeleine and Mitchell, and once to Leonard.  In this case, I wasn’t such a fan of the device; I found Madeleine to be a bit vapid and wasting her potential, and Mitchell the much more interesting of the two – I would have appreciated more of him and less of her.  But I guess that’s a sign of a good author with engaging characters; I have a strong feeling about spending time with the author’s creations, and that’s indicative of engagement.   

I think what really drove me nuts about the situation was that Madeleine wasn’t living up to her full potential and was selling herself short.  We all know people like this (and if you don’t, you’re the one in your social group that your friends think of as ‘that person’), and I’m at a point in my life – removed from the post-graduation glow/freak-out – where I don’t have the patience for these people.  But, again, I think that’s a sign of Eugenides’s skill, that he has me so engaged in his characters that I’m rooting for them, and want to sit down and give them life-advice.  

In a book like this, the characters are so wrapped up in the plot that they’re inseparable.  Given this, it’s hard to discuss the movement of the plot without also discussing the characters.  The plot moves quickly enough, but it gets caught up in the journeys of self-discovery that the characters are on.  If you’re not interested in seeing a young man grapple with his religious feelings, or a bipolar man’s efforts to find a comfortable spot in his own body, or a young woman’s fight for self-identity, then you won’t enjoy the plot.  But it’s those internal quests that move the story and plot forward, and Eugenides exercises his mastery of the written word to create the engine for the plot through his character’s thoughts and emotions.

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  Read all of Eugenides’ books – they’re great.  While I didn’t like this one as much as Middlesex or The Virgin Suicides, it is still a great example of Eugenides’ skills as an author, and contributes massively to his canon.  I’ll admit that I might not have been in the best head-space to read about quests for self and a character dealing with a massive depressive episode, so I’m looking forward to re-reading this book in the future, when I may be able to better appreciate it.  But, regardless, this was an interesting book that the universe put in my way at an interesting time of my life.

The Priest's Madonna, by Amy Hassinger

This review is going to be short and sweet, and to the point.  My latest read was The Priest’s Madonna, by Amy Hassinger.  This is the story of a young woman in 1890s France, who falls in love with the priest in her town.  While repairing the church, they find what appears to be a Cathar-era treasure map.  Suddenly, the priest is flush with cash and begins a massive building project.  There’s also a really unnecessary side-story about Mary Magdalene and her time with Jesus; basically, this book is trying to be The Da Vinci Code, but classy.  

It all sounds very sexy when you put it that way, and that sex-appeal is what the write-up and recommendations on the back of the book implies, but the reality is far less.  This is an innocuous book; there’s nothing that really captures the reader’s imagination – while the potential in the plot sounds great, the reality is ho-hum.  I don’t know if Hassinger felt stymied by the historical resources she had, or if she just lacked the imagination to fill in the gaps those resources surly left, but this book is not what the book-jacket implies it will be, and that’s a shame because according to the write-up, it could have been great.

So, final verdict?  Skip it.  It’s not worth the time.  Even if you remove yourself from what you were expecting (which is really how you should approach all books), it’s still not that interesting of a read.  There are moments in the book where, with a bit extra imagination, it could have been great, but Hassinger didn’t exploit them.  Because of that, I can’t recommend this book, not even for those with an interest in the time period, or Cathar history.

Hollywood Wives, by Jackie Collins

So this depression that I’m going through (because to name it is to claim it, and that’s what’s going on), comes in waves; it’s characterized by an inability to sleep, concentrate, and be enthusiastic about things, among other things.  So when looking for my latest read (because a girl can only watch so much Extreme Couponing before hating herself), I was looking for the equivalent of the train-wreck TV that I’ve been gorging on.  And that’s what led me to Hollywood Wives, by Jackie Collins.  I had first read it back when I was in early undergrad, and I remembered it as being a written version of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and I wasn’t wrong.  This book was exactly what I needed to read at the time.

If authors are encouraged to write what they know, then this book can stand as an example of how to do it.   Hollywood Wives is the story of multiple Hollywood types that intersect into a larger story in the end.  The characters range from a down and out actor and his farm-fresh bride, the wife of a (declining) Hollywood legend who is as unhappy in her marriage as her husband, an East-cost transplant who is trying not to get chewed-up in the West-coast rat race, and a Hollywood agent who is a major power-broker (think Ari Gold, but with a soul).  It’s really clear that Collins is plugged into the Hollywood life, because each of her characters rings true, and shades of them be seen on shows like RHOBH.

On a whole, I think it’s amazing that Collins was able to write such a complex novel (the narrative moves between the characters mentioned above, as well as some others), while making each passage engaging – the reader wants to know what will happen next and regrets each time the narrative shifts, but then hates to leave that character when the next narrative shift happens.

Now, this book has been around for a long time, and Collins has been writing for quite sometime too.  I have purposely avoided reading older reviews of this book, or about its history.  What I do know about Collins was gleaned from Entertainment Tonight or the Enquirer as a kid, so my memory may be at fault, and the source material may have be wrong.  But I do know that Collins is seen as something as a smut-peddler.  And I can see where that accusation came from; this book is full of sex, deceit, and gore.  But if you remove yourself from the history of how the book was received, if you evaluate it for what it is and not what people tell you it is, it’s a really good book; the characters are engaging, the plot moves quickly and it’s well thought-out and interesting, and the writing style is solid.  

So, final verdict?  Even with all the flack the book and author took because of the Puritan-society it was released into, I would recommend it.  It’s not going to be for everyone, but if you’re a fan of the RHOBH, or you enjoy a good beach-blanket read, then I’d say this book is for you.  I’d recommend this read to anyone who is not an avid reader, but it looking for a good book.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Daughter of York, by Anne Easter Smith

The other day, I was wandering around my apartment, looking for my next read.  When you have as many books as I do, it’s like channel surfing through a mega-sized cable package; am I interested in learning about camp followers through history? do I want to read about a woman in 19th century France? or is it an Brontë kind of day?  It’s like is flicking through 300+ channels and saying “there’s nothing on.”  But then I remembered a set of books by Anne Easter Smith about the English War of the Roses, and I decided that my next read would be Daughter of York, about Margaret, King Edward IV’s sister.

Easter Smith’s wheelhouse is telling the stories of women in 15th century England.  The first book of hers that I read was A Rose for the Crown, about Richard III’s mistress.  So far, the main theme that emerges from Easter Smith’s writings for me has been that women had a shit time of it.  In this case, Margaret is sold (oh, I’m sorry, married) to a foreign ruler (Charles of Burgundy), regardless of the fact that she’s fallen in love with an English lord of her brother’s court.  Now, as a historian, I get it – women in powerful families were regularly used to secure the family’s advancement.  This was particularly true of women from ruling houses, whose marriages were designed to secure trading rights, or good relations, or a cessation of hostilities or war.  But when you approach history through Easter Smith’s humanizing stories, it becomes really hard to be okay with the practice.

Daughter of York, in particular, makes it hard to be tolerant of this (mainly) historical practice, and I think that’s because of how engaging and relatable Easter Smith wrote Margaret, and particularly her love for Sir Anthony Woodville.  It was heartbreaking to read the passages where Anthony had to escort the woman he loved to her wedding, or Margaret’s experience with marital rape, or their multiple partings when their paths crossed throughout their lives.  Of course, all of these events are Easter Smith’s fictionalized account of a life lived (backed, where possible, with historical fact of travel and locations), but it’s a sign of a skilled author that she’s able to make her reader forget that her main character was a real person with a completely unknowable personal experience – Easter Smith paints a picture that I’m willing and able to buy as complete fact.  

What I didn’t like about this book, and Easter Smith acknowledges the problem in her author’s note, is that the book ends on a positive note.  I’ll try to avoid specific spoilers, but I read the last page and though to myself that all was right in the world and there was some justice in the universe.  Then you turn the page to the author’s note with the historical (not fictionalized) account of what happens next and my jaw dropped.  There was no happily ever after for Margaret; in fact, there were some shit times coming her way.  Easter Smith acknowledges that there were more universal injustices coming for her protagonist, but didn’t give a great explanation of why she chose the ending she did.  I suppose, in a setting where the author gets to choose how her story ends, giving her characters a happy ending is the ideal, but for me, it was as if the author’s note created a schism, and suddenly there was the fictional Margaret and the real world Margaret – up to that point, there was just the real world Margaret.  So, I guess as a historian I should thank Easter Smith for brining me back to reality, but the reader in my really wasn’t happy.  But then again, a hats off to Easter Smith for creating that dynamic to begin with.

So, final verdict?  I’d say this is a great book for fans of historical fiction, and for fans of fictionalized biographies, so I’d recommend it.  Daughter of York is a clearly well researched work, with engaging characters, and a fast moving plot, and it’s a great way to spend your time.  Easter Smith’s theme of focusing her writing on the experiences of women close to power is an interesting one, and I’ll be reading her other books in the future.

The Nanny Books, by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

During my undergrad, I took an English course on books that had been made into films.  The prof picked books/flicks that I had never heard of, and that were ‘artsy’ – nowhere was there a Harry Potter flick, or a Globe and Mail best-seller.  At times, it was pretty boring.  But it did teach me a lot about how to view films that were based on books, and it gave me a deeper appreciation of how/why things make it to the screen.  That said, I still generally dislike book adaptations of movies; it’s bloody hard to get a novel distilled into a 60 page screen play, and it’s rarely done in such a way that I find it faithful enough to the book to enjoy it.  I’m the person you hear in the movie theater sighing, scoffing, and muttering “oh, come on!”  Having said all that, it’s almost impossible these days to find a book that’s not been turned into a movie, and it was after watching one of these flicks that I picked up my latest reads, The Nanny Diaries and Nanny Returns by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus.  I had read both previously, but so long ago that the details were long gone from my memory.

The Nanny Diaries, which became a movie staring Scarlet Johansen, is the story of Nan, a young woman in New York who works as a nanny for the wealthy families of Manhattan.  The whole book is centered on Nan’s work with the Xs, and their son Greyer.  As it so happens, Mrs. X is the type of mother that needs a nanny because all the time she spends at the spa is exhausting; she provides very little care to her own child when she is around; and she’s more concerned with appearances than her son.  Mr. X is an elusive character that pops in an out of Greyer’s life because he’s so busy at the office and having an affair.  Greyer is a sweet little boy is a whole host of neuroses from being raised in an environment with Mr. and Mrs. X as his only stable influence, and a rotating cast of hired help.  Enter Nan, who brings love and concern for Greyer, and a hope of normalizing the environment he’s being raised in.

In Nanny Returns, Nan is back in New York and Greyer’s life years later, after a grown-up Greyer tracks her down for answers about his childhood.  Nan is a young professional with a consulting business, a husband, a home renovation project, and a boatload of guilt for how she left things with Greyer when he was young.  Nanny Returns gives the reader a look at Greyer and his contemporaries (i.e. the spoiled brats that Nan knew as toddlers who now have credit cards and smart phones), as well as where the Xs are after all these years.  

What both books have in common is something of a The Devil Wears Prada feel.  What I mean by that is that Nan gets sucked into doing things for her employer (and later former employer) that she knows is, if not wrong, then pretty close to the line.  But Nan feels compelled to do the things ask of her for altruistic reasons; she wants to protect the children that are at the centre of the cluster-fuck of a life the Xs have created for them.  As a rational observer, the reader wants to encourage Nan to get out and not look back, but then again, once you’re invested in the characters, you want to help the kids and tell off the Xs yourself.

And that’s where the skill of McLaughlin and Kraus come through.  Both authors spent time working in the milieu they place Nan.  The stories, while probably changed enough to avoid a liable lawsuit, were inspired by the things they saw while working as nannies for Manhattan’s uber-wealthy.  When an author is told to write what they know, the Nanny books make a great example of how well that can work.  The result is a whole host of engaging and believable characters that made me want to snap up the sequel when it came out years later to see where everyone had ended up.

One last word before wrapping this review up, and that’s on the movie adaptation of The Nanny Diaries.  I find that the main flaw to the movie is that the filmmakers tried to imbue it with a sense of humour that’s just not there in the book.  In the movie, Nan getting nailed by icing when a high-energy (stoned?) mother insists on playing with the kids during a play date is made comical by the presence of a dead-pan employee of the mother, some light-hearted music, and the vivid shade of pink the icing is when it hits Nan.  In the book, the reader understands that the woman is married to a man way out of her league and age range, she’s dealing with mental-health issues (not drugs), and her behaviour is completely inappropriate, as she’s got nothing on under her bathrobe while she’s playing with her son and his friend.  While the movie makes it a part of a larger montage of how hard Nan’s life is, the book conveys the fact that money doesn’t bring stability to the lives of the type of women that Nan is working for.  In fact, in the book, I found it one of the saddest moments, while in the movie is a completely removable scene.  The movie sets out to be a comedy; the book(s) set out to be a serious look at the lives these children can live.

So, final verdict?  I’d say these are books that appeal to a wide audience, and I’d recommend them.  I found that I liked The Nanny Diaries better because it seemed more believable (because the authors lived it), while Nanny Returns reads more like a fiction (I’m not sure what personal experiences the authors had in relation to it, if any, but that touch of realism seems gone).  However, both are good reads, and it is interesting to get a book with a sequel that picks up a decade later.  As for the movie, I’ll say what I always do about movie adaptations – skip it and spend that time reading the book instead.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Helen of Troy, by Margaret George

***Spoiler Alert!  But you had more than 2000 years to read about this one, so I don’t feel all that bad for you if you find the story ruined after reading this review.***

Every so often, I get it in my head that I want to read about a certain period in history.  When I’m very lucky, I’ll find a book sitting on my shelf that meets that criteria, and that I want to read.  My latest read, Helen of Troy, by Margaret George fit the bill perfectly, as I was in the mood to read about ancient Greece.  

Margaret George, for those who don’t know, is an author with a wheel-house, and that is the fictionalized autobiography.  She’s written about Henry VIII, Cleopatra, and Elizabeth I, to name a few, and so when I saw her book of about Helen of Troy, I was excited to pick it up, as George’s works are always well done, informative, and an interesting read; this book was no different.  Helen is famous throughout history as being the woman with the face that launched a thousand ships – in George’s telling of her life, the reader is provided with an account of her life beginning in childhood, to her marriage to Menelaus, to her meeting and flight with Paris of Troy, to her capture and return home.  It’s a real soup to nuts account of a life which is most famous for what is really only a small portion of it.

As with stories based on Greek history, the sourcing is a bit all over the place.  Of course, the foundational pieces that George based her work on were Homer’s epic poems, but the history of Troy has long been a pet project for many historians and archeologists, with a new theory about the location and/or history of Troy being forwarded every few years.  Given this hodge-podge of materials, George stepped up and stream-lined a lot of the theories and pieces in a story that reads well and quickly, without getting bogged down in useless flowery language or theoretical discussion.

What I wasn’t a fan of, and this is no fault of George’s at all, is/was the story itself.  I’ve always considered Helen and Paris to be two of the most selfish people (ever), and this book didn’t dissuade me of that.  No one would ever call me a romantic, but with stories of such earth-shattering love as Helen and Paris’ that ends in such total destruction of countless innocents, who can blame me if I don’t get all misty-eyed over them.  What I did like about George’s account was the way she portrayed Agamemnon as the real cause of the war; Helen and Paris created the impetus by running away together, but Agamemnon was desperate for the glory of war which would make him a hero, and so he pounced on their actions to justify himself.  George’s focus on this aspect of the story helped spread the blame around, which I really appreciated.

One aspect for which I’m still on the fence about was what role the ancient Greek gods played in the story.  The legends say that Helen was the daughter of Zeus, her family and Sparta were protected by Persephone, and Aphrodite’s hurt feelings pushed Helen and Paris together.  In some cases, George presents pieces of these myths (and others) as the easily dismissible human-foible for explaining away the unknown with the unknowable; in other cases, the seems to imply that the gods really were influencing the daily lives of the characters.  If George had picked one approach and been consistent, I think I would have appreciated the presence of the legends more as a specific literary device.  As it is, I found it a little confusing at times, and hard to believe at others.  But, regardless, the (non?) presence of the gods added to the story.

So, final verdict?  I would say this is a book to read.  While I had The Iliad and The Odyssey assigned to me in a couple of classes during university, I can’t guarantee that I actually read them closely enough to have passed any sort of test on them.  But George’s Helen of Troy was a wonderful read that helped me fill in the gaps in my knowledge about this most enduring of stories.  If you’re looking to learn about the story of Troy, this is a great way to do so without getting bogged down in the Homer of it all.

Roots, by Alex Haley

***Spoiler Alert!  I tried writing this review without one, but I couldn’t do it.  Besides, you had 30 years to read this book.***

Let me start this post by saying the following: I am not a racist.  I know this is the basic statement of racists everywhere, but in my case, it’s the absolute truth.  What I can be, however, is culturally insensitive.  Being white, and fairly affluent, I have never experienced discrimination based on race, so I can’t really sympathize with those who have, though I can empathize.  So, I’m always looking for opportunities to learn about other races and cultures which have been discriminated against, in order to be less culturally insensitive.  So I’m not a racist – I’m can just be woefully ignorant at times.  But, in order to broaden my horizons, I read, which is what led me to my latest read, Roots, by Alex Haley.

I think Roots is one of those cultural touchstones we in North America all know about for one of two reasons: 1- you’ve read the book, or 2- you saw the mini-series staring the dude from Reading Rainbow.  In my case, I first learnt about Roots from the mini-series; though I’m to young to have seen it the first time it was on, I did catch it during an airing on the 20th anniversary.  My next exposure to the story was at my local Chapters, which featured a collection of books about African-American experiences, which included the 30th anniversary edition of Roots, so I picked up a copy of my own.

Roots, as the subtitle states, is the story of an American family.  The story begins in Gambia, West Africa, with the birth of Kunta Kinte.  The story follows his journey from birth to manhood, when he is captured by slavers, and sent to the Amercias for sale; from there, the reader learns about Kunta’s life as a plantation- and house-slave, the life of his daughter and grandson, and the lives of further descendants.  All told, Roots spans from the 1750s to the 1960s.

This is a hard book to read.  While I might be cultural insensitive at times, as a historian of the British Empire, I’m not ignorant to the experiences and suffering of those who were captured in Africa and forced to suffer the indignities of slavery in the colonies.  But reading Haley’s accounts of the ocean-crossing, the whippings, the rapes, and the total disregard for the humanity of the African and African-American populations is heart-rending.  Equally upsetting is the casual racism that is depicted; from the way the slaves view themselves to the way their owners treat them, it’s upsetting to see just how little an entire race of people were seen as being worth.

What I loved about this book was Haley’s way of creating believable and engaging characters.  Though the white characters are hard to sympathize with when viewed through today’s social and cultural morals, the historian in me can empathize with them; however, that doesn’t make it easy to like them.  But in this book, the white characters provide background noise – they are not the purpose of Haley’s story, merely the catalyst for the plot’s forward movement.  

Where Haley’s characters shine is with the Kunta family.  The first half of the book follows the life of Kunta Kinte, but then (and here’s the spoiler), his daughter is sold and the narrative moves with her to another plantation.  From that point, we never hear about Kunta’s life again; after investing 500 pages into this character, it was a bit of a let-down (from a narrative perspective) to loose anymore contact with Kunta; then you realize that this was the reality that most slaves lived with – they could be bought and sold, and split up from family members at the whim of their owners, and they may never know what happened to the loved-ones they left behind.  In that, Haley does a remarkable job in conveying to the reader the horror of the family dynamics among the slave populations (that is, living in constant fear of loosing their family members), even though it puts a hitch in the narrative of the story.  But, I’m complaining about near perfection here; I’m complaining about not getting more of a compellingly-written set of characters.  I’ll get over it.

While the characters and the plot are amazing, I did have a hard time reading this book with regards to the language and patois that Haley used.  With an obvious ear for language, Haley wrote using the accent and cadence of the American South; in many cases, I had to go back and re-read a sentence to make sure that I understood what was being said, and what thought was being conveyed.  I don’t know if this would be a problem for those used to hearing a southern twang, but I found it hard to acclimatize to every time I picked the book up.  And, it has to be said; the frequent and casual use of the n-word was really cringe inducing.  I know it was part of the dialect, but I guess I can’t move beyond the social condition that’s taught me it’s the vilest and most foul of words…

The other thing worth mentioning in Haley’s inspiration for this work.  It is, in fact, his own family history.  Beginning with oral histories he heard as a child from the elders in his family, Haley heard about his African roots (see what he did there?) from his earliest days.  It was not until he was looking for his next writing project that he decided to see what he could learn about his African ancestor; that quest for knowledge let him back to Kunta Kinte’s village, where the local record keepers (of an oral tradition), were able to tell him about his family’s history.  Backed up by archival research, Haley was able to paint the broad strokes of his family’s history of almost 200 years.  As a historian myself, it was amazing to read Haley’s account of his inspiration, trial and tribulation, and the final outcomes.

So, final verdict?  Definitely read this book.  It is a major part of our Western culture’s zeitgeist, and provides the reader with a humanized account of slavery and race relation in America from the 1760s to the 1960s.  I wanted to read this book during Black History Month in February, but didn’t have a chance then, but I am glad that I got around to it shortly thereafter; what I learnt most from my reading of Roots is that the African American experience is an American history unto itself that, while it can’t be removed from the white American experiences, is rich and compelling, and in many ways isolated from the history that surrounds it, as no one but those who experienced it (or continue to live with its effects) can truly understand the human toll of it.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Gallows Thief, by Bernard Cornwell

While I got my love of reading from my dad, what I didn’t get from him was a caviler attitude about how to treat my books.  I’m a little OCD – my books look pristine, even after I’ve read them, and when I lend them out, I expect them to come back that way.  Just ask my friend Rachel – she took one look at my face when she returned a book, and immediately offered to replace it and, in retrospect, it was barely dented (PS, I’m not a monster – I wouldn’t let her buy me a new one).  My dad, however, will throw books in pockets and bags, will crack spines and use books as coasters, and seems to think that as long as the text is legible, it doesn’t matter that the book looks like.  I didn’t know this about him until I lent him a paperback, and then had to drop hints for a month about the condition he returned it in, at which point he replaced it.  And vowed not to borrow any more of my books.  He broke his own rules when I offered to lend him my latest read, Gallows Thief, by one of his favourite authors, Bernard Cornwell.

Gallows Thief is the story of Rider Sandman, a former officer in the British army who, after the Peninsular Wars, sold out his commission in order to pay off the debts his father had accrued during his lifetime.  A renowned cricketer, living on the cheep in London in order to continue paying off his father’s debts and support his mother and sister, Rider is looking for ways to make a living and, hopefully, reclaim the hand of the woman he loves (when it came out that he was financially ruined, the girl’s parents wouldn’t let them marry).  This book, however, begins with a murder – the wife of an aristocrat is murdered and the person accused of committing the crime is the young apprentice painter who was at her home at the time to paint her portrait.  Rider gets involved with the story when the Home Secretary asks him to ensure that the right man has been found guilty of the crime in advance of his hanging (hence, making Rider the one trying to steal him from his fate on the gallows).

As always, Cornwell’s book is well researched and well written.  There are two aspects of 19th century British life that give colour to this book; the first is cricket – the reader is given an overview of what cricket meant to the sports fans and gamblers of the age, and the second is capital punishment in Britain at the time.  It’s the second that provides the most dynamism to the book.  Cornwell provides his readers with the contemporary points of view of those for and those against the use of capital punishment (which, both vary and are at the same time similar to today’s arguments), as well as an explanation of how the process worked in London.  I never gave much thought to the mechanics of a hanging in 1820s London, but Cornwell gives his reader a thorough overview of the process.

What I really enjoyed about this book was the characters.  Rider Sandman is an upstanding young man facing a terrible situation, but he still holds onto his honour.  But he’s no choir boy – in fact, he has a temper that’s bad enough to scare even the most burly of street thugs.  The juxtaposition of the man’s character between extreme good and frighteningly bad makes for a great dynamic in a main character.  I would think that Sandman could easily be given a series of his own, and hope that Cornwell will do so in the future.  As for the secondary characters, all of them are equally well written and bring their own dynamics to bear on the story – there are no extra characters to cloud the story or weaken the plot, and I think that can be attributed to Cornwell’s own experience as a prolific author.

So, final verdict?  I’d say read this book.  You don’t have to have a lot of knowledge about the period before you go into it, as Cornwell provides you with all the background and information you’d need to make the plot relatable.  Even my dad couldn’t resist borrowing it once he read the summary on the back of the book because it has a great story and was written by an author who knows what he’s doing.  (It also helped that my copy of the book was used, so I assured Dad he didn’t have to return it in pristine order.)

The Flashman Papers, by George MacDonald Fraser

For someone as educated as I am, I am horribly gullible.  You tell me something, and you look earnest, odds are I’ll believe you.  I watch crime shows, and the guilty party will look at the interviewer as say “I didn’t do it” and my immediate response is “the story checks out.”  This gullibility is something my dad played on for years – and he still does.  All through my childhood, he ‘pulled my leg’ over one story or another, and I always fell for it.  I realized, though, that my susceptibility didn’t end with childhood when he suggested I read the Flashman Papers, by George MacDonald Fraser.  He assured me (in fact, he swore up and down), that these were a true account of the life of Harry Flashman, Victorian hero of the British Empire.  

It wasn’t until I was sitting in a fourth-year undergrad seminar on British history (run by the prof who eventually became my Master’s thesis supervisor), that the penny dropped – in that class, I started to suggest that the books were non-fiction, and caught myself right before I committed to saying something out loud about it.  But I’m pretty sure the prof knew what I was thinking, and I still think it’s miraculous that he agreed to be my supervisor after that incident.  When I related it to my dad, he chuckled.  Because he’s a jerk.  And that’s why I love him so much.

Having had this experience, it might be considered a small miracle that I had any interest in reading the series, but it was Christmas time, and that’s the time of year when I love digging into a series of books.  With nothing else in the offing, it seemed a perfect time to get started on these books.  The Flashman Papers are a series of 12 books, based on the memoires of on Harry Flashman, aged 92 at the time they were written, which George MacDonald Fraser ‘chose to discover’ – MacDonald Fraser took the packets of memoires, and put them into the current format for the reading pleasure of the general public, and historians alike, as they shed much needed information on various events in British and world history.  The world first met Flashman in Tom Brown’s School Days, when he was portrayed (correctly, he’d tell you) as the school bully at Rugy.  When he’s writing his memoires,  Flashman is a former soldier in Her Majesty’s army, and served in a variety of postings around the world, some in an official capacity and some unofficially (he would have called it a ‘political’ position, but these adventures were usually commissioned as secret), and all for the glory of the British Empire. 

With that kind of summary, it seems like Harry is a 19th century James Bond, out to do glory to Britain.  But, in reality, it’s much more complicated than that because, you see, Flashman is a coward of the first order, and he’d be the first (and the only one) to admit it.  There is nothing Harry hates more than being asked to leave his comfortable life in London and travel to some god-forsaken corner of the Empire to battle with the natives and risk his life.  All he wants is a good drink, a willing woman, and a comfortable bed.  But, because he has an image to maintain, he has to portray himself as the most willing of defenders of the Empire.  What Harry has working for him is a great deal of luck; though he spends a great deal of his time trying to run away from some of the nastier events of his life (like being at the Battle of Little Big Horn, or the Charge of the Light Brigade), he always seems to fall from a pile of shit into a bed of roses (eventually).  Through this great deal of luck, and a keen sense of self-preservation, Harry builds a career that allows him to retire with wealth and accolades, and time to write his memoires.  At the end of the day, these books as historical fiction, but they are high-comedy.

If I’m going to spend time reading 12 books, then you know the characters have to be engaging.  Harry Flashman is a treat.  He is portrayed with a wicked sense of humour, a great deal of self-confidence, and a level head on his shoulders.  As you read through the series, there’s no denying that Harry is a coward, but every so often, you ask yourself, is that really the case?  Yes, he does what he does to preserve his public image, but if he were a true coward, he could just run and hide and that would be the end of it.  So, you start to polish your opinion of Harry.  And sure, he cheats unrelentingly on his wife, but she might be doing the same to him, and besides, he hasn’t seen her in three years because he’s been travelling around the world for his queen and country – so you might wish he was sleeping with all these women with less abandon, but he is only human and your opinion of Harry gets a little bit better.  And look, he clearly loves kids and treats them with a lot of care and respect, and if they cross his path, he’s always trying to keep them safe.  And you opinion of Harry gets a little more glowing.  And then Harry arranges for the death of a soldier to keep them from spreading the truth that he ran from a battle; or he sells one of his mistresses to an Indian chief to keep as a concubine; or he uses a child as a human shield during a skirmish.  It’s hard to keep going back and forth on the character that is Harry Flashman, but this dynamic makes him engaging, and keeps the reader coming back for more.

What’s clear about these books is the amount of research that MacDonald Fraser put into them.  While I now acknowledge that these books are fiction (so there, Dad), one could almost believe they are fact because of the level of casual detail (and casual racism, which is really hard to put up with) and authenticity that is threaded throughout.  But that level of detail and authenticity would make these books almost inaccessible for those without a really good understanding of British imperial history and Victorian culture; there are just so many throw away comments and allusions to various pieces of daily life or world events of the time, that if you don’t know what MacDonald Fraser is talking about, then you can loose the train of events very quickly.  I think MacDonald Fraser recognized this and so included a lot of foot notes and explanations of the larger ideas, but a lot is left unexplained as well.  Even I missed about 10% of the allusions at first, and either had to Google them, or let them slide.

So, final verdict?  I would say these books are a great read, but not for everyone.  If you know your history of the period, I think you’d enjoy them, but otherwise I think you’d find them slow moving and confusing.  These weren’t my favourite books, but I read them all because that’s what you do with book series.  What really bumed me out though, was learning that George MacDonald Fraser died several years ago, so there won’t be anymore of Harry’s stories, and because the books are presented as a memoire, there were multiple allusions to Harry’s experiences in the American Civil War and in Mexico that the reader will never learn about.  But, while we had MacDonald Fraser, he gave us an amazing body of work about a Victorian (non)hero that, for all the author’s hard work and skills, could very well have existed.  But he didn’t, so don’t believe my dad if he tries to convince you otherwise.  

With 12 books, it would take a lot of space in my review to list them, but here’s the list, presented chronologically, though you could read them in almost any order, as they weren’t published chronologically:

Flashman (1839-1842. the First Anglo-Afghan War.)Flashman's Lady (1843-1845. Madagascar.)Flashman and the Mountain of Light (1845-46. The First Anglo-Sikh War.)Royal Flash (1847-1848. the Revolutions of 1848.)Flash for Freedom! (1848-1849. The Atlantic slave trade; the Underground Railroad.)Flashman and the Redskins (Part I: 1849-1850, The Wild West: the Forty-Niners.  Part II: 1875-1876. the Battle of the Little Bighorn.)Flashman at the Charge (1854-1855. The Crimean War; the Charge of the Light Brigade.)Flashman in the Great Game (1856-1858. The Indian Mutiny.)Flashman and the Angel of the Lord (1858-1859. the Harper's Ferry Raid.)Flashman and the Dragon (1860. The Peking Expedition.)Flashman on the March (1868. British invasion of Abyssinia to rescue hostages.)Flashman and the Tiger (Three short stories - The Road to Charing Cross: 1877-1878. The Congress of Berlin; Emperor Franz Josef.  The Subtleties of Baccarat: 1890-1891. Edward VII; the Royal Baccarat Scandal. Flashman and the Tiger: 1879, 1894. The Zulu War.)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Painted Girls, by Cathy Marie Buchanan

My grade six teacher, Madame Lesperance, was a huge fan of art, the Impressionists in particular.  While I don’t remember much about what we learnt that year, what I do remember is the art classes we had with her, and I think that was because she was so passionate about the subject.  Somehow, Mme Lesperance managed to capture the attention of a group of 11 year-olds long enough to teach us the history of the Impressionists, about their reasoning, about the composition in their works, and about their legacies.  All these years later, I still remember her teaching us about how to evaluate an Impressionist painting with a critical eye, gallery etiquette, and the history of Paris during the era.  When I look around my apartment, I see her influence still in the Monte prints over my desk and in my kitchen, and the four little Renoir prints in my bathroom – my love and appreciation for these works can be attributed directly to her.

The one Impressionist artist I never really cared for was Degas.  Even at age 11, his obsession with young girls creeped me out.  His body of work based on his study of ballerinas always struck me as somewhat perverted, and so I let my impression of the man shade how I saw his work.  When I found my latest read, The Painted Girls, by Cathy Marie Buchanan, at the book store, I knew right away what it was about based on the cover art – I knew it would be a novel of Degas and, even though I wasn’t a fan of the man, I’m always looking for historical fiction reads about different time periods, and it had been a while since I had read about 1870s/80s Paris, so I picked it up.  And was pleasantly surprised.

 The Painted Girls, isn’t, in fact, completely about Degas – it’s about the van Goethem sisters, Antoinette, Marie and Charlotte.  The book begins with the death of their father, and their need to find employment to sustain themselves and their alcoholic mother.  To this end, the younger girls are sent to the Paris Opera in hopes of being trained as ballerinas, a job which Antoinette had already failed at.  During this tenure at the Opera, Antoinette’s life is rocked by a series of incidents that she tries in insulate her sisters from, Marie becomes a muse for Degas and a putative star on the stage, and Charlotte tries to force a place for herself in the Opera (though she is a minor character).  The Painted Girls then, isn’t strictly about Degas, but about life in Paris during the era – both the realities of the lives of the washer women, and the realities of the lives of the bohemian artisans. 

In terms of character portrayal, I think Buchanan did an amazing job – the reader sympathizes and roots for Antoinette, they hope and dream for Marie, and they distain Charlotte’s behaviour, just as the main and secondary characters in the story do.  Buchanan has created a cast of engaging and dynamic characters, which helps bring 1870s Paris to life.  Plot wise, I felt this book did a great job in highlighting the nuances of everyday life by pulling in the mundane and the extreme – from learning about how washerwomen did their jobs, to how the French justice system worked, each piece of story development contributed to the telling of the story while also highlighting life in Paris during the era.  As this isn’t my era of expertise, I really appreciated Buchanan’s obvious research (the van Geothem sisters were real, and parts of their lives are easily traceable through archival materials) in bring this time period to life.

So, final verdict?  I would say this is a great book for anyone who enjoys historical fiction.  Between the characters and the research that went into the work, The Painted Girls is a wonderful account of an era during which, as Mme Lesperance taught us, some of the most ground-breaking pieces of art were created.

The Demonologist, by Andrew Pyper

I am a coward.  I really, honest to god, am.  Things that go bump in the night still freak me out, even at my age; I can’t watch scary movies; ghost hunting shows are beyond my delicate nerves; and documentaries on exorcisms are cringe-inducing at best, and the things of nightmare at worst.  So why, then, did I pick up my latest read, The Demonologist, by Andrew Pyper?  Because I can’t help myself… Like the kid who eats just one more cookie, even though they already feel nauseous, I sometimes get in these moods where I just can’t look away and want to be scared.  And Pyper’s book found me at just the right time.

The Demonologist is the story of David Ullman – father, failed husband, and undergraduate professor who specializes in Milton’s poem, Paradise Lost.  One day, Ullman gets an odd invitation to consult on an unspecified project and, looking for a chance to get out of his usual rut, takes the job and travels to Venice.  While in Venice, Ullman is directed to the scene of what appears to be a demonic possession; there, he is given proof of Evil’s existence, and what follows is a chase to understand why Evil revealed itself as it did, and to what ends.

On a whole, I found this book to be an interesting read, thought not quite as horrifyingly titillating as one would hope with a title like The Demonologist.  In reality, Ullman is an academic on a quest that just happens to involve dark forces – he’s not a demonologist, nor is he particularly knowledgeable on the topic.  If you’re looking for a high-church assessment of what demons are, you’re not going to get it in this book.  However, the story is engaging, the characters are relatable, and it’s just twisted enough to keep you interested.

In terms of writing style, Pyper does a good job – the story and plot develop at a reasonable pace, and there is no lagging.  The only thing I didn’t like was the ending; it seemed all at once far-fetched and predictable, and yet would be completely hard to explain away if the book had only one more chapter.  For all that though, it was a good read.

So, final verdict?  This is a pretty good book from an author I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more of in the future.  While I was expecting to have to fall asleep with one eye open after reading this one, and that wasn’t the case, I would still recommend the book.  I think it has a wide appeal to those who like to be scared by the things that go bump in the night, and to those cowards like me.

Same book, different chapter.

Okay, so it has been a looooong time since my last post.  I think if you’ve read my blog in the past, you’ll have noticed that it’s not just about books, but it’s also (to some extent) about me.  So, in order to honour that tradition and explain why I’ve been so quite for the last few months, here’s a quick run down of what’s been going on.

Over  Christmas, I started reading a series of 12 books (the Flashman Papers, which I’ve since blogged about); it was a big series, and it was all I was reading and since I only like to write about series once I’m finished with them (and not book by book), I was waiting to finish them before writing.  But then, a couple of days into the New Year, I got the flu – I never get the flu.  It’s much more common for me to get colds, so when I got sick, it completely floored me.  The week after that, I had to travel for business, and so seeing as how I was still trying to recover, and I was clocking 10-12 hour days, I didn’t get a chance to relax enough to read.  Once I got back home and to my regular work, I had to prepare for a massive meeting – again, not conducive to being relaxed enough to read.  Once I was able to get back into reading, I was still working my way through the Flashman Papers, so still wasn’t ready to blog about anything.

Then, I fell.  And I mean literally – I fell flat on my ass, hard.  I was heading to work one morning, but my landlord hadn’t salted or sanded the front walk-way to the building, and as I was walking, I started to fall and tried to save myself from going down; I did this by planting my left leg, but as the right leg slipped, I sell backwards and to my side, and all while the left leg didn’t move.  We still don’t know for sure what damage I did (I have an MRI scheduled for this week), but I felt my knee joint pop out of place, and when I tried to put weight on it, the knee collapsed and it felt like the bones were rubbing together.  One ambulance ride to the ER later, and I was sent home in a splint and with crutches.

In the months leading up to my fall, I was dealing with a lot of stress and pressure at work and at home.  I have a history of depressing in my family, and I experienced a serious bout of it about five years ago, at which time my family doctor put me on a mild anti-depressant/anti-anxiety medication.  Before my fall, I was physically able to get through my days, even though I was mental/emotionally fragile.  When I fell, though, I lost the energy to keep fighting – it was as if every cheque I had cashed against my physical and mental health got called in all at once, and I spent the first week after I got hurt in tears; I felt like I was deserting my coworkers, like I was deserting my self, and like I had failed.  It was hard to work through, and I’m still working through it.

I’ve been off work since I fell.  If we didn’t live in a society that was willing to take care of its injured and damaged, I guess I could have forced myself to go back to work after the first month; my knee still bothers me, I’m going to a lot of appointments, and I’m not sleeping well, but if we didn’t have a social safety net, I could have done further damage to my mental health my going back to work.  But, as it is, we do live in a country that values the health of its citizens; while I can walk, my knee aches by the end of the day (and if there’s rain in the forecast), though I’m spending my time rehabbing and consulting with specialists, they never seem to be available during reasonable hours, and even with the aid of over-the-counter medications, I’m having a hard time falling asleep, staying asleep, and then waking up at a reasonable time.  All in all, after a month and a half off, I’m still a mess – both physically and emotionally.

What I am able to do now (finally!) is read.  I’ve been reading less than usual for when I have time off, but I’m still reading a couple of hours everyday.  The result is a pile of books sitting on my desk, just waiting for their write-up.  While I’m able to read, what I’ve not been able to do is muster the energy to write.  And all that, beginning with mitigating factors in December, is why I haven’t posted to this blog in ages.  

Once of the resources I read as part of my desire to better understand the depression I’m going through and to find ways to aid my recovery, suggested that I think of activities I liked doing before the depression really hit, and make appointments with myself to do them.  So, that’s what I’ve done.  I used to love blogging – it gave me a creative outlet, and put me in touch with a lot of interesting people.  I may not have the energy to be interested in doing it right now, but I have to get back into good habits, and stop allowing myself to wallow in the bad.  Another tip the resource I read suggested was to set reasonable goals; as my pile of books to review grew, I became less and less inclined to try writing – it seemed like a daunting task.  So, my new goal is this: every three days (I have a reminder set in my phone), I’ve made an appointment with myself to sit down and review one or two books.  This way, I hope to rediscover the enjoyment of blogging without putting a lot of pressure on myself.

So, why am I telling you all this?  Well, I’m partly telling myself.  I have no clue who actually reads this blog, but I know that I do.  Eight Bookcases has always been a way for me to record my life through what I read, to trace where I’ve been and where I’m going, and it made sense to let my personal experiences colour my reviews of them.  But another part of why I’m publicly posting about this is to engender understanding; I still think to myself that I should snap out of this, and I know that’s what a lot of people think about depression, but the more I fight with it, the more I realize that’s not possible.  I don’t want to feel like this – I don’t like feeling like this – but it’s my current reality, so why not own it?  Why not talk about it?  Because what is a blog, but a place to share?