fantasy

Diary, revised version

We are momentarily back to winter here in our nation’s capital, with adorable little snow but also abominably cold wind. I would love to venture out to Capitol Hill Books for their second-Saturday wine and cheese shenanigans, but only if the district magically extends metro service right into my room. So at the moment I am on the couch with a blanket, writing about north sea and whales.

Speaking of writing, I have files in my Google docs I call ‘writingdumps’. They each comprise a month. They are places to write random thoughts, from how I feel about some book I’ve just read to gender woes to whether the medical insurance jumping hoops will be the death of me. They are essentially a diary that I could never successfully keep until I could type it.

I read a couple of blogs whose owners update every day or nearly every day. If I attempted to do this, would anyone read my everyday notes? I doubt there are enough people who’d read my daily weirdness, but I also wonder how my blogging would change if I did it every day. Would it devolve into weather notes and menu listings, or would I start doing something strange yet cool like writing a poem every day? Who knows. It seems like an interesting experiment, but to be honest, I don’t think you need to worry about getting my daily blueness-of-sky updates in your feed any time soon.

In reading news, I have an early copy of Kat Howard’s first novel called Roses and Rot, and you should get ready to be extremely excited about it when it comes out in May. In the meantime, go read her short fiction because it is very, very good. I won’t say much more about the novel because I have not finished it yet (and there’s still a ways to go till it’s out), but I’m loving it so far.

rosesandrot

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Readings: Theodora Goss and the wonderfully strange

Here in our nation’s capital we are heading into that time of the year when it’s already dark at 4:30, the evenings are interminable, and one can barely get out of bed in the mornings. We don’t get a lot of snow, so winter is essentially a bleak parade of cold and disgusting days. They aren’t cold enough for fur hats and multiple layers, but they are too cold for anything more vigorous than drinking wine and reading under blankets.

It’s also the time of the year when I feel like reading something weird and strange. The problem with weird is that it is a spectrum, and it’s not always clear where on it the exact weird you need lies. Do I feel like Jeff VanDermeer-style weird? John M. Harrison? Catherynne M. Valente?

Occasionally one feels like finding something that could be described as ‘wonderfully strange’. I guess that’s what I needed, and I eventually found it in a book I bought a year ago on a whim. It’s a collection of stories by Theodora Goss called In the Forest of Forgetting.

DNOA4910The first story in the collection is a retelling of The Sleeping Beauty, and while I am normally not very much into fairy tale retellings (I like them when they are well-done, but I do not seek them out), this one was great. The second story pretty much hit the ‘weird’ I had been seeking, and so I by the time I read the incredibly beautiful third story, I was thoroughly in love with Theodora Goss and her wonderfully strange tales.

Short stories are my wavelength right now, mostly because I’m writing my own and I need to read other people’s to learn from and be inspired. I am trying to write every day, and I am hacking my brain by using Habitica to do this, because apparently doing tasks for fake gold works. The next step is to also draw every day. I don’t think it’s possible to have a more than full-time job, write, draw, read, and also get enough sleep, so something has to give. I’d like to hope it’s not sleep.

Incidentally, my next read on the ‘weird’ stack is John M. Harrison’s Light. I know a couple of people in my blog feed have been reading Harrison’s stuff, so let me join the collective subconscious that is obviously hungering for something truly odd this time.

Readings: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

I bet a lot of reviews of Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On start with ‘I don’t really read fan fiction’. Well, neither do I, though not because I think it’s rubbish. Once upon a time I read fan fic, but I am no longer so deep into my fandoms that I seek extra stuff related to them. It’s also a time and reading online issue. I tend to forget about the fact that one can read things electronically. And so fan fiction needs to materialize as a real book for me to pick it up. Enter Rainbow Rowell with Carry On.

KRJF7220Carry On is a fascinating book because it’s sort of a self-aware, meta fan fiction. If you have read Fangirl, you will recognize the name Simon Snow, as he is the character in protagonist Cait’s fan fiction. Carry On does not hide the fact that it is fan fiction and in fact offers some interesting insights into its source (Harry Potter), as well as into main themes of said source (being the chosen one, prophecies, having a Scooby gang (sorry, mixing fandoms here) to help you save the world from evil dark things, and so on). Fan fiction gets all kinds of disdain from people who think it’s a low and silly form of literature, but let me be clear, Carry On is a good book regardless of its provenance. If I never read Harry Potter, I still would have loved Carry On. There are familiar Potterverse elements in it, but there are also differences and extras that give the book its own character (which is really what good fan fic and good books are all about).

Most of the reviews I’ve read stress this particular fact to convince the unbelievers – look, fan fic can be good! It can be published as a ‘real’ book! But there is a much more important side to Carry On. It fills the uncomfortable and very noticeable blank space that Harry Potter books have when it comes to queer characters. Sure, Dumbledore might be gay, but he was openly ‘outed’ after the fact, so to speak, and the only relationship of his mentioned in the books does not take place in front of our eyes. There are really no LGBTQ kids in the books (at least none I can think of), either out or rumored to be queer. I love Harry Potter, but LGBTQ characters is one of the few things so visibly missing from that universe. And so thank magic for Carry On, where queerness is very much there, in all its beauty and sweetness.

Recent books, briefly

First of all, Books Brains and Beer is back (-ish)! Or is he? He isn’t sure. But he has been reading up a storm and posted a bunch of flash reviews. I like short reviews. Every time I see some gigantic review spread in The New York Times, I have a feeling that I could save myself some time by skipping the review and reading the book instead.

Which brings me to my own brief bookish observations.

First of all, all those glowing reviews of Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho are quite right. I’m just going to say that it was Saturday night, and I had some red wine, and this book was perfect. You might want to replicate the setting. It wasn’t the kind of book that sucked me in and made me spent 12 hours on the couch. On the contrary, I kept picking it up, reading a bit, then putting it down. Perhaps it wasn’t the book’s fault and I was just feeling distracted that weekend. That said, I enjoyed myself immensely while reading it. It’s quite fun and also funny. Favorite quote:

‘I had no one to teach me better, you see.’

‘So you have found someone to teach you worse!’

Lest you think it was just an amusing romantic historical romp, here’s a brief list of topics it touches upon: Class. Race. International politics. Colonialism. Gender roles. Education of girls.

My other read was quite in contrast. It was Paul Lisicky’s The Narrow Door, out next January (can I even talk about it yet?). It was a magically beautiful memoir about love, grief, friendship, and how all those things change and are experienced at different points in life. The whole book feels like a quilt made of gossamer. It jumps in time, holding all these fragile pieces together. The sentences are almost translucent at times. For some reason I always find descriptions of male companionship and love incredibly heart-achy and touching. Perhaps it’s because I myself am a queer man. Perhaps this kind of love still feels forbidden from a larger society’s point of view, marriage decision notwithstanding. The Narrow Door has quite a few of those, and I was glad I had a glass of bourbon at hand. I’ll definitely mention it again closer to its release because it is already on my list of 2016 favorites, and we aren’t even in that year yet.

Other books briefly:

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman. Here’s what you should do. Read this book while listening to electronica. The combined effect of that music genre and Kleeman’s writing style make you feel as if time no longer exists. Or it makes reality feel like a continuous straight line with no beginning or end in sight, with no changes whatsoever. Maybe that’s why, sadly, I abandoned it. I couldn’t handle the depersonalization effect it seemed to have on me.

Saga # 5 by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan. For some reason, I refuse to read Saga in single issues. I like the trades. I wasn’t a fan of #4, but this one is pretty good.

IMG_0598Currently reading:

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson. Yesterday was its release day, and I spent most of it with a giant raccoon cutout as we shot videos and took pictures for marketing purposes at work (if you don’t get to stage mock battles with human-sized cardboard raccoons at your place of employment, I feel sorry for you). I’ll be honest, Furiously Happy is better than Lawson’s first book, but it did give me an anxiety attack. I woke up at 2 am last night, convinced that some shit was going down. Apparently reading about other people’s mental issues reminds me I also have mental issues. But I’m not giving up, because the book is immensely funny and full of taxidermy, two things I look for in all books and find in so few.

I know you wanted a picture of me with a giant raccoon. You’re welcome.

Reading my way out

I shared with him a healthy skepticism and a deep belief that we could somehow read our way out. – Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Part of making this blog’s content broader means also opening it up to more personal matters. Matters like my trans-ness, my queerness, my depression, my struggle to make life more meaningful creativity-wise.

I am a trans man (if you need more info on trans people, you can start here). I am recreating my own body to fit what is in my mind. It’s a project. Sometimes I feel as if I’m sculpting a new David, chipping off marble bit by bit.

Gender dysphoria is a bitch. After being on T for 15 months now and being read (mostly) as male, it still comes out of nowhere and bites in the most unpredictable ways. The strangest things set it off. Arms, shoulders, shape of my hands, neck. Any body part is suspect.

It comes and goes, and right now it’s in the former part. I feel like I’m going nowhere, I’m angry at my facial hair, I’m angry at cis people. Even well-meaning ones. They have no idea. Books, being the general remedy for anything in my life, are what I turn to first for mental health needs.

Here’s where you expect me to give you a list of inspiring and uplifting trans memoirs. And perhaps reading these is a way to go, but mostly trans memoirs dig into my soul and make me cry. They helped me immensely in the early coming out period, and I still seek them out, but other people’s experiences with dysphoria are, oddly enough, not what I need right now.

karenmemoryWhat I need is good fantasy. This doesn’t happen often any more, since I somehow migrated to the hard sci-fi end of the pool in the past few years. Except this time I am going in the opposite direction, and so my current dealing-with-dysphoria pick is Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear. Incidentally, there is a trans character in this one, accepted as such with no fuss – bonus. So far it’s greatly entertaining. I thought I was done with steampunk, but wait, apparently not. I think it’s because the book is not about goggles and divers steam-powered gadgets (there is a licensed Mad Scientists guild, though). It’s most definitely about people first. Badass women, more specifically (I know it will surprise the Sad Puppies contingent that women are people. If you have no idea who Sad Puppies are, read this pretty good summary of the Hugos kerfuffle.).

My other pieces of dysphoria/depression battle armor are comics. Here are some great ones that are out in trade: The Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie; Rat Queens by Kurtis Wiebe; Chew by John Layman and Rob Guillory (it appears I only read Image publications? Seems wrong somehow.).

A few other series I am reading in floppy/single issue form are:

arclight8house Arclight by Brandon Graham and Marian Churchland. I call it ‘the genderqueer Prophet‘. It has a distinct Graham feeling to it, and Churchland’s art is beautiful (read her Beast, it will blow you away). There is a goose. And if you’re in the DC area for SPX next month, Brandon Graham is going to be at Fantom Comics (my home away from bookstore) on Friday, September 18.

Descender by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen. This remains one of the most beautiful series art-wise, mostly due to Nguyen’s use of watercolors. It’s a space opera with robots. It’s out in trade on September 9, so you can get your hands on issues 1-6 of this pretty thing at once.

Kaptara by Chip Zdarsky and Kagan McLeod. Oh Chip, your mind is a wacky place. A fabulous wacky place.

And now, The Shocking And Unforeseen Conclusion: looking at this list, what we discover is that at this time in my life I really need comics and books that fly in the face of everything Sad Puppies stand for. Books with awesome women, books with genderqueer/queer characters, books with not just white people. Isn’t it amazing that those kinds of books can also be both therapeutic and entertaining?

And if you still need some trans memoirs, here’s a couple:

Man Alive by Thomas Page Mcbee. He is a great writer. It will dig into your soul. It will make you cry.

Redefining Realness by Janet Mock. She is amazing and so is her book.

And finally, a non-book item for you: Transgender Dysphoria Blues by Against Me! It’s a little known fact that I was a punk kid in my previous life.

‘Cabs leave at midnight’: Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

Blogging hiatuses (hiatii?) are not good for anyone. Including myself. I apparently go quite insane if I don’t scribble down my thoughts about things literary and sundry. I did try my hand at fiction again, with some success: found the ending of one story and the beginning of another. ‘Found’, by the way, is a great way to describe how fiction happens. Here’s a quote from Geek Sublime by Vikram Chandra that captures this process very well:

stories are not only constructed but formed, found. They emerge through an alchemical process that requires significant concentration, samadhi. The writer experiences these stories as events happening within himself.

But that’s fiction. Blogging is a different thing. One reason this hiatus happened is that I simply had nothing in particular to say about things I was reading at the time. I read more Vlad Taltos books, and some non-fiction titles (Geek Sublime being one). I started rereading Fables for no other reason than to have something continuous I can come back to without much time commitment (and plus, Fables is great). I have two or three short story collections going. It’s hard to write about short stories, for how do you write just enough to not give anything important away, yet give the story a proper review?

18764828I have finally finished something that I want to write about, and that is The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine. I pointed out a few months ago that I really don’t like fairy tale retellings. If nobody told me The Girls was a retelling, I would have happily picked it up right away instead of letting it collect dust in my book pile. I probably wouldn’t have even noticed it was a retelling, because I either never knew the original Twelve Dancing Princesses story, or I forgot it completely. To me, The Girls really seemed more of a historical novel that takes place during the prohibition era. Twelve girls are kept from the outside world by their wealthy father, and so, without his knowledge, they run away every night to dance at speakeasies. They dance all night, they survive police raids, and most of all, they try to survive in the world that is entirely hostile to them. You could say that this novel is really all about women’s rights. The girls have no freedom, no way of making their living, and they rebel the only way they can. Most men in the book are either not particularly nice (the father being the least nice), or simply privileged, entitled, and not given to much reflection about how they treat women, especially young pretty ones (‘A Hamilton girl should never take a man at his word’).

The girls were wild for dancing, and nothing else. No hearts beat underneath those thin, bright dresses. They laughed like glass.

It seems like it would be hard to juggle twelve heroines, but somehow they all emerge with their distinct personalities. The older ones are a bit more fleshed out, but even supporting characters are quite vivid, and become more important as the story goes on. Jo is the lead (‘she was their general‘), and at first glance she seems harsh, cold, almost sociopathic (did the jailed become the jailer for her sisters?). She is by no means a delicate flower. None of them are, really, but Jo is the toughest, and that paradoxically also makes her the most vulnerable. She is prepared to sacrifice herself, and her burden is the heaviest.

Sometimes, once you start being brave, it’s easier just to go on that way.

Valentine’s writing style is poignant, which goes well with both the setting and the plot. Like a good fairy tale, the story always carries a feeling of premonition, with heroines hovering on the edge of the abyss (will they be discovered? will they be arrested?). Perhaps the pacing became a little bit stuttered in the last part, with too many small pieces to handle, but it never really fell apart, at least for me.

Reading update: Brust with more Brust and some more Brust

hawkbrustI apologize for falling into a sink hole of Real Life this week and not posting anything longer than what you should read while you wait for the new Game of Thrones book. Work has been extremely busy, my laptop is still out of commission, and most nights I don’t really want to do anything but sit and read something fun. Which brings me to my next point: at least four people on staff are now reading all of Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos books. It’s an epidemic. There is a new one coming out next week, in case you want to join us in our reading/rereading obsession.

I have a terrible confession to make: I had not read a single book by Brust until two days ago, when I got The book of Jhereg (my friend this morning: ‘You have never read Brust?? I feel like I have failed you.’). Well, do not worry, I have already plowed through Jhereg, Yendi, and Teckla. This reading is cutting into my sleep time, and it almost cut into my being-at-work time one morning. I doubt I will review these, unless I do a reread, but there are plenty of delightful write-ups out there: Little Red Reviewer has a few blog posts (you can start with The Book of Jhereg, if you want), and Jo Walton did a series of posts on these at tor.com as well.