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FFXIV, What Have You Done To My (Reading) life?

This girl has ruined my (reading) life. She’s my newly Hulk-abed ilvl 93 dragoon. I’ve put a lot of time and work into her, and I kind of love Dragoonher dearly. I even just bought her her own room and put some nice furniture in it so she’ll have a comfy place to retire to after slaying primals. I regularly take her out on dungeon runs, as all Miq’ote cats require. I keep her zenith weapon shiny, her hair combed, and her gear repaired. I give her new minions to play with (her favorite is a cute little demon brick with balance issues) and balls of linen thread to bat around. I make sure she is regularly socialized with her FC mates so she doesn’t become mean or feral (though she can be a bit snotty sometimes) and regularly give her her favorite Akpallu Eggs dish (premium quality, of course). She is as pampered a cat as they come.

Because of her, I have read only one book in the past 30 days (see review). That’s terrible, by my standards. But what’s even more terrible is how much this game has intruded upon my life, to the point that I may or may not have left work a little early the day the newest content was released. I may or may not have lain awake in bed near midnight on several occasions planning the furniture layout of my newly-purchased private chamber. I may or may not have lain awake in bed after midnight, having gamed past midnight, reviewing primal or Coil fights and what I could have done better. I may or may not have a problem.

The last time I blogged about FFXIV was around Christmas, a month or so after I’d gotten the game. My pride in my lvl 30 character was so cute it’s shameful. But I had the same concern then as I do now: what is my limit for online video gaming? It makes me intensely happy to clear a dungeon or boss for the first time. Driving home that day I may or may not have left work a little early I was so excited for all the new things to do I had to actually keep my eye on my speedometer to make sure I wasn’t speeding. It was the happiest and most excited I’d been about anything in a while. Part of that excitement lay in the thrill of figuring out new content with the group of random people who comprise our FC. I have no idea who they are, but I have chatted and played with them almost everyday for the past several months. We have raged about PUGs and shitty tanks or healers, we have cried over loosing so many times to Garuda EX. We have made our characters jump for joy after getting a down. And now, we are working together to understand how new things in the FFXIV universe work. It’s so much aggrivating fun.

I have fallen into the trap of nearly calling these people friends; I talk about them with my husband, who also plays and is in the same FC, outside of game-play. It’s so easy to think of these random strangers as friends because of how much time we spend together in game on a regular basis. We notice when people are gone for a few days, or when they level or get a piece of rare gear. We give the appearance of caring. Perhaps some people really do care – I do, when I forget that this is just a game and that nothing that I achieve in game exists anywhere in the real world. And here my bias is revealed: I still think of video games as just games, no matter how much time I put into them. I know there are professionals out there who take this and other video games very seriously; I’ve met a few. Some are nice and willing to teach, others will rage-quit after the first wipe. I have never rage quit, but I have certainly wanted to. I try to be helpful to people who are doing content for the first time. But I am not a professional, I am not hard-core. This is still just entertainment to me.

And yet, for all of the time and energy I have invested in this game, I can’t really say that it’s just entertainment anymore.

It’s often said that reading is a solitary pleasure. As such, it’s a perfect thing for introverts, people who get their energy from being alone or with one or two people they are close with. Reading is also a perfect escape for those who like other worlds, who just need a break from reality, or who love immersive experiences. All of this is true of online video gaming as well. This is the lure for me: the chance to have social interaction while still being introverted and nearly anti-social. This aspect of gaming is captured perfectly by the web-series The Guild, starring nerd-queen Felicia Day. The show also highlights the problematic and sometimes down-right creepy aspects of online gaming. I am afraid of becoming the woman who utterly ignores her children or the bald dude who can’t interact or speak with people standing right in front of him, but who is a master in-game on voice chat. Voice chat is a line that I will not cross. It’s too close to actually being social. Besides, I like not knowing whether the people I’m playing with are young or older or what their gender is, and I like that most of them don’t know that about me either.

Video gaming has replaced reading in my life right now and as at Christmas, I feel guilty about that. I feel especially guilty since it’s what I spent most of my recent time off doing. I still have not accepted that video gaming is a legitimate use of time. I do not know that I ever will, either. I have been too conditioned to think that it’s a waste of time at best and a spreading social ill threatening our social and moral fabric at worst. I can also see how it is detrimental in certain aspects of my own life, while also recognizing that it’s fun and makes me feel extra-good about myself sometimes. What all this worry really comes down to for me is a question of balance. Right now I feel that my gaming/life is out of balance, and that I am slipping further and further away from a place of balance. With the 1-day old release of new content, a new long-awaited class/job and content release in a few months and then a full expansion a few months after that, I desperately need to find that balance.

All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

All The Birds, SingingAll The Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld has made a bit of a splash in the literary scene. Wyld is included in this year’s Best Young British Novelists list from Granta and her first novel, After The Fire, A Still Small Voice earned her a spot as one of Granta‘s New Voices of 2008. It’s easy to see why in All The Birds, Singing: her prose is beautiful, spare and tense, but evocative, and her control of plot is wonderful given what she has set up here. Wyld tells Jake Whyte’s story in alternating chapters that move forward in the present and backward in the past, like two lines running in opposite directions from the central impact of a dead sheep. Each timeline has it’s own mystery; in the present, what is killing Jake’s sheep? and in the past, what happened to Jake to make her who she is? Both mysteries are compelling and propel the reader through what could have been a disaster in less adept hands.

We meet Jake as she stands over the torn and flayed body of a dead ewe. She lives alone on a small island off the coast of England, raising sheep, with Dog, a loyal border collie, as her only companion. She is fiercely independent, wanting as little contact with the other island inhabitants as possible. Her closest neighbor and the only person she regularly comes into contact with is the old widower who sold her the farm. He thinks it’s a fox; Jake thinks it’s bored island teenagers. A third possibility creeps in and with it a certain kind of paranoia creeps into Jake. We understand then that this woman’s solitude and independence have been fiercely fought for and hard-won. What has happened to her to drive her to such a lonely and desolate place?

The second narrative begins to tell that story, starting at an unclear point in the past, when Jake is younger and working as a sheep-shearer at an Australian sheep station. One of her fellow shearers discovers something about her that makes her run from everything, including a man she just might trust enough to love. The scars on Jake’s back are the central mystery of this timeline, and the backward progression to the moment she got them is both suspenseful and illuminating.

And thankfully, neither narrative is over-done. There are no big “a-ha” moments in the past narrative that explain the present narrative. Rather, the chapters set in the past allow us to see the layers that have accumulated to form the present Jake, a hard, practical woman who trusts few but presents a sincere empathy toward the sheep under her care. If anything, the narrative is too spare at times; some connections feel loose and certain events, such as the appearance of Lloyd, feel too contrived. In a book that offers up a separate timeline to explain, partially, the why of its main character, random occurrences like that seem out of place. But, as I think through this, perhaps that is part of the point here. We can look back at our past and decide which events are important, point to those that have made us who we are. But the future is much more random, and we have no way to predict what might become one of those definitive moments.

Throughout all of the shit that happens to Jake, her voice remains calm, stoic even, in its sparsity of language and detail. Wyld is excellent at the kind of small descriptions that can wholly evoke a place, a thing, and occasionally a person. She also manages a clear transition of voice from a younger, more naïve, less discerning child to that of the wary, time-worn, pragmatic terseness of a woman who has little patience for the trivial, but also sometimes terrible things people can inflict on each other. An invitation to the pub is much more than a simple act of neighborliness here and Wyld deftly displays the multitude of subtexts behind small interactions, from the way someone stands in a doorway to the simple act of holding hands. This in part is what gives the novel its depth and keeps what could have been easily sensationalized grounded and humane.

In creating two narratives, each with their own central mystery, readers might speed through the book looking for answers, as I did, and miss some of the subtleties of Wyld’s playful use of language. I was disappointed with the answer of one question, but the answer to the other, while satisfying in its definitiveness, is tragic in its mundanity. The book merits a second read, one that is slow and savors Wyld’s artful use of language and metaphor.

Authority (Southern Reach #2) by Jeff VanderMeer

Last chance for an agent without a clue. An insidious presence in the run-down building of an obsolete government agency. A biologist who Authorityholds all the answers. Demonic video created with hand-held cameras. Black water and cypress trees hanging with moss. Area X. Things gathering in the dark, revealing themselves in fits and starts. White rabbits. Authority.

The second in Jeff VanderMeer’s inventive Southern Reach trilogy, Authority aims to give us a glimpse inside the Southern Reach government agency and a slightly wider perspective on Area X. John Rodriguez, or Control, as he demands his new colleagues at the Souther Reach to call him, is sent in to “fix” the agency after the disappearance of its director. The house is not in order there, and hasn’t been for quite some time. But will the people who run a secret agency, who guard the most open secret in world let him into their ranks? Probably not, and much of the novel is spent on Control’s efforts to figure out what those around him already seem to know but will not tell. We meet a few familiar faces, but if the reader was hoping to have more answers by the end of this book, they might be sorely disappointed.

And yet, we may already have all the answers we need. One of the points this novel makes, as did the first, is that often what we seek is right in front of us, but we don’t see it because it doesn’t look important. Control spends a significant amount of time data mining, essentially, the former director’s office looking for answers or clues as to what Area X is, what it means. He has all of the information he’s ever going to get, but doesn’t know what to look for. He is sent in blind to what the others have been living with and studying for decades. As he bumbles along, so does the reader. We know a little more than Control, but also much less; just as Control’s handlers have withheld vital information from him, VanderMeer is withholding vital information from us. Of course that is what all authors do; however, there’s a quote midway through the book, not long after the viewing of a particular video that begins Control’s break-down in earnest, that gets at the heart of the issue here:

the movie was terrible, the kind of science-fiction film where the plot-holes almost seemed like alien interference imposed from some higher dimension. (p. 234)

This novel is full of cheeky little meta-comments, but this one stuck out the most because it felt so close to true while reading the book. We don’t know everything, or much of anything really, and neither does Control or the biologist from the first book and yet the reader instinctively knows that all the answers we seek are right there in front of us. Other characters know things and the author knows all the things, but those people are holding out quite a bit, resulting in massive intentional plot-holes. By the end of the novel, we haven’t really learned anything we didn’t already know, and we end up right back where the Southern Reach starts.

As with Lost, with which the Southern Reach trilogy share a certain affinity, we are constantly left to guess at what is important and what is not and what things may really mean (what does it mean that the arrows on the carpet by the courtyard change direction? (see p. 7 & p. 192)). Authority made me want to go back and read Annihilationjust to see if there were connections I had missed, which is what any good sequel ought to make its readers do. But readers also ought to get some sort of pay-off in feeling that they learned something new and that just didn’t happen here. One can only hope that in the third and final book, Acceptance, the seeds planted in darkness will come to fruition and the answers to questions both only hinted at and left unanswered will become clear.

One thing that further muddies the water in Authority is the perspective. At the end of Annihilation, we discover we are reading the biologist’s journal of the 12th expedition, not her direct experience. We understand then that we cannot necessarily trust her narrative, as it is controlled, and revised by the biologist herself. The POV in Authority is Control’s direct experience of what is happening to him and around him. We do not get the sense that this narrative is either controlled or contrived by Control himself. And yet there are these strange moments where a direct thought interrupts the close 3rd-person narration. These happen often enough to get annoying and cause problems with the narrative. Instead of drawing us into Control’s head, were are momentarily jarred out of it, thus the narrative flow becomes choppy and feels uneven. VanderMeer also frequently uses incomplete sentences. Which look like this. I get that it’s an attempt to render Control’s POV. But it’s really annoying. The occasional disembodied, verbless paragraphs of description don’t help the flow of the narrative either:

Gray moss clinging to trees. A hawk circling a clear-cut meadow under skies growing darker. A heat and humidity to the air that was trying to defeat the rush of wind past them. (p. 114)

These read more like scene introductions for a play. Thought: what if these books are just an elaborate play, like Everyman, were each part represents a generic aspect of a person, or in this case, a science experiment? There’s even a prop department! That would make so much sense! But not really.

Ultimately, I was too distracted by the choppy writing and too frustrated by the lack of answers to really enjoy this book. Control isn’t interesting enough, even with all of his unnecessary back story, to carry the plot (what little there is) and what might be truly compelling (Whitby, Grace, the director, that demonic video) is left to the sidelines of enigma in an effort to create suspense. Writing a thriller seems to be a very delicate balance of cover and reveal, and VanderMeer just doesn’t hit the mark with this book. Since book three takes place in Area X, I doubt several of the questions raised in Authority will be answered, but I’ll be giving it a go anyway, just to see if VanderMeer will tell us what Area X actually is. I hope it won’t be as banal and stupid as Lost. I want VanderMeer to be a master, to trust in his ability to give an answer that still leaves us with a sense of wonder, but I’m not that confident after Authority.

Honor's Knight (Paradox #2) by Rachel Bach

Honor's KnightHonor’s Knight is the second book in Rachel Bach’s Paradox series and picks up immediately after the events of Fortune’s Pawn, with Devi burying her skullhead partner, Cotter on the partially terraformed planet Falcon 34. She can’t really remember how he died, or how she got a massive stomach wound she’s still recovering from. And if we were suspicious of Brian Caldswell after the events of Fortune’s Pawn, the prologue to the second book leaves no doubt that Caldswell is into some heavy and disturbing intrigue and should not be trusted.  Neither, for that matter, should the cook, Devi’s former lover. That aspect of their relationship has disappeared down the memory black hole and the only thing Devi feels for him now is uncontrollable revulsion.

In fact, there’s a lot Devi can’t remember, and much of the book’s first half is her telling us that. The amnesia plot is a little overused and quite a bit of Devi’s interior monologues while she tries to remember what we know perfectly well feel like filler. We get several pieces to the old puzzle as well as a whole new aspect of it, but the pre-dénouement could have been more efficiently handled. Devi’s BAMF-ness gets kicked up a notch, mainly because the plot isn’t dragged down with the over-wrought OTP romance of the first book. The issue here is not that Devi can’t be a BAMF and have a sex life/romance too, it’s that the OTP romance of the first book was written in such a way that it distracted from the rest of the narrative, and in that sense acted as filler too. Some OTP steam still lingers in book two, but fortunately there are other, more interesting things happening this time around.

Much of this book is concerned with the virus Devi picked up from the lizard ghost ship and with Caldswell and his creepy daughter Ren, which has a whole new, disturbing dimension less than hinted at in the first book. Since Devi’s character is pretty well set, we’re in for a solely plot-based ride – what crazy action is she going to take in this situation? How is she going to get herself out of that one? Let’s see how much Devi can have thrown at her by this plot-machine before she breaks! And yet we know she won’t, because she’s Devi. She can have the weight of the survival of humanity and the possible destruction of all living things on her shoulders (like we didn’t see that coming) and still be her reliably intrepid self. That reliability is what allows us to gleefully follow her through one disaster after the next. While none of the other characters grow or change much either, our perceptions of them certainly do as we get to see previously hidden aspects of their character in an effort to add complexity to what were otherwise fairly stock, flat characters. (I want to know what’s going on with Mabel’s cat - it’s conspicuous enough to feel like a Chekhovian gun.)

Coming back to this series is like coming home to your favorite things and curling up with them and a warm blanket. You have your Firefly (and a bit of Dollhouse), your various animes/mangas (most notably Akira), a little bit of Star Wars – all of the best things in things in Nerdom rolled up into one exciting book that you just want to devour. This book is a known entity and total comfort fiction. I can’t wait to get my hands on the third and final book, Heaven’s Queen, which came out in April.

Can You Find Happiness In A Book?

What does it mean to be happy? What does happiness look like, how do I measure it? How do I know when I’m happy? I’ve been asking myself these questions a lot lately and whenever I have a question that Google can’t answer, I turn to books.

I’ve found that it’s much easier to think about unhappiness and feel unhappy than it is to feel happy and think about happiness, even though American culture seems to be obsessed with being happy and with positive thinking. It’s also easier to identify, with enough self-awareness, what is making us unhappy. Whether we do anything to change what is making us unhappy is another thing entirely, but it does get at a root issue of happiness: happiness takes work, effort, cultivation. Marcus Aurelius described happiness as an activity. But is happiness then a state of mind, a state of being, or is it truly an activity – a thing that is/must be done? On first consideration, it does seem to begin as a state of mind and then becomes a state of being through cultivation and activity. 5 of the books I have consulted to reach this working conclusion are shown below. Each book represents a different path to and method for being happy and thinking about happiness: pop psychology/lifestyle, psychology, literature, science, and spirituality. I want to think through each of these approaches over the next 2 months to see what they have to offer the chronically unhappy as well as the person who may just be get a little down now and then. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin is where I started, so I’ll begin my posts in this series with a consideration of that book.

My goal here is to think about and through my own happiness while providing an understanding of the ways society currently thinks about happiness. There are other books I will reference to offer perspective on the books above that I’ve found but that don’t fit into my project here (books on types and considerations of happiness throughout history are fascinating). None of these books are self-help, though some of them might seem like it and may be shelved there (I will not make any comments here about how books are (mis)shelved.) I want to find and offer up a consideration of what happiness is, looks like, and means, not just a way to get it, so there will be no 7 steps to anything here. If I’ve understood little else from my thinking, reading and researching, I understand that happiness is a very individual thing and it will rarely look the same from one person to the next.

Books used in this series, list form:

The Happiness Project: [ridiculously long subtitle] by Gretchen Rubin
The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman
How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton
Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science Of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence [Oxford Comma!]
Ending The Pursuit Of Happiness: A Zen Guide by Barry Magid